One of the greatest fears we have as human beings is to embrace our own truths. More often than not, we paint over them -- covering them with false smiles, bold words, or textured skins -- too afraid the world won't accept us for who we are. All it takes is one person strong enough to shed their layers for us to find courage to do the same.
Fortunately for Connor Franta, embracing his own truth has proven to be a lucrative venture. For millions of his die-hard fans, the 25-year old superstar is more than just a "YouTuber." He is a social influencer who is merging business and culture, almost effortlessly.
The best-selling author of 2015's A Work in Progress: A Memoir, Franta is also cofounder of the lifestyle brand Common Culture, which has nearly 300,000 followers on social media and continues to grow from curating coffee and music mixtapes to offering clothing. His record label, Heard Well, has produced a number of best-selling compilation CDs, including from YouTuber Tyler Oakley and Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. He's been featured on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine and, in 2016, won a People's Choice Award for Favorite YouTube Star.
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Now the self-made millionaire has a new book, Note to Self, and is looking to the future in the only way he knows how: by focusing inward. After all, being introspective was the initial catalyst for Franta's success. But becoming his own brand has required him to be the center of attention -- and that's a role he had to get used to.
"Growing up, I was never the front-and-center kid," he explains. "I was kind of three rows back. I definitely didn't sit in the front row in class. I didn't want to be onstage, nothing like that. So it was almost an acquired taste to be an entertainer or whatever it is I classify myself as nowadays. It's something I've had to learn how to deal with. But I've come to really enjoy it."
Still, Franta makes a conscious effort to maintain a "three rows back" kind of attitude with his brands by not placing his face on packaging, and instead relying on quality to sell products -- a strategy he hopes will give his brand staying power. It seems to be paying off.
"I never quite realized how much I was into fashion and into clothing until I took a leap and created a clothing brand," he says. "[And] music is a huge source of inspiration, happiness, drive, everything. It's always been a basis for my life, so to have made it a part of my career is absolutely fantastic and a dream I never knew I had until I started. But the best part about it has been shedding light on people who I think are unbelievably talented and should be received by a wider audience. I think that's kind of the cool aspect of Heard Well, that we shed light on musicians who are up-and-coming. It is cool to think I am hopefully helping someone else achieve their dreams."
Helping people discover their dreams has become part of Franta's brand. But for him, it's merely paying it forward.
"In a way, I think people create their own levels of value in life," he says. "People devalue themselves for many reasons. Whether they're looking bad, whether they didn't get the high score in class, or they didn't get that promotion at work. I kind of think it's your personal responsibility to remind yourself you have value. You define yourself and get value every day."
He's certainly created value for himself -- and out of what might seem like nothing. When he was growing up in a tigh-tknit family in La Crescent, Minn., no one thought making YouTube videos would be a way to make a living. At 13 -- around the time he started having crushes on other boys -- Franta discovered that YouTube was a place where real people could tell their stories.
Franta filmed his first video in the summer of 2010. From there, he started posting three a week, and within a year he had over 3,000 subscribers. By 2012, he had 30,000 and started selling ads through YouTube's advertising network. It was around this time he told his family he was dropping out of school to pursue making videos as a living -- a conversation most parents wouldn't be willing to have.
His go-for-broke attitude paid off. The summer of 2013 brought Franta 400,000 subscribers. By the end of the year he had 3 million! It was a huge leap.
But although many LGBT YouTubers are out online more than they are in the real world, Franta still hadn't shared his sexual orientation with his fans. By the time 2014 came around, he was ready to share his secret. He announced he was gay in a video titled "Coming Out." And much to his surprise, the video garnered 4 million views in just a few day. Twenty or 30 years ago, that kind of overwhelming support would have been unheard of.
"I'm incredibly thankful for those trailblazers that came before me, that made the process for me so much easier," Franta shares. "It's an interesting time, it wasn't as difficult, and it's becoming less and less difficult for people."
Given that YouTube stars are now more popular among U.S. teens than mainstream celebrities (according to Variety), his huge fan base has meant that everyone seems to want a piece of Connor Franta. But as much as social media is the source of his celebrity, he admits he sometimes has "a love-hate relationship" with the medium.
"In a way, no one can hide, and the truth is almost always revealed," he says. While that authenticity has its advantages, "When someone says something wrong or someone messes up in some way ... everyone knows and everyone feels the right to attack that person. There's a huge mob mentality on the Internet right now, that if someone says one thing wrong, they're over, they're exposed, they're ended. I'll never really understand that culture. People mess up. We're human. We're imperfect. That is the definition of humanity, is we are flawed beings."
Franta thinks there's a better way. "What I wish and hope for ... is that when people mess up, people educate them, they tell them, they inform them, they call them out on it. But they don't hold it against them for long periods of time and try to get people to tear them down in a way that makes them feel like they can't get back up again."
In his new book, Note to Self, Franta refers to his generation as the "now generation," one that wants what they want when they want it and -- thanks to technology and digital apps -- are used to getting it now.
"I wrote that [chapter] a year ago, and it was an angsty period of my life," Franta explains. "I was really torn between liking having things so eagerly, whether it was dating apps or even just food apps. I was kind of battling that, where I was like, 'It's only going to get worse from here. I need to expect it or I need to fight it.'"
"Technology," Franta proclaims, "is ridiculous." But he sees how essential it is to LGBT visibility. "I think the reason our community has such a large voice now is because of technology and because of the events in social media and the internet. The fact that a movie like Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars is revolutionary. [But] I don't think stories like that would get told if they didn't have a social platform informing the world that this movie was so important, and ... telling people they need to see [it]."
More than anything, Franta admits he thrives in being challenged, and the thought of settling is terrifying. "I don't want to live a bland life, a tasteless existence. I want flavor. I want difference. I want challenges. I want more and more complexity. I'm happy that ... I am a little bit on edge at all times."
As The Advocate celebrates our 50th anniversary, Franta says he recognizes the present will soon become the past. Admittedly, he says, that's part of what drives him.
"I think [future generations] are going to say that we were a generation that jumped into the future faster than any generation before us," he muses. "I think that we're moving at warp speed with not only acceptance in certain communities, outside the LGBT community, but shedding light on different types of people. Whether it's based on race, religion, or sexuality, I think we're opening the world to diversity in a way that hasn't been done before. I hope that we, as a generation, take that very seriously."
Credits: Photographer: Tony Donaldson; Grooming by Blondie for Exclusive Artists using Skyn Iceland and MAC Cosmetic; Wardrobe stylist: Aisha Ray; Assistant stylist: Angel Cross. Photo assistant: Corey Kirk. (Connor pictured above wearing shirt by All Saints, jacket by Kooples, trousers and shoes by H&M, and rings by Gold Philosophy.)