By Serena Kim
Once the camera lens opens, Lauren Riihimaki turns on. She calls herself a shy extrovert, but her phone’s selfie screen captures an exuberant, bubbly, warm and forthcoming personality. She gives her young followers words of inspiration and guidance. She shares her joys, like throwing a successful birthday party for her miniature Bull Terrier, Moose, and her pains, like treating anxiety and panic attacks with medication and therapy. As she said on YouTube in 2014: “I’m a very anxious, stressed and Type A person.”
Right now, she’s rattled and unhappy because she has gotten into a nasty fender-bender on the way to the KORE cover shoot. As a kid in Toronto, she had always dreamed of owning a Range Rover, and now its gleaming white paint is marred by a nasty sideswipe scratch. One can only imagine how tough it is on this chilly winter afternoon in Downtown Los Angeles to sustain a car accident, overcome her anxiety, and then put on five different outfits to look pretty and alluring for the rest of the day.
Surrounded by her concerned team, Riihimaki’s eyes mist up as she retells the story of the accident. The guy she collided with—“Face tattoos and about 45 years old, so not my demographic,” she chirps—was nice about the whole thing and even gave her a consoling hug before sending her on her way.
She collects herself and settles into her chair, soon to be completely absorbed by her phone, scrolling and texting continuously while hair and makeup artists float around her like bumblebees, perfecting her eye shadow and adding volume to her hair. After seven years of high visibility posting, Riihimaki is a consummate pro. A little car crash isn’t going to slow down YouTube’s Queen of DIY.
If you’re in middle school or high school or a member of Gen Z, you already know about LaurDIY, whom Forbes, the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine have all touted as the “Millennial Martha Stewart.” But the truth is she’s way more Lauren Conrad from “The Hills” than she is the notorious M. Diddy of Alderson’s Federal Prison Camp. With her willowy model physique, long and wavy blond hair and Coachella Festival-goer aesthetic, she’s like your school’s most popular girl on steroids. Watching her videos on YouTube feels like you’re right there in her pastel-perfect bedroom, chatting away about her first world problems and goofing around with Moose. Through LaurDIY, the multitudes of her tween-age followers (19 million across all of her platforms) gain access to a world of sun-kissed rooftop photo shoots, cute and supportive guy friends and the feeling that they belong.
“It’s so easy to mindlessly scroll through Instagram and Twitter every day, and it’s almost become a habit.” (Background painting by Young-il Ahn, Water, 1998, oil on canvas. Photo by Nolwen Cifuentes)
Riihimaki was raised in St. Catherines, Ontario, in Canada to a father of Finnish and Ukrainian descent (hence the Finnish last name) and a mother of Japanese descent. In fact, her mother’s grandparents were actually born in World War II era internment camps in British Columbia.
“Growing up, I was definitely more in touch with the Japanese side versus the Finnish and Ukrainian side,” Riihimaki says during a phone interview a few days before the shoot. “I guess my dad’s side didn’t carry too much of their culture when they came to Canada, but my Nana made some bomb Japanese food, and you know, even though no one spoke Japanese anymore, we definitely had a lot of influence from Asian culture.”
Her parents provided a safe and stable home environment for their only daughter. They went on tons of family vacations throughout Europe, Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean. Dad (Greg Riihimaki) had a steady job at GM before retiring, and Mom works in health care.
“This YouTube stuff and the entrepreneurial stuff was very foreign to us,” says Gail Riihimaki, Lauren’s mother, over the phone during her lunch break. “When we were her age, we were in very normal jobs.” Gail went on to describe one of her favorite arts-and-crafts gifts from her daughter, a wall-sized rendering of the city of Bikini Bottom from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“My mom has cute photos of me with paint all over my face,” Riihimaki adds. “I’ve always had the drive to have custom things. I had a custom backpack, custom binders, and I wanted to decorate my own shirts. I’ve always had that need to be a little bit different, and not just be super satisfied with what the mall had. So I think that’s a lot of where that came from, which is this natural creative drive.”
When Riihimaki moved to Toronto for school, she was disappointed by her graphic communications management major at Ryerson University.
“In my first year of college, I was in a program that wasn’t as creative as I had wished it could be, and so I started a blog to have something to do, to have a creative outlet. And that transitioned into a YouTube channel.” LaurDIY’s first post in 2012 shows a teenaged Riihimaki nervously explaining how she French braided her hair upside-down from the nape of her neck to create a big, messy bun in her dimly lit bedroom.
“Those early videos were really cringe-worthy,” her mom says. Subsequent posts showed her cutting up T-shirts and modeling her latest mall hauls. Each post steadily performed better, until it became obvious to the world that Riihimaki should have been the one teaching that program at Ryerson.
Before you write off Riihimaki as just another entitled millennial who is obsessed with her phone, consider the valuable service she provides for her armies of tween followers. She shows how to make aesthetically pleasing vision boards out of pictures printed from Pinterest, how to make a microwavable heating pad out of a stuffed animal and uncooked rice for those extra crampy days, and how to protect beauty blenders with plastic Easter eggs from the dollar store (brilliant!). She’s a genius at coming up with lifehacks for the teenager who wants to be original, but not too original.
Which makes her the perfect clean-cut content creator for corporate advertisers. According to an article in Forbes, LaurDIY has collaborated with companies like Fanta and Mudd Jeans. She licenses her brand to PopSockets, the adhesive circular handle that you can stick on the back of your phone to prop it up on a table or to hold it for selfies. You can buy LaurDIY brand crafting kits, jewelry, stationery, graphic T’s and beanies on her online shop. Target, Walmart and Amazon all have LaurDIY digital shops.
