At 15, Venus Palermo has grown into her doll obsession rather than out of it. Under the screen name Venus Angelic, the London based teenager posts beauty tutorials on YouTube for fans who want to look like her. But that's not why she's the latest viral video star. It's because she looks like a living doll.
According to Palermo, you too could be a ball-jointed doll (or BJD as she calls it) with the right over-sized pupil contacts, plastic-sheen-effect powder and pure white eye shadow. Based on her 5 million viewers and the legions of lookalike fans on her Facebook page, people are taking her advice.
The modern ball-jointed doll is widely popular in Japan, a country both she and her mother are obsessed with. "Mommy cooks Japanese, thinks Japanese, goes to Japan with me," writes Palermo on her blog. "Because we like it. Liking something, is soooooo GREAT!" Palermo is actually Austrian, Swiss and Hungarian but she's been studying Japanese along with several other languages. Her multilingual background is how she explains her accent, which sounds close to the Midwestern Harajuku-obsessed college kids satirized on Saturday Night Live.
Palermo's obsession, however, isn't taken as lightly. Her videos have been labeled "bizarre" and "disturbing" in the media. Her uncanny appearance is sounding off alarm bells for concerned critics. Modern Asian ball joint dolls have become increasingly more life-like, with a line of human-sized, physically mature dolls recently released for the kind of consumer you don't want anywhere near your teenager.
The perverse comments on the 15-year-old's videos is proof she's attracting some unsavory fans. So is the occasional grown man dappling the list of Palermo's Facebook fans. But the teenager's mom doesn't appear to be intervening in her daughter's risky hobby. Mom serves as host of Q&A chats between teenager and fans. In one video posted last year, she sat by while the teenager had an uncomfortable conversation with a 24-year-old male caller who professed his love and then proceeded to belittle her.
In text under that video, posted to VenusAngelic's channel, Palermo refers to her fans as "lovers." The title of the video is "Insane Guy in Love."
"The case of Venus Angelic is uncomfortably exploitative, as there is clearly a sexual undertone to what she is doing," says Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, a Harvard sociologist who has written extensively about child exploitation in media.
"In general, young girls on YouTube is a disturbing, growing trend," she says noting the recent trend of pre-teen girls asking viewers if they're pretty.
In many cases, parents are unaware of their child's webcam usage, until their uploads go viral. But in other instances, the parents are facilitators.
"Remember, Justin Bieber got his start on YouTube with the help of his mother," says Levey Friedman.
Levey Friedman wonders whether Palermo's mom has similar aspirations for her daughter. The YouTube stage parent is relatively new concept. Most kids have risen to viral fame for just being kids, and if a parent profits off of that they're immediately criticized. The rare performing prodigy, like Bieber, is an exception. But Palermo doesn't fall into either category. She may be bringing a Japanese trend to Western teenagers, but she's also attracting a largely unwanted fan-base.
The question then for a parent is whether it's better to support a child's passion or protect her from what could come of it. "I'd hate to rob a kid of her blissful ignorance but I guess the fact is, at 15 years old, innocence is a luxury teens can't really afford," argues The Stir's Jacqueline Burt after watching Palermo's videos. "I guess it's our job to tell our kids when something they're doing could be misinterpreted and why."
Better a parent than an "insane guy in love."