Poppy: The Success of a Youtube Persona-life

So she's been around a couple of years, but when NPR interviews her, you know she's made it to some sort of new level. I'm talking about Poppy. That 20-something, eerie, but empathetic blonde who occasionally resembles a slightly southern Marilyn Monroe, but, like her eyebrows, has a darker undertone, and a satiric bite about the very idea of fame which has made her famous. So who is Poppy and why do I want to take the time and space to write about her?

Meet Poppy, as interviewed by her Alexa-like mannequin nemesis, Charlotte.

If you want to learn about who the artist behind Poppy really is, you can google her and read to your heart's content, but Poppy appears to try hard to keep this other identity under wraps. The idea of an actor beneath a persona is something we have familiarity with, yet, we haven't quite gotten used to. Some people are fascinated with uncovering the "real" person. Fans go to great lengths to piece together the actress-who-plays-Poppy's history, look for concerts or interviews where she (gasp) smiles and "breaks character," or feel vindication in that one magical interview where the actress sounds like, well, an actress talking about her character (hint: 3 letters).

At the same time, the persona concept is one which has, historically, made people uncomfortable. Remember catfishing? Reality show stars using fake names and personalities? Artists claiming to be 30 years younger with falsified backstories? When people discover the truth, they often assume the falsifier is mentally unstable, or a jerk, and feel betrayed and angry for being duped as part of an elaborate hoax. When I performed in a university play in England, complete with English accent, audience members were horrified to hear my American accent after the show. I wasn't whom they were led to believe I was. And this was only a play. And try talking to a former boyfriend of mine about the time I convinced him I got a flower tattoo on my hip, only to reveal to him, at the beach, it was a fake (well, 19-year-old Me thought it was funny!). Some people don't like lying posing as truth--even if it is meant in good fun.

Yet, assuming a different persona sometimes works, because it's not always meant to "trick" people. It works if we are in on the game ourselves, or if we find it exciting to at least wonder if it is a game (hence all those videos about "who is Poppy really?"). Netlix made a whole series, Haters Back Off, based on "Miranda Sings," an actress who started an online persona that took off. Over a decade ago, even I started a blog based on a quirky outsider's persona and her naive journey to find friends. It's a fun concept to pretend you are someone else, not just for a 2-hour film, but every day, while walking into real life, while answering questions, while immersing yourself into that role as part of yourself. This is play, this is improv, this is creation (this is a big reason why I could never stop immersing myself in writing plays!). And some people get joy riding along with that persona.

But I'm not going to share investigative information on the-actor-who-plays-Poppy's real name, her southern upbringing or what she looks like with brown hair. I'm not going to search for hidden or evil messages in Poppy's videos (although there are some messages you need to decode to get the whole video), or try to suss out whether she's a computer or a real human being. You can search all those theories on another website. Because, full disclosure here--I believe, um, she's a human actor. I want to talk about the character she's created, and look at her example of this particular style of modern story-creation, or her youtube "persona-life" (termed, by me, as "the active living out of a created character whom one chooses to exclusively portray to the public as oneself, for purpose of artistry, fame or fun, and which differs from the self one displays in personal or private relationships").

Whether she, her director (Titanic Sinclair), or someone else writes or gives ideas for her videos, they have thought, purpose, humor and most importantly, they have character and drama. So what do her videos look like? Well, she launched her youtube career by eating an entire thing of cotton candy.  And she has a video simply introducing herself ("I'm Poppy."), over and over for ten whole minutes. These videos might seem gimmicky, but they aren't. The cotton candy eating might be a little boring, and feel more exploratory compared to her more developed style later on, but it sets up her white-washed, eerily quiet and calm, pastel-Barbie world. And if you watch another video (as I suspect you will), then you enter into that world she has established and those rules. Maybe you're bored or maybe you're entranced by the repetition of her name, but how many other artists seeking fame practice (or are forced to practice) introducing themselves in front of the mirror? And isn't that what her story is about? Poppy is making and finding herself in the world of Fame, navigating the start to middle (so far) of celebrity stature with the childlike objectivity of a possessed android, coupled with the subjectivity of human desire to be loved and respected.

This quirky character, with her huge eyes, long pauses, and calm, repetitive phrases is enough to pique our interest (does her voice remind anyone else, just a tiny bit, of Marcel The Shell?). She's adorable--but she's weird, or as one child watching her put it, "She's like a creepy doll." She has a great hook in her style alone.

On top of her aesthetic, her videos and purpose seem to be mainly and clearly centered on satirizing pop culture (her music and persona are, well, "pop-py," after all, right?). And in her tiny clips, she and Titanic Sinclair do it very well. From money, sexuality, drugs, and lying, to selling out, gaining/losing power, and fear, Poppy and Titanic lay out society's obsession with celebrities and what that means to us and to them. She explores these notions in a technological setting, in the world of the internet (although she and Titanic probably never were alive during a non-internet world). She has some crazy over-the-top product placement, from Tide to Mr. Clean to Doritos and Monster Energy Drink. She reminisces about her past when "things made more sense, back before the internet made us think differently" and goes on for three (3!) solid minutes repeating only three words: "Delete. Your. Facebook." Many videos focus on philosophical or existential questions in the online pop-controlled age, and the theme of finding your place in this world, or struggling to keep whatever identity you think you have, seems to be a recurring theme. She often shares a thought straight with her viewers, in a kind of old SNL "Deep Thoughts" style (compare to Jack Handey.), but she is also happy to assume a Sesame Street posture, like, here, when she interviews this plant about being confined to an indoor pot.

