The Vanlifer Who Broke YouTube
With just two videos, Jennelle Eliana found herself with 1 million subscribers. But even the dream of freedom has its cost.
When Jennelle Eliana Long was 20 years old, she lost her roommate Alfredo in a freak accident. They were parked outside a grocery store to finish some household chores, which included cleaning out the terrarium that she’d installed next to the sink and behind the driver’s seat. Distracted, she forgot to lock it before she left to pick up provisions. When she came back, her ghostly noodle of an albino ball python had disappeared.
“I lost my shit,” Jennelle remembers, both hands gripping the fuzzy steering wheel of the 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer Limited she and Alfredo live in, recalling the incident as we drive past where it happened in Sunnyvale, California. “I went insane.” She spent hours ripping apart her van, upending the neat rows of clothing she kept in rolling drawers under her bed, and looking inside every cupboard, under the hood, and even beneath the chassis. A coworker from the Sports Basement where she worked came over with a drill, and they took apart the interior walls, Jennelle working through tears as she imagined inadvertently cooking Alfredo alive with the engine.
When she finally found him, he was tucked inside a door behind layers of insulation and wiring. He was chill. She was not. “I was like, ‘This snake has no feelings toward me. He doesn’t reciprocate anything. And here I am, distraught and in tears.’ At that moment I was like I really love this snake.”
A year later, it’s still just Jennelle and Alfredo, and they still live in that van. But the difference is that now, millions of people are watching them do it. On a whim, Jennelle began her first-ever YouTube account a few months ago this summer. With just two videos, she accrued one million subscribers, becoming one of the fastest-growing accounts in history, a notoriously difficult achievement even for the already famous. The legendary model Naomi Campbell, who — with a staff of producers, the guidance and blessing from those on YouTube’s payroll, and a personality that’s made for internet virality — has a very respectable 308k subscribers with just 26 videos. Even YouTube king PewDiePie, who has over 102 million subscribers and 4,000 videos, falls short of Jennelle’s ratio.
Jennelle’s debut on YouTube broke convention. It’s like she showed up to the Olympics’ 100 meter dash having never run before, and beat the world record of 9.58 seconds…by 9…entire…seconds.
Her unprecedented success is the target of both idolatry and ire. There are people who believe she’s some sort of marketing messiah, and others who are convinced she’s an industry plant. But Jennelle maintains that there’s no strategy, much less a conspiracy. “Yeah, the algorithm friggin’ loves me,“ she rolls her eyes, shrugging it off.
Because for Jennelle, it’s gratifying and cool to be famous, but it’s not exactly surprising that the ingredients to online success — girl, van, snake — have worked for her, considering it’s the exact recipe for offline success she’s been workshopping ever since she woke up one morning, found out her father had lied to her about everything, ran away from home, and decided to blow up her own life.
All 11 of her videos begin in the same way. At this point, you could even call it a mantra: “Hello, I’m Jennelle, and I live in a van with my pet snake, Alfredo.” At the time of publishing, it's been repeated 41 million times.
Most graduates from Jennelle’s high school went to college to further their education. She, on the other hand, went to YouTube. That’s where, as a viewer, she first learned about vanlifers: people who’ve turned the experience of living in a van into an aspirational lifestyle. Most of those running successful vanlife accounts had found peace, purpose, and a reliable paycheck by ditching their money-suck apartments and soulless jobs to become digital nomads, driving around the country in renovated Mercedes Sprinter vans, and documenting their adventures with the occasional help and company from their blonde girlfriends and blonde dogs. Jennelle was neither white nor male. She didn’t have a corporate job to leave. “I’m not even really traveling. I mean, I’ve never even left California except to visit a friend in Las Vegas,” she laughs. “People pivot to vanlife. But it’s my Plan A.”
But the truth of it is that up until the day she graduated high school, Jennelle had a very different Plan A. She was raised by her dad in Elk Grove, a diverse suburb outside of Sacramento, where her high school was next to her middle school, which was down the road from her elementary school, which were all within walking distance to her dad’s house. Jennelle’s life could be mapped out within a couple miles, as a cluster of dots on a street.
That predictability, as far as Jennelle’s Ethiopian father was concerned, was the entire point. The immigrant life he created for his family in America was all about minimizing risk. And the biggest insurance against failure? Checking off a list of milestones: Get good grades in order to go to college, get a college degree to get hired at a good job, get a job to gain security and acquire things. In that order.
