When Stacey McGunnigle, a spunky comedian in Toronto, started making funny videos of herself a few years ago, she didn’t upload them to YouTube.
Instead she submitted them to Hello Giggles, the all-things-girly site launched in 2011 by New Girl star Zooey Deschanel, TV producer Sophia Rivka Rossi, and blogger turned 2 Broke Girls writer Molly McAleer.
Part of Hello Giggles’ appeal, McGunnigle says, was its social media savvy–the site has nearly 150,000 Twitter followers and over half a million Facebook likes. “Them just tweeting out that I had a video gave me so many more viewers than just myself tweeting to a few friends. I mean, if I start a YouTube channel–who cares?”
But another, more telling, reason for becoming a “Hello Giggles Girl” was the security of its community, where snark and mean spiritedness are strictly verboten. Not just in the site’s articles, essays, and lists, which fervently wave the Generation Yay! banner (“All the Best, Most Kick-Ass Female Memoirs You Need to Read”), but in the comments sections, which are vigorously policed against take-downs.
“YouTube and the Internet can be mean,” McGunnigle says. “Female positivity is so lovely. It’s been so nice to be on a platform that encourages that positive relationship and those positive conversations.”
The idea of a safe, online haven for young women was an interesting experiment back when Hello Giggles first launched. But it turns out that a place scrubbed of snark was more in demand than anyone could have imagined. Traffic to the site is now at 12 million unique views a month, up from just over a million a year ago, and the company recently raised $1 million in an investment round led by the Pritzker Group. This growth has attracted the attention of major brands, including entertainment companies like Relativity Media, which are using the site to engage with young, female Millennials. A soon-to-be released Hello Giggles-related book is in the works, and TV and film projects are being discussed. The brand is booming.
So how did Hello Giggles get to where it is? Rather than evolve into a de-clawed Jezebel or a femme-y click-bait hub like Bustle, the site has become a 600-strong community of young women. There the median age is 25, though the content tends to skew younger. And a sensibility and tacit agreement about who and what they like rules: Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, pizza, and positive commentary about female body image. And what they don’t: anyone who attacks Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, pizza, or positive commentary about female body image. They are aspiring writers and journalists, performers, even illustrators who not only regularly submit work to the site (they are paid), but comment and Tweet and Instagram back and forth. They show up for Hello Giggles comedy shows at the UCB in New York and Los Angeles, tune in to the Hello Giggles podcast, and attend film screenings organized by the site.
For these young women (and a few men), most of whom have yet to enter the professional work force in earnest, Hello Giggles is a “platform for self-expression,” says Penelope Linge, the company’s head of business development and finance. Not to mention a launching pad. After McGunnigle auditioned for a lead role in the NBC pilot Ellen Less or More, she says that her agents sent in videos from her Hello Giggles series, Stacey Helps, to give the network more material to look at. She got the job. Other Gigglers’ have landed Internships at HBO and Grantland thanks to their writing on the site, and even–in the case of 13-year-old Ruby Karp–given a TED talk.
“I think it’s like a resume, to be totally honest,” Rossi, who is 32, says. “In the last TV staffing season, people were sending in their Hello Giggles profiles. Those pieces were their version of short stories.”
Dressed in a comfy black sweatshirt and leggings, she is sitting at a large wooden table in Hello Giggles’ new, designer-chic offices in downtown Los Angeles. Behind her is a pastel-papered wall plastered with Hello Giggles memorabilia: a photo of Dunham and other performers at a UCB show; a print-out of a “tweet of the day”; early cover art for Rossi’s new YA book, A Tale of Two Besties, which comes out on May 19th on Penguin’s Razorbill imprint, and which Rossi hopes will pave the way for a Hello Giggles book line.
This shift in the company’s identity–from Deschanel’s pet project to a kind of online hipster Girl Scouts troop–is reflected in the site’s new logo: a “family crest” that was designed by Deschanel to reflect the actress’ “concept of family and community,” Rossi says. Until now, the site’s signature emblem was a whimsical illustration of the three founders’ faces. When you scrolled over them, they jiggled slightly, as though they were, yes, giggling.
