Photography by Luke Fontana | Groomer: Ananda Tuyes
YouTube superstar Todrick Hall (a.k.a. Toddy Rockstar, a.k.a. Quing Toddy) is as meta as they come, a love child of pop culture and the American dream -- both of which he inverts and gloriously mutates into something entirely new. His massively popular videos (the views for many average in the millions) are splendid Technicolor musical mash-ups involving, as he says, "song and dance and costumes -- and a whole lot of wigs." Their content is satirical, nostalgic, and surreal in a way that feels fresh, with Hall channeling the wry, knowing humor of the hashtag generation.
"I look for inspiration everywhere I go," explains the L.A.-based performer, days before he'll embark on his second tour, ToddlerZ Ball, which will include several dates in the U.K. "I'll be driving and see a billboard, or be thinking about movies I loved as a kid, and then decide to riff on it. There is no rhyme or reason. A whole video can be inspired by a pair of shoes."
Hall worships at the altar of mass media while thumbing a nose at it. His work is both punk parody and reverent homage: Disney icons translated into queer-kitsch mascots (e.g., Cinderonce, Mickey Minaj); films like Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games recast as statements on gender, race, and feminism.
Yet his cheaply produced, high-concept pieces always have a heart. In the musical spoof "Mean Gurlz," the narrative of Mean Girls is tweaked so that the heroine is a white girl in a black school. The clip is stocked with jokes about sluts, nerds, fat kids, and hair weaves, but the ribbing is always gentle and goofy. The acting is freewheeling, the tunes catchy, the writing sharp, the wigs terrible. It's all just too silly to offend. If Todrick were a court jester, he'd be forgiven for sticking his tongue out at anyone -- even the king.
"When I was growing up, I don't think parents would have brought their kids to see some crazy black man singing about splitting on trees," Hall says with a laugh, referring to his "#SplitsOnTrees" video, in which he and a bevy of dancers, friends, and random strangers on the street do exactly that -- one leg placed on the ground, the other placed high up on the bark. On screen, the hashtag #splitsontrees is repeated with frequency. The moment is joyfully risque and nonsensical, and just one of Hall's nervy ways of announcing, "I'm strange, I'm queer, get used to it." Audiences clearly have. "These are people thinking outside the box," he says of fans that have attended his live performances, "parents bringing their kids to see an out gay man perform, exposing them to my world."
Hall grew up in Plainview, Texas, with no real access to theater. "I didn't even know Broadway existed," he says. "Then I had an aha moment and realized that, yes, you could do this for living."
Now 30, he's hitting his stride. Hall's been signed by Justin Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, and recently made Business Insider's list of the "Hottest YouTube Stars Alive" and Forbes's "30 under 30" in entertainment. He's also landed his own MTV reality series, Todrick (premiering August 31), which follows him and his crew behind the scenes as they shoot their prop-heavy, costume-filled videos, all on a dime-store budget. The result is like being backstage at a high school musical: full of tension, disappointment, and the rush of taking risks and failing.
"The show is sort of the reality version of Glee," he says. "It shows how hard it is to make these videos, how close and dedicated and willing your team has to be. We're just kids trying to make it. We let the audience see the process, and hopefully that will inspire them to make their own art."
Whether online or on TV, Hall seems committed to spreading the gospel of the outsider. And with his ToddlerZ tour, he's getting to see the believers (also called "Toddlerz") in the flesh. "On YouTube you see the views, but you don't see actual bodies," he says. "It amazes me, the response we get." He pauses, his voice cracking with emotion. "What I've found is that we fill a void for people. They share their stories with me -- their coming-out stories or how they don't fit in. The videos become a haven for them. You realize you're not just making people laugh or want to dance -- you're changing lives. And that is an awesome thing."
Todrick premieres Aug. 31 at 10 p.m./9c on MTV. Watch the trailer below: