Colleen Ballinger, more commonly known as her massively popular YouTube persona Miranda Sings, has recently been having a tough time with her fans. When she made her Broadway debut in the musical Waitress on Aug. 20, Ballinger encouraged them to show up in support of her and her castmates. But it only took about a week until she had to school her young fans — many of whom are under the legal driving age — on the etiquette of Broadway. For example, you can’t record the show on the iPhone. You can’t leave the show early to get a “good spot” at the stage door. And, perhaps the worst for Ballinger’s vocal fans: You’re not supposed to sing along.
friendly reminder for anyone who comes to see Waitress! pic.twitter.com/70rw4P50YN— Colleen Ballinger🎗 (@ColleenB123) August 22, 2019
But Gen Z can be impervious to feedback. The next week, Ballinger again had to use Instagram as an intervention tool for her incorrigible followers. She told fans she would sign the playbills of the people at the back of the stagedoor crowd first in order to reward them for — hopefully — staying the entire length of the show.
This did not quell her dedicated masses. Towards the end of September and her run on Waitress, Ballinger had enough. She uploaded a YouTube video titled “stage door drama” of herself crying — because one woman called her a bitch after she wouldn’t sign multiple autographs for the woman.
“I want to start off this video by saying this video is not me telling you what you can or can’t do at the show,” Ballinger said in the video. “It’s not rules or regulations on how you’re supposed to act and whatever. ... This video is just me expressing my feelings.”
“There are people we have to remind how to act in these situations,” she continued. “The stage door is a place for the people who have come to the show to meet the cast if they feel like coming out. And we can sign the Playbills and thank them for coming to the show. And it is not a free meet-and-greet. The cast is not there to meet every single person in Manhattan. And it’s also not required. It doesn’t come with your ticket.” The video has nearly 700,000 views.
Ballinger’s saga is an example of a thoroughly modern and bewildering situation: when an internet star crosses over from digital fame to more mainstream, real-world fame, how do their fans cross over, too? Or do internet stars ultimately reap the fans they sow?
On social media, being connected to your favorite creator is a right, not a luxury — a dynamic that is often reinforced by the creator themself. Bert Haas, the executive vice president of Zanies Comedy Clubs, said he finds that fans think they know the social media stars, and thus feel emboldened to act as they want. “Usually what it is is they get caught up in the excitement,” Haas said. “What the social media individuals have to understand is these fans feel like they know the person and so when they go to a show, they don’t really see it as a performance so much as a like a coffee klatch.”
Ballinger follows 10,000 accounts, mainly of her fans, on Twitter; her DMs are open to everyone. After she performs shows as Miranda Sings — in which she sings badly on purpose, invites fans on stage, and tells jokes — Ballinger typically makes her way to where the mobs of people are waiting for her to sign autographs and take selfies.
The Miranda Sings character, a satirical caricature of online celebrities, is a nutcase. She is a narcissistic wannabe celebrity who offends everyone she comes across. Perhaps the insouciance of Ballinger’s fans is an instance of a creator’s work backfiring — her fans have been conditioned to be pains in the ass, to flout the rules that govern sacred spaces like Broadway.
Olivia Zabrocki was there when hordes of people ran out of a Waitress performance before it was over, hoping to meet Ballinger. Zabrocki said she thought Ballinger’s warning to fans was necessary. “I'm glad that the issue was brought to her attention, and I felt it was fitting and kind of her to tell people how these shows work,” she said. “I'm sad that it came to that, but I think she handled it the best way she could via social media and hoping for the best outcome.”
On social media, being connected to your favorite creator is a right, not a luxury.
On the other side, Britney DeSantos, a 16-year-old Broadway fan, thought the rules should change.“I think it’s annoying that you can’t record shows, because you can record concerts, and if someone paid for a ticket they should have that right,” DeSantos said. “It sounds taboo, but it should have been the norm.”
Elizabeth Scrivner, a licensed professional therapist who has worked with adolescents, said it’s important for them to understand when to respect rules.
“We must learn to follow the rules first and then learn when to break them,” she said. “It is our responsibility as adults and parents to not only abide by the expectations but instill them in our children. Parents must teach respect. Respect is taught and earned. Teens will make lots of mistakes. Good. Don’t we all? Those are opportunities to teach and restart.”
Heather McMahan, a comedian who gained the majority of her following on Instagram by comedically documenting her life living at home after her dad died, also had a tough week with fans. McMahan, who was on her Farewell Tour (affectionately called that just in case), had to get on Instagram several times to report her fans were showing up hammered at her shows. It was so bad, she says she heard one woman “shit her pants” and then left the pants in the bathroom. Another woman threw up on herself and one man approached the stage during McMahan’s set.
McMahan’s online persona is a woman who is just trying her best. Whether she’s “doing the least or doing the most,” as she often says, she always seems to be falling apart and spending too much money and drinking too many Aperol Spritzes — so maybe it’s not a surprise that fans expect to see that at a live show and want to match her level. On Instagram, she told her fans to slow down in a series of stories. Toward the end of one video, she wondered aloud if being completely hammered was the kind of image she was putting out.
This all varies by creator, of course. Matt Bellassai, a comedian who got his start with a BuzzFeed video series called Whine About It, in which he drank an entire bottle of wine and complained about anything and everything, said his transition from online content creator to comedy-club performer has been pretty seamless minus a few “incidents.” “There are a few jokes in my set about some of the incidents that have happened at my shows,” Bellassai told me. “I talk about one particular show in Seattle where I had to throw someone out from the stage who was a little too intoxicated and then afterwards, someone bit a security guard, which I think is both hilarious and a little haunting.”
Bellassai laughed as he recalled this, but said he feels responsible for them in a way. “I’m a Midwesterner and I feel this internalized need to apologize or take responsibility,” he said. “I will ask the staff afterwards if everyone was behaved and almost always, they’re like, you have great audiences, they have a lot of fun and every so often, maybe one or two people will go a little crazy.”
Luckily — or perhaps not, depending on your standpoint — creators can always retreat to the work that made them famous, where the rules are more clearly defined among her fans. Ballinger ended her run on Waitress last month, and she’s now back on tour as Miranda Sings, the character that made her famous. Fans were curious if the Broadway rules transferred to Sings’ live shows, but Ballinger cleared it all up on Twitter: Filming was indeed allowed this time around. Her fans can go back to being their most authentic selves — with an iPhone to capture every off-tune note Miranda Sings sings.