The offline life of YouTube star Brendan Jordan is surprisingly normal - but he's determined to change that


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Melia Robinson/Tech Insider


When his grandmother's car pulls into the driveway after school, Brendan Jordan hops out of the backseat in black knee-length shorts, a polo emblazoned with his school's logo, and low-top lace-up sneakers covered in glitter. Across the street, a young girl spots him and snaps a photo on her phone.

"Did you see that?" Brendan squeals, his hazel eyes widening. He says he could see the girl's fingers pinching outward to zoom.

"People are sometimes nervous to come up and ask for a picture," he later tells me. He prefers when fans approach him - he says they'll leave with better pictures of him that way.

Fame seems to come easily for the 16-year-old, who about a year ago woke up an internet celebrity.


Here's how it went down: Brendan and his little sister Hailey convinced their mom Tracy to drive them to the grand opening of a massive mall erected near their home in Las Vegas, Nevada. When a crowd gathered behind a local live news broadcast, Brendan shimmied his way to the front and danced to Lady Gaga's pop anthem, "Applause."

You might have seen it.

Overnight the footage blew up, amassing a collective 10 million views on YouTube and catapulting the copper-haired high schooler into viral internet lore.

Brendan, who identifies as gay and transgender, has since collected half a million followers on Instagram, landed a contract with Fullscreen Creator Platform, and emerged as the face of LGBT youth in America through partnerships with American Apparel, the NOH8 Campaign, and the Happy Hippie Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Miley Cyrus dedicated to supporting young trans people.


All while keeping up his YouTube channel, Brendan's choice outlet for dispensing makeup tips and life advice.

Luv deez lil happy hippies!!! ?????? #HappyHippiePresents #InstaPride @HappyHippieFdn

A photo posted by Miley Cyrus (@mileycyrus) on

Now he's on the glitter-paved fast track to becoming the next Kardashian, Jenna Marbles, or other major social media influencer. Between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, his voice reaches over 1 million users, most of whom had never heard his name before seeing him dance on the news last October.

I visited Brendan in Nevada for a few days to see what his life is like. I was surprised to find out Brendan's offline world mirrors that of the average teen - he goes to school, does homework, and watches tons of reality TV at night - even though his online life is anything but average



"I feel like a little 'Hannah Montana,'" Brendan tells me referencing the Disney Channel show where Miley Cyrus played the role of a rock star who, while not performing, tried to be a regular kid. He stares at a recent picture of him on stage at the MTV Music Video Awards where he and members of the Happy Hippie Foundation introduced Cyrus' surprise performance at the end of the show. He had to miss a day of school to be there.

"It's not that I put on a persona [when I perform], it's just that a different side of Brendan will show," he says with a smile. "A side that I kind of like more."

We're hanging out at his grandparents' house, which serves as the afterschool HQ for Brendan, Hailey, now 12, a handful of cousins, and Maci, their great-grandmother who only speaks Spanish.

This is the house they come to almost every day after school to snack and get a head start on homework before parents are able to leave work and pick the kids up.


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Melia Robinson/Tech Insider

We have about an hour and Brendan's grandma Mariela (whom he calls abuela), wants to take me on a tour. She and Brendan lead me upstairs to see the hall of family photos, where each grandchild has their own designated section. Brendan's is littered with a half dozen pictures of a smiley, redheaded youngster dressed in oversized suits and t-shirts.

"My style has changed over the years," Brendan announces.

When Brendan came out to the world on YouTube last November, one month after the mall video went viral, he decided to embrace the online version of Brendan in his every day life. He experimented with she/her pronouns (but uses he/his most of the time) and also began to outwardly embrace makeup and women's clothing - something his private Christian school district of 1,500 students had never dealt with before.

Even though last year's yearbook included a two-page spread celebrating Brendan's viral moment, he hasn't found a ton of support when it comes to expressing himself within the confines of the classroom. At school, he's banned from wearing makeup and using the women's bathroom.


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Brendan's parents, Chris and Tracy, were able to help their son get permission to use the woman's faculty bathroom, but yielded when it came to the makeup because they say they value the school's emphasis on academia over personal appearace.

But Tracy says if administrators try to control Brendan's attire or makeup at football games or prom, she "won't be happy."

Still, Brendan makes subtle but daring acts of rebellion, such as shaving his legs, bleaching his hair, and wearing light eye makeup. Tracy buys him girls' shorts from Old Navy as his uniform bottoms because he prefers the slender cut.

"[The staff] wants me to be my safest at school," Brendan explains, winding a pair of Apple earbuds around his fingers as we sit at the dining room table. "They don't want any boys harassing me or calling me slurs. Which, I mean, it does already happen, so it's not like it's new."


He doesn't seem fazed.

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Despite the reality that most YouTubers his age, according to Brendan, are homeschooled, Chris and Tracy prefer he graduate with his peers. "My mom just wants me to have a normal, teenage life," Brendan tells me, looking up from his phone. "I think she hasn't quite wrapped her mind around it yet - that none of this is normal."


