When I got to YouTuber Gabbie Hanna’s $2.2 million Studio City home in Los Angeles last month, I rang the doorbell and was promptly told to let myself in. “Door’s open,” her boyfriend told me through the intercom. Their two cats sitting on a tall scratching post barely lifted their heads, leaving me to walk through Hanna’s home on my own, hoping to find her. She wasn’t in the living room, which had a framed print of the word “cunt” written in cursive sitting next to an emerald couch. She wasn’t in one of the two recording studios in her home where she records her podcast Burnout With Gabbie Hanna, one of which is decorated with awards from YouTube and a framed printout of her placement on the New York Times bestseller list. (She has published two poetry collections, 2017’s Adultolescence and 2020’s Dandelion.) I finally found her upstairs in her bedroom, getting her makeup done for our photo shoot, wearing cutoff jeans and a vintage Queen T-shirt while her publicist, the makeup artist, and the photographer’s assistant made a semi-circle around her.
We made awkward small talk for a few minutes before Hanna turned to us and said, “OK. This is a question for the room: What’s your most embarrassing moment?” And even though she hadn’t met any of us before — including her new publicist, who at no point during the day would allow me to speak to Hanna alone — we answered. One told her about a recent blackout, another about an awkward interaction with a crush. “And you?” Hanna asked me. I mean, come on. Buy a girl a drink first.
Such is the way 30-year-old Hanna has lived her life for the last seven or so years: perennially online and eager to tell you everything that’s ever happened to her. First she was on Vine, where she made a name for herself through her comedy bits in 2013, which later got her a few nominations at the Teen Choice Awards in 2016. In 2014, she debuted The Gabbie Show on YouTube, which picked up steam in 2017, coming up alongside fellow creators like Lilly Singh, Liza Koshy, and David Dobrik. She gained a following by making personality-driven videos with her creator friends and storytime videos about her own life. (Hanna was briefly a video fellow at BuzzFeed in 2015, though we had never interacted before our interview.) At the height of her popularity, with millions of followers on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, she was nominated for YouTuber of the Year at the 2018 Shorty Awards.
But these days, Hanna’s YouTube page is largely dormant. Her subscribers are down to around 5.7 million. In the last month alone, she’s lost 30,000 subscribers. Her latest video has just under 244,000 views, a precipitous drop compared to videos posted a year earlier like “My VERY Dark Childhood :,(” (1.3 million views) or “Trying Lip Filler for the First Time!” (2.4 million views). In the last five months, she’s posted just one video, a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”
Her dwindling subscriber base has no doubt been the result of a series of swift and unending controversies. First, in 2017, people criticized Hanna for making a video about a classmate who died of a drug overdose without consulting the family first. (Hanna apologized in a follow-up video.) Then, in 2018, she promoted a free (except for shipping) set of makeup brushes that people claimed were poorly made, began shedding after the first use, and, in some cases, never actually showed up after orders were placed. But instead of apologizing, she blamed her audience. “Are they these amazing, high-quality, can’t-even-believe-it, great brushes?” Hanna said in a response video while doing her makeup with the offending brushes. “No. I also never said they were. … I’m not sure what quality people were expecting when they paid $10 for 10 brushes.” Then, in 2019, Hanna allegedly told Trisha Paytas’s then-boyfriend, Jason Nash, that the fellow YouTuber had herpes. Paytas denied the accusation. Hanna also had to apologize for tweeting, “If I could be any animal I’d be a beyonce.”
“It feels like I’m always dishing out apologies and I’ve never once received one, and that to me feels a little chaotic.”
And then, in 2019, she became embroiled in her most serious controversy. Jessi Smiles (whose real name is Jessi Vasquez) accused her ex-boyfriend Curtis Lepore of raping her in 2013; she later claimed that Hanna had continued to stay friends and collaborate with him. (Smiles filed charges in 2014 and dropped them a month later when Lepore pleaded guilty to felony assault. Lepore did not respond to my interview requests, and Smiles declined to comment for this story.) Soon thereafter, Hanna was labeled a “rape apologist” by the public. Fellow creators and followers turned on Hanna, who was once considered sincere and emotionally intimate with her audience, and began calling her calculating and manipulative.
“Who didn’t I apologize to,” Hanna told me after we sat in her backyard. “I gave Jessi Smiles an apology. I gave Beyoncé an apology. It feels like I’m always dishing out apologies and I’ve never once received one, and that to me feels a little chaotic.”
YouTubers are constantly apologizing for their public gaffes; makeup experts have practically created a subindustry with their crying mea culpas alone. Hanna isn’t unique in making very public mistakes, handling them poorly, and then having to backtrack. See: James Charles, Jeffree Star, Tana Mongeau, David Dobrik, Laura Lee, Manny Mua, Shane Dawson, and truly, I could go on. And just like the others, some of Hanna’s apologies seem sincere and some really don’t. But unlike her YouTuber peers, Hanna hasn’t been able to bounce back after an apology video or time off social media — perhaps because a sizable chunk of her audience is absolutely not buying that she’s sorry for anything. She can’t move forward, because they won’t let her. Everything she posts is another reason for them to bring up the exploited dead teen, the allegations of being a rape apologist, the molting makeup brushes. If people aren’t taking shots at her in the comments of her TikTok videos, then they’re making memes of her. “I honestly just want to be left alone,” Hanna said. “But they just can’t resist.”
The allegations levied against Hanna range from the tedious (makeup brushes) to the sincerely awful (ignored her friend’s alleged rape), but they’re not worse than those about any of her (often male) counterparts. She’s a manipulative asshole? Take a number. She’s insincere? Who isn’t? YouTube helps the worst of humanity float to the top and rewards them for their worst behavior. Take for instance Logan Paul, who recorded a dead body in a forest in 2017, said he was sorry and now makes $150,000 for one Facebook post.
So why should Hanna be treated any differently? “I started on YouTube being a dramatic loudmouth, confrontational storyteller, and that was the version of me everybody loved,” she told me. “At some point, I started hiding in myself and being silenced because I was so afraid of what people would say. I didn’t have anyone backing me. I just want to be my fucking self.”
On her bedroom walls hang two framed portraits of Freddie Mercury. One of her cats is even named Freddie Purrcury (the other one: Radio Ga Ga). Hanna loves Queen, loves Mercury’s music, but she specifically admires his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. “I like looking up interviews where he’s telling people off,” she said.
I watched as she put on a strapless black leather dress, a clear raincoat, a lucite bow tie, and treacherously high clear heels for the shoot. Hanna applied a dual-tone lip, red on top and black on the bottom — something she’s trying to make her signature look. She smiled at herself in the mirror and teased her hair. “Everyone made fun of Freddie Mercury too.”
Hanna grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and is the third of six children. Her father is Lebanese, her mother French and Polish. She said she had a tough upbringing — her parents were both incredibly young when they had her, and, according to her, she nearly fell into homelessness a few times as a child — and that’s something she’s still unpacking. Hanna also said she has a long history of being bullied as a child, an experience that she still deals with online from her former friends as well as total strangers.
It’s true — some of the things people say to her online are ghastly. When she posts a seminude selfie, she’s mocked and derided. Her nose is a near-constant source of inspiration for the cruelest digs from her audience. “I get all these comments of people talking about my nose, saying I’m the Froot Loop bird and calling me ‘Pinocchio’ and shit,” she said. “I can’t say something about that?”
“I get all these comments of people talking about my nose, saying I’m the Froot Loop bird and calling me ‘Pinocchio’ and shit,” she said. “I can’t say something about that?”
