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My Drunk Kitchen creator Hannah Hart on life as a YouTube star

Courtesy of Hannah Hart

If there’s a go-to model for serendipitous YouTube stardom it’s Hannah Hart. Her My Drunk Kitchen YouTube series (which, as the title suggests, features her getting drunk and cooking), has over five years amassed 2.5 million followers. On her upward trajectory, she’s published a cookbook, starred in a movie, gone on tour, judged Food Network shows, and, most recently, written a memoir called Buffering.

One might guess Hannah Hart aspired for celebrity. But according to her, it all started by accident.

My Drunk Kitchen is a show that would never get off the ground in 2016: a girl using a cruddy webcam to film herself getting drunk and stuffing croutons into a Cornish game hen is the type of friendly, intimate weirdness that is now commodified and prepackaged by web video production teams.

Hart got in on the ground floor, before YouTube became this highly curated land of sponsored content, late night TV clips, and Vevo view tickers. In 2011, weird was good and a little bit sad was even better. In 2016, her followers are still hanging out with her in the kitchen, probably in part because it’s a holdover from a better time (and Hart is still very, very funny).

The Verge spoke to her recently about why it was time to write about her life, how fame makes you responsible for other people, and why she’ll never stop getting drunk and making food.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you start making the My Drunk Kitchen videos?

In early 2011, I moved from San Francisco to New York to be a proofreader at a translation firm. I was working nights and weekends because my specialty was East Asian languages. One day I was Gchatting with a friend of mine because Gchat had just added a video feature and I had just gotten a laptop with a camera in it for the first time. My friend, who was my roommate, was like “Man, I miss you, I miss just hanging out, you’ve been gone three months.” And I was like “I miss you too, I’m gonna make a video for you right now where I just do a cooking show and get drunk and cook.”

So, I opened up Photo Booth, recorded it onto Photo Booth, imported it into iMovie, chopped it up and sent it to her.

So you put in on YouTube, or she put it on YouTube?

I sent it to her via YouTube, because that is a way you send video files. There was like Send File or something like that [on Mac] but she didn’t even have a Mac. And remember when you had to convert files to work on different [vide players]? So I put it on YouTube so she could watch it.

I really can’t imagine something like that today going viral.

It also didn’t go viral by today’s standards. My Drunk Kitchen episode one didn’t get a million views, it got like 80,000. And I was like “WHAT?” It was truly bizarre. But then people were like, “This is my new favorite show on YouTube” and I was like “... show on YouTube. What are you talking about?” I wasn’t a fan of YouTube culture, I didn’t know that people like the Fine Brothers existed at all. I didn’t know that people were putting shows online.

It’s become very common for people to say that the Wild West days of YouTube are over. Do you think that’s true? If you started My Drunk Kitchen today, what would happen?

I think that one of the reasons that I’m so grateful for the channel and for the community and the way it’s evolved to this point is that in 2011 it was still so not intentional and people didn’t really have goals of becoming a quote-unquote YouTube Star. So, now I think the landscape is pretty oversaturated in terms of the amount of people who are on it. That being said, I think if your goal is to be famous then I don’t know if there’s ever any amount of views that’s going to be satisfying to you. When I started on YouTube, people were making stuff because we were like “Hey, cool we have this free space to make stuff.” Now people are like, “If I don’t get a million views, it’s not a success.” And that makes me sad, for the current creator’s space.

Do you think YouTube is less of an accurate cultural cross-section than it was eight years ago?

It’s an entertainment platform now. But the good news is that there are tons of really great, innovative, entertaining channels out there and ideas out there. I really want to stress that I love that YouTube allows space where people can just create content and post it. Like, have you ever watched Hydraulic Press Channel?

Yes! It’s so weird.

But it’s so satisfying! There would never be, there’s no room for that on television. No one would ever make that a TV show. But Hydraulic Press Channel is great. So in that way, YouTube is still a really valuable space even if it isn’t exactly what it used to be. That’s my official stance.

So for you, has YouTube Red changed the game at all?

