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How to leave a parasocial relationship
Fans are growing out of Emma Chamberlain.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
You can listen to a fun follow-up to this conversation on the Culture Vulture podcast below!
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I fell off the Emma Chamberlain train a year or so ago. Or rather, Emma Chamberlain kicked me off. I discovered the YouTuber when she was still a teenager, and followed her as she attended her first fashion shows, moved into bigger and better apartments, and became a bonafide adult. Until, earlier this year, she stopped taking me along. Her last vlog was posted on May 5, and was a behind-the-scenes look at her time at the Met Gala [EDIT: LOL she literally uploaded a vlog yesterday]. The vlog before that was posted in February, and before that, October 2022. It’s safe to say these are the last trickles of her time as a YouTuber, which she seems to have swapped in favor of her podcast, Anything Goes, which moved exclusively to Spotify in early 2023.
Anything Goes comes out every Thursday and Sunday, and is often just Emma sitting in bed with a microphone, musing on topics like comparison, friendship, and her journey quitting nicotine. But recently, her episode topics have taken a turn for the philosophical—things like religion and art. Her audience has somewhat bristled at this, claiming across TikTok it’s because Chamberlain hasn’t gone to college and isn’t educated enough to speak on these issues.
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Lucy Blakiston and I have a different theory.
Blakiston is behind the amazingnewsletter/empire, and when we hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the current Chamberlain discourse, we landed on the same conclusion: Emma Chamberlain doesn’t need to change—her audience does. We ended up having a larger conversation about the part of parasocial relationships people don’t really talk about, which is what it looks like to leave them:
Kate: Maybe we start with, what are each of our relationships to Emma Chamberlain in general?
Lucy: My friend showed me Emma in my third year of university, which would've been 2018. And she was like, "I think you'll really like this person 'cause she's quite chaotic.” And I think she only had like 400,000 subscribers or something really small! But I think I got onto it at the same time as most of the world did because she grew exponentially after that. I was never a religiously I-need-to-watch-YouTube-with-everything-I-do kind of person, but I loved her and I was obsessed with the Sister Squad video of them going to Vegas 'cause I loved the Dolan Twins — that's still my comfort video. But then, when she released her podcast, Stupid Genius, I thought it was really weird. Do you know about that? Have you listened to it ever?
Kate: No, I forgot she had a podcast before this one.
Lucy: The premise was like, she gets asked a question, like a scientific question, and she has to give three guesses as to how this thing works. It was strange. And I remember thinking it was a really weird podcast for Emma to do. So I didn't really listen to that. And then with Anything Goes, I've listened to a few episodes of it, but I always thought she was better as an interviewer or a YouTuber.
Kate: Yeah. I was working at Refinery29 at the time, and I think she had won an award for being a breakout creator. I was really trying to carve out the internet culture beat at Refinery. So I started following her from there because I was like, "I feel like this is someone we should keep an eye on." So I was watching her, her vlogs, and I think I also joined during Sister Squad, and then I kind of watched that fall apart a little bit.
Lucy: She would have all these friend groups — I don't know if you know Hannah Meloche and Ellie Thumann? They were called the ‘girdies’ — and then just fall out of them. But that's one thing about her, she never tells us why. It's like, "go girl, give us nothing!" And that’s her right, but maybe it’s why her exploration into ‘deeper’ subjects isn’t going so well.
Kate: I know. And I remember there was a period of time when I really did watch her vlogs whenever they came out because I love a low-activity vlog. I do not like when people go and do things. I love when they putter around their homes. And that's what she does. But I remember when she got her new giant house in LA and that’s kind of when the vlogs stopped, because we didn't get to really see it. I think my read on it initially was that the vlogs petered off as she moved to that house, but also as she kind of transcended beyond YouTube. That was when she started doing the Met Gala stuff and fashion things. And I think for a while I would cite her as this version of internet fame that was successfully parlayed into actual fame. But now I don't know if that's still true. She's almost gone too mysterious. It's just the podcast, and so I think when you're just getting the podcast and this leads us into what's happening right now, when that's all you're getting from her, I think it's kind of like, why am I listening to you talk about these things? [At first it] was resonating because it was becoming sounds on TikTok when she talked about friendship or loneliness, which I think are topics she can speak to. And it seems that she's started to go beyond that and people are starting to see maybe the limits of what she can sort of accurately talk about.
