‘I’m Poppy,” says Poppy, often. In one of her hundreds of videos on YouTube, she repeats those two words in her childlike monotone for 10 minutes. This has been viewed more than 12.6m times.
Poppy has about 300 videos on her channel, which have received a combined 235m views, increasing by 250,000 a day; YouTube says her subscribers have grown 260% in the past year. Her videos are the sort you stumble upon while following links blindly down an online rabbit hole: portals to a pastel-washed parallel universe populated by platinum-blond Poppy and her fellow characters – a basil plant and a mannequin called Charlotte.
In the first video of Poppy ever posted, in November 2014, she wordlessly consumes candy floss: this has had 2.3m views. In another, she wonders aloud why Selena Gomez has so many social media followers: 2.6m views. In one of her higher-concept clips, she kneels in prayer before a metallic P. “Say it with me: ‘I am not in a cult,’” she says. “I am not in a cult.” Then she bows: 2.1m views.
Poppy says Poppy is an alien, an object, a computer, your pet. But Poppy is a character portrayed by the musician Moriah Poppy, born Moriah Pereira, created with the director Titanic Sinclair, born Corey Mixter, both of Los Angeles. She is a pop singer, soon to be the star of her own TV show. She is the sort of celebrity who could not have existed even half a decade ago: born of and beloved by the internet, and essentially unknown outside of it.
That may be about to change. Poppy released her debut album, Poppy.Computer, on Diplo’s Mad Decent label in October, and has been touring the US and Canada since. She will play her first-ever UK show in London on Wednesday (at the Garage in Highbury), with more North American dates added to the end of February; she’ll record her second album in Japan in the coming weeks.
Next month, meanwhile, a television show written and directed by Sinclair will premiere in the Indie Episodic category of the Sundance film festival. “It’s about Poppy,” Poppy tells me by phone from LA. “It’s called I’m Poppy. It’s about Poppy’s life in Hollywood, and the people she sees every day.”
The tour, the TV show, her performance on James Corden’s Late Late Show, the billboard of her face in Times Square – it speaks to a concerted push to break Poppy free of her pastel online prison for bona fide fame. But will it work?
Poppy is not the first YouTube star to attempt mainstream celebrity, nor even the biggest. Her subscriber count on YouTube is not public but was reported to be 679,000 in August, far smaller than the 17m to 54m who follow its 10 most popular channels. Her point of difference is the small, strange world she has created for herself there, more art project than pop prodigy; and her unshakeable commitment to it – even offline.
“When I first heard of Poppy, I basically thought she was a gimmick, to be honest,” says Otto Pinkus of Toronto, 28, who maintains sizeable communities of “Poppy Seeds”, as her fans call themselves, on Facebook and Reddit; he met his wife through the fandom. “One day I just decided to watch a few videos out of boredom, and I was totally hooked. There was something about her extreme cuteness combined with the out-of-this-world atmosphere.”
The content of her videos is negligible; it is Poppy herself who lends them their hypnotic appeal. She has the comportment of a computer-generated character, at once stiff and beguiling, and softly spoken in the style of the so-called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos – whispery narrations that trigger “head orgasms” – that have their own dedicated followings on YouTube. Though she is very pretty, and presented to seem younger than her 22 years, the effect is unsettling, even sinister – as though David Lynch had drawn from Japanese kawaii culture for a series of straight-to-streaming shorts. On her album, she sings brightly about being an object of the internet, “born with makeup on, mani-pedi and everything”, and in love with her laptop computer.
What she likes best about the internet, Poppy says, is that it allows her to be “anything I want to be. And anybody can be anything they want to be, too”.
She is in character, and Sinclair is with her on the conference call. He has to field most open questions, or those that she can’t answer with references to herself in the third person, which is to say she is silent for most of the 51-minute interview.
The paradox of Poppy is that the mystery around her on the internet has won her more opportunities away from it, where mystery is harder to maintain. Her public appearances can be excruciating, throwing the weirdness of her online world into sharp relief.
