Colleen Ballinger didn’t expect her talentless, narcissistic weirdo creation to be anything more than a short-lived joke for her theater friends.

Seven years ago, the classically trained vocalist and actress was performing at Disneyland (in “High School Musical” and “Playhouse Disney”), playing a princess at kids’ birthday parties, and waitressing. She was also posting videos on YouTube in the guise of someone called Miranda Sings — a homeschooled teen from Tacoma, Wash., with ridiculously misapplied lipstick and verbal tics, who couldn’t carry a tune but considered herself a world-class singer.

Since her video “Free Voice Lesson” went viral in 2009, Miranda Sings has rocketed into the top echelon of social stars. She has attracted legions of fans for both her online output and her in-person live tours; these “Mirfandas” follow her across YouTube (6.5 million subscribers), Instagram (4.4 million), Twitter (2.3 million), and other platforms.

Art Streiber for Variety; Hair: Dallin James using Oribe at The Wall Group; Jakob Sherwood using Nars at The Wall Group; Styling: Wilford Lenov at Celestine Agency; Dress: Patricia Bonaldi

“I decided to try to ride the wave. I thought, ‘How can I make this into something?’ ” Ballinger recalls about waking up to see 70,000 views for “Free Voice Lesson.” “I really tried to take advantage of my 15 minutes of fame. And I’ve gotten lucky — those 15 minutes have become several years.”

Now Ballinger, who married YouTube personality and entertainer Joshua David Evans last year but uses her maiden name professionally, is ready to take her career to the next level. She has just completed shooting Netflix’s “Haters Back Off,” an eight-episode comedy set to premiere worldwide this fall. The show, which Ballinger conceived several years ago with her brother, Christopher Ballinger, tells the story of Miranda’s upbringing and how she came to become a YouTube star.

Ballinger, 29, is just one of a growing number of digital-native creators who are looking to stretch beyond the raw DIY world of vlogging to the very different universe of full-fledged scripted episodic TV. It’s a tricky transition that’s playing out from Netflix and HBO to newer subscription offerings from YouTube and Fullscreen; a similar trend began to happen in film last year with releases like “Smosh: The Movie,” from Defy Media and Awesomeness Films, and the horror pic “The Chosen,” starring Kian Lawley. The mixed success of those titles is evidence that for all the popularity YouTubers have managed on their own terms, success is not guaranteed on TV.

But one guy who knows a thing or two about TV has faith in Ballinger: Jerry Seinfeld. He hosted Ballinger as Miranda Sings on an episode of his Crackle show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in November 2014, without knowing anything about her beyond having watched some of her videos with his daughter.

“When I met Colleen the day before we shot the episode, I could tell immediately that she can be funny to any audience on any screen,” Seinfeld wrote in an email. “And the audience numbers we saw for that episode tell me that she can easily take her audience from one digital sphere to another.”

“I really tried to take advantage of my 15 minutes of fame. And I’ve gotten lucky — those 15 minutes have become several years.”
Colleen Ballinger

Just because someone is beloved by millions of smartphone-gazing Gen-Z’ers doesn’t mean he or she has the skills to become a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon. Part of Ballinger’s mission was to establish credibility — to demonstrate that she has the talent to create a top-flight TV show that stacks up against anything on television.

“It’s been hard being on the internet and not being respected by people in Hollywood,” says Ballinger. “A lot of people think most YouTubers are just untalented kids who film themselves for four minutes, and that’s all they do for their week. I really hope this opens doors for other YouTubers.”

Even if her show meets Netflix’s threshold of success (whatever that is), and Miranda Sings becomes a more widely recognized name, Ballinger may be an outlier among social influencers who are bankable talent for TV shows or movies.

“Most YouTube stars are playing themselves,” says Josh Barry, partner and head of TV for the Firm, and an executive producer on “Haters Back Off.” Noting that Ballinger has developed the Miranda character over hundreds of videos, he says, “I don’t know if it’s applicable to say that this show is going to make it easier for other YouTubers to move into traditional scripted media.”

That said, the potential for Miranda Sings to become a hit on a platform like Netflix could help tear down a psychological barrier in Hollywood, and lead to more projects developed with internet-native performers.

