YouTube Pioneer Zoë Sugg Discusses How Growing Up Online Affected Her

As World Mental Health Day approaches, Lucie Cave speaks to Zoë Sugg about her life on YouTube and her mental health.


by Lucie Cave |
Updated on

On 26 november 2009, 19-year-old Zoë Sugg uploaded her first video to YouTube. She filmed a day in her life for six minutes and it got 410 likes. Ten years on, with a social media following of 38 million and a business empire worth an estimated £4 million, Zoë is sitting with Grazia in a sunlit studio in her hometown of Brighton, reflecting on the decade she’s grown up in public. ‘You don’t realise how much you change as a person in 10 years, so to go back and actually see that change is both magical and a bit cringe,’ she reflects.

Despite looking about 16, Zoë turns 30 next year and is mulling over her next milestone. ‘I was panicking about turning 30 and doubting everything I’d achieved, but now I’m excited because everyone says that 30 is the best year. So bring it on!’

It is perhaps ironic that she sees her best years as ahead of her, given the meteoric rise of the young woman once known as Zoella. When she first started her online journey, she was working as an apprentice at an interior design company, near her parents’ house in Wiltshire. Her first posts reviewed products bought at car-boot sales, Primark and Superdrug, and before long her vlogs were bringing in thousands of views.

Now, the business has its own beauty range and lifestyle products and her novel, Girl Online, sold more copies in its first week than any debut author in history. Her father, who had initially suggested she find a ‘proper job’, presumably now thinks differently.

As a YouTube pioneer, though, Zoë was also one of the first to experience the claustrophobic heights of this crazy new era of internet fandom. She had to learn to navigate boundaries for herself. ‘It was overwhelming,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice because it was such a new concept. I had nobody telling me to make sure you buy the photos that the estate agents take of your house because otherwise they’ll end up in the papers! It was an emotional roller coaster. There were times when I thought – am I cut out for this?

'It was an emotional roller coaster. There were times when I thought – am I cut out for this.'

When she started dating fellow YouTube star Alfie Deyes, in 2012, the fan scrutiny intensified to One Direction levels of obsessiveness. ‘It was all-consuming,’ she remembers. ‘People worked out where we lived. We had to keep the blinds shut because we didn’t know how to deal with it. It was like living in a goldfish bowl.'

Seven years on, the couple are still together (‘It’s one of those things that makes you stronger or breaks you... and it made us stronger,’ says Zoë) and have established firm boundaries. Kissing on camera, for example, is one of the things they say they’ll never show to their fans. ‘Still, there are things Alfie has filmed and I’ve gone, “Do not put that in, I look hideous!”,’ she recalls, before confessing that there have also been some slip-ups. ‘Once I was in bed with my pyjama top on, and I leaned forward and everyone in the comments was saying, “You can see a bit of Zoë’s nipple at 3.02!” I was like, “Great, free the nip!” Alfie was very apologetic and said he hadn’t noticed, so I forgave him.

Still, Zoë has been willing to let the camera into private moments when it’s for a good cause. Last month, she live-streamed a smear test after learning from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust that cervical screenings had dropped to the lowest number in 19 years. ‘The response was amazing, so many people shared it. One said, “I’m 38 and I’ve just booked my first smear test” – which was the exact thing I wanted.’

It’s not the first time Zoë’s caused a national ripple of positive influencer-effect. A trailblazer for public figures opening up about mental health issues, her ‘Dealing With Panic Attacks And Anxiety’ YouTube video in 2012 has been watched over 4.3m times. ‘It looked like I had this perfect life but I wanted people to know the whole picture. I wanted to say, “Sometimes I struggle – that time you saw me on stage I was crying two minutes beforehand.'

To mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Zoë has decided to open up again. ‘My mental health is nowhere like it was 10 years ago, but I still have days where I wake up and feel anxious.’ Zoë is keen to explain that she rarely has panic attacks any more, but that’s because she’s learned to read the signs of anxiety. ‘I sometimes have an overwhelming feeling of, “I can’t be here and I can’t be doing this,’ she confides.

She says one such moment happened while watching her brother Joe Sugg’s debut in West End musical T__he Waitress. ‘All of a sudden, I got this overwhelming feeling of 'You need to leave now,' and I thought, 'I can’t be that sister who legs it before my brother walks out on stage!’ She credits her regular therapy sessions and ‘having worked on this for a long time’ for being able to pull herself out of the moment. ‘I’ve been taught to know when it’s happening, why, and what I can do to make myself feel better,’ she says. ‘So I kept reminding myself – “I want to be here, so feeling like I need to leave isn’t real.” But years ago, I would 100% have left.’

In August 2018 she told fans she needed a break, after feeling ‘overwhelmed and physically and mentally broken’. Today, she tells Grazia, ‘Sometimes, I get so consumed in everything I’m doing I don’t prioritise myself as much as I should – that’s something I always advocate as there’s only one of yourself, so look after you. I took a step back. I refocused; it was a realignment.’

'It makes you stronger or breaks you...and it made us stronger.'

In support of Grazia’s Where’s Your Head At? campaign, Zoë champions parity between the treatment of mental and physical health at work. ‘It would be incredible if more employers were open to mental health. It would be so great if people could say to their boss, “I’ve not broken a leg but I need a sick day for my mind.” When I worked in previous jobs I would have loved to feel comfortable enough to say, 'I’m struggling.’

As someone who has worked hard on her mental health, how does she cope with trolls? ‘Sometimes I laugh it off and sometimes I read one tiny thing that will stay with me. Whether it’s positive or negative, it goes into a filing cabinet in your mind; it’s there forever. I always think I’m not going to talk about [trolls] so I don’t give them fire, but if you don’t talk about it, it makes it worse.

Over the last few months, Zoë has been consulting with the Government on regulations to make the internet a safer space. ‘Something definitely needs to be done. I’ve had regular meetings with different social media networks to ask if they can change anything.’ But she worries that while ‘lots of people want to make a change’, she’s not convinced there will be anything robust put in place anytime soon. ‘It’s a huge grey area as each social media site has its own rules. I wish there was an answer but it seems nobody has one right now.’ Still, Zoë is resolute that something needs to be done. ‘A lot of the people following me are struggling. There are people growing up online now, that’s all they have known, and I don’t know what effect it will have on them.

The future’s taken on more pertinence of late, given that she hopes to start a family. ‘I don’t know what we’ll feel like or what the internet will be like when we have kids,’ she ponders. But while Alfie has ruled out putting his kids on screen, she’s not so sure. ‘I can’t imagine not sharing as much as I share, after having done it for so long. No cameras in the delivery room, though.'

Zoe is a digital ambassador for MIND. Join us in a ‘social media blackout’ between 1-2pm on World Mental Health Day (10 October). To find out how and to support our campaign for equal treatment of mental and physical health, go to To learn more about how to look after your mental health and create your own action plan, search Every Mind Matters.

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