Like other 15-year-olds aiming to please credulous adults looking for signs of precociousness in children, Venus Palermo has her favorite school subjects ready to recite on cue.
“I love math, technology, and biology,” she tells me without a moment’s hesitation.
Venus is homeschooled, a consequence of her and her mother’s relatively recent move from a different country.
“I went to real school until last autumn in Spain. Then we couldn’t find a place in school here in London. Well, they didn’t give me a place here, so we decided that homeschooling would be good.”
Asked if she misses the experience of attending a school with other children, she says, “No, I’m super happy here in London homeschooled.”
“But I saw you say somewhere that you don’t have many friends in real life,” I say to her.
“I had a lot of friends back in Spain, but now that we moved everything changed and is new. I couldn’t get so many friends because we just moved here, but I’m doing my best to find friends. I also want to do some sports. Maybe I want to go on a sports team or into some clubs. I’ll look into what I can do, but it’s not like I don’t have friends. I had friends back in Spain,” she says.
I am about to move on with a new question, but pause because I hear Venus consulting with someone in the background. After some muted chatter, Venus speaks up again, “Oh, I didn’t mean disco with club. I mean sports clubs. No things like that; that’s not good.”
I hadn’t thought that she meant a nightclub, but for Venus’s mother, Margaret Palermo, and modeling agent, Aletha Shepherd (a former Miss Guyana), clarification is warranted because controlling their daughter and client’s image is paramount; Venus’s star is on the rise, but it’s complicated by the fact that she is 15 and controversial. The attempt to depict Venus Palermo and all of the posited sociological and psychological ramifications of Venus Angelic as totally innocuous is a difficult undertaking in the face of the haranguing doled out by British print and television along with the harshly critical commentary of the online world in which she first drew international attention.
“Venus Angelic” is Venus Palermo’s online moniker, a name she picked because it “sounds nice and it matches well with Venus.” Her YouTube channel of the same name has amassed over 15 million views, and is the epicenter of her online fame.
“I do videos on YouTube. Makeup tutorials, funny cooking videos, and beauty vlogs,” Venus says. “I love the feedback that people give me. I just started my YouTube channel because I thought it was fun, but I’m not really influenced by other people. I’m my own inspiration.”
Asked whether she is solely responsible for all the content in her VenusAngelic online empire, consisting of a YouTube channel, Facebook fan page, Twitter, Tumblr, and blog, Venus proudly says, “I do everything by myself because it’s really fun, and I love doing it. I don’t really need help because I can do it really well alone.”
“So how much time do you spend on all of it?” I ask.
“I do it every time, always,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Wow, so you spend all day online?” I ask.
I hear people talking to her in the background again, and she quickly corrects herself, “Not the whole day, but I do it for like 1 hour.”
It’s not the subject matter of her videos or the time she devotes to her online life that has drawn most of the criticism, however. It’s the way she looks. Venus is fanatical about Japanese kawaii “cute” culture and Lolita fashion, mostly of the ama-loli “sweet Lolita” type. She likes wearing short dresses, pink bows, and cat ears, among other cloyingly cute, colorful clothes and accessories.
“I was always like that. I dressed in frilly dresses, and I wore ribbons all the time also when I was 3 years old. Nobody is too young or too old to wear cute things, but of course makeup shouldn’t be done at a very young age. I think at my age it’s OK,” she says.
Paired with her porcelain pale skin, processed blonde hair and eyebrows, and blue circle lenses that make her impossibly doe eyed, Venus is also physically emulating the look of the modern Asian ball-jointed doll. The result is a perfectly synthetic look for which she has been widely dubbed a “living doll.”
“Those are anime-like looking dolls. They are very popular in Asia. The countries in Asia where they are the most popular is Japan. Those dolls are produced mostly in Japan. They kind of look like human anime, but they are dolls. People like that because they think they can look like an anime but still kind of look like a human because anime is only 2D,” Venus says about the dolls. “I like it because of the facial features. It’s very small, cute and lovely.”
“Are there days where you don’t want to dress up or wear all the makeup, where you just want to go all natural?” I ask her.
“No. That sounds like depression. I’m not depressing,” she says.
While her plastic doll appearance may disturb Westerners unaccustomed to it, it’s a look that’s prevalent in Japan, a nation with a sizeable portion of men fixated on young, cute, and innocent girls, and a nation that has many women and girls purposefully setting out to achieve that look of the objectified. Indeed, Venus is most popular in Japan, where she hopes to one day model. “Well, I guess I’m popular worldwide,” she says. “I would like to do modeling and acting, and I already found my management so let’s see what happens.”
Venus’s look, and her mom’s allowance of it, has been roundly criticized; she’s spreading an unhealthy trend, it sexualizes a young girl, there’s too much emphasis on appearance, some of her videos and photos are too provocative, she is more susceptible to predatory men. In regard to the last point, I ask Margaret what steps she takes to protect her daughter from online strangers, and she is aggressively defensive. The question doesn’t make sense, she complains, and what can online people do anyway, she asks. “Are they going to reach through the computer to grab her?” She adamantly denies, along with her daughter, that there is any contingent of men out there even watching Venus’s videos, let alone wanting to harm her in any way.
