MEDIA

The Strange Saga Of Lonelygirl15: An Oral History

How one girl in a bedroom changed YouTube

MEDIA
Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Jun 14, 2016 at 4:38 PM ET

On June 16, 2006, a 16-year-old girl named Bree Avery posted a video to her YouTube account, Lonelygirl15. At the time, YouTube was just over a year old. Wide-eyed and low-res, she sat in front of her webcam, naming her favorite vloggers, contorting her face, and bemoaning her boring hometown. If you watch it now for the first time, the video wouldn’t seem like anything special, but thousands tuned in. Hundreds of thousands more soon joined, as she talked about boy problems, her strict family, and their strange religion.

Things grew captivatingly darker from there: Over 262 video posts viewers discovered that Avery’s parents were actually involved in a secret society know as the Order and that she was being harvested for her life-extending blood. Avery and her friends tried to run away, but the cult chased them. By the time Bree sacrificed herself so that her friends could live free from the Order, her videos had been viewed 60 million times.

Of course, a couple months into that first season of Lonelygirl15, most the viewers knew what they were really watching—a semi-scripted hoax, produced with actors in a Los Angeles bedroom, that nonetheless engaged audiences on a new platform like nothing had before.

Ten years later, five of the show’s key players discuss the legacy of Lonelygirl15.

Miles Beckett (co-creator): I’m originally a doctor. When I dropped out of the surgery program I was in and I moved back to Los Angeles, I was really just obsessed with online video. I discovered YouTube in fall of 2005, and became obsessed. I was was falling asleep one night, when I had the original nugget of an idea around Lonelygirl. I thought about how I didn’t know if any of the videos on YouTube were real or not—you kind of blur the lines of reality and fiction. I thought it’d be really cool if there was a story that could be told from the perspective of a video blogger. Then I connected with Mesh Flinders, a friend of a friend of mine. We met at a karaoke bar in L.A. called the Gaslite, and I told him the idea.

Mesh Flinders (co-creator): We were both just young, ambitious filmmakers. He told me about this thing called YouTube and said he had an idea for a story on YouTube [in which] someone would disappear. I had this character that had been in two different screenplays, and she was a young precocious teen.

Beckett: Over two weeks we wrote out the whole narrative of what would be Lonelygirl15.

Flinders: We quit our jobs in the beginning. We had raised a little bit of money to sustain ourselves over the first six months.

Beckett: The investors were Visa and MasterCard. There were really three of us who created it: me, Mesh, and Greg Goodfried. Mesh and I wrote it together, and Greg and I produced it. Greg and I went, between the two of us, about $50,000 into debt on our credit cards. Film Independent in L.A. gave us free casting space and free resources. We just saw a bunch of actors, and that’s how we ended up finding Jessica and Yousef.

Yousef Abu-Taleb (actor who played Daniel): I was a server at Red Lobster. I saw an audition opportunity on Craigslist of all places. It was called “Children of Anchor Cove” and it was supposed to be a little independent movie. All the other people went in for the audition dressed to impress—wearing Abercrombie, which nobody wears now, but back then it was the thing. I had a totally different take—ripped-up jeans, nerdy shirt, the hair going forward.

Beckett: Our first day of casting we were pretty bummed. Yousef was on the first day, so we were happy about that, but we knew that, obviously, Lonelygirl was the anchor, and we hadn’t seen anybody great. Then Jessica came on the second day. She was amazing.

Jessica Lee Rose (actress who played Bree, aka Lonelygirl15): It was when I first started acting in Los Angeles, so I submitted myself on Craigslist. I submitted two separate headshots and they called me in on one of the younger-looking headshots, and I just auditioned. As I was leaving, I let them know that I had been homeschooled, which worked out really well, because obviously they were looking for someone who wasn’t going to be too well-known in public.

Flinders: I remember both Miles and I looking at each other and saying, “That’s it. That’s her.” We didn’t want to do the show unless we could find the right girl. We need that right blend of naïveté and innocence, but also really ferocious intelligence because she’s been homeschooled. I was homeschooled and I grew up in a very isolated commune, similar to her. So I knew there were some things she would know where she would be very advanced and for some things she would be completely behind. I think Jess really fit the bill because she hadn’t kicked around Los Angeles for very long. So there was still this very fresh, vibrant innocence about her that we weren’t getting from the other actors.

Beckett: We knew we needed someone who had limited social media exposure. At the time that was possible—now it’d probably be impossible. Jessica was from New Zealand and had just moved to the United States. She had a Myspace, but we took it down.

Abu-Taleb: I met Jess and we read together. Man, we had some awesome chemistry. I actually was more excited when I heard what they really wanted to do. Miles and Mesh asked Jess and I to meet them at this café down on Melrose Avenue. They explained to us that they were making the movie eventually but first they were making a series online. It was going to have all kinds of weird little things in it, like cult activities. We were just supposed to be online for a little while and then we’d disappear. Once enough people had wondered where we were and we got enough press, we would actually be filming a movie and we would’ve came out with Lonelygirl15 the movie.

