Siblings: Joe Sugg and his sister ‘Zoella’
To the 12 million viewers of last weekend’s Strictly final, the boyish Joe Sugg was quite a revelation – a young man whose fresh-faced good looks and disarming honesty would surely bring him a stellar career in the public eye.
In fact, no sooner had he completed the paso doble with Australian bombshell Dianne Buswell, than the 27-year-old was snapped up for a gig presenting the BBC’s New Year’s Eve concert with winner Stacey Dooley.
Yet however wholeheartedly he plays the ‘aw shucks’ newcomer, the truth about Joe Sugg is slightly more, well, nuanced.
Which is to say that the former thatcher from rural Wiltshire already has a £3 million fortune and a fan base so big it’s a mystery to some he didn’t actually win Strictly outright.
Instantly recognisable to millions of teenagers not just in Britain but around the world, Sugg is at the forefront of a new generation of YouTube stars, broadcasting daily ‘video blogs’ into children’s bedrooms and on to their iPhones.
As Britain’s teenagers already know, of course, his sister, Zoe Sugg – or Zoella – is a celebrated ‘vlogger’, too, and a millionaire in her own right.
With their ceaseless posts and never-ending stream of clips – of everything from them brushing their teeth to driving fast cars – the Suggs have already conquered the internet. No wonder friends say they hope to become the British Kardashians. So just how did Joe Sugg, an ordinary young man from an entirely unremarkable family in southern England, become one of the most powerful celebrities in the country?
The answers provide an object lesson for everyone exasperated by how much time young people today spend staring at their phones…
High notes: Joe Sugg and his sister Zoe sing Christmas songs on his YouTube channel
How it all began
In many ways, the Sugg siblings are as modern as they come, the king and queen of a new broadcast medium that few above the age of 30 can honestly claim to understand. Yet they grew up in the sleepy and very traditional Wiltshire village of Lacock, four miles from Chippenham.
Joe and Zoe attended the local primary school before going on to The Corsham School, a large state secondary three miles away. Their parents were far from flashy but were probably responsible for their children’s entrepreneurial talent.
Father Graham is a property developer and mum Tracey, a former nail technician, now designs and sells her own silver jewellery range, which has its own hallmark and has the National Trust as a major client.
Family holidays have been well-documented on social media, and pictures of Zoe and Joe on beaches and in the snow together suggest a happy, active childhood.
At some point, however, Graham and Tracey separated – a fact which is unusual in that it’s the one thing neither Zoe nor Joe ever discuss in their never-ending torrent of highly personal disclosures.
While Tracey has her own popular social media pages, on which she promotes her jewellery and her children, Graham has remained a rather more mysterious figure in the background. He makes the odd foray into Twitter – he is @DaddySugg – his face, if it appears at all, is always pixelated.
There was an early taste of showbusiness for the siblings because Lacock – famed for its quintessentially English style – has been used as the setting for Midsomer Murders, Pride And Prejudice and even scenes for the Harry Potter movies. Occasionally, the local children were asked to be extras. Both students performed well at school and it was expected they would go to university – yet neither did.
Joe, who got two A*s, an A and a B in his A-levels, preferred to work in his uncle’s roof-thatching business – and seemed serious about it. His uncle even bought him a van. Later, having achieved internet fame, he was invited by Clarence House and The Prince’s Foundation to demonstrate to Prince Charles how to thatch at the YouTube headquarters. Addressing his online audience after the event, Joe said: ‘We need to keep Britain looking old, do you know what I mean? Old-fashioned and cute!’
A famiyl affair: Joe with his mother Tracey, front, and Grandad ‘Chippy’
Zoella blazes a trail
It was Zoe who would make the first steps into internet stardom. She was just 18 in early 2009, and working as an apprentice at an interior design company when she created her blog, Zoella, writing about beauty products and diarising her own life.
Despite admitting to crippling anxiety (she once claimed she had to have someone ‘with her’ when she filmed) her success was explosive and she has become arguably one of the most popular role models of her generation – described, in fact, as ‘YouTube Royalty’.
She now has 12 million subscribers to her YouTube channel – her videos have been watched more than one billion times. She also has a second YouTube channel with nearly five million subscribers.
Millions more follow her on social media sites Instagram and Twitter.
Her attraction might seem hard to pinpoint, but Zoe has the kind of doll-like, clear skinned and clean-living beauty which teenage girls strive to emulate.
She doesn’t drink, and won’t even take paracetamol, and is disarmingly honest about her foibles and disorders. As role models go, it’s all rather inoffensive – and very, very successful. It is hard to overstate just how much influence she has – millions of young girls hang on her every word.
There was controversy over her book deal with Penguin when it emerged her 2014 debut, Girl Online, was written with the help of an ‘editorial team’ of ghostwriters. Not that it seemed to matter as it sold nearly 300,000 copies.
Before they were famous: Their dad Graham posted these snaps of the pair on bikes and on holiday
Little brother joins in
Joe’s fame arrived rather more accidentally, two years after his sister, in late 2011. He originally appeared – thanks to encouragement from his sister – in a series of prankster-style online videos made by more established vlogger friends, such as Zoella’s boyfriend Alfie Deyes.
The stunts included being slapped around the face with a wet fish, and eating tins of cat food.
Not exactly cutting edge – yet catnip to a younger generation.