So all throughout her life, Jennelle’s dad made sure she stuck to his plan and his strict rules: She wasn’t allowed to date, be on social media, or get a job to earn her own money. She wasn't even allowed to graduate two years early in order to earn free credits at the local community college, because her dad so relished the idea of her in a cap and gown, alongside the classmates she grew up with. But the reward, her dad promised, was huge. With the work she was doing in high school along with the college fund he had been saving, she’d be well on her way to achieving the American Dream.
She applied to schools all over the country, and since she didn’t know what she wanted to study at college exactly (that was never explicit in her dad’s plan), she thought she’d gamble it by applying to a different major at each school. Her stellar grades meant she was a shoe-in — “I got into most that I applied to,” she says — so the hardest part was picking one. Where didn’t matter so much, as long as it was not in Elk Grove. “School was always my escape,” Jennelle explains. Even when she was six, her diary was filled with entries about going to school far, far away. Now that it was finally time, the fantasy of escape consumed her days.
But as acceptances rolled in, her dad was unnervingly tepid. He didn’t have an opinion. He didn’t offer guidance. He stalled. On graduation morning, Jennelle woke up with a ball of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. “No one explicitly said anything, but I just had a feeling that I wasn’t going to college,” she remembers. So, a few hours before she collected her diploma, she finally confronted her father, who reluctantly confirmed her suspicions. He didn’t have a fund; there was no money.
Deadlines for financial aid had long passed, and Jennelle’s father’s new plan for her — to have her stay put and attend the local community college while living at home — was her worst nightmare. Jennelle drifted through graduation in a daze. That was it. Her life was over.
That evening, she came up with her Plan B. A few weeks later, her dad found a note she had left for him. The tidy handwriting belied its explosive message: “I’m moving to Alaska.”
In actuality, Jennelle was only two hours away, in the Silicon Valley suburb of Sunnyvale, where she had found a job at a Sports Basement retailer working for minimum wage as a ski technician. Her job paid for her apartment and some classes at the community college. She told the detective her father hired who eventually found her that she was fine, actually, and to please not tell anyone where she was (he didn't). Things were going well. It certainly wasn’t a crazy rebellion from her dad's plan, but there was something exhilarating in doing everything out of order.
“In Silicon Valley, I was surrounded by so many people in these tech jobs, and they were so unhappy,” Jennelle reminisces. “My job made me just enough money to survive, but I was content. I realized that life is hard…but it's not that hard? I'm not making anything near what these techies were making, but I was fine.”
It was a relief that adulting came easily to Jennelle, especially after she realized that as she continued to simplify her plan and go off-script, she became more comfortable and happier. She hated cooking and loved eating out, so she never even bought pots and pans. She tried the minimalism thing after watching a documentary on Netflix, but she loved clothing and fashion too much. So, she vowed to only shop at thrift stores, where she scooped up funny fleeces and cheerful sundresses, and sharpened an eye for seeing the potential in what most others would consider trash.
One day, she wondered if she could make do without a Bay Area rent, too.
YouTube showed her a whole world of vanlifers who documented how they reconfigured vans to live in full time. While she didn’t have $18k to spend on a used Sprinter, nor was she interested in going into debt to get one, she did have was a modest savings. So when she came across a Craigslist post for a hulking conversion van for $2,500, she made the trip out to Modesto to take a look. “It was old, beat-up, and green,” Jennelle remembers. “The outside was trashed. But the inside? It was perfect. The carpet was clean, which is so rare, and the leather seats were in impeccable condition. It just felt right.” The van chugged instead of flew, and when climbing any kind of hill, it sounded like it was powered by an industrial fan. But, it only had a hundred-thousand miles on it. The sellers had used it to shuttle their grandkids to Disneyworld every year.
Like with those dingy blouses from Goodwill, she saw the potential. Trash became treasure. “I could make it work. And, I felt like I found the smartest solution,” says Jennelle.
In the months afterward, Jennelle turned back to YouTube to learn how to overhaul the van. She saw that most vanlifers installed sophisticated tiny kitchens, toilets, and modular furniture inside their's. Jenelle simplified her build-outs to her own beginner’s skill level and ultra-basic needs. The sink was connected to an extra-large Hydroflask bottle, since she really only needed water to brush her teeth and wash her face (her emergency bathroom is a sparkly pink Nalgene bottle). Underneath her bed, she installed massive rolling drawers that fit all her clothes, the bulk of her possessions. A dining room table, on the other hand, comes in the form of a TV tray she keeps tucked in the passenger’s seat-back pocket. Her worksite and home base? The parking lot outside of the Sports Basement.
