Kids come to 16-year-old Tanner Braungardt’s Augusta home and sit outside in their cars.
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They wait, biding their time until they catch a glimpse of the budding YouTube celebrity.
A few months ago, Tanner’s mother, Kim, caught a glimpse of a carload of kids driving past her home, yelling for Tanner.
But then sometimes, his house gets egged and strange packages are left in the yard.
It’s all part of the lifestyle when you’re famous on the internet.
In the past eight months, Tanner has skyrocketed in popularity on YouTube, commanding a following of more than 2 million on his channel.
He recently signed with a Los Angeles talent agency known for representing Hollywood A-listers such as Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise to manage his publicity tours, endorsement deals and public profile.
His manager, Max Benator, said Tanner’s channel is among the top 100 fastest-growing YouTube channels worldwide, gaining slightly fewer followers in November than Ellen DeGeneres but more than “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”
Creating YouTube videos has slowly become his full-time job – and that’s a job that, when you have 2 million subscribers, is quite lucrative.
In recent years, YouTube has evolved into a big business – its most famous star, PewDiePie, makes approximately $15 million a year through his following of more than 50 million, according to Forbes.
Other YouTube personalities, such as noted “makeup guru” Jaclyn Hill, have inked endorsement deals with various companies that pay to sponsor them.
And Tanner’s not that far off – he’s already bought two cars, though he’s barely old enough to legally drive them.
“I definitely want to keep making YouTube videos, because that’s what I started out doing and what I still love doing,” he said. “Right now I’m just, you know, trying to have fun. I’m still trying to learn to process all of it.”
From bullied kid to internet celeb
Tanner is far from an average 16-year-old.
He speaks with the business savvy of someone twice his age, he’s mature beyond his years (though he can still act his age, as anyone who’s watched his videos can attest), and he’s often busy from 6 a.m. to late at night most days.
He had to excuse himself from a recent interview with The Eagle to hop on a quick conference call with trampoline company executives, trying to hammer out a sponsorship deal.
“It never ends,” he quipped.
His first viral video came last June – about a quintessentially teenage topic: “MOST INSANE WATER BOTTLE TRICK SHOTS EVER!” as its title reads. That video, with 4 million views, pales in comparison to his most popular video, “COKE VS MENTOS BATH CHALLENGE,” which since its uploading in October has been watched more than 14 million times.
He celebrated getting 10,000 subscribers last May, and by January, his following had ballooned to 2 million.
Now he uploads content semi-daily – “vlogs,” or video blogs chronicling a day in his life, challenge videos, fan mail openings and the like. On average, his videos get about 750,000 views apiece.
But life was not always rosy for Tanner.
He had always been interested in performing flips on trampolines and filmed a couple of videos of himself doing just that in 2011.
Some other kids at his Augusta school mocked him for those trampoline-flipping videos, he said.
“Kids always hated on it, because it was different than anything they’d ever seen – if you didn’t play basketball or you didn’t play football or whatever was cool, you weren’t cool,” he said. “I used to hate it so much I’d go home and sometimes ... go cry on my bed.”
Tanner says he’s learned to tune out negative comments from others, but it bothers him when people make negative comments to his girlfriend.
“You learn to not care what people think ... but I cared what people were saying to my girlfriend. That just really upset me,” Tanner said. “You’ve just got to learn to ignore it. You can’t let them win. You just can’t.”
Tanner now attends classes via a private online school based in California, which he said he will continue until he gets his high school diploma.
“I feel like I’ve learned more in the past six months than I have my entire life in school,” he said. “There’s a lot of things school doesn’t teach you. There are a lot of things school does teach you, but it depends on what you’re doing with your life, whether it matters or not. ... What I want to do doesn’t really require that, or at least it doesn’t so far, and I don’t think it will.”
Where’s the money?
It’s hard to argue with his logic when he’s clearly finding success at his craft – from a personal as well as a financial standpoint.
A few months ago, when Tanner was buying his second car – a Dodge Challenger with red leather seats – his mother told him that if he kept pursuing the YouTube dream, he would likely be making more money than her soon.
“That was the point in time I knew I could do this full time if I wanted to,” he said. “That was my dream when I started (posting to) YouTube. I wanted to make it a career, because I never wanted a job I was bored at or would get sick of. I think I have that now.”
