The Woman Behind Miranda, One of the Strangest and Most Beloved Characters on YouTube
Miranda's channel boasts more than 4 million subscribers and 500 million total views.
Photo by Isaac James
Actor-singer Colleen Ballinger’s Van Nuys home office is sparse and tidy: silvery gray with white accents, window overlooking the backyard, computer atop a corner desk. The dozen wall frames hold career mementos, including a shiny YouTube plaque and an image capturing her December Tonight Show appearance alongside Jerry Seinfeld. His Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee featured Ballinger’s satirical Internet sensation Miranda, a self-described “bootiful” entertainer and oblivious advice-dispenser, whose Miranda Sings channel boasts more than 4 million subscribers and 500 million total views.
As Miranda, Ballinger provides meta-commentary on the evolving definitions of success and community in videos like her rendition of “Shake It Off,” in which she performs the moves lazily and at times scowls at the screen as if she doesn’t want to be there. But a character taking on the Cinnamon Challenge (eating a spoonful of cinnamon in a minute) and twerking (“But only if you’re ressspectible!”) is also a genuine role model for adolescent audiences apprehensive about the world beyond their bedrooms. Miranda navigates physical changes and social embarrassments, and if she can thrive despite her limited information, off-key singing and bad attitude, they certainly can do the same via positivity.
“I thought it would last a week, then a month. I never thought it would keep snowballing,” Ballinger confessed in the final minutes of Comedians in Cars as she wiped away Miranda’s signature engine-red “lisstick.” “She’ll live as long as the audience wants to see her. I’m fine with that. It’s fun to play. It’s fun to just be an awful human being.”
Down the hall from her office, another converted bedroom is awash in pink, purple and red. Artwork rendered by loyal “Mirfandas” papers the walls. It’s here the division between Miranda’s dismissive, arrogant persona and the warm, thoughtful performer becomes wider, while at the same time business and home life blur. “I need to shoot some videos later,” Ballinger notes of the camera, lighting and “moosical” equipment at the ready. “My set just happens to be at my house.”
In February, Ballinger, 28, upgraded from an apartment down the road to this spacious four-bedroom house. “I like going to a grocery store and having a parking spot,” she says of living in the Valley. “As much as I love L.A., I don’t want to live in L.A. I feel very congested when I’m in the city. I feel like more of a person out here.”
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Ballinger adored the musicals she attended with her grandfather, who encouraged her love of theater. At 17 she moved to the L.A. area for Azusa Pacific University’s vocal-performance program. Her classical program included snooty classmates, 12 courses a semester and a daily schedule packed from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
“I quickly learned that I hated it,” Ballinger recalls. “There was no time for life. You literally can’t do anything. When you’re not studying or practicing, you have to be quiet on vocal rest. When people talk about their crazy college years, it’s like, “What was that like?’”
Colleen Ballinger wants to do more comedic characters besides Miranda.
Photo by Stephanie Nelson
After college, Ballinger returned her focus to musical theater and began incorporating comedy into her writing and performance. She made ends meet working princess parties (aggressive kids, bees flying up her tulle dresses), singing at restaurants (horrible customers, receiving $10 in tips for the entire evening), cabarets and gay bars (1 and 2 a.m. set times, drag queens tearing her to shreds).
Ballinger’s one-woman show — inspired by the pretentious and often unrealistic musical-theater hopefuls with whom she crossed professional paths — predated YouTube’s business viability, though she realized early on how Internet numbers could translate to butts in seats.
With 2009’s Free Voice Lesson — which was just as it sounds, but with the beginnings of her trademark pretentiousness — her videos began going viral, first gaining popularity within London and New York’s gay and musical-theater communities. When Ballinger visited New York, she performed nightly, landed an agent and met Joshua David Evans, a fellow YouTube personality whom she began dating.
Eventually, Ballinger moved from L.A. to a Weehawken, New Jersey, basement. The windows were mere slits, the house’s support beams cleaved the middle of every room, the kitchen ceiling was too low to stand upright, and even the lightest rain ensured flooding. Rats, mice and cockroaches ran rampant.
As L.A. evolved as a professional YouTuber hot spot, Ballinger returned, renting in Long Beach, Glendale and North Hollywood prior to Van Nuys. “Even before I was in New York, I couldn’t even count how many places I lived in L.A.,” she marvels, legs tucked beneath her on the living room couch. “Definitely over 10.”
Evans appears in the living room. “I’m heading out!” he coos, pecking Ballinger on the lips.
“Bye, love you! Have fun!” After he leaves, she adds, “He might be going to do something sneaky because we’re getting married in two weeks.”
Their April 2014 engagement was captured and uploaded to his JoshuaDTV video channel, and on July 2 the couple shared their 60-guest wedding online with the viewers they’ve come to think of as extended family. “They’re who we go to when we’re sad, when we want to share anything that’s exciting in our lives,” Ballinger says of the Miranda fans who also follow her personal PsychoSoprano account. “So it only makes sense that we would share the wedding day with them.”
Following the Santa Barbara ceremony and Fiji honeymoon, Ballinger flew to New Jersey to begin her book tour the day after their return. She appeared at three events for Anaheim’s sixth annual VidCon on July 23 before continuing a Midwest–East Coast bus tour throughout August. In October she films her first special at Seattle’s Moore Theatre. Featuring songs, advice and recurring audience interaction, it will be available in December on Vimeo and via direct download from MirandaSings.com.
In the meantime, Ballinger recently began a six-episode stint of Collective Digital Studio’s straightforward tutorial How to Makeup, and the Miranda-authored Selp-Helf just arrived from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. Styled after the recent live tour of the same name and co-written with older brother Christopher — Ballinger kept the restaurant placemat chronicling their initial ideas — “It’s 240 pages of just disgusting, nasty advice,” she says.
“I would ask my brother’s daughter questions and see what her answers are, because that’s how Miranda would answer them,” she adds. Remembering the 7-year-old mending a tear in her shirt with tape, Ballinger chuckles, “I love that mindset, that confidence in something that is totally wrong. And that’s how Miranda thinks, so that’s what this book is full of: terrible advice on love, finances, diet and exercise, fashion, any topic you can think of.”
The handwritten scrapbook required a year to assemble but looks as if it “took an hour, tops,” she says, laughing. It elicited such formatting decisions as “Should we use Scotch tape on this page? The clear Scotch tape or the kind of faded Scotch tape? Should there be hairs under this tape? How many hairs? How many is too many? Should we get some dirt on this page? No, there was dirt on the last page. What about a lipstick smudge?”
Ballinger also is dealing with arm, shoulder and wrist problems. Somewhere between editing four videos a week and essentially holding her arm at a 90-degree angle throughout hourlong fan meet-and-greets, she injured her rotator cuff, prohibiting any movement for a month. “I still have physical therapy and ice and heat on it every day, and I have a little machine that electrocutes my shoulder,” Ballinger explains. “But I won’t stop editing!”
Nor will she stop exploring opportunities beyond Miranda. As an actress, Ballinger is offered “normal” roles regularly but, having survived years of saying yes to absolutely everything, she now luxuriates in holding out for ideal projects. She’s also writing future characters, though none she is willing to share just yet.
“People ask, ‘Well, what about you? When are you going to do something?’ I am doing something. Miranda’s my character; I created her!” Ballinger says, smiling. “But there’s a lot of comedy I want to bring to the world that isn’t just Miranda.”
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