Joe abandoned his outdoor life and, retreating indoors, he founded a YouTube channel called Thatcher Joe, where teenage boys could watch him pranking his housemates, accepting dares from fans and doing funny impressions. It was an astonishing success from the start, and within a year the channel had 1.6 million subscribers.
‘I just like acting like an idiot on camera and having a laugh with my friends,’ he explained.
‘And being able to share that is great.’ And lucrative.
Joe now has 5.7 million fans on Instagram – nearly three million more than Cheryl Tweedy, for example. He has 5.53 million followers on Twitter, 2.3 million Facebook likes and 8.2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Show me the money
Their parents’ generation might like to laugh at the stupefying banality of Joe and Zoe’s vlogs, yet neither seems concerned – and why should they be when the formula serves them so well?
It works like this: day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, they post a bewildering array of pictures and videos of themselves posing, gurning, chatting, singing or doing nothing whatsoever.
Many of the posts revolve around whatever sponsored freebie they have been asked to advertise – a holiday here, a beauty lotion there.
And thanks to their enormous social media followings – and huge fan base among impressionable teenagers – the pair are marketing gold. One product promotion by Joe and Zoe can translate into an enormous spike in sales and profits for brands. The Suggs are paid five-figure sums by some of the country’s biggest high street chains to include their products or branding in videos on their YouTube and Instagram pages. Some online stars are known to earn £12,000 for a single Instagram post.
In Joe’s case, fashion labels Ted Baker, Coach and Boohoo have harnessed his marketing powers, as have Nando’s and Wagamama.
Joe Sugg has a fan base so big it’s a mystery to some he didn’t actually win Strictly outright (pictured with Stacey Dooley, Ashley Roberts and Faye Tozer)
His most recent ‘paid partnership’ – the name given to such deals with social media influencers – is with Fifa video games as an EA ‘sports ambassador’.
He now earns an estimated £50,000 per month for posting pictures of himself, with his YouTube channel alone pulling in £1,000 per day in advertising and sponsorship deals. Internet stars are paid ‘per click’ – which, with millions of views a year, can add up fast.
Indeed Joe phenomenal earning power means he is now at least matching his sister’s estimated £2.5 million fortune.
He claims to have no real technology expertise – naturally enough, as naivety is part of the charm. ‘All I know is where the record button is on my camera,’ he once said.
Fruits of their labour
Joe’s biggest purchase to date has been a plush penthouse flat in Battersea, South London, which he bought in 2016.
Pictures of him parading around the flat – with his keys showcased in a black presentation box – were uploaded on to his Instagram feed, the Rolex watch on his wrist shown off to a tee.
He is thought to have paid more than £1 million for the apartment, which boasts a huge open-plan kitchen, a wrap-around terrace and projector screen in the living room. TV doctor – and fellow Strictly contestant – Ranj Singh is a neighbour.
But he doesn’t seem to spend much – because countless luxuries are available for free. Joe’s Instagram feed is full of his escapades in top-of-the-range cars, with recent trips in a loaned Audi R8, Mercedes Benz G-Class and, only last week, a Porsche in return for cash as part of the ‘paid partnership’ arm of his business. It’s a huge step up from his old Peugeot 106.
There is no shortage of holidays for the Suggs. Recent images show Joe visiting New York, Alpine resort town Saalbach, Dubai, South Africa and Ibiza over the past 18 months alone. He has also had the VIP treatment at Glastonbury and the Wilderness festivals.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Zoe enjoyed a five-star break to the Royal Mirage hotel in Dubai. In an incisive post on Instagram, she said: ‘It was so beautiful and everyone was so lovely and helpful.’
It’s a family affair
Even the Suggs’ grandparents have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. Joe’s Grandma Phyllis took pride of place in the audience of Strictly most weeks to support him. Phyllis has been on first-name terms with Tess Daly, and has regularly appeared on camera to talk about Joe’s performance.
Grandad ‘Chippy’ is himself a web hit – thanks to his famous grandchildren, he has attracted 130,000 followers on Instagram, where his everyday posts about gardens, family celebrations and a selection of frogs garner thousands of ‘likes’.
Their mother, Tracey, meanwhile, has 304,000 followers on Instagram and contains pictures of recent family holidays, her attractive cottage garden and the family’s chocolate labrador, Hector.
Like any devoted mother, she likes to post about her two successful children.
They’re here to stay
Their ambitions seem limitless. Not content with YouTube and, now traditional TV, Joe has been telling friends he wants to be a pop star and will release a single – via the internet, of course – in the summer. Hollywood, too, beckons.
Joe voices character Gus in the forthcoming computer animated adventure film Wonder Park, which stars Mila Kunis and Tom Baker.
Filmed in both English and Spanish, it is set to capture the lucrative South American market where Joe is popular – which helps justify his fee of around £500,000.
Joe also owns talent agency Margravine with fellow YouTube star Caspar Lee, which manages other social media influencers.
Could his career eventually eclipse that of his sister? Zoella is poised to achieve even greater fame herself with the transformation of her novel, Girl Online, into a movie by Working Title, which produced box office hits such as Love Actually. The film is promised to become a ‘Bridget Jones for millennials’.
So it may yet be too early to predict which of the Sugg siblings will prosper most in 2019.
What’s clear is that no one has seen the back of them yet.