What to Know About the Controversy Around YouTuber Colleen Ballinger

15 minute read

YouTuber Colleen Ballinger, who is best known for her awkward, controversial character Miranda Sings, has recently come under renewed scrutiny for what some fans have said were inappropriate conversations and on-stage interactions beginning in the early 2010s when they were minors. Multiple fans have posted screenshots of conversations that they say demonstrate that Ballinger, now 36, raised mature subjects like virginity and sexual positions or manipulated them to help her defend against any sort of online criticism that has been levied against her.

In separate conversations with TIME, three former fans detailed their experiences with Ballinger and reflected on how the aftermath of their relationships with her has affected them in their adult lives. In a video response posted on June 28, several weeks after fans began coming forward, Ballinger addressed the controversy.

The recent criticism echoes an online dustup that emerged in 2020 when YouTuber Adam McIntyre shared that he felt he had been used and manipulated by Ballinger from age 13. In a YouTube video, McIntyre accused Ballinger, 20 years his senior, of sharing inappropriate personal details with him and using content he came up with for her YouTube channel and Twitter account without paying him. After McIntyre posted his video, Ballinger publicly apologized, but many of her fans ostracized him online by removing him from group chats and ending their longstanding friendships with him.

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Fans who are speaking up now say that the way McIntyre was treated by the Ballinger fandom dissuaded them from sharing their own stories at the time. That is, until early June when a YouTuber named KodeeRants uploaded a video, which was later deleted, in which they say that back in 2020, Ballinger sent them screenshots of her conversations with McIntyre that Ballinger felt cleared her name and successfully persuaded Kodee to make a video defending her back.

This caused some fans to reconsider the experiences they had with Ballinger and determine, in hindsight, that they felt they were inappropriate. Several have since come forward on social media, including one named Johnny Silvestri, who says he had been in group video calls beginning at age 15 with other then-underage fans, as well as with Ballinger, her ex-husband Joshua David Evans, and sometimes her brother Trent Ballinger (her family members were frequent guests in her vlogs, and many fans formed what they saw as friendships with her siblings). Becky (who prefers not to share her last name) said she had an experience on-stage at a Miranda Sings show she felt was inappropriate.

Ballinger did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TIME. On June 28, she spoke publicly for the first time since former fans began speaking up. In a video posted to her vlog channel (not her main channels) titled “hi.,” Ballinger says her team advised her not to respond to the allegations, but that they never told her she couldn’t sing. The creator then begins strumming a ukulele and singing a song about the “toxic gossip train” and how people “made up rumors for clout.” Ballinger also says “I’m not a groomer, I’m just a loser,” adding that the only thing she’s ever groomed were her cats.

The response to her video, which racked up more than 2 million views in less than 24 hours, was swift and negative. One users on Twitter called it the “worst apology video.” Many criticized her decision to sing the apology and play a ukulele because they felt it minimized the allegations levied against her.

Evans, meanwhile, posted an apology to Silvestri on Twitter and wrote in an emailed statement to TIME that his voice was “taken from [him] back in 2016-2020 after years of online harassment and threats that came as a result of false accusations and extremely manipulative embellishments from my ex-wife.” He goes on to say that while he understands he should not have had conversations with Silvestri when the latter was a child, Evans feels that many of Silvestri’s accusations are “misleading and inaccurate.”

ZocDoc, a sponsor on Ballinger’s podcast RELAX!, which she co-hosts with her current husband Erik Stocklin, confirmed to TIME they have cut ties with Ballinger. Another sponsor, OneSkin, told TMZ that they no longer have a professional relationship with the YouTuber, saying, “We were made aware of this previously and have decided to cease the relationship completely. This behavior is appalling, and we do not condone or support it in any form.”

In addition to Ballinger, TIME contacted Kodee and reached out multiple times to Ballinger’s friend, Kory DeSoto, who has also come under fire for participating in a 2020 incident in which he and Ballinger sent lingerie to McIntyre. None have responded to requests for comment.

It’s helpful to go back to the beginning to understand how we got to this moment. Here’s everything you need to know about the controversy.

Who is Colleen Ballinger a.k.a. Miranda Sings?

Ballinger has billed herself as a family-friendly YouTuber for more than a decade. Her first and primary channel, which consists of content she makes with her kids, family, and friends, has more than 8.6 million subscribers. But she truly rose to popularity with another channel dedicated to her fictional character, Miranda Sings—a disheveled adult child with poorly applied red lipstick who aspires to become a star. She’s said in the past that the character is a satirization of YouTube musicians and theater performers who think they’re more talented than they are. The Miranda Sings channel, which launched in 2008 and hit its stride by 2012, has amassed over 10 million subscribers. Across the two channels, her videos have been viewed over 4.2 billion times. She also had a Netflix series, Haters Back Off, from 2016-2017.