‘I don’t know who ‘that Poppy’ is,” someone tweeted during her set opening for Ke$ha at Dubuque County Fair in Iowa last year, “but she claims to be an alien and I don’t think Dubuque is ready for this.” It was a harsh reminder of the shortcomings of online celebrity. On the internet, everybody knows you’re an android; it’s a harder sell from an outdoor stage in a farming state.
“I have often tried introducing Poppy to normies,” says Pinkus, using the internet’s derisive term for people who know nothing of its ways and memes, “but they always just watch a video or two and dismiss her as a dumb pop star, or some hipster with high production values. I’ve learned my lesson.”
If Poppy perplexes people like Pinkus, schooled in internet subculture, she is broadly impenetrable for those who are happily ignorant of it. Her videos are small but perfectly formed units of strangeness, playing on the internet’s prediliction for close reading and conspiracy theories.
Audiences at her Poppy.Computer tour of North America have been overwhelmingly in on the act of her self-referential “computer pop” and on-stage skits with Sinclair. Lindsey Weber, a writer and co-host of the popular celebrity culture podcast Who? Weekly, describes the show in New York last month as “extremely weird, yet extremely good”, singling out Charlotte the Mannequin’s DJ set as a highlight. “To see hundreds of people full-out grooving to the beats of a mannequin, just standing there behind the decks, was incredible,” she says.
Poppy’s own performance did not disappoint, says Weber. “Her songs are truly great: well written and fun to sing along to, and she definitely knows how to perform them. She even did a little crowd work, which was what people really were there to see.”
Poppy.Computer brings to mind the wave of female-fronted synthpop acts popular in the late 2000s, such as Little Boots and La Roux, updated with the influence of Japanese pop music and programmed for a computer game. Bleach Blonde Baby resembles Material Girl in music and lyrics, had Madonna been claiming to be the stuff of “cotton candy dreams”; on My Style, she claps back at the listener: “Google me, follow me, pray for me/That’s your style.”
High-energy and delightfully meta, her songs are in fluorescent contrast with much contemporary pop. “Right now, pop music is bleak for the most part,” says Sinclair, 30. He co-wrote with Pereira most of the songs on the album, and is listed as its producer alongside Ryosuke “Dr R” Sakai of Japan.
“It’s got to a point where, if you turn on the radio, you can’t even tell the difference between any of the singers – it all just sounds like this homogenous, quiet, unenthusiastic stuff. It’s just been very mundane for long enough. People are looking for something else.”
Some are, anyway. Poppy has about 290,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, evidence that YouTube remains her home planet for now. “The project”, as she is referred to by her management and her most clued-up fans, was born there in 2014, informed by a clinical study of the platform’s most successful stars.
When Sinclair and Pereira began collaborating, Sinclair had been stuck with writer’s block. “I would find myself going into a vortex of YouTube videos and not even know why I was watching them,” he says. “From a creative standpoint, that’s actually a really interesting writing prompt: to try and figure out what it is about something that makes it so hypnotic …”
He resurfaced the surreal, softly-lit aesthetic he had honed in directing music videos and as part of Mars Argo, his former band. As for Poppy, he insists: “It’s just her” – Pereira, and not a contrived character.
“It’s funny when people say that she’s a character – I mean, isn’t the president a character? Isn’t Vladimir Putin? I’m sure if you look at anyone in the spotlight, it could be argued they’re more or less a character in that way … For me, it really does feel like I just point a camera and press record.”
It occurs to me that if Sinclair is, as he claims, merely a “fly on the wall” as Poppy chats away to a basil plant, he might have been tempted to stage an intervention. But this is the kind of shared delusion that sustains her Poppy Seeds.
“Her success lies in part because the world she’s built is so creative, surreal and consistent,” says David Mogendorff, an artists relations manager at YouTube. “She posted videos on YouTube for many months before releasing music, and the emotional connection her fans have with her is very strong, and very real.”
Fans’ analysis of her videos has revealed apparent subliminal messages, Illuminati imagery, and a young woman in the thrall of a cult – some of which, it is fair to say, not intended. Such is the nature of the internet. In July last year, fans of the YouTube vlogger Marina Joyce detected cries for help in some of her videos, and viral hysteria prompted a police call-out to her home.
