It's another beautiful day in California, and Tonya TKO is enjoying the sunshine on the grounds of the LA YouTube Space. She comes here daily to work on her vlog series and programming for her TonyaTKOShow channel. It's a project she's poured her life (and reportedly life-savings) into, and that's grown to over 114,000 subscribers (or "Knockouts" as she likes to call her fans).
Like many successful content creators, YouTube is what Tonya calls her full-time job. It's one that's brought her tens of millions of views and made her into a bona fide internet celebrity. It's also one that's left her living out of her car.
From the outside, the situation is as bleak as it sounds. Waking up bare-faced, exhausted, and with her life's contents reflecting in her rearview mirror, she changes her outfit, rubs olive oil over her skin, and muses to herself about the last 24 hours. We know this because she does it all with the camera squarely pointed on her face. Tonya isn't hiding from homelessness, or "displacement" as she points to the importance of the distinction between the two, she's turning into must see viewing.
"To me, displacement is different than homelessness because displaced implies there is a place the person is headed, they are just not in that place yet". So what's really keeping Tonya from reaching her destination?
"As a content creator on YouTube, even with over 100,000 subs, I simply don't earn enough from ad revenue alone to live off of," she tries to explain. It's a topic that made headlines this past december when fellow YouTube star Gaby Dunn wrote a candid editorial on the predicament faced by a large sub-section of creators, who've built big enough followings to be considered famous, yet haven't been able to convert their YouTube success into fully liveable wages. Many find other avenues to get by, but Tonya isn't interested in the short-term.
"People say get a job, and I'm like I have a job - being Tonya TKO is my job", Tonya fires back. Even without the financial windfall you might expect, internet celebrity does offer one vital lifeline - a highly devoted, often emotionally invested fanbase. And it's in them, Tonya has found (albeit controversially) a way out of her precarious circumstances.
"Coming forward about living in my car was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do", Tonya confesses. "I'm used to being self-sufficient and abundant, but when I couldn't see a way out of my situation, I had no choice but to come forward". Her way of coming forward was creating a video asking for help that directly linked to a GoFundMe campaign. Though she hoped to raise $1,000, Tonya ended up with almost $12,000 before shutting the page down. Shaking and crying, she made an emotional video thanking the generosity of her fans. While the outpouring was overwhelming, the backlash was immediate. Outcries labelling her a "scam artist" and worse, (led by in particular by a fellow creator), began flooding the internet.
Tonya's admitted uses for the money further raised eyebrows. Alongside basic human needs you expect from someone living out of their car, like money for rent and food, Tonya also listed the need for a three-person camera crew, a video editor, and an animator for her channel among her necessary expenses. It's almost as if keeping her channel alive is as important as keeping herself alive, raising concerns of whether this is really about helping Tonya as a person, or Tonya in her hopes of being a bigger star.
The volume has continued to grow as weeks later Tonya remains in her car, continuing to film the aptly named "Displacement for the Dream Diaries", (with a customized intro and all). It starts to bring up the question, is displacement her burden... or her brand?
As an online personality, TonyaTKO by her very nature will always be something of a lightning rod. She's at times confrontational, brash, and can come across as unaccountable. She's also the perfect embodiment of YouTube born celebrity. "99% of the video are just me in first person, one shot, one dialogue from me", as she makes clear that this is truly a one-woman show.
For Tonya, her channel is her life, and her life - in all it's ups and downs - is on her channel. "The Tonya you see online is very much like the real Tonya...in concentrate", she concludes. From breakdowns to breakthroughs, she's got nowhere to go but to her camera. So while she may have found herself living out of her car, she also may also have found her next viral hit.