Hanna admits that she hasn’t been on her best behavior in the past. “Of course I was a fucking asshole,” she said. “I have a fucking neurological disorder that was unchecked, and I wasn’t taking care of my mental health.” She told me she was recently diagnosed with ADHD, autism, and dyspraxia. “People throw it around a lot and say ‘Oh, I’m ADHD’ when you’re getting a little bit restless or fidgety, but it’s a lot more than that,” she said, adding that the disorder causes her to be impulsive and affects her short-term memory. (Despite considering herself neurodivergent, she was called out for being “ableist” in a March tweet, dismissing “tone indicators,” tags used for neurodivergent people who might have difficulty inferring tone online.) “Part of being neurodivergent is being impulsive and not fully thinking through decisions,” she told me. “I think people have a hard time differentiating between making an excuse and trying to explain yourself.”
Hanna said her impulsivity keeps getting her in trouble, going all the way back to 2018, when she was promoting those flimsy makeup brushes. “Whenever people want to discredit me on whatever my current thing is, they go back to the beginning and say, ‘Remember you scammed your fans?’ kind of vibe,” she told me about the backlash. She seems to understand that her approach to dealing with controversies could be better.
“That was a really bad response,” she said about her response to the makeup brush fiasco. “Part of the problem was not having a good team at the time and not having a ton of life experience. I went from being a drunk college kid to having a lot of followers and a lot of responsibility, and I was so defensive because I was already getting made fun of because I was a meme. When you get a lot of hate, it’s hard to sift out what’s hate and what’s valid. I needed to learn a lot.”
For a time, the worst thing you could call Gabbie Hanna was a scammer, an irresponsible agent of capitalism who was only out to make money for herself, even if it meant her fans went home with shoddy sponsored products. But then came the rape apologist claims, which have continued to dog her.
YouTuber Jessi Smiles accused her ex-boyfriend Curtis Lepore of raping her in 2013 while she was asleep and recovering from a concussion. Smiles and Hanna were once real-life friends and YouTube collaborators — but in 2019, Smiles made a video accusing Hanna of staying friends with Lepore, even after she’d heard about the allegations. “One of the things that I believe you never do, even if you hate someone now,” Smiles says in her video through tears, “is hang out with their rapist and their friends.” (Smiles declined a request for comment, and Lepore did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Hanna denied that she was ever Lepore’s friend. She said she had always believed what Smiles had said about her ex-boyfriend. “You have to really try to not give a fuck what people say if it’s not true,” she said. “Every time I put out a project, it’s instantly, completely shut down by people starting a new rumor that day. Am I going to live like that forever? Or am I going to do whatever the fuck I want because you’re going to hate me anyway?”
“I went from being a drunk college kid to having a lot of followers and a lot of responsibility, and I was so defensive because I was already getting made fun of because I was a meme.”
I don’t know the truth about Hanna and Lepore, but I do know she has consistently handled criticism poorly. Unlike other YouTubers who behave much, much, much more poorly, Hanna actually replies to her detractors’ comments. And when she does, it’s easy to assume she’s hungry for the engagement. After all, she ultimately benefits from it. But what’s frustrating is that she’s trying to have it both ways — to relish in being the most hated person online (like a Logan or Jake Paul) while also being sensitive about it (like David Dobrik, who has not returned to online life since his apology video in March).
In June 2020, while recording an episode of her podcast Box of Thoughts, Hanna went on an hourlong rant, clearly upset about how she’s been treated by her colleagues, her (former) friends, and her most hostile followers. She took particular umbrage at people who mocked her for seeming unstable. “You’re going to talk about my mental health as I’m having a mental breakdown because you gaslighted and mentally abused me for fucking months because you spread a one-sided narrative that you knew was filled with fucking lies for months, and now I’m talking about it and I’m losing my mind? … Fuck you! Fuck all of these people for what they’ve done to me,” she said. “And for them to be tweeting right now [that] I’m playing the victim — I am the fucking victim. … These are bullies. These are high school fucking bullies.” That last line — high school fucking bullies — was memed a thousand times over. Hanna, ever savvy, tried to benefit from that too: she made T-shirts.
