Strictly star and YouTube phenomenon Saffron Barker knows more than most the importance of considering our actions online. In this exclusive chat, Saffron opens up about trolling, being authentic, and the power of believing in yourself
It’s rush hour in west London, and rain pelts down. But as I scurry out of the Tube, it’s not home that awaits, but actual sunshine. My destination is a meeting with Saffron Barker, the vlogging superstar whose lifestyle, family-focused, and quirky-challenge content has amassed a social media following of more than five million.
More than 3.3 million subscribe to her two YouTube channels, and she has 1.2 million followers on Instagram alone – jaw-dropping numbers when you consider that just four years ago, Saffron was a school girl from Brighton, who – on a whim – abandoned college plans in favour of uploading videos.
When we meet in the dressing room of a photography studio, Saffron has spent the day on a top-secret brand campaign shoot, and seems older than her 19 years. Oozing warmth, it’s little wonder she captured the attention of Strictly Come Dancing bosses, who signed her for last year’s series to compete alongside pro-dancer AJ Pritchard.
It was a savvy career move. Before embracing sequins and sparkles, Saffron was known primarily by 16 to 24-year-olds who watch her online, but after surviving until week 10, and subsequently starring in the Strictly Live tour, she’s sashayed into mainstream media consciousness.
“Even grandmas now stop me in the street, which is so cute, I can’t even deal with it!” giggles Saffron.
Saffron’s parents Wendy, 46, and Darren, 49, were extremely supportive of their daughter’s hunger to build a YouTube career at the age of 15, following in the digital footsteps of the Sugg siblings – Zoe, aka Zoella, and fellow Strictly star Joe – with whom she was “obsessed”.
For Saffron, what began with a recording of a family holiday, filmed on her mum’s iPhone using a selfie-stick, quickly expanded into vlogging about her academic struggles as a dyslexic, puberty woes, and her relationships. Her ability to inspire empathy, and the immediateness of the content, is a fundamental reason why Saffron has become so famous, so fast.
“I’ve always wanted to be open and honest on my channel; my fans have seen my funny videos, but also the days where I’m not feeling so great. A problem shared is a problem halved, and the online community helps you realise that others may be feeling the same way, which if you’re struggling, helps you feel less isolated.”
After a year of vlogging, Saffron had amassed 100,000 followers, was earning a “part-time job level” income from advertising, and realised YouTube could be her career, so opted out of further education and committed to building her brand. For 18 months she vlogged daily.
“When I commit to something, I put 110% into it,” she says.
You could look at a thousand positive comments, but that one negative is always going to stick out
Some believe the pressure of disposability, the mood among video creators that younger, fresher talent is always waiting in the wings, is contributing to a growing mental health crisis as YouTubers are unable to press the off-switch.
“The biggest pressure is constantly having to produce content, because of the fear that if you stop, people will find another person to watch,” agrees Saffron. “But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a burnout.
“After 18 months, I stopped daily vlogging, because I was sharing too much. I once told my vlog that my dog was going to the vet’s then someone came up to me and asked, ‘How’s Bella?’ I realised I’d told them everything about my life, and suddenly thought ‘Maybe I should keep more of a balance with what I share online.’”
Saffron, who hit one million followers in July 2017, says her fans love any content featuring her family members: mum Wendy, brother Casey, 24, younger brother Jed, 18, and her adorable two-year-old niece Harlow. Her tribe of supporters also yearn for “anything personal”. So would the girl who was “very much single” during her Strictly journey, and who today remains “very much more single”, expect a future boyfriend to feature in her content?
“Not at all,” she insists. “They’d be able to have anonymity if they wanted it. It’s completely up to them, but I’d never push somebody to be on social media.”
For Saffron, in addition to “probably once a month feeling the fear of ‘I’ve no idea what to film’”, another challenge is being a family-friendly YouTuber (she never swears or drinks alcohol in her videos) and feeling the pressure to say and do everything right – an impossible task, she concedes.
“Everyone has an opinion, and not everyone’s going to agree with what you do or say, but I’ve always known I have to be careful, because there will be people who take things a different way, and I never want to offend anybody.”
As her channel grew, Saffron experienced more and more negativity, from comments on her content or about her appearance, and it reached a boiling point.
“I’m normally bubbly and positive, and it takes a lot to rattle me, but I started to feel really upset and less confident,” Saffron says. “I also found myself dwelling on the bad comments.
“Talking to my family really helped, especially my mum. She made me remember why I was vlogging – because it was my true passion – and helped me see that I can’t control the comments, only how I feel inside. Something switched in me, and I gained a new perspective.
“I’m only human so I can’t say it never affects me. You could look at a thousand positive comments, but that one negative is always going to stick out. Luckily the positive completely outweighs the negative.”
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Photography | Brian Doherty