When Adam McIntyre was 10 years old, he found something he thought was utterly, breathtakingly, overwhelmingly special: YouTube.
Sure, the Irish pre-teen had the same classes, and the same background as most of his peers in Brighton, England. But while his classmates followed more mainstream celebrities — pop sensations and blockbuster action stars — McIntyre was focused on the new site and its budding brand of superstars.
“YouTubers back then was not like it is now,” McIntyre tells Rolling Stone. “It was a very weird concept. I felt so much different than anyone who was in my class at school.”
To distract himself from bullying and the other difficulties of early adolescence, he began combing through videos on YouTube and found a favorite in comedian Colleen Ballinger. But what started as a gradual, offhand interest quickly brought McIntyre into a close friendship with Ballinger, that now, at 20, he alleges was exploitative, abusive, and toxic. (Ballinger denied these claims in 2020 but has not responded to additional complaints or Rolling Stone’s recent multiple requests for comment.) And as more of the first true children of the internet come of age, and reevaluate their online relationships with their favorite YouTube stars, another realization is sweeping — and shattering — internet fandoms: the intimate way early YouTube stars cultivated relationships with their followers made them famous. It also opened the doors for widespread abuse.
In the past three weeks, Ballinger has been accused of abusing her power and engaging in toxic parasocial relationships with fans. Past and current members of her team, including her best friend Kory Desoto, her ex-husband Joshua David Evans, and her brother Trent Ballinger, have also been accused of using Ballinger’s fame and access to inappropriately message underage followers. Fans have claimed they were sent inappropriate texts by Trent, asked about their sex lives by Ballinger, and, in one case, bullied over their weight by DeSoto. McIntyre says the YouTube star created a reputation for personally responding and interacting with fans — a power he claims she took advantage of for content. And four other fans tell Rolling Stone that the same access that made Ballinger famous opened the door for behind-the-scenes interactions they describe as toxic, exploitative, and hurtful. (Ballinger, Trent, and DeSoto did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Rolling Stone.)
This isn’t the first time YouTubers have faced backlash over their interactions with fans. In 2021, beauty guru James Charles admitted to texting 16-year-old fans sexually explicit content, saying that he wasn’t aware they were underage at the time. In January, former YouTube star Onision was sued by two plaintiffs that alleged he used his channel’s popularity to groom them through personal forums while they were 14. (He has repeatedly denied those claims and mediation is scheduled for late 2023.) So while Ballinger’s allegations aren’t criminal — or even hint that she’s used her power to start sexual relationships— according to Sacha Judd, a tech executive, writer, and expert on fandom, it sheds light on how, within insular subcultures like YouTube fan groups, stars can hold intense emotional power — even when they’re not doing anything illegal.
“Within the subcultures that arise from fandom, there’s this idea of capital that’s associated with access,” Judd tells Rolling Stone. “You know that you have increased cultural capital within the community that you’re a part of. So whenever there’s an opportunity to actually be in contact with the object of your fandom, that’s just sort of ripe for a really unbalanced power dynamic. Because the fan is nobody to the famous person and the famous person is absolutely everybody to the fan. And that can produce some pretty giant red flags.”
While Ballinger has a successful vlog account that focuses on her life as a performer, comedian, and mother of three, most people know her for her most famous sketch character, Miranda Sings. The character, whom she debuted in 2008, wears high-waisted pants, slicked-back hair, and has a drawling, nasal voice. Her most telling look is her trademark bright red lipstick, drawn far past Ballinger’s lips to give Miranda a crazed effect. She’s rude, entitled, can’t sing, farts and burps for laughs, and shoots down every criticism with the unwavering belief that she’ll be famous. And while the costume might have become synonymous with cringe millennial internet humor, Ballinger juxtaposed her sketches with an online persona dedicated to steadfast kindness and positivity — which attracted a wave of young fans. Ballinger was one of the first YouTube stars to straddle the line between internet famous and real, tangible celebrity, permanently changing those understandings in the process.
