When Tonya Montisano's daughter told her that she wanted to be a social media star, she wasn't sure how to feel. The 54-year-old real estate agent and wellness coach from Daytona Beach, Florida, had four other children, and all of them had gone to university. Now Bella, the youngest, wanted to move to Los Angeles and focus on her online videos instead.
"There was a lot of fear and a lot of fight in me," says Tonya. "We were very anguished over it." But, she thought, Bella was only 14, and there was time to grow out of it.
Bella persisted, devoting herself to building a presence on TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese video-sharing app which has captivated teenagers and baffled their parents. Starting in February, she posted clips of herself lip-syncing to songs, a popular TikTok genre, under the name @bellaxxnicole. She made US$300 (NZ$443) in tips from one live broadcast. When she passed the 12,000 followers mark, one of Tonya's Facebook friends messaged her, urging her to pay attention to her daughter's progress. Tonya remained sceptical.
Then, in March, she had an unlikely encounter. While she was browsing Facebook Marketplace, a brown leather sofa caught her eye, and although the advert said "no dogs, no kids" (she has both), she drove over to look at it anyway. The sellers were an older couple, and as often happens they all got to talking about their respective families. "My daughter wants to move to California and become a social media influencer!" Tonya lamented. The couple looked at each other.
Oddly enough, they explained, their grandson happened to be Mikey Murphy, a wholesome YouTuber with 1.8m subscribers who started his channel at the age of 15. At that time, his parents had felt the same way as Tonya did, and fought his attempts to make a career out of it. Now, the couple said, he has property, managers and multiple accountants; he is friends with film stars, appeared on the red carpet for Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One and has his own movie plans in the works. Tonya bought the sofa.
"It's funny how doors open to make you aware," she says. "I believe God shows you different things to set you on the right path. That was one of them." She took it as a sign, and began helping out as what Bella wryly refers to as her "momager": joining her at social media vents, helping her run her channel and managing her comments pages.
Today Bella has around 36,000 followers – far from the 1m to 1.5m claimed by TikTok's biggest stars, but climbing towards the milestone of 100,000. "This is a dream of these kids nowadays," says Tonya. "What do you do when you're a parent? You support your kid's dreams, and when they're foreign to you you go and learn about them."
Last week that ambition brought Tonya, along with 75,000 other people, to Vidcon, the massive online video conference in Anaheim, California devoted to vlogging, live streaming and, most of all, YouTube. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, it has become a Mecca not only for industry professionals but for huge numbers of teenagers and even small children hoping to meet, or perhaps one day replace, their idols.
Alongside them are numerous parents – often completely baffled by the experience, but determined to understand the parallel universe into which their children seem to disappear for hours every day.
Total sensory bombardment
"It's overwhelming when you come for the first time," says Rhonda Matthews, a 36-year old car dealership owner from Orange County, California, whose husband is a live streamer. "You're jumping into a new world. If you're not involved with it, it's like going to another country where everybody is speaking a completely different language... I'm a semi-young parent, but when I come here I still feel really old next to these kids. If you're over thirty, you're a grandma."
Vidcon is part business conference, part fan convention and part amusement park. In the heavily air-conditioned conference hall, big YouTubers such as David Dobrik, Tana Mongeau and her fiancé Jake Paul, who have largely displaced traditional celebrities for many young viewers, make tightly controlled appearances before rapturous fans. There are networking sessions, contract negotiation classes, poetry slams and a panel on "how to turn your pet into a social media STAR".
The real action, though, is out in plaza, where aspiring influencers mingle and insurgent TikTokkers film comedy skits, coordinate mass dance routines and do backflips off the steps of the amphitheatre. People are constantly filming themselves, filming each other and filming other people filming themselves. On the second day, two young girls engage in a scowling dance-off, surrounded by a cheering crowd. One of them appears to be a seasoned professional: her dad is in the audience with a high-fidelity camera.
For many parents, this is just a nice day out for their kids, and they feel no more need to understand it than to bond with Mickey Mouse at nearby Disneyland (Anaheim is part of the Los Angeles metro area). "We're not as much into it as they are, but we're doing it for them," says Chris Love, 54, from Arizona, who is visiting as a 16th birthday treat for her daughter Victoria. She has a "chaperone" ticket, slightly cheaper than the $180 to $250 most visitors shell out.
Jeremy Salas, a 37-year-old IT technician from Rancho Cucamonga, California, likewise admits he has no idea who his two kids are obsessing over. "It's fun to watch them so excited," he says. "[My daughter] doesn't get excited by too many things now. She's 12, so she's becoming a teenager."
Refuge can be found in the parents' lounge at the nearby Marriott Hotel, a quiet space with soft lighting and comfortable chairs. "It's just too loud over there," says Pat Semanik, a 65-year-old nurse practitioner from Chicago. "There's a lot of stimulus, a lot of colour."
She is glad her 17-year-old son, who goes by the moniker Hai-C online, is meeting his favourite video gaming YouTubers. But she is amused by how much time he spends filming and broadcasting his experiences, which she thinks impedes him from enjoying the moment.