“I don’t think the avatars told the message that we wanted to tell,” Rossi goes on. “I don’t want our writers to be like, ‘I write for Zooey’s site!’ Or, ‘I write for Sophia’s site!’ I want it to be: ‘I write for Hello Giggles. It’s my site.’”
Rossi, whose production credits include The Hills and Glee, represents the most consistent through-line in the Hello Giggles story. While Deschanel has always taken a bit of a back-seat as the company’s muse and aesthetic arbiter, and McAleer left earlier this year to focus on her TV writing, Rossi has essentially been the company’s CEO, managing editor and Girl Friday all wrapped into one. At least until recently, when new hires were brought on to help turn Hello Giggles from a DIY start-up “run by interns,” Rossi only half-jokes, into a more focused and ambitious business that extends well beyond the website.
“We were working out of my apartment up until December of last year. And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘me,’” Rossi says. “I mean, we had an offline editor who was like a copy editor. And then Radhika (Delfosse, Hello Giggles’ COO) came in. She was the first grown-up. So we always say, The grown-ups are here! And we’re like, Are we grown-ups? Yes we are.”
Other grown-ups followed, including Linge and Jennifer Romolini, who left her job overseeing Yahoo! Shine to become Hello Giggles’ first-ever editor in chief.
Romolini’s effect has been the most visible so far. In a matter of months, she’s taken what was an often hodgepodge collection of essays about summer camp and nail art (“I used to wake up and go, ‘I hope I have posts for the site!’” Rossi says) and imbued them with a more consistent and mature voice. Cute cat videos still abound, but now you’ll also find an essay about a young woman’s mother’s battle with cancer; a scolding commentary about the media eruption over Renée Zellweger’s new face (filed under the rubric Please Be Better); and a story about trans rocker Laura Jane Grace. To get here, Romolini and her team have often had to work directly with writers with little or no professional writing experience, and walk them through the basics of Journalism 101. It’s a practice she hopes to grow in a video-mentorship series that will give contributors pointers on things like writing headlines and developing narrative structure.
“It’s: Help me find your voice. What does this look like as a professional article, and how do we shape it? How do we think about it?” says Romolini, a tall, lithesome blonde with oversized glasses.
She calls Hello Giggles an “incubator for young talent,” where “we’re gonna help you figure out what your business looks like.”
She continues: “We want to showcase them and have them continue to grow with us. We want them to know that there are lots of opportunities for you here. Some of our contributors are getting TV deals, we want to help them grow into books.”
Ah, yes, books. A Tale of Two Besties will bear the Hello Giggles logo, the idea being that it will pave the way for other books by contributors in a Hello Giggles series. There’s even talk of a TV and movie banner, and more live events.
“We kind of view Hello Giggles as a hub for all these different business lines,” says Delfosse. “Our vision is to not only grow the website but really grow all the legs of the company. One thing we really love about Hello Giggles is it’s a community of very like-minded women. Friendships are formed on our site and we want to make that a reality.”
Unsurprisingly, friendship is the theme of Rossi’s new book, which she says came about after Deschanel spent months scouring eBay to buy Rossi Sweet Valley High books (an obsession the two women share) for Rossi’s birthday.
“She made it a big deal,” Rossi says. “She was like, ‘Come outside.’ And there’s like crates of 200 books. I literally was like, ‘You proposed to me.’”
In return, when Deschanel’s birthday came around, Rossi says, “I made her a birthday book called A Tale of Two Besties.’ It was basically how we met, the story of me and Zooey.”
Rossi’s novel is based loosely on that story. “It’s about two eighth-graders who separate and go to separate schools. One goes to a really progressive school and one goes to a public school… It’s kind of like Zooey went to Crossroads and I went to Beverly. It’s about those two different worlds.”
If the book itself doesn’t celebrate the greater sisterhood that Hello Giggles espouses, its rollout will. There’ll be a book tour, with locations voted on by Gigglers, trips to middle schools, and Tumblr meet-ups. Even the book’s cover art will be determined via a Hello Giggles contest in which contributors will be asked to submit an essay about their own bestie. An illustration of the winner, along with her BFF, will be featured on the book’s cover.
“It’s just been a lot of growing up,” Rossi says, of the changes the company has been through. Not that everything is different. When you scroll over the new Hello Giggles logo on the website, she noted, it still giggles.