Tired of the relentless controversies, Hanna has mostly pivoted away from YouTube. In many ways, she had to. She’s now focusing on her music, but even her pivot has come with its own issues. In 2018, she did an interview with Genius, breaking down her song “Monster.” Thanks to an audio glitch, her vocals came out distorted. This led to a million memes of Hanna scream-singing the word “monster,” augmented with visuals like American Idol judges saying “no” over and over or with her voice replaced by the Windows XP startup sound. “You know what I’m really grateful for?” she asked me during our interview. “All these people that came out and told stories about me — I’m so glad that didn’t happen when I’m famous. Like, imagine that coming out when I’m nominated for a Grammy.” (In 2019, she released her debut album 2WayMirror. A second, more rock-focused album is on the way.)
Then there are the reactions to her two poetry collections, both of which became New York Times bestsellers but have largely been panned by reviewers. One Goodreads review of Adultolescence: “Absolutely one of the worst garbage-fire pieces of trash I’ve ever read.” (A sampling from the book: “what is a monster / if not just / an animal / we don’t know.”)
“I finally feel like I’m in control,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to cope with people hating you when you’re fanning the flames.”
Her latest fight, in fact, is with Rachel Oates, a UK-based YouTube book reviewer. Oates, who has 229,000 subscribers, is known for her scathing reviews of influencers’ books. She has made a lot of videos about Hanna, including a multipart series about Adultolescence, which has a cumulative 2.1 million views. Despite this, in what seemed like a rather shrewd attempt to keep the buzz going, Hanna sent Oates her second book. It worked; Oates’s review of Dandelion, currently at just over 674,000 views, is similarly brutal. “I actually think I’d go as far to say that most of the poems in here are worse than Adultolescence,” Oates says at one point. She even wrote her own parody of Hanna’s book from her dog’s point of view, called Doggolescence: Poems by Kyra the Staffy.
In response, Hanna went on a screed against Oates on her Instagram stories in April. She called Oates “narcissistic” and “toxic,” many of the same words used against Hanna herself over the last five years. “She’s not a fucking artist. I don’t care about her fucking opinion, because she has no accomplishment in art,” Hanna said in her stories. “I accept my criticism from talented, smart people, not abusive, toxic, exploitative bullies on YouTube. … You’re a fucking monster.” Hanna’s Instagram screed about Oates was made long after her review of Dandelion went live; she claims this too was strategic. “I never start drama to support stuff, but if there is drama, I will capitalize on that opportunity to promote something,” Hanna said. “I’m going to take advantage of a moment.” Indeed, she started releasing new music a few weeks after reigniting this fight.
When I asked Hanna about how she chose to handle the Dandelion review, she said she’s fine with criticism; she just wants it to be constructive. “But if you’re going to continue to harass me and publish a book mocking me, whatever. Me too. I can play the game. I’m not going after a poetry critic,” she said. “There are people who have given my books negative reviews on Goodreads, but she’s not a critic. She’s calling me some bitch on the internet and having her dog write a poem.” I wasn’t able to find a source for Oates calling her a bitch, but Hanna did call her one in her Instagram stories in April, which I also asked her about. “She is a bitch,” she said before laughing and turning to her publicist. “Should I not have said that?”
Oates declined a request for an interview, but she provided a brief statement that said, in part, “Gabbie’s behavior towards me and others is shocking and upsetting but my work speaks for itself and anyone who watches my videos (or even reads my book which parodies her writing style in places) will see her claims are unsubstantiated; I have never harassed her, I have never called her names, I have never mocked the subject matter of her books, I have only critiqued the writing style and apparent laziness of her work … I hope Gabbie has her family and friends around her to support her but I just want her to leave me alone.”