Art Streiber for Variety; Hair: Dallin James using Oribe at The Wall Group; Jakob Sherwood using Nars at The Wall Group; Styling: Wilford Lenov at Celestine Agency; Dress: Patricia Bonaldi

“We haven’t seen [a digital star] cross over into the mainstream culture,” says Rafi Fine, a principal at Fine Brothers Entertainment. He and his brother Benny grew the company into a 60-employee operation from their early days of producing YouTube reaction videos. “Does Miranda’s show on Netflix suddenly make everyone go, ‘Who’s Miranda Sings?’” he asks.

One previous attempt to bring a digital star to TV didn’t pan out: “The Grace Helbig Show,” a late-night talk show hosted by the popular YouTuber, aired eight episodes on NBCUniversal’s E! last year but was not renewed after low ratings.

Some argue that those who question whether celebs on YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram can star in traditional longer-form entertainment are missing the point. For many of them, getting cast in a TV show or movie is not the bar for success. Depending on the terms of a particular project, digital creators may actually earn less from a TV series or film than they do from their online work, while potentially losing creative control and intellectual-property rights.

“Most digital stars have mastered the art of short-form comedy content, and for many of them it’s become a big business,” says Brent Weinstein, UTA’s head of digital media. “While many of them are interested in exploring traditional media, that doesn’t mean digital is just a steppingstone to get there. They have viable, long-term careers in digital.”

It’s true that most digital stars really shine “in their bedroom with their camera, and that’s where they are going to make the most money anyway,” says Shane Dawson, a top YouTuber who has experience in both film and TV. Talking about himself, though, he says, “I want to get out of my bedroom and make movies.”

Dawson appears in YouTube’s original series “Escape the Night With Joey Graceffa,” slated to premiere June 22 on the new subscription service YouTube Red. It stars popular vlogger Graceffa as the host of a murder mystery, with a roster of other YouTube stars invited to solve the puzzle — little do they know, most won’t make it out alive. It’s a mock mystery that’s partly reality-based because some of the vloggers cast in the show weren’t comfortable with scripted content.

Lip Service: Clockwise from top: Crowds gather to see Miranda Sings perform during last year’s VidCon; she rides in a car with Jerry Seinfeld; her videos “Where My Baes At?” and “Shake It Off” were big hits. VidCon: Ed Crisostomo/The Orange County Register/AP

YouTube, meanwhile, wants to become the best platform for its homegrown talent to develop and launch longer-form projects. The Google-owned video giant last year rolled out the YouTube Red originals program, which provides funding and other support for series and movies available on the $10-per-month subscription service, in part as a way to preempt creators from turning elsewhere.

Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content, has cast nearly the entire programming slate of YouTube Red with talent that grew up on the platform. She found herself wading in a different talent pool than the one she had grown accustomed to when she held top programming jobs at MTV, Lifetime, and other networks.

“When I got to YouTube and started meeting creators, I noticed … how incredibly proactive creators are in a way that’s different from actors. Actors are used to getting cast in roles; creators bring the full force of their abilities to every project. They often write, produce, direct all the content on their YouTube channel. Even if they don’t do that, they contribute in many ways, and they’re used to feedback from their audience; they use that to learn and give them strengths as performers. They have that awareness that sets them apart from actors.”

Daniels allows that she would have wanted the Miranda Sings show to have a home on YouTube Red. “We want to give creators the opportunity to dream big, and let them develop new kinds of programming they couldn’t do on their own,” she says. “Our theory is they will do the best they can do on YouTube Red. Their fans are not necessarily going to find them on HBO or Netflix. This is where their community lives.”

Netflix had enough faith in Ballinger’s vision for “Haters Back Off” — named for Miranda’s catchphrase — to give it a straight-to-series order. The company beat out HBO, which had offered a pilot commitment, according to industry sources.

The Usual Suspects: Shane Dawson, Andrea Brooks, Sierra Furtado, Timothy DeLaGhetto, Justine Ezarik, Joey Graceffa, Lele Pons, and Oli White are among the influencers who star in YouTube Red murder mystery “Escape the Night With Joey Graceffa.” Terence Patrick for Variety

“We believe in our gut, Miranda, as popular as she is, will help us make noise,” says Brian Wright, Netflix’s director of original series for family and young adult programming. “This isn’t just taking her short-form [content] and stretching it into 22 minutes. It’s a bizarre family comedy, and a commentary on society today and our fascination with fame.”

Netflix’s goal with “Haters Back Off” is to hit a four-quadrant audience, with a show that can be viewed by the entire family. The company analyzed lineups of premium TV networks and found that 80% of programming is rated TV-MA. “There’s not a ton of really great scripted television that’s made for a broader audience,” Wright says.

