7 December, 2019
An elfish-looking Gen Z-er is pulling a series of trinkets off shelves in a room so pink and fluffy it could belong to a Disney princess, then shakes and strokes them as a baby might a rattle. First come pine cones, then a raffia bird, bubble wrap, spiralling beads that hang like miniature chandeliers and glittery Christmas decorations, then an old yellow sponge. A computer mouse with a missing tail of cord is clicked a few times, then put to one side. Below that lies a pack of paracetamol, half consumed.
Headaches, I ask. “No,” she says, blinking curling fake eyelashes above contoured cheeks. “To pop. I love that sound.”
To the unknowing, Sophie Michelle might appear to have received her first cochlear implants and be luxuriating in everyday sound, but in fact the 22-year-old is an auditory celebrity. She is an ASMR artist – or “ASMRtist”: someone who films and posts videos of themselves online in which they create sounds that can make the viewer feel an “autonomous sensory meridian response” – a static, tingling sensation that runs from scalp to spine, the kind you might get if someone kissed your neck.
Sounds, the main attraction, are created by things as simple as scrunching paper, tapping books or sweeping a make-up brush over a microphone. Not everyone feels the shivers, but the whispered voices and serene audio in the videos are enough to inspire relaxation, if you’re into it. It might sound niche, but the biggest stars – American YouTubers Gibi ASMR and ASMR Darling (as they’re known online) – each have two million subscribers to their channels. Sophie Michelle, one of the most twinkling in the UK, has 459,000 subscribers worldwide. Some of her most popular videos have been viewed almost four million times.
“The feeling of ASMR is a bit like pins and needles,” she tells me. Others describe it as “whisper porn” or a “head orgasm”.
One of the first UK studies into ASMR was published by psychologists at Swansea University in 2014. They described it as a “flow-like mental state” and a “sensory phenomenon”. Clips had a tone of “close attention paid to you”, the PeerJ paper wrote, and viewers were led to believe they were being “cared for in some manner”, it concluded. ASMR fans say that watching the videos – or listening to playlists on Spotify, where it’s also now a huge hit – relaxes and calms them and acts as a sleep aid, anti-anxiety pill and even an antidepressant.
YouTube videos of – it must be said – usually attractive young women performing ASMR started appearing around 2010, the trend piggybacking on vlogging. Vloggers reacted, making their own videos that mocked it, until they realised how big it was, and dived on the trend themselves. The creators of the top channels on YouTube can make up to $1 million a year in advertising. Now it’s hit the mainstream. YouTube says that there are around 45 million ASMR videos on the site.
Then came the celebrities, with actresses Eva Longoria, Margot Robbie, Jennifer Garner and Kate Hudson, plus Brit Alexa Chung, all “exploring” ASMR videos for W, the American style magazine. In the videos, the celebs sit in front of a microphone and play with mints, jangly beads and high heels, tapping them for clicking sounds and whispering to the viewer. The rapper Cardi B’s version, in which she strokes a rug and pulls wooden beads over a children’s toy, is to date the most popular, with a crazy 31 million views (the other A-listers got about 2 million each).
There are 45 million ASMR videos. When the rapper Cardi B does one it gets 31 million views
Executives at Ikea, Sony, McDonald’s and Toyota realised they also could get in on the trend and all commissioned ASMR-inspired adverts, with Zoë Kravitz’s whisperings for Ultra Pure Gold beer appearing in what’s described as the world’s most expensive advert break this year, mid-Super Bowl.
ASMR videos on YouTube run from seven minutes to seven hours in length. The plus of the latter is that viewers who might be trying to drift off to sleep don’t have to click their favourite videos back to the start and endure adverts – they can let it play and play.
There are two types of ASMR content. During “trigger” videos, the ASMR artist uses props to create sounds that are intended to prompt the shivers. Although it’s all about the audio, videos are filmed very close-up, the “content creators” faces on your computer screen and their voices whispering into binaural microphones in a way that makes it sound like they’re millimetres away from you.
The other type, “personal attention” videos, play off the fact that you know them. Role-plays are the main attraction, with themes that include “yearly medical check-ups”, bra fittings, facials, hypnosis, eye tests and “tucking you into bed”. Many of them play on the idea that it’s a boyfriend or girlfriend experience. If it helps you relax, you can click on and fall asleep to an ASMR video of your “jealous” other half reading messages on your phone and not being very happy with what they’ve found. The options are endless.
What characterises the personal attention videos is that the person filming themselves holds their hands around the sides of the camera to make it feel like they’re stroking you; they get close enough to the lens for you to feel as if their face is 1ft from yours.
It’s no surprise that young women are the most popular creators of this content, given you wouldn’t want to be sweet-talked – or measured – by a paunchy Ray Winstone type, but while the videos are denied to be sexual by their makers, the comments and themes suggest that’s naive. ASMR has become a very controversial subject – especially given ASMR stars are as young as five years old.
It couldn’t be a newer, more modern phenomenon, but there’s a dark side.
On a wintery Monday morning last month, I arrive in Chester to meet one of the UK’s biggest names, Sophie Michelle Goodall – known as Sophie Michelle online – who’s glueing witchily long, matt pink nails on to her own when I arrive. “I have to wear them for videos,” she says, tapping the middle three on the kitchen counter in explanation of the sought-after sound. They sound – like nails. “My real nails are wrecked underneath now. It’s frustrating,” she adds.
Petite and serious, she’s conservatively dressed in a high-necked River Island dress, but is highly made-up in a way that suggests she gets ready each morning to be on camera. It’s her parents’ house here in Ellesmere Port, six miles from Chester, where she films between 11pm and 5am in the Disney-pink spare room upstairs, where there are two backdrops propped against one wall and in front of it a pair of binaural microphones, two light boxes and a single, tiny Canon G7 X Mark II on a stand in the middle. “It’s the camera all the vloggers use,” she says. When everyone’s in bed, she spends an hour doing her make-up, sets up the cameras and talks to an invisible audience for seven hours at a time. She’s just graduated from Wrexham Glyndwr University with a degree in theatre, television and performance and hopes one day to be a real actor – but this is well-paid practice until then, given she earns £60,000 a year doing it.
A 13-year-old chewing on honeycomb to make ‘sticky mouth sounds’ got 13 million views
Part of the reason she films in the middle of the night is that her brother, James, 25, a photographer, and his nurse girlfriend, Libby, 24, also live here, as does her own boyfriend, Mathew, 22, a personal trainer. Her parents – Michelle, a pre-school compliance manager, and Simon, who works for a BMW dealership – are out at work, but the chances one of the five will disturb filming any time pre 11pm are too high, especially given Bertie and Teddy, Lhasa apso/Maltese twins, race around the kitchen as we talk.
Like a lot of ASMR’s young Gen Z fans, Sophie Michelle found the craze almost accidentally. She was 15. “I’d started watching make-up tutorials to help me to sleep after my brother had a seizure when he was 17 and they discovered that he had a brain tumour,” she explains. “He underwent three years of keyhole and then open surgery to remove the tumour. It was during my exams, and my parents were at the hospital in Liverpool, so they often weren’t back until late. I struggled with anxiety and found I needed something to help me sleep, so I started watching make-up tutorials on repeat when I went to bed. It was nice to have the companionship of calming voices in the background. It sounds weird, but ASMR is a bit like leaving the radio on for your dogs.”
One of the first ASMR videos she watched involved a man taking marbles out of a bag and rolling them across a table for 20 minutes. “I thought it was a bit intense, a bit strange, but I found the hand movements very calming. I used to get the tingles, but now I listen more for the sound. It’s sort of like dumbed-down meditation because it’s a lot more simple. You don’t have to practise your breathing; you just watch. One of my favourites is of a woman folding towels. The way she moves her hands is so calming.”
She started making them herself three years ago, at the suggestion of her boyfriend. “I showed him ASMR when he noticed the videos coming up on my feed,” she says. “He suggested I give it a go, so I sat on the end of my bed the next day and read Harry Potter into the camera.” Pottermore – the global digital publisher of the Harry Potter world – reported her to YouTube and she was given a copyright strike against her channel, quickly removing two other videos that would have landed a permanent ban.
