‘Don’t trust anyone’: The definitive oral history of LonelyGirl15
Before the Paul brothers and Shane Dawson ended up making careers for themselves on YouTube, it was a green platform where YouTube fame wasn’t even on the horizon. Just 16 months after the platform launched, “Lonelygirl15”, an online series about the life of a teenage girl named Bree (Jessica Rose) who went by the user-name lonelygirl15 — ballooned — becoming the earliest YouTube phenomenon. But the show, which appeared as a factual vlog, was later revealed to be fiction. It somewhat prophesized today’s YouTube culture which has flourished with viral videos that have eventually been deemed fake or hoaxes. Still, the series would run from June 2006 to August 2008 and help pave the way for YouTube’s current array of stars. However, it served as a warning to not believe everything you see.
Below, the creators and stars of “Lonelygirl15” recount its significance within YouTube’s history and internet culture.
In YouTube’s early days, people were experimenting with different kinds of storytelling. Facebook had just launched and YouTube was still a mystery. Together, screenwriter and filmmaker Mesh Flinders, surgical residency dropout Miles Beckett, and attorney Greg Goodfried came up with “LG15” in 2006. The series, which focused on the “normal” life of a teenage girl, later became a bizarre story where she was entangled in a cult and featured a mystery surrounding the disappearance of her parents.
Miles Beckett, co-creator: It was my idea personally. I was a med student and I was a resident in a plastic surgery program and then I quit after my internship and moved back to Los Angeles — this was in 2005-2006 — and I was super excited about online video. Then YouTube started getting popular and I was obsessed with watching videos on YouTube, and I noticed all the popular videos on YouTube were either stolen clips from TV shows or basketball games or they were kids blogging in their rooms, so I was falling asleep one night and the idea was pretty simple: what if one of these kids wasn’t real and they were blogging and there was a narrative and crazy stuff started happening to them. It would be this whole blurring of reality and fiction similar to what happened with “War of The Worlds” and “The Blair Witch Project.”
Jackson Davis, Jonas: It was a huge casting call if I remember correctly. It was pretty unspecific as to what they were looking for and what it was for. I just knew it was an online show. There was a huge line — I met Amanda [Goodfried] in line — I asked if I could come back and she was like, “Yeah yeah come back.” So I came back and they had me read lines there and talk into the camera. There wasn’t really a script per se. I think they wrote it by the seat of their pants. It was very week-to-week.
Greg Goodfried, co-creator: In the very early days, I came on as a legal, business partner. I was 90% doing that and 10% doing the creative. I thought it was an amazing concept. Then within the first month, I came on full-time to produce it with them. Then I took more of an active role in writing scripts, helping with production and directing videos and all that good stuff.
Yousef Abu-Taleb, Daniel: I found an audition under “gigs” [on Craigslist] and went. I had just moved out to LA, and I wanted to be an actor so I was taking any audition I could. So, I went into this audition for this character named Daniel, and he was supposed to be “not the popular kid.” I went into the audition and everyone had their hair gelled and tried to look their absolute best. I did the complete opposite and tried to look as low-key as possible. They liked my look and they had me read with a few people.
Glenn Rubenstein, writer and director: I remember my first reaction being, “Somebody’s done it, somebody has made that transformative property that is going to be synonymous with online short-form video content.” I think it was something where I felt a little bit of professional jealousy, like, why didn’t I think of this first? When I saw what “LG15” had done, it gave me the idea to make fan videos and take some ideas I’d been kicking around to get involved in the community, and through a whirlwind couple of weeks ended up working on the series itself. It was crazy to go from a fan waiting for the daily video to drop to working on the series, breaking story and shooting videos and directing.
Amanda Goodfried, writer and producer: Two weeks into the project, Miles, Mesh and Greg looked at each other and said, “Hey none of us have ever been a 16-year-old girl, maybe we should bring a female perspective in.” At the time I was very active on Myspace, so I started writing all of the comments and responses on YouTube, so if you messaged Bree, I wrote back in Bree’s voice. We only responded to people who spoke to her as a real person. I started a Myspace page for her and it became really popular and built a whole other identity for her.
Davis: I always got the feeling that [“LG15”] was just putting the rail down just ahead of the train. It seemed that they were always playing catch-up trying to stay ahead of the whole thing. I do remember that web series were just not a thing then. My manager was pretty skeptical about it. They were like, “You should do it if you want to do it but we don’t think you should do it.” [But] it was something I was really proud of. I didn’t know how big it was going to be.