"They've all got their phones out," she says. "It's like a cartoon: people just banging into each other because they're so busy filming it, Snapchatting it and whatever. People talk about little babies taking the world in through their mouth – everything they experience goes in their mouth. Now kids are taking everything in digitally. If they're not processing it digitally then it's not happening." Still, she says, she would definitely come again.
'I love them, but they don't understand'
Other parents are here on a mission. Rhonda Matthews has two daughters, 13 and 14, who are "very addicted" to YouTube – and she vets everything they watch. "The minute I heard that my kid is watching Jake Paul, I've subscribed to Jake Paul," she says. "Before you watch that video, I'm watching it."
She cites one video in particular, posted by Paul when he was "in that Britney Spears phase", awkwardly moving from his early days as a Disney Channel star to something more risque. "They shot a music video at his house where the girls had little to nothing on. And I told my girls: 'this is not going to happen. You're not going to watch this video'."
For Rhonda, then, understanding YouTube is a necessary part of protecting her daughters in a dangerous world. "I would say almost 100pc of the parents that I know have any clue what they're really watching. They'll say, 'oh, my daughter watches James Charles'" – a 19-year-old make-up artist with 15.7m subscribers and a flair for playing with gender. "Well, they couldn't recognise James Charles in a police line-up. Is he a live streamer? Does he do fishing shows? They have no idea."
Mike Kovach, 47, a power company employee from Paducah, Kentucky, had similar fears. His daughter Nina, 15, is a lifestyle Youtuber with around 1,300 subscribers under the name Nina Elizabeth. The Telegraph finds her posing against the bright pink wall of a Barbie booth in the exhibition hall, with all three members of her family – Mike, her mother Tanya and her older sister Lindsay – simultaneously shooting her with three different types of camera.
"I was concerned from a parent's perspective of safety and security," he says. "We've been part of a collaboration channels where there's been instances of stalkers, and, really, paedophiles." In the end, though, he was convinced by his daughter's dedication, and now the whole family pitches in.
Not everyone is so supportive. "My parents, I love them to death, but... they don't understand," says Courtney Raine, a 22-year-old YouTuber and marketer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, perhaps best known for her Starbucks drink reviews. She has just attained 100,000 subscribers, a magic number commonly thought to open the door to commercial sponsorships and contracts with influencer marketing agencies (YouTube also sends you a silver play button trophy).
Getting there required endless long nights of cutting and editing videos instead of going out with friends. Yet the attitude in her hometown remains "very belittling", with constant questions about what her backup plan is.
"It's been an ongoing struggle with my parents to get them to understand that this is a real job," she says. "My mom's a nurse, my dad works in a factory, so they had very practical, solid jobs and they grew up in an age where you work at one place and you work there for 14 or 15 years. They're going to have to see it to believe it."
Their stance is slowly changing, however, as her channel begins to bring in real money. "You're not supposed to share your paycheck, but with my first couple of huge paychecks I sent them to my mom and said, 'you guys, you can actually make money off of this!'"
'We have to learn to survive'
Quite often it is that hard-headed business case that makes the difference. David Russell, 59, is a personal injury lawyer and a friend of Tonya Montisano's in Daytona Beach, Florida. His daughter Madelin, 13, is friends with Bella and recently started making YouTube videos under the name Grace Baker.
"When I first found out, I didn't take it seriously at all," he says. "I figured it was just a fad, something like playing with Barbies, which she would outgrow and then move on. Tonya put a bug in my ear about it, saying, 'hey, there's a lot of opportunity', and I was like 'yeah, yeah, yeah'."
Vidcon, however, surprised him with its "positive energy". The turning point was when he joined Madelin at a seminar on monetisation – a language he could understand. "That intrigued me," he says, "realising that not only could you do something that's fun and enjoyable but you could make money as well. And it appears that in some cases people are making incredible money from it. It seems like the sky is the limit with this industry... I don't know, we'll see what happens, but I'm excited for her to give it a try."
Though parents may enter this world in order to protect or scrutinise their children, they often emerge feeling more connected to them. Rhonda Matthews now genuinely enjoys watching videos with her daughters and keeping up with YouTuber gossip.
"It's something that we can relate to, it's something that we do every day," she says. "When they talk about these things, I can talk with them." Indeed, she thinks parents who are ignorant of their children's media habits risk not being able to help or stop them when they get into trouble.
"It's a lot of fun to be involved in this with them," says David. "In order for us to survive we're going to need to know what's happening here. When I was 13 years old we were outside riding bicycles and playing in mud baths. But here, these guys are so far advanced that they're at least three years ahead of us intellectually at the same age... it's like watching a futuristic movie, but the future's here right now."
For any budding YouTuber or TikTokker, the next step is to keep producing, to make connections with other creators, and potentially to seek professional management. Madelin, however, still has someone left to convince. "My mom still thinks it's something I'm doing for fun," she says. "I mean, I only knew I wanted to do this for a real about a month ago."
Maybe, she thinks, her mother would come around if she would only come to something like Vidcon. As for Tonya and David, they are thinking of starting a vlog of their own.
- Telegraph Media Group