Escape from Real Bitch Island
Nineteen and gay, too effeminate to hide, and persecuted by haters in his small town, Chris Crocker turned to the web to vent. Now he's a huge YouTube celebrity. Is the internet Chris Crocker's ticket out?
Chris Crocker will reveal just about anything, except where he lives. He has too many haters for that now. Instead, he tells his fans that he's a resident of Real Bitch Island. A girly boy can't be too careful these days. At least, not when he lives in a small town in the rural South and, as Chris likes to remind, has more MySpace friends than Lil' Kim and almost as many as Britney Spears.
Those MySpace friends—Chris prefers the term "fans"—hang on his every MySpace bulletin. They beg for the attentions of the young man with the lilting Southern drawl and the fake eyelashes, declaring their love, their amazement at his boldness, their gratitude. They mimic his online videos: the sex-filled confessions, the wild monologues, and the messages to his generation that have all become viral video hits. They send tons of e-mail, with subject lines such as "OMG!!!OMG!!!OMG!!!" and "You are fucking awesome!!!"
Over on YouTube, where Chris also posts, the total number of views for his videos long ago passed the one million mark. Among the people far away from Real Bitch Island who are tuning in: Cassie, the R&B star, who has a subscription to the Chris Crocker video stream on her YouTube page; Glenn Meehan, a Los Angeles producer who recently inked a deal with Chris to develop ideas for a TV show; and Matt Sunbulli, MTV's "web correspondent," who has requested a Chris Crocker video for the MTV website.
"He's got this incredible energy," Meehan, the L.A. producer, told me. Sunbulli, the MTV correspondent, told me Chris has "virality."
For a 19-year-old who lives with his grandparents and who originally started posting MySpace rants as a way of getting in the face of his small Bible Belt community, the interest from Hollywood and New York is potentially life altering. It offers something Chris has only recently begun to believe is within reach: an escape from the South, an escape made possible by the entertaining distress signals that he's been sending out over the internet for almost a year.
"I don't want it to pass me by," Chris told me a few weeks ago when I visited him on Real Bitch Island. Intrigue had drawn me across the country to see him: I wanted to hang out with the guy behind the viral videos, but more than that, I wanted to find out what life is like for this new type of teenager—a young man connected in ways that let him transform his rural frustrations into national online fame, but who is still painfully disconnected.
To get to Chris, whose real last name and location I had to promise not to disclose, I boarded a nonstop flight to a former Confederate state, then climbed aboard a tiny propeller-powered plane, which took me to a small regional airport. Next came a drive in a rental car to a hotel sandwiched between two rural highways.
The following morning, Chris was sitting in my passenger seat. He was wearing low-rise jeans, a pinstriped velvet blazer, and a white hoodie, beneath which he wore a yellow tank top with "I'm always chasing rainbows" emblazoned on the front. We'd just left the driveway of his grandparents' house, where he'd met me standing near a "God Bless America, United We Stand" sign, installed by his grandfather, a devout Pentecostal who worships at a nearby church. For a young man whose online confidence is a huge part of his allure, Chris, with his worries about being passed by, was sounding, for a brief and uncharacteristic moment, vulnerable—as if all this approaching opportunity were a plane high on the horizon, a groan of engines coming closer to his island, but without a clear commitment to actually pluck him off.
When I first saw them, I didn't interpret Chris's videos as flares sent up by a young gay man marooned in a sea of rednecks. I thought they were something else entirely.
This was back in April. One morning, a couple of my gay friends in Seattle were laughing hysterically, imitating some guy named Chris Crocker and talking about a particular video of his they'd seen on YouTube. The video is Bitch, Please, and it's one of Chris's most popular. Since it was uploaded to YouTube two months ago, it's been viewed nearly 300,000 times; on MySpace, where it's been since December, the number of views is well over 850,000. In the video, Chris, wearing a soft white cotton warm-up jacket over a gray T-shirt, his wide eyes and flared nostrils close to the camera, goes through "the many variations of 'bitch, please'"—offering increasingly angry versions of the phrase, complete with hair flips, bared teeth, and hand gestures—because, as he says at the close of the video in a gentle, instructive voice, the variations "come in handy in many areas of life."
