Zoie Burgher gamed the YouTube celebrity system hard. It took her just a few months to rack up her first million subscribers, something that has taken other aspiring YouTubers years. Burgher’s next challenge will prove a bit more difficult: becoming a successful media CEO. She’s launching a new company that will be part gaming team, part media brand, and part talent agency. She’s got a lot more riding on this one, too: she’s convinced a group of women to drop everything and join her, and she’s thrown her own money behind it.
So far, Burgher's company, Luxe Gaming, has one main project: Luxe House. Team members (right now there are six of them, including Burgher) live together in a house and post episodic vlogs of their daily lives to YouTube. While many reality shows sequester their contestants away from the outside world, on YouTube, Luxe offers the opposite approach: constant, real-time fan feedback.
Basically, Burgher says, Luxe House will be like The Real World, but populated only by young women, with a little bit of Call of Duty.
“Social media stars are made from reality TV shows,” Burgher said. “We decided that [making our own reality program] would be the best way to showcase ourselves and draw attention to our personal brands and help us gain recognition.”
This isn’t Burgher’s first shot at fame. Before YouTube, she was a Twitch streamer, where she had thousands of followers and was frequently banned for her semi-provocative videos. (Wearing bikinis. Twerking.) In August 2016, she was suspended from the platform for what she said was the fourth time for “sexually explicit or pornographic content.” Burgher claimed she was being targeted by Twitch, whose community guidelines vaguely prohibit “inappropriate broadcaster behavior and attire,” because the company was embarrassed to be associated with her.
A Twitch spokesperson told The Verge the company doesn’t comment on terms of service violations.
In retaliation, Burgher moved her show to YouTube, where she posted captured footage of the Twitch stream that had previously gotten her banned. That video earned her an immediate following, and an interview on the popular YouTube gossip show DramaAlert. The host, Keemstar, asked her how she managed to get 650,000 subscribers in less than a month. Rather than talk about hard work or the importance of good lighting, Burgher demonstrated her twerking technique. As it had on Twitch, Burgher’s trade-off of skin for views irked other YouTubers, several of whom tried and failed to get her banned from the platform.
When she wasn’t banned, many YouTubers turned to “call out” videos to air their grievances to whoever would listen. In a video called “Zoie Burgher is destroying YouTube,” 20-year-old gamer Pyrotechnical says, “If you guys haven’t gotten it already, I’m trying to make the point that no one would give a shit about [Burgher] if she didn’t show cleavage.” The video responses were seething and bitter. Kotaku reporter Patricia Hernandez wrote in 2016 that the negative reactions were likely “a misplaced jealousy” over Burgher’s meteoric rise, as viewers felt like they were being “tricked into watching Burgher’s content or that she’s cutting corners to get a fame she does not ‘deserve.’”
On a video about Burger from the gamer TBets, a commenter going by Noah wrote: “Man fuck all u haters, u just mad she gained more subs than u. She's not a bad streamer.”
In the Luxe Gaming announcement video, Burgher and her friend Abigale Mandler go over some hazy details about the project: from now on, the two announce, they’ll be going by “Luxe Zoie” and “Luxe Abigale,” adopting their brand’s name as their own. The backyard that they’re standing in — situated somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego, with views of pristine suburban homes nestled among foggy mountains — is where the members of Luxe Gaming’s reality show will live.
“We like to tell people we’re from Los Angeles,” Mandler says. “But we just couldn’t find a big enough house [there] to fit all of the girls without paying an extreme amount of money.”
Mandler has known Burgher for a few years now. They were roommates in Utah when Burgher first began to earn a following on Twitch and YouTube. Eventually, Burgher helped Mandler start her own YouTube channel, teaching her how to set up a greenscreen and where to stick the “10 million wires” required for shooting and streaming.
When Burgher pitched Luxe Gaming to her last fall, Mandler was working as a medical transcriptionist, and she was nervous to ditch her steady paycheck to chase the whims of a content-hungry internet.
“It was a total change for me. I was kind of scared,” Mandler says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t just leave my job for this crazy life,’ but I’m so glad that I did it.”
To get inside Luxe House, potential members have to go through an online application process, which requires that applicants be over 18 and female, though there is no age maximum. Applicants are asked to provide links to their social media accounts and evaluate statements like “I have a desire to be well-known,” “Hate speech bothers me,” and “My family supports me emotionally” on a scale that ranges from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Judging by the current participants, it’s also clear it would benefit applicants to meet a particular standard of beauty, although the application promises there are “no requirements for sexuality.”
