If I hadn't had been scanning the entrance to Silver Lake's La Mill Coffee, searching for YouTube star Grace Helbig for our scheduled meeting, I never would have recognized her. Even though I'd been watching her award winning vlog Daily Grace constantly for the past few weeks, sharing such intimate moments with her as going through the contents of her beach bag, learning one hundred and one ways to say no to sex and watching her rate the hotness of the US Hockey team, I barely recognized her in three dimensions.
On Daily Grace, Helbig appears as a wide-eyed, millennial pixie, flirtatiously fumbling through awkward screen moments and spouting off teenspeak as she scoots back and forth on her wheeled office chair. The girl shaking my hand and scouting out a table for us on the patio resembled that Grace only in her hipster bangs and low lilting voice. Who was this tall, confident, poised, intelligent, well-spoken woman?
With over 1.4 million subscribers to her channel, Helbig is one of the most popular personalities on YouTube. Her deadpan delivery, master comedic timing both as a performer and editor and her dedication to building her brand through daily content won her Best First Person Series and Personality of the Year at the Streamy Awards, the Internet's Oscars, this year.
Last year, Helbig made the jump to scripted content, playing Idol, a ditsy, pop-culture obsessed music vlogger, in Internet producing moguls the Fine Brother's YouTube series MyMusic, set in a music studio. There, too, she's a standout: a subtle comedic actress among the shows over-the-top cast. Helbig isn't a flash-in-the-pan Internet personality — she's a savvy businesswoman and brilliant comedienne. Her ditzy inner tween she embodies on Daily Grace is just one of many talents she's got up her sleeve.
“It's myself heightened,” explained Helbig of her vlogging persona, between sips of iced coffee. “I imagine Daily Grace as, like, your awkward older sister who tries to give you advice.”
Most of Helbig's 1.4 million subscribers are teenage girls. Her topics skew to their interests: how to ask someone to go to prom, a review of a Taylor Swift songs and commenting on Twilight fashion trends, to name a few. But, she'll admit, they're her interests too.
“I have terrible taste in things: music, movies, TV shows,” she says. “I love all the guilty pleasures: Bravo, Real Housewives.” Helbig's self-deprecating ability to laugh at herself while still being proud to be herself and share it with the world every day is what's so endearing and relatable about her channel.
Helbig, 27, has always approached her work with a focus and intelligence far beyond her years. In addition to combining classes on editing, writing, digital filmmaking and media to create her own major at Ramapo College in New Jersey, she also ran a internship scehem in New York City to make sure she made as many industry connections as possible before graduating.
“I did six internships, even though I was only allowed to do one,” laughed Helbig. “I had a paper with my advisor's signature on it that I would just forward for every new internship. I didn't get school credit but I got away with giving free labor to everyone.”
Millennials take heed: as Helbig tells it, those internships, along with her many editing and writing classes in college, were what prepared her for the unconventional and quintessentially modern career she has today.
At the N, Nickelodeon's teen network that has since morphed into TeenNick, she read scripts submitted for teen soap Degrassi and got to choose which writers went forward. “I thought it seemed like a lot of power for an intern to have,” remembered Helbig. So much of what was submitted was God awful that Helbig said she first had the thought, “I could do this. I could do writing.”
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At MTV she transcribed tapes for My Super Sweet Sixteen. “That taught me how 16-year-olds really talk, and it's awful!” laughed Helbig. Yet those same tapes are her inspiration for her heightened self when speaking to her Daily Grace audience. At the PIT (People's Improv Theater) in New York,, she took her first sketch writing class. At the end of the class, writers had to perform each other's sketches. And so Helbig first learned she liked making people laugh onstage, and that she was good at it.
After college, Helbig moved to Brooklyn with the hope of writing sketch comedy and movies. Past generations may have written in a journal or started doing standup to explore their feelings on moving to the big city. Helbig and her friend and roommate Michelle Vargas started a vlog. “We'd pretty much get home from work, get a glass of wine and film ourselves talking about our day,” remembered Helbig.
When she booked a gig narrating Bedtime Stories, a web series for the respected site My Damn Channel, Helbig included a link to the vlogs in her bio. As luck would have it, an exec at My Damn Channel checked it out and approached her about being a daily vlogger for the site. The job started out with Helbig mostly reviewing the site's other content, but she also did a few Sarah Palin impressions, and MDC quickly realized they had comedic gold.
They moved the show to YouTube because, as Helbig put it, “It's insanely difficult to ask an audience to go somewhere other than YouTube to watch videos.” They also implemented daily categories: Tuesday she comments on her viewers comments, Wednesday she reviews something, Thursday she shows you how to do something, etc. Viewership grew and Helbig began to fly out to L.A. for auditions and opportunities to collaborate with more YouTube stars.
In 2012, she decided to move here permanently. Not only did she want to use her new-found Internet fame to launch her into the world of film and television, but growing as a YouTube star seemed to have reached it's limit in the East. “I literally felt like I was on an island. It was hard to collaborate with the community which is such a huge way to grow,” remembered Helbig.
As a sign from the Google Gods, Helbig was offered her role on MyMusic two days before even arriving in the City of Angels. While road-tripping across the country, she stopped in Vegas to present an award at the IAWTV (International Academy of Web Television) awards, and found herself presenting with the Fine Brothers (the series Kids React, YouTubers React).
They thought Helbig would be perfect for the role of the pompous, conformist, social-media-addict character, Idol, on their new YouTube transmedia sitcom MyMusic, and they were right. Within weeks of arriving in Los Angeles, Helbig was filming fourteen hour days on the MyMusic set while continuing to produce and edit five Daily Grace videos a week and participate in her first Los Angeles pilot season.
“There were a few days I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown,” she remembered. “But it taught me a valuable lesson about priorities and managing my time.”
Those priorities now include more of her own projects. She's working on a film with fellow YouTubers Hannah and Mamrie Hart and performing a live show called #NoFilter. She's got a book in the works and a potential TV series. And of course, she still films the daily vlog that started it all. “It's a rhythm for me,” explained Helbig. “It feels like exercise. I feel a sense of relief after I've created something and released it into the world. But there's those days when, you're like, 'Ugh! I do not want to work out today.'”
Breaking into traditional entertainment may be Helbig's next goal, but she wants to do it her way — though she was reluctant to reveal exactly what transmedia TV/Internet show she is developing. “I have some ideas I'd love to test, so hopefully in the next few months I'll get the chance,” she says. I'd love to be one of the pioneers trying to figure out what's next.”
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