On paper, the segment sounds like just another gay white boy trying to "talk black." But there is something so unselfconscious and nakedly furious about Chris's presentation that it holds you. He is a train wreck of marginal characteristics—effeminate, Southern, flamboyantly gay at a young age, uncensored—and they make it hard to stop watching. The proof of this is not just in the number of times Bitch, Please has been viewed, but in its imitators. On YouTube, people of different ages and races have posted response videos in which they gamely try to do Chris's monologue themselves—the ultimate web compliment. A number of these imitators are black, creating an odd, post-race, parallel YouTube universe in which black imitates gay-white imitating black.
At first, I'd figured this level of border crossing and taboo tweaking had to be emanating from an urban area, from a source steeped in cultural collision and promoting some sort of high-concept agenda. I'd guessed Chris was an art student, young looking but not actually that young, who was lying about his age and living somewhere in Manhattan—a Real Bitch Island if there ever was one. I couldn't quite figure out what to make of the videos that featured Chris's "grandmother" sitting on her worn brown couch in a suburban-looking living room, but, with apologies to his grandmother, I'd guessed she was a drag queen and that a house on Long Island had been borrowed for some shoots.
I wasn't the only one. The Chris Crocker fans I know were divided on their initial guesses about him, and this divide mirrors the divide in experience between gays who had the bad luck to be born in intolerant parts of rural America and those who did not. The gays I know who have never lived in a small, conservative town (people like myself) thought Chris must be an ironic urban art-fag with something to say about the absurdity of fagginess or race relations. Those who have lived in rural America pegged him immediately as a type they know well, or once were themselves—the seething gay kid, trapped in a place that can't tolerate homosexuality and punishes flamboyance. One such friend from a small-minded town told me that if he'd had access to YouTube when he was younger, he could easily have been Chris Crocker.
Which reminds, even though it's becoming increasingly hard to imagine: There was a time, not so long ago, when even Chris Crocker could not have been Chris Crocker—could not have sat in the Bible Belt and downloaded news of the wider, gay-tolerant world and, in response, uploaded his singularly bizarre and angry take on gay life and his intolerant town.
In that time before YouTube and MySpace and internet connections in rural America, this, too, could not have happened: I could not have become one of Chris Crocker's MySpace friends, which I did shortly after watching Bitch, Please. I could not, the next day, have sent Chris a MySpace message in an attempt to figure out who the heck he was. And I could not have learned, heartbreakingly, that Chris is not some art student in Manhattan, as I'd initially guessed—and, I suppose, on some level, hoped—but rather a 19-year-old trapped in a stifling Southern town that he hates, and which seems to hate him.
In Chris's most watched video, This and That, which has been viewed more than 420,000 times on YouTube and nearly 1.6 million times on MySpace, he sits on his grandmother's couch, knees scrunched to chest, Converse up on the coffee table in front of him. He's wearing an orange T-shirt, black eyeliner, and two jelly bracelets on his right wrist. The clip is short, only 46 seconds, and it's a message to his haters, the type of people who go to his MySpace and YouTube pages and post comments similar to this one, posted in late May on YouTube: "Ew. You are the biggest faggot in America. Please, do us all a favor, and throw urself in front of some ongoing traffic." When I first watched This and That, I saw it as a message from Chris Crocker to these virtual enemies, a fictional character responding to hecklers in his audience.
