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Colleen Ballinger on Miranda Sings’ Evolution, Working With Netflix and Sexual Harassment in the Industry

Colleen Ballinger’s weird, lipstick-smeared and Crocs-shod Miranda Sings character is back for more adventures with her family in “Haters Back Off” season 2 on Netflix.

Ballinger sat down this week with Variety to talk about how Miranda — who’s hugely popular on YouTube and social media — acquires more emotional depth in the second run of “Haters” (although she remains generally clueless) and the differences between working on the Netflix series and her day job as a digital star. She also shared her personal experiences with sexual harassment and explained why Miranda Sings would never weigh in on the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

In “Haters Back Off” season 2, which premiered on Netflix Oct. 20, Miranda tries to cash in on her suddenly popular YouTube channel (spoiler: it doesn’t go well), feuds with a middle-school impostor, opens a theme park in the family’s yard, and ultimately seeks fame on New York’s Broadway.

The character already enjoys plenty of fame on the Internet: Miranda Sings has 8.2 million subscribers on YouTube, 6.4 million on Instagram, 2.6 million on Twitter and 1.8 million on Facebook.

Ballinger — featured in a Variety cover story last year about internet stars breaking into TV — co-created the show with her brother, Chris Ballinger, and co-wrote and executive produced. Because the series fills the backstory of events Miranda has already described on YouTube, for Ballinger a priority with “Haters Back Off” was making sure it synced up with those storylines so as not to disappoint her legions of fans.

“My fans will call me out if I tell the story wrong,” Ballinger said. “We are trying to as hard as possible to stay close to the events that happened.” For example, season 2 tells the story of why Miranda Sings first started wearing Crocs, and how she gave Frankie Grande (the older half-brother of Ariana Grande), who plays himself in the show, a voice lesson in New York.

But she goofed on at least one thing: Miranda has several romantic entanglements in season 2 — and she “kisses a lot of people,” Ballinger said. Fans quickly pointed out that in a YouTube video years ago, Miranda said it’s a sin to kiss before you are married, and so why is she kissing all these people? “They catch things I didn’t even catch. A lot of times they know the character better than I do,” Ballinger said.

For the Netflix show, Ballinger has tried to make Miranda relatable through her emotions, and in season 2 the character evolves in how she relates to her family and to boys. “She is getting more self-awareness — but that doesn’t mean she’s self-aware… She’ll always be a little bit naïve,” she said. “Online she’s just a brat – there’s no real emotion with her on YouTube. Doing the [Netflix] show has made me think about the psychology of the character more.”

While “Haters Back Off” is scripted, somewhere around 30% of the dialogue is improv, according to Ballinger. Matt Besser, one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, joined the show as Miranda’s dad this season, and Ballinger was drawn by his improv skills. The cast of “Haters Back Off” also includes Angela Kinsey (“The Office”) as Miranda’s mother, Bethany; Steve Little as her uncle Jim; Francesca Reale as her sister, Emily; and Erik Stocklin as her BFF (and love interest) Patrick.

One key change in “Haters Back Off” season 2 was upping Miranda’s romantic opportunities, which Ballinger and co-showrunners Gigi McCreery and Perry Rein made based on audiences’ positive reaction to subplots about her love life in season 1.

But the “Haters” creative team didn’t get that info from Netflix, which famously doesn’t share metrics. That was new territory for Ballinger. “I’ve spent 10 years checking my analytics on my end to see what people were talking about and what they like,” she said. “I base my videos on my statistics, and to be working on a project where I don’t have access to that information – it’s been hard to adjust to that.”

Season two of “Haters Back Off” was easier for Ballinger in some respects after the YouTuber worked on a TV production for the first time last year. For season 1, “I didn’t even know what certain terms meant. ‘Oh, we block the scene beforehand?'” she said. But she took on a bigger role for the second season, which created new challenges: “I felt like I had more responsibility on me. People trusted me more to make decisions.”

The strangest moment for Ballinger in season 2 was when she took a bath in SpaghettiOs — an idea she had come up with. “It wasn’t my favorite part. In the writers room, they said, ‘You know, what you write you will have to end up doing.’ It was a surreal moment to be sitting in a bathtub full of SpaghettiOs and being miserable but thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is a dream come true to have this show.'”

Asked about the torrent of allegations that have come out about Harvey Weinstein, Ballinger said she wasn’t at all surprised. She said she’s personally experienced sexual harassment “many, many times” in different phases of her working life. When she was trying to break into musical theater, one director told her to come to a “private rehearsal” and do costume fittings in front of him. (She refused.) “The fact that women are brave enough to come forward is amazing,” she said.

Ballinger said she absolutely would not have Miranda Sings comment on the Weinstein scandal. “The character is known as a joke, so anything she said could be perceived as a joke,” Ballinger said. “There needs to be change – it’s too serious to spend time joking about it.”

One thing Hollywood needs is “more sets run by women to level it out a bit more,” Ballinger said, noting that the “Haters Back Off” production included several women in key roles. In addition to herself, that includes McCreery and Netflix’s Kristin Zolner as an executive producer.

Next up for Ballinger: She’s about to kick off a new leg of the worldwide “Miranda Sings Live: You’re Welcome” tour, hitting Australia and New Zealand in November before swinging through Hawaii and California in December. Meanwhile, Netflix may pick up “Haters Back Off” for a third season, but if not, Ballinger said she’s interested in developing “some other projects that have been floating around in my brain for a while,” declining to elaborate.

In any case, Miranda Sings will still be in Ballinger’s foreseeable future. And she’s protective of her eccentric creation. “Her age and her last name I’ve always kept to myself,” she said. “If I put an age on her, I feel like that would alienate a part of that audience. I love that 8-year-olds and 30-year-olds come up to me and say, ‘She’s just like me!'”

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