Like Warhol But for 2018

Poppy has a foot. It might not seem like an important characteristic to note about an ambulatory human being, but in the context of Poppy, the strange, viral YouTube star and pop singer, the existence of this foot is a huge relief. Most people are acquainted with Poppy only through her disquieting videos about being on the internet, which tend to be a torso-only sort of deal. Their David Lynch–meets–Hello Kitty vibe can leave the viewer in a haze of slack-jawed, head-cocked confusion, unsure if Poppy even has toes. I first experience Poppy’s actual, physical presence in Park City during Sundance, where she’s performing songs from her October album, Poppy.Computer, at a party in a YouTube-sponsored house. As I watch her, I become hyperfocused on her foot, the right one specifically. It’s an anchor in reality, the spinning top in Inception. When the foot, in its pointy-toed silver kitten heel, taps in time to the music, or wobbles a bit through the choreography, or makes solid contact with the ground, it’s proof that Poppy is part of the corporeal world and not a manifestation of the digital one, like Alexa with legs or Tumblr-feels with flesh.

Poppy’s videos, of which there are over 300, often get millions of views, average roughly a minute in length, and feature her — hair the exact color of milk, skin the same hue as the asylum-white backdrop she usually stands against — serving micro-monologues to the camera while an eerie song plays. They are all directed, produced, and co-written by her collaborator-slash-Svengali-figure Titanic Sinclair, an equally blond and self-aware millennial. Poppy seems to exist in order to satirize a specific sort of social-media-driven fame. Take, for example, a recent Poppy video titled “Selena Gomez”: “Do you think about followers,” she asks in a monotone purr. “There’s a number by my name? Do you have a number after your name? … Why does Selena Gomez have so many numbers?” (Selena Gomez is the most-followed celebrity on Instagram.) That video has 2.5 million views.

In another, she shows the internet what a dog looks like (pronounced doge, as it is in meme parlance). That’s it. That all she does: shows us a white fluffy dog and makes it internet-y. But there’s a specificity to the bit — if you know what a doge is, you know what it means when Poppy makes fun of it by treating it so matter-of-factly. Sometimes in her videos, she’ll ask fans what percentage she’s at, as if she were herself a device.

New York Magazine's senior art critic Jerry Saltz makes sense of Poppy.

Then there are the less pointed, more Dada videos: the one where she reads the Bible for 50 minutes, or “Mary,” where Poppy stands with her arms in first position, a large rhinestone atop her head, singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with just the slightest Auto-Tune to her voice, over and over again, for two minutes. I watched the whole thing, compulsively, full of questions: Is this towheaded, saucer-eyed woman who, in another video, interviews a plant in dulcet ASMR tones, real or fake? Is she a robot, a troll, a high-concept art project, a postmodern cultural critique, a cult leader, a clever satirist? Do I get the joke? Is there a joke? What is reality, even? But somehow, Poppy has confused people into paying attention to her. People have willingly gone through the looking glass — or, more accurately, the Black Mirror — in order to understand what this simulacrum of a pop star means.

Except now, to further complicate matters, Poppy appears to be trying to become a more traditional kind of famous person, with an episodic show premiering at celeb-studded Sundance, an honest-to-God pop album on Diplo’s Mad Decent records, and a tour with merch. This leads me to another question: Is she still satirizing fame, or is she earnestly reaching for it?

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I interrupt several people in the Sundance crowd, full of attendees in cat-meme sweaters and snow boots shuffle-dancing their way through the free booze and hummus, to see if they understand any better than I do what it is they’re watching.

“Okay, she’s like a K-pop star, and she thinks she’s a robot. And since Korean people love white people, she’s basically a white K-pop star. Who’s a robot,” explains a guy in a Supreme snapback.

“Oh, it’s like Andy Warhol for 2018! What they are doing is perfect,” says a 30-something brunette in a navy Canada Goose.

Poppy, fragile-looking in layers of frothy white crinoline, eases into her jangly computer-chip single “Bleach Blonde Baby,” a song that appears to be poking fun at celebrity exceptionalism: “I was born with makeup on, mani-pedi and everything / Normal babies whine and cry but I could only sing,” she sings in a breathy coo.

Onstage, Poppy is almost conventional, but there are little glitches — the way she closes her eyes in between verses like she’s rebooting — that keep her in the uncanny valley. It’s hard to determine where she falls on the spectrum between highly stylized pop star (Katy Perry) and completely digitally simulated social influencer with a single (@lilmiquela, who isn’t even human).