"Hey what up, everybody?" the video begins. "This is Chris." His tone is singsong at first, but then it turns serious: "I'm still kinda blowing smoke out my ears because the haters just refuse to give it up, you know?" He shifts his expression from exasperation and disappointment to anger. "And to the people who be saying, you know, this and that: Yo, girl, I don't understand. Look at this, girl!" He sits back on the couch, crosses his legs, and pulls up his right T-shirt sleeve to reveal a slender shoulder and a skinny upper arm. "To the bitches that wanna fight me! To the bitches that wanna fight me! Girl, look at this, bitch." He flexes his tiny bicep. "You wanna fight me?" His tone is menacing, but now he's pulling up his shirt to reveal a scrawny chest. The disjunction between his violent tone and the seriously limited physical firepower that he's flashing is absurd—as absurd as the idea that anyone would see this waify kid as a threat worthy of violence. "Girl, what is it, girl? What I got to hide, nigga, what I got to hide?" He leans into the camera and starts shouting, rocking his head back and forth in anger, blond highlights flopping this way and that. "Because bitch, you wanna fight somebody, bitch? Let's go, girl! I'm standing right here; you ain't sayin' shit to me, girl. I been standing at the mall; ain't nobody walking up to me, girl."
I viewed this video, originally, as a brilliant way of mocking his virtual haters, the type of people who were anonymously telling him to go jump in front of traffic. But not long after I landed on Real Bitch Island, Chris took me to the nearby mall, a small cavern of beige floor tiles and pasty patrons, and gave me a tour that offered a new way of looking at this video, a way that made it much less funny. As we walked around, past the Sunglass Hut, past the pushy smells of scented candles and baking cookies, people stared hatefully at us, and mostly at him. They stared hard, with the kind of presumed right to glare that people in more sophisticated places wouldn't dare show. Chris ignored it all, checked out the cover of the latest W magazine at a bookstore, pronounced it boring, and then nonchalantly showed me the mall video arcade whose back room he'd hid in when, one day while shopping, he'd heard a girlfriend of his shout: "Run, Chris!"
He'd turned around, that day at the mall, to see a gang of boys chasing him down, coming at him over the beige tiles. He knew he couldn't stand and fight and win. He knew that was only a fantasy, perhaps suitable for a web video but not for real life.
Chris and I are sitting at Shoney's, where the silverware comes wrapped in a plastic sleeve, airplane-style. He's wearing better makeup than most of the waitresses. He orders biscuits and gravy and a glass of sweet tea.
Across the street is a Kmart and, near that Kmart, the beauty-supply store where Chris buys his mascara (Max Factor Lash Protection) and eyeliner (Palladio). Later he will demonstrate for me, on the inside of his wrist, how Palladio goes on like a juicy pen and doesn't smudge. For now, we're talking about his life growing up in a place where his presence can stir up so much anger.
I've had us seated in a back booth, where I presume he'll feel more comfortable. He doesn't seem to need this extra consideration.
"I was totally myself from day one," he tells me, legs crossed, shoulders back, chin thrust forward.
We talk about his boyfriends ("At least I got to use him as a prop for a while," he says of a recent one, who pretended to be Chris's brother in a video spoof on gay-brother incest). We talk about his therapists (the bad one, who, he said, told him to listen to his grandmother, and the good one, who, he said, didn't). We talk about his ambitions.
Around us in the restaurant, heavyset men inch their way along the breakfast buffet and women in loose sweatshirts share the latest gossip. Chris seems perfectly at ease and self-possessed, only lowering his voice, and then only lowering it slightly, when we talk about his femininity. "It's not like I'm a woman inside a man's body or anything," he says. "But I'm definitely more feminine than masculine."
In kindergarten, Chris brought Barbie dolls to school for show and tell. At home, when he was allowed, he wore dresses made for him by an indulgent relative. In fourth grade, a fascination with Aaron Carter, the little brother of one of the Backstreet Boys, led him to get his first blond highlights. A later fascination with Avril Lavigne led him to start dressing like her—"You know, jelly bracelets stacked up my arms, kinda faux punk." He always loved to dance and perform. He entered talent shows at the local YMCA and took clogging classes. In seventh grade, he tried, without success, to start a gay-straight alliance at his middle school. Around the same time he started an e-zine that encouraged young gay kids to come out. It quickly drew 3,000 subscriptions.
