There was no precedent in 2007 for filming a video in your bedroom and waking up on Fox News the next day.
Early viral videos like “Chocolate Rain” and “Shoes” racked up millions of views, but the attention that “Leave Britney Alone” garnered was unheard of at the time. In the two-minute long segment, a then-unknown Chris Crocker implores the media to stop pillorying the pop icon, who was deep in the throes of crisis. The day before Crocker’s video went live, Spears gave a somnambulant performance at the MTV VMAs, one excoriated by critics. The former Disney star had simultaneously been in and of rehab; her second stint culminated in a spontaneous headshave that has become synonymous with celebrity implosion.
“What you don’t realize is that Britney is making you all this money and all you do is write a bunch of crap about her,” Crocker weeps in a pointed jab at blogger Perez Hilton, Britney’s loudest detractor. “She hasn’t performed on stage in years. Her song is called ‘Gimme More’ for a reason. Because all you people want is more, more, more, more more!”
“Leave her alone!” he adds. “You are lucky she even performed for you bastards!”
That video, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary on Sunday, racked up more than 2 million views in 24 hours. Those numbers might be beggardly for Vimeo queen Taylor Swift, whose “Look What You Made Me Do” was played 43.2 million times in its first day on the site. But it was enough to make the 19-year-old a household name at a time when Internet fame was still a foreign concept.
In an exclusive interview with INTO, Crocker remembers the release of “Leave Britney Alone” as a “really shitty year.”
What’s often lost in the conversation, as Crocker explains in a phone interview, is that he was dealing with his own private hell at the time. His mother, who gave birth to Crocker when she was just 14, had recently come back from Iraq. She was homeless and addicted to methamphetamines. Any money he earned went toward putting his mother up in hotel rooms every night, ensuring that she had a roof over her head.
“There were a lot of unconscious motivators to fuel my fire,” Crocker says. “The two women I looked up to the mostBritney, who was my idol, and then my momwere falling from grace. My family had given up on my mom and lost hope for her recovery. I was in a place of defending her and getting my family to root for my mom again.”
“I was probably having a breakdown,” he adds.
10 years ago on this day, I defended my favorite pop star against the media. While I’m known to do comedy: This was the one video that I was serious in. That year, my mom was battling addiction & became homeless after serving for our country in Iraq. The struggles in my home life and family life made me defensive over any woman going through a hard time. The internet and YouTube was a very different, less LGBT friendly place at the time. Nothing I said in the video was listened to. I was mocked for my femininity. I was called every gay slur in the book. Talk show hosts questioned if I was a man or woman, after playing the clip. I knew there was no way people would take me serious. So I decided that I would play up to the joke everyone thought I was. Realizing that telling them about what had actually triggered my emotional reaction (What my mom was battling) wouldn’t be of interest to anyone. So I gave them a cartoon of what they assumed I was, in my public appearances afterward. But the truth is and always was about standing up for someone and not standing idly by when you see someone being hurt by others. In the 10 years since this video- A lot of LGBT Youtubers are celebrated for who they are. I often wonder if I had started videos later, if I would’ve been treated differently. But what I will say is this: Even if I got a public beating for standing up for what’s right: Im happy I did. And I’ll always love @britneyspears ❤️
The attention “Leave Britney Alone” garnered was its own kind of albatross. The video was lampooned on South Park and The Soup, both of which were harmless send-ups of the clip’s melodramatic tone. But the public mockery quickly turned venomous. Fox and Friends called Crocker a “she with an Adam’s apple” and compared the video to al-Qaeda. Jimmy Kimmel aired a parody on his talk show imagining how Crocker’s father must have reacted to the video. At the end of the minute-long segment, he swallows a bottle of pills out of shame.
That below-the-belt ridicule spilled over into his real life. His grandparents, who have raised Crocker since he was four years old, were hounded by anonymous callers threatening to kill him. People would drive by their home in Bristol, Tenn. and yell “faggot.” Others threw trash in their yard.
“No one is prepared for that,” Crocker says. “I chose to put that video out there, but I can’t take responsibility for people being sociopathic.”
When asked about why he believes the video had the reaction it did, Crocker admits that he’s “funny” when he’s upset. But he claims that so much of the negative response was bound up in unchecked transphobia at a time when the public lacked education about LGBTQ lives. “Leave Britney Alone” debuted six years before Orange Is the New Black made Laverne Cox a household name. Stars like Ruby Rose and Jaden Smith would help usher in a genderfluid revolution too late for Crocker to enjoy the spoils.
“It’s amazing how much has changed since 2007,” says Crocker, who points to the generation of YouTubers and Instagrammers blurring the lines of gender and being celebrated for it. “When I would do anything similar, I was thrown to the fire.”
Although Crocker has considered transitioning, he claims that his life hasn’t been conducive to fully exploring his gender identity. Crocker left Bristol in 2007 to film a reality show for LOGO that was never aired, but he has continued to float back and forth between Los Angeles and his hometown to take care of his grandparents. Tennessee, like much of the U.S., isn’t a particularly safe place to be transgender. The murders of women like Gizzy Fowler and Alejandra Leos in recent years attest to that.
There have been times where Crocker felt like he could “make it happen,” but then he’s “forced to regress” by circumstance.
“As much as my gender expression is a part of me, it’s on the backburnerbecause I’m just more concerned with my family’s health,” Crocker says. “Transitioning would feel like a luxury to me. I’ve had to learn to express myself in other ways.”
Embracing the masculine sides of himself has had its benefits. In the days that Crocker was appearing on Maury in a leopard-print jumpsuit and sporting 26-inch hair extensions, he would have to worry about which bathroom to go in. What happened if someone saw him in the women’s restroom and recognized him from the Britney video? As a public figure, being a boy was more easierand more lucrative. Websites like Cosmopolitan and BuzzFeed applauded Crocker for butching it up in the early 2010s, claiming that he “got hot.”
Crocker’s masculinization began in 2011 when he and ex-boyfriend Justin Goble agreed to film a video for the DIY porn site Maverick Men. He would later go onto film a second video with Lucas Entertainment, entitled “Chris Crocker’s Raw Love.”
His brief foray into the adult industry, he claims, was an “act of rebellion.”
“I like to fuck and I like to say ‘fuck you,’” Crocker says of his transformation. “I was so tired of people laughing at me and seeing me as this asexual being. So I was like, ‘You people have made fun of me for so long that the ultimate power is now I’m going to force you to jerk-off to me.’ I wanted to become the stereotype of everything they find attractive and throw it in their faces.”
Performing “boy drag” was as much a middle-finger to the gay community as it was the Fox News crowd, he says.
One of the more troubling aspects of viral fame was the homophobia it engendered among other queer and bisexual men, who Crocker alleges have tweeted at him that he’s “everything wrong with the gay community” and “an embarrassment.”
The attacks from members of his own community, he claims, are more than just hate tweets. Just weeks after “Leave Britney Alone” went viral, Crocker and his roommate (Brandi Cunningham of Rock of Love fame) were slapped in the face by a drag queen at a West Hollywood bar. Crocker says that the same person then attempted to beat him in the head with a high-heel shoe while he was crossing the street. If Crocker is hanging out on a bar patio sharing a cigarette with friends, he still gets the occasional drink poured over his head.
Now 29, Crocker understands where the disdain comes from. When gay men come out, they often internalize the message that it’s OK to be attracted to other guys, just as long as they aren’t “one of those gays.” Crocker says his image in 2007 was the epitome of “those gays.” He was the Jack on Will and Grace, everything young queer boys were told not to be.
Hitting the reset button, Crocker claims, hasn’t been easy.
“It’s one thing to be living in a hostile environment when straight people don’t accept you,” he says. “But when the gay community does it, it’s hard. I don’t have the most stable mental health. There are certain days where I can laugh at everything. But when you can’t even escape to your own bar without having shade thrown at me every 3.5 seconds, sometimes I would just stay by myself in my room.”
Crocker began rewriting that narrative in 2015 after shutting down his YouTube account, which he says was the nexus of the negativity he received.
Almost every single one of the hundreds of comments posted to his videos were insulting or outright abusive. Shortly before he deactivated his channel, Crocker says he posted a short clip checking in with his followers after months of being inactive. Commenters responded by telling him to kill himself.
Since Crocker began posting his content exclusively on Facebook and Twitter two years ago, he tells INTO that he “cannot overestimate” the change in his audience. Most of the responses to his videos these days, which are usually light-hearted commentaries on his daily life, are positive and affirming. Crocker has been outspoken about his struggles with depression and anxiety, and he says followers thanked him for his candor.
“I’m not used to that,” Crocker says. “I’m used to being defensive and on guard.”
Breaking away from YouTube had its costs, though. While creators on the video platform have the ability to monetize their accounts, Facebook doesn’t provide the same option. That means that he isn’t able to make money from his videos. Crocker, who moved back in with his grandparents a few years ago, says that his primary revenue stream is through his online store, where he sells t-shirts and hoodies with notable catchphrases from his videos. For instance, fans can buy a mug that says, “I’m the Queen, Jelly Bean!”
“Leave Britney Alone” is noticeably absent from his merchandise.
But in addition to putting out comedy videos, he has been working with producers in Nashville to break into the music business. While he’s never been much of a singer, Crocker says he has a knack for songwriting. He would love to write for Kelly Clarksonand, yes, Britney.
Crocker is often asked why he was so enraptured with Spears. He says that as a young gay kid who was frequently bullied throughout his childhood, she represented liberation. When he was in kindergarten, Crocker would sneak Barbies on the bus to school. He knew that he was different before he had a word for it. If the viral star has struggled to fit ineven as an adultit’s because Crocker never had the opportunity.
“I would watch her performances and feel this sense of freedom,” he says. “That’s what I needed so much when I was a kidto feel confident and like I could get through the day at school. I would turn on my cassette player on the bus and feel better.”
But 10 years after becoming America’s first viral superstar, it seems that Crocker is finally at peace with his celebrity. He is free.