The van may be missing some crucial aspects of a traditional “home,” but it’s anything but depressing. While most vanlife interiors recall the antiseptic aesthetics of a contemporary sushi restaurant’s bathroom, Jennelle’s ride looks like a storybook lair. It is cluttered but orderly, and its scent — a mix of hair products and pizza — somehow smells appetizing, not noxious. There are succulents planted in cupholders, and a giant Costco bear, Boba, buckled in the passenger’s seat (“A friend of mine was going to get rid of it after she broke up with the guy who gave her it. I was like — no, give it to me!”). A letterboard takes the place of a parent, reminding her to “Take Your Vitamins.” String lights, pennants, and fake flowers emerge from every small nook and cranny, like a space that’s been taken over by invasive craftstore species.
Jennelle documented the transformation on Instagram, where, free of her father’s rules, she finally started an account — her first ever — in July of 2018. “Hello everyone! My name is Jennelle,” the caption read under the first post, two shots of Jennelle in a lace barrette and patchwork skirt against her newly repainted blue van. “I’m 19 and I’ve been living full time in this sexy van since September 2017. Van Tour coming soon.” In the months that followed, she posted short videos of her eating, doing chores, and showing off her outfits (some in order to sell for gas money).
In 2018, Jennelle decided to stop into a reptile expo on a whim. While she had always pined for a rescue dog — she still goes to the shelter every month “just to play” — Jennelle realized that a snake might be better suited to her lifestyle. “I saw Alfredo and was like, ‘He’s mine. I can make this work.’” While she remodeled her van to fit a terrarium, her albino python lived in a plastic bin at the Sports Basement, where Jennelle had been promoted to a data entry job. When a new mural was painted in the store, Alfredo was prominently featured, wrapped around a soda can atop a surfboard.
“From my understanding, Alfredo just eats, sleeps, and survives. When I hold him, he’s just tolerating me,” Jennelle laughs, when I ask her whether her relationship with Alfredo is enriching. “For me though, it’s just nice to have another heartbeat in the van.”
The smartest upgrade Jennelle made could also seem like the most frivolous. She originally wanted to replace that ugly green exterior with a pale pink. “But the paint job had to be so cheap, so I could afford it, and they kept trying to mix me these custom pink colors, and I wasn’t liking it. They kept trying to push Mary-Kay pink” — a bold, fuchsia-type pink that no one would confuse as ‘millennial’ — “and I was like, ew, no.” So, she flipped through the book of stock paints and landed on a pretty robin’s-egg blue.
While it was originally a purely aesthetic choice, a baby-blue van has won Jennelle an unexpected privilege. “As soon as I painted it blue, I definitely noticed a shift. When it was green, it wasn't as welcoming. Now, I’m able to park in nicer neighborhoods like this one,” she acknowledges, pulling into the kind of quiet, residential street where she often spends the night.
We’re in Santa Cruz now, where vans — classic Westphalias, slick Sprinters, retro Volkswagon microbuses, and decaying white cargo vans preferred by painters and kidnappers — line public streets. Like homes, these vans range from charming to creepy. But unlike homes, van dwellers have few protections. Their mobility is also their vulnerability. In the face of increasing rents, and not nearly enough government-sanctioned safe parking programs to satisfy demand, many cities in Southern California, including parts of Los Angeles, have criminalized the practice of living in your vehicle, making it illegal to spend the night in a car on residential streets. It’s part of a larger culture of harassment and violence against those experiencing nontraditional homelessness.
I ask Jennelle if it makes her mad, considering how first appearances — especially for those who are vulnerable — can be the difference between being treated with dignity and respect, or being treated like a criminal. That the color of your van can be the difference between a safe night and a dangerous one.
“Kind of. Yes. A bit. But, I get it,” she shrugs. At the stoplight, three bearded men with shoulder-length, snow-white hair drive past us in a row, like a caravan of vacationing Santas. The allegory is unavoidable. The light changes to green. “Are you asking me about being Black?”
Jennelle is hardly the only Black vanlifer. But non-white, non-male Vanlifers are far from the norm. If you’re solely relying on YouTube’s recommendations, the cast of characters is pretty close to the crowd at a Dave Matthew’s show. For casual vanlifer fans, Jennelle is oftentimes the “only” — the only Gen Z person, the only Black person, the only person who prefers whimsical decor and spastic filming styles over Pendleton blankets and cinematic drone shots. On the residential streets she parks on in Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, and Venice, she’s used to being the “only,” too.
