This was an article that appeared in the Times, T2, October 2nd, 2017. An interview with Jim Chapman, a YouTuber. I know many of his fans were keen to read the interview, which was behind a paywall. Here goes:
Millions watch my vlogs, but I’m lonely
Jim Chapman became famous talking to a camera in his bedroom — now he wants to go outside. By Harry Wallop
Then there is a tier of serious writers, with a clutch of bestsellers or a Booker under their belts, who can get away with charging £15 (with possibly a copy of the book thrown in): Claire Tomalin, William Boyd, Penelope Lively. The really big beasts — Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Alan Hollinghurst — can push it to £20.
At the top is Jim Chapman. An evening with him costs £22. “Plus a photo opportunity.”
If you are scratching your head wondering who on earth Jim Chapman is, and why he can charge for a photo opportunity along with a signed book, you probably need to have a word with someone younger.
He is a YouTuber, making videos from his bedroom, where he sits in front of a camera and discusses, well, not very much. He chats about what he’s wearing, he sometimes bakes a cake in the kitchen and he occasionally walks down the street and goes to the gym. To many this is inanity encapsulated. These eight or twelve-minute videos make Homes Under the Hammer look as racy as Fast and Furious.
But Chapman, tall and handsome in a geek-chic way, has a very loyal following. He has 2.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel — the sort of regular viewers that Channel 4 dreams of — and his videos have been watched, in total, 180 million times.
Chapman, 29, is keenly aware that for all the incredible viewing figures, prank-calling your friends on YouTube may have a limited shelf life. Can you carry on doing this in your thirties? Isn’t it time YouTubers grew up?
“YouTube is just a platform that I use. It’s not what defines me,” Chapman says. “I don’t particularly enjoy being called a YouTuber. Because it’s not everything that I do. For all of us — not just me — that have made a career out of it, it has to go further than just YouTube, otherwise we won’t be doing it for long.”
He is part of a golden circle of internet celebrities: fresh-faced, predominantly nice, middle-class white kids, who gave up their privacy in return for fame. Starting out in the early days of YouTube as schoolchildren, they have forged a career, earning serious amounts of money not just from the advertising revenue that comes from the videos, but from endorsing various brands on Instagram and Twitter.
Chapman is the younger brother of the two make-up vloggers (video bloggers) who call themselves PixiWoo and the twin brother of John, who runs the LeanMachines fitness YouTube channel. He is married to Tanya Burr, a beauty and baking vlogger, and friends with fellow YouTubers Alfie Deyes, Zoella and her brother Joe Sugg. They share the same management company, Gleam Futures, which is to vlogging what Stock Aitken Waterman was to anodyne 1980s teeny pop.
What makes Chapman stand out is that he seems to be the first to question what happens next. “I am nervous about where all of this is going. My job is basically to be me. I don’t know what the future holds. Who knows? Maybe in five years’ time people will hate me.”
This partly explains why he has written a book, 147 Things: My user’s guide to the universe from black holes to belly buttons. For all the talk about YouTube transforming the media landscape, it is notable that nearly all of these twentysomething internet celebrities have put their name to a book or drifted into TV presenting on E! or ITV2.
Chapman has diversified in a surprisingly upmarket way, moving into modelling (he walked down the catwalk in Milan for Dolce & Gabbana) and fashion journalism (with a regular column in GQ), and he has presented a thoughtful documentary about the rise of YouTubers on BBC Three.
But then he always stood out in the Gleam Futures stable. He is one of the few to have completed a university degree (in psychology) and even started a master’s (he dropped it when his YouTube career started to skyrocket). This may explain why his book is not only pretty readable, but also all his own work.
Zoella — Zoe Sugg — broke publishing records by selling 400,000 copies of her debut novel within the first six months. Then came the backlash, however, when it emerged it had been ghostwritten, along with most YouTubers’ books. Of his book Chapman says: “It was 100 per cent my work. And that was important. I’m very proud to say I’ve written everything.”
The book manages to mix his experiences of growing up in small-town Norfolk with an amateurish enthusiasm for evolution, space travel and biology. It’s Sapiens for teenagers. I genuinely did not know that horses could not vomit or that the Netherlands has such a shortage of prisoners it leases some empty prisons to Norway. The mixture of random facts stems from “basically my Google search history. I have this thirst for knowledge.”