"I've always been very active in the gay community online," he tells me.
However, offline, at school, where there was no gay community save for himself, Chris got called all the standard names. "I was so used to being harassed, I didn't even keep track of who didn't like me," he says. One day in the locker room a guy picked him up by his neck and held him against a locker until he turned blue in the face. The gym teacher watched and didn't intervene. That was toward the end of his last year of middle school. Not long after, he went to a fair designed to help students pick the local high school that was best for them. As he sat by himself, listening, he began to hear taunts, and then noticed that people in the room were pointing at him and snickering. He took a Sharpie and wrote "keep staring" on the back of his hand. He made a fist, rested his chin on it so those taunting him could see what he had written, and kept listening to the presentations.
But Chris realized that high school, as he put it, "wasn't going to work out."
His grandparents seem to have reached the same conclusion. He's lived with them since he was 4, when they took over caring for him because his father and mother weren't in a position to do so. I wasn't allowed inside the home of Chris's grandparents, and I wasn't allowed to talk to his grandfather, who doesn't know much about Chris's internet fame. But I was allowed to talk to his grandmother on the phone after agreeing not to ask her directly about Chris's homosexuality.
I started with a question that I thought might force us to talk about homosexuality anyway, without breaking my ground rules. I asked his grandmother, a 60-year-old manager for a janitorial maintenance company, why she'd decided to pull Chris out of public high school and teach him herself. She didn't bite.
"There was a lot of people he didn't like," she told me. "And a lot of people didn't like him, either." She added: "Chris is not really a rough and tough person."
Chris was homeschooled for high school, taught by his grandmother after she got off work. He spent much of the rest of his days online or watching TV. One of his favorite shows is The View—"all my girls" is how he describes the show's female hosts. Chris doesn't look up to gay male icons at all. When I ask, he can't think of one he admires. "I'm not really inspired by many men, even if they're gay," he tells me. "I'm more inspired by women who are accepting of gay men than gay men."
I can't help but think of his grandmother when he says this. It's clear from the videos in which she appears that Chris and his grandmother enjoy a complicated relationship, loving but testy, in which Chris's homosexuality is always the subtext, but is rarely addressed directly and never completely accepted.
"She's so in denial she thinks it's not obvious that I'm gay," he told me at one point during the two days I spent with him. At another point he told me that when his grandmother found out he was gay, "she told me I needed an exorcism, and was dead serious."
Most young men like Chris, at loggerheads with their families and unwelcome in their communities, quickly give up. They either adapt to a closeted lifestyle or they run off to a big city, locate that city's gay neighborhood, take a job in a coffeeshop or bar or theater, and start anew. Chris may still do that. He's given himself until mid-June, the anniversary of his first internet video, to leverage enough money and opportunity out of his internet fame to escape his small town. If that doesn't work, he says, he'll consider doing something more old-fashioned, like buying a bus ticket.
Ironically, the internet is the reason he didn't run away long ago. It's been a salve for his isolation, and improving communication technologies (the cell phone, the digital camera, the text message) have helped Chris thwart, at every turn, his grandparents' attempts to keep him distant from a gay life.
The best example: Around age 13, despite the disapproval of his grandmother, Chris had his first boyfriend. The boyfriend lived in New York. His name was Angel. The two met online because they were both young, gay, out, and publishing e-zines. They were together five years. Chris describes it as the most serious relationship of his life, even though the two never met in person. Instead, they chatted incessantly online, and had a florid phone sex life. When, one day, Chris's grandmother overheard them having phone sex and blocked Angel's number in an attempt to break them up, Chris quickly found a fix: He offered to have regular chats with a pedophile he met online in exchange for prepaid phone cards, which he then used to call Angel.
