By BRAD WHEELER
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Can a superstar be an unknown? It's a legitimate question in a modern era of increasingly fragmented audiences, wider generational disparities, changing media consumption patterns and the demise of the pop-culture monoculture. Bob Dylan once asked how it felt to be a complete unknown, but perhaps there's no such thing any longer.
Take Molly Burke. She's a 25-year-old blind YouTube superstar and motivational speaker from Oakville, Ont., now based in Los Angeles.
She's been featured on NBC's Today with Megyn Kelly and in The Washington Post. Legally blind since birth, diagnosed with the genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa as a preschooler and completely without sight for 11 years now, she gives online makeup tutorials, vents charismatically, inspires legions and has just released It's Not What It Looks Like, a memoirmeets-wellness title that quickly landed at the top of The New York Times bestselling nonfiction audiobooks list.
With 72,800 Twitter devotees, more than 800,000 Instagram followers and nearly two million subscribers to her YouTube channel, Burke joins the ranks of other young Canadian social-media sensations such as the YouTube-savvy Lilly Singh and the Instagram celebrity Donté Colley.
Her online, on-screen manner is freshfaced, honest and disarming. She's a heroine to her fans, having overcome bullying, depression, the loss of vision and, at the moment, insects.
"They're spraying my apartment for cockroaches," laughs Burke, on the phone from L.A., where she waits out the fumigation at her local Starbucks.
Burke's YouTube videos are empowering, irreverent blasts of self-help and useful displays of frustration.
Although she's known for her confidence and positivity, a big part of Burke's brand and appeal is her sassy humour. In a recent video, she candidly discussed things one should never say to a blind person.
"Have you tried seeing a naturopath?" (Yes, but not for her blindness.)
"Do you know my blind friend?" (Maybe, but probably not. "It's not a club," Burke says.)
"Can't you just get an eye transplant?" (No.)
"You're lucky your parents kept you." (Says Burke: "This is something nobody should say to anybody.") To those of older generations, statuses such as "social-media celebrity" or "online personality" are viewed with skepticism at best, dismissal and derision at worst. It's kids stuff, a fad, not real - give them a Bert Convy, now there was a star. Going viral is good thing? Not if you've lived through the Plague.
"I get it," Burke says. "There are online creators who do crazy things. They don't represent us well. They're the ones who get the press, though, and it turns people off."
Burke's celebrity is real, even if it is incomprehensible to people who grew up idolizing only Hollywood actors or those stamped with the "network television star" seal of approval. But where celebrities of the past were foisted upon a vulnerable public by questionable curators, today's "online creators," in the parlance, build up their audiences one mouse click at a time and, initially at least, with no machine behind them. "We carve our own career," says Burke, who began her public speaking career at 5 and has been doing it professionally since she was 18. "We have to build our own network and develop our own following. When we start out, we don't have teams of people behind us."
Burke now has a squad that includes video editors, an assistant, a manager and, perhaps most importantly, a mom.
"Molly needs help like anybody else," says Niamh Burke, a professional photographer who helps with her daughter's content-craving Instagram concern.
"This is a business."
Molly Burke is in the business of being Molly Burke. Many were initially drawn to a backstory that involved adolescent bullying and the creeping, unstoppable diminishment of her sight.
On her profile-raising television appearance with Kelly, Burke talked about going blind completely - "I had to mourn the loss of the girl I was" - and told the traumatizing tale of being abandoned by pranking schoolmates in a forest at 14.
"It's the part of my story that shocks people the most," Burke says of the bullying she endured.
"But people in the disability community laugh at that, because they know bullies go for the most vulnerable target, which are the people they perceive as being different."
If Burke no longer endures bullying, her everyday dealings with insensitivity and obstacles seem daunting - not to mention demoralizing for those who still hold out hope for the human race. "I don't think about being blind until someone makes me think about it," she says. Unfortunately, it's unavoidable.
The casual reminders of her condition include the Uber drivers who deny her rides because of her service dog (Gallop, a strapping mountain-dog-black Lab mix). When Burke goes on dates, the guy often is only interested in what it feels like to be blind. And then there are the people who talk to her mother instead of her about what she wants to eat. "These are the moments that frustrate me," Burke says. "My blindness changes their perceptions of me, my abilities and my independence."
To the unknowing people who might watch her videos or casually come across her on television, Burke's blindness is fairly undetectable. It's not something she dwells on, and many online comments about her are of the "I forget she's blind" variety.
Burke's response to those reactions? "I think, 'Yeah, me too.' I forget that everybody doesn't live the way I live."
Mind you, having a service dog dozing at her feet during the televised Kelly interview is a dead giveaway. "He's laying at my feet right now," Burke says, referring to the nap-happy pooch originally named "Gallup," after the polltaking titan George. "He's chronically sleepy when he's not working. But he's happy, you know?
He's always in a positive mood."
The dog's buoyancy is onbrand. The businesses that associate with Burke - Dove, Johnson & Johnson, Samsung, Allure magazine and audio-book creator Audible are among them - do so on the basis of her unsinkability and audacious determination, which are qualities she's always had.
According to her mother, Burke as a child was a persistent participator.
"It was heartbreaking to watch her at times," the elder Burke says. "She took tennis lessons because her brother played, and even though she couldn't see the ball, she wouldn't give up. She'd be up at the net and the instructor would try to throw the ball at her racquet. The other kids would be annoyed. They didn't understand."
According to figures supplied by her management, Burke's online audience is 94-per-cent female, with nearly half her fans in the 18-24 demographic.
"At the end of the day, I'm a 25-year-old woman who shares my life," says the magenta-haired motivator and die-hard Ed Sheeran fan whose most recent video involved IUD horror stories. "Yes, I'm trying to break down barriers and stereotypes about disabled people. But I'm a true girly-girl. I love sparkles and skirts and lipstick. I love shopping and fashion. It's reasonable that I attract a like-minded audience."
(Burke also loves Starbucks.
And although she has devoted more than one video to the caffeine-peddling chain, she has no commercial relationship with the Seattle-based company.)
There's one more thing Burke says you should never say to a blind person: "Can I pray for you?" Such an offer, while well intended, is offensive and comes off as condescending to her, she says. That she needs to be fixed is an assumption Burke wants no part of. "This is my life," she adds.
"People say they don't know how I can do my makeup without a mirror, but, honestly, I don't know how they couldn't."
Burke doesn't need your prayers, but she'll gladly accept your Instagram follow. If her status is confusing to you, think of it as the new math. "50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong" was a famous 1959 marketing assertion. Burke's numbers (albeit much smaller) add up, too.
In addition to being a YouTube star with nearly two million subscribers, Molly Burke, seen with her service dog Gallop, has been a motivational speaker since the age of 5 and has recently published a bestselling audiobook, It's Not What It Looks Like.
CHRIS SANDERS/AUDIBLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Molly Burke's online audience is 94-per-cent female, and about half of those viewers are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to figures from her management.
CHRIS SANDERS/AUDIBLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS