Colleen Ballinger created the character of Miranda Sings eight years ago as a parody of the girls she studied acting and voice with — the ones who took confidence in their own talent to a rude extreme. Miranda is egotistical, aggressively conservative, wildly antagonistic, and constantly off-pitch. She’s obsessed with fame, and one of her signature catchphrases is “haters make me famous.” That’s true in the most literal sense, because the early Miranda videos went viral mostly from comments and shares from people who misinterpreted the horrible singing, loud sermons about “sinners,” and absurd lipstick line as sincere. The character is a Roseanne Roseannadanna for modern times, lovingly parodying our generation’s tackiest obsessions while still reserving affection for creativity, imagination, and the simple bravery of being a weird girl in public.
The haters propelled Miranda to more than 7 million subscribers on YouTube, touring gigs as a one-woman comedy show, and appearances on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Now Colleen is tackling what Miranda calls her “2016 charity work” — the scripted Netflix series Haters Back Off. It’s an offbeat, often dark portrait of a Midwestern family with a “superstar” at its center, and Ballinger says it’s based on her own experiences with YouTube, viral fame, and the toll the internet can take on IRL relationships.I spoke to her about making the jump from YouTube to Netflix, what she hopes new audiences get from the show, and of course, the haters.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re the first YouTube personality to transfer to a scripted show, is that right?
Yes, into a scripted show, that’s correct.
What was that process like? How did you make that happen?
When I first started doing the character, it was just me all by myself — writing and producing and doing everything alone. Then I paired up with my brother, Christopher, who’s also my co-creator / co-producer / co-writer on Haters Back Off. Six or seven years ago, we started developing the idea of Miranda’s world. We were actually writing a movie, but then we quickly realized we had so much more story to tell that we wanted to make it into a TV show. We had never made a TV show before, we didn’t know what the steps were, but we knew we had a wonderful story that we wanted to share with the world. So we paired up with some incredible writers, showrunners, and producers and found people who were passionate about the show and about the story we wanted to tell. We started pitching it to different networks and Netflix was the best partner for us. Luckily, they believed in our show enough that they wanted to pick it up.
What about Netflix makes it the best place for Haters Back Off?
Miranda was created on the internet. The only reason I have any success at all in my career is because of the internet. So I knew I wanted to find a network that was tech-savvy and had a lot of success online. It just felt like it would be the perfect marriage for what I’ve already done, and for transitioning into the television world. I knew I wanted to find somewhere where it would be easy for my current fan base to carry over and watch this show. I love every Netflix original series, because they’re so creative and different, and they really believe in trusting the creators of these shows, and in their vision and passion. That was really appealing to me. So was the fact that they release all the episodes at once, and you can binge-watch. I know that for my current audience, that’s really important to them — to sit down and watch the whole thing, and not have to wait until a week for the next episode.
You’ve been living your life as Miranda for eight years now. What was it like opening that up to other people, to make this bigger collaborative project?
It was definitely different for me. It was a totally new experience, to open up the Miranda world, and what I do, to so many other creators. We have such a wonderful team of writers on the show, but I’ve always done everything by myself. I’ve always written all my own material, and edited and produced it, and promoted it all alone. So to work with a whole team of people was was really daunting for me, and terrifying. But once I started doing it, I realized how incredible it was, and it opened up this world in a way I would never have been able to do by myself. I learned so much about the character and the world through other people.
When you were expanding Miranda’s world from just her bedroom on YouTube to a full life and town, what did you start penciling in first?
The first thing we really developed was the characters — Uncle Jim and Bethany, in particular. We had to figure out what their relationship was to Miranda, and how they treated each other, and what their passions were, and what their goals were. That was the most important thing to us. Once we had that, we really started diving into the world of Miranda — the house, the town she lives in, and that kind of stuff. Casting was an incredible experience, because I felt like I knew these characters so well after developing them for seven or eight years. To see them come to life in front of my eyes was such a surreal experience. It made me emotional so many different times. They surpassed my expectations by miles — the actors we have on the show are just incredible.
never froget. you are amazing and great no matter what anyone says. unless i dont like u.
— Miranda Sings (@MirandaSings) October 9, 2016
Haters Back Off has a very classic suburban setting. It’s interesting that Miranda grew up in suburbia, because she was born on YouTube, where you usually see more authentic American homes — much more often than you do on traditional TV.
The house and town Miranda grew up in are very much based on how I was raised, and my hometown. A lot of Miranda’s personality traits are based on me and my family members, and funny stories from our childhood. We wanted to make sure we stayed true to what we knew, because for us, the best way to write is to stay as authentic as possible.
It wouldn’t make sense for Miranda to be in a perfect cookie-cutter home. I knew she grew up in a crazy house full of clutter, and lived in a bubble, and was homeschooled. It wouldn’t be realistic for Miranda to live in a quaint, beautiful place. We wanted it to feel lived-in and relatable. I think 70 percent of homes in America look pretty much like Miranda’s house. People don’t have time to clean it up and make it look perfect and make everything match. They don’t have the money to make it look amazing or have time to make amazing home-cooked meals. That’s just life, that’s how it is. I wanted it to feel real. It was really, really important to me that the set reflected how life really is for most people. Especially for this family.
The series starts with Miranda before she gets famous, what made you choose that as the starting point?