Another example of how the web made him more than his town and family ever could have: the way that Chris, a white Southern kid in an almost all-white Southern town, learned to talk like a ghetto black woman. In his This and That video, Chris closes with a line that seems to have confounded most of his YouTube imitators, and certainly confused me. He is saying, "What's your tea like that?" When I asked him what this phrase is all about, he told me that he'd picked it up on the party line. "What party line?" I asked.
It turned out it was a party line that he'd found through the website talkee.com, which compiles lists of free phone party lines around the country. This particular line is run out of Los Angeles and is filled with flaming black men, black drag queens, and trannies from Compton. They take on names like Candy Cane and Chocolate and Charmane ("She's like my muse," Chris says), and they dial in to the party line to berate each other about their breath, their weight, and so on. Chris likes to call in under the guise of an alter ego, Penelope. Lately, however, people have caught on and have taken to calling him Cracker. To ask "What's your tea?" on the party line, Chris explained, is to ask, "What's your problem?"
One of the characters Chris plays in his online videos is Earl Annie Edna, a Bible-believing older woman who seems a thinly veiled parody of his grandmother. Earl Annie has a television show, and Chris's grandmother is the only guest, ever. One episode begins with Chris, wearing a shiny purple dress and Tammy Faye–caliber makeup, speaking into the camera:
Chris: Hi everybody! This is Earl Annie once again. I'm out here putting out a message once again that we gotta get rid of Chris. And right now I'm sitting here with one of my biggest supporters. Hi!
(He pans the camera to his grandmother, seated on the brown living-room couch.)
Chris: How you doin'?
Grandmother: Not good.
(She looks unhappy to be there, but willing to play along. After some more banter...)
Chris: You don't like Chris, do you?
Grandmother: Chris who?
Chris: Bitch, why you on my show?
Grandmother: I don't know.
Chris: I thought I was here to interview someone against Chris. (Shouts offstage...) Get in the people who don't like him! What's this bitch doing here?
Grandmother: I like him.
Chris: You like him?
Chris: Do you know what he stands for? Tarnation!... Get off my show!
When we spoke on the phone, Chris's grandmother didn't quite seem to grasp the size of her audience (and Chris's), but she knows the videos are being posted online, and she knows that the other day, some kid at the local Walgreens came up to her and said, "You're Chris Crocker's grandmother!"
Of his internet fame and the offers it's bringing him, she says: "I guess it's good, I just don't want him traveling and going places far away where we don't know anyone personally. It's not like I'm trying to be bossy or this and that, I just don't want him to get hurt.... We've seen and heard too much on TV about the things that happen on the internet."
Chris wants to go to L.A.
Ideally, he wants his own TV show. Meehan, the L.A. producer, thinks it could happen. Sunbulli, the MTV correspondent, is a bit more skeptical. "He has a lot of disadvantages going his way," Sunbulli said of Chris.
The first disadvantage: the newness of this notion that the web can be used as a "talent pool" for big media; the industry is still going through a learning curve on that, Sunbulli told me. The second: Chris's all-over-the-map videos, which range from sexy to serious, confessional to inspirational, and spoof to ambush interview. "Chris is hard to define, and anything that's hard to define in the industry is hard for them to accept," Sunbulli said. Third: the anything-goes atmosphere of the web, which is both a current help and future hindrance for Chris. "The web, at the end of the day, is unfiltered," Sunbulli told me. "You can get away with swearing; you can get away with everything you can't get away with on air. Unless a producer can come in and conform him, and he's willing to be conformed, he has a very difficult road ahead."
One of the ideas that Meehan, the producer, has is to get the permission of Chris's grandparents to shoot a reality show in their house. The irony of this actually happening, of course, would be that Chris makes it onto television but doesn't get to leave Real Bitch Island. He's worried about this, worried that his appeal is contingent on the way he clashes with his current location, and on the "comedy gold mine" that is his family. But if a reality TV show were to happen, he told me, he'd happily do a year of Real Bitch Island reality and then try to parlay it—finally—into a ticket off.