Not at all. Nothing. I haven’t noticed any difference.

Has your community changed at all, aside from YouTube Red, just with the general growth of YouTube?

I think that the people that find the channel appealing or find what I do online appealing, it’s a specific kind of person. When they stumble across my channel they stay. There’s always going to be peaks and valleys of people that are interested but maybe they fall off a little bit. I always feel very fortunate because my community has been such a strong community and such a decent community. They’re all really nice peeps, and I’m really proud of the space we’ve made.

Have you had any fan interactions that really stand out?

All the time, constantly. I feel really fortunate in that the community that’s drawn to my channel are really good, decent, want-to-share people. During meet and greets there’s always a moment where I’m like “Oh my god, I’ve been given such a gift to hang out with these people and talk to them, this is such a blessing.”

When I posted my coming out video in 2012, I got an email that was from this dad in Nebraska and he was like “Me and my family watch your show, we love to watch My Drunk Kitchen but we don’t accept homosexuality. We had no idea you were homosexual. Now you’ve given us something to talk about.” And that was it. I was like, okay, think about it. A lot of people I think probably said, “Wait a minute, I really like this Hannah person and she’s a lesbian? But she seemed so nice!” It’s nice to be able to expand someone’s worldview.

Good for that dad! I hope... depending on how his conversation went.

Fingers crossed, I hope everything turned out okay!

What I love about My Drunk Kitchen is that I feel like it embraces the way that loneliness can be sad but can also be creative and productive and joyful. What do you think broadly people find appealing about just watching someone get drunk and cook?

I like to think of it like this: if YouTube is a house party, there’s going to be different parts of a house party that appeal to different people. When you walk in the door and you see people break-dancing in the living room, you’re going to look at it and be like “Wow, those people are break-dancing.” That’s one of those popular, big, you-can’t-resist-looking-at-it types of channels. There are going to be people who are more like, talking shit, saying “I feel this about this!” And then there would be people playing games, people around beer pong, stuff like that. My channel is for the people who want to hang out in the kitchen. That’s where I hang out when I’m at a party. If I’m at a house party I go into the kitchen because it’s a little bit quieter, you’re still drinking, you’re having fun, but it’s kind of a space where you have good conversations. It’s that quality that makes it more appealing than just the drinking and just the comedy, I think it’s the intimacy.

So how did you realize, I can do this, this could be my thing, and I’m going to dedicate time to it?

It was never like that. It was more like, “Oh, cool, that was kind of fun, I can make another?” Two and a half weeks later I posted another one. And then I was like “Cool! I can make another.” Then two and a half weeks after that I was like “I don’t really want to be known for being drunk,” so I made a video that wasn’t about that. And that was it. I just enjoyed it more and more. It takes up more and more of your time. I took a plunge, I was like “I’m gonna get rid of my apartment so I don’t have to pay the rent, I’m gonna sleep on my friends’ couches, and I’m going to see if it’s going to go somewhere.” It wasn’t like “Great, I’m a superstar.” People always ask, “How did you know?” But I just want to shout it from the rooftops, sometimes you don’t know.

Has producing the show stayed pretty much the same since the beginning?

Before I came on this trip, I set up my camera in my kitchen, got drunk, and filmed a video that I’m going to post on Thursday. Every time I get interviewed by traditional media outlets, they’re always like “So your crew...” and I’m like “I don’t have a crew.” And they’re like “Really?” And I’m like “... have you watched it?” You think there’s a crew behind that? Like, somebody rolling sound? Maybe I wouldn’t have forgotten to turn the mic on so many times if that were the case.

Have you upgraded your setup?

It hasn’t changed since the second year. The first year of the channel, everything was on my webcam and I put my laptop on top of a stack of books. From there, I went and bought a camera and I put that camera on top of a stack of books. Now I have a tripod and a camera and a mounted microphone and I have lamps that I angle at the ceiling to get better light.

What has internet fame done to your life, good and bad?