But even Riihimaki realizes there are limits to that always-on social media life.
“It’s so easy to mindlessly scroll through Instagram and Twitter every day, and it’s almost become a habit,” says Riihimaki. “There’s a feature on your phone that says how much time you spend on your phone, and if you go and look at that, it’s usually alarming how much time you spent on Instagram and Twitter and YouTube. I think it’s good to set aside time before you go to bed or something. Whatever feels right for the individual. I think it’s definitely important to set aside time to disconnect completely.”
In 2015, she started dating Alex Wassabi, another popular half-Asian, half-white YouTuber, and the nom de couple Laurex was born. And the two jointly produced wildly popular YouTube videos, including the sundappled travel fantasy “Wanderlust” and the parody music video “You’re Taking My Baby,” which pulled in 14 million views for Wassabi’s channel.
As her popularity grew, she found herself traveling from Toronto to L.A. more and more and ultimately living out of a suitcase. Her Canadian friends got nine-to-five office jobs and didn’t share her unpredictable content-creator schedule. She found peers with similar interests and lifestyles in Los Angeles, such as Eugene Lee Yang, one of the TryGuys, another popular YouTube outfit, Jenn Im and the Shibutani siblings, Maia and Alex. By 2016, it became clear that she would need to move to L.A. to better run her licensing business, attend important meetings and create content collabos.
In that quest to achieve popularity, more views, more clicks and more conversions, many of the top YouTubers and social media influencers say they go through a crisis where they realize that they have lost a healthy balance of public and private. And Riihimaki is no different.
“I think every YouTuber goes through some kind of experience with having to find the balance and ground themselves, and really figure out where your happiness comes from and what you need to focus on and what you can push aside, or how to time manage or what you set as a priority,” she says. “So I think it’s something you learn as you go, and so I don’t think anything can really prepare you for what YouTube kind of throws you into.”
The strains on the pair increased, and four months ago, all of those dreamy #relationshipgoals captured on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter came crashing down. But instead of keeping the breakup under wraps like most celebrity couples, Laurex came to an end in front of the computer camera.
“People definitely wanted to know because they were emotionally invested in the relationship for three years, and so they wanted to know what’s happening,” Riihimaki says. They tearfully explained that the breakup was mutual and beseeched their fans not to take sides or leave negative comments. The video got 10 million views.
“Alex and I have so much love for each other and even though we’ll be spending some time apart, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a future for us,” reads the description under the breakup video. “To be the best version of Laurex, we both need to spend some time working on ourselves and we thank you so much for understanding. I’m going to be taking a little break from YouTube, but I’ll still be around on social media. This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life, but I know Alex and I will both get through this and come out as better and stronger individuals.”
Her mom jumped on an airplane and flew across the continent to support her daughter.
“It was devastating for her at the time,” Gail says. “But she has carried on. She’s got wonderful friends in Los Angeles, wonderful support systems, and she’s a very open person. Like Asian Girl Squad, that’s a real thing. They are a really close group of girls. She pulled herself together and is really in a great place.”
Since the split, Riihimaki has sought to create more boundaries between her personal life and her public YouTube persona. “It’s one thing to go on Saturdays to a flea market, and it’s really cool to vlog. But if you have a date at night, maybe that’s something you can keep private and don’t share that online. So I think it’s about finding that healthy balance of opening up your entire, entire life, and I’ve learned a lot about that through a public breakup.”
And what type of guy is she interested in dating next?
“I’m not looking to date another YouTuber, to be completely honest,” she says. She’s just hoping her friends introduce her to “someone who is supportive, makes me laugh, empathetic, caring, driven, motivated, courteous,” and not some random guy from a dating app.
Ironically, moving to Los Angeles has actually helped Riihimaki manage her anxiety attacks and setting boundaries for her personal life.
“L.A. definitely has a chiller vibe,” she says. “Toronto is pretty fast-paced. You know, there are pockets in the city of different cultures, which is really cool. You go from Chinatown to the vintage markets in the span of three blocks. But in L.A. everything is so spread out you kind of just stay in your bubble. I think my lifestyle here is just so much more relaxed even though I’m working. It’s more relaxed and slow paced, and I’m taking care of my mental health, and taking time to prioritize my life.”
“I’m not looking to date another YouTuber, to be completely honest.” (Photo by Nolwen Cifuentes)
Back at the shoot, Riihimaki’s long day is finally winding down. She has made friends with the dog on set, nibbled on her plate from Veggie Grill, and asked her assistant to capture some moments from the shoot on her phone. She’s worked incredibly hard all day, posing on a chair, against a wall and by the pool. Every time she must wear an impossibly tight or skimpy outfit and teeter on painful shoes. But when that camera is on, she looks relaxed and glamorous.
As for the year of the pig, Riihmaki has big plans. “Last year was a big year for me launching a lot of products and growing the brand,” Riihimaki says about transitioning smoothly from being “just a YouTuber” to a brand name.
“Becoming bigger than just a face on a YouTube video is about embracing creativity, being yourself and, you know, staying positive. My audience is made up of a ton of young impressionable girls, millennials. It’s so crazy to have such a big voice to share the positives with them. Every day is social media and YouTube. So 2019 is going to be about building the brand and more product launches, and looking at what my fans want while keeping it grounded to the DIY essence of how it started.”