Rose: When we got there, they told us it was actually going to be on the internet, and that it was going to be on this thing called YouTube, and it was going to be called “Lonelygirl15.” My heart just dropped, because, in my eyes, you know, you move to L.A. as a young girl, your parents tell you to be careful. I’d gotten so excited when I booked this movie that when they told me what it was, I was like, “This is one of those scams. This is probably porn, or something really dodgy.” I was really upset.

Beckett: Yeah, it was a problem initially with Jess. She had gotten cast in something before, and the producer was totally sketchy.

Rose: Actually, Miles called me later on, because he could tell that I was not into it anymore, and was like, “It’s not porn! I promise!”

Beckett: I was like, “Look, I know that’s the only context around [online] video you’re aware of right now, but it’s not porn. I’m a good person. You can talk to my parents. There is going to be a big industry around online video, it’s just starting right now.”

Rose: At that time, I did have a Myspace, but I didn’t use it often. I had an e-mail, but I also checked maybe once a week. The internet just… for me, it wasn’t what it is today, where you use it every five minutes. They had us watch a few YouTube channels. I found it really strange and voyeuristic just watching this other person’s life. I watched that and I was like, “Okay, that’s kind of cool. I get it. Sort of.”

Beckett: We did up Mesh’s bedroom like a 16-year-old girl’s.

Flinders: We went to target and we bought about $200 worth of girly things that we thought a teenager would have in their room. That included, like a bedspread, a couple posters, and some stuffed animals. We just rearranged the room to look like it could be this girl’s bedroom in the Midwest or in some small town.

Rose: It made Mesh’s dating life very hard. He had a roommate and everything. Every time we come over, we’d sort of just decorate the apartment out, and cover the big air conditioning unit on the wall with this, what looks like a canopy full of teddy bears and stuff. Eventually we just left it like that.

Flinders: The first episode was called Dorkiness Prevails and it’s was one of my favorite ones. We just set up the webcam and had her say her lines. I don’t remember if that first episode was a lot or a little improv. We always started out with a script and kind of went from there. In the beginning, the trick was getting her involved with the other YouTubers because it was such a small community and so we were trying to captivate that audience before we started telling our story.

Beckett: Basically we were growth hacking YouTube before the phrase “growth hack” existed. Not only was I watching tons of videos on YouTube, I was basically trying to figure out how YouTube worked in the sense of: How did a video get to the front page of YouTube? I discovered there were really three main sections that mattered in YouTube. There was a most-commented section and those videos actually got a fair amount of traffic, and the bar to get into the most-commented section was a lot lower than the bar to get into the most-viewed section. Through the Lonelygirl account, we added friends on YouTube, and we actually did something that a lot of YouTubers do now, which is we did call-outs. We posted a couple videos without the actress in them. Those videos called out to popular YouTubers, and we would comment on their videos, and ask them to check out our video. So that drove comments on those videos, and got them some views.

Rose: The momentum of the first video was massive. At the time, I think it got over 100,000 views, which was insane on YouTube then. That was a lot.

Beckett: Every single comment that somebody would write, we would write back. Through that, we were able to get the videos consistently into the most-discussed section. It worked shockingly well, because by July 4th we had our first video to get half a million views, which was the video My Parents Suck. Other things that worked: really good freeze-frame thumbnails for videos—big eyes, usually a girl, something crazy happening, something that makes people want to click. At the time YouTube would automatically take a thumbnail from the middle of the video. I would obsessively edit the videos, and then test upload them, to get the perfect freeze-frame, because you couldn’t control that in any other way. It was like click-bait before there was click-bait.

Abu-Taleb: In the beginning there was constantly comment wars on YouTube. People would say, “It’s fake” and other people would say, “No, it’s not fake. If it was fake, the production value would be way better.” In the beginning, it was just four of us and a little crappy web camera and a nightstand that was actually broken.

Rose: I had two jobs other than Lonelygirl. I had a job at Abercrombie & Fitch and a job at T.G.I. Friday’s. Yousef was bartending. When it started to get popular they were like, “We don’t want you out.” They took out a loan so they could pay us a very small salary to not go to work, and just do Lonelygirl. I was out at the bookstore once in Santa Monica, just sort of, enjoying stuff. I got home, and one of the comments on the thing was, “I could’ve sworn I saw you at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica today.” And they were like, “But I knew for sure it couldn’t be you, because there’s no way you’d be in Santa Monica.”

Flinders: Jess was having to wear a hat and sunglasses. She couldn’t go out of her apartment. It was getting to a point where people were writing directly to us—because we maintained the account for Lonelygirl—and saying, “I know you’re a fraud and I’m going to expose you.” People hacked us and that just freaked us out.

Jenni Powell (superfan-turned-crew member): I was working in reality TV at the time, but was really feeling unfulfilled and had just started watching a lot of internet videos. A friend of mine came up to me and said, “Have you been watching these videos from this girl Bree? I’m really worried about her.” He showed me a couple videos, and I went, “This is brilliant, because it’s just scripted, and I want to know who’s doing it.” I started doing research, and I found a lot of the early forums that were talking about Lonelygirl15 and speculating if it was real or not—including one called Anchor Cove. People had found castings on Craigslist for a project called “The Children of Anchor Cove” that sounded oddly similar to what was happening on Lonelygirl. Their whole theory was that this was that production. One of the members of that fan site was John Green, who later went on to become on half of the Vlogbrothers and started VidCon. He was the last hold out. I think he was the last person on the forum who was like, “You’re all crazy. This is a giant conspiracy theory. She’s a real girl.”

