She reached 1.3 million subscribers after just two years, and at twenty years old has a YouTube journey like no other. TenEighty chats to Elle Mills about mental health, storytelling, and being thrown into the spotlight.
“My age group, that’s what we were raised on: YouTubers,” Elle Mills explains. “[YouTube] started to become big when I was in elementary school. Seeing all these people make videos and put them online, it was easy, accessible. I was like ‘I really want to do that.’”
Unlike many others, who fell into YouTube unexpectedly, Elle always dreamt of being a YouTuber. Spending her childhood armed with a camera, she loved creating skits and looked up to creators like Grace Helbig, Colleen Ballinger, and Kian Lawley and Sam Pottorff.
Immediately after graduating from high school, she uploaded her first video, genre-swapping movie trailers to create IF STRANGER THINGS WERE A ROMANTIC COMEDY and IF TROY BOLTON WERE LIKE CHRISTIAN GREY, which immediately saw success.
At a certain point, she “decided [she] wanted to change it up and get really artistic with [her] comedy videos,” starting to evolve into the Elle Mills we know and love. Since then, she’s developed a unique and distinctive video style, with Casey Neistat describing her as “pushing the boundaries of YouTube,” and Hank Green as “taking video blogging to a whole new level.”
And her success isn’t just down to luck. As time goes on, she’s increasing the scale of her videos, determined to “think outside the box and try to think of things that haven’t been done, or try to put my twist on things that have been.”
One of her biggest stunts to date is a video in which she throws UK-based YouTuber dodie a prom, complete with a horse and carriage, an ice sculpture, and guest stars New Hope Club and Adrian Bliss. However, getting all of the elements to come together for such large scale videos can be a little more difficult than you’d expect.
“Getting dodie outside of the house [and getting] the horse and carriage to come at the same time was such a pain because she was being an ass about it,” Elle laughs. “Just getting the perfect timing and having all that down, it’s definitely stressful but after it’s over, it’s like a weight off my shoulders.”
Another video, MY SCHOOL HATES ME SO I PRANKED THEM (COPS CALLED), got her in a spot of trouble with her old high school. “We’re definitely not on good terms now,” she reveals. “Because the apology video was the last video I had made, they weren’t very happy about it. And so they banned me from [my brother’s] graduation.”
She mentions that they eventually lifted the ban on the condition that she left immediately afterwards and didn’t bring a camera. “I really wanted to bring a camera just to scare them.”
Now she’s got the filming and editing process down to a fine art, creating videos in a three act format, always with a well thought out narrative. “Even with my old style videos, there’s always supposed to be a reason for the video or like a story I’m telling. That’s just a me thing, it wasn’t intentional and I didn’t really notice I did it until people started pointing it out, like ‘you tell stories really well’,” she says.
“I put a lot of time and effort into [my videos] and I feel like that kind of shows. I put extreme focus onto detail so I hope that’s what keeps people coming back, that it’s genuine and real, and every video I post is a story I want to tell.”
As her channel began to grow, more and more people started to recognise her which, as she points out, is not too difficult. “[In Ottawa] there’s not a lot of YouTubers and stuff. And I stick out like a sore thumb because I wear the same shirt, like you could spot me from a mile away!”
With viewers recognising her, she started to enjoy her newfound fame. “It’s always fun when I’m with my friends and it happens, because they like to tease me. I enjoy it, I like talking to new people and it makes you feel good that there are actual people watching your videos.”
This fame quickly spread to the rest of her family, particularly her mum and brother, who feature prominently on her channel. “My brother and my mum, they love attention, I’m not afraid to say that. They thrive off of that so I think they’re living their best life and they’re enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame.
“Don’t get her started on it,” she warns us warily when we mention her mum’s social media. “She loves her Instagram so much, it’s insane.”
Even Elle’s life seemed to fit perfectly into the narrative style that she emulates in her videos. After her childhood dreams of being a YouTuber and being voted ‘Most Likely To Become a YouTube Star’ in her high school yearbook, her rise to YouTube fame was almost inevitable. Gaining a million subscribers in the space of a year, she achieved her lifelong dream at the age of nineteen.
Her channel grew exponentially, as she planned a tour across Canada with her mum and brother. The Life of the Mills tour spread across seven dates in May and June 2018, and was announced at the end of Elle’s video I TRAPPED MY FAMILY IN AN ESCAPE ROOM.
