Ten years after "Leave Britney Alone" became one of the Internet's first viral videos, Chris Crocker opens up about his rollercoaster experience of being the original YouTuber.
Image by Gabby Bess, photo courtesy of Chris Crocker
This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.
In September 2007, 19-year-old Chris Crocker and his grandmother were checking out items at a small Tennessee grocery. "Oh my god," the cashier gasped according to Chris's recollection. "I just saw you on Fox News!" His grandma groaned. "What are they talking about?" she whispered. When they returned home, they realized Chris's face was everywhere from TMZ to NPR to the New York Times.
Following Britney Spears's disastrous 2007 VMA rendition of "Gimme More," Chris posted a YouTube video of himself standing in front of a white curtain with mascara running down his pale cheeks. "Leave Britney Spears alone right now!" he wailed. "I mean it! Anyone that has a problem with her, you deal with me, because she is not well right now." Prior to "Leave Britney Alone," he had mostly posted comedy videos that few people watched, but now most of America was laughing at a video that he viewed seriously. His theatrics trumped his message about Spears, a 25-year-old woman who got called "trailer trash" for not appearing at an awards show with a flat belly, and Chris became one of the first Americans to become a household name through YouTube, a celebrity phenomenon now known as YouTubers.
"There weren't really a lot of examples of viral stars at that time," Chris says. "I kept up with people like Stevie Ryan, who did Little Loca, and people like that. To me, a viral video at that time was like 70,000 views."
Later that year, Chris moved to Los Angeles to start a reality TV career, but it never took off. Straight America viewed him as a joke and gay men saw him as a disgrace. Today gay men applaud YouTubers' cheesy coming out videos, but Chris says in 2007, most of the gay male community despised his femininity. After seven months in Hollywood, Chris returned to Tennessee. Since then he has starred as a top in gay porn, headlined a critically-acclaimed HBO documentary, and spoken out about gender nonconformity. In many ways, Chris was ahead of his time long before Disney Channel hired YouTubers as actors and Teen Vogue published guides to anal sex.
Read more: Shonda Rhimes on the Making of 'Crossroads'
Over the phone, Chris shared the backstory of "Leave Britney Alone" and reflected on his bizarre cultural legacy. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Broadly: What was your life like before 2007?
Chris Crocker: Because I grew up here, in a really small county—I'm not near the big cities in Tennessee like Nashville or anything—I quit going to school in 8th grade because of how violent public school was for me, so I was kind of just to myself all the time. That's when I started doing videos, to have an outlet. [Life] was just very quiet.
Did you spend most your time in the bedroom seen in "Leave Britney Alone"?
Completely. I was reading Sylvia Plath and just being super emo. I was always in my room. I had been doing videos a year prior; the first one I ever posted on MySpace was super huge, and I was in my living room in that one. With the majority [of videos], I would just go in my room, because I couldn't film them with my grandparents around.
Is that when you started idolizing Britney Spears?
I was obsessed with Britney from fourth or fifth grade on. I loved music, and she was always my favorite performer, ever since "Baby One More Time." My grandma would buy me all of her import singles, and I had all of her memorabilia. My entire room was Britney.
When she was going through that, you could obviously see that she was more human than just the untouchable pop star. That's why I said in the video, "She's a human." The reason I was so vocal about standing up for [Spears] was because my mom actually had just gotten back from the war in Iraq. She was a veteran. it was the same time that my mom was going through an addiction problem, and she became homeless. (I had years of therapy to figure everything out.) It was just two women who I really looked up to. I was already defensive because I was trying to help my mom. Then, seeing my favorite pop star, who gave me inspiration, to be struggling as well, was a parallel.
Did you realize the parallels between your mom and Britney in therapy?
I was like nineteen when [the video was filmed]. I wasn't the most introspective, but I didn't really realize until four or five years later, when I was filming my HBO documentary, because they were asking me these questions as well on camera. No one had ever really asked me why! It was kind of conflicting as well, because I do comedy videos. I didn't really know how to sincerely communicate. It was confusing for me to know how to be my authentic self in interviews, like when I was on Maury, because I knew people already thought of me as a joke.
What were you expecting from her VMAs performance?
I didn't really care if she came out in a wheelchair. I was just like, "Oh my god, she's coming back."
Were you let you down?
It's all about how you interpret it. I found there to be an odd beauty. Before that, we had only seen Britney as this impeccable, untouchable pop star. There was something like performance art about seeing her take that spotlight and just be like, "OK, whatever."
"Oh, that's the kind of gay person that gives us a bad name." That was all I got.
When did you decide to make the video?
I had read a lot of nasty shit online after [the performance], so it might have been the morning after. Everyone always thinks I was under a bed sheet or something. I don't know how you get that lighting under a bed sheet. I was trying to get the lighting, so I just put my curtains from my window behind me. [The room was] wall-to-wall Britney posters. [It smelt like] probably disinfectant spray. We're not the most fancy people!
Were your tears genuine?
Here's the thing: Even though I know how sincere I was, I also can watch things from other people's points of view. I could see why people thought it was funny, because I'm pretty melodramatic when I'm upset (or in general).
Did the video affect your grandparents?
They were more taken aback because I am so effeminate and flamboyant. It's only really affected them because I was put on the front page of the local paper. When [the paper was] asking me stuff about what it was like growing up gay here, the church they were going to—my grandparents are super religious—had a private session with them about my videos and me living with them. That's the only time I affected them. I don't want what I do to affect them or fall on them, but I'm not going to say they weren't bothered. My family went to that church for a long time.
Did you care about the backlash?
I didn't care about the attention to me as much as I wanted literally just for Britney to know that her fans still loved her. The only time I cared about the backlash was when it became death threats, which is again why I created a stage name.
Today, YouTubers get a sort of cred for being gay, and it helps their careers. Did it not feel like being gay was a boost?
I'm happy that it's at a place now where queer people can be appreciated for themselves. Back then, it was awful to be gay on Youtube, because you didn't know what death threats were really serious or what. It was a different time. My relationship with the gay community is also affected by the time in which I came out, because back then, it wasn't cool to be that flamboyant or talking the gay lingo. I see a lot of the gay YouTubers now, and if I just came onto the scene or something, they'd be like, "Oh, she's fabulous." A lot of [gay men said about "Leave Britney Alone"], "Oh, that's the kind of gay person that gives us a bad name." That was all I got.