Lucy: And I think because she doesn't tell us that much about her real life, listeners are starting to be like, "Well, you haven't told us why you have any jurisdiction to talk about this big topic." But it doesn't mean she doesn't have it! It just means she's chosen to keep that mysterious. This is not a hot take, and I think Sally Rooney talked about this actually, but there does come a point where you're a relatable influencer and then you get too famous that you're no longer relatable. So who are you now, what's your identity? And I think that's exactly what's happened here. Like you said, she moved to this new house, she did an Architectural Digest tour and that's how we saw it.
Kate: And it like broke the internet.
Lucy: In that respect, she's moved on from her viewers because her viewers were watching her to see this kid that dropped outta school because it wasn't for her. And then she moved to LA but was still this really down to earth girl. But then she actually did start hosting the Met Gala and making a ton of money and she did become unrelatable, which wasn't even her fault, and the internet just loves to pull down a young woman who's surpassed this threshold, you know?
Kate: And what you're saying about how she's not offering enough to let us know why she should be speaking on this, it makes me think of when we've talked before about people getting their news from creators and talking about why there's that trust there. And it's because if you are sharing all this, if you are trusting me with all this information about your life, then I am going to trust you with whatever you tell me because you trust me. We're not getting that from Emma. We're just getting her saying things without, like you said, any reason to trust her on it. And she's keeping viewers at an arm's length so they're not able to as much develop that parasocial relationship. And so now it's just too much of a vacuum.
Lucy: I think this might be an example of people that need to consciously uncouple from her. Like you have outgrown her, she doesn’t need to change for you. And the beautiful thing about the internet is you can not listen to that podcast and go and find someone else. If you've been to college and now your mind's been expanded, go and find someone who will fill that void. Emma Chamberlain doesn't have to be everything to everyone. If you've outgrown her, it might feel sad, almost like you’re losing a friend, but instead of shouting on TikTok about how she should go to college, maybe you just need to move on?
Kate: Right. I think they are so used to their relationship with her being growing up with her.
Lucy: And now they're going down different paths. Like I think a lot of these people making these videos have chosen the path where you go to college and develop these critical thinking skills, whether you know it or not. And then she’s gone down the path of, which was very like, hot a few years ago that was like, “You don't need to go to college. You can be self-made and be a YouTuber and then start these businesses, et cetera.” It’s just like when you grow out of your friends in real life, and you choose different paths, but you usually don't preach at your other friends saying, "You should have gone and done this." But I mean, in the same breath, your other friends probably aren't making a podcast and trying to be philosophical.
Kate: The question for Emma, and maybe this has been determined, is what, business-wise, makes most sense for her? Does it make sense to keep growing with her audience? I think they can say they want her to go to college for the podcast, but I think it's almost like, no, they want her to go to college 'cause they're going to college and they want to have their friend with them in college. I was talking about this with some people and we really dreamcast this. What college would she go to? And they were like, “I think NYU'“ and I was like, "Oh yes, it would be NYU because every time she vlogs in New York, she talks about how much she loves New York, but that there was no reason to move her life there." And now I'm like, "Oh my God, you should go to NYU." And then she'd vlog it.
I'm looking through her podcast and when she talks about stuff that she's not maybe qualified to, she usually has someone else there. One of her most recent episodes is talking about religion and spirituality and I wouldn't trust her to do that, but she has on someone who I would assume is more of an expert. And then the stuff she does by herself is like, "only you know what's good for you." Which you can debate whether she's qualified to speak on that, but I think when she's talking about personal stuff, I don't think she's being very forthcoming. I think she's talking very generally.
Lucy: Yes. There's like all those comments on TikTok that are like, "She's having epiphanies that I had when I was 12" type of thing. And I think that's a mean way of putting it, but I also think she doesn't owe it to us to tell us every situation that's led to her wanting to talk about this philosophical idea.
Kate: I think Emma shared more of her life and then reigned it in. I follow a lot of creators who I've been following for like 10 years. And a lot of times they'll have a really public relationship, and then when that ends, their next relationship we do not see at all. Because they've learned. It must be awful to have however many hundreds of thousands of people feel like they are owed information about it. And so I totally get the pulling away, but then I think people feel really disconnected.
Lucy: I also feel like we let women get to a certain level of fame and then The New York Times will report on them or something, and then with all these eyes on them, one of those pairs of eyes is bound to try and pull them down or ‘find’ something out about them. And with Emma, there's been so much about her to love and I feel like this one thing, this "she didn't go to college," has become the thing that people have rallied behind to dislike about her. And it seems really unfair. It seems misogynistic. And I feel like TikTok rewards it. The amount of videos I saw about Emma Chamberlain — they're rewarding this really stupid, insignificant thing.
Kate: I wonder if it's an attempt to bring these people back down to relatability in the sense of like, they've become so successful and untouchable that it's like, you need them to not be perfect.
