Beckii Cruel became an unlikely celebrity in Japan after a viral video shot her to fame when she was just 14 years old, but today she’s a different sort of role model for teenage girls
When Beckii Cruel first started uploading videos of herself on YouTube, it wasn’t in a bid for fame. But a clip of her dancing to “Danjo” a pop song by Taro that had become an internet meme in Japan, sent her viral. She became one of the country’s most subscribed-to YouTube channels and quickly signed to Life Is So Cruel Ltd, a talent agency specialising in Japanese entertainment. But what makes Cruel’s story so strange is that, before her whirlwind rise to online fame, she didn’t speak a word of Japanese – she was a 14-year-old from the Isle of Man.
Rebecca Anne Flint had an obsessive love for manga and kawaii culture growing up, but she never expected that she’d be whisked off to Japan as part of an idol group to perform in front of crowds of thousands. Her story caught the attention of BBC Three, and in 2010 film crews followed Cruel and her family as she prepared to travel to Japan. In the resulting documentary Beckii: Schoolgirl Superstar at 14, Cruel was seen receiving extravagant gifts (including a Fender bass guitar) from fans in Japan, but also becoming the butt of her classmates’ jokes for her unusual hobby.
In Japan, where idol culture originated and is still prevalent (Babymetal being the most prominent example), pre-teen girls are auditioned for cutesy pop groups and cultivated into what their management agencies call role models, meaning relationships are forbidden and their personal lives are heavily controlled. Her brief stint as part of the idol group Cruel Angels, alongside two other British dancers, was a rare example of Western girls becoming idols, but as Beckii grew older, she started to enjoy performing less and less.
“I went to Japan when I was 14, and I had no nerves – I was fine was performing on stage in front of thousands of people,” she says. “I was living a dream. But I (started to have) more anxiety and it was debilitating; I’d be crying in the dressing room before going onstage.”
Today, Cruel is no longer part of the Cruel Angels, instead focusing on cultivating her YouTube channel. Japanese culture is still her first love, but instead of posting dancing videos, she’s focusing on being a role model in a different way – as a relatable figure for teens who want a dose of kawaii in their lifestyle vlogs. She’s also recently returned to performing, anxiety-free, and appeared at the Hyper Japan festival in London earlier this month.
Now aged 21, we caught up with her to find out how Japanese culture shaped her adolescence.
When did you first start getting into Japanese culture, and why did you decide to put yourself online?
Beckii Cruel: I started getting into manga at about 12 years old. I fell in love with it, and through that I found anime, then music videos and Japanese fashion. As for putting myself online, I’ve always been kind of creative. I started learning the dances from the Japanese music videos, and there’s a little bit of a community on YouTube of people who do that already and I wanted to feel a part of it.
What was it like going viral and getting invited over to Japan? Were you expecting or aiming for that to happen?
Beckii Cruel: It genuinely was just my hobby! I've always been an incredibly realistic person, I thought, ‘You’re never going to become famous, so why even try?’ It wasn’t even one of my new videos that went viral, it was from when I had about 200 subscribers on my channel. It went viral on a different website (Niconico, a Japanese video sharing site), then emails started coming in saying did I want to come and work in Japan. I was like, ‘I need to talk to my parents about this!’
“It’s always the way in school – you’re told to be yourself, but you’re ostracised if you’re anything other than the norm” — Beckii Cruel
Were you parents supportive?
Beckii Cruel: They were wary at first, as they should be in that situation. However, they’ve always been very supportive. I think we all recognised that opportunities only come around once in a lifetime. It could affect my schooling, but you can always go back and retake exams - you can’t retake opportunities. They didn’t want me to resent them for not letting me take the opportunity.
In 2010, we saw you in a BBC Three documentary, and you were being bullied in school for what you were doing online. How did you deal with that?
Beckii Cruel: My school experience, it was alright: I wasn’t popular, but not unpopular. I started putting stuff on YouTube and a few people found the videos and didn't know how to process it. Then I started going to Japan and getting a lot of attention, and things got a little bit more tense. The TV crew for the documentary came into my school to film and it pushed something over the edge. People were like, ‘We don't understand it, so we’re going to ostracise you for it.’ There was a lot of shouting at me in the hall. Some people tried to take it out of school and harass me in the street which was horrible. I had a good support network of close friends who are still friends to this day, and they were very similar to me in that they’re all a bit different. I had people online too; I was getting thousands of really lovely positive comments, and if I didn’t have them it would have been much more difficult. It’s always the way in school – you’re told to be yourself, but you’re ostracised if you’re anything other than the norm.
Do you ever feel in competition with other YouTubers, given how huge vlogging has become?
Beckii Cruel: It’s very easy, especially on YouTube, to fall into comparing yourself and your numbers with other people, which is something I’ve not really found in other parts of the entertainment industry. At YouTube events it can get a bit numbers-y; there’s a lot of egos in it and you’re only valued on your numbers and your views. You can work the algorithms as much as you please, you can have a professional production value and tick every box, and still not make it unless you’re a celebrity in the first place. If you get rid of expectations then you’re going to have a much better time. You’ve got to take a step back and just enjoy it for what it is and what it originally was for all of us, which was just a really fun hobby.
You still have a lot of Japanese elements in your videos with the fashions and products you talk about, but less of a focus on idol culture – do you think that side of things can be exploitative?
Beckii Cruel: In the idol industry there is a fixation on youthful girls, as young as nine or ten. When you’re that age, you can't make an informed decision about the kind of life you want to lead, you can’t know for sure (if) you want to live that life. But at the same time, I was 14, and maybe I wasn’t fully aware of the scale of things – but I’m still so happy that I got to pursue my dreams, so there are two sides to it. Even though there are a lot of older male idol fans who are coming from an innocent place, there are also ones who aren’t, and that’s something I’m wary about. That can take a toll on the girls who aren’t fully aware of the extent of things. There’s also a possessiveness that comes with that industry which is quite scary to encounter. The girls are basically banned from having relationships. I think it’s getting better as the world gets more progressive, but it should start and end with them being performers. Their personal lives shouldn’t be dictated.
“In the idol industry there is a fixation on youthful girls, as young as nine or ten. When you’re that age, you can't make an informed decision about the kind of life you want to lead” — Beckii Cruel
Is feminism as prevalent in Japanese pop culture as it is over here?
Beckii Cruel: I don’t think I’m necessarily the most informed voice to talk about this. I can only speak from my own experience, but I don’t think that it’s coming in as strongly, especially in the idol industry. It’s sad, but you can’t expect everywhere in the world to have the same kind of viewpoint. Fashion-wise in Japan, a lot of strides are being made because they’ve always been so imaginative and inventive with fashion. I think they showcase the attitude that you can wear whatever you want and be yourself better than anyone.
What’s the next step for you?
Beckii Cruel: In this kind of industry it’s so hard to predict the future. I figured out what my key passion is in life and what drives me, and what I want to be doing is creating really positive and intelligent content for teenage girls. As long as I’m doing that, whether it’s YouTube, clothes, or putting out content in any way I can, I’ll feel fulfilled.
Beckii Cruel is guest reporter on NHK WORLD TV’s Kawaii International on August 27