It’s that mouth. An exuberant smear of bright red rings her lips, bleeding out beyond the borders. Miranda Sings’ trademark look sums her up well: embarked upon with gusto, but not quite nailing it. Her sublime narcissism and odd vocal stylings make her the consummate product of our digital age: a self-obsessed, fame-crazy, cat-sweatshirt-clad girl of indeterminate age churning out horrible pop song covers and originals (“Where My Baes At” has more than 21 million views), bizarre tutorials and “Angry Miranda” reaction videos on YouTube, many of which feature her lashing out at trolls who don’t appreciate her majesty. Miranda is not an actual person, however, but the creation of Santa Barbara–born comedian Colleen Ballinger, 29. And, unlike Miranda, with her perpetual squinty-eyed struggle for the celebrity she so craves, Ballinger has reached the highest echelons of YouTube stardom and 6.8 million subscribers. She’s also written a New York Times bestselling book, Selp-Helf by Miranda Sings, and continues to headline comedy shows around the world, where obsessed fans present her with everything from papier mâché Miranda heads to vials of their own blood. Now Ballinger’s taking Miranda to another platform with a new 30-minute sitcom—the aptly titled Haters Back Off—that focuses on her wacky family. It has found a home, unsurprisingly, at Netflix. Not because it’s the bridge between YouTube and traditional television networks, but, rather, because Netflix is where unconventional and genre-bending passion projects helmed by women like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange Is the New Black, and Jessica Jones really flourish. Strange is at home there.
Visiting the set of Haters Back Off in Port Coquitlam, B.C., just outside Vancouver, it’s clear that Miranda has been transplanted from YouTube with the entirety of her weirdness intact. What kind of freaky clan could have possibly birthed her? Casting The Office’s Angela Kinsey as Miranda’s mom and Eastbound & Down’s Steve Little as Uncle Jim makes for an appropriately bizarre lineage. Stepping into the living room/ kitchen set, it’s immediately apparent that Miranda’s embodiment of John Waters kitsch is genetic. Wood panelling and dirty carpet are wall to wall. A producer carefully wending several journalists through the mess shares the set-dressing directive: “Head to Value Village and find the jankiest stuff you can.” The shelves are crammed with homemade trophies, like the one proclaiming Miranda “World’s Best Singer,” and porcelain trinkets, like a bedraggled pregnant mother adorned with a scroll that reads “Forgot to take the pill!” The fridge is covered in clipped coupons and topped with a toddler-size jar of generic cheese balls. Later, during filming, Ballinger will eat fistfuls of them, take after take, as she argues with her uncle over some nefarious plan involving infiltrating a local parade.
Meeting Ballinger herself is surreal: out of Miranda mode, she is a wide-eyed, petite Pleasantville type, her ironic purple cat sweatshirt looking almost chic. There is, however, a bit of Miranda in Ballinger’s own past. The house set is based on her childhood abode, where she was initially home-schooled and enjoyed tuna casserole with hot dog slices on the reg. The weird feline pieces she wears? Her teen wardrobe. During her high school years, Ballinger had just one close friend and they would eat lunch together in the bushes, or Ballinger would nosh solo in the theatre or choir room. The other kids teased her. Once college came around, she started to make peace with being a musical-theatre kid, and by the time she debuted Miranda on YouTube in 2008, she was ready to embrace the offbeat. “The stuff that I’m embarrassed by, I put on blast with Miranda,” she says. “It’s exhilarating to play a person who has no embarrassment gene because as myself, I’m not quite [like] that.”
To this day, Ballinger weathers slurs from the Internet denizens who haven’t yet figured out that Miranda isn’t real…or just don’t like the bit. She has also had to endure the horrors of working in the male-driven entertainment industry. Her brother and father would accompany her to early meetings, and execs would speak to her bro instead of her, or her dad—even though he knew nothing about the show. At first, “all the sexism made me cower back, but over time, I was like, No, I know what I’m talking about, I know what I’m doing, so I’m gonna stick up for myself,” Ballinger says. She delights in subverting her Hollywood-standard good looks, in flouting the unspoken edict that female comedians must also be hot, tasking the Haters Back Off directors with making her look as hideous as possible via horrifyingly unflattering angles.
That’s the genius of Miranda: her singular strangeness, the now-ness of this millennial creature, where the gap between her talent and ambition is both infuriating—and endearing. Fan after fan tells Ballinger they learned from her to be confident in their weirdness. “That gave me confidence to be weird and different, too,” she says. “You don’t have to be the prettiest or the most talented to love yourself and be passionate about what you love.”
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