Around 5 p.m., Tracy swings by her mother-in-law's house to pick up Brendan and Hailey and bring them home to her place: a stucco three-bedroom 10 minutes away. The kids alternate sleeping here and at Chris' house down the road.

No matter whose day it is, both parents make time to see the kids every day, if only for the length of a car ride.


As Brendan, Hailey, and I hang out in the living room, Tracy quickly checks on beef stroganoff in the crockpot. Then she greets her sister - the kids' aunt Rebecca - before gathering her things and heading out. There's an open house at the school she can't miss.

Brendan mentioned in the car that Rebecca is like his mom "but more fun." Rebecca works as a recruiter at Zappos, where her team dressed as Brendan and the newscaster from the viral video for Halloween last year.

We devour bowls of stroganoff and play with the family's three wily poodles on the floor. VH1's "Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta" plays in the background, until a man licks chocolate sauce off a woman's toes in one steamy scene and Rebecca demands we find the remote control.

And when Brendan announces he has homework to do, he and Hayley skip up the stairs, leaving me and Rebecca to hang out on the couch. The conversation turns, not surprisingly, to her nephew.

Admitting this is the kind of thing everyone says, Rebecca starts, "we always knew he was special."


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Rebecca, Brendan, Tracy, and Hailey goof off at the dinner table.

Rebecca told me the story of taking Brendan to his first Lady Gaga concert.

It was a few months after he came out to his family and he decided to cross-dress and sprinkle gold glitter in his hair. During the show, Brendan sang, screamed, cried, and performed all of Gaga's choreography. When the lights came up and the crowd started to disperse, a parent came up to Rebecca and said, "I had more fun watching him than the show."

But that cocoon of pride and unity burst almost as soon as Rebecca ushered Brendan outside the venue.

While en route to a nearby hotel to be picked up, a random guy stopped when he saw Brendan. "Hey, I didn't know Comic-Con was in town," he said.


It was a night Rebecca will never forget.

"It was never an issue, whether or not we were going to accept him," Rebecca says, slightly hushed as to make sure I am the only one that can hear her. "But in that moment, I realized his life is going to be a little bit different, a little bit tougher. And that was hard."

She remembers when the mall video went viral and Brendan's number of Instagram followers skyrocketed. Tracy had scanned every comment thread to see what people were saying. And if you've ever spent time "in the comments," you know what's coming.

"Tracy was in tears once because someone actually said, 'You should've aborted him,'" Rebecca remembers. "And this military mom wrote 'f-ggot' under one of his posts. It was just a picture of him smiling because he got his braces taken off.

"I just don't understand," Rebecca stutters. "If you don't care for his style or the way that he is, don't watch! Did they not think to themselves that's someone's child?"


At that moment, Brendan returns, leaping down the staircase in a blue-and-white polka dotted blouse.

"What'd I miss?" he asks.


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Bright and early at 7:30 a.m. the next day we arrive at Brendan's school.

After checking in at the main entrance, Brendan and I stand at the end of a nearby hall where there are two faculty bathrooms, one marked men and one marked women. Brendan has permission to use that particular ladies' room in lieu of the boys' bathrooms throughout the school.

"The reason why I'm scared going to the boys' bathroom is because that's my most vulnerable place," Brendan had explained to me. "There are no security cameras. There's no faculty most of the time. It's always quiet. You never know if some boy is going to come beat me up or something."


Brendan peels off his denim backpack, looks both ways, and smiles as he slips into the ladies' room.

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Our first class of the day is Spanish, located in a detached classroom behind the brick-faced school. It's a class of mostly boys, each wearing some combination of Adidas or Nikes, baggy shorts, and gel matting their hair into combovers.

They talk about sports, and Brendan talks to almost no one - except the teacher who delivers missed assignments to his desk. Eventually, one student in a hoodie turns around and says to Brendan that he was lying in bed on Sunday night watching the VMAs when he heard a familiar voice.

"It was you," he says to Brendan. "That was pretty cool."


"Thanks," Brendan exclaims. "It was a surprise. We weren't allowed to tell anyone."

I wait for the student to ask Brendan some questions, but he instead turns to face ahead.

In every class, Brendan sits quietly waiting to be engaged. He warmly talks to his female peers in passing, but mostly submerses himself in his phone as we walk through the hallways.

Mia, Brendan's "best, best, best friend since we were five," texts him. People are asking who's "the chick" following Brendan around campus. (It's me.)

Next we head to tap class. While other kids change into gym clothes in the respective locker rooms, Brendan feels uncomfortable stripping for everyone to see. He instead wears a thin, moisture-wicking shirt and leggings under his uniform, and peels off the top layer in a corner of the empty dance studio.


When the music starts, Brendan launches into the warm-up, tapping his feet in a repetitive march. His face breaks into a goofy smile anytime he misses a step. He's not the best in the class, but his enthusiasm far surpasses his peers.

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More than an hour later, the bell rings, signaling it's time for the whole school to break for lunch.