“You don’t even know what to do with me,” Poppy sings, perfectly aware of the conundrum she presents.

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The next day, back in the YouTube A-frame, a bright early-afternoon light fills the bare space, so when Poppy walks in, it’s as if she’s walked out of a computer through some portal into the real world. In order to accommodate Poppy, Sinclair, and the team, we have to shoo Ellen Burstyn off the lone couch. Nobody in the group recognizes Burstyn, and I highly doubt she recognizes the platinum blondes who look like they could be cast as the Dollanganger twins in a reboot of Flowers in the Attic.

In Utah, Poppy looks like a human. I’m surprised to realize I didn’t expect that. She perches in between me and Sinclair in her pink floral puffy coat, her long legs swathed in red pleather leggings. She still has the air of a life-size doll, but up close you see the effort of it: the dusting of powder that keeps her skin uniformly matte and pale when it’s not digitally enhanced. I can see the edges of her wig. Instead of the creepy vacancy of her videos, there’s a shy nervousness. She’s still doing an exaggerated fembot voice, and she’s prone to a halting way of forming sentences, as if her computer brain were whirring away, but I can hear the slightest twang in her speech.

Poppy prefers that you not imagine her as a person who existed before her digital public life, and so her apocryphal origin story starts in November 2014, when the very first Poppy video went online. It’s called “Poppy Eats Cotton Candy,” and that’s about all that happens. Her most popular one, “I’m Poppy,” came a few months later and features Poppy saying “I’m Poppy” in slightly varied ways for ten minutes and one second. Currently that video has 14 million views. The comments give a pretty good cross-sampling of how people react to Poppy: “I just nut”; “Who watches this whole video?”; “Oh my god I’m so scared”; “I love poppy.”

The pair film all their videos in Los Angeles, where, according to their self-mythology, Poppy is reborn over and over again with every one they put out — like Bowie, Sinclair explains.

“Sometimes … I’ll just stand there … in the white room … and say stuff,” says Poppy. “I’m creating high-quality content,” she adds with pride, as if articulating her highest value to the world.

It took two years, says Poppy, before the videos really caught on, before people began to understand the humor just enough to fall down the rabbit hole. Poppy and Sinclair play around with viewers’ desires to be puzzled: When it was suggested Poppy was in a cult, they released a video called “I’m Not in a Cult,” with a corresponding T-shirt; at her live performances, Poppy will drink from a cup of Kool-Aid that she then passes along to the audience. (The pair do not exactly have a light touch.) When fans wondered if it’s meant to be a strange religion, Sinclair and Poppy self-published a book called The Gospel of Poppy, which reads like both Scripture and a meditation guide. When people asked if she’s a member of the Illuminati, Poppy suddenly had a new logo that resembles the Illuminati symbol.
(Poppy says fans are now getting tattoos of it.)

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This kind of highly meta marketing has created two camps of obsessives: Poppy Seeds, who love her in an earnest way, and Poppy Truthers, who dedicate sub-Reddits and videos to unearthing personal information about her and working out conspiracy theories: Is she being held captive by Sinclair? Is this an extended commercial for something?

Poppy went even more viral in 2017, when a bunch of people in Istanbul decided Poppy was in fact deeply sinister. They were picking up on something: There’s been a tonal shift creeping in lately. You can mark the evolution of the Poppy character by her hair. In 2014, it’s frizzy, puffy — it shows the effort of trying to bleach and straighten the person out of each strand, and her videos had a certain childlike joy to them. These days, her hair is a silver-blonde that looks like it was borrowed from a doll factory. Now there’s a darker undertone: “Am I okay?” seems to be the constant implied question. Her skin is lit to look like rubber, her gaze is vacant, and there’s just the slightest delay between her voice — now a perfectly disassociated chatbot cadence — and her lip movement. It’s got Reddit fans wondering if she’s totally computerized these days. In one video, she spontaneously bleeds from her nose, just for a second.

The glimpse of darkness is perhaps what draws people in. Often in her performances, Poppy is oversimplifying why we internet: We like the doge, because the doge does funny things. We like to get likes because we like to be liked, etc. As adult humans, we shouldn’t be so fascinated with something as dumb as a doge — and yet, in 2018, we are. And so perhaps what fills people watching Poppy with a sense of dread-lite is the discomfort we still have with the medium. The way it makes us all simulacra of ourselves. The recognition that we all have a little Poppy to us now.