“Honestly? I don’t know why there are so few Black women here,” she says, looking out the window at a cove she likes to frequent. This afternoon, the beach is quiet, with only a sunbathing white teenager wearing half his wetsuit, and an older white man under an umbrella. Jennelle is the only Black person I’ve seen today. “I grew up in a multicultural household,” she continues, trying to explain her colorblind outlook. “My mom is Filipino. My dad is Ethiopian. My stepmom was Hungarian. I’ve been very fortunate to not have had to experience many of the hardships that other Black women face. Women, and Black women maybe, have reservations about this lifestyle. But I personally haven’t had any negative experiences. Compared to the security of having a situated house, I can see how people can think that it’s dangerous. Race didn’t really cross my mind until my channel blew up. It was brought to my attention that I was one of the only Black people doing this,” she says. “I didn’t realize.”
There’s also this: Jennelle is really, really pretty. She’s blessed with Miss-America good looks, complete with a full-wattage smile and Bambi eyelash extensions that give her the appearance that there’s something extraordinary and special about her, even if she’s just lugging water out of a convenience store. Her tiny stature and charming, expressive clothes mark her as approachable and harmless. When she drives, her hands are cemented at 10-and-2, her shoulders tense and body caved forward like a sweet, old granny. It’s not a stretch to see how much of her own exterior has afforded her the same warm reception as her van’s.
Plus, despite her journey so far, she’s still a 19-year-old who hasn’t yet ventured that far from the bubble of home. When she told her brand management team (who she linked up with after her YouTube account exploded) that she wanted to drive from Alaska to Argentina next year, it didn’t cross her mind that parts of that trip could be dangerous for any traveller, much less a young Black woman on her own.
Every mile she explores means encounters with new flavors, perspectives, and assumptions. Some of those will likely include racist, sexist, violent, and cruel ones, too — things Jenelle has admittedly not yet encountered much of.
“I feel like I should be more scared,” she admits, when I point out a pair of skillet-sized handprints on the driver’s side of her car, evidence of a Peeping Tom who came by while we were eating lunch. I cringe, but Jennelle giggles. “I have no sense of urgency. Like, with surfing, I have zero fear of the ocean. I'm a decent swimmer, but I’m not a strong swimmer. Recently, I got knocked down pretty hard, and this other guy was lecturing me like, 'You have to accept that you’re at the mercy of the ocean!' I was just having so much fun, I didn’t care that I was drowning.”
But while the real-life Jennelle seems wholly spontaneous and unscripted, there are plenty of people who believe that Jennelle’s impossibly quick rise to fame is just that: impossible. Peek into the more paranoid corners of the Internet, and you’ll see a Greek chorus of those who believe that Jennelle is faking it. The conspiracy theories all hinge on the belief that there’s no way that a nobody with zero help or previous social media presence could have won that amount of subscribers and views so quickly, even if they were naturally talented and charismatic.
There are comments dissecting certain inconsistencies in Jennelle’s manicure as proof that her videos are made with a team. Some have suggested that she’s a hired actress employed by YouTube to push a politically correct agenda onto its viewers, or as a vehicle for sponsors and advertisers looking for unethical ways to achieve product placement without disclosures. Some say that YouTube has automatically subscribed people to her account, a practice that’s against the platform’s rules. There are dozens of videos devoted to outing Jennelle — some smarmy, most boring, and others done with the type of fervor and Grand Canyon-sized lapses of logic that’s only possible from those whose talent is inversely proportional to their jealousy.
“For a moment, I was like ‘...are these true? Is YouTube using me?’ If so, I don’t think I’m doing a good job then,” Jennelle jokes before growing serious. “I can't sit there and defend myself to everyone. Being an introvert, I just had to learn how to grow thicker skin fast, because I know the truth. And the truth is, I make videos because I want to and it's fun for me.”
According to YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends’ Kevin Allocca, Jennelle’s success can be chalked up to the fact that — to borrow her own phrase — the algorithm friggin’ loves her. “YouTube’s search and discovery system are twofold,” Allocca explains. “[They’re] to help you find videos you want, and to maximize engagement and satisfaction in the long-term.” What likely happened was that nearly all of the first people who happened across Jennelle’s second video watched it to the end. An usually large percent of them clicked on her first video. Many likely left comments or shared those videos, and attracted new viewers who did the same. The consistent pattern of high engagement among those who watched Jennelle’s videos led YouTube to prioritize her in its algorithm, triggering a snowball effect. Though it’s rare, it’s happened before: South Korea’s Paik’s Cuisine, Japans’ Arashi, America's Mr Bro, and others have all amassed over a million subscribers in a few days, though they all were already famous or had a social media presence beforehand.