At the height of her popularity, around 2016, Miranda Sings was one of the faces of YouTube stardom. She grew to 10 million subscribers on her Miranda Sings channel alone, which didn’t account for another 10 million subscribers on her vlog and personal channels. She had countless collaborations with fellow YouTubers, won a 2015 Teen Choice Award, produced several national and international tours, and had a limited guest run on the Broadway production of Waitress. She was the first face on pop star Ariana Grande’s star-studded “Thank You Next” music video, interviewed on Stephen Colbert, and starred in her own Netflix original series named after Miranda Sings’ famous catchphrase, “Haters Back Off!” Through it all, Ballinger would often include her family and friends, like brother Trent Ballinger, and best friend Kory DeSoto, in her team— featuring them in videos, sketches, shows, and fan interactions.
Ballinger, like other early YouTubers, was doing it all without established rules, says Jamie Cohens, PhD, an assistant professor of digital culture and media at Queens College — especially when it came to how they interacted with fans.
“The earliest YouTubers had no real guidance,” Cohen says. They were these mostly white kids that were basically saying, ‘Oh, we’re fighting back against the gatekeepers,” essentially inventing the platform as it went. They made their own rules. Early on, the comment section became the place that dictated how content was created. And it developed into a strange competition, where fans themselves felt like if they were noticed by the creator, it gave them power. And at some point [YouTubers] learned that parasocial relationships are their success model.”
For McIntyre, it was this sort of interaction — Ballinger’s emphasis on talking and responding directly to her fans — that drew him into her fandom, and covered up what he calls red flags in their interactions. It was a “gradual thing,” says McIntyre. He started with just following accounts that tweeted about Ballinger’s content, and before long he was an active part of the community, interacting with every video and social media post, as well as actively discussing Ballinger in multiple fan group chats.
The first time McIntyre met Ballinger was in 2014, at a tour stop in Dublin. “It was very professional,” McIntyre says. “I was a fan and she was the celebrity.” But after they met in person again in 2016, McIntyre says that their friendship became real. The two went from talking through tweets to direct messaging, where, according to screenshots reviewed by Rolling Stone, they would discuss the comedian’s content, as well as more serious matters like her online haters and impending divorce from then-husband Joshua David Evans. Adam was 14 at the time. Ballinger was 29.
“I was looking at it like this golden opportunity of trust,” McIntyre says. “And I, in the moment, really didn’t care if it was morally right or wrong, because I was just grateful that she was talking to me and not anyone else. It made me feel like ‘I know something that other people don’t know.’ They know MirandaSings. But I know Colleen.”
In a Twitter group chat named “Colleeny’s Weenies,” Ballenger would send sexually suggestive messages, according to screenshots provided by McIntyre and reviewed by Rolling Stone, asking questions like, “Are you a virgin?” and, “What’s your fav position?” Once, in response to a message from McIntyre that read “my ass looks so good today,” Ballinger responded “pics Adam.”
McIntyre first raised alarms about his and Ballinger’s interactions in April 2020, after hearing rumors from other fan pages that Ballinger had been discussing him in a negative light. Weeks earlier, she had given him the password to her Twitter account, where Adam drafted and posted tweets with her approval. One joke he wrote about Ballinger “coming out” as a Meghan Trainor fan got major backlash, with hundreds of users deriding it as homophobic, leading to Ballinger deleting it.
That April, McIntyre posted a 25-minute video titled “Colleen Ballinger, stop lying.” In it, McIntyre said that his friendship with Ballinger was exploitative, alleging the YouTuber used her power to get free labor from him and then drop him when it was convenient. He added that many of their past conversations had strayed from a typical fan-celebrity relationship to an imbalanced friendship. McIntyre also brought up past situations he felt uncomfortable with — issues he said he had previously overlooked because of his friendship with Ballinger. Most specifically, in 2016, Ballinger and DeSoto sent him a lingerie set while on a live stream. McIntyre was one of many fans asking for presents during the stream, and initially thought it was funny. In an apology video responding to McIntyre, Ballinger said the gift was a “stupid idea,” but had been misconstrued as creepy. “I should have never sent that,” Ballinger said. “I don’t know what part of my brain was missing at the time. But I am not a monster, I am not a groomer, and I shouldn’t kill myself.”
