YouTube star Joey Graceffa, with his upswept mane, arched eyebrows — and just a glint of madness in his eyes — was a natural choice to play the enigmatic host of YouTube Red original series “Escape the Night,” a mega-collab in which a famous cast member gets killed off each week.
Now in the middle of the season 2 run, Graceffa said he had even more fun the second time around with “Escape the Night” (for which he also served as executive producer) while continuing to pump out daily comedy vlogs for the 8 million-plus subscribers on his YouTube channel.
Graceffa, whose audience skews three-fourths female and is largely between the ages of 13 and 25, has evolved his YouTube material to keep with the zeitgeist — while avoiding controversies that can stir up internet trolls and unwanted publicity. “I kind of like to stay out of the drama,” he says. “I feel like if you’re in the drama, yeah, it will get you attention now but that will fade.”
And the multihypenate recently added another title: young-adult novelist. “Elites of Eden,” the second book in his dystopian trilogy, will be released Oct. 3, 2017. The first book in the series, “Children of Eden,” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers’ young-adult hardcover list in October 2016 and remained on the chart for 10 weeks.
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Graceffa, 26, sat down with Variety to talk about his life as a YouTuber, his dream of turning the “Eden” books into movies, how he manages social media, and his expanding line of merchandise (including nail polish). An edited transcript:
Where do you see yourself in your career right now?
I think the cool thing about being a YouTuber is that fact that you aren’t limited to anything. I mean, you can put your own limits on yourself — I’m one of the people that doesn’t. My channel is a variety of all sorts of things. It’s constantly evolved, and I think that’s how I’ve stayed relevant on the platform for so long, because I’m constantly changing what I’m doing. Currently, right now, I think it’s so cool I get to do fun, crazy stuff on my channel daily, but I can also do big projects like “Escape the Night” with YouTube Red. I think that’s where my true passion lies: being a creative, and creating big worlds and stories, and seeing them come to life.
How did you start the “Children of Eden” book series?
It’s something that I have had in my mind for a few years. It started as a short film idea. So I had it all in my head; it was just a matter of getting it down. It’s just been really cool to start with a small scene, and slowly build up this world, and I’ve just finished the second book [“Elites of Eden”]. It’s crazy to think I have one of these out in the world after being an avid reader of the genre in my teenage years. … YouTube’s allowed me to create this universe that I hope will be able to be turned into a movie like “Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner” and “Divergent” — that’s the goal with that, and where I kind of where I want to see myself go.
What happens in the third book?
Well, I haven’t started that. [Laughs] I’m still working on it! As I’m creating this, it’s all as if it’s a movie. I see things very visually. When I sit down, I can just imagine a scene taking place and I trust my instinct.
Have you pitched the books to studios?
Not really. We’re kind of going the route of trying to attach a producer or a writer, someone I can take with me into these meetings. It’s kind of in the beginning phases.
Would you star in it?
I’d have a role in it, just because I have a love for acting. But it’s mostly just the creating. I don’t mind having other actors play the main characters, as long as I get to have a small little part.
What was your original career goal?
Obviously this has been evolving over the years. Before this was even a possibility to be a career, I wanted to go the traditional route of maybe being an actor or being in film somehow. Slowly, I just started to realize that what I’m doing is what I love. And why am I trying to go out and attain something that maybe was the mentality of a few years ago of what was the thing to want. After realizing that, I kind of homed in on my channel, and figuring out what I love to do — without having to go out and wish for things. And just make them happen myself.
Right after you came out [in 2015], you talked about your concern beforehand about revealing your sexual orientation publicly — you said, “The internet is full of trolls and haters.” Do you still think that’s the case?
Maybe they’re still there — but I just don’t see them. YouTube has some tools, you can block out certain comments. I never really see it on Twitter. Of course, when you’re a little controversial online, that’s when the strangers find you — and that’s when the hate comes. I think right now I’m in a place where I just really have the people who have found me are looking at me, and I’m not getting a lot of outside attention from strangers from me acting wild, or being a crazy YouTuber and causing controversy and being problematic. I kind of like to stay out of the drama. I feel like if you’re in the drama, yeah, it will get you attention now but that will fade.