“By the time I started making real ASMR trigger videos, I did feel like I wanted to help others, because I knew how much ASMR had helped me when I’d had anxiety and panic attacks,” she says. Her brother, after three years of surgery, is doing fine.
While half of Sophie Michelle’s subscribers are 24 or under (and more female than male), it’s not only anxious Gen Z-ers tuning in. Around 20 per cent of her fans are 35-plus and include new mothers who put her videos on for their babies to fall asleep to. After Britons, the highest proportion, 37 per cent are American; 15 per cent are from Canada and the rest spread everywhere from Germany to France, Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Ukraine and Singapore. Their clicks mean she earns up to £10,000 a month. “It changes, but that’s the most,” she says. “If you have millions of subscribers and are more consistent, you could make £1 million a year. Most advertisers pay $4 or $5 per 1,000 views.”
But the male viewers, not the money, are the cause of the controversy online and the reason she didn’t tell her parents she was filming videos until she knew they were “coming to something”. “They wanted to know why I was predominantly being watched by men,” she admits. “When you first start you have a lot of male subscribers because men mainly look for new people, especially young girls posting, whereas women know more what they like and stick to it.”
There are some men online who try to manipulate new ASMR artists by asking for fetishised videos, she says. “When I first started, there was a guy who would very politely ask you to light a match on screen because he liked the sound of it – which wasn’t hugely weird, but after he’d send comments saying, ‘It’s so sexy the way you light that match so hard.’ He did it to everyone. There was another guy who asked for foot fetish-type videos, but obviously I wasn’t stupid enough to fall for that.
“Perverts will turn themselves on by anything,” she adds, matter-of-factly. “I could brush my hair and it would do something for someone. What’s more important to me are the younger women who watch, and I always dress conservatively because I don’t want them – or the young men – to think that you must get your boobs out to get clicks.” She insists that “95 per cent of ASMR artists don’t”.
Yet the idea that ASMR videos aren’t suggestive is a little misleading. Last month Sophie Michelle posted a video called Victoria’s Secret Personal Shopper Roleplay which starts with the words, “I’m going to need you to get into your bra.” Then she leans across the camera to “measure you”. The rest of the video involves her holding up and discussing lingerie you might like to buy. While it’s directed towards women, does she really not expect this to turn men on? Why else would they watch?
Most comments praise her for helping them “sleep”, but is that a euphemism? Another video, in which Sophie Michelle spends almost two hours reading complimentary messages from her viewers, includes a request from a man called Adam: “Is there a way for us to cover the extra expense of hotel recording?” She explains that when filming in a hotel recently, the fan was too noisy and there were “questionable stains” around the room, so she won’t be doing that again. Sorry, Adam.
Of the younger ASMR stars, Makenna Kelly, a 13-year-old from Colorado, is one of the most controversial. Her YouTube channel, Life with MaK, started with videos of the train track-braced teenager trying weird food and moved quickly into “ASMR” when a clip of her chewing on honeycomb – for the “sticky mouth sounds” – went viral. It was viewed 13.9 million times. MaK, who has 1.6 million subscribers, has been listed on Teen Vogue’s “21 under 21” list and is estimated to earn $1,000 (£775) a day from advertising.
But recent videos have caused controversy. In the most talked-about she plays a “sassy cop”, leaning on a lamppost and swinging handcuffs in a short skirt and high boots. The sounds of her actions are still the focus (imagine that tinny, clicking sound handcuffs make in cop dramas) but it comes across as a Lolita-style tribute act. In interviews defending it, her mother – who filmed it – wanted people to know her child was wearing a “bralette”, even though she admitted, “It kind of looks like she’s not wearing one.” She stressed that she has no regrets about the role-play: “It’s not my problem your mind is in the gutter.”