However, as she quickly realised, not everything can fit neatly into a narrative. She began to find being thrown into the spotlight overwhelming and stressful.
“It was just really crazy. It was just like a mixture of me being super happy and [then] being like ‘oh my gosh I really need to keep this up, I need to make sure that this doesn’t go away’,” she says. “It was just a lot of pressure because it happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to process it.
“It’s always a back and forth,” she explains. “I’m like ‘it’s my dream come true’ and then [I’m] like ‘oh my gosh, it’s a lot to take in, a lot to handle’.”
It was during her tour that her mental health took a turn for the worse, which led to her cancelling the last few dates and taking a break from social media. Two weeks later, she uploaded Burnt Out At 19, a very personal video which depicts her struggles.
“That video was a bit different because I didn’t realise I was making the video until like a week before I posted it,” she tells us. “Some of those moments were never intended to be in a video, like they were actual moments that happened in real life.”
Referring to audio clips used in the video, she clarifies that “those are actual audio messages that I was sending to my friend dodie. I didn’t think I was going to put that into a video until I realised I need to, in order to show people what I’m going through. I feel like I need to give them a glimpse of what it was actually like.”
The first time the video was viewed by anyone except Elle’s closest friends was at a YouTube festival, where it was shown to an entire audience. “It was a lot! I actually got really anxious… but I had Hannah Witton and dodie beside me holding my hand.
“I feel like I was extremely vulnerable posting that video but it needed to be done especially because I had made a big statement online by having a huge breakdown online so I needed to explain what was going on and just get people updated.”
She feels that she owes it to her audience to let them know what’s going on in her life. “It’s so odd! Like I don’t know why I feel this responsibility. I think it’s a respect thing, like I respect them enough to tell them what’s going on with me and they… give me space.”
This responsibility extends to meeting her viewers at conventions, as she admits that if she’s anxious, she feels pressure to hide it until the meet-and-greet is over. “I want to make sure I live up to their expectations, as bad as that sounds. I want to make sure that they aren’t disappointed with meeting me… If I’m feeling anxious and all that, I deal with that after the meet-and-greet.”
Despite this, she tells us how her audience have helped her while she’s been struggling, showing us a book called F**k It Therapy which a viewer gifted to her while she was on tour. “My audience is extremely mature, like with my whole Burnt Out At 19 and my whole ‘I need a break from social media’ [thing], everyone’s responded so well and have supported me and sent me tips.”
With that close relationship between a creator and their audience can come the risk of oversharing. Despite having boundaries between what she shares and keeps private, Elle admits that she has overshared on occasion.
However, she now has rules to determine what she should keep private. “I kind of just try to remind myself that whatever I’m sharing online, my old high school teacher will be able to see it, this friend of a friend will be able to see it,” she says. “Just putting in perspective who is going to see it and do I want that person to know?”
There’s no shortage of YouTubers speaking out about their struggles with mental health. From videos like Jack Howard’s Bad Brain Days to Charlie McDonnell’s Anxiety, Depression, and Being a Downer, it’s clear that Elle is not alone.
As she says, creators who speak out about their mental health “make people feel like they’re not alone. It makes people feel like [they’re] not the only one going through this and it helps them figure out what’s going on with their head and put labels and names [on it].”
Burnt Out At 19 is not the only video Elle has used to communicate her feelings to her friends, family and audience. In November 2017, she uploaded her coming out video, which showed her telling her friends and family that she’s bisexual… with a classic Elle Mills twist of covering her entire house in rainbow wrapping paper, of course.
“I have this problem with talking about my feelings and all that stuff face to face! So my way of talking about what’s going on in my life is through video,” she explains. “Being closeted, it was a hard few months before I posted that video and I knew I had got to the point where I wanted people to know so it could be a weight off my shoulders.
“I’d been labelling it as killing two birds with one stone, but it was like killing a shit ton of birds with one stone,” she laughs. “It was literally my way of coming out to everyone in my life with one shot.”
The video amassed more than 3 million views and is Elle’s most popular video on YouTube to date. Speaking about the reaction, she says “it was insane! I knew I was going to get support but I didn’t realise it would be like that much. It was really overwhelming.
“But it truly felt like a weight off my shoulders,” she continues, “because for months before that I was so unhappy and sad and like, it was a lot. Having all that support felt like all of that didn’t matter. Everything was good.”