Lucy: It's like we always wanna be on their level, so when they're relatable, we're like, "Yes, they're depressed. Me too. They're bored. Me too." But we also wanna be a little bit above them to tell them what to do and what we think. But aren’t they the ones that are meant to be influencing us?
Kate: It's what you said, you have to curate your own media diet. And it is no one's fault but your own if you are following someone who is not resonating with you. It’s the weird parasocial relationship that's unique to these internet stars which makes us feel like they need to change, versus if you're watching a TV show, like, Ted Lasso, season three was so stupid and I loved the first two, so as much as I'm annoyed by that, I'm like, well, I’ll just stop watching it.
Lucy: I think that's the hottest take. It's the "what about me" effect, which I wrote about, where we think that everything we see on our feeds has to pertain directly to us. And when it doesn't, we're all like, "Grrr!" But in fact, we can just scroll away. We can choose what we see.
Kate: But you also don't have to abandon Emma entirely. I was saying earlier, there are people who I've been following since I was a teenager. And I have not been a consistent viewer of them necessarily. Like, I've only just gotten way back into Zoella.
Lucy: Kate, I was literally about to say to you, Zoella has had a baby, bought a big house, and is getting married. And for a while I was like, "Yep, that's not really for me anymore." But now I'm like, "I need your relaxation. I'm gonna put you on."
Kate: Yes. I love her happy little life. For some reason when she was, you know, writing Girl Online and releasing advent calendars, I was like, "Oh, this isn't for me." But now that she is a family person, I'm interested in that. And it could be the opposite for some people. Like, they may have tuned out now.
Lucy: It's interesting that you say that because I think she's done exactly what Emma Chamberlain either wants to do or should maybe do, in that she seems so happy in her non influencer-y, non-extravagant life where she has a beautiful house, normal friends and family, and she doesn't go to all these big events. She's also never released a podcast. So people didn't have that to pull her down on. She only gave what she wanted to give. Emma Chamberlain probably wanted to go on the Zoella trajectory, but because of the world she lives in and America—
Lucy: Yes! It’s that grow, grow, grow thing, and I’m sure her management would've been like, “start a podcast, Spotify will buy it!” And then there’s her coffee company, which I’ve also seen people coming at her for too.
Kate: It's weird how much motherhood plays a role in this. And I don't wanna be like, “Emma Chamberlain should have a kid,” but I'm thinking about — this is a whole other thing and I've talked about it in therapy too — how the only valid permission for women to stop that “grow, grow, grow” mindset, feels like it’s becoming a mom. I was just thinking about Molly Mae, 'cause Molly stepped down from her PLT role to spend more time with her kid. And then I'm like, oh, like Zoe stepped down from all this to be a mom. And it's like, that is allowed. Whereas I don't know if people would see it the same if Emma was like, "I am gonna stop doing as much." I think people would be inclined to say that she's a lazy influencer who doesn't wanna work.
Lucy: That's so true. Childbirth and loss are the two reasons that we allow people to step down. Like, not even burnout.
Kate: Burnout's seen as a temporary state that you recover from and then you're back.
Lucy: There was a period of time when [Emma] said that she was bored and lonely and she'd started reading again and things like that. And now people are like, "You know what can fill your time is going to college." And I'm like, "That's such a stretch."
Kate: You have to just find a creator that speaks to you more. And like, you don't have to leave Emma forever. You can stay subscribed. You can stay following. And I think maybe her issue is more an industry issue of just, what do you parlay this into? Because you can't do everything. Alex Cooper is someone who I think is on her way to [cracking it]. She's doing Call Her Daddy, but she has this podcast network, and I imagine at some point she will stop Call Her Daddy and take a more behind the scenes role, and she has really laid a good path for herself to step back whenever she wants to, but still have something going on. Emma hasn't done that yet because she's so young. She's 22. Even having to think about this is a testament to how young she was when she first became popular. If she had become popular at this age, she'd be turning 30 and would be able to think about stepping back, but a 22 year old can't do much. For me, I don't understand why people who have so much money don’t just stop working.
Lucy: Did you ever watch the Selena Gomez documentary? I felt a similar way after watching that.
Kate: No, but I'm like, okay, get a less insane house and stop. And get into, like, a passion of yours. If I could just stop, I would just like to have a pottery studio in my backyard.
Lucy: And invest some money. Do whatever the finance girls do.
Kate: And it's actually very radical to just stop. That's the message of all this. You can just stop.
Lucy: Yes. And then also as a viewer, you can stop. We all just need to stop.