“Sometimes it scares me,” Daniel confesses, quieter now. “It does scare me that this guy could be anywhere.” Similarly, Makenna Kelly fears that kids at her bus stop will follow her home and leak her address online. “I just go down to the clubhouse and wait ten minutes just to make sure nobody knows where I live.” For these families, this is just another part of YouTube fame.
“Him doing these videos, he’s putting himself out there. You’re gonna expect some people to do things if you’re putting yourself out there,” says Prunkl, “no different from a singer or a movie star.” T he left side of Makenna Kelly’s bedroom is just like any other child’s. Her silver and white bedspread matches a feature wall, she has a dresser with her own TV and her nickname – “Kenna” – is spelled out in wooden letters above the window. On the right side of her room, however, things are less ordinary. There are three professional studio lights and a tripod, a silver plaque congratulating her on 100,000 YouTube subscribers and a framed letter from Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO. “I love you so much!” writes 11-year-old Keeley, “you inspire me to keep filming videos.” Some kids have drawn Makenna, others have drawn her cats. One child sent ten dollars and asked to have their name mentioned in a video. Audrey (who signs off as “your biggest fan”) writes that Makenna inspires her, but she’s scared to start making ASMR videos because, “I don’t want to be made fun of at school or something.” Mockery is a problem for any child in the limelight – one of Jacob Daniel’s fellow ASMRtist United founders quit YouTube after being picked on at school.
Kelly says there are rumours that one girl at school said she was “annoying”, but most people think her channel is “cool”. Yet Kelly isn’t just a famous ASMRtist – she is also a meme. On social media, people edit her videos into short clips and share them with relatable captions. “She did not get at it first, she just kind of thought well memes can be mean,” says Lacy, who had to explain to her daughter what a meme was. “Now she thinks they’re hilarious, she’s seen a million of herself.” Lacy is no cliché pageant mum. Lounging on the sofa with wet hair and a grey T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign, she sits back, scrolling on her phone, to let her child speak candidly. She does not push Makenna to answer in a favourable way, nor is she pushing her daughter into stardom in pursuit of fame or riches. “She makes significantly more money than I do and works significantly less than I do,” laughs Lacy, sitting with her legs tucked underneath her on the large brown suede sofa in the middle of the family’s modest apartment. “She doesn’t have to babysit or dog-sit or anything, so it works out good.” Makenna smiles shyly, showing off pink braces. I like kids.” “She has definitely set herself up for a good future, I don’t want to give exact figures,” says Lacy – who Kelly calls her “momager”. Lacy gives her daughter $300 (£233) pocket money every month. “The rest of the money is in a savings account,” she says. “When she gets older, she’ll have the opportunity to buy a home, buy a car, within reason. She swears she’s gonna get a Lamborghini and we said absolutely not.” “Hey!” Kelly retorts. “When I have the money I’m gonna get it!” She is an animated child, fashion-conscious in an off-the-shoulder dress, her brand new bob haircut swinging as she speaks. Her iridescent rainbow false nails flash in the November sunlight which her two cats – the hairless Gwenie and the hairy Aggie – are sunbathing in. Kelly knows that she inspires other kids to take up ASMR – children at school ask for advice on how to make popular YouTube videos. At one football game recently, kids swamped Kelly for photos. “I went with friends and we walked past this group of cheerleaders and they all got quiet. They came up one after another and were like, ‘Let’s take a picture.’” Emotionally, Kelly and Daniel seem equipped to deal with this backlash (Aoki Hunnicutt remains blissfully unaware of any negativity, and also much else about YouTube fame – at one point during our interview, she asks with concern, “Mummy, I thought we were going to do an interview?”). Yet while they are fine with their fame, it may trouble the young stars to lose it.
“We talked to her about how it’s good today but might be gone tomorrow,” Lacy says. With YouTube’s new, stricter regulations, child ASMRtists may be replaced by an as-yet-unknown breed of internet celebrity. Desireé Hunnicutt, for instance, is hoping that Aoki’s early start on YouTube will allow her to start a business. “I believe in Aoki figuring out what it is that she wants to do in life even early on and I hope it actually helps her,” she says. With the summer over and homework to focus on, Makenna Kelly isn’t making any more custom videos. She continues to upload her regular videos two or three times a week, but doesn’t want to do it forever. “I don’t know, I might continue doing YouTube for a few more years but I definitely don’t want it to be my job when I’m older, because I like going out of the house for a job,” she says, now restless at the end of our interview, telling her mum she’d like to grab some chicken nuggets (I wonder, will she film herself eating them?). “I don’t really know what my future plans are, because there’s so many opportunities.” Kelly would like to be an actress, or a dermatologist, or a teacher – she’s young enough to neither know nor really care. Whatever career path she chooses, however, one thing is almost guaranteed.
Makenna Kelly will most likely be the first person to buy a Lamborghini with money earned from eating cookies and milk. It’s Week 4 of YouTube Treasures for speech therapy!