A sea of teenage girls screamed his name, mascara streaming down their cheeks. Many of them had camped outside the Mall of America the night before to secure a spot at the front of the line.
The cause of their hysteria: Connor Franta, 22-year-old YouTube superstar. As he entered the mall’s rotunda on Tuesday evening last week, 1,200 fans wailed in unison, each clutching his new memoir and waiting breathlessly for their chance to meet him.
“The obsession is real right now,” said Franta, his smile a mixture of excitement and disbelief. “It’s incredible because I can’t think of a celebrity who I would do that for.”
Franta is a celebrity of the social media age — his fame not tied to movies, music or television. He’s just a guy with a camera and an Internet connection, his celeb status championed by a generation of kids with short attention spans who like their stars accessible and relatable.
Franta’s home state was the first stop on a national tour to launch “A Work in Progress” — a memoir on his Minnesota childhood and his path to becoming a YouTube sensation with 4.4 million subscribers.
Unlike a lot of viral YouTube stars, Franta doesn’t have a gimmick, per se. He doesn’t sing and he’s not a comedy act like ultra-popular Jenna Marbles (whose most viewed video is a tutorial on how to trick people into thinking you’re hot).
Franta’s YouTube channel is essentially a weekly video blog about his life — a mini reality-TV show.
“I like the fact that I can upload any video about anything,” he said. “I literally made a video about my bookshelf the other week.”
That post has more than 800,000 views.
Videos like this are often just Franta talking in front of the camera in his Hollywood apartment. He has bright blue eyes, a movie-star smile and a sculpted swoop of brown hair. He taught himself video editing, and his posts are filled with the tropes of other YouTube stars — jump cuts, silly sound effects and colorful graphics.
While his brand of celebrity is entrenched in the digital world, publisher Simon & Schuster is betting that Franta’s story can translate to the printed word. On the first day of its release, the 224-page memoir rocketed into the Top 25 books on Amazon.com.
In the book, Franta opens up about his childhood in La Crescent, a Mississippi River town of 5,000 in southeastern Minnesota. His famous YouTube friends are always mystified to hear that his grade school class consisted of five kids.
“He’s just a small-town Midwestern boy at heart who happens to have broken out,” said his mother, Cheryl Franta.
The Franta family — mom, dad, two siblings — came to see him in the spotlight at the mall. Grandma was also along for the ride, smiling proudly at her famous grandson.
The obsession is real
In the Mall of America’s rotunda, a book publicist stood at the front of the line holding a box of tissues for fans to dry their eyes before posing for photos with Franta.
“He was so nice and I was just in tears,” said Tayler Johnston-Brugger, 14, after meeting the star. “Sometimes I feel so sad and then I watch his videos and feel happy again.”
Fan after fan echoed her words. Franta is honest, humble and sweet, they said. Being a teenager is hard. But watching Franta talk about his life makes them feel like someone else gets it.
“He’s there for the outcasts and the people who feel like they don’t fit in,” said 16-year-old Ashlee Naab. “My mom died, and I felt like he knew what it was like to feel alone.”
They gave him handwritten letters detailing their stories of overcoming depression, dealing with parents’ divorces or simply surviving high school. All tallied, several large cardboard moving boxes overflowed with gifts, drawings and notes from fans expressing their gratitude.
Franta posted his first YouTube video five years ago while in high school (the video is now hidden from public view and will never be seen, he joked). His following didn’t take off right away. But as sometimes happens, the weird alchemy of the Internet inspired a growing number of teens to share his videos with friends. By 2013, he crossed the million-follower mark.
In December, Franta posted one of his most watched videos. In it, he tells his followers that he’s gay. The video has 7.8 million views, and a swath of major media outlets reported the news — from E! to USA Today to the BBC. His story resonated deeply with his followers, inspiring some to make videos of their own coming out.
Like any major celebrity, the intensity of his fans’ devotion is matched only by the calculated method of his appearances. At the mall, Franta was surrounded by an entourage of handlers and security. The line of fans was capped at 1,200, with each devotee buying a pre-signed copy of the memoir. They could pose for a professionally shot photo with Franta, but no selfies were allowed. Still, Franta hugged each and every 1,200 of them.
“Everyone is here to meet me, and I try to make their experience as good as anyone else’s,” said Franta after the final fan got her photo and brief moment with him. The whole process took three hours. “I always wish I had more time with everyone.”
His mother said the ability to connect with people has always been Connor’s strong suit. “He has a very good soft side. He could be anyone’s best friend.”
Franta broadcasts so much of his life online that his followers feel like they know him personally.
“They think they are my best friends,” he said. “I get frequently tackled in public; someone will just yell my name and jump on me. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know you, but OK!’ ”
The path to fame
In 2012, Franta left St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at YouTube-ing full time and eventually hire an agent. He’s pretty successful, although Franta shies away from talking about money. It’s “invasive” and “gross,” he said. At parties, new acquaintances often will ask him how much he makes after learning he’s a YouTuber.
He outlines these awkward interactions in the first pages of his book, which gives an inside glimpse into the life of a YouTube star as well as stories of his high school days in La Crescent (first crushes, state swim meets and being crowned homecoming king).
The book isn’t his only big project. Last year, he asked his followers to donate to the Thirst Project, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing safe drinking water to Third World countries. He raised almost $250,000 using a reward system of T-shirts, signed posters and social media shoutouts.
“The amount of people who just want a follow-back on Twitter from me is ridiculous,” he said. “So I figure if you donate to charity, of course I’ll follow you. It’s not skin off my nose.”
Franta said he has tried not to let the exclusivity of celebrity get to him — especially in Hollywood.
“I try to get back [to Minnesota] as much as possible to ground me,” he said. “I definitely don’t want the fame monster to take me over.”
Watching from the sidelines at the megamall, Franta’s college roommate and sister shook their heads in confusion.
“I don’t get it,” said Nicola Franta, his sister. “He’s still just Connor.”
Focusing on the positive
Franta exudes happiness in every energetic hand gesture. In his videos and book, he preaches positivity: Follow your dreams, be creative, be yourself.
“I try to keep it real,” he said. “Like, I’m not afraid to post a double-chin selfie.”
He’s not afraid of negative feedback, either.
“I do remember getting my first hate comment,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Omigod, I have a hater. This is so cool!’ ”
He’s taken it all in stride, having now seemingly mastered all realms of social media. Franta has at least 1 million followers on each of the major social networks (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Vine). Although, he admits, he’s still learning Snapchat. Lately he’s been using his platforms for more than just YouTube videos. He started his own coffee company. And in the fall, Franta reached the Billboard Top 200 albums with a compilation of his favorite unknown artists.
“I’m a curator of sorts,” he said. “I think I know good music, so why not share that undiscovered talent with my big audience?”
People always ask Franta for his secrets to success, searching for that elusive Internet fame formula.
“ ‘How did it happen? Why you?’ ” he said. “I don’t know. I didn’t drink a magic potion and give my leg to a witch or something.”
Libby Ryan is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.