Mandler says that, often, women in the gaming community are forced to choose between being sex objects or being sexless, with little room for a middle ground. “It’s hard for girls to be accepted into the gaming community when they act like the pretty girl,” Mandler says. “If you want to make it in the community, you often have to be the tough girl.”
Not all of Luxe’s members come from the gaming world. Mandler’s personal channel features Resident Evil gameplay streams, but also hosts videos like “ASMR Detention Teacher Role Play” and “Sexy Baking With Abigale Mandler.” Jelzy is a Twitch streamer who is into cosplay, Linda is an 18-year-old beauty vlogger, and Kiran is a gamer from Canada who moved to LA this month just to live in the Luxe House. There’s also Hitomi, who exists online only as an anonymous artist represented by an animated avatar. She won’t be living in Luxe House, but she supports the team from the online sidelines, and benefits from its growing audience. In a recent Twitter poll, Hitomi asks her followers how they discovered her art; the majority, 38 percent, said Luxe.
In an announcement video about joining the team, Hitomi says her fans might not understand her decision, but she’s impressed by what Burgher is trying to do. “It’s not unfathomable to think that you can shake your ass and have an intelligent conversation and enjoy video games all at the same time.”
Burgher’s fans seem to agree. A 20-year-old Luxe Gaming fan named Olivia told The Verge she admires Burgher’s persistence in the face of controversy. “Zoie rocked the YouTube and Twitch world,” Olivia said. “She showed she wasn't afraid to do what she had to do to get where she wanted, and she got there.”
A young gamer named Jessica told The Verge that she sees herself in Luxe’s members. “It shows that the gaming industry is not just overrun by males,” Jessica wrote over Twitter DM. “I even look up to people like Zoie and Abigale. I've been a big gamer since I was really young and seeing a girl gaming group inspires me and maybe one day I can join the Luxe family.”
Lux Gaming isn’t the first all-female gaming group, or the first set of gamers to test the cohabitation model. Last year, six members of the e-sports team FaZe Clan moved into a mansion together in Los Angeles — FaZe House LA — and documented their daily lives. But their vlogs felt tangential to their main project: like any traditional sports team, FaZe’s money comes from winning competitions. According to ESports Earnings, the entire FaZe roster has earned more than $1.4 million over 134 tournaments.
Luxe is still testing its business model, which relies largely on funding from fans, media partnerships, and sponsorships. The team just returned from the gaming convention E3 — a trip that was fully paid for by a generous gaming chair company, according to Mandler, that she wouldn’t name. A few weeks ago, Burgher announced that she would be going on tour to meet her fans, and hinted at the possibility of other Luxe members would be coming with her. The tour is being funded by Fullscreen Inc., a company that helps YouTube creators find ways to monetize their content. Eventually, Burgher hopes Luxe Gaming’s YouTube channel will bring in revenue as well.
Burgher also has a Patreon account, where fans can tip her anywhere from $5 to $200 per month in exchange for rewards based on how much money they give. Rewards include access to “exclusive cleavage/bikini selfies,” access to Burgher’s private Snapchat account, and personalized nude photos. On the Patreon page, Burgher has listed two goals: paying off her student loans and “Buying a bigger ass,” where she asks fans to “Donate to the cause of increased fapability.”
Abigale, Jelzy, Kiran, Linda, and Hitomi all have their own, smaller, Patreon accounts, too. Their rewards are similar to, if less explicitly sexual than, Burgher’s. Mandler is vague about her rewards, but stipulates that her patrons must be 18 or older. Kiran and Jelzy both offer cosplay photos (rabbit ears and a lace bodysuit, a sexy Sailor Moon uniform) to fans; Kiran also sells a “one-on-one private stream” to patrons paying $250 or more per month, but she explicitly notes it will be “non sexual.” Linda’s rewards include a “cheeky lace bodysuit” photo while Hitomi sticks to NSFW illustrations.
Patreon can be a significant source of income, but it poses its own set of problems. With around 320 patrons, Burgher has the largest number of people paying for her rewards, but there’s a public Zoie Burgher subreddit where users have been posting her exclusive Patreon photos for anyone to see for free.
When I asked who was bankrolling Luxe Gaming — was there a mysterious angel investor? — Burgher responded, “I fund everything.” This means paying rent on what is at least a five-bedroom home with an in-ground pool somewhere in California, buying camera equipment, and even covering groceries. “Sometimes we pay for our own [food] and sometimes we don’t,” Mandler says.
