YouTube ‘vanlifer’ Jennelle Eliana blazes trail for solo female travellers | Technology
The YouTube channel of a 21-year-old woman who lives in a van with her pet snake Alfredo is at the centre of a debate about race, travel and gender in the online world.
“It really can happen overnight,” said Emily Hall, the campaign director at the Goat Agency, a marketing firm centred on social media influencers. “The interest in her is fuelled by the lifestyle that she’s putting out. If someone makes an alternative lifestyle look attainable and stands out on socials they can take off massively.”
Eliana’s videos are simple and edited on her smartphone, with the 21-year-old showing subscribers around her converted 1995 GMC Vandura van and talking through the practicalities of life on the road, from taking a shower to dealing with break-ins.
Her sudden rise led to conspiracy theories about how she became so popular so quickly. Chris Stokel-Walker, a journalist and author of YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars, said although her rise has been meteoric, it is a lack of understanding around how the platform works that is fuelling the sceptics.
“There is a dearth of information about how recommendations work on YouTube, so people assume it’s a manufactured success when it’s not,” he said. “She has that intangible mix of being cool and outdoorsy with a sense of adventure, coupled with an engaging and quirky personality. It’s that Beach Boys aesthetic meets Jack Kerouac but for 2019.”
She has also tapped into the boom in solo travel. About 15% of British holidaymakers took a trip by themselves in 2018, up from 12% in 2017 and 6% in 2011, a trend reflected in the surge in YouTube content aimed at that market.
“Since 2016, uploads with ‘solo travel’ in the title have steadily increased year over year with 2019 proving to be the largest year yet,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “This year, out of the top 100 most viewed videos with ‘solo travel’ in the title, over 70 were uploaded by women.”
The appeal to her Generation Z peers has been attributed to her lo-fi production values and focus on the more unglamorous sides of travel, according to the tech journalist Taylor Lorenz, who has written about Eliana. Her videos also chime with a move toward less manufactured, “authentic” online content favoured by younger viewers on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube.
“It’s representative of an entire generation sticking their middle finger up to what women ‘should’ be doing,” said Eve Young, co-host of the Social Minds podcast. “The popularity of solo female travel is a real sign of the times: it connotes freedom, choice, financial independence and confidence.”
Eliana’s sudden rise fits another emerging trend in the number of black women creating solo travel videos on YouTube. The platform says there are a “notable number of videos” from black female creators sharing their experiences of travelling among the most viewed in the solo travel category.
The journalist Georgina Lawton says Eliana’s vlog and others like it fill a blindspot that the travel industry has traditionally had around catering for women of colour.
“We’ve consistently been seen as a monolith by the UK travel industry,” said Lawton, , who is writing a guide to solo travel for women of colour. “Now when someone does something like Jennelle Eliana with her vanlife videos, it breaks the mould and it appeals to so many more people who think they can do it.”
Lawton says she was inspired by Oneika Raymond, who started out as a vlogger before becoming a host on the Travel Channel. Part of the appeal for her of content made by black solo female travellers such as Oneika is that it helps bust myths about alternative forms of travel.
“It’s nice when other people have made content because that alleviates my own fears,” said Lawton, who watched videos by other black solo female travellers before a trip to Russia. “I ask myself, what is the reception going to be like for a minority? These videos answer those questions.”
“People are starting to recognise that YouTube is so massive that you can build a niche that people identify with,” said Stokel-Walker. “The thing is a niche interest on YouTube still means millions of views.”
The interesting thing for him is what will happen next. He says Eliana and other successful YouTubers will quickly have to choose whether to accept commercial offers or reject them in order to retain their original appeal.
“They build their audience on authenticity and then they get to a level when they become almost a traditional celebrity,” said Stokel-Walker, who expects brands to start throwing offers at Eliana. “And then the original appeal gets a lot harder to maintain.”