ARTICLE ADAM BARAN
PHOTOGRAPHY DANIELLE LEVITT
AS A TEENAGER CHRIS CROCKER TURNED HIS ANGST INTO YOUTUBE GOLD— MOST NOTABLY WITH A DEFENSE OF BRITNEY SPEARS AT HER LOWEST POINT. NOW HIS OWN RISE AND FALL IS THE SUBJECT OF A DOCUMENTARY SURE TO ATTRACT ITS SHARE OF VIEWS
The large white sign by the railroad tracks welcomes visitors to Bristol, Tennessee, with a simple and quaint description: “A Good Place To Live.” It’s classic Americana hailing a peaceful, wholesome town, one that boasts a 1998 Congressional designation as “the birthplace of country music.” Someone who will probably never make it into Bristol’s tourism brochures is Internet superstar, pop singer, and webcam performance artist Chris Crocker, best known for his “Leave Britney Alone” video, which exploded on the scene in 2007.
Since then, Crocker, 24, has released hundreds of web videos which have garnered over 270 million views. His online success is the subject of Me @The Zoo, a thrilling, kinetic documentary by filmmakers Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch that charts Crocker’s rise to fame, subsequent collapse, and current under-the-radar period. The film, scheduled to air on HBO in June, offers a complex look at someone “raised on the Internet.” The portrait that emerges is of a queer outsider, but one who paved the way for a new wave of like-minded content creators.
“Back in 2006, when I started posting videos, there really weren’t many visible gay teenagers making videos about their own lives,” says Crocker. Home-schooled after being relentlessly bullied over his ultra-femme/trans appearance, he found strength, paradoxically, in being as visible as possible in the online world. “I was used to the hatred, so I didn’t care,” he says. “I was paying attention to the fact that there were actually people out there who related to me. Having people write and tell me that I gave them confidence and made them feel better about going to school, that’s what I was drawing from. I never took the death threats seriously.”
Crocker also never saw himself as different from other kids—at least not until they started teasing him—in part because of the way his mother had raised him. “She’s very free-spirited and didn’t care if I had long hair in braids or played with Barbies and was feminine,” he says. “The years with her really had an impact on me.” Me @The Zoomakes the connection between Crocker’s relationship with his troubled mom—who still struggles with addiction and homelessness—and his compassion for Britney Spears, which is what led to the video that made him famous.
After becoming a YouTube celebrity, Crocker found himself on the receiving end of the same kind of hatred and baseless attacks being directed at the idol who had elicited his sympathy. Still, he soldiered on, his sights set on a bigger goal: a reality show that he hoped would present his true self to the public. He ramped up the outrageous behavior, but made an unfortunate misstep when he delivered flip comments about 9/11 in an attempt to mock out-of-touch celebrity behavior. America didn’t get the joke, and he found himself under attack again—and without a reality show. “I hope it comes across in the film that I wasn’t serious,” he says. “I wish I hadn’t done it.”
Today Crocker spends his days hanging out with his family, recording music—which nets him a steady income—and working out. His blond-bombshell-celebutante look is all but gone; now he looks more like a buff, boyish gay-porn star—a job he tried out last year. “I wish that my decisions didn’t have to come with so many explanations,” he says. “If I were doing porn, I’d be content with it. But I know that day-to-day I’m going to have to explain myself, just like with the Britney video.”
He hopes the documentary will do a lot of explaining for him, and help to kick off a new chapter in his life—something he got a taste of at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered in January. “I still miss it,” he says of the screening. “When you’re posting, you know people are watching, you see the comments, but you can choose not to read them. In a theater you involuntarily hear their reactions, if they laugh or don’t. It’s very awkward. But I’m used to awkward places, so I liked it a lot.”
Lighting design Adam Amengual Production Stephanie Porto Special thanks Clare at Entertainment Travel