“No, that’s a rumor. I know my stats and only teen girls watch my videos. It’s just like, ‘Oh, freaky men watch your videos to bully me,’ but I know my stats, and I know that I’m not attracting anyone weird,” Venus says.
“So you don’t think you have any adult male fans?” I ask her.
“Well, maybe one or two but my stats say that teenaged girls watch my videos. Just teenaged girls. No males,” she answers.
I point out a video on her channel titled “Insane guy in love calls Venus (NicoNico Live)” that’s been cited in media outlets as evidence of the type of attention she is receiving. The video features a Japanese man calling into one of her live appearances and harassing her with mock insults and creepy, crazy declarations of love while Venus’s mother sits by.
“That’s Japanese humor. I was doing a Japanese live broadcast where people can call me on Skype. Japanese people are like that. It’s like a prank call,” Venus says. “He just wanted to impress me. It was just a joke and some western people might not understand but he’s also a well-known broadcaster in that community, and he made a prank call and all viewers knew who it was, and there were other prank calls too. People start singing or making weird noises or pretending to be a woman, but that’s just for fun, not reality. I’m not sick or something. They just want to impress or see the reaction. How will she react if I start singing a random a song instead of saying, ‘Hey, how are you?'”
It’s sometimes difficult to delineate between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy in regard to Venus. Her voice is high and squeaky even for a teenaged girl, and she seems to speak with a Japanese accent, even though she has never lived in Japan. In the past, her and her mother have chalked the accent up to her Swiss-Hungarian-Austrian ancestry, her being born and raised in Switzerland, and then living in Spain and England, and finally, her ability to speak 5 languages; English, German, Spanish, Swiss French, and Japanese. Still, it’s puzzling to me that any European concoction could coincidentally produce what sounds like a Japanese-English impression, so I ask her whether her voice or accent is affected in any way.
“What’s your voice kind of like? Do you change it? Do you make it deeper?” she retorts. I answer, “No,” and I propose to her that she might perhaps be changing her voice for her public persona, which wouldn’t make her the only one.
“But I never saw a talking doll, and I don’t want to see a talking doll so I don’t know how dolls talk. I’m just being myself and dressing how I want,” she says.
Venus is often defiantly matter-of-fact, a trait she shares with her mom. Some have raised their eyebrows at that quality, a quality that may be construed as more delusion than defiance, but that doesn’t bother Venus, nor does any of the criticism directed at her.
“Why should it get to me? It’s just a waste of time writing me, ‘Hey, you’re stupid and ugly. I don’t like you. I’ll unsubscribe.’ Why should I care? Why should I care for stupid people? They just do it online, they don’t do it in real life,” Venus says. “There are no real life haters.”
“I think my biggest role model is my mom because she’s very talented and kind. I like my mommy,” is Venus’s answer when I ask her who her role models are. The language of her answer is childlike in a way that most 15-year-olds’ answers are not; it isn’t necessarily arrested development but rather an enthrallment with the Japanese kawaii culture introduced to her by her mom.
“My mom actually raised me Japanese. We slept on a futon, and she cooked Japanese. We also went to Japan twice, and I was really interested in anime. I was really interested in Japan and found out and researched about their subcultures, and I discovered their doll stuff, and it really attracted me,” Venus says.
Explaining the origin of her own love affair with Japanese culture, Margaret says, “Actually, when I was in the university, I was 19 and my physics teacher told us that he lived 3 years in Japan and that he would give us free Japanese lessons. That was the first time I heard about it.” She continues, “Of course, then I studied and he told us lots of stories of how he lived there and about the mentality. My interest was there and the more I learned about Japan, the more interested I became in the food and everything. Then finally, I visited Japan twice and it just grew.”
The interview is winding down, and after sometimes strange, defensive, and contentious turns of answers from Margaret and Venus (including a bizarre episode from Margaret concerning bullying that I was asked to omit before publication for legal reasons), I ask Margaret how she supports her daughter in what she’s doing.
“I was, for instance, worried a little bit when she told me that she wants to do YouTube videos. I didn’t allow her for maybe 5 months but she kept asking, nicely of course. Finally, after 5 months, almost half a year, I allowed her to make YouTube videos. I told her, ‘OK, but show me everything you upload because what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet forever. You might think it’s good, but I might see it with a different eye just because I’m older. Many people think that you have to force things in supporting. Many people don’t realize that I support her in her own way. She made YouTube videos, many people liked them, fine. I don’t have to force that, but in this situation when people are coming and interested like you calling me now, then I have to look for a solution. So she goes to management because of all the inquiries and all of these things. Someone who knows how to handle it and has a company will handle these things very well. She will tell me what she would like to do, and I will support her in that.”
Being Venus Angelic is what her daughter wants to do, and that is exactly what she’s doing now, for better or worse. I ask Venus what she has in store for the future, and she says, “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”