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I couldn’t tell you how—or where or when—I first started watching Claudia Sulewski online, but I do know that, for the longest time, I kept it a secret. It wasn’t that Sulewski was doing anything particularly nefarious; on the contrary, since she started posting YouTube videos in November 2009, you could categorize Sulewski’s corner of the internet as one of its more positive neighborhoods. But back in the early 2010s, when I must’ve stumbled upon her burgeoning lifestyle channel, YouTube content creation was still in its infancy. There were no Emma Chamberlains transitioning from YouTube star to Met Gala host; I didn’t even have an Instagram yet. So I watched Sulewski and the other creators I loved in private, mesmerized as they showed off their clothing hauls and their favorite makeup products—unaware that what I was really watching was a new crop of celebrities, forming slowly but surely, one upload at a time.
“It really started with this love for filmmaking,” Sulewski tells ELLE.com, thinking back to those early days on the platform. It’s a summer Friday, and she’s talking on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, a sunny, colorful space where she lives with her dog, Peaches, and her boyfriend, the Grammy-winning musician Finneas O’Connell, who also happens to be Billie Eilish’s brother and main collaborator. (Their home has been well-documented—but not too documented—on Sulewski’s channel.) We’re chatting because Sulewski, who’s already racked up nearly 2.5 million YouTube subscribers and two million Instagram followers in her years online, is being introduced to an entirely new audience. She’s starring as Becca in the new film I Love My Dad, which arrived in theaters Aug. 5, written and directed by James Morosini and starring Morosini, Patton Oswalt, and Rachel Dratch. The movie is based on Morosini’s incredible real-life experience, in which his estranged dad, looking to reconnect, catfished him by posing as a pretty girl online. Naturally, Sulewski is playing the girl, her first role in a major film.
It’s a dream come true for Sulewski, 26, who started all of this back when she was just 13-years-old, living in the suburbs of Chicago and fascinated with shooting and editing videos. Around the same time, a wave of beauty creators had burst onto the scene—young women and girls, like Michelle Phan and sisters Blair and Elle Fowler, were filming themselves in their bedrooms, hauling Forever 21 dresses or reviewing MAC eyeshadow, and uploading their videos to YouTube. “I looked up to the connection they seemed to form with their audience,” Sulewski says. “I thought, well, I love the tech side of all of this, and beauty and fashion is also definitely an interest of mine. Watching their videos helped pave this path and vision for where I thought I could place myself in this digital world.” She took inspiration and ran with it. (A true sign of the times, her original username was BeyondBeautyStar, a likely nod to Blair’s, Juicystar07.) “For whatever reason, I took YouTube so seriously,” Sulewski remembers. “That consistency and drive was what allowed me to turn it into something much bigger.” Over the years, as more companies have taken notice of YouTubers’ power and influence, “much bigger” has included a hosting gig with Teen Vogue, a clothing line with Nordstrom, her own Wildflower phone case, and a smattering of acting gigs. “I’m grateful for that little girl.”
Recently, Sulewski’s videos, which typically garner hundreds of thousands of views each, have featured intimate yet aspirational snippets of her day-to-day life, all creatively edited together in her signature style. Over the course of one video, she might celebrate her dog’s birthday, discuss her journey with therapy, and give a glimpse into a date night at Nobu. But despite Sulewski’s runaway success, she’s always had her sights set beyond YouTube. She moved to Los Angeles in 2014 and told her subscribers that she had dreams of becoming an actor. “I remember feeling like, okay, I understand I’m coming from such a different world, so how can I approach this in a really thoughtful way?” she says. Because of that, her acting career has “taken a bit of time,” she explains, as she’s worked to take classes and do coaching between the other projects she’s booked. “In so many ways, I feel like I Love My Dad landed at the perfect place and time for me to put all of the knowledge and practice and dump it into one project.” Though in reality, I Love My Dad didn’t land as much as it crashed into Sulewski’s life. After going through a fairly standard audition process, she was out to breakfast one morning when she got a call from Morosini “guns blazing,” she recounts. “‘Claudia, are you free to start this next week?’ I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, who is this?’ He’s like, ‘James, from I Love My Dad.’ I was so in shock I asked if it was for a different role.” The next morning at 10 a.m. she left for Syracuse, New York, to start filming.
