Profile Editor William Milne talks to YouTuber and model Jim Chapman about his nostalgia for the past, his creative instincts and drive, and how he remains humble.
A few weeks ago, when I met Jim Chapman after his appearance at the Durham Union, he came across as a thoroughly decent, grounded, and self-aware man who stands in stark contrast to the inflated egos that so often dominate social media and our world more generally.
Chapman’s influence on a generation of teenagers dawned on me when I saw the number of people who’d recognize him and ask for selfies, when he went on a very fun post-event trip to Osbourne’s with me and a few Durham Union members. Chapman brings back a wave of nostalgia for these university students, since he was one of the ‘original’ YouTubers. He is perhaps best known as part of the ‘Brit Crew’ YouTube group, featuring the likes of Zoella, Joe Sugg, Alfie Deyes and Caspar Lee. As part of this group, Chapman and others heralded a new era for video making in which creators would post wholesome content which enabled millions of viewers to become deeply invested in their lives.
Viewers would build connections with creators like Chapman, to the extent that he become almost like an extra family member, and, in reverse, they would become his extended family, invested in his personal life, such as his marriage with fellow Brit Crew member Tanya Burr, something he termed an “online marriage” during his Durham Union appearance. This marriage has since ended, and Chapman is married to Sarah Tarleton. They have two young children, Margot and Jesse, who are central to his world, and he strives to be a good, caring father, having grown up with an emotionally abusive father who was the precise image of how not to be a father.
During an online call a few weeks after his Durham visit, Chapman revealed to me that he regularly gets told by fans how integral he was to their development as young people (the majority of his fans were teenagers during his peak of success around a decade ago). In fact, Chapman tells me that “I’ve had people tell me… I was really feeling terrible and feeling very low and was thinking about taking my own life and it was me and people like me who helped get them through. And that’s the most amazing thing to hear, right?” As someone who was never the biggest YouTube nerd, this does sound a little confusing, but on reflection, it makes sense. If you’re watching someone on YouTube on a regular basis, they become your friend and your form of escapism from all the problems in the world.
Despite how well-known he became, garnering around 6.5 million followers across all platforms, Chapman downplays his talent and importance, emphasizing that he was very just very lucky. “I have a theory that I hit it right place right time and I was the right guy to then knuckle down and make it into a thing.” He consciously strives to shake off any unnecessary sense of self-importance, highlighting that “it’s really important for me to realise that I’m not the centre of the universe”. He thinks that nowadays influencers often fall into the trap of believing themselves to be the at the center of the world, only to be given a brutal reality check when they fall out of relevance and into the normal world and must do a normal job. For Chapman, “one of the things that I find most satisfying is how little I matter”. The world does not revolve around him, and, for him, this a refreshing thought that reduces unnecessary pressure.
I hit it right place, right time and I was the right guy to then knuckle down and make it into a thing
However much Chapman emphasises how lucky he was, it is undeniable that at the heart of Chapman’s career has been a determined and constant quest to satisfy his creative instincts, instincts that run in his family, since all three of his siblings have also pursued successful careers on the Internet. He constantly has to be doing something, or making something, he tells me, because he thinks “in words and shapes;” he doesn’t ‘think in numbers.” Chapman went into the world of video making because “it was just a creative outlet and nothing more. I had no idea that it was going to make any money and become what it became.”
“I get bored easily, I always like new challenges, I also have discovered about myself that I quite like progressing,” hence why Chapman has diversified. Once he got bored of purely making YouTube content, he became a hugely successful model, working with brands like Burberry, Mulberry and Bally, being granted the honour of Britain’s Best-Dressed Man by GQ in 2015. He also likes to write screenplays and he is in the process of writing a children’s book which will feature his own illustrations.
Chapman says he is “nostalgic for when I first started where the internet back then was a really lovely place”, and that “at the beginning, it was all really positive. You’d really struggle to find much hate, much negativity. For me, there was a group of about ten of us. You’d really struggle to find much negativity. I actually think that in a way there is less support now, because as the internet has got older and uglier and more quick to anger… [people] get in trouble for it [mistakes].” Chapman criticizes the unforgiving nature of the internet nowadays, suggesting that in today’s climate, he would not have gotten away with the small mistakes he made years ago as a young creator. “Even back then, it felt like a nicer, more constructive place… if I had done something wrong, they [his audience] would kind of set me right as opposed to just instantly attack.” Chapman does not advocate for a free-for-all environment in which anyone should be able to post anything without consequences, rather he says that “if you have a platform… you have to be held accountable for the platform you have and you absolutely have to uphold the best possible standards, but I think now we are very quick to point the finger,” meaning that “people are getting cancelled left right and centre”.
You absolutely have to uphold the best possible standards, but I think now we are very quick to point the finger
He also believes the internet has in many ways become a more depressing, hostile environment, especially for young people, and in his talk at Durham he mentioned how he believes it to be so important that young people maintain a rounded, creative, active lifestyle, not just glued to their devices. Inevitably, this raises questions, since Chapman has built a career off people watching him on their screens. Chapman concedes that there is an inherent contradiction here. “I have a real moral quandary about it… I am encouraging people to spend more time on their phones, and I struggle with that, because, as a whole, social media doesn’t do people’s mental health much good.” Instead, Chapman seeks to ensure that his area of the internet, his content, is wholesome and positive, “the best I can do is create content that is at least positive and makes people happy”.
Watching an interview Chapman did with Steven Bartlett a couple years ago, Chapman mentioned how he prides himself on being nice. He tells me that he “would rather be pleasant to people. I never want someone to leave a conversation with me… or any time with me and to think ‘he was awful, he was hard work’.” Certainly, in all my interactions with him, he displayed the utmost respect. Even when he had to endure my endless (and possibly annoying!) lines of questioning in the garden at 24s, he answered thoroughly and showed an interest in my life, my goals, my degree, my opinions and so on. He has discovered that “it takes more effort to be an arsehole, than it does just to be nice”.
Admittedly, I was never a Jim Chapman, or Brit Crew, fan, so I did not really know what to expect when I first met him. I was sceptical, because I did not know if he’d be just another standard, bland influencer that we see so often these days. But he provided me with valuable insights into his life as someone who is relentlessly creative, strikingly down-to-earth, and clearly very wise. He has seen it all, he has seen the fame, and the subsequent drop in ‘relevance’ on YouTube, and it has helped make the person he is today.
Image: Jim Chapman