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Before our meeting, Poppy’s manager, Nick Groff, let me know that she won’t be interviewed without Sinclair: “You wouldn’t break up Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick,” he says.

There’s very little out there about who Poppy really is. There are no hometown stories about when she first learned to sing, no ex-boyfriends tweeting how they were her prom date. Poppy and Sinclair and the rest of the team decline to reveal any of it to me. Even her pre-show meet-and-greets with fans are conducted via VR technology: They want her to be a full creature of the internet.

Poppy, if you choose to believe one of the few videos dedicated to unearthing her real identity, is actually Moriah Rose Pereira, a 23-year-old woman who tried to launch a music career in Nashville in combat boots with brown hair. Eventually she moved to Los Angeles and signed with a label, she finally admits to me, though “nothing was happening, and then we met,” she explains, looking meaningfully at Sinclair. Sinclair, who was born Corey Mixter, spent much of the aughts gaining a little bit of internet fame with the songs and YouTube videos he made with his then-girlfriend, a sort of Poppy prototype who went by Mars Argo. (Conspiratorial fans now think he deliberately scrubbed that material from the web; Mars Argo pops up from time to time, including in a recent WWE parody.) He didn’t go to college, Sinclair mentions; he learned by watching YouTube.

Sometimes the internet forums insist they are dating, other times they posit the idea she’s under his mind control, a mere puppet in his avant-garde performance art. As we talk, she’ll begin an answer in character, and as her voice trails off she’ll look to Sinclair to finish the answer, which he does with ADD-addled-art-school-student loquaciousness, flopping back in the fuzzy white chair, jiggling his black–Doc Marten–clad foot, proselytizing to the ceiling (“Everybody with social media is just kind of presenting the best version of themselves”) while Poppy listens, rapt.

There are several investigative fan-made videos dedicated to trying to catch Poppy breaking character — once, she appears to do so by giggling into her hand during an interview with a radio DJ who asks her if she knows what sex is; another time, one of her own videos starts with her giggling, allegedly trying to get into character. I’ve spent an hour trying to figure out if the giggles are real, if she is truly getting into character. Or if she’s a character playing a character trying to get into character.

I can’t resist the game of trying to figure out where Poppy begins and ends. We discuss her favorite music (David Bowie and Madonna — but isn’t that what “Poppy” would like?), her favorite celebrities (Marilyn Manson). Still, traditional fame doesn’t excite her, she says.

“I think everyone else is boring,” says Poppy. “And I’m not boring.”

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Right now, Poppy is perhaps as famous as she’ll ever be. She has landed sponsorship deals with Sanrio and Microsoft; her album promo tour will last for another few weeks. She’s appeared on TRL and The Late Late Show With James Corden, and as she moves into semi-mainstream status, it’s hard not to compare her to Sia, who hides her face in public and whose stylist Poppy now employs; or Lady Gaga, whose persona inspires a cultish following; or Lana Del Rey, who may have been created from a marketers’ mood board of chola culture, astrology, and Hipstamatic filters but who just embraced it until it became reality; or parody bands like MTV’s 2Gether, who were created as a spoof but ended up releasing two albums. But meta-experiments in fame rarely last: Lady Gaga eventually removed the meat dress to reveal a vulnerable Stefani Germanotta; 2Gether just sort of went away once the joke got stale.

At Sundance, for the splashy premiere of “I’m Poppy” — a 24-minute scripted satirical pilot about “an odd pop singer and internet star who signs a deal with a TV network on the strength of her social-media following, only to discover the dark side of fame after she signs a contract with actual Satan to become the most famous girl in the entire world” — Poppy is dressed like one of Richard Prince’s nurses and can barely stand in her six-inch white pleather platform boots. There’s an audience Q&A, and she gives her trademark Poppy-in-the-real-world one-word answers in a sexbot voice. I watch Alia Shawkat, who looks utterly bewildered, whip out her phone and Google her.

Before their premiere, I ask one of the show’s producers, Bay Dariz, what Poppy is like on set. “It’s like a magician showing you a trick,” he says.

So what’s the real trick?

“Oh, there is no trick,” he quickly corrects himself. And then, almost as if in parody, he feeds me a slightly garbled Maya Angelou quote that is regularly misattributed to Oprah online: “When people tell you who they are, believe them,” he says. “And what does Poppy spend ten minutes saying in that video?”

“I’m Poppy. I’m Poppy. I’m Poppy.”

*This article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

Poppy Just Might Be the Warhol of the Youtube Era