Making videos on YouTube is serious business – content creators can monetize their channels, which means advertisements will then show up on their videos. Various companies also pay to sponsor upper-echelon creators like Tanner.
Most of the revenue generated from those advertisements goes to the content creator, while YouTube retains the rest.
Though the precise amount often fluctuates due to reasons even Tanner himself doesn’t fully understand, YouTube typically pays about $1,000 for every million views on a video, he said.
So when you’re Tanner Braungardt, uploading videos every day that typically get at least 500,000 views apiece, that adds up pretty quickly.
His most popular video, the “Coke vs. Mentos” short, has about 14 million views, so, judging by his example, that video probably brought in about $14,000. And Tanner has 100 videos that have more than 1 million views.
Money was never a motivating factor for Tanner, though – he usually spends most of his money either on stunts for new, more outlandish videos or to help his family, he said.
“Money’s great, but I never made it a part of my life – I still don’t even worry about it,” Tanner said. “Money will come and go, and you can always work harder for money if you need it. ... (My mother) always wants me to try to set back money, be careful and whatever, which I do and I try to be smart with that. She’s a great help to me for that, but I also want to be able to have some fun with some of the money, or else there’s no point.
“If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it.”
‘Maybe there’s a reason’
Sometimes his online fame can spill over into real life, even in Wichita.
Earlier this month, Tanner hosted a meet-and-greet with fans at the Augusta Scooter’s Coffeehouse, which drew hundreds of kids from all over the region, he said.
It was only then that he felt “proud” of his accomplishments as a YouTube sensation, he said.
“I had 1.5 million subscribers, and I literally didn’t feel anything,” he said. “Whenever I’d meet fans outside or out in public, of course I’d feel pretty good, you know, maybe I’d feel a little famous, but it wasn’t until the meet-and-greet with hundreds of kids showing up.
“It got to a certain point where I felt like maybe this is meant to be. Like, why out of everyone in Kansas am I the most popular person? Maybe there’s a reason. Now when I meet fans and they say I help them in this way or that, and they love my videos, my videos make them happy, whenever they’re depressed they watch my videos – stuff that means so much.”
For some, the staggering popularity of YouTube celebs can be difficult to fathom.
Studies performed by Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity-branding authority and marketing professor at the University of Southern California, have indicated twice (in 2014 and 2015) that, among 13- to 17-year-olds, YouTube celebrities in general have more influence than traditional celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Morgan Freeman or Bruno Mars.
What is it about watching someone else’s daily routines, video game playthroughs or makeup tutorials that’s so intriguing?
As Sehdev explains in Variety, young people are more drawn to YouTube celebrities because they are seen as more authentic, relatable and humorous than public figures that are often controlled by public relations professionals and have guarded personal lives.
Tanner agrees: He, too, has transitioned to creating more vlogs recently, broadcasting his actual life to the public almost daily.
“When you’re putting your life out there every single day on YouTube, people learn to love you,” he said. “I think that’s how it will be in the future with social media. You connect with them a lot more than normal celebrities.”
Especially for younger audiences, cellphones are “their TV,” according to Kim Braungardt.
“The whole world is changing,” she said. “Even all the people we have working for us in Hollywood, they’ll even admit it’s new to them. They’re not sure where this trajectory is going or how they’re going to handle it – how it changes Hollywood and the dynamics of it.”
Even after YouTube fades from popularity, Tanner said, he hopes he can pivot his career as a public figure in the entertainment business.
“I obviously have goals I want to get long term – I think those will evolve over time, just like my YouTube channel has,” he said. “You just kind of figure it out as you go.”
One of the most unique parts of being a YouTube contributor: Location really doesn’t matter.
It democratizes content creation – it can be created anywhere by anyone, and it can then be watched anywhere by anyone. You don’t have to go to Los Angeles or New York to “make it.”
So Tanner’s planning on staying around Wichita for a while longer, though his family is planning on buying a second house in California within the year, he said.
“I don’t want to just change it up and go to California, because that’s what a lot of bigger people do, and people don’t like them as much,” Tanner said. “They’d rather see the Kansas kid be the Kansas kid instead of the Kansas kid be the L.A. kid.”
To keep up with Tanner, you can subscribe to his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/edgarmcsteelpotco.