The YouTube star and sweatpants apologist offers an irreverent guide to personal style
Grace Helbig is the first to admit she has no business writing a guide to fashion and beauty. The YouTube star is one of the most influential people on the Internet with 2.8 million subscribers to her name, but she compares her personal style to Snapchat (“silly and sloppy and edited”) and thinks sweatpants are more desirable than anything you could buy at a fancy department store. “When it comes down to it, ‘style’ is just a simple way of saying ‘I showered,’” she writes on the back of her second book, Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It, out Feb. 2.
But the comedian and actress doesn’t have any contempt for the industry—she’s no stranger to spending hours hours tumbling down the YouTube beauty-guru rabbit hole. She just thinks that world could lighten up a little. “It’s a very personal subject to people—the way you look is huge,” she tells TIME. “The fashion and style industry takes itself so seriously that you wonder, ‘What happens when we stop being so serious about this?’ What would the conversation look like then, and how can we enjoy it?”
Below, TIME caught up with Helbig to chat about learning to have fun with fashion, what she learned from America’s Next Top Model and how we’re all going to die one day. (No, really.)
TIME: You open the book with an unexpected note about struggling with an eating disorder when you were younger. How did you decide to open up about that experience?
Grace Helbig: When I was writing the book, I was having a really difficult time figuring out what angle to take on this concept of style, and I realized it’s because it’s a very personal subject to people—the way you look is huge. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had struggled through issues with body image for so long. I felt like I would be lying to my friends, these people who have watched my videos for years, if I wasn’t very honest about my struggle with body image and my kind of therapy-through-comedy that has led me to the perspective I have now. It just felt right. For some reason, once that was written, I had a much easier time making jokes about not wearing tinfoil to work.
You joke about being a non-expert when it comes to fashion and style. How did you find a sense of authority from which you could approach these topics?
At some point we all reach that moment where it’s such a waste of energy to act as if you know things that you really don’t. It’s really kind of liberating to be okay with that. I had that epiphany with my first book [Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown Up], about how none of us really know what we’re doing. We’re all flopping meat puppets that try and exist for 100 years. There’s something so silly about how real that is. I try and bring that to everything that I do. One of the phrases I use when I’m stuck on something is, “Hey, we’re all going to die someday.” It works surprisingly well as a motivating inspirational phrase! The fashion and style industry takes itself so seriously that you wonder, “What happens when we stop being so serious about this?” What would the conversation look like then, and how can we enjoy it? We’re all going to die someday—we might as well have fun.
Do you look at serious fashion advice now and wonder if people are just making it all up?
Absolutely. As ridiculous as I think the fashion and beauty industry is, I’m wildly obsessed with it. I can’t get rid of my girl. I want to know everything about clothes and new products and designers. But there’s something so not fitting for myself to take it seriously. This is why I can’t go to runway shows—I think I would be giggling out loud a lot.
It was really fun shooting photos for the book with my friend Robin Roemer, who’s the photographer, because it was just us dicking around and doing overly abstract model poses. But when we were flipping through all these reference magazines around us, it looked exactly like the poses in the magazine. We were crying laughing by the end of the day, because if you really take the time to look through all these Prada, Michael Kors and Chanel ads, they’re the most absurdly ridiculous thing I can imagine. Just think about all the people who had to work on the shoot, like the P.A. that had to be there watching this girl bend over backwards with heels on her hands to sell a perfume! I respect models so much.
Were you a fan of America’s Next Top Model? One of the poses you strike in this book reminds me a lot of Tyra Banks’ modeling advice.
Oooh yes. I watched the first few seasons [before] it got away from me. I always thought Tyra Banks has to know how ridiculous the modeling industry is. She’s been through the wringer of it, she’s a savvy businesswoman and she got rewarded for it: the moments where she was over-the-top passionate about the poses and the ridiculous of it all is the stuff that circulates on the Internet the most.
I remember seeing one episode where these girls got sent to South America to do this picturesque photoshoot, and they dressed them as birds and had them sit in these giant human nests in the middle of the rainforest. It was just so absurd, and they were crying about how wonderful it was to reach this moment in their lives. They wearing tiny beaks on their faces. I remember laughing so hard at it.
The tip you reminded me of was her “Act like a ho, but make it fashion” speech. Are you familiar?
Yes! I tried to smize. My go-to pose is always the Kate Moss “put two hands on your hips and bend forward like you have scoliosis” pose.
How would you describe your relationship with sweatpants? You come to their defense in this book in a way that pop culture and the fashion world rarely do.
I realize I’ve had this spirit-animal relationship with sweatpants. In a past life, I probably was a pair of sweatpants. There’s something beautifully simple but highly underestimated about them. They’re like the white trash of the fashion world. It’s interesting that sweatpants are currently kind of trendy. Stores like Banana Republic and Gap have these “jogger” pants that are basically just elastic waistband pants, but you can’t fool me—they’re sweatpants. They’re trying to make them appropriate for work situations and for anytime you leave your house. As someone who’s been working from home for the past six or seven years, sweatpants have become a staple in my work wardrobe. I really wanted to give them their time.
You also wrote a chapter about work attire. Do you ever fantasize about what you’d wear to a 9-5 desk job?
Oh yeah! When I graduated college, I worked for MTV in project management, so I worked in an office. I learned that offices and I do not have a good relationship, but before that, I remember going to New York & Company, which is like a lady business-clothing store, and buying a bunch of business clothes. I remember wearing them to work and feeling so uncomfortable because I didn’t know how they should fit me. Sometimes I do fantasize: what would it be like if every morning I woke up and ironed a button down and wore heels? What would that life be like? And then I look at sweatpants and I’m like, oh, that’s my calling.
I used to work with someone who joked that recent trends in womenswear allowed her to come to the office in what were essentially just professional-looking pajamas.
Right? I feel bad for men because you guys have such limited options. That is the funny thing about female clothing now. I have lots of jumpsuits that I’ve worn to events that are straight-up pajamas, but because they’re certain colors or fabrics people are like, “Woah that’s very fashionable.” Like, no, I could fall asleep on a couch in this.
While putting this book together, were you ever concerned about getting so deep into the fashion world that you’d become a Zoolander character?
In terms of getting sucked into the fashion industry, oh yeah. My bigger issue is that the beauty-guru side of YouTube has my calling card. They have me in shackles. I’m fascinated with watching these really sweet and intelligent women talking about doing smokey eyes and making cheaper versions of pillows they saw on Pinterest. I watch hours of it. That’s when I have to check myself and be like, “Grace Helbig, you should walk away from your computer and go outside and smell air for a second.”
When I’m introducing people to your channel, one of the first videos I send them is the one where you have a gastrointestinal crisis at Target. Do you ever worry about oversharing?
It’s funny, I talk about this with my other friends who are content creators, and there’s always an immediate wave of embarrassment that floods you when someone mentions something you did online. When you make videos by yourself in your home, you lose the perspective that it’s readily available online to everyone. Even when my parents are like, “We saw that you went to Michaels last week,” you’re like, “How’d you see that?” They’re like, “You recorded yourself doing it and put it on the Internet.” Oh right—that’s available to you.
The Internet rewards transparency and honesty in ways that you don’t see with traditional media personalities. There are a lot of daily vloggers who showcase everything that they do, and it’s fascinating. I watch those videos, but myself, I’m a pretty private person. It’s always been important for me to be a real human being and share personal moments like pants-sh—ing stories but then make sure I have a life that exists offline for myself. With the amount of documentation that can happen 24 hours a day, it can be hard, but it’s also very healthy.
With your E! show last year, you were one of the first YouTube stars to make the jump to TV. What was most challenging about moving from a very unconventional media space to one of the most traditional?
There is this moment where you realize, oh, people have these patterns of consuming content on the Internet, and it is difficult to get an audience to television. Some people do it very successfully. But even with James Corden and Jimmy Fallon, some of the biggest viewership comes from clips they put online the day after the show.
The show was a really fun experiment, and that’s been the course of my career in entertainment over the last seven or eight years: throw these creative strands of spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks. E! was really wonderful about giving me creative freedom to test the waters and see what works. It is such a new territory of, “What defines a TV show?” Is it the box in the house that you watch it on? Is it the format of the thing itself? Is it the length of time it exists for? We just wanted to create something that we would want to watch if we didn’t make it, which is my M.O. for everything that I make. Would I be jealous for not being a part of it? If I can say yes to that, then that’s a sign I’ve done something I’m proud of.