There once was a time when getting a TV show was the ultimate exposure, but for millennial YouTube stars, it’s something they often don’t need and don’t necessarily want. They’ve amassed hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, sold lots of merch and raked in yearly incomes that can stretch into seven figures.
And for a lot of America’s children, YouTube is where the stars are.
Now, one of these stars is dead, and it’s an odd tale from beginning to end.
Five years ago, a mother and father in Arnold, Maryland, using an assumed surname, began to document the lives of their three young children in what was essentially a micro-budget reality show on their own YouTube channel. Called “The Bratayleys,” the show and channel gained over 1.6 million subscribers.
It was picked up as part of Disney’s online video distribution and production firm, Maker Studios. The page for the show is still live at Maker, featuring a host of official merchandise with cartoon images of the children.
Son Caleb – real name Caleb LeBlanc, as noted in an Associated Press story – had his own video blog (or vlog) mostly about playing the game Minecraft.
Last Thursday, Oct 1st, just after 7 p.m. Eastern time, LeBlanc suffered some sort of a crisis at the family home in Anne Arundel County, which proved fatal.
As published at Gawker.com, the local police provided a statement which called the death “medical emergency/non-criminal.” Emergency personnel responded to the home and transported the 13 year old to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The statement read, “At this time, there are no suspicious factors and/or suspected foul play,” and the case has been turned over to the office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, for an official autopsy.
His mother, known as “Annie” — who is heard on the videos but never seen — released news of the death via her @officiallybratayley Instagram account:
Yesterday at 7:08PM Caleb Logan Bratayley passed away of natural causes. This has come as a shock to all of us. Words cannot describe how much we will miss him. His incredibly funny, loving and wonderful spirit made us all fall in love with him as a YouTuber, friend, brother and son. We know you tune in to watch each day and eagerly anticipate new videos, but ask that you bear with us while we deal with this tragedy as a family. Please help us honor our, baked potato.
She also released a video, recorded the day before LeBlanc died, in which he spoke to his future self:
An on-screen note reads: “It is with our deepest sorrow to report that the Instagram announcement was indeed true. In addition to our desire to give the Internet community the chance to begin the grieving process, we also wanted to post this video to show a healthy and happy Caleb doing what he loved. Thank you for all the love and support that everyone has shown our family. And we ask for continued love and support as we move through the grieving process.”
There’s also a retrospective video called “Caleb, Gone but Never Forgotten.”
On Tuesday Oct. 6th, LeBlanc’s mother again took to Instagram. Next to a picture of her son, a statement read in part: “Caleb’s death has raised many questions about how and why this could happen to a seemingly healthy boy. Sadly, test have confirmed today that Caleb passed away from an undetected medical condition. We’ll have more definitive answers in the coming weeks but ask that you help us celebrate his life instead of focus on his death.” And you can do that – livestreamed over the Internet, via Persicope on Twitter and Facebook at 5 p.m. Eastern on Oct. 6th.
Meanwhile, fans and YouTube react with posts and videos, even if they weren’t regular viewers.
Said one fan on Instagram, “I never really watched Bratayley. But I did know that Caleb was a sweet, funny, intelligent, kind, loving boy. And he deserved to live longer than he did.”
All of this is, to say the least, strange – or at least it would have been in the world that existed as little as five years ago.
As the Duggars of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting” painfully learned, when you expose your children to the world, whatever happens to them becomes worldwide news. Only the LeBlanc family know right now whether the fame was worth it.