People accepted Ballinger’s apology and accused McIntyre of trying to ruin her career. For almost three years, according to posts reviewed by Rolling Stone, Adam was called slurs, threatened, and doxxed by Ballinger’s fans. It is unclear whether Ballinger was aware of the fandom’s messages toward McIntyre, but she never publicly asked her followers to avoid hate messages — a common tactic used by YouTubers to protect smaller platforms involved in drama. When it began in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and virtual schooling, McIntyre said the harassment got so bad that it essentially isolated him from everyone he had trusted.
It didn’t stay that way forever. Less than two weeks ago, on June 10, 2023, KodeeRants, another former member of the MirandaSings fandom, posted a video that caused opinion to turn. In a now-deleted video, Kodee, who uses they/them pronouns, confirmed the existence of the group chat “Colleeny’s Weenies,” along with the above-mentioned messages from Ballinger to McIntyre and other minors between 2016 and 2020. (KodeeRants did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
Over the past two weeks, dozens of former Miranda Sings fans, who previously accused McIntyre of lying, have publicly apologized to him on social media. But what has become more shocking is the other fans who have come out to share experiences similar to McIntyre’s, their own stories of being bullied, intimidated, and embarrassed by Ballinger and members of her team.
Alex, a now-23-year-old fan living in Ireland, ran a Ballinger fan page with over 22 thousand followers. They tell Rolling Stone she stopped posting as much after being mocked by DeSoto over her weight during a fan meet and greet.
“I tried to brush it off, I was close to tears after that encounter,” Alex tells Rolling Stone. “It was confirmation that my idol thought I was fat.”
Becky, who asked to be identified by only her first name, joined Ballinger’s Twitter fandom around 2017 when the YouTube star was well on her way to mainstream success. But she tells Rolling Stone that the parasocial relationships Ballinger cultivated within her community created toxic responses from other fans — who she says would attack anyone who they felt was disparaging Ballinger.
At a 2019 live show, Becky was called on stage to participate in the “yoga challenge” part of the show. She was asked to lay down on the ground on her back facing away from the audience. Ballinger (as Miranda) proceeded to lift Becky’s legs above her head and spread them wide. As Ballinger spread Becky’s legs, a fart sound played over the speaker. Que Miranda running away, and the audience bursting into laughter. While the joke was innocent, Becky tells Rolling Stone that even though she immediately felt embarrassed and exposed, she was afraid to speak up and be cut off from her idol and community.
“I was mortified in that position. I was in shock. But I had so many like friends through [the fandom] that I didn’t want to necessarily lose,” Becky says. “So for a little bit, I was pretending to be like ‘Yeah, that was really funny.’ I was worried that I would be called ungrateful because I got to go up on stage. I trusted her so much and had looked up to her for so long. I didn’t think she would ever do something like that.”
Oliver, a former fan from Pennsylvania, says Colleen’s motto of spreading happiness drew him into her fandom. (Oliver, who is trans, identified as a girl at that time). But after joining in early 2018, and following Ballinger and her family on the site, a follow back from Ballinger’s brother Trent quickly turned into constant communication. Messages reviewed by Rolling Stone show over a year of communication, with Trent complimenting Oliver’s looks, asking him for photos, and telling him to text anytime. “Anything we talk about stays between u and I,” read one message. “You would look good preg if you ever want children one day,” read another. At the time, Oliver was 13, and Trent was 33.
“I was confused, but I brushed it off,” Oliver tells Rolling Stone “I was too scared to tell my mom because I didn’t want her to take away my phone and not trust me. And even when I started to become uncomfortable, I kept thinking to myself ‘This is Colleen’s brother. So many people in this fandom would probably love to have messages from him.’”