Doesn't Poppy just care. So. Much? How could she not have a fan base of millions? I mean, look at the way she talks to Plant?

These clips are interesting, funny and on point, but as Poppy develops over the years, her story rounds out; other characters are introduced, plots and weird relationships form, and this is where Poppy has a chance to let the character and writing shine.

One thread in Poppy's abyss-like life is how she must deal with her cult following, and how her monotone commands make her a cult leader or follower, and also how they do not make her a cult leader or follower. Watch her "Repeat After Me" video as she stares at the camera reciting these words, all the while her lips change colors:

How about her "They Have Taken Control" video? Where a computerized voice outright says in front of a closed-mouth Poppy:

"You will pledge your allegiance to Poppy. You will do anything Poppy says. Poppy loves you and will always love you. Poppy welcomes you into the universe. Feel the love of Poppy flow through you. Feel the pulse of the internet as we become one. Prepare yourself for programming Sequence Two. Programming compete."

You pair these videos with lots of pauses and a continual flow of creepy "mind-control" music and well, it's, kinda, a little unsettling (haven't people started "cults" as jokes before, which then actually took off?). That is--until you get to the mention of the internet and programming "Sequence Two," which brings you back into the satirical nature of this whole Poppy sensation. How many of us, celebrities and "common-folk" alike, are brainwashed by inescapable media and technology?

So Poppy is now trying to start her own cult, complete with "The Gospel of Poppy" but Poor Poppy must also insist she is not in a cult:

"So many people have asked me if I'm in a cult. I'm not in a cult. Many people have asked me if Titanic Sinclair is a cult leader. Titanic Sinclair is not a cult leader. We do not believe in cults. Say it with me. I am not in an cult. Say it again. I am not in a cult. I am not in a cult."

Yeeeeeeesssss, Poppy.

(Shaking it off.)

That's right--even poor director/writer genius Titanic is dragged into this, as you can see from Reporter Charlotte's investigation here:

As if dealing with a cult following, while also trying not to be brainwashed herself, were not enough, Poppy also has to deal with this brunette mannequin's nosy reporting and jealousies! Charlotte, the computer-voiced mannequin with a drug problem has it out for Poppy--saying "mean things" about Poppy, copying her (please check out Charlotte's hilarious computer-voiced plagiarized version of Poppy's song, Lowlife!), trying to unfold Poppy's secret identity and even choking her (then denying it!)!

But don't worry. Poppy can handle her. She confronts Charlotte about the choking, she wears a bird cage on her head to protect herself from the mean words, and she kindly tells Plant, "Everything's gonna be okay, Plant." But I don't see this frenemy-ship disappearing any time soon. Charlotte has more tricks up her sleeve, and as Poppy gains more success, the disparity in their relationship may become more pronounced. This is drama! (And yes, Charlotte represents a whole lot too)

Of course, the supposed face of this whole Poppy persona-life, is that this artist is a musician, influenced by "J-Pop," "K-Pop," "No Doubt" and "unicorns." She actually has legit music videos and they're cool and cute and interesting and thought provoking:

The lyrics continue in the vein of satire, and even when you think, "Oh, no, she's written a pop love song," you realize it's actually about her loving a computer boy. Not a regular one. Phew. Satire continues. So her lyrics are clever, the music is typical pop (nothing strikingly amazing but this makes her message blend in more), but her serial character is her largest appeal. As she has deepened in this role (although her voice has only gone higher), her commitment feels real. Her videos are intriguing in their visual design and direction, her cadence and words lulling yet satirical, and her script is funny. Let's not forget that last point. This is a smart actress working with a smart director (and whoever else might be on her team) and they have a lovely dark humor between them, dealing with age-old challenges spinning on a modern pink celebrity cotton candy stick. And coming from a playwright who has written about someone obeying a mind-controlling Bingo chip or a girl delightfully playing games in a line leading to deadly diamond knives--I get this, I resonate with this, and I love it.

Poppy is going to remain intriguing for a while, but I am curious how many more persona-lives will appear in the coming years, not as a novel sensation, but as a form of writing within the confines of our technology. As fake news (including fake news videos) becomes more prevalent, will fake lives start to become harder to decipher as well? From reality shows to murder mystery dinner parties, from virtual reality experiences to Escape Rooms and creating persona-lives--are we searching to shuffle off our own coils by pretending we wear another one? Or are we just embracing the natural high of playing games?

I would love to say "only time will tell," as it's a great lead-in for this last video to share. But I don't think time necessarily will tell. And I'm not sure it matters. But I'll share this video anyway. Because, as silly and benign and repetitive as it is (but, dum-dum-dum-dum, look for the hidden message here and elsewhere!), I wonder if you will make you laugh, like I did, and say, "That is so true, Poppy! That is so true!"