Every time the entertainment industry slams a door, the Internet opens a window. In Michael McCrudden’s case, that window was YouTube. While plenty of web stars make the leap from being Internet-famous to famous-famous (if only for 15 minutes), it’s rare to find a YT personality who combines the entertainment ADD of millennials with the in-depth research of the Biography Channel.
It took a number failed attempts to break into TV and film before the Canadian writer/actor stumbled onto the idea of his YouTube series Before They Were Famous. The idea was simple: create bite-size, easily digestible documentaries of the lives of A-list celebrities, athletes, musicians, dictators, pornstars, and Internet personalities who garner millions of clicks for one reason or another. The list of people he documents is reliant on suggestions from views in the comments section. It proved to be a brilliant strategy that now garners his channel millions of views per month.
“There’s all these biographies out there, but this represents YouTube culture,” McCrudden says. “It represents people’s short attention span. As I found more success with it, I just doubled down to the point where I was doing two or three a day. I never stop.” No matter how fascinating a particular subject’s life may be, McCrudden will find a way to boil it down to a monologue that’s around 10 minutes or less, whether he’s documenting Hillary Clinton or Bobby Shmurda.
The idea sprung out of his attempt to write a movie about fellow Canadian Jim Carrey. After graduating from college, McCrudden started doing months of research on Carrey’s life to write up a screenplay for a biopic on the comedy legend. When the film idea eventually fell through, he was left with piles of reported info that he figured he could still put to good use. McCrudden turned it all into a short bio video and uploaded it to YouTube and right away it started getting hits from fellow Carrey fanatics. Pretty soon he got the idea to start Before They Were Famous and eventually launched spin-offs like After They Were Famous and Before They Were Dead.
No subject is off-limits as long as the audience wants it—El Chapo, Hitler and St. Patrick (yesterday’s episode, natch) have all been thrown into the mix with web celebs like professional tweaking trainer Lexy Panterra and the kids who made up that “Damn Daniel!” catchphrase (two high school students from Riverside).
“This is Internet culture,” he says. “So the people who are popular on the Internet aren’t gonna be the people that the Biography Channel’s been telling us are popular.”
Obviously the web offers plenty of info on well established musicians and actors, but McCrudden’s videos are more than a regurgitation of lightweight trivia. Many of the episodes involve a Nardwuarian-level of digging, combing through ancient articles, old interviews, calling and emailing friends and family members, combing legal documents and scavenging through their social media feeds to find tidbits that have yet to be unearthed, sometimes to the chagrin of his subjects. After seeing the episode on himself, rapper Stitches made his dissatisfaction with McCrudden’s video known the only way an Internet gang banging trap rapper knows how.
“His career hasn’t really taken off and my video probably didn’t paint the image he really wanted out there so he went out of his way to block me on Instagram,” he says. “But it’s been more good than bad in terms of the response.” Hip-hop mega producer DJ Khaled saw his video and immediately reposted it for all his fans. “Just the other day I did one on an adult film star who tweeted it out and thanked me,” McCrudden says. Frequently, bios on pornstars have been the most popular—not very shocking considering A) McCrudden is a guy and B) porn pretty much rules the Internet. Of course this also involves an extra level of ,uh, research since lives of pornstars can also be the hardest to pin down before they get into the business. Sure, it might come off as a little obsessive, but for the audience that requests their bios, McCrudden says it’s just part of his gig.
“I don’t think it’s weird at all,” he says. “I bet there’s a lot of pornstars who are getting more followers in their Instagram and Twitter for their adult content than Jim Carrey these days…I’m just feeding the demand for people who are on the computer looking for content.”
Those looking for any info on their favorite rappers have no doubt come across McCrudden’s work. He says his first 200,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel were raised solely on the fact that he delivers bios on up and coming artists like Bryson Tiller, Young Thug, and Rae Sremmurd. Though he might fumble and mispronounce a word or two when it comes to hip-hop slang, a rap name or just about anything, his earnest dedication to the stories and endearing Canadian accent help us excuse all that. At the end of the day, the hard work shows through. McCrudden estimates that for the past three years he’s worked 60-80 hours a week on the videos with the hope of finally breaking into a station like MTV. But even if old media doesn’t come knocking, McCrudden says his success on YouTube has shown him it’s not something he really needs to worry about anymore.
“I’d love to be Ryan Seacrest of YouTube,” he says. “I’m more relatable, down to Earth, regular joe in a regular world, but an ambassador to the celebrities.”