Of course, it’s fair to question how many grown-ups will be eager to watch a show with such a neurotic, infantile anchor character, one who’s rooted in physical humor and goofy facial expressions. Ballinger concedes that in the process of shopping around “Haters,” some execs simply didn’t get it. “Netflix just really understood it and was passionate about it. That’s what I was looking for,” she says. “I didn’t want to just make the show and get it out there.”

Miranda Sings has been compared to Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite, and Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman. Ballinger says her sources of comedic inspiration include Carol Burnett, Andy Kaufman, and Monty Python.

Ballinger grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., the daughter of a sales-manager dad and stay-at-home mom. She studied at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian university northeast of L.A., and dreamed up Miranda Sings after playing a bratty girl named Miranda in a college theater production. The character is loosely based on real people. “I went to school with a bunch of girls who were snooty and confident and kind of mean,” she says.

How 2016’s top digital stars are transforming entertainment

“The process of getting into Miranda mode is simply making sure I’m as gross as possible,” she adds. “I make sure I’m wearing funky clothes and a lot of lipstick, and I’m good to go.” (For the record, her preferred lipstick is New York Color’s NYC Ultra Moist Lip Wear Retro Red.)

The show was shot in Vancouver, a stand-in for Miranda’s hometown of Tacoma, and produced by Brightlight Pictures for Netflix. Perry Rein and Gigi McCreery, whose past credits include “Friends” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” signed on as showrunners, and developed “Haters” with Colleen and Christopher Ballinger.
“This is the first time we’ve done a show about a really bad dancer and singer,” laughs Rein, who cites Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” as a touchstone, with “characters that take themselves very seriously in their very small worlds.”

Whatever other projects come her way, she’s going to keep posting to YouTube. During the monthlong filming of “Haters,” which wrapped May 30, Ballinger continued to post up to four videos per week to Miranda Sings on YouTube and her own channel, PsychoSoprano, even after 14-hour days of shooting.

Ballinger, who is repped by the Gersh Agency, hopes Netflix will renew the show and that she’ll have other opportunities to let Miranda spread her wings. She has other characters she’d like to develop, too, like a hippy midwife called Dawn the Doula. But, she quickly adds, “Miranda is my No. 1 lady, and she always will be. I’ve never fully developed a character like her. Miranda is a part of me.”

Serious About Series

A growing crop of digital stars is trying long-form TV


Jake Paul
(Disney Channel)
Viner is cast in a comedy about tween vloggers

Joey Graceffa
Escape the Night With Joey Graceffa
(YouTube Red)
Digital stars including GloZell, iJustine, Lele Pons, and Shane Dawson solve a fake murder mystery (à la “Clue”) hosted by Graceffa

Watch video: Behind the scenes of “Escape the Night”

Anna Akana
Miss 2059
(Verizon go90)
YouTuber plays a beauty queen competing in an intergalactic pageant

Jc Caylen, Lia Marie Johnson
(Verizon go90)
Social-media-themed thriller from AwesomenessTV

Claudia Sulewski
The Commute
Teen romantic comedy stars YouTube beauty/fashion vlogger

Matthew Patrick
MatPat’s Game Lab
(YouTube Red)
Reality adventure series from gaming expert Matthew Patrick (MatPat) explores real-world scenarios for video games

Issa Rae
YouTube comedienne co-created and stars in sitcom about sometimes turbulent friendship of two black women

Kina Grannis, Eric Ochoa
Single by 30
(New Form Digital/YouTube Red)
High-school best friends promise to marry each other if …

Kian Lawley, Jc Caylen
(Astronauts Wanted)
Scripted meta comedy about YouTube stars and the video-game store workers who hate them

Timothy DeLaGhetto
(Astronauts Wanted)
Late-night travel/comedy show


Scare PewDiePie
(YouTube Red)
YouTube megastar is subjected to video-game-inspired horrors in this reality-style show

Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart
Electra Woman & Dyna Girl
Reboot of campy ’70s show with top YouTubers as a crime-fighting superhero duo

Shane Dawson
Shane and Friends
Dawson’s talk show is a video series version of his podcast.

Amanda Steele
A guidance counselor tries to find out who’s posting scandalous photos of the most popular girl in school

Watch video: Inside Miranda Sings’ cover shoot for Variety