It has changed my life completely in the way that it’s given me a platform and a great deal of purpose and responsibility. It’s kind of amazing because I am a de facto role model and public figure. I take that incredibly seriously, and so my job is to make the most out of my life and really try to be as sincere and sincerely happy and content as possible. At the end of the day, we’re all going through this journey. These are all of our blips of life right now, that’s it, this is what’s happening. It would be so disgraceful and disrespectful if I took an opportunity like this and I just wasted it on myself. If I was just like “Yeah, I’m gonna be a tragic celebrity.” I really feel like anyone who makes over six figures, just as an obligation, should go to therapy so they don’t bring their money and their issues into the rest of the world. Like, don’t be a narcissist at the top of your game because it just sets the bar. There are so many people who have so much power and have done so little personal development. Like, don’t bring your daddy issues into this. That’s fair, right?

Yeah, totally! Do you feel like a lot of this responsibility comes from how young the YouTube audience is?

It’s tough for me specifically because my channel is like, people ask “what’s your demographic,” and I’m like “I don’t know, 18 to 45.” I have a lot of people who are 18 to 25, 25 to 35, a split of men and women. It’s less categorizable than a lot of channels. I don’t want to be making content for any specific age group. I just want to make content for people.

Obviously you have a ton of different irons in the fire now. Do you think you’ll keep doing YouTube forever?

It’s kind of like saying, “Are you ever going to stop tweeting?”

I like to post Instagram photos, I like to tweet, I like to Tumble, I like to post to my Snapchat story, and I like to make videos and put them on the internet. There’s definitely peaks and valleys to how much time and physical energy I have to produce content. But the desire to produce content’s not something I think will go away.

So, in Buffering, your new memoir, are there a lot of stories your longtime fans haven’t heard or will it be familiar territory for them since you have always been so open on your channel?

It’s going to be a lot of unshared tales of a life fully loaded. People who have been with me since the beginning or people who watch the channel really regularly or follow my other work, I think it’s going to fully explain some questions they may have, but I think anyone who’s a fan of narrative memoir or has any interest in mental health or personal development will find this book interesting.

What made it feel like now’s the time to write a memoir?

Permission, really. I’ve always wanted to write this book, I studied literature in college and I’ve been journaling for over a decade. Buffering itself literally means, when you think of the buffering wheel what is that wheel signifying? It’s putting a boundary between you and what you’re trying to view, what’s being shared. Behind the wheel, there’s all this data being processed, all these images that are coming into frame, it’s getting ready to show you what it is. When the wheel goes away, it’s like, “Ta da! Here I am.” So, buffering is processing the data of my life that I’m now ready to share. This isn’t in the middle of a feeling, I’m not going off on a rant, I’m not like “I’ve just got a couple of things to say about this and that,” this is the most sincere effort I’ve made to make my adult life my own.

What was it like to write that?

It was really intense, I deal with a lot of personal topics in here. Growing up with very unusual circumstances, talking about my mother’s homelessness, my emancipation, my little sister being in the foster care system, my relationship with my father, the suicide of my step-sister, I mean there’s just so much shit in here. It was a very intense process, but also simultaneously I had to keep doing my entire career. I definitely will say that Buffering is like my heartbeat. I’ve never worked so hard on a single project and there’s nothing but myself in this. I’m excited to share it, but also obviously nervous.

YouTube feels like someplace where you see a lot more of that —

Frankness.

Who should read this book? Besides ideally, I guess everyone.

Every single person. It’s hard to say because it’s really hard not to sound self-aggrandizing in trying to say who should read this book. But I think anyone who’s trying to get the most out of their life should read this book, because I’m just sharing with you how I’ve gotten the most out of my life. Any people who have suffered a great deal of childhood trauma, there’s a lot, you know therapy is expensive and medication is expensive and I’ve been able to afford these gifts so I’m like “Hey, here’s what I learned and I’m just going to put this out there because not everybody can go to therapy every week.” This is just like really trying to share what I think have been invaluable resources in my life. And anyone looking for a good time!

I hope people read it. I am proud.

Hannah Hart’s memoir Buffering is on sale today.