One morning in 2015, Shirley Curry woke up to a terrible surprise. Her email inbox had been flooded with 11,000 emails from strangers commenting on the first episode of her Skyrim let's play. While millions might dream of one day becoming an overnight celebrity on YouTube, Shirley found it terrifying. "I just sat there and cried," she tells me. "It scared the puddin' out of me. I didn't know what to do."
The day before, a user by the name of 'Jacobthebro' posted her Skyrim video to Reddit and it instantly became one of the biggest submissions that day. For the then 79-year-old Shirley, the sudden tidal wave of attention was overwhelming. "I didn't know what was happening," she says. "I hadn't even thought of anything like that happening so I didn't know what to do."
Confused and scared, Shirley did the only thing that seemed natural to her: She began opening each email, one after the other, and writing back. Slowly, with each response, Shirley's dread turned to joy. "When I realized the kind of comments I was getting, it got really fun. Some of them were really touching, and as the days went on and the comments kept coming I started getting attached to these people. Some of them would really make me cry and some were so hilariously funny I'd just sit here and laugh. They were all so very sweet."
Shirley never wanted it, but she had just entered into the pantheon of YouTube celebrities.
The unexpected spotlight
The formula for becoming a famous YouTube gamer is about as mysterious as the meaning of life. For many, it means projecting a relatable persona defined by simple adjectives. Some are cynical brits while others are angry nerds. But Shirley is just Shirley, a twice-widowed mother of four and grandmother of nine who lives in Virginia, USA. The warm, welcoming tone she projects in her videos isn't an act that fades when we sit down to chat. She is witty and endearing—exactly the kind of person I'd be excited to spend my Sundays with. When she calls her subscribers 'grandkids,' it's not a tacky attempt to brand them like Justin Bieber's 'Beliebers,' but her way of extending the warmth of family to 220,000 strangers.
She believes it's exactly that kind of simple honesty that propelled her channel to where it is today. "I think the reason my recording took off the way it did is because of my age and that people hadn't seen that on YouTube," she tells me. "I have my own picture on there and I talk about my age because I wanted my viewers to know me and I wanted to know them. I'm not going to hide behind some cartoonish-looking avatar and never mention the fact that I'm an older woman."
It's easy to get cynical around the culture that exists on YouTube. Where popular channels' comment sections are shuttered—the only answer to the swamp of harassment and toxicity that festers there—Shirley's comment sections are filled with kindness and enthusiasm.
"I can't stop smiling while watching this," reads one.
"So inspirational and awesome to see," reads another.
And yet, Shirley never wanted the kind of attention she now receives. She only joined YouTube to better follow the other channels she enjoyed. Her love of PC gaming started in the '90s when her son gifted her his old computer along with a copy of Sid Meier's Civilization 2. But what started as an idle interest soon blossomed into a life-absorbing fascination. "I became immediately addicted," she chuckles. "I would play day and night until I would turn into a zombie. It was just fascinating that I could do something like that—that I could build cities. I got to playing it so much I had a whole continent that I had taken over and had ships built all around it so no one could get in. I was always winning."
In 2014, Shirley discovered Skyrim. "It was like being in a movie and I could do whatever I wanted to, go wherever I wanted to. I just fell in love with it." When the few subscribers she had learned of her new obsession, they begged her to record herself playing it. Not one to disappoint, Shirley obliged.
That YouTube life
That was over a year ago now, and that one episode has changed Shirley's life. Aside from her Skyrim let's play, she's dabbled in Ark: Survival Evolved, Fallout 4, and No Man's Sky. On Fridays she uploads a 'grab bag' episode featuring whatever game catches her eye. Where the hottest videos are often up-tempo sizzle reels edited down in pursuit of maximum entertainment purity, Shirley's videos are long, ponderous, and sometimes downright boring. But the magic is how she transforms a long jog back to Whiterun into a pleasant stroll with a friend.
Shirley's days spent quilting and reading science fiction novels are behind her, replaced by the need to maintain her steadily-growing channel. I ask her how much of her day is taken up by YouTube and she laughs: "It's usually from the time I get up until I go to bed."
She rattles off a list of her daily activities, and I quickly begin to see she isn't joking. After her morning routine of watching her favorite channels, she refreshes her memory by watching yesterday's episode before planning out the next. Then she records, renders, and uploads it. Throughout all of this she is constantly replying to the hundreds of comments and emails she receives.
