This article first appeared in Attitude issue 282, May 2017.
Words: Dylan Jones
Photography: Leigh Keily
A rainy Friday night in East London. Ubers stop outside nightclubs in Dalston and Hackney, as drag queens and fashion students spill out of kebab shops. In a plush suite in the sleek Andaz hotel, the air is thick with the scent of Chanel.
A bluetooth speaker sits on a side table, burbling out Madonna’s greatest hits. There’s a crash and a scream from the bathroom. “Oh my God, is she OK?” someone yells. A photographer rushes past as stylists flit back and forth to a clothes rail that’s groaning under the weight of a dozen fur coats.
We’re with social media sensation and cultural phenomenon Joanne The Scammer. Originally a niche persona created by the frenetically inspired Branden Miller, Joanne came to wider prominence around 18 months ago, when Twitter and Instagram’s younger users fell in love with her unapologetically anarchic, instantly infectious personality.
They watched with glee as she fell out of taxis in fur coats, “scammed” her way into private functions and rich white men’s bedrooms, and generally acted the way we’d all love to — if only we lived in a world where public decency and societal constraints didn’t exist.
That’s the whole genius to Joanne’s character. She represents a generation who feel lost and defiant, indignant and helpless, unhinged and discerning. She resonates with scores of young people who want to cast off a society that rewards overweight mediocrity, and knock back a fizzy, exciting shot of something fresher, faster and brighter.
From the start, her whole shtick was that she’d scam her way into the most exclusive entertainment events and profit from the proceeds. That was the joke and that was what people loved.
And that’s exactly what she’s done. In the process, Joanne has become more famous than many of the celebrities she set out to scam. Last year, she was invited to the MTV Video Music Awards and, in an event that’s gone down in industry history, screamed “iconic” during Alicia Keys’ serious speech about racial equality. It’s guerilla trolling. Fun, youthful madness at its most epic.
“I have a very distinctive voice,” she says, when quizzed about the unforgettable moment. “I was really poppin’ at the time last year, so I knew if I screamed it, and if the microphones picked it up, that it would be on Twitter.”
It was all calculated flawlessly. Now, she’s not so much got a foot in the door of the world of celebrity, as having kicked the door open, dashed down the corridor and uncorked a bottle of champagne on the sofa.
“Celebrities think I’m funny,” she says. “They look at me like a drag queen because they’re mostly straight. So when they look at somebody like me, they just look at it as a joke. Very campy. They don’t get it. I’ve had a few who get it, and who’ve told me that what I do is ‘next level’. Like Amber Rose, Blac Chyna, Solange.
“[Trans actress and model] Hari Nef told me that I break that stereotypical boundary when I’m Joanne. It’s not like watching someone in drag. It’s hard to explain. I’m not a drag queen. I look at myself as more of an actor.”
Celebrity culture is something that clearly plays on Joanne’s mind. She’s self-conscious when the issue’s brought up and discusses it with the authority of someone with a doctorate in the subject.
“I wouldn’t be here if it was 2008,” she says bluntly. “That was the age of people like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Everyone was anorexic. Everyone was obsessed with the tabloid magazines.
“If you were famous, you were mainly talked about in the magazines.
“And they do still do that. The paparazzi still go out and capture celebrities. But it’s not as big as it was. I remember Britney shaving her head, and that was a huge thing.
“The internet was already pretty big then, but it was mainly about magazines. Now everything is so internet-based. That’s where I come in. Because what I do, and how I was founded, was from the internet.”
Despite the majority of Joanne’s content seeming to spring from a superficial hedonism, some of it does carry a deeper message. She often addresses the race/class divide, with the character breaking into “caucasian houses” or talking about living her “caucasian life.” It gives her persona a political slant.
“I didn’t want to do that at first. It just kind of happened because of the president, and stuff like that.”
Still talking about Trump’s impact, she adds: “People are devastated, especially the gay community. “I’m gay and black. And I live in Florida, which is a really racist place to be. In LA, you have a lot of different cultures. It’s like a melting pot of different races.