Brendan makes a beeline for a metal pinic table in the shade where he, Mia, and four of their close friends eat every day. He pulls a six-inch sub and a bag of pretzels out of his backpack to eat, then reaches back in for a floral-scented body spray he spritzes on his neck. In the company of his social circle, there's no need to hide his femininity.

A teacher passes by with a guitar in hand, and Brendan and his friends beg her to play One Direction. She breaks into the chorus of the group's debut single, "What Makes You Beautiful," and they erupt in applause.


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Mia uses the impromptu performance as an opportunity to chide Brendan again about the VMAs. He usually brings her as a plus-one to events, like the YouTube-sponsored conference VidCon or a meetup at Disneyland this past summer, but Brendan couldn't even tell her he was attending, let alone invite her, given his vow of secrecy to MTV.

So Mia missed her chance to meet Harry Styles, the floppy-haired dreamboat in One Direction.

"I'd probably cry," Mia says of a potential meeting. "I'm such an emotional person when it comes to One Direction."

"Like if Harry dies, it's over," one friend giggles.


"I don't know what I would do," Mia sighs. "I wouldn't kill myself, but like …."

As the sun reaches its peak over the Las Vegas Valley and kids get antsy to go home, last period arrives. It's Brendan's favorite class, musical theater, lead by a veteran-performer and teacher who cut his teeth on Chicago's famous Second City improv stage. The teacher pushes his rolled, plaid sleeves up and leans into the podium.

"Today, I'm going to tell you about a tragedy," he says, scratching his goatee. The group of roughly 10 underclassmen look up at him with chins slumped in their hands.

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One time, years ago, the teacher tells the class he auditioned for a local production of "Aida," the Tony Award-winning musical by Elton John and Tim Rice. A few lines into his audition music, the actor's worst fear became reality: He forgot all the words. Rather than run off stage and berate himself, the teacher continued with the tune, making up the lyrics as he went.


The producers, impressed by his commitment, offered him a role in the ensemble.

"You need to make sure you're prepared. But you really have to be confident," the teacher says to the class. "If you can't be your own cheerleader, you're defeating yourself before you even start."

Brendan bobs his head in agreement.

15 minutes later Brendan is asked to take the stage to perform a cold read of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" - the 1985 version with a female cast. With one hand planted squarely on his hip and the other holding the script, Brendan impersonates a middle-aged, cranky Jewish grandmother from New York who insists a hot cup of cawfee will cure her friend's anxiety.

As he struts across the invisible stage, I feel like I'm watching one of his videos on YouTube. He's joyful, fearless, and self-assured.


This is the side of Brendan that Brendan likes best.


Brendan, like Hannah Montana, does in fact live a double-life. By day, he can be introverted and unsure. On the internet, he comes alive - free to unapologetically be himself. The vast social landscape of YouTube allows people of all identities to find community, so for every "hater" Brendan encounters online, there are a dozen more supporters, grateful for his message of self-love and bravery.

But in the real world, bullies don't hide behind message boards.

It's for this reason that Brendan presumes his school's administration won't allow him to wear makeup. They want to protect him - though in doing so, they mutilate the parts of Brendan that make him who he is.

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Shortly after my visit, Brendan posted a video to YouTube titled "Which Restroom Do I Use?!?!?!" He stares into the camera with eyes outlined in liner and mascara, and describes a recent struggle.

"When you're going to a restroom, whenever you're at a restaurant or a mall, people don't look at the two signs and say, 'Which am I going to go in today?'" he says. "That's what happens with me. It kind of terrorizes me."

No matter which bathroom he chooses, men's or women's, he will get stared down. His femininity makes some boys uncomfortable, while his male anatomy rattles some girls.

His advice to viewer?

Ignore the stares. Screw what they think.


"I just think that no matter who you are or ... what your gender identity is, you just need to go pee where you feel most comfortable," Brendan says in the video. "If you have a problem with that, you can go use the family restroom."

The video has racked up more than 144,000 views and over 1,000 comments. The school has not contacted him about it. The internet is his domain.

In a few short years, Brendan tells me he will graduate high school and flee to Los Angeles, where he hopes to pursue a career that places him "in front of the camera." Maybe by then, his YouTube channel will no longer be a one-man production. It can be exhausting during the school year, Brendan says, when he juggles so many roles: performer, sound designer, lighting manager, director, among others.

But before that day comes, Brendan has a few milestones to hit: prom, the SAT, and an upcoming dinner with Hillary Clinton, which he will attend in lieu of homecoming.


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"I'm a big believer in the law of attraction," Brendan says at his grandmother's dining room table. "If you say something is going to happen, and just keep saying it, it will happen."

He cradled his phone in his hands, and scrolled through more behind the scenes photos at the VMAs. He paused on a shot of the red carpet entrance, which he says he wasn't allowed to walk because he was hadn't turned 16 yet.

"I envisioned myself going on the VMA stage when I was 10 years old, and I just did it," he says, smiling. "I wanted to walk the red carpet. I will one day."

He knows it to be true.


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