If YouTube is the new cable, then YouTubers are the new A-Listers. We’re here to profile all the YouTube legends — past and present — who are influencing the cultural landscape and reinventing the internet as we know it. This is Thumbnail.
Adam Ray Okay, most famously known as his legendary TikTok persona Rosa, is at Peter Piper Pizza in San Antonio, Texas. It’s 2019. A group of girls asks to take a picture with him, and Adam’s mom is confused.
“My mom thought they were making fun of me,” he tells PAPER. At this point, she knows nothing of his internet persona. Adam hasn’t even come out to her as gay yet. When they go back to the car, Adam figures he has to tell her about Rosa. “I told her, ‘I’m just making videos online, and people are laughing at them.’ She’s like, ‘Are you being safe?’”
Online, Rosa was completely taking over. We all remember the taglines: “Open your purse,” “I’ll name ‘em.” It was peak COVID culture. By encapsulating the relatable Mexican girl in class that we all found comfort in, Adam became a comedy star overnight. Rihanna was inviting him to the Fenty Beauty House. He quit his job at a bank’s call center, against his mother’s wishes, and flew to LA to make content.
POV: Rosa catches you in the hall and knows you got a dollar for her😭 #fyp #viral #foryoupage
“I felt bad in the moment because I didn’t know either,” he says. “I just took a leap of faith, and if anything I would just find another job.” But Adam’s lovable nature was enough to catapult him into the upper echelon of comfort creators. Through sheer personality, he had created a Rosa universe online, with other supporting actors like Marlene and Louie helping him along the way. It was a far cry from the lonely, closeted kid who had just gotten evicted from his apartment and had to move back in with his mom. “I felt like I was watching a movie in my own head because things that were happening to me, they were things that I never would’ve dreamed of.”
In 2019, a study found that today’s kids were three times more likely to aspire toward a career as a YouTuber over being an astronaut. Making a living by documenting yourself online has become the new American Dream, and Adam Ray Okay is living proof of it. TikTok was what made him famous, but, like many social media creators, he soon made the transition to YouTube as his real bread and butter.
“YouTube is the one platform where I feel the most connection and the most love,” he says. TikTok feeds you content in an endless scroll. On YouTube, you choose what you want to watch. You subscribe. You turn the notification bell on. As a viewer, you’re way more invested.
Today, Adam’s videos are a more earnest reflection of his personality. At the time of our interview, he’s just completed “vlogmas,” which means one Christmas-themed video a day leading up to the holiday. He hangs out with his wholesome group of mostly Latinx creators at his house in LA. They play DIY games and take shots, a nonstop laugh attack where everyone is also vlogging for their own channel. “My audience really just likes to laugh,” he says. “They like when I cook, when I do my makeup, I’ve seen comments that said I could be sleeping and they’d be laughing.”
He thinks he manifested this career out of a time of loneliness, a running theme among many YouTubers who start out filming themselves in hopes of being seen. “I have memories of filming myself for an imaginary audience,” he says. “I was so alone, and now I feel like I can’t ever feel that feeling being on social media, because I have my supporters.”
Blowing up on social media also opened up his relationship with his family. He finally came out to his mom in 2020 during the pandemic: “It was a huge moment for us, we were on the phone and we both started crying.” For Adam, content creation allowed an escape from a harsh reality, the ability to skyrocket out of his stuck situation. “I always thought that I was gonna have to die with being straight and closeted, but then TikTok happened and my life did a complete 180.” He’s an astronaut.
And it all started with Rosa. The character that so aptly encapsulated the modern day Mexican-American way of speaking and joking then filtered into Adam’s longer-form YouTube content where he just plays himself, and now he has a community of millions imitating his mannerisms and signature ahhhs. “Originally I thought [the Rosa character] was very much just in my little city of San Antonio and my high school, but then I did TikTok and realized that this is everywhere,” he says.
Sometimes, people need to see a reflection of their culture on the screen to truly see themselves: “I was like, this is cool.”
POV: Rosa finds out her 8th period partner is gay😭😂 #fyp #viral #foryou
Photos courtesy of Adam Ray Okay / YouTube