In 2008, when Colleen Ballinger was twenty-one years old, a recently graduated vocal-performance major and aspiring actress, she began uploading satirical videos in which she played a character named Miranda—an overconfident, tone-deaf wannabe who liked to give voice lessons. In one of the earliest videos, Miranda pompously demonstrates a series of incorrect singing tips with her eyebrows arched, her mouth twisted into a quivering operatic “O,” and her voice pitched deliciously off-key.
The videos, which were intended to entertain her musical-theatre friends, went viral, in part because some of the viewers couldn’t tell that Ballinger was making a joke. Piqued by the comments about her horrible singing, Ballinger continued posting videos as Miranda, and the persona eventually morphed into a full-fledged alter ego, with a nasal, sibilant speaking voice, a proclivity for malapropism, and a dated, thrift-store-dork aesthetic, reminiscent of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Now, seven years later, Ballinger performs live as Miranda, meets fans in character, has published two books under Miranda’s name, and has starred in two seasons of a Netflix series about Miranda’s life, “Haters Back Off.” But it’s her behind-the-scenes content, which Ballinger began posting on a separate vlogging channel after Miranda went viral, that I keep coming back for. On that channel, viewers can follow the quotidian hum of Ballinger’s personal life—dinners with family, the purchasing of various pets—and observe the constant, maddening adjacency of her viral persona. In one way, the vlogs are everyday fare, but in another they are gripping viewing. They capture the simultaneously unique and relatable pains of an adult woman who is permanently yoked to an online persona that she created as a joke.
The dominant tone of many of Ballinger’s vlogs is exhaustion. Ballinger posts as many as fourteen videos per week across her channels, and, when the camera clicks on, she looks sapped and tight in a way that makes your own eyes feel tiny and dry, as though you’ve been on a long flight—which Ballinger often has. She reflexively checks her makeup in the camera and mutters about how exhausted she looks, dragging her fingertips across the fragile skin under her eyes. “Oh, God, I look like a thumb” is a frequent refrain. The first vlog, uploaded in 2015, begins with a breathless apology for not responding more quickly to fan mail, then it moves on to an explanation of why she had to move out of her apartment: she needed more space to film her videos. “Miranda takes up a lot of room,” Ballinger sighs.
Some days, Ballinger films confessionals in front of a wall covered in Miranda fan art. Her Los Angeles home is large and under-decorated in the way of the young, newly affluent, and very busy. Other days, she hangs around in an adult-size pajama onesie with her large family and extended circle of friends. But Miranda is never very far away. Likenesses tumble out of fan-mail deliveries; her nasal voice accidentally wafts out of Ballinger’s mouth, like a demon.
Ballinger’s Miranda costume consists of severely parted hair and bright-red lipstick smeared past the borders of her mouth. The lipstick is a constant irritant; Ballinger often complains that the red tint stains her face. Sometimes she will scrutinize herself in the camera and note the halo around her mouth, which makes her look as though she’s been guzzling red Gatorade. Other times, she lists her scheduling stresses. “I overdid it,” she says, leaning her phone against the dashboard of her car, on the way to pick up props for a “collab” with two child stars. “I’m dying. I’m drowning in work. And it’s my own fault.” Surprisingly, she is candid about being frustrated when she doesn’t get enough views, musing out loud to the camera about tactics for making viral content.
Ballinger’s family and friends seem genuinely delighted by Ballinger’s Miranda antics, but occasionally the good will begins to fray. “No more Miranda,” her toddler nephew says dolefully in one video, after Ballinger stays in costume for too long backstage. “I feel the same way,” Ballinger replies. When we tire of the personalities we’ve cultivated online, should we claw in deeper, or try to inch away? In 2016, when an interviewer asked Ballinger if she wanted to stop performing as Miranda, she responded with a plausible-sounding no—“I’m not over it or ready to move on at all.” But she also admitted, “It would be really fun to play other characters, and I know that I will.”
But will she? Ballinger and Miranda often appear in videos together, arguing like siblings. Ballinger recently announced her pregnancy. (She met her fiancé on the set of her Netflix show.) Now Miranda will be pregnant, too. Miranda is ageless but seems like a teen-ager, or maybe younger, so Ballinger incorporated her baby bump into the routine via an elaborate joke about immaculate conception. For now, Miranda marches on.
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