If you’re a Gabbie Hanna fan, then you likely believe that she’s just really savvy, in total control of her image, and using the villain role — now basically a trope among YouTubers — as a way to sell records, boost book sales, and jump-start other projects. She doesn’t disagree. “I might as well do whatever the fuck I want, because guess what? The views are up. You’re going to listen to the fucking album because it’s about the shit that you guys want to hear about. You’re going to watch my series. You’re going to read my book. You’re going to fucking obsess over every movie that I do. You’re going to fucking pay for my Patreon to see my private content,” she said. She also said that she’s finally able to just be herself online; her TikTok is mostly videos of her dancing, lip-synching, or singing in the shower. She has nothing to lose. “I finally feel like I’m in control,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to cope with people hating you when you’re fanning the flames.”
In the world of young, unregulated online creators, no one lives up to being any kind of moral authority; Hanna was possibly a bad friend, and she might have spread rumors, but she’s part of an industry full of adult children who are often rewarded for bad behavior. On YouTube, being an asshole is a moneymaker— take PewDiePie, the site’s highest-paid creator in 2016, who has used antisemitic rhetoric (which he has said is a misunderstanding). Hanna ultimately suffers from the same problem that most YouTubers — and people — do, which is that she’s flawed. But it’s also clear that she might be held to a higher standard than her fellow creators.
“I lost sponsors, I lost a record deal, I lost my friends.”
In 2017, she alleged that YouTuber RiceGum had assaulted her at a party after she had goaded him about having a ghostwriter. It seemed that nobody believed her, though he did admit to grabbing her phone and breaking it. Hanna also told me about a “prank home invasion” video that was filmed for YouTube, and how she fully believed that her friends were being attacked by a masked intruder with a baseball bat. “As I think you know with the vlogging community, the longer you do it, the more extreme shit has to get in order to get the views,” she said. “I was like, I don’t like this. I’m uncomfortable.” She claimed the video’s ending had to be reshot because her original reaction was so severe that it couldn’t be reliably used for laughs online. (Hanna declined to say who had made the home invasion video, though it’s still online. It was David Dobrik, who did not reply to repeated requests for comment.)
While it’s hardly a feminist stance to demand that a woman be allowed to act as poorly and crudely as her male counterparts without repercussions, it certainly seems unfair. She’s held more accountable than, say, Jeffree Star, who’s been accused of sexual assault, violence, and bribery. (Star has denied these claims.)
The kind of caustic energy that once made Hanna fun to watch is now a liability for her. “Imagine you had a friend six years ago who, to this day, is contacting your employers, contacting everyone you know, and trying to ruin your reputation,” she told me, referring in part to Paytas. “I lost sponsors, I lost a record deal, I lost my friends.” Hanna estimates that between 2019 and 2020, she lost between $5 million and $10 million in revenue between AdSense bucks, sponsorship deals, and a record label contract with a company she declined to name. (She’s now signed with FrtyFve Records, which is also licensing her back catalog.)
Hanna doubts she’ll ever return to YouTube full time, even though she has a new representative and a newfound acceptance of her reputation. Now, she’s focusing on offline pursuits: She wants to move to Hawaii and start a company that sells candles and cards. Her priority is making music. She’s finishing her second album, which she described as rock and emo. Maybe in the future, she said, she’ll work for a record company and discover and sign new talent. “I don’t think I’m going to want to be an artist forever,” she said. “I’m tired.”
She worries about the money drying up and about the mortgage she has to pay. She worries about what she’ll do if being a creator doesn’t work out. “I have this fear that, OK, if I spend this much money here or if I make the wrong move, I’ll lose everything and I’ll have to sell my house and maybe I’ll be homeless again,” she said. “All these irrational fears. But even if music didn’t work out the way YouTube didn’t work out the way I was hoping, I’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out.”
Hanna gazed out over her property, at the plunge pool, the swings hanging from the cabana, the lounge chairs in front of the kitchen doors. Seven years after moving to LA to make it, she’s now an island, whether that’s what she wanted or not. “I’ll always be OK,” she said. “That’s my newfound freedom. Like me or don’t.” ●