“I was born with makeup on, mani-pedi and everything,” Poppy deadpans over a bouncy electronic beat on on her first studio album. When the chorus hits and the melody starts to race, the mysterious singer maintains the same breathless monotone: “I’m softer than a daisy / If you cut me, I bleed pink / I’m bleach blonde, baby / That’s how God made me.”
The song, “Bleach Blonde Baby,” drips with some combination of narcissism, nihilism, and sarcasm, a critique of walking and talking like a Barbie while also serving as a step-by-step guide of how to be one. And it’s an excellent introduction to Poppy: part-babydoll, part-alien, and the latest YouTube sensation to craft an intricate persona online and translate it into a record deal, a debut album, and her first nationwide tour. (Her debut album Poppy.Computer came out in October, and follows her four-track EP Bubblebath from last year.) It’s an odd choice for the singer: Even though her career is taking her offline and in front of real people, Poppy is committed to the idea that there’s nothing more to know about her than exactly what she shows online. It’s the kind of acceptable lie that could only take root in 2017.
A quick Google search reveals that Poppy’s real name is Moriah Pereira—but if her frequent collaborator, video director Titanic Sinclair, had it his way, you’d know virtually nothing else about her. Whatever people dig up about pre-fame Poppy, he has said, isn’t interesting. Sinclair goes back and forth on just how “real” the Poppy we see is, but mostly argues that believing in the fantasy is better than acknowledging the work that goes into creating it. “The world is a lot more exciting when you don’t have the curtain pulled to reveal all of the wires. It’s always a huge let down when a magic trick is revealed and you realize it’s just sleight of hand or some sort of simple illusion,” he told Business Insider. In an interview with the Guardian, Sinclair argued that if Poppy is just an act, most public figures are too. “It’s funny when people say that she’s a character—I mean, isn’t the president a character? Isn’t Vladimir Putin?”
There are some things we do know: She’s originally from Boston; she started getting into music when she moved to Nashville as a teenager, according to a Lemonade Magazine interview she gave in 2012. Later, she moved to L.A. where she met and started working with Sinclair (real name Corey Mixter). She’s 22, but these days, she refuses to give her age in interviews. She used to have waves of dark brown hair and sing folksy MGMT covers. But now she is never seen without pin-straight, peroxide blonde hair.
Poppy is known today for her strange brand of character-driven music, but she first started garnering media attention for her YouTube channel. Her first video upload—in which she eats cotton candy in complete silence, except for an occasional giggle—was in November 2014. She’s shared more than 300 videos since, many of which feature her doing mundane activities—hula hooping, inventing guitar chords, brushing her hair, cleaning out her ears with a cotton swab—in a way that feels almost inexplicably creepy. When she speaks, Poppy uses simple sentences and often repeats herself, over-explaining without really giving much away. Her voice is an unsettling mix of sexy android and mischievous child—like a reversal of ASMR that leaves you with a feeling of impending doom.
Take her most infamous video, titled “I’m Poppy.”, where she repeats the phrase “I’m Poppy” over and over, with slight variations in her emphasis and tone, for an excruciating 10 minutes. She’s usually alone: The only other character who appears in her videos is Charlotte, a mannequin voiced by a program not unlike Siri and whose intentions we do not know—Poppy has accused Charlotte of choking her, but Charlotte denies this, about as much as a computer can. In those videos, Poppy has constructed her own self-referential and enclosed world, one that only seems to be expanding ever so slightly now that she’s on the path to fame. (Recently, on her Twitter, Poppy has posted videos marked with #ad that she makes with Microsoft’s messaging bot Zo.)
Her fans love it; her VEVO account has more than half a million subscribers, and even though most of her videos are short—many less than a minute long—they get hundreds of thousands or millions of views. “I’m Poppy.” has 13 million views at the time of writing. Her devotees are called Poppy Seeds, and much like the name connotes, they’re growing.
Like all media-savvy pop stars, viral fame is key to success. But Poppy breaks an unspoken fourth wall and makes note of just how much the internet has helped her, in a way that’s so outright it’s disarming: On “Let’s Make a Video,” the second song on her debut album Poppy.Computer, she sings “Time for a pic, ‘cause I’m all dressed up / Don’t make me look too typical / ‘Cause I’m ready for my close-up / I said, I’m ready for my close-up.” On the zany, clubby “Interweb,” she sings “I caught you on my interweb / Well maybe I’m a spider / Or maybe I’m a fisherman.” In her interview with Lemonade Magazine, back in 2012, she explains that she was originally opposed to making videos for the internet. “I was like ‘No, that’s not me!’ But in the short time I have been doing it, it really has given me a lot of opportunities.”
It’s something of a false reveal: Poppy is successful, too, because of her insistence on anonymity. Sinclair and Poppy try to keep an ironclad grip on her public image, but they have to deal with the archival nature of the internet, just like everyone else. There’s still video of Poppy performing a cover of MGMT’s “Kids” with the band HeyHiHello up on YouTube. There’s more of the two doing Of Monsters and Men’s 2011 hit “Little Talks.” On that cut, Poppy wears a patterned button-down and sings with a distinct folk-country twang. She wasn’t blonde back then, but she was ambitious all the same; in her Lemonade interview, she also said: “I’d really love to get some more original stuff ready too, so I don’t end up playing a bunch of covers.”
Then there is her early hit “Lowlife,” off her 2016 EP Bubblebath, which I actually love and is far and away her most-streamed song on Spotify. (“Lowlife” been played 11.3 million times, nearly four times as much as her second-biggest song and more than 10 times as much as the most-streamed song on her debut album.) Bubblebath came along with Poppy was still making music and videos as “That Poppy,” and before she became an icy internet queen. That much shows on “Lowlife”—the track has distinct No Doubt vibes, with its ska-like rhythm and affected vocals. There’s no techy wordplay here; it’s a song about a devastating crush, one the singer sounds like she might regret.
It’s delightful, but the way Poppy’s doubling-down on her meme-worthy persona since then speaks to the lengths artists have to go today to “make it,” confirming that image and personality are as important as actual artistic output. She and Sinclair are micromanaging her personal brand in a way we haven’t seen before 2017, but it’s a logical next step in the era of social media. We broadcast the best version of ourselves all the time online—or the version of ourselves that will get the most likes—and being outrageously different is certainly one way to stand out above all the other noise. We’ve seen this before: just think back to the 2016 election. What’s unprecedented about the way Poppy used these tactics in the world of pop music is the way her fans are game to play along.