The world is taking note. PayPal began to question the genre, banning or freezing (users claimed) the transfer of money between viewers and ASMR artists and citing violations of its sexual content policy. Some viewers have reported videos of very young artists for “safety reasons”, especially if the name of the child’s school is visible on a uniform.
People at school who never spoke to me now follow me. Some people act like I’m a celebrity
Gen Z viewers – the main audience – are sober about the trend. Maddie Vos, 23, a content creator for a sustainable start-up business, started watching when she was 15, for relaxation purposes but admits there’s a “sexual side” to ASMR. “I think a lot of the community tries to deny it, but for some people there is something very sexual about the intimacy that is created in ASMR videos because it’s generally a very soft and loving kind of experience. Some people find personal attention and whispers a turn-on, and I think that’s OK. We shouldn’t shame people for being turned on. But by no means is the whole community some sex community; it really is primarily made for relaxation and tingles. It’s helpful for anyone who feels overwhelmed, or suffers from anxiety or similar mental health issues. It is a quiet online community, where everyone comes to unwind.”
Sarah, another female user, 23, agrees. “Like any online content, ASMR attracts viewers who are there for sexual pleasure. But I would like to think that most viewers’ intentions come from a much more vulnerable place.”
Both young women say they use it in times of stress, citing work deadlines or exams, and like the comfort of a relaxing voice that makes them feel “safe”, perhaps because they’re more likely to consider a friend, not a girlfriend, is speaking to them. For the boys, there’s more of an anime edge to it; a sheen of acceptability, with an underbelly of eroticism, given ASMR porn exists too. For socially awkward young men who might be intimidated by overt sexuality, the more innocent YouTube videos are perfect: they’re tender, and you could argue that they’re not dirty to begin with. According to the psychological study by the University of Swansea only 5 per cent of those asked said they used ASMR for sexual stimulation, but among millions of users, that’s a lot.
It’s an unfortunate irony that Sophie Michelle admits her anxiety is worse since becoming an ASMR artist. “At school I was very shy, nerdy. I got bullied for being overweight,” she remembers. “I find it funny that no one would have guessed at school that I’d be the YouTuber,” she says, in a sad, modern, very American way. “People at school who never spoke to me now follow me. It does make it hard to know who’s a real friend.”
University was “tough” for different reasons. She spent only 36 hours living in university halls because she felt so out of place among “party people”, and moved back to her parents’ house, half an hour’s drive away. “Thank God I did,” she says. “Recording there would have been impossible.” You can’t help think she might have missed out on some important real-life interaction by favouring YouTube, though.
She knows her shelf life is limited as a YouTuber – “I’ve probably got another two years in me” – but she is already saving for a house in Chester with Mathew, and hopes to have kids before she’s 28. They’ve been together since they were 17.
She sees her style as more “mothering” than that of the “girlfriend experiences” some ASMR artists enact. “I have had people contact me saying my videos have helped them through depressive episodes, or with anxiety, insomnia, loneliness, thoughts of suicide. There’s so much pressure for our generation because we’re always on our phones, laptops and social media, seeing what everyone is doing and comparing ourselves with others. There’s more of a need for compassion and companionship than ever, but a lack of real human connection because we’ll Snapchat and text but not phone.
“Ironically, ASMR is providing that human connection even though it’s still on a screen and you don’t know the person. The idea that someone actually cares about you, and being able to just listen to them, and not have to talk back, is all people often need.” She admits that’s “a bit Black Mirror”.
She still checks her YouTube statistics daily, but not every few minutes, like she used to, given “it can really get you down”. With success has come the inevitable trolling. Comments about her appearance are the reason she now wears £3,000 braces.
Being recognised is headier. “Two teenage girls followed me around the Trafford Centre in Manchester a few weeks ago,” she says. “I could hear them saying, ‘Oh my God, is that Sophie Michelle?’ It happens at the strangest times: like when I’m food shopping at Morrisons or buying a sandwich at Subway. I felt like a right idiot at Sainsbury’s petrol station because the man came out from behind the counter to take a photo and I forgot to take my sunglasses off. I must have looked like a diva. It’s weird, but some people do act like I’m a celebrity.”