Chris Collins says it all started with a pink video camera.
He's one of the world's hottest social media stars, with a following of over 30 million and collective online views surpassing 3 billion. This, of course, is something most television actors and would-be pop stars only dream of. Known by his online moniker, WeeklyChris, he's part of the new guard of celebrities: he's a social celebrity. And he's a very big one.
“He’s very humble. There’s something about Chris that when he comes through, he has such a positive energy about life and things, and he always tells me that he wants to do things that the fans can relate to. And I really appreciate that as a songwriter.”
Nothing is stronger proof of this than his recent admission to me that he's regularly stopped for autographs and selfies at the Whole Foods in his neighborhood — both by teenage girls, and dads of teenage girls looking to be parent-of-the-week. "My favourite is when the dads ask me for autographs," he says, "because I know they're doing something nice for their kids."
Despite all this attention, in his mind, he's not far away from the shy Canadian teenager he started off as, using his mom's pink video camera to make funny videos.
"I was a strange kid," he says, "I was really into computers at an early age."
He tells me this in between sips of iced tea and while picking at a gluten-free walnut muffin in Encino, California — a long way, geographically at least, from his Calgary, Alberta origins.
Fashionably dressed in ripped black jeans, a casual white shirt and a sleek black ball cap, he looks more like a trendy Hollywood scenester than a strange, computer-obsessed kid. But his sister, Kirsten Collins, a budding social and music star in her own right, confirms his story.
"He was one of those people who just hid in the corners and wore a bunch of hoodies and he was more into business things," she says.
Though he loved computer programming and learning how to create video games, his mom's pink video recorder had a hold over him. In his free time, he'd use it to make goofy videos that showcased his sense of humor. This was in his seventh grade year, around 2008 if he estimates correctly (he was homeschooled and the details of when he passed into which grades are hazy on him now).
"I would always make videos for fun in my spare time, never posted them anywhere," he says. "Then YouTube came out."
It started as a passion project. "I thought, "Okay, I'll put some stuff on there," not really expecting anyone to watch it. And I didn't tell anyone about it. I didn't tell my parents or anything like that. I just kind of continued to post on there," he says.
But soon, his hobby became so big he couldn't fly under the radar. "I think when I had a few thousand subscribers one of my friends at school found one of my videos."
Not long after, Chris' inbox began to fill up with emails from record labels and T.V. shows.
"I would be getting these emails from these different networks, and I just never took time to check my emails," he says. "So I asked my dad one time. My dad checked them out and there was one from the Oprah Network."
It was an invitation to appear on the show, but because Chris hadn't checked his emails, the episode had already aired. He says after that he started taking it a little more seriously.
"I was just a kid sitting in his bedroom, posting videos," he says. "Sometimes instead of going to a movie doing something fun, I'd be sitting in my bedroom creating content."
All the focus continued to pay off for him as his audience grew exponentially. Kirsten says, "It was quite awesome and kind of amusing when we would walk down the streets and people would ask for a picture."
A critical moment came when Chris was in around ninth grade. "I remember there came a time when I had to get a job," he says, "and I was going to work at Subway." But his dad encouraged him to try monetizing his channel instead of learning how to make sandwiches. "I never did learn how to make a sandwich," he says.
The monetization route has been working, to say the least. Now 20 years old, Chris has made a career out of his passion. It's a career with highlights other more traditional celebrities can work their whole lives for and never achieve.
He's been flown out to Hawaii by HP where he created Vines of himself flying in an open-door helicopter over an active volcano, raced an Audi around their Napa Valley track (he's very proud to have beaten the track during his visit), created content for Listerine, Sour Patch Kids, Beats and has an upcoming Marvel campaign.
Most recently, he was in New York City cutting a song with Ringo Starr as part of his role as a UN Youth Ambassador.
“With social media you’re able to showcase your life more. But I always think one of the reasons I really chose music, is that with music, it allows you to express emotion or ideas that you can’t generally do or are much harder to present with just words or just videos. You’re allowed to be a lot more raw.”
Kirsten Collins says that when she thinks about the shy kid he once was she's amazed by the way he changed. "He kind of took something that he was uncomfortable with and made it comfortable, and then made it a career," she says, adding, "He took something that wasn't his strength and made it into his biggest strength."
Now Chris is opening a new chapter in his career. As a music-loving family, he remembers how they'd always jam out together casually. These session inspired a love for music that has never died. And with the release of his third official single, "Worst Way," Chris is making it more official than ever: he's pursuing a music career.
"It's going to be my main focus coming up this year." He already has goals to release a debut EP and head out on a tour before Christmas.
"There's a lot people will learn from me in my music that won't necessarily be represented by video content," he says. "With social media you're able to showcase your life more. But I always think one of the reasons I really chose music, is that with music, it allows you to express emotion or ideas that you can't generally do or are much harder to present with just words or just videos. You're allowed to be a lot more raw."
His producer, Swagga BOB, agrees. They've been working together for years now and he says that when stars like Chris come into the studio to work, they put a different side of themselves out there. "Snapchat and all the other stuff are only a couple of seconds of someone's life," Swagga Bob tells me over the phone during a quick break from the studio. "But music is an interesting thing because you get to see the emotion and energy, and hear their stories of things they've seen, heard, or went through."
Chris and Swagga BOB are spending a lot of time together these days before Chris' deput EP release. He says their working relationship is a collaboration between two great friends. "He'll come to the studio and it's like two best friends who haven't seen each other in a long time. We start talking about everything that's going on in our lives. Then we start playing instruments and he'll tell me a story, we'll start singing ideas and we'll go back and forth."
He credits Chris' uniquely positive energy to the great working relationship. "He's very humble. There's something about Chris that when he comes through, he has such a positive energy about life and things, and he always tells me that he wants to do things that the fans can relate to. And I really appreciate that as a songwriter."
Chris feeds off the collaboration. For him, one of the best parts about being in LA now is the strong community of social stars around him. "The space was built on collaboration and working with other people and socializing," he says.
He explains that the roots of social media are community, and it's no surprise to him that the community of social media creators in LA is as close as it is. They all go to the same events, and make content with each other when they can. "Everyone knows each other, social media wouldn't be what it is if it wasn't," he says. "It's awesome to see. Above everything else it's just a big group of friends."
In a way, with all of them together in LA, it's almost like they're 2016's version of the Laurel Canyon mythical music scene. While adults of today might turn up their nose at such a comparison, it's today's youth who will create tomorrow's myths.
"It's all about who you grow up loving," says Chris.
And for youngsters in 2016, that person is Chris Collins.
Reach Staff Reporter Jolene Latimer here.