Alfie Deyes tone-deaf "£1 challenge" video reveals the problem with YouTubers' fake relatability

Deyes video didn't just feed into cruel narratives about poverty. It revealed the emptiness of his—and his co-stars—cynical brand of internet fame

June 19, 2018
Deyes has since apologised for the £1 video. But the issue of how we relate to YouTube stars isn't over. Photo: YouTube screengrab
Deyes has since apologised for the £1 video. But the issue of how we relate to YouTube stars isn't over. Photo: YouTube screengrab

We all have a place on the internet where we go when we need to switch off our brains for a while. Maybe you click through endless Wikipedia pages about defunct German principalities, or log onto a gaming livestream to stare at someone you don’t know playing Football Manager quite badly.

Personally, I head over to the site of the most banal set of pixels I know: the YouTube channel of 24-year-old Alfie Deyes.

I’m not the only one watching. Deyes has over four million subscribers on his “PointlessBlogVlogs” channel—it’s almost like he knows I think his work is eye-glazingly vapid—where he uploads a video almost every day documenting the minutiae of his life, and another seven million combined on his channels dedicated to gaming and lifestyle videos.

A million a year

He’s been posting videos of himself on the internet since 2009, and is also part of a wider network of extremely popular and influential online celebrities who do the same: his girlfriend is Zoe Sugg, who has nearly 17 million subscribers on her two “Zoella” channels, and his friends include Casper Lee (over 7 million subscribers) and Marcus Butler (over 6 million).

His videos—and the associated merchandise, sponsorships and book deals—have made Deyes extremely wealthy: he is estimated to be earning at least a million pounds a year.

Given this, it perhaps isn’t surprising that he has now attracted a backlash with a video about trying to live for a day on just £1.

It has since been removed from YouTube, but you can still see parts of it in other videos criticising Deyes for his insensitive statements about having to drink tap water rather than use his expensive filtration system, or for how his idea of saving money on food is to go into shops and receive free stuff because he’s famous.

Jewellery "didn't count"

I watched the video when it first came out, mouth hanging open, as Deyes talked about how hard it was for him not to use his expensive coffee machine and how he’d actually bought some clothes and jewellery as well that day, but that “didn’t count” because it wasn’t food. Of course, there were lots of adverts in his video, too.

Deyes has now posted an apology video, in which he says that the responses to his original post have “really opened my eyes.” “I genuinely didn’t think about charity, I don’t know how,” he says. “I simply saw this as another YouTube challenge.”

Deyes has talked in previous videos about his commitment to charity work (which from his videos mostly seems to consist of playing mini golf with photogenic cancer patients), but even as he berates himself for his thoughtlessness, he seems unaware of why people were angry with him. He has since said he’ll be donating the money from his £1 challenge video to charity.

"Not a Tory"

Fourteen million people in the UK live below the poverty line (this is, with household incomes at less than 60 per cent of the median income in the chosen base year) and homelessness and rough sleeping is on the rise. For many of those people, having £1 a day to spend isn’t a fun challenge; it’s just reality.

In light of that, Deyes’ video looks less like lighthearted banter and more like a product of the deep-rooted snobbery that also underpins poverty tourism and the persistent idea that benefits claimants just aren’t trying hard enough to get a job. Suddenly, his content seems like anything but the benign elevator music for the eyes I’d always considered it to be.

Tellingly, Deyes also had to “clear up” as part of the apology that he is “not a Tory.” (It is an interesting indication of how toxic the Conservative Party is with young people that a self-made millionaire entrepreneur and landlord feels the need to distance himself so definitely from the suggestion that he might be a supporter.)

How fame works in 2018

This isn’t just a case of one young man being insensitive (albeit a young man with a large platform). Deyes and his fellow YouTubers are at the forefront of a shift in how fame works.

Being a celebrity used to be about being untouchable, unapproachable and maybe even slightly otherworldly. When I was growing up, our idols were on the other side of the velvet rope, and part of their attraction was their remoteness, because it allowed space for projection and imagination.

In the last decade, though, a new kind of fame has emerged, which is based almost entirely on its apparently ordinary, accessible nature. Zoella started her YouTube channel in her bedroom, and now she’s hugely successful.

Maybe, her whole brand seems to hint, the same could happen to you. If you play your cards right, you too could be charging people £50 for a terrible advent calendar or an abysmal festival.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this new mode of online celebrity—it’s no more or less wholesome than what went before—but as a system it is ripe for exploitation by those who value profit above any sense of responsibility to an audience containing plenty of children and young people.

The veil is lifted

YouTubers like Deyes take great pains to emphasise their close connection with their audience, showing themselves greeting fans spontaneously in the streets and referring to themselves as part of the big happy family that watches the videos.

The popularity of this new breed of celebrities is based on how supposedly “relatable” they are—Zoella might be a multimillionaire, but she still wants you to think that she shops in Primark. But very occasionally, as in this case, the veil is lifted.

It’s all an act: these are incredibly privileged people, and there is nothing relatable about them at all.