YouTubers are destroying their hair for internet fame
Take a deep dive with us into the murky world of the hair fail economy.
Image via YouTube
Eight minutes into his June 2019 YouTube video “bleaching my hair FOUR times and burning it all off...”, 26-year-old retail manager Tye Ballew holds up a clump of his blonde hair to the camera. His mouth falls open in shock as he runs his hands through his hair and feels strands fall out into his fingertips. “Oh… my…” he says over and over in horror, before concluding, “I’m gonna go have a mental breakdown.”
Once upon a time -- not especially long ago -- destroying the hair on your head could only be a bad thing. “I kind of went into a little bit of shock,” Tye now says of the experience, “It just kept ripping off, I was terrified.” Yet ultimately, his bleach fail also had elements of success. Compared to other YouTube videos Tye uploaded at the same time, he made “a chunk bit more” AdSense money, and also received a healthy number of YouTube comments and tweets. “Oh, for sure,” he says when asked if this response made him feel better about damaging his hair. “It did pretty well for my channel and I feel like that just goes to show that people are really wanting to see people burn their hair off.”
Hair fails are as old as the internet -- before YouTube videos, people shared still images of bad haircuts watermarked with websites like 9gag and failblog, often accompanied with the big white block capitals of “EPIC FAIL”. Starting in 2014, barber memes became popular on Black Twitter, with mock conversations (“Barber: What would you like?” Him: “Just fuck my shit up”) accompanying images of dodgy cuts. Yet thanks to YouTube, hair fails are now an entire economy -- young people can gain money, attention, and subscribers by destroying their hair. Is anyone doing it on purpose? Does the online response make the damage worth it? And who is responsible for the trend?
There are three other words at the end of Tye Ballew’s video title, ones that might not make sense to you: “sorry brad mondo.” At the beginning of his video the Texan even remarks, “Brad, if you’re watching this, this video’s for you. I wanted to do a video for you to react to.” Brad is a 25-year-old hairstylist from New York who has over five million YouTube subscribers. In his “Hairdresser Reacts” series, Mondo has reviewed everything from at-home ombre attempts to failed fringes. The internet-famous stylist links out to the videos he features, meaning their creators can gain new subscribers and occasionally earn revenue. In this environment, many actively seek Mondo’s attention -- one small YouTube channel with just over 100 subscribers has ten separate hair dyeing videos, three of which feature the words, “it FAILED!!! BRAD MONDO PLS NOTICE ME!!”, “NOTICE US BRAD MONDO”, and “notice me BRAD MONDO” in their titles.
Kiley Sheldon, a 19-year-old student from Virginia, is another YouTube creator who addressed Mondo directly -- via her March 2020 video “quarantine made me bleach my hair (someone call Brad)”. This is now the second most popular video on her channel, thanks to Mondo featuring her in a Reacts video that was viewed over two million times. “When I found out that Brad saw my video, I honestly thought I was going to poop my pants,” Sheldon says. Thanks to the attention, Sheldon’s subscriber base increased by 30%, though her channel is currently still too small to earn ad revenue. “The experience of damaging my hair ultimately was worth it because of the online response I received,” Sheldon says -- in the video, her hair turned orange, had brown spots, and felt “like hay” (she later fixed it with a successful at-home pink dye job).
Kiley says she plans to do more hair content video, “in hope to expand on my channel as well as catch [Mondo’s] attention further”, but, like Ballew, says she didn’t damage her hair on purpose. “I will never intentionally mess up my hair for a video,” she says, though she adds, “I would say that I am willing to make ‘bad’ hair decisions for these videos, to get attention from Brad and viewers… I know that hair can be fixed and it also grows back, so I am willing to take a hair risk.” Sheldon says that even before Brad’s reaction video, hair videos were the best-performing content on her channel. “This shows me that if I do more hair videos, fail or not, the views will be higher compared to other videos.”
Kilee Iris, an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Toronto whose at-home bleaching was featured in the same Mondo video as Sheldon’s, has an entire playlist on her channel dedicated to experimenting with her hair. “I’m totally into messing up my hair for content, it’s just a lot of fun,” she laughs. “I’ve been a fan of Brad for quite a few years now… in multiple of my videos, I actually prefaced it in first person as if he was watching it.” Iris says she was “super excited” when she was finally featured by the stylist. “If you grew up watching these influencers and content creators produce crazy lifestyles online, it makes you want to chase that.”
Like most people would be, Iris says she was “panicked” when she first removed her foils and realised her bleach job hadn’t gone well. Anyone who has experimented with their hair as a teen can recall the dread and horror of realising that your hair hasn’t turned out like the lady on the box. But while a decade or so ago, you would likely cover your hair with a hat and rush to the nearest salon to get it fixed, today’s teens aren’t shy about sharing their dodgy hair with the world. “I feel like my generation specifically deflects pain with comedy… I’m very vulnerable and I put everything online,” Iris says.
Tye says that sharing his hair fail online ultimately made the experience less traumatic: “To see that people enjoy watching that and they got a good laugh about it too, it definitely made me feel a bit better about it.” While people can gain money and subscribers from hair fails, many creators have more altruistic motives. Hair fail videos take an isolating experience and make it communal, and Khlo Robb -- a 24-year-old student from the Midlands -- says she shared her hair fail to teach others what not to do. In her August 2019 video, “BLEACH FAIL! MY HAIR FELL OUT... listen to brad mondo”, Khlo’s hair turns orange and she describes it as “elastic… I feel like if I pulled it, it would just fall off.” Though her hair looks nice by the end of the video, Robb explains it was “really, really damaged” and “like string”, and she finishes the clip by recommending, “If you want to go blonde, go to the hairdressers.”
“I felt awful,” the vlogger says of her bleaching experience, “I had spent years growing my hair so for it to feel so bad and to start falling out I felt really sad.” Khlo's video was viewed over 200,000 times, making it by far the most popular video on her channel. Though she earned money and was “blown away” by the views, she ultimately says the video was worth it because she “felt it was important to show the realities of bleaching your hair at home.”
“People need to see that it is a dangerous and risky thing to do at home and I felt because of that, it was important to share,” she says. “I wish I still had long healthy hair and I wish I knew what I do now,” she says. She is happy that “people know what I know now” which “stops them making the same mistakes.”
All of the creators I spoke to are happy to experiment with their hair on-camera again, and many hope to be noticed by Mondo for the first or second time. “Oh. For. Sure,” Ballew says when asked if he’ll make more hair videos. “Since that video, I’ve not bleached my hair, I’ve been letting it grow, and I’m just waiting for the perfect time to bleach it all over again and burn the rest off,” he laughs.