“LG15” popped up when YouTube was becoming a cultural force. It was six months after The Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” went viral on YouTube and just a few months before Google bought the platform. But people were still unsure of how to use YouTube.
Rubenstein: The cultural impact of “LG15” was don’t trust anyone. Anyone you see on YouTube. Anyone on social media. Don’t believe it until you verify it.
Davis: I remember YouTube was nothing back then. I remember going to a meetup somewhere in San Francisco at a bar, and I think the creators used to go there, and I remember this guy on the board of YouTube got up on a table saying “This is gonna be huge. I know one day YouTube is going to be huge.” Man, was he right. I don’t know if “LG15” had an impact on YouTube. But the show certainly would have never existed without YouTube and without the people who were actively participating in YouTube back then.
Beckett: There a convergence of a variety of different video mediums online: the whole podcasting community with audio podcasting, and the audio and video enclosure format RSS feeds that had just been invested in. Then, there was a bit of a video podcasting community. Then there were other people producing what came to be called web series and hosting them on their own websites or over podcasts. I think we took a lot of the techniques that were naturally and organically emerging from the video blogging community and professionalizing it to an extent and expanding on it.
Amanda Goodfried: No one I knew knew what YouTube even was, and then suddenly our actress was on the cover of Wired and everybody was talking about YouTube. I think it became more mainstream and it showed YouTube it could create serialized content hat brands were interested as well and that there could actually be money in it.
Abu-Taleb: I think “LG15’s” impact helped legitimize web series. I think it gave courage to other people who wanted to finance bigger projects to go ahead and do something new because we were able to monetize it. A few years after that, I ended up being the lead on Lionsgate’s first web series. I think without “LG15”, not only would I have not been cast, but other companies like Lionsgate [and] like Crackle, wouldn’t have thought about doing it had “LG15” not come out.
Rubenstein: “LG15” really had its impact on people that were creating serialized fiction on YouTube in that there was no playbook before in terms of how you do that. In addition to the monetization, “LG15” had some very public trial and error. For a while, we were telling stories across YouTube channels, Bree’s, Daniel’s and Jonas’s, and I think people learned from that. Now when you see online series launched, it’s around one channel and one consistent voice.
“LG15” being fiction was kept a secret from the start. But by August 2006, the show ignited a frenzy and fans began investigating the series at www.lonelygirl15.com determined to find out who Jessica Rose really was, if she was real and where she lived. By September, it was first revealed that “LG15” was a hoax by the Los Angeles Times.
Abu-Taleb: At the beginning, it was me, Jessica, Miles and Mesh. We had a set photographer and Amanda Goodfried works at CAA and she was helping out with responses to fan requests. But it was really a four-person operation. We’d come in and shoot our videos and we didn’t know what to expect. They told us it was going to blow up, but it wasn’t really the kind of thing we thought was going to happen.
Beckett: It was definitely not fun, it was really stressful. We had this idea [for the series] and obviously, the side effect of that was that we had this big secret. Pretty rapidly, the first video got half a million views — it felt like it was a while but it was actually two weeks — and from that point forward each video would skyrocket.
Abu-Taleb: I remember one day they told us we need to quit our jobs there are too many ppl talking that they think they sighted you or Jess so they wanted to keep us inside. It got to the point where we started getting 100K views a video then 1 million views a video and we were like oh it was something real I actually had a relationship tank because I was so devoted to not going out and not being discovered.
Greg Goodfried: For all of us it was terrifying, but for me personally, my whole family got dragged into it. My dad did some legal work for us so he registered the trademark in our last name and my wife Amanda at the time worked at CAA so there was this whole story of “LG15” at CAA. Somebody put IP software on a Myspace page and Amanda who’s my wife clicked on my page. One day we saw this story come out that “LG15” linked to Ken Goodried and CAA and then they started pouring in through my family. My sisters were kind of the same age as Bree and liked to hike and listen to good music. So there was this conspiracy theory it was my sister. My whole family is calling me each day being like “Hey this was fun watching you do this a month ago, but it’s starting to get scary and weird and we’re worried about people showing up at the house. I had to be like “It’s going to come out any day.”