For a man who has spent the past seven years blabbing about his personal life into a camera, it also reveals a large amount of previously private information. Most notably, it includes details about his occasionally violent father, John, who (before Jim was born) served time for armed robbery.
One night, when he was aged six, he discovered his father beating up his mother. Bruises and high levels of tension were ever present in the Chapman household. During the eventual divorce his father abducted seven-year-old Jim by climbing in through the house’s window, grabbing his son and driving off until the police caught him.
“I don’t blame him for the way things happened. The choice of actions he ended up pursuing were wrong. They were less than ideal.”
That is a very generous interpretation, I suggest, or the words of a man who has spent time in therapy. “Yes, I see someone regularly. It really helps,” Chapman says about visiting a psychotherapist. “My thing is I can’t switch off. When I have a quiet spell, a professional quiet spell, I get really anxious.”
He explains how when he was a child he would avoid confrontation with his volatile father by “sitting in the corner and drawing furiously, keeping out of sight and out of mind. It’s a mechanism that has come with me to adult life.”
He adds: “More than anything, talking to someone regularly helps get stuff off my chest.”
His father, who had multiple sclerosis, died a couple of months ago. Chapman did not attend the funeral. “His funeral was on my wife’s birthday. I did think maybe I should go out of respect. But then it occurred to me whether he’d even have wanted me to. And also, really, I’d prefer to spend the day celebrating with the person I love most, than a guy I hadn’t seen for two thirds of my life.”
I am fascinated by his need to see a therapist. Aren’t YouTube videos — talking into a camera from the privacy of your bedroom — a form of therapy? “Doing my job is, yes, very social. But it’s also very lonely. Because I do everything on my own. So, though I can talk to millions of people, I don’t actually see them. I am doing it all from my office, solo.”
The intimacy that comes with talking to 2.5 million people from your home means that the line between a YouTuber’s private and public life is often blurred. There are blogs dedicated to dissecting the contents of Chapman and his wife’s bedside table, kitchen drawers and clothes cupboards. The two of them were followed home on one occasion — by an Australian who had come to the UK in the hope of meeting her favourite YouTubers.
“The crisis was averted. But we are very careful about not filming out of the window, so people can’t see where we live. If people ask us where we live, we just say west London.”
Any correspondence or Amazon parcels with visible address labels are kept out of view. “In Norwich [where the couple met and first lived together], we had far too many people knocking on our door. People kept turning up. Kids would throw bags of sweets over the wall into our back garden, which was thoughtful, but you also thought, ‘Hang on a second, this is my home.’ ”
In the book he breezily talks about waxing his testicles (don’t do it), his first kiss and having to have a circumcision at the age of 15, but even he draws the line at some topics. He won’t discuss his sex life with his wife, whom he met aged 18 and to whom he lost his virginity. “It’s nice isn’t it? We were young and in love.”
Shouldn’t this fact have made the book, I ask. “For most people, you kiss a lot of frogs before you find your princess. Just because that’s how it worked for us, I wouldn’t want people to feel abnormal because they hadn’t found ‘the one’ early days.”
This is a large part of the appeal of YouTubers: their refusal to judge or to preach to their audience. The reason why so many millions tune into their seemingly mundane videos is because these celebrities are so much more “relatable” than most pop stars or actors.
Yes, he will edit a photo to ensure the lighting is flattering. “I’ve got 2.5 million followers on Instagram. Of course I’m going to post a picture where I look the best. Everyone does that.” But he’s also aware that social media — including the artfully lit shots of him looking chiselled in a pair of swimming trunks — is a contributory factor to the already high anxiety levels among teenagers.
His advice, though he admits he struggles to follow it himself, is to put your phone down, if only for a little bit. “People can spend all their time, if they want, online. The internet is amazing, and it’s completely changed our world. But you can’t beat face-to-face interaction. I think that’s so important for a healthy lifestyle.”
It sounds as if some YouTubers have finally grown up.
- 147 Things is published on Thursday by Sidgwick & Jackson at £16.99