Colleen Ballinger has been a YouTube star for more than a decade, amassing tens of millions of followers—many of whom found her when they were teenagers, or even younger. They fell hard for her potty comedy, and specifically her fictional alter ego, Miranda Sings, a talentless adolescent who delusionally believes she can sing despite the fact that she’s always off-key. The persona resonated with outcast kids who found her desperate desire for fame to be oh-so-accurately cringe. Such success earned Ballinger a Netflix series, sold-out live shows, and, most recently, rapidly intensifying controversy.
Late last month, Rolling Stone published a story alleging that Ballinger had engaged in “inappropriate behavior” with underage fans. The magazine verified screenshots of texts in which Ballinger asked a minor about their virginity status and their favorite sexual position; she also asked them to send pictures of their body. However inappropriate her alleged behavior was, the article clarified that no sexual crime had been committed and that no evidence in review even hinted at the possibility that Ballinger had intended to start a sexual Relationship with a child. Ballinger did not respond to Rolling Stone’s multiple requests for comment.
To those steeped in the world of YouTube fandom—a chaotic, shape-shifting minefield where allegiances are fortified and swapped by the hour—many of these claims were not new. Ballinger had even already responded to some of them (on YouTube, of course). Rolling Stone’s piece was tame—legally sound, one could argue—compared to the language and rumors that’d been flying around her for years.
Yet its publication preceded starker allegations against Ballinger getting similarly ushered into the mainstream press. A few days after the Rolling Stone piece went live, HuffPost published its own investigative report: “Her Fans Say She ‘Groomed’ Them As Teens.” In the ensuing weeks, Ballinger would be accused of everything from performing a Beyoncé song in blackface (as Miranda Sings) to texting a sex worker’s nude photo to a minor. (Ballinger’s legal team has denied she performed in blackface, saying she was wearing green face paint for a prior cover of a song from Wicked.) Her Sings tour has since been canceled, her career abruptly stalled. When reached for comment, Ballinger’s lawyer replied in an email that VF’s inquiries were “simply a regurgitation of the baseless and unsubstantiated claims that other media outlets and individuals on social media have reported previously.”
The reality of some of these claims, and in turn, the broader narrative around Ballinger, remains murky. Various allegations remain unverified, left to endlessly circulate as they fall under that ever-expanding umbrella of “inappropriate behavior.” In a sense, this is a familiar story for the social media age. But Ballinger’s downfall is unique. She brought teens into an adult world and made it feel like it was theirs, then saw those fans turn against her. It’s the product of a particular era of YouTube stardom, of a digital persona able to cultivate a feverish and savvy fandom that’s been trained to reverse course—and maybe, seek payback—with the first spilling of tea.
You could be forgiven if you were one of the millions who, back in the summer of 2020, allayed some COVID anxiety by diving into the YouTube drama unfolding between Ballinger and her former fan Adam McIntyre, a then 17-year-old from Brighton, England. Ballinger was his idol; her merch could be seen all over his bedroom, where he recorded his own videos. He was an aspiring influencer himself, making sweet, low-stakes YouTube content about his life. On June 22, McIntyre posted a video to his channel titled “colleen ballinger, stop lying.”
In it, McIntyre told several seemingly unrelated stories. One recounted the time Ballinger sent him lingerie in the mail, to his mother’s horror (the lingerie was new and unworn, and Ballinger has since apologized for sending it). Another was intended to debunk the rumor that he was secretly behind some anti–Miranda Sings social media accounts that Ballinger had gotten wind of. A third concerned the fallout of a tweet that Ballinger allowed McIntyre to post—as Miranda Sings, from the character’s Twitter account—that led to him never posting on her behalf again. He’d been considered her “social media intern,” he said, with hopes of being employed by her one day in that capacity. (Ballinger says he only had access to her account for one day, and that if all went well, she had planned to hire him formally.) The tweet in question was seized upon as queerbaiting by Miranda’s fandom (she “came out” as a Meghan Trainor fan), and led to intense backlash.
It might sound strange to hear that Ballinger had put a fan in charge of her character’s Twitter to begin with, but that access went in line with her public image. Ballinger was closely aligned with her most devoted (young) viewers. For her to remove that access, as McIntyre experienced, felt painful. McIntyre felt that Ballinger was guilting him, selfishly preoccupied with her reputation rather than his feelings. (After the backlash, she apologized for the tweet. Later, she denied ever blaming McIntyre and said she should’ve reviewed his tweets more carefully.)
Then came the YouTube response to McIntyre’s YouTube accusation—a classic back-and-forth. (If the names James Charles and Tati Westbrook mean anything to you, you get the idea.) Ballinger, 33 at the time of her response to a teenager, posted a classic apology vlog. She revealed screenshots of Instagram DMs she’d sent to McIntyre and one that McIntyre’s mother had purportedly sent to her, which seemed to be Ballinger’s way of assuring viewers of what “really” happened, a strategy not unlike McIntyre’s. In a DM, she accuses him of going “too far,” supposedly in response to him asking her to imagine her newborn son being taken advantage of in the same way he felt he had been. She also elaborated upon the lingerie incident: During a live stream giveaway with her fans, Ballinger explained, McIntyre had asked for the article of clothing. According to her, he’d even send photos of himself jokingly posing in the underwear to group chats that included Ballinger and her most noted fans. Ballinger painted a seemingly accurate portrait of the Miranda Sings community: a silly place for kids like McIntyre to belong, looking up to an increasingly famous and powerful public figure. “I’m not a monster, I’m not a groomer, and I do not deserve to die,” Ballinger said in the video, alluding to the possibility that she’d received death threats.