Like many other content creators, Ballinger has faced controversy in the past, including for a 2006 video in which she and her sister pretended to be Latinx women, drawing upon racial stereotypes, and another a Twitter stunt in which she “came out” as a Meghan Trainor fan, which led some to say that she was making light of the coming-out process for LGBTQ individuals. By and large, though, her dedicated fans accepted her apologies, allowing her to sustain her popularity.

Who is Adam McIntyre and what are his accusations against Ballinger?

In 2020, McIntyre became the first known ex-fan to speak up about his experiences with Ballinger in a video he uploaded to YouTube titled, “Colleen Ballinger, stop lying.” In it, he says that from December 2017 to March 2020, he wrote content for the Miranda Sings character and did not receive payment. He says that he would send her ideas for videos and tweets, that he was given the password to the Miranda Sings Twitter account, and told Ballinger about his idea for Miranda to “come out” as a Meghan Trainor fan. She was hesitant, as screenshots of the conversation in his video show, but agreed to let him upload the “coming out” post. However, shortly after the post was uploaded, she started receiving criticism online, with fans accusing her of “making fun” of coming out. She later tweeted out an apology.

McIntyre shared screenshots of his conversation with Ballinger at the time, in which he says he believes she was trying to “guilt” him because she said, “everyone thinks I’m homophobic.” He apologized privately and logged out of the account. In his video, McIntyre also shared screenshots of a conversation with Ballinger in which she asked McIntyre to be her “social media intern” and told him that if he performed “well,” then she would officially hire him “part-time for an hourly rate.” However, following the Trainor Twitter debacle, he says he was never compensated.

In McIntyre’s video, he also discussed how beginning when he was 13, Ballinger fostered a close relationship with him that went beyond the typical parasocial relationship between fans and celebrities, a relationship in which one party puts effort into the relationship while the other is unaware of their existence. In the video, he explained this happened largely via a Twitter group chat with Ballinger and in private messages.

While it’s common for fans to have parasocial relationships with content creators online, it’s less common for those creators to go out of their way to reciprocate those relationships with fans beyond a rare response to an online comment or brief meet-and-greet. Ballinger’s case has drawn attention in part due to the age gap between her and her fans as well as McIntyre’s allegation that the relationship was nurtured through constant communication.

McIntyre said in his 2020 video that Ballinger and her friend, Kory DeSoto (who has since deleted his Twitter account), mailed him lingerie that DeSoto had worn over his clothes during a livestream that Ballinger hosted with DeSoto when McIntyre was 13. In resurfaced clips of the livestream, Ballinger and DeSoto could be heard laughing about how “funny” it would be as they envisioned his parents’ reaction.

According to McIntyre, Ballinger also divulged private information about her previous relationship with Evans, and allegedly asked McIntyre to find gossip about Evans online. After he uploaded his video calling out her actions, Ballinger uploaded her own video taking ownership of those behaviors. She said she shouldn’t have sent him lingerie, given him access to her Twitter account, or had conversations with him online. This and Kodee’s video defending Ballinger prompted many Ballinger fans to attack McIntyre on Twitter. But after McIntyre’s video was released, Ballinger responded to tweets accusing her of being a “groomer,” denying the allegations. Grooming is defined by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children as a kind of abuse by which “someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.”

Earlier this month, McIntyre uploaded five videos to YouTube that discuss his own experiences and address those of additional former fans who have come forward with experiences they say they had with Ballinger and her family. In a conversation with TIME, he said that dealing with the fallout from his original video in 2020 was difficult and still affects him as an adult. “It’s completely ruined how I look at friendships,” McIntyre says. “When all my friends, either in real life or that I’ve known online for six years, left me, it made me not want to trust people because I felt that they would leave me.”

Why are fans calling out Ballinger’s past behavior now?

When McIntyre posted his video three years ago, many Ballinger fans harassed him. Now, the tide has begun to turn on Ballinger as more fans speak out. The floodgates were reopened by the video posted by YouTuber KodeeRants on June 4 titled “Why I Left The Colleen Ballinger Fandom.” In the video, the creator says that they were contacted by Ballinger and DeSoto after McIntyre posted his video in 2020. Because KodeeRants says in the video that they felt they had formed a bond with Ballinger online, the creator felt the need to defend Ballinger and discredit McIntyre. They decided to make their new video because they had reevaluated the situation and now think that what Ballinger asked them to do was harmful.