“But Florida is mainly white/black, at least where I live. So, if you’re gay and black living where I live, it’s not a good time.”
Joanne’s attitude fluctuates between flippant and defiant, and an anger flashes behind her eyes.
“I’ve been on a women’s activist march. I didn’t even really promote it, I just went. And I think in that way, I’ve stood up against him. And I’ll continue to do so.”
Although she has a fairly laissez-faire attitude towards politics, people such as Joanne The Scammer represent hope for America’s youth by their very existence.
Seeing clips of her climbing garden fences in a ballgown or screeching down freeways in red convertibles, is exactly the sort of tonic young isolated kids need to feel inspired and defiant. In a way, she’s a living protest. And the message is loud and clear: be yourself, and fuck what anyone else thinks.
We move on to talking about the minefield of social media and how she’s navigated it with such seemingly natural assuredness. Twitter and Instagram have claimed reputations, careers and, in extreme cases, lives. It’s a particularly Orwellian aspect of today’s online climate. Put one foot wrong and you’re over. Blocked. Unfollowed. Deleted.
“I take the personal out of it,” she says languidly. “Azealia Banks, and a lot of people on the internet, will tweet like: ‘Oh, today’s a boring day’ or ‘oh, I farted!’ It’s so personal that there’s nothing really to like.
“We don’t want to know what you’re doing throughout your day. Unless you’re Cher, then it’s funny. So I always stay in character.
“I learned from the internet; what they liked and what they didn’t like. I catered to them piece by piece, and after a year had gone by, I had this whole character.
“And I only post interesting stuff. It’s always entertaining.”
Despite her confidence, it’s not all been plain sailing. As with many people who come into the public eye, some skeletons were found at the back of her closet — most notably, Joanne’s past in the adult entertainment industry. But she brushes that off with a dismissive shrug.
“Sometimes people judge me for it but I don’t care.”
But there was another incident that struck closer to home: when an old video was dug up and used as ammunition to brand her transphobic.
“People think that,” she frowns, a glimmer of vulnerability showing for the first time, “because of me playing the character Joanne, who’s a woman, and then being able to come out of that as a man. And from something I said in a video.
“I was doing a video as Miss Prada, before Joanne The Scammer. Straight people have always attacked me, and one guy called me “a tranny”. So I quoted him and I compared myself to my character. And it all got strange when I blew up as Joanne The Scammer. That’s when all this shit came out. People totally took it out of context.”
It’s a stark reminder of how the internet, and its millions of faceless users, can turn swiftly — even against someone as seemingly untouchable and respected as Joanne The Scammer.
We delve deeper into the psychology of Joanne as a persona, and Branden’s relationship with gender.
“I remember when my dad died, I ran away from myself. I dressed as a woman for six to eight months. Constantly. I lived as a woman. It was who I was at that point. My name was Victoria. I ran away from my house, and me and a friend went homeless. I just wanted to be not me.
“I didn’t call it being a woman, I called it being genderless. Even though my nuts were down my legs, I was genderless.
“I wouldn’t say I’m trans. But I know how it feels to be treated like a transgender person. So, that’s why it hurts when people call me transphobic. Because I can relate — and I have related.
“I don’t get in my character to belittle trans people. I get talked about like a trans person by the straight community. I wouldn’t put myself through all that just to make fun of a trans person.”
We finish by addressing how she got to where she is today. In under two years, Branden Miller, an unknown boy from Virginia, now 25, became one of the most influential people in cyberspace.
“I was absolutely fearless,” she shrugs. “I didn’t care what anybody had to say. I still get hate. A lot of hate. Which can be uninspiring for your creativity.
“But it’s best to stay original because when you’re original, it speaks loud.
“It doesn’t matter what people think. People think I’m transphobic, people think I’m racist, people think I’m all these negative things. But I’m only here to make people laugh.
“I don’t listen to the bullshit and I battle through.”