"It's almost gotten to be a job," she admits. "My son gets onto me all the time. If I say something to the kids like 'I'm sorry I'm not going to get a video up tomorrow because I have to take time off,' he says, 'Mom, when I hear you use the word 'have to' I get a little upset. This is a hobby not your job.'"
The truth is that Shirley's time on YouTube is somewhere in-between. When she first started responding to the 11,000 emails crowding her inbox, she learned a hard lesson every rising YouTuber must face: "I just started trying to answer all of them to get them out of my email inbox but I finally had to start being a little more selective to which ones I replied to," she says. "I can't answer everyone like I used to."
There's a hint of sadness in her voice when she says that. Shirley's success on YouTube isn't because she's a skilled gamer or has witty commentary. It's because she's compassionate and accepting. She creates a space where no matter who you are, you are still her grandkid. That's why she even tries to respond to those who leave rude or hurtful comments, offering them a chance to apologize.
"I think of the people that are on my channel and I don't want them reading that nasty stuff," she says. "I want my channel to be a good channel. I've actually had some comment back and say I'm sorry Grandma Shirley, I won't talk like that anymore. That surprised me to death. They need somebody to try and teach them some manners. Evidently they don't get it at home."
I ask Shirley if she believes the world is the kind of place that you get out what you put into it. "Yes, definitely," she says. But as we continue to talk, I begin to worry if she is giving more than she can ever hope to receive.
"It gets very exhausting, it really does," she says somberly. "But I don't want to [stop] because I feel like [my fans] have taken their time to watch my videos and taken their time to respond to them and talk to me. The least I can do is reply."
But as her channel continues to grow, and with the number of comments she receives, that responsibility she feels becomes heavier and heavier, and she doesn't have enough time in the day to respond to everyone who reaches out. "That kinda hurts me."
"The obligation makes me feel worn out a lot of the time. But the obligation also makes me feel guilty—oh my god, I hope my son doesn't hear me say that," she laughs. "It makes me feel guilty if I skip a day or two."
That guilt is the reason for all the half-finished quilting projects Shirley no longer has time to complete, for all the novels she no longer has time to read. "I wouldn't say I'm any happier now, but I think I had a lot more fun then when I could play all the time for hours and hours and hours."
For a woman who only recorded her Skyrim adventures because someone else asked her to, I feel a sting of sadness when she says this. An 80-year-old grandmother of nine shouldn't feel enslaved by the expectations of strangers on the internet that found her through a Reddit post she didn't make.
I ask Shirley why she continues to invest so much of herself into her channel.
"I do it for them," she says, her voice becoming cheerful again. She tells me about when a young woman reached out seeking advice after her family rejected her dreams of becoming a writer. Shirley didn't just respond with a simple comment, she wrote her a whole letter. Today, that woman's reply sits on Shirley's desk. Shirley tells me she'll reply to it soon.
"I'm Grandma to all of them," she says matter-of-factly. "That's the young ones, to those in their 30s and 40s, and even the older ones—all of them call me Grandma. They're all so sweet. You can't help but care about them. There's children who make comments in such a way that makes me feel like they don't have anyone. And then I get people who say that they are put down or told that they can't do this or they can't do that and that I inspire them to go ahead and do whatever they want to do."
To Shirley, these aren't just strangers. Like her own family, they're people that she feels a need to protect and nourish. And just when the enormity of that responsibility threatens to swallow her, her audience cares back.
At the end of her most recent vlog, that guilt Shirley mentioned is written on her face. "I'm going to try to adjust my schedule because, actually, I haven't been feeling that well, and I've just been tired all the time and my son has been getting onto me," She confesses. "I had started this as a hobby. I didn't know it was going to snowball the way it has. I didn't know there was going to be so much hype about it, and the interviews and video interviews. Yesterday I just simply had to write emails and send them out declining because… I don't have time and I'm tired."
In that moment, her cheerful demeanor seems to slip.
"I hope you'll understand that and that will be OK with you," she says.
"Aw heck, Gramma it's sad seeing you think you've gotta feel pressured at all and in any way whatsoever," reads the top comment. "Not any one of us are asking for anything more than a video whenever you really do feel like it. If you're tired, or even simply don't want to, do not worry. We can all wait days, weeks, as long as you need. We promise we'll still be here!"
That one comment is followed by hundreds more echoing the same sentiment.
"When I start feeling tired and exhausted and wishing that I wasn't doing this," Shirley tells me, "things like that is what makes me keep doing it."