How Emma Chamberlain Went From Viral Sensation to the Internet’s It Girl
It’s 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, but Emma Chamberlain has already been up for three hours. Clad in an all-gray Thom Browne set, she perches on a deep-seated sofa, surrounded by tall posters of images from her newly unveiled campaign with Canon. In one, she poses in a red carpet-ready gown, a camera in hand; in another, she films herself sipping tea in a vaguely Parisian setup that calls back to her vlogs. She explains that she probably could have woken up later than she did, but she wanted to have some of her morning to herself before her busy press day.
Six years after her YouTube videos catapulted her into meteoric internet stardom, Chamberlain is now a 21-year-old bona fide Gen Z it girl — one with a busy schedule that reflects the diversity of her interests and the versatility of her talents. Stardom in the social media age extends far beyond follower count. Chamberlain’s 16 million followers on Instagram and 12 million subscribers on YouTube first launched her into the public eye, and her ability to organically create viral moments (see: her muttered “Love ya” to Jack Harlow at the 2022 Met Gala) keeps her name in the temporal stream of online chatter surrounding enormous cultural moments. Though her videos now come every few months, her Spotify exclusive podcast “Anything Goes” exhibits the charisma that made her famous, giving her an outlet to discuss a slew of topics that range from minimalism to sex to trends and culture. Then there’s her entrepreneurial side: Her company Chamberlain Coffee proffers fun, brightly packaged products as an extension of her own identity as an avid consumer of caffeine.
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But while all of these ventures form a veritable media empire that stands impressive on its own, it’s Chamberlain’s taste that sets her apart from other creators as a trendsetter. Her eye for design and keen sense of style influence every aspect of her creative output, from her Architectural Digest home tour to her Coachella fashion looks to even the B-roll of her vlogs.
Chamberlain says that she looks for balance and dimension when trying to capture the perfect shot for a video. “I love the most simple, symmetrical Wes Anderson type of shot where it’s just a beautiful, clean, relaxing image that almost looks like a photo,” she says. But when she’s traveling with her father, painter Michael Chamberlain, she often has him film B-roll. “He’s all about composition and making a shot feel almost like a painting.”
The behind-the-scenes of attaining a good shot, though, can often be an exercise in innovative problem-solving. “I’ve gone through 15 of [these cameras],” Chamberlain says. “I’ve thrown them off buildings on accident, like shattered everywhere.” Then she retracts, but just a little: “That was an exaggeration. But I literally shattered them, they’ve fallen off a ledge. I remember one time I set up my camera on one of the handheld tripods on my balcony, and it fell probably six feet.” Various filming anecdotes follow: She’s made tripods out of books. She’s set her cameras in precarious nooks and crannies. She’s risked embarrassment by trying to get good shots in public places like the grocery store. “Then people walk by and they look at the camera and they’re like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Which is valid.”
“I’ve done it all,” she proclaims.
There’s a scrappiness to her process that’s characteristic to all creators, a quality that hasn’t changed even with her ascent — and yet scrappiness alone does not create a sustainable career. In 2018, as Chamberlain hit 1 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, she was having conversations behind the scenes with agents, ready to build a team. She credits her parents with being key protective voices in the process. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of taking advantage of young people,” she says, noting that because the infrastructure of the creator economy is still fairly new, most people who have a viral moment often don’t have any guidance in figuring out how to leverage their followings to the next level. “The experience you would need to do it perfectly is not possible to have, because there’s no other industry like it — unless your parents were in it before you, but that’s not usually the case.”
One of the biggest red flag moments she faced was when a manager told her directly, “If you don’t sign with me, you’re done.”
“It can be scary when you have people saying that type of stuff to you,” she says. To enter an emerging industry in which there are still few precedents on the path to success is a daunting task, and finding a good team who helps creators scale their careers can be difficult. The key to finding hers, Chamberlain says, was patience. “It’s possible to find people who want to be on your team, want to help you grow this as a business, but also care about your well-being first,” she says. “It’s totally possible to find, but it does take time.”
One of the first pieces to fall into place was finding her agent. “Ali [Berman] is a fucking rock star,” she says. “What’s great about finding that first puzzle piece is that then the other puzzle pieces fill in. If you like your point agent, your point manager, they’ll know an amazing publicist, they’ll know an amazing lawyer…and so then the team can easily build out from there through that person’s connections.”
Chamberlain’s team operates within the larger infrastructure of the “traditional” entertainment industry, in which Chamberlain occupies a unique space. She interviews celebrities like the Kardashians at the Met Gala, makes appearances at the buzziest parties and sits front row at fashion week events. But when asked about her relationship to the industry itself, Chamberlain states that becoming more involved with the traditional entertainment space isn’t as exciting to her. “I really enjoy being able to get my hands dirty,” she says, “like getting in there and doing it myself and telling a story myself.” She also expresses an apprehension to trying to break into a different path: “I think at times it can be easy to say, ‘OK, well, I have X amount of followers here, so I can go and do this.’ But to me, I would never want to do that unless I felt like I had truly worked hard enough to get there.”
She adds, “I feel like with podcasting, that was something I worked really hard at and I did a lot of research on and really worked on getting good at so that I could feel like I was adding something to that space in a way. But with something like movies, I don’t really have anything to add there right now.”
In the meantime, though, she’ll make appearances where it makes sense for her. She’s a guest judge in an episode of Netflix’s “Next in Fashion” Season 2; she’ll appear in an episode of Lil Dicky’s FXX show “Dave” titled “Met Gala.” She will loan out her affable je ne sais quoi to companies like Canon, whose cameras she’s used since the very beginning, and as the role of the digital creator evolves, her career, nonpareil, will likely serve as the blueprint for others — one that she herself never had.
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