How is season 2 of “Escape the Night” different from the first one?
Oh, my gosh. We learned so much from the first season, the second season we could make bigger and better. It was just a bigger production. We also have a great cast this season—there’s a lot more lighthearted moments, because we have such a comedic cast. We have Liza Koshy, the Gabbie Show, and Tyler Oakley who gave so many funny moments. We didn’t take ourselves so seriously. Season one was more like murder-mystery vibe; this is more like a group escape.
Who are some YouTubers you would love to get for season 3 of “Escape the Night”?
Well, I haven’t gotten the OK for season three. [Laughs] But there are a few people I really, really would love. I would love Jenna Marbles… I don’t know, I don’t want to put it out there! It’s tough, it’s a big ask for YouTubers to dedicate the time. It’s five days filming straight with night shoots… although, if you get killed off the show, you don’t have to stay all five days.
How has it done for your brand?
For me personally, it’s opened me up to a newer audience. Just because with all the marketing YouTube is throwing at it. The show is almost like a giant collaboration. With 10 YouTubers, they’re all bringing their audience to the show. Since it lives on my channel, they have to subscribe to get notified, so that was a benefit to me. … The first couple days [after “Escape the Night” season 2 premiered in June], I think I got 100,000 subscribers within the first two days of when it launched.
YouTube is your main platform. How do you think of other platforms in terms of reaching audience?
It’s day to day, I post daily. It’s almost like a routine. Throughout my day, I’ll post on Instagram Stories, and I’ll throw to my most recent video. I don’t use Snapchat—I’ll use the filters and put it on Instagram, but I don’t really use the platform. Facebook I’ll use just to promote videos. Twitter is really my main place to connect with my audience. They all have their own unique purpose.
Why aren’t you on Snapchat?
Just too much. I mean, Snapchat and Instagram stories are pretty much the same thing. Since I already use Instagram to post pictures, I don’t know—it’s all too much. [Laughs]
How do you manage having to be constantly online? Do you take breaks, like, “After 9 p.m., I’m not checking anything”?
The only time it’s turned off is when I’m sleeping. That’s my break. When I was on “The Amazing Race” [in 2013], I was forced to be disconnected. I had someone else working my social-media accounts for like a month, uploading my videos. I definitely had some moments when I really just wanted to check in. … But I don’t feel like I’m too consumed with my social media. I’m pretty good at keeping my phone down.
Would you want to do a network show like “Amazing Race” again?
Yeah, if it fit well and they were open to my world on YouTube, and making sure I can keep that going.
You were a big presence at this year’s VidCon. How has it changed over the years? What do you like about it, and what do not like about?
VidCon, the obvious thing is, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger. For me personally, it’s become more of a work thing as opposed to, “I’m going to go to this event to hang out with my friends,” which is what it was the first few years. It’s become so work-heavy, doing press, doing panels. It’s always amazing to meet your viewers, and I love that part, but it’s still a business thing. I love going, and this year especially with having my face all over the outside of VidCon, I felt like I was the King of VidCon. But yeah, it’s work.
For your YouTube channel, where do you draw your ideas?
It’s a lot of researching YouTube and seeing what’s going on, what are the trends, seeing someone else’s ideas will inspire an original idea of mine. It’s taking ideas from everywhere.
To what extent do you try to create trends?
There was one I brought back: men wearing nail polish. I was one of the first guys to bring that back, maybe a year and half ago. It developed into my own line of nail polish, which has been really fun — I never thought that would happen.
Any other merchandise?
Yeah, it started with [Crystal Wolf] jewelry. Then it’s slowly growing, I’m adding new things — I have sunglasses, T-shirts, and pins. I just love wolves, and I love crystals, so: Crystal Wolf.
But you don’t want to just push merch on people.
It’s definitely a delicate balance of not being too in their face. But you know, when I get excited about it, I just want to keep talking about it. So sometimes I feel I can be annoying but it’s coming from a genuine place because it’s my own excitement and love for my products.
Graceffa is repped by UTA and managed by Addition LLC.