On my last night in town, I pick Chris up in his grandparents' driveway and we head to the next town over, which has a gay club, one that people come from all around to attend. We pass a giant car racetrack, and miles of signs advertising chicken strips and the price of gas. I told Chris to bring some CDs, and he's brought Britney Spears (the whole discography). We're listening to In the Zone. Britney and Courtney Love are part of the all-female pantheon that Chris worships ("Even if they're a mess, they're true to themselves," he says). He also has Madonna and Tori Amos on hand. We talk about astrology for a bit. Chris long ago jettisoned religious belief, but he appears to have replaced it with a fanatic faith in the zodiac. He told me that he used MySpace to check my sign before he agreed to an interview. The conversation drops off, and I suggest we pass the time by calling the L.A. party line. He puts my cell on speakerphone and calls in. Someone named Michelle is in the middle of a rant. Chocolate, another party-line regular who has become a friend and confidant of Chris's, is also on. He teases Michelle for a bit and then he and Chris go into another "room" to chat in peace.
Chris tells Chocolate that he has an "interviewer" with him who wants to know what the party line is all about. "Tell him it's a mess," Chocolate replies. "Because you got bitches like Michelle in here running their mouth all day." Chris then tells Chocolate that we're headed to the club, and that he's anxious because he's probably going to run into Scottie, the ex-boyfriend from his brother-incest video.
"Are you gonna throw him shade?" Chocolate asks.
"I'm just gonna pay it," Chris replies.
The club is so discreet it looks like a hardscrabble church—just a fluorescent-lit reader board out front of a nondescript building, with a huge parking lot in back. People sometimes drive through the parking lot, Chris tells me, yell "fag," and throw beer bottles at the clubgoers. It doesn't sound like the gay bars I'm used to, and I ask him whether it's safe to go. He dismisses my nervousness; he's so used to the low-level danger of being gay in his area that it doesn't register anymore.
Chris shows his ID and gets a stamp that warns the bartenders not to serve him, since he's only 19. He's wearing Daisy Duke cutoffs, tube socks with red stripes pulled way up his calves, and a wife-beater with "I'm not gay" written on it in lipstick. A drag queen in a silk floral dress is auctioning men off to help her raise money for a trip to Atlanta. She nets about $35. The crowd is more diverse here than you'd find in a city with more gay clubs; apparently, when there's only one place to go, the dykes crowd in with the sporty boys and the drag queens and the old men and the young Real Bitches.
That's who I'm with, the bitches. Scottie has arrived—19 like Chris, waify like Chris, and wearing a pink wife-beater. He has a new boyfriend in tow, wan and unimpressed. We all lean up against one bar and survey the room. "I hate these people," Chris says. Scottie talks about his own plans to go to L.A. "It's going to kill this place," he says.
There is an odd undercurrent of barely checked violence swirling around us. A guy in a Polo shirt comes up to Scottie and wants to fight him. The guy, I'm told, is supposedly straight, but no one believes it. Maybe he's trying to prove something. Scottie stares him down, even though this guy is bigger than him, and I notice something I hadn't noticed before: a scrappiness to both Scottie and Chris, no doubt born of necessity. The guy in the Polo shirt leaves, a string of threats trailing him. Another drag queen divides the room in two and has one side chant "Fuck You" while the other side chants "Kiss My Ass." The point is to be loudest.
"Andrew!" Chris yells. A light-skinned black guy turns and comes over to chat. I ask Chris afterward if they're good friends. He says no, they just know each other from MySpace, and have never met in person before tonight.
A young woman recognizes Chris, also from MySpace, and comes over to talk. Her name is Vanessa. She's 19, too.
"I just love what he does for the gay community," Vanessa tells me. "He's just putting himself out there and showing that we are around and that we are important, too."
I ask her what she wants to do with herself. Without hesitation, she gives me the same answer as Scottie and Chris. The same urgent distress signal. The same plea for a means of escape.
"I want to get the fuck out of here."