Allocca confirmed that YouTube’s algorithm is equal-opportunity. It does not favor specific creators nor accept payment for preferential promotion. As for Jennelle being an actress, a puppet, or a plant? “There is no truth to those theories,” says Allocca.
From just advertising alone, Jennelle makes more than the $38,600 annual salary she earned at Sports Basement (she quit her data entry job there as soon as she crossed that threshold). She plans on slowly taking on sponsorships that make sense to her, like a recent partnership with Audible, whose audiobooks she listens to while she drives. Most of her subscribers — who some have said are mostly bots — are, in fact, women between the ages of 18-26. “I thought that was cool, because it’s my people. It’s me. It’s my peers,” Jennelle says. Her second video, a gift for her real audience, is a soft poke at the clickbait trend of female vanlifers showing how to rig and use an outdoor shower, exposes the trend for what it is. Jennelle waddles around in fins, a wetsuit, and a snorkel, before telling everyone she goes to the gym to shower. “The sexy outdoor shower would not suffice my need for cleanliness. I entered the blue beast and sailed onto the land of infinite hot water and naked elderly women who silently judge my belly button piercing,” she narrates before walking into a 24 Hour Fitness. Inside, she showers with Alfredo on her head and a kazoo to her lips. It’s much better than sexy. It’s sublime.
“She’s managed to find this perfect crossover point of all these amazing ingredients,” says Louis Cole, one of the biggest travel vloggers whose account, FunForLouis, earned two million subscribers over the course of six years. “Vanlife content is popular and a reflection of the climate we’re in. There’s also not many African American travel creatives, let alone vanlifers. Then you’ve got the fact that she’s got a pet snake, which adds a bizarre element to it all. Then, she’s very quirky and relatable, and naturally fun to watch. The audience loves her amateurish approach to videos. And she’s really pretty! She’s hit the jackpot.”
In other words, Jennelle may be the first organic celebrity of her kind. She and her unique set of characteristics and skills primed her to be famous in 2019, on a 2019 medium, with a 2019 message. No shadowy cabal of vanlife illuminati was necessary.
But like with another ambitious woman who communed with a snake, the trade-off, Jennelle is well aware of, is has the potential to change everything. “Some people feel their sense of worth wrapped up in how much they’re uploading,” Cole reveals about the hamster wheel that some successful vloggers find themselves in. “You want freedom, but the obligation to it can also lower your quality of life.” But what makes Jennelle’s success even more inevitable is that she blasé about it fame. In fact, it makes her cringe.
“I don't care about being cool,” she laughs. “I already know I'm going to be a dumbass.”
One of the more surreal influencer traits, one that's weirdly pervasive, is aspirational aloneness. Through a screen, they’ve somehow found the only corner at the Louvre without people, or they’re at a glamorous party hanging out by themselves on the balcony, or are staring out an open window into some middle distance. They’re a Gatsby, after everyone else has gone home. The most popular girl at school who just got grounded. For most, it’s an illusion. After all, who’s taking the photo?
But Jennelle is actually alone.
She films herself getting dressed up for a night out, and then getting a table for one. She goes thrifting, and surfing, and picnicking by herself. She takes herself on dates to secret beach clubhouses, where the only other members are ducks. During these trips, she’s playing in the kind of way that most adults have forgotten to do, imagining that the sun is a stove that’ll cook up her s'mores, or that the ornery sea lion she’s encountered while snorkeling has vindictively marooned her on a rock. Watching her videos is like seeing what Claudia Kincaid would get up to with a driver’s license. A comment on a recent video was upvoted more than 700 times: “The way she’s so comfortable and alive when she’s alone is so lovely and refreshing to see. It might sound strange but you don’t need to have a lot of friends/family/people around to have fun and live your life.”
Her solitude also explains one of the central mysteries about the comfort in which she converses with her unseen audience, a skill that’s usually only developed through years of on-camera experience. When I ask her if she’s got theories, she answers confidently. “I spent a lot of time by myself. Certainly more than the average person. I talk to myself on a daily basis regardless if there's a camera in front of me or not.
“People see that I do everything by myself and they're like, 'I wish I could be this happy by myself. I can't even do x, y, or z without having a friend there with me,’” Jennelle says, when I ask her if she’s lonely. “For me, it's the opposite. When I have someone with me, it's a different experience. I've always been a pretty solitary creature. Being alone makes me happy.” She's excited about fame, only because it'll help her more quickly achieve her dreams of building a tiny home and subsistence farm. By herself.