Trust — or a lack thereof — is also something former fan Johnny Silvestri thinks of when he recalls his time in the Ballinger fandom. He tells Rolling Stone that in 2012, when he was 15, he and other fans spent hours video chatting to Ballinger — first on Skype, and then on another public chat room called Tinychat. (Rolling Stone reviewed screenshots showing Silvestri, Ballinger, and other fans in the chat rooms on camera.) Silvestri says that Ballinger and DeSoto cultivated personal relationships with the fans, talking to them about their emotions, feelings, and experiences.
“They treated us all like they were our older siblings, like they cared about us,” Silvestri says. “It was a weird dynamic, but it felt like a very tight-knit family.”
But the family vibe also meant that lines were blurred. Silvestri says when he was 16, he traveled from Chicago to attend a MirandaSings show in New York. There, he was brought on stage and given a signed paper crown from Ballinger — as well as the personal phone number of Evans, Ballinger’s then-husband. Silvestri hadn’t come out as queer, was being bullied at school, and was months from dropping out entirely. He considered Ballinger — and by extension, her family and team — as his escape, his confidants. So when he was offered a position as an assistant on Ballinger’s tour, he accepted in the hopes that it would lead to a future in the entertainment industry. Instead, he describes a work environment that thrived on parasocial and intensely one-sided relationships between Ballinger and her fans. He also claims that that same dynamic was used on him to prevent him from speaking out about hurtful behavior. More specifically, Silvestri claims Desoto, Ballinger’s best friend, screamed at him and verbally belittled him — behavior he claims Ballinger personally witnessed and did nothing about. He also adds that Evans nurtured a friendship with him, only to use him for free labor for his social media accounts and emotional guidance, creating an even more unbalanced dynamic.
“I found solace and safety in this online group of people,” Silvestri tells Rolling Stone. “And these grown-ass adults abused it.”
Since Silvestri has begun publicly posting about his time on the tour, only one member of Ballinger’s team has responded. Evans acknowledged Silvestri’s claims on Thursday, posting a public apology to his Twitter saying that he had acted inappropriately. “My hope is that I can help remove some of the burden by acknowledging your experience and taking accountability.” Evans also apologized for dragging other underaged fans into an “abusive fan/creator dynamic” with him. “I honestly didn’t understand the damage it would cause,” he tweeted on June 15. “I got messy and sought validation through innocent people… children. That’s gross and I feel absolutely terrible for it.”
But even with a public turn of opinion, McIntyre tells Rolling Stone that he doesn’t feel vindicated. He feels embarrassed that he let himself get hurt — and upset that it took three years for people to believe him.
“[Having people doxx me] was soul-destroying,” he says. “It’s still embarrassing for me to have [so much out] on the internet. So I’m not at that place yet where I feel vindicated. Because it’s embarrassing. And I hate to sound cringy, but it really is fucking traumatic.”
Since Adam has repeated his accusations against Ballinger, the YouTube star has gone silent. On June 12, Ballinger restricted comments on her Instagram and TikTok accounts. Even though she’s currently two shows into a national tour, she has not responded to dozens of tweets from Adam and other former members of her fandom. On June 16, sponsor Zocdoc confirmed to Rolling Stone that they would no longer run advertisements on her podcast, in light of the allegations.
As of now, McIntyre said he’s focused on building up his YouTube account again — in order to prove creators can build meaningful relationships with their followings while setting appropriate boundaries. And even if people believe he keeps speaking about this to get revenge on Ballinger, he says his new goal is to demonstrate how YouTubers can interact with their fan base — without exploitation.
“I want to prove how easy it is to not abuse trust,” Adam says. “As a content creator, you can’t control the baseline parasocial relationship that happens. However, you can feed into it and you can abuse it. That’s when it becomes a problem. And that’s what I believe Colleen does.”
Cohen adds that as more content creators become celebrities, he and other media experts hope that people will learn from experience and draw strong and ethical boundaries around fan interactions and relationships.
“Today, the transparency is way higher. You can no longer generally exploit your fans post-#MeToo,” Cohen says. “[The] newer generation of creators, they know now what happens and now they have a responsibility to not do that again. It’s almost a matter of breaking generational trauma.”