Mandler says most of the deals come through Zoie, who hasn’t asked Luxe’s members to throw down any cash yet. “[The women in the house] usually come from very modest means, so I wouldn’t just expect them to come into a mansion and pay for it,” she says.
In the five weeks since the their launch announcement, Luxe House has produced one episode titled, “The Luxe House Ep. 1: Bird is the Word," which was posted on May 19th. In it, Zoie, Abigale, Linda, and Jelzy hang around the house and talk to the camera, confession booth-style. Burgher sees Luxe House as a new kind of sorority, filmed and edited for public consumption. Mandler describes it like a more modern version of Big Brother. The episode currently has around 72,800 views.
Other than the whole living-in-a-mansion thing, the daily lives of Luxe’s members don’t seem much different from any 20-something without a 9 to 5 job. “We wake up, we eat breakfast, we go to the gym,” Mandler says. They take selfies in the pool, sit around a fire pit, and smoke hookah.
Though it is a mansion, the house looks sparse and unfurnished; a few of the rooms still don’t have furniture in them. “I don’t think we realized how difficult it would be to fill this place up,” Mandler says. On the Luxe House Snapchat account, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the house’s interior: a gray sectional sofa, some wooden chairs, a sun room with huge floor-to-ceiling windows. Oh, and the Wi-Fi sucks. Mandler says the poor connection has made vlogging close to impossible in the past couple of weeks. “Where we live, we get the shittiest internet.”
To solve the problem of shitty mountain internet, the Luxe team is also renting an apartment in a nearby town, which they plan to use as an office and primary vlogging space. So Luxe House will take place in at least two settings: a big mansion in the hills, and a secret side spot with a stronger Wi-Fi signal.
From a viewer perspective, the show in its current state feels as cobbled together as its backdrop. Without much of a plot, its first episode falls a bit flat, instead resting on orchestrated drama that doesn’t feel particularly dramatic. The episode, which caps out at 10 minutes, is meandering and goofy, soundtracked by a simple guitar twang that could’ve been plucked from a children’s television show. After some brief introductions, they get to the heart of the episode: earlier in the day, a bird flew into one of their sliding glass doors. It was injured, but it didn’t die. So Zoie killed it — maybe.
“They killed a bird in front of me,” Jelzy says to the camera, straight-faced. The camera cuts to Zoie: “I did not kill that fucking bird.” And then Abigale: “Zoie Burgher lifted a 5-pound rock over her head and smashed it down on this poor, defenseless bird.” No one seems exactly upset about the bird slaughter, but they seem to understand the possibility that they could be upset plays better for the cameras.
Near the end of the episode, the camera pans to a champagne toast and Jelzy asks the kind of question that might’ve been immortalized on a T-shirt during MTV’s reality show heyday: “Is this champagne gluten free?” Everyone laughs, and repeats the question, the way you do when one of your friends says something unintentionally funny.
For all its attempts to emulate a mainstream reality TV show, Luxe House feels uniquely made for YouTube. When the women clink champagne flutes, Burgher asks, “Is this the thumbnail?” referring to the still image that represents a video while it’s not being played. “No,” Mandler replies, “the lighting’s shit.” It is shit, and it’s also obvious that the women are shooting everything themselves. The camera jostles and spins as members pass it around; imagine The Blair Witch Project as a selfie.
Burgher says the majority of the people who watch and comment on her videos are men, but she thinks women are watching, but they’re just more skittish about commenting. But that’s exactly what Luxe Gaming, according to Burgher, intends to change. “From a young age I understood that girls were underrepresented in the gaming industry,” Burgher says. “And seeing female influencers grow, especially in the gaming community, is a novelty.”
Luxe Gaming does seem poised to grow: in about a month of existence, the team’s YouTube channel has amassed around 21,000 subscribers. But, it’s been more than a month since the crew has posted an episode of Luxe House — an eternity for a platform that rewards daily vlogging — and their personal channels have been similarly quiet. This week, the women appeared in their first live gameplay stream, playing Black Ops 3; the video was hosted on Burgher’s channel. Burgher says they’ll eventually move the streams over to the Luxe Gaming channel, once her subscribers are on board.
It’s too early to say if Luxe House will succeed or fail, and even Burgher doesn’t seem entirely sure of her vision. When asked what the end of Luxe House looks like — A big finale? Tearful goodbyes? — Burgher said, “All good things come to an end and the key is to evolve and grow with the changes, especially technological and algorithmic.”
If she’s not a CEO yet, at least she sounds like one.