The same month, Poppy’s fans were sufficiently concerned about her wellbeing to prompt her to release a video answering the question: “Am I OK?”
“We have waves in the fandom,” says Pinkus. “At one point, she was getting tons of views because lots of people in Turkey decided she was evil. Which was interesting.”
The floods of comments in Turkish beneath Poppy’s videos were prompted by a video on a popular Turkish YouTube channel, showing a group of young people responding, voxpop-style, to her videos – mostly, it seems, with bemusement. When Poppy beat Zara Larsson and 21 Savage to be named breakthrough artist at the recent Streamy Awards, which recognise excellence in online video, Sinclair thanked the “people of Istanbul”. (He also walked the red carpet towing Poppy in a wheeled plastic box, and on accepting the award advised those present to “drop out of art school”.)
The theories persist, though answers are readily available. A 20-minute video titled ThatPoppy Explained, setting out the project’s chronology with clips of songs by Mars Argo and Pereira before she was Poppy, has had nearly 4m views. This video was Pinkus’s introduction to Poppy, yet despite its straightforward explanation, he was still compelled to find out more about the mystery of her origins, her motivations, her message. “I became obsessed with finding out the truth,” he says. “Once I had sufficient answers, I simply became a fan.”
Many Poppy Seeds engage knowingly with Poppy’s mythology, upholding it with a conscientiousness that suggests they don’t care that it’s not real. The No 1 rule on the dedicated Poppy forum on Reddit is no posting photos or videos of pre-Poppy Pereira – “though you are, of course, allowed to talk about the fact that Moriah existed”. Such is Pereira’s commitment to the project, most have been deleted from the internet anyway.
“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,” says Pinkus. “Poppy is just Poppy.”
In a social media age, in which people’s private selves are receding in favour of their public personas, Poppy has no private persona whatsoever: only a public one engineered for audiences’ entertainment. It is the opposite of Kim Kardashian, who has monetised every part of her life, and an extension of Sia’s strategy of hiding in plain sight.
“I think who did it better than anyone – and I’m jealous of it every day – is Daft Punk,” says Sinclair. “No one knows what they look like. They can go to the grocery store and just hang out for hours.”
That Poppy begins and ends with her art, he argues, makes her more honest than most pop stars – “trust fund kids who bought their way into the business”, who mine their personal lives to give the illusion of depth. He recalls with disgust a scene in the Lady Gaga documentary Five Foot Two, “where she forced the camera on her grandmother and was trying to milk emotions out of her for this ‘sentimental’ moment”.
“That was just so insincere,” he says. “I think what we’re doing is the complete opposite of that. We’re not trying to exploit anybody, we’re just trying to make things that we’re interested in.
“All these documentaries that pop stars are doing, it’s so inauthentic. Everyone’s just trying to prove how relatable and normal they are from their multimillion-dollar mansions.”
The momentum points to impending celebrity – the conventional kind, that she once parodied. “It’s kind of ironic, that that’s what it’s turned into,” says Sinclair.
Weber is sceptical: Poppy, she says, is basically a meme. “No matter how ‘big’ a meme gets, it’s still not the same as existing in the traditional pop star sphere. That’s not to say they can’t make money – it’s just that mainstream acceptance would be nearly impossible.”
Even Pinkus, Poppy’s self-described biggest fan, doubts that she will ever be truly famous. “We live in a world where anyone can upload a video and become well-known,” he says. “Mainstream artists are well-known because they are constantly being promoted on TV. Poppy, on the other hand, became well-known for making art on the internet.”
Wherever Poppy’s star eventually peaks, her profile will always be a by-product of her surreal online presence. It remains to be seen whether the appeal will translate.
“Poppy, I’m speaking for you here, so let me know if you disagree,” begins Sinclair. She remains silent.
“Before, you’d maybe see a famous person on a TV show at night, or on a movie screen once or twice a year, but now the technology has just allowed us to share so much more – it just becomes part of your everyday life,” he says. “I think there’s a stronger connection than that to a movie star who plays a character and disappears, and then plays a different character and disappears, and so on.”
By contrast, I say, Poppy seemed to emerge into pop culture fully formed.
There’s a pause. “Thank you,” says Poppy.