A new lawsuit could yank the YouTube star into the real world
A young woman in a clown-like powder pink suit, her hands covered in ruffles, stands against a stark white background and, in a robotic voice, repeats the words: “I told you so. Didn’t I tell you?” Horror movie synths whistle behind her like a kettle bubbling up to boiling point. Who is she?
As she’ll tell you and the millions of people who watch her online – repeatedly – this is Poppy, the bizarre YouTube phenomenon whose videos consist of virtually nothing and rarely last longer than a minute, but are mesmerising nonetheless. In one clip, she interviews a basil plant (“I’ve been waiting so long for this moment, but we’re finally interviewing this plant”) and in other – which lasts just 13 seconds – says the words “Macaulay Culkin” just once before gazing vacantly into the camera. That video is called ‘Macaulay Culkin’.
She’s been uploading YouTube videos since 2011 – the first saw her simply eating candyfloss – and each one tends to rack up at least hundreds of thousands of views, and in many cases millions (see: the 15 million views on ‘I’m Poppy’, in which she repeats the words “I’m Poppy” over and over again. Poppy has ensured that her subscriber numbers are kept private, but we assumed that they are very high indeed. There’s always been something vaguely sinister about Poppy, and the way that she seems less than (or more than?) human, but the latest one is more aggressive than most. And there may be a reason for this, based on recent events.
Poppy is being sued for “identity copying”. The character was created by LA-based performers Moriah Pereira (who plays Poppy) and Titanic Sinclair, who directs the strange videos. Sinclair was formerly part of pop duo Mars Argo, that name shared by his co-performer, who is the person now suing Pereira. Argo and Sinclair were a couple for five years, and Argo claims that many of the idea used in the Poppy videos were originally her own.
Knotty human relationships have entangled themselves around Poppy’s pristine, pastel-perfect world. Last year, she put out the album ‘Poppy.Computer’, 11 tracks of genuine electro bangers, and the release forced the usually reticent Sinclair and Pereira (always in character) to speak with the press. There was an appearance on James Corden’s Late Late Show, and even a 40-date live tour of America. Sinclair, who co-wrote the songs, told NPR that the pop project was partly satirical: “With pop music, it’s all just so manufactured and you have all of these trust fund kids who bought their way, basically, into the business – and then their songs are all about how real they are, ad how rugged they are.” In 2015 he uploaded to YouTube a frenetic, buzzy slacker–punk-influenced solo track called ‘Trust Fund’.
If Sinclair appears to have a bee in his bonnet, it’s perhaps because he and Perreira/Poppy exist on the periphery of popular culture, famous on the internet but not in the real world. ‘Poppy.Computer didn’t make much of a dent in the US charts, and their dalliance with the mainstream stalled.
Yet Poppy remains big on the internet. The aforementioned latest video, entitled ‘I Told You So’, has amassed almost 90,000 views at the time of writing, despite having only been online 18 hours. There is a vast fan community who call themselves Poppy Seeds, congregate on Reddit and share an agreement that they won’t discuss Pereira’s pre-Poppy career. A Canadian Poppy Seed named Otto Pinkus has explained the character’s appeal: “One of the reasons she stands out is because she doesn’t waste time bringing up stuff from her life – she is there for her art only.” In other words, she’s not your usual self-absorbed YouTube star. Poppy is pure escapism, existing according to the interior logic of her own, perfectly ordered world.
This latest development, though, has the potential to perforate that world, to upset that order, to change the way Poppy Seeds view their mesmeric, robotic fave. The ugly, real world mess of a personal relationship that stepped though the rectangular box of the YouTube screen and threatened to make a mess of Poppy’s self-contained, pastel-coloured landscape. Asked by that NPR interview if she’s from Nashville – as Pereira is – Poppy relied calmly: “I’m from the internet”. Yet this lawsuit draws attention to the fact that this is, of course, anything but true.
Poppy taps into the communal online mindset that, if you get the joke, you’re ushered into be part of the gang. If doesn’t even matter that there isn’t really a joke to ‘get’, and that that’s the point. As her favourite refrain suggests time and again, she’s Poppy – but for how much longer?