In the movie, Sulewski is actually playing two characters: the real-life Becca, who works at a diner and meets Oswalt’s Chuck when he comes in one day for coffee, and catfish Becca, who looks just like real Becca but is speaking all the words that Chuck is typing out to his son, Franklin (Morosini), via Facebook or text. The whole movie walks a fine line—and the result could easily become cringey—but instead, the cast keeps the film feeling playful and high-stakes. Because Becca only materializes whenever Franklin is on his phone, Sulewski seems to apparate throughout scenes, popping up within a grocery store freezer or on a rooftop. “I had a lot of fun imagining this conscious being that suddenly appeared out of nowhere because of Franklin,” she says. “I really leaned into that when I thought about the physicality and the facial expressions of imaginary Becca. I wanted her to feel light on her toes…like she’s almost unaware of anything bad in the world.” She also wanted the difference between imaginary Becca and real Becca to be stark and obvious. I tell Sulewski that it was interesting to watch her play a girl who is, in a lot of ways, larger than life—the same way she is to a lot of her fans who have only known her via the internet. “There was so much about imaginary Becca that reminded me of pieces of myself on YouTube,” she says. “I think that’s just maybe the awareness of being seen.”
“I get to surrender my control and my power over to all of these other people. That is something that’s still new to me.”
It’s a rich well to draw from, even though, logistically, being on a movie set is almost the complete opposite of filming YouTube content. For her own videos, Sulewski is in charge of every aspect of production, from the lighting to the direction to what music gets to play in the background. On a project like I Love My Dad, she has to let go. “For that reason, acting is so exciting,” she says. “I get to surrender my control and my power over to all of these other people. That is something that’s still new to me.” (She recalls a moment when she first started acting, and she moved a piece of tape on set instead of waiting for the crew. She was told in short: thank you, but no worries; that’s not your job.) But that doesn’t mean she’s left her creator tendencies behind. “One of the most exciting parts about the process of I Love My Dad was James and I would talk about shots all the time. There are certain shots in the film where I’ve hinted or maybe thought, what if my foot just appeared in the shot? I should be walking on the counter. It was so fun to feel heard and seen with those smaller ideas…Bless James’ heart for entertaining all of it.”
This is perhaps the biggest difference between Sulewski and Becca, aside from the whole catfishing debacle. While Sulewski is, for so many of her viewers, a solidly 2-D figure who exists within the confines of their screens, she’s still firmly in the driver’s seat, deciding how and what she presents to the world. And these days, that’s shifting. In her latest YouTube video, posted on July 15, she sat down to tell her audience that she was craving a change. “There’s so much that I either can’t talk about, even just things that are happening in my personal life that I want to protect and keep private. I’ve been feeling this wave of just wanting to be so private,” she tells the camera, her voice starting to break.
She doesn’t say this in the video, but it’s worth noting that nowadays her personal life includes ultra-famous musicians and actors, presumably limiting what she can comfortably share online. But she doesn’t shy away from talking about Eilish and O’Connell or what it’s been like to have a front-row seat to their stratospheric success. “Finneas and Billie are the two hardest working people I’ve ever met,” she tells me. “The amount of creative confidence those two have, it’s such a learning lesson, just being witness to it.” O’Connell has a recording studio in their L.A. home, where Sulewski also has her office, so the two are constantly motivating each other. “The other day he was like, ‘Claudia, you’ve been talking about writing this one script idea. What are you doing tomorrow?’ I was like, well my day’s pretty clear. He’s like, ‘Well, try to get a page down.’ And it worked. Aside from who they are and what they do, just even from a relationship [or] best friend standpoint, it’s so fun to be surrounded by people you really look up to.”
As for what exactly O’Connell has been encouraging her to do, Sulewski can’t say much. She reveals that she’s dabbling in writing her own projects and self-funding a completely separate venture—and she still hopes to be both in front of and behind the camera. “I have never been prouder of anything else in my life,” she says about I Love My Dad. “I feel just so giddy. It’s very surreal.”
“I hope that my viewers enjoy it,” Sulewski adds, tying her two worlds back together. “They’re so used to seeing me on a computer screen, and this is entirely different. It’s not me. It’s a character. So I’m a little curious to see how that plays out.”
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.