Nerves are par for the course going into any celebrity interview, but when Emma Chamberlain’s charismatic smile emerged on my laptop screen, I was immediately put at ease. She sat propped up in bed, her platinum hair contrasted against a big black hoodie. “I shouldn't have worn black,” she laughed, nodding to her orange-haired cat Declan who casually walked back and forth across her keyboard. If this were any other day and the purpose of our call wasn’t to discuss the social media star’s meteoric rise, I felt like I could have been catching up with an old friend. Chamberlain just has a way of breaking down barriers like that.
By now, most people understand that Chamberlain is not your typical 19-year-old. She’s not even your typical 19-year-old celebrity, with her community of over 30 million followers across multiple platforms, an ongoing partnership with Louis Vuitton, and a burgeoning namesake coffee company.
So how do you begin to categorize the kind of massive platform Chamberlain has built for herself? “Well,” she tells me (half joking, half not), that if a stranger were to ask what she does, ”I would say, ‘Oh, I’m just a 19-year-old girl who has some cats,’ and then I’d run away. That’s truly what I do.” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the prospect, but all jokes aside, fame and notoriety have never been the goal for the internet star—they’re merely a byproduct of the authentic and unfiltered self she shares in front of the camera. And I get the sense that no amount of followers or brand deals could alter that.
Photo:Lowfield; Styling: Louis Vuitton look; Pomellato earrings
When Chamberlain started her YouTube channel three years ago at age 16, she had a rather precocious realization that would end up defining her career: “I grew up watching girls on YouTube who became my role models,” she told me, “but they were my role models in a way that was unattainable, and that wasn't truly showing what being a teen girl really is.” The disconnect she felt between her personal experience and the perfect, glossy versions of a teenager she saw on the other side of the screen is one we’re all familiar with. “It actually ended up making me feel kind of bad about myself because I was like, ‘Okay, their skin looks so perfect and this and that,’ and come to find out now that I'm in it, none of that is real.” As anyone who uses social media understands, reminding yourself that things are never as they seem is a lot easier said than done, but Chamberlain recognized at a young age just how dangerous that illusion can be, and made a point to stand for the opposite.
We’re living through a time where it’s easy to blur our actual lives with the ones we project onto social media. In The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s eye-opening new documentary, the consequences of this are made out to be catastrophic. Having just watched it days prior to our Zoom chat, I couldn’t help but think how relevant it was to my conversation with Chamberlain. “I feel like people need to see [the truth of it all] more than ever because it's so easy to create the illusion,” she said, taking the words right out of my mouth. Her brand of “cool girl” is all about breaking through that illusion. A visit to her YouTube channel makes this clear with videos like “Recovering From a Meltdown LOL” or “Going on a Trip By Myself *Kinda*,” which are among her most recent uploads. “I think people connect with me because I'm somebody that they can relate to,” Chamberlain said of her uniquely engaged audience. She hopes to be a more attainable role model young people can look up to. “I'm real. Every single thing that I do is real. There's no lie in any of it.”
Her uniquely self-aware approach seems to be finally hitting the mainstream. That “Instagram versus reality” trend, in which you publish the final image alongside the messy behind-the-scenes footage it took to create, is ubiquitous. But just because the rest of the internet is waking up to the ways in which social media can delude us, doesn’t mean it’s anything new for Chamberlain, who has always exuded a raw and candid energy. When you go back to the beginning, it’s there. The video she credits with launching her YouTube career is a 10-minute, 26-second sojourn through the contents of her Dollar Tree shopping bag and involves items like a bright plastic recorder and fluffy, multicolored pen. The next video on her feed is a vlog explaining why she’s leaving school. There’s no glamorous editing, a seamless background, or a ring light. Just Chamberlain and her camera laying it all out there.
“My success on different platforms hasn't really come from conforming, and because of that, I don't feel the pressure to do so,” she said when I pressed about her opinion on social media trends. “I almost feel the pressure to be opposite of that.” Chamberlain is unconcerned about following the lead of her peers, serving as a sort of anti-influencer instead, and for that reason, she’s exactly who her generation needs as a role model right now.
You could say that Chamberlain’s path into the spotlight is an unusual one, but there’s no denying that whatever it is she’s doing—or not doing—is working. And it’s working well. Though it all started on YouTube—”I think it was summer of 2017,” the teen says—she now concedes that the question of what makes her famous is more of a gray area. Some people know Emma Chamberlain as a vlogger, some people know her as the girl who posts galleries of candidly posed outfit shots on Instagram, and some even know her from TikTok—the latter of which she says baffles her. “I've never put an ounce of effort into TikTok, so I don't know where that comes from,” she admitted.
While keeping up with the large audiences across multiple platforms who vy for her attention is one part of the job at hand, Chamberlain is busy building her offline empire, too. She has a line of namesake merch so fans can adopt her cool loungewear vibe for themselves, designed her very own day planner appropriately named The Ideal Planner, and, of course, founded Chamberlain Coffee, which is her line of curated coffee beans and accessories with her signature quirky, feel-good branding. I get the sense that each of these endeavors is a passion project, another extension of the Emma Chamberlain brand.
Photo:Lowfield; Styling: Emilio Pucci bodysuit, pants, and tights; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes; Free People necklace
Of course, when it comes to having a personal brand, it almost doesn’t matter what she’s doing as much as it does how. “I started to be introduced to the idea that I need to have a consistent brand, and it just didn't sit right with me,” Chamberlain tells me of when she first moved to L.A. from her home in the Bay Area and began looking for a team to represent her. Wise beyond her years, she held off for a while and continued to do her own thing until she could find a team that was in agreement on what success looks like (i.e., that her brand is simply her, Emma, exactly as she is). “It doesn't need to be consistent because you're a human being and you're not going to be consistent,” she retold me of her internal narrative at the time. “You might be all over the place and that's okay. It's not honest anymore if you put yourself in a box like that.“
Next, I ask Chamberlain about her approach to personal style and how she thinks about putting together some of the outfits she’s known for. In anticipation of our Zoom interview, I crafted what I thought was a very Emma Chamberlain–approved outfit: a printed mesh turtleneck, a pair of roomy Stan Ray work pants, and platform Dr. Martens (yes, despite the fact that I knew my bottom half would remain out of the view of my webcam). Her face immediately lit up as she ran through a list of her fashion favorites—sweater-vests, collared shirts for layering underneath everything, a soft pair of vintage denim, and just about any pair of Dr. Martens under the sun. I had a hunch as to how she’d respond, and I’m pleased to say I was right. “It’s all over the place,” she says of her style, in general. “My aesthetic and my fashion sense is constantly changing, but I think that keeps it fun and interesting.” While this doesn’t necessarily surprise me, it’s still refreshing to hear how casual her approach is to fashion, especially when you consider her massive influence in this space. When the world sees Emma Chamberlain wearing a crew neck with flared leggings, they go and buy crew necks and flared leggings. Chamberlain’s personal style is an entire aesthetic in its own right, and, no, that’s not a hyperbole.
Before we wrap things up, I’m eager to know what she sees as the ultimate career goal, the moment when she’ll know she’s “made it.” “I’m passionate about [all my endeavors] right now and I'm going to work on them until they're as successful as they can be,” she tells me. “There's no way to know what will come up next.” Whether it’s putting together an outfit you feel best in or learning how to value the things that make you you, there’s a lot that Emma Chamberlain can teach us about living in the moment and embracing our most authentic selves.