Rose: I remember about two months in that, I think it was The Tyra Banks Show, asked Bree to come on her show. Bree—not me—the character. I was like, I absolutely cannot do that. I don’t think I could’ve pulled it off. And I just thought it was too much. It wasn’t in line with the story or anything like that. That was when it started to get kind of out of hand, with the whole press sensation.

Beckett: Richard Rushfield at the Los Angeles Times set up basically a sting operation where he had somebody put a javascript exploit on their Myspace page, because Myspace was totally insecure. Then they wrote a message to Lonelygirl. We clicked on that message, landed on this kid’s Myspace page, and the javascript had an IP tracker embedded in it.

Flinders: The decision was made for us. We were either going to admit to it or the whole world was going to know about it.

Beckett: We were terrified that if the press went the wrong way, maybe people would hate us. But after the press, viewership skyrocketed even more.

Rose: At that point we were like, great, we can get out of this bedroom. We’d been confined to this room for such a long time. I was pretty excited to get Bree on the road and do more fun things. That sort of cultish stuff had been coming in for a while, and that was kind of exciting to be leaking in there. But then it went really crazy once we were allowed to do whatever we wanted and make it as unrealistic as possible.

Abu-Taleb: It was like, now we’re not going to turn this into a movie. Now we actually have to turn it into a story and make the story work. It sort of just turned into this type of show that you never expect and you could never do with any other medium. Anybody can be a part of a movie, but not everyone can be a part of the birth of some new type of entertainment.

Beckett: It was the No. 1 channel on YouTube from subscribers and views, for six months to a year, around when YouTube was bought by Google. We were meeting with every single studio and network in town, and it was really hard to explain to people what the opportunity was, or where it was headed. Our first advertiser was Hersey’s. They took a chance on Ice Breakers Sours gum. We did a little product placement. Neutrogena was our first six-figure sponsor. We actually created a character, Spencer Gilman. He was an “employee” of Neutrogena.

Rose: It was kind of my decision to have Bree die. I was the only way that Bree was going to go down. She just couldn’t be like, “Peace. I’m out. Maybe I’ll come back and maybe not!” She had to die. We went into contract re-negotiations and it just wasn’t going to work. It kind of felt like Bree was up in the air. They were adding in all these new characters, and we didn’t know what to do with her. She sort of had gone a little too far into this whole cult thing. It was very hard to bring her back as the original Bree, as how she’d been in the beginning. I think that made her a bit stuck, and it made it not the Bree that I had enjoyed playing in the beginning. So then they decided, “Yeah, she’s going to die. We’re going to make it, like, epic.”

Jenni Powell: They continued the series with additional girls that were running from the Order. That’s when I started working on the show itself. But prior to that, I was making fan content, because that was the next step of being a superfan. The show was interactive and the whole point is that anybody could be part of the story. There were a lot of people creating their own fan content, either as themselves or character that they built that were trying to interact with the characters. I actually took a completely different route with it. It was Anne Frank video blogging and it was called Lonelyjew15. I was kind of pushing the envelop. The Lonelygirl creators saw it and reached out to me and asked if I would come work on their show.

Abu-Taleb: I went on to be the longest-running character on that show. My favorite thing about playing Daniel was the arc I got to play. I started off as a loser—somebody with no confidence, no anything—and my character got to grow. As things happened to him, he matured and became less uneasy with the world. He got a girlfriend finally. He got a couple girlfriends, to be honest. That was cool.

Beckett: All of the Lonelygirl shows ended by the end of 2008. The primary reason we stopped was there was no money. This was when the economy crashed. I remember when I first had the idea for Lonelygirl I thought to myself: Somebody is going to do this—some other scripted series on YouTube probably would have played around with reality and fiction. I feel like we were part of a movement, part of something that was just seminal to the generation.

Flinders: When I look at YouTube now—and I admit I don’t look at it very often—I don’t see many ongoing stories or larger worlds being explored the way that ours were. I see one-off videos about how to do your makeup, videos about how to cook. It’s much closer to reality television than the cinematic stuff that interests me. Now I’m directing a film called “God of Rain and Thunder” about a teenager who was raised isolated from the rest of the world but wanted desperately to be a part of it; who admires their parents for their religious beliefs and questions them at the same time. I wasn’t satisfied with the way we left the character of Bree. I always knew I would return to that character

Beckett: I bought back all of the rights to Lonelygirl in 2012. I  just wanted to preserve the property, and knew that the anniversary would be coming up. I started talking to Jenni Powell about the anniversary. Jenni started as a fan, then worked on the show. Since then, she has become an Emmy Award-winning web series producer. Jenni had always thought it would be cool to produce some new Lonelygirl content. She has a production company, and they have a really cool concept for a way to basically bring the series, or the universe, to life with a new series for a new audience.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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