But these days, Jennelle is finding that solitude is harder to come by. While at a random pitstop at an empty, out-of-the-way farmstand in Davensport, a town of 400 outside of Santa Cruz, a small voice suddenly pipes up where only windblown highway dust had been before.
“Are you...Jennelle?” it quavers, the lilt of an adolescent British accent turning the question into a yodel. Two teenagers and their mother appear in the farmstand doorway. “Oh my god, I recognized the van. And then...it’s you? We just wanted to go to a pumpkin patch, and oh my...baaaaah,” his voice speeds. “Oh my god. Oh my god! Am I allowed to take a photo?”
And suddenly, a frenzy. Jennelle is shy but laughing with Taylor, who was grinning so hard, it looked like the best moment of his vacation was as painful as a root canal, his entire body vigorously trembling with adrenaline as if he was a dashboard ornament. “Obviously, Jennelle was on my mind while we were in LA. But I thought after we passed the south, there was no chance. There was no chance!” he repeats, as he embraces Jennelle for his mother’s cameraphone pic.
“This is incredible. A celebrity!” his mother murmurs under her breath to me in awe and confusion. “But, can you tell me, who is she?” Taylor asks to see the van, and Jennelle takes him and his twin sister to check it out. “She lives in there!” Taylor exclaims to his father, who is busy working his way through a pint of strawberries. “Who? Lives where?” his voice carries.
Watching the scene unfold, the leathery man behind the counter, Anthony, shakes his head in disbelief. “What a mindblower,” he whistles, and looks at Taylor’s mother and me. “Come on! We’re so lucky to be here for this.” Watching Jennelle and Taylor enthusiastically talking and sharing stories, it strikes me that Anthony isn't the only one who felt that way.
Gratefulness is Jennelle’s preferred mode. Even for her 21st birthday, she stripped the celebration down to its barest bones. She got a piercing and a tattoo by herself. She gave herself a hair trim. She ate pizza by herself, and made a sandwich by herself. Then she walked through the forest by herself to do yoga in a flat patch of land between a stand of trees. Afterward, she reflected on the occasion.
“Last year for my 20th birthday, I…cried,” she bashfully grins into the camera, a carpet of dried leaves behind her. “I was so alone and so sad and stuck in this rut. […] For my 20th birthday, I made the decision to put in all my effort into being a happy person. I’m thinking about how many things have changed in a year…” she trails off as she starts crying. Her mascara commingles with her foundation, sending a milky river of tears down her cheek. “Oh my god, my makeup,” she laughs, through a sob. She ignores it.
“I’m crying because I’m so happy. One of the things that I did today was see a psychic on the Venice Beach boardwalk. She asked me why I went to her. Honestly I just wanted to film it. She’s like, what in your life do you want to change? And...I didn’t have anything. She was like what would make you happy, and I couldn’t come up with anything, because I already am so happy.”
People reached out to Jennelle in droves, sharing their own stories of feeling lost and pressured to follow a blueprint they inherited from someone else. Her dad watched the video, and let her know he was proud of her — he cried, too. They’ve recently reconciled.
“He was like, I was so strict on you. I tried to push this traditional mentality on you. I was wrong. But now he sees that I can be successful in other ways. That's an epiphany we've recently had together. It's been really nice to hear that. He reads my comments probably more religiously than even I do. He’s my number one fan.” When she passed one million subscribers, YouTube sent her a Gold Creator Award to her only permanent address: Her dad’s house. She’s left it there for safekeeping.
I ask her what she means by happiness, and she describes it as a feeling. “Happiness feels free. Nothing is weighing me down. I don’t have anxieties about the past or the future. I’m just present. I have food in my belly, I have my house and there’s gas in it. I have my ambitions. But at the same time, I’m content.”
“For so long, I was trying to live for my parents. I was trying to be the typical high-striving member of society with a two-story house and five cars, and two point five kids. I had to figure out what I wanted. And once I eliminated those things, that's when I became happy.”
What’s left? The freedom and security to make spontaneous decisions. A few people with whom she shares what she calls “low-maintenance” friendships. Thrift shops. Eating out. Random goals that quietly thrill her. Tangible goals that ground her. Another heartbeat close by. And an endless horizon, sometimes straight, hopefully meandering, that stretches out in front of her, as far out as she wants to go.