How a noughties internet celebrity dealt with overnight fame

5 Mins read

Cara Cunningham, previously known as Chris Crocker, opens up about the video that brought her to the public eye.

Cara Cunningham became an internet sensation back in 2007. Her ‘Leave Britney alone’ YouTube video went viral and racked up two million views in just 24 hours at a time when the world was just catching up with how social media functioned. Having been in the spotlight from the age of 19, fans have witnessed her documented life through computer screens for almost twenty years.

Cunningham is from that first generation of internet celebrities who shaped what we now call influencers, but I feel that’s not how she would like to be addressed. Born and raised in Bristol, Tennessee, by her grandparents, she was catapulted to fame very early on as Chris Crocker, before her gender transition in 2021.

The experience of being the subject of headlines suddenly was a strange one, according to her. Having grown up in a small southern American town, she says her initial fame was uncomfortable. “I don’t think I handled it well. For a long time, I felt trapped by it… It’s interesting because the first video I ever posted on MySpace got eight million views, about a year before YouTube came along. What was odd was I was accustomed to my videos getting a lot of views, but not getting noticed by the mainstream media.”

Her videos were largely comedic and addressed the mundane in snappy provocative humour. In “Leave Britney alone”, Cunningham is seen crying about how the media was treating Britney Spears at the peak of her public turbulent years. “I woke up the next morning and went to the store and the cashier said, ‘I think I just saw you on the news this morning.’ I had not yet seen TMZ and all of these TV shows talking about the video yet, so I was confused.”

Internet users were quick to mock the video and post hateful comments online. Cunningham became a national joke, being invited to star in TV commercials and advertising campaigns. She was even featured in a South Park episode. But to her, the video was merely a reflection of what she was going through in her personal life. The humour got lost in translation. The funny wasn’t as funny as it was interpreted to be.

Woman is seen on the grass with her legs up.
Cara Cunningham built her career doing comedy videos on YouTube. [Dominic Saavedra]

“My mom returned home [after serving in Iraq] with severe PTSD and became homeless and addicted to meth. My family was tired of giving her chances and I was using my money to put her in hotels night after night so she wouldn’t be on the street. The reason I say this is because there were parallels in the way I saw how my mom was going through turmoil as well as Britney.”

She says she spent a decade explaining herself to people who thought she was making fun of Britney Spears, that she wasn’t seeking three minutes of fame. On the contrary, being a loyal fan of the singer, her candid expression came from the deepest part of herself. “The internet was so vicious back then with meme culture that I felt really dehumanized and a punching bag. Which is ironic considering the video is me telling the world to treat her as human.”

“I decided to just start creating performance art videos as a means to have an antenna out to the universe after being so confined in my bedroom with no socialisation.”

Cara Cunningham

At one point in her childhood, Cunningham also suffered from bullying and stopped going to public school because it was no longer physically safe to do so. She was, in other words, very comfortable with her fluid gender at that stage, something that her religious community did not approve of. While being home-schooled, she began writing a lot of poetry and taking photos as a hobby. This was the beginning of her life on the internet.

“One day I discovered the record option on my Canon camera that my grandmother had bought me. I decided to just start creating performance art videos as a means to have an antenna out to the universe after being so confined in my bedroom with no socialization,” she says.

After ‘Leave Britney alone’, Cunningham moved briefly to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an entertainer and singer. She had already gained fame by that time, so being at the centre of the entertainment industry was important to her.

Woman is seen jumping on the street.
Cara Cunningham moved to Los Angeles in the late noughties. [Dominic Saavedra]

“I initially moved because I was pitching my reality show with World of Wonder who does RuPaul’s Drag Race. This was during a time when networks weren’t really taking chances on internet celebrities and so the offers that came in weren’t that great. I eventually left because I just wanted to be back near my grandmother. I had moved back a couple of years before ‘Me @ The Zoo’.”

Her HBO documentary ‘Me @ The Zoo’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 to a lot of buzz. It followed her life in Tennessee where she discussed openly her childhood and life after fame.

The documentary paints a clear picture of who Cunningham is. She hasn’t for one moment not been real to her audience and that is what is most outstanding when she is in front of a camera.

Over the years, she talked candidly about her relationship with alcohol, starring in an adult film, and even creating an OnlyFans account. She has bared it all.

For most of the 2010s, Cunningham decided to focus on her social media presence and music career. She released many singles in the last decade to great success.

What has been pivotal to her, though, is her recent gender transition. “I think for me it was that my inner monologue was always that of a female. It wasn’t just that I liked Barbies as a kid. As I grew older, I tried everything to be okay with being assigned male at birth. I went to the gym, cut my hair off, did adult film, everything I could to try to fit the idea of a guy for others to accept me, but I was never satisfied.”

Woman is seen getting her makeup done.
Cara Cunningham says she never felt comfortable being assigned male at birth. [Dominic Saavedra]

She says she didn’t want to put her family through it, especially because her religious grandparents had raised her. But her desire to express her identity was louder.

“I eventually decided that since I’ve always seen myself growing older as a trans woman, I would rather my loved ones see and know that transformation happened rather than wish I had lived my truth while they’re still here. And luckily they still love me, except now for who I truly am and not the idea of me.”

Cunningham’s relationship with fame is a constant theme in her life and one that stands out mainly because she is from that generation. How she deals with it, how it shaped her into the woman she is today and what she has learnt from it. Ironically, the public’s impression of who she is doesn’t concern her.

“I think the biggest thing it taught me was to never see yourself through the eyes of others.”

Featured image by Dominic Saavedra.

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