Amanda Goodfried: It was crazy because at the time, we all deleted our online profiles. What we didn’t know is that Google keeps a cache of every single thing that exists on the internet, so even if you delete your profiles, it still exists. When people started investigating us, there were clues, and they found out we filed a trademark application [through] my husband’s father, so they had a last name and they started Googling him and posted his address and photos of his house online. Eventually, when they googled Goodfried they [found] my MySpace and my husband’s Myspace. People started investigating us but we couldn’t tell anybody about it except for this group of people I was in. So that felt just really intense — like we were being stalked. When we finally took the show outside, people started looking at the plants and trying to investigate “what part of the country a plant could that be in because that kind of plant only grows in the Southwest.” I remember how exciting it was [and] it was such a rollercoaster of feelings, but at the same time, it had this twinge of danger.
Beckett: More and more interest and investigation was occurring. We were pretty distressed because we didn’t know how people would take it or if they would understand the artistic approach and appreciate it. We honestly didn’t know if people would keep watching — we didn’t know how much of the interest was real or not? Fortunately, generally people were excited about it and positive and our viewership went way up once the secret was finally out.
From the get-go, 19-year-old actress Jessica Rose was who the creators wanted to star as Bree in “LG15,” but Rose wasn’t entirely on-board at first and took some convincing. [NOTE: Rose declined to be interviewed for this piece]
Beckett: Jessica Rose didn’t want to do it. We held a casting session and did two days of casting. We didn’t like any of the actresses we saw except for Jessica. Yousef we saw on the first day and we liked him a lot for Daniel. He and Jessica and befriended each other and he told me, “I don’t think she wants to do it. I think she’s sketched out by the whole thing.” I called her and was like, “let’s go and get coffee.”
Abu-Taleb: I remember Jessica Rose was pretty hesitant about the show. We spoke after we met with Mesh and Miles at Urth Cafe and what made her hesitant was what made me excited. It was something new being done in a space that had never done it before. I couldn’t say no. I remember what they told us about how they wanted to roll it out how it was going to be a secret hat everything would disappear and then a movie would come out. I was really excited to do something I’d never done before.
Beckett: This was a time where there was no online video. YouTube was brand new. No one really knew much about it. The default assumption was that it was porn. So she had bad experiences, and I told her it’s not porn, It’s the opposite of that [and] that the character is homeschooled and introverted. [I told her] I’m a doctor, I’m from LA. You can talk to my parents they live in the Valley. So I just told her it’s totally legit and I think it’s going to be something big and big for your career. Luckily my passion pitch won her over. Jess was really authentic and very real and that’s what video blogging was.
“LG15” ran for just over two years and spurred an array of spin-offs. But the show became a framework for how YouTube could and would be used moving forward. It also showed how extreme experimentation could be using the platform.
Mesh Flinders, co-creator: I’m extremely proud of “LG15” and will always look back on the times I spent with my colleagues working on it warmly.
Amanda Goodfried: What I took away from it was what an incredible time it was to experiment. At that time, everything we did was a first.
Davis: I think the people who watched it still remember it, but I don’t think people have heard of it that weren’t of a certain age at that time. I feel like it’s been forgotten because it’s become lost in the shuffle of the internet.
Beckett: I wouldn’t say that we created the “web series” or the techniques [we used], but I would say to an extent we popularized it because for many people “LG15” was their introduction to YouTube. There were a lot of video bloggers that took inspiration from it and took some of the techniques we used and the narrative formats.
Rubenstein: When I see YouTube series now, I see people are taking some of the best elements in terms of how often we publish episodes. It’s not that LG15 broke new ground — they certainly didn’t invent the blog – but I think it was how do they use these pre-existing formats to tell a story.
Greg Goodfried: Certainly it’s viral marketing. I think it’s a really interesting thing in terms of YouTube and video blogging — the fact that you can have a sustainable channel, build a channel and monetize that channel.
Davis: I don’t know if it was ahead of its time or just on time. I think it was on time. All the perfect elements were there.
Beckett: I wrote it with Mesh, we directed it together and it was truly an artistic creation of both of our personalities. I think sometimes it’s thought of as this YouTube hoax, but I think most people recognize it as a narrative and a story. There’s still a lot of blogging, [but] there hasn’t been that much innovation around scripted, interactive narrative. There’s been a little bit but it’s a bit of a bummer from a creative standpoint.
Amanda Goodfried: I became the producer, and I ran the show for years. That’s what the narrative never includes. I get cut out of every story. We did all of these stories and talked to all of these reporters for years, and I got cut out of every single one of them.
Flinders: “LG15” was a collaboration on every level and would not have been the success it was without all its various contributors’ hard work — including our many fans, who commented on the videos and worked diligently to sleuth out who was behind them.
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