Following Kodee’s video, McIntyre uploaded a tearful video on June 7 titled “I Was Right About Colleen Ballinger,” in which he speaks about Kodee’s video and provides context for some of the evidence they share, including screenshots from the group chat in which Ballinger allegedly made inappropriate remarks. The two creators get on a video call toward the end of the video. McIntyre explains that the Ballinger fans had a Twitter group chat called “The Weenies,” which McIntyre was a part of and frequently interacted with as a teenager. One screenshot appears to show Ballinger asking him, “Are you a virgin?” and “What’s your [favorite] position?”

Silvestri began to share his experiences on Twitter on June 7. He tells TIME that he was 15 years old when he first started chatting with Ballinger and Evans online in 2012. He became a fan of Miranda Sings and began posting about the character on Twitter to get Ballinger’s attention. She hosted private video chat rooms on apps like Skype and Oovoo, then migrated the group to a more public platform called TinyChat as her fandom grew. Silvestri said he was in a group call with people whose ages ranged from 14 to 18.

He tells TIME that these conversations were “inappropriate” and included “a lot of trauma dumping” from Ballinger and Evans. He says topics ranged from puberty and sexual subjects to Ballinger and Evans’ romantic relationship, including whether he was going to propose to her, whether she would dump him, and his jealousy around her financial success. “They eventually started treating it like a game, which is disturbing,” he continued. “[Ballinger and Evans] would instigate, they would egg us on… and we were always pit against each other.”

Silvestri claims that he was paid little for his work on the Miranda Sings tour as an assistant from July 11 to Sept. 22., 2018. He says he was paid “a little bit over $3,500” for two months of work. He said in a tweet that he worked “12+ hour days.” He posted photos of checks that he received from “Miranda Sings Inc.,” which show him getting paid $3,175 in one check and $480 in another.

In a TikTok video posted on June 14, Becky, a 21-year-old former fan, came forward about her experience being “embarrassed” on stage at a Miranda Sings show when she was 16. She has commented on a screenshot of a video she is in that has been circulating on TikTok, in which Ballinger performs a stunt that involves Becky, then a teenager, spreading her legs wide in front of a large audience. Becky’s video telling the story in her own words has racked up 14 million views.

In an interview with TIME, Becky says that she had been a fan of Ballinger’s since she was 12. She says that Ballinger has segments in her shows where she calls people up on stage, and one of them is a “yoga challenge.” This involved Becky laying on her back as Ballinger, in her role as Miranda, spread Becky’s legs, as a fart sound was played. She describes being “terrified” that she wasn’t covered enough. She tells TIME that she remembers being “in shock” when she got off stage. “There was still a little bit of almost an excitement level because I have been so close to her, and she had been somebody that I’ve looked up to for so long,” says Becky. “But I was also feeling ashamed of myself.” Becky says she kept her feelings to herself because of Ballinger’s “toxic” fans, who she believed would be angry with her if she said anything negative about Ballinger or Miranda.

Becky shares that about seven months ago, while watching TikToks, a video about a Miranda Sings show came up, and it prompted her to make a post about her experience in the r/ColleenBallingerSnark subreddit, where users congregate to “snark,” or speak negatively, about popular public figures. Becky says that when she posted about this, she was met with a wave of support and that led her to speak up again when McIntyre was vindicated by Kodee.

What is Ballinger up to now?

In May, Ballinger started a podcast with YouTuber Trisha Paytas called Oversharing with Colleen and Trisha. In McIntyre’s latest video, he shared a clip someone sent to him of the podcast being live-streamed on YouTube. In the video, it appears that viewers’ comments asking Ballinger to address McIntyre’s and Kodee’s videos are being deleted in real-time. Paytas has also been pressed by fans to release a statement about the situation, but she has not spoken publicly on the matter.

Other YouTubers who Ballinger has worked with in the past have released public statements online. Beauty YouTuber Jeffree Starr recently spoke about Ballinger on a TikTok live and said that she is “sick,” and he has “never been a fan.” Another YouTuber named Tyler Oakley uploaded a lengthy statement to Discord in which he named Ballinger along with other YouTubers who have faced criticism, saying, “As I’ve learned more about inappropriate behavior by influencers, I’ve consciously disconnected myself from those who participate in it.”

Ballinger has been on tour in the U.S. this spring as Miranda Sings and has over a dozen tour dates scheduled between June and August. The tour website says the show is “open to all ages and is rated PG13 due to some adult references and expletives that appear briefly on a screen.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com