'Haters Back Off!': New TV Show Makes YouTube Star More Than Internet Famous

Oct 15, 2016
Originally published on October 15, 2016 12:32 pm

Miranda Sings is an awkward, homeschooled teenager with messy hair, mismatched outfits and clownish red lipstick that ends up smeared all over her teeth. From her bedroom, she uploads videos of herself singing — horrifically badly — that she believes will make her a star.

And they have. Around 7 million people follow her on YouTube.

Now, thanks to Netflix, Miranda is getting her own big-time TV show. The streaming service successfully courted 29-year-old comedian Colleen Ballinger, who came up with Miranda back in 2009. Ballinger says Miranda is based on two kinds of people she's encountered in her life: the girls who were mean to her at the small Christian college where she majored in vocal performance, and those unfortunate souls publicly warbling away on YouTube, whose ambitions — to put it nicely — exceed their abilities.

"Miranda is confidently untalented at singing," Ballinger says. "Very off-putting. Shrill. But she thinks she's wonderful, so power to her."

Miranda Sings' videos have attracted more than a billion views since the first one went viral five years ago. "In the beginning, people watched me to hate on me," Ballinger says. "They thought Miranda was a real person. People just couldn't understand why this strange girl was so confident. And then slowly, I started getting fans."

Last June, many of those fans swarmed through a Miranda Sings-themed installation at VidCon, the largest convention for online celebrities and people who adore them. Netflix built the installation to promote Ballinger's new show, Haters Back Off! (It was named after a Miranda catchphrase.) Hundreds of teenage girls posed next to a giant poster of the character.

"She is my idol, in a way," said 15-year-old Noelle Suit. "She can just go out and be who she is."

Because girls are so often bullied online, 15-year-old Sophia Berglund said she likes watching one who's defiantly resilient: "She's really good about not taking it. She has a hard shell. And I think that's one of the reasons why she stays up on top."

But a TV show requires different emotional stakes than popular YouTube videos. To jump to old school, episodic TV, Ballinger says Miranda needed to become more three-dimensional, even vulnerable.

"You see her get hurt," she says. "I think that's the biggest thing. Online, Miranda seems like this rock wall. She's so confident it seems like nothing bothers her. [In Haters Back Off!,] you see people making fun of her and bullying her, and you see how that affects her."

Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland says the new Netflix series hugely expands Miranda's world. "She represents this extreme version of what the average gawky teenage girl may be feeling," McFarland says.

Haters Back Off! delves into Miranda's back story and introduces viewers to her eccentric family. And that reminds McFarland of an older show: Pee-wee's Playhouse. Both are perversely funny, cartoonish worlds that also manage to be weirdly innocent. "There's just that sly element of wrongness about it that makes it oh so right," she says.

Colleen Ballinger has taken her Miranda Sings persona live on tour, and she's written a jokey self-help book. Maybe TV needs her more than she needs TV. Even while Ballinger was taping her Netflix series, she still produced three YouTube videos for her fans every week. Each gets many millions of views. That's an audience most TV shows would kill for.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Seven million followers might be just what it takes to get your own big-time TV show in the age of Facebook Live and YouTube. Colleen Ballinger is a YouTube star with a new comedy series on Netflix. It's called "Haters Back Off" and it's based on her popular online character Miranda Sings. NPR's Neda Ulaby has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLEEN BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) Hey, guys. It's me, Miranda.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Miranda Sings as an awkward teenager with messy hair, mismatched outfits and clownish red lipstick that ends up all over her teeth. From her bedroom, she uploads videos she hopes will make her a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) I'm a singer, dancer, actress, et cetera.

ULABY: Miranda sprang from the psyche of comedian Colleen Ballinger, 29 years old and a classically trained performer, unlike her character, Miranda Sings.

BALLINGER: Miranda is confidently untalented at singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings, singing) I'd sooner buy defying gravity.

ULABY: This character, Miranda Sings, started as a joke. She was Ballinger's imitation of girls who were mean to her in the drama department if her small Christian college and also a parody of other confidently untalented singers all over YouTube.

BALLINGER: Very off-putting shrill (laughter). But she thinks she's wonderful, so power to her.

ULABY: Miranda Sings' videos have attracted more than a billion views since the first one went viral five years ago, says Ballinger.

BALLINGER: In the beginning, people watched me to hate on me. They thought Miranda was a real person. People just couldn't understand why this strange girl was so confident. And then slowly I started getting fans.

ULABY: Hundreds of teenage girl fans took turns posing next to a poster of Miranda Sings at a convention this summer featuring online celebrities.

NICOLE SUIT: She is my idol, in a way. She can just go out and be who she is.

ULABY: Fifteen-year-old Nicole Suit (ph) says that a moment when girls are so often bullied online, she likes watching one who's resilient.

NICOLE: She's like (imitating Miranda Sings), hi, guys. It's me, Miranda.

ULABY: Everyone at school imitates Miranda Sings, says Sophia Berglund, also 15.

SOPHIA BERGLUND: She's really good about, like, not taking it. She has, like, a hard shell. And I think that's one of the reasons why she stays up on top because she doesn't let the bad people come to her.

ULABY: But a TV show requires different emotional stakes than videos on YouTube. The new Netflix series "Haters Back Off" expands Miranda's world and her family, including her Uncle Jim who's way too invested in his niece's online stardom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HATERS BACK OFF")

STEVE LITTLE: (As Jim) Oh, you've got a bunch more comments.

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) I did? No talent? Now I have ear cancer?

ULABY: Comedian Colleen Ballinger says the show gives Miranda a chance to be vulnerable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HATERS BACK OFF")

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) You look like a potato?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK, look...

LITTLE: (As Jim) You do not look like a potato.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right. Stop looking at it.

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) You sound like you are pooing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, you don't.

MELANIE MCFARLAND: She represents this extreme version of what the average, gawky teenage girl may be feeling.

BALLINGER: That Salon's TV critic Melanie McFarland. "Haters Back Off" reminds her of an older show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" with Paul Reubens. Both, she says, are perversely funny cartoon worlds that are also weirdly innocent.

MCFARLAND: There's just that sly element of wrongness about it that just makes it oh, so right.

ULABY: Like, for example, a horrible backyard production of "Annie."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HATERS BACK OFF")

BALLINGER: (As Miranda Sings) Whah. Whah. Whah. I'm a orphan. I'm on the streets. And I...

ULABY: Both Netflix and HBO courted Colleen Ballinger. It would appear TV needs her more than she needs TV. When Ballinger was taping the Netflix series, she still produced three YouTube videos for her fans every week. Each gets millions of views, an audience most TV shows would kill for. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) So if you care to find me, look to the Western sky. For those who've told me lately everyone deserves the chance to fly. And if I'm flying solo, at least I'm flying free. To those who ground me, take a message... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.