In the past couple of years, YouTube has come under criticism for its treatment of LGBTQ+ YouTubers. Creators have noticed their videos being demonetised due to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ related words and anti-gay adverts being run alongside videos.
“I feel like this has been a problem for months… obviously that does need to change,” Elle asserts. “I don’t know how many times we’ve got to tell YouTube this.”
Nevertheless, she’s optimistic that change will come soon. “I think they’re getting the message, just from what I’m understanding, I think it obviously will still take a bit of time but they’re understanding that change needs to happen and within the next few months for sure.”
Something that Elle has personally struggled with on the platform is the tendency to become obsessed with view and subscriber counts. “You start to put your value into numbers and you start to really only see like ‘oh my gosh this video got really low views, that means this was really bad and I’m now a really bad YouTuber’.”
However, she now prefers to focus on whether she’s proud of a video, and enjoys watching creators who clearly don’t get caught up in the numbers game. Describing smaller YouTubers as “more genuine”, she mentions that “they aren’t really focused on the numbers, they’re really focusing on the content.
“At meet-and-greets, if someone says ‘I have a channel’, I always whip out my phone and subscribe to them because I want to watch their videos,” she adds. “Every single time.”
Despite certain issues with the platform, Elle’s love for YouTube is clear. While she aspires to work in film or television one day, she can’t imagine leaving YouTube for good. “I have all kind of control on YouTube, and when you get to bigger projects, you start to lose a bit of that so having that just for me, I would keep [my channel].”
The community is a huge part of this. Although she mentions that, at first, she “felt like the new kid at school,” she quickly found her place in both the UK and US communities.
Visiting LA and London so often, she has friends in both communities and a fair few creators she’d love to collaborate with. Topping the list is, of course, Casey Neistat. She grins as she starts to consider the scale of a video they could make together. “I feel like Casey, he could go big,” she says. “Something massive, something [people] would see and say ‘I can’t believe they did that’.”
Mentioning that the US community is more spread out, she describes the UK community as “wild! It’s so wild! It’s so small, it’s like high school. It’s so weird, everyone’s sort of connected to each other. But I love it there… Everyone’s really nice and everyone’s really passionate about their channel.”
She reveals that she’s been thinking about moving to London, adding that she “wouldn’t move there forever. If I did move there it would be like a six month period. Just to get cultured.”
So what has she got planned next? Speaking to us a week before her twentieth birthday, she tells us that her mental health is on the up and she wants to focus on getting back on track with her videos. “I’ve been learning more and more, talking to other creators about what’s going on with my head, putting labels and names to stuff. I’m trying out therapy and I’m making sure I know my boundaries now.”
However, she doesn’t claim to have solved everything: “I feel like I’m still experiencing everything… I’m still young and still figuring out myself and everything.”
She goes on to tell us about a video idea for her last days of being a teenager (“I’m probably going to do something crazy and stupid”) and mentions that she’ll be attending Buffer Festival, sheepishly admitting that “I probably will do a bigger video for that but I still haven’t figured it out yet.”
In the long-term, she plans to be a filmmaker, using YouTube as a stepping stone to get there. As you’d expect, her list of plans isn’t short, as she says she’d like to “keep the [YouTube] numbers going up, I’d obviously love to try out movies and TV, [a] YouTube Red series, try my hand at acting and all that stuff, try to do more collabs.”
Her channel certainly doesn’t look like it will stop growing anytime soon. However, she clearly hasn’t forgotten her roots, as she tries to produce a “small town vibe” in her videos. “I definitely try to put that across in my videos, because I feel like in most instances that’s relatable for people, because most people grow up in a small town. Not everyone grows up in LA or London.”
Most of all, she continues to be thankful to her audience who helped her get to where she is. In fact, when asked what she would say to them if she had the chance, she immediately turns somewhat flirty. “Hey, what’s up? How you doing?” she laughs.
“Thanks for supporting me and thanks for understanding that I needed time and a break and allowing me to do that. For sticking around and still watching the videos I post,” she adds. “And for making my dream come true.”
Photos by Rémi Thériault.
Want more from Elle?
Elle Mills is the cover star of TenEighty’s 2018 annual magazine, which you can buy here. Alternatively, why not check out these exclusive photosets?
- Elle Mills 2018 TenEighty Cover
- Elle Mills TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Elle Mills TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
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