Miranda Sings stands center stage, bowing before a packed theater, her arms thrust behind her in an awkward “V,” wrists bent and hands cupped. Her nose is nearly touching the knees of her red sweatpants. Her greasy, middle-parted hair is inches away from the bright pink Crocs that she wears, unabashedly, as if they were 6-inch Louboutins.
She finishes a rousing rendition of the song, “Let It Go” from Frozen, complete with an ultra-extended final note. But Miranda’s interpretation is rewritten as “Let Her Go,” in which actress Colleen Ballinger— Miranda’s version of Clark Kent— smears on red lipstick and transforms into her alter ego live on stage. At the song’s climax, she belts from behind a glitter curtain adorned with a giant red lipstick, “I’m never going back, the past is in the past.”
In a flurry of fake snow, she jumps through the curtain, now completely in character as Miranda. Suddenly, Ballinger’s classically trained, fit-for-Broadway soprano morphs into an over-exaggerated mid-range vibrato—as if Janice from Friends was doing an impression of Christine from Phantom of the Opera. And the crowd goes wild.
Ballinger transforms to Miranda at a recent show in Santa Cruz, California
For more than ten years, Ballinger has played Miranda Sings, a YouTube sensation with over 8 million subscribers. She gives “vocal lessons” to famous singers, plays comical covers of today’s biggest pop hits, and even writes her own original music which she performs for thousands of self-proclaimed “MirFANdas.”
When an actor has played the same role for over a decade, it’s difficult to separate the character from the performer. This happens most frequently with characters on our favorite long-running television shows—we’re still torn up about whether or not Rachel and Ross were on a break, whether Robin was better off with Barney than Ted, or whether there was a point to Seinfeld at all. But after years of playing a beloved—and sometimes, career-consuming—character, many actors leave behind that iconic role in search of a different path.
But that is not the case for Colleen Ballinger.
Also under the guise of this bizarre and beloved character, Ballinger has published a “selp-helf” book, starred in a documentary, and created, scripted, and executive produced the Netflix original series Haters Back Off! For the first time, fans of Miranda were given access to the character’s home life, as Haters Back Off! traveled to 2008, the year Ballinger first brought her to life.
I didn’t realize til just now that Christmas Eve was the 10 year anniversary of when I created @MirandaSings! WOW! What an incredible decade it’s been. So grateful to have you all on this crazy ride with me. pic.twitter.com/UXCfUw9EC0
— Colleen Ballinger🎗 (@ColleenB123) December 27, 2017
Following the fictionalized success story of Miranda’s first viral YouTube video—“free voice lesson”—and her quest to become a worldwide performing sensation, Haters Back Off! gave MirFANdas a look into the previously untapped world. When visiting her drab hometown of Tacoma, Washington, we meet her suspicious uncle and absent mother, while discovering the familial conditions that drove Miranda towards her quest for unorthodox stardom. It was like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or Lion King 1 ½: an extended universe origin story, but for YouTube cult comedy lovers.
Recently, in a slew of show announcements and cancellations, Netflix announced that Haters Back Off! had been canceled after just two seasons. Although sudden cancellations are not uncommon in the oversaturated television market, the erasure of Haters Back Off! comes as a significant blow. Due to her contract with Netflix, Ballinger cannot continue Haters Back Off! on another network, or even on her own YouTube channel. That means Miranda’s backstory—based on over a decade of stories from Ballinger’s life in character—has reached the end of its runtime. Still, Netflix’s willingness to allow Ballinger’s creative vision of an off-kilter comedy about an initially off-putting character with a decades-deep backstory remains a triumph for internet culture.
YouTube is now 12 years old. And just like the burgeoning adolescents that overwhelmingly make up its audiences, the platform is often misjudged or misunderstood—panned by mainstream media, while simultaneously being heralded as the frontier for new media.
In a time where “YouTuber” is often treated as a four-letter word by mainstream media, Haters Back Off! celebrated YouTube’s organic online creators, giving voice to those who stumbled upon Internet-bred success and built authentic— even human —connections with their dedicated fanbases.
Official trailer for Haters Back Off!
In recent years, YouTube’s identity has shifted from a video sharing platform and streaming to a cultivator of subcultures. For fans of any YouTuber or YouTube community, this is not news; but for anyone on the outside, the idea of watching a single creator day in and day out for years is still a strange and foreign concept.
YouTube content creators and their audiences share a far more intimate relationship than television audiences share with even the most iconic characters from some of the longest running shows. The medium itself is far more personal—vloggers sit down and talk directly to the camera, while the viewer takes in the video at eye-level, watching on a laptop screen or, quite literally, from the palm of their hand.
More recently, however, YouTube’s reputation has been stained, both by the despicable actions of some of its biggest content creators, to the company’s demonetization of LGBTQ+ focused content in order to better suit advertiser’s needs. Creators, like Ballinger, are struggling to find new ways to stay relevant and profitable in this new-but-old industry. For the site’s veteran creators, outsourcing to other platforms with new content based on their YouTube personas has been a viable option.
Prior to 2012, I had seen Miranda’s videos in passing, but didn’t quite understand why they were so popular. It wasn’t until I discovered that Miranda was a character that I started to gain an appreciation for her dedication to something beyond herself. I began following Ballinger’s personal vlogs, where she answers fan-submitted questions, gives behind-the-scenes looks at the making of Miranda videos, and records her day-to-day life.
In the era of auteur-driven film and television, YouTube has always been a space for auteurs—or as they’re known online, creators—to maintain complete autonomy over their content. The transition from online platforms to traditional media may seem like a natural next step, but oftentimes taking that leap comes with immense risk. For online creators, the biggest part of that risk is loss of creative control.
“I can’t explain the psychology behind it,” Ballinger says in a vlog entitled “My experience with Netflix.” “But it’s really bizarre to have a show based on you and characters based on real people… and for it to just be over.”
Ballinger and Haters Back Off! co-star, Erik Stocklin, pose with a prop from the show following cancellation
Although they are without a television show, Colleen and Miranda are not without a platform. They continue to tour, now with Haters Back Off! cast members making onstage, in-character cameos, and Ballinger continues to tease new, non-Miranda projects in her daily vlogs. Rather than mourning the show’s cancellation, Haters Back Off! should be celebrated as a triumph for the online community, a testament to the creators who have used their creative vision to burst through the boundaries of traditional entertainment. While the future of YouTube seems to hang in the balance, with new influencer scandals and questionable corporate moves making headlines each week, there is some comfort in knowing that some of these strange internet gems continue to thrive.
I’m not sure whether it’s the creators, the committed fans, or both, but I do know one thing: once you find a YouTuber you love, you love everything about them—even the weird stuff. It’s hard to explain to an non-watcher why I would sit through a cat-filled 23-minute vlog called, “the most boring vlog I have ever uploaded,” but since Ballinger uploaded it, I will gladly watch every second.