When I started creating a show, I always knew how I wanted the show to start and how I wanted it to end. Before we had created any characters, any plot lines, anything, I woke up one morning with this vision of starting with Miranda having just uploaded her first video. The process of getting her first viral video, and what that’s like. It was the only thing I knew I wanted to do.
I just think it’s fascinating. Nobody knows what goes on behind the scenes with a YouTuber. There are a lot of popular YouTubers these days, and all you guys see is us in our bedrooms for five minutes a day. To me, it’s interesting to figure out what goes on before they upload the video and after, and what they do while they’re filming it. That’s a side of YouTube that not many people have seen, and I thought it would be fun to create a world where I get to show my viewers the other side of the internet.
Does Miranda consider herself an artist, or is she just looking for viral fame?
Miranda definitely considers herself an artist. She’s extremely talented, the most talented person in the world! She’s just been praised her whole life by her uncle and her mother, and she’s so sheltered living in her little bubble. She doesn’t know what is widely known as fame or talent. She believes in her head that she’s a famous person. In the beginning, her ambition to be famous is because she believes she’s super-talented and she wants everyone to know, she wants everyone to see it. Throughout the season and her life, she becomes more obsessed with the idea of fame, as opposed to letting everyone see her talent. And that’s where she gets into trouble.
A lot of Miranda’s behavior toward her family could be construed as abusive, especially toward her mom. Is there something to be gleaned from that, maybe for teenagers who get really invested in viral fame?
I definitely think we’re living in a world or generation where we need constant gratification and adoration with Instagram and likes, and we base everything on attention. It’s changing how people treat each other, and that’s really shaped Miranda in this season of Haters Back Off. She becomes so obsessed with fame and adoration that she starts to treat the people closest to her in a bad way. That’s something that would be good for my current audience, which is a little younger, to see and recognize.
When I was growing up, I definitely had moments of treating my parents wrong, and I see on Twitter from a lot of my fans, they get annoyed with their parents, when really their parents are just trying to help or teach them. I think it will be good for people to see Miranda having a bratty attitude toward her family, and the consequences she has to face because of the way she’s treating everyone. All those stories in Haters Back Off are told from real-life events that have happened to me, to people in my family. The way Miranda treats her family is not stuff I completely made up, it’s stuff I’ve seen. I’ve seen kids treat their parents this way and have this “It’s all about me” attitude. It’s really detrimental to family and their relationships, so I’m really hoping people can learn something from Miranda and how she treats people.
On the flip side, can people learn anything positive things from Miranda? Is she a good role model in any way?
I think the most inspiring thing about Miranda is how confident she is, regardless of what anyone says to her. We’re living in a world where you’re praised for being beautiful and perfect all the time, especially as a woman. We’re taught to be perfect and pretty and talk a certain way and act a certain way, and Miranda defies all those rules. She dresses how she wants to dress, she looks how she wants to look, she acts how she wants to act. I’ve received thousands of letters from kids who are a little different and a little weird, and they thank me for teaching them to be confident in who they are. That’s a great lesson Miranda teaches everyone.
“Haters back off” is something I started saying as a joke when I first created the character, but it’s actually become an anthem for people all over the world who watch my videos. They’ve learned to say “haters back off” to people who are bullying them and making them feel less than what they are. Even though the character started off as a complete joke, she’s become this inspirational girl for people to look up to in the way that she’s confident and she doesn’t let anyone tear her down.
Will it be strange not to have a comments section, or a direct way for fans to interact with each episode? How do you think you’ll work around that?
It’s definitely different to not have comments on something I’ve created. My entire career has been, you post something online and you immediately get a response on the comments, or Twitter, or Instagram. People will tell me exactly what they like and what they don’t like, and what I should change. That has been a big reason for my success. I have someone constantly telling me what I can do better to find more success in the future. That’s been a really wonderful tool for me.
So it’s going to be different to not have a comments section on Netflix, and not know what people are thinking about the show. But I think it might be refreshing. It’s totally different, and I’m not afraid of change. I think it’ll be a really fun way to create. And I still have Twitter and Instagram, so I know my true fans will still tell me what they think. I’ll still get some sort of feedback. It’s a little daunting, a little scary, but I think it’ll be good.
Obviously your fans, who are mostly young people, will follow the show to Netflix. But this platform opens up a whole new audience base of people who might have never heard of you. How do you think “grown-ups” will react to the show? What do you hope they get from it?
When I created this show, I promised myself I would make something that I was proud of and that I would want to watch. On YouTube, I’ve always catered my videos to what the viewers want to see. Whatever the comments are telling me they want to watch, whatever the trends are online, I’ve always catered my content to what’s popular on the internet.
With this show, I’m making it the way I want to, and trying to create something that would be watchable by anybody. I think people will like it no matter what age they are… I’m hoping. I really enjoy it, and I’m 29 years old. The mother character, I think, is very relatable for moms all around the world struggling with the same things — a daughter who is problematic and egotistical and not nice to her. There are so many different things that are relatable in the show.
I’ve been working on Haters Back Off for so many years that I’m just ready for it to be out there. I’m excited for this new adventure, and this new chapter in the life of Miranda. I’ll always be on YouTube, I’ll always have that, but I’m so excited to branch out into something different and new.