Soft White Underbelly Is Life Laid Bare

Soft White Underbelly Is Life Laid Bare

BYIvan GuzmanApr 22, 2024

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.

Mark Laita can’t figure out how to turn his camera on. We’re on Zoom, and I can only hear his voice — one that has become so familiar through his billion-plus views-garnering YouTube channel Soft White Underbelly. “You’re a handsome young man,” he tells me, firm and comforting in his tone. As an interviewer, it’s a bit unfortunate. I always want to see the face of whomever I’m talking to, but on the other hand, it feels right on brand. On his channel, the 64-year-old prefers to be faceless, just the voyeuristic voice behind the camera. Coming from a decades-long career in advertising, where he took hyper realistic photographs of subjects ranging from Gatorade bottles to dogs wearing Beats headphones, he decided to do a complete shift in his work around five years ago when he started the channel. “I realized the limitations in a photograph,” he says.

Now, Laita’s subjects are a bit less polished. They’re drug dealers, pimps, 13-year-old prostitutes, gang members, klansmen, pedophiles and fentanyl addicts. In a small studio on Skid Row, in front of his signature yearbook photo-esque backdrop, Laita interviews OCD clowns, ex-Amish women, sex trafficking survivors and skinheads. Like a therapist, he asks them questions about their childhood, how they got in the position that they’re in, and what they’re gonna do next. There’s a stillness to these videos that serves as a compelling contrast to the chaotic nature of its subjects, humanizing those who have been shunned by society and making them a mirror to show viewers how the American system has failed us.

“I’ve had other interests in my life, but now this takes up all of my time,” he says. “Literally all of it.” Laita compensates his interviewees, buys them phones and clothing, and even helps put them in recovery. The transactional aspect of his work has gotten him in hot water, but he’s hyper aware of it. “There are a lot of people that don’t really understand how I’m helping, but I don’t wanna be about that. I don’t want it to be videos about me helping people. I think that’s kind of gross.”

Similar to Picasso, Laita chooses to instead paint a picture of his subjects’ current state. Each interview is grounded by a black-and-white portrait, which serves as the video’s thumbnail, and ties back into Laita’s core as strictly a photographer, not an interviewer. The idea for Soft White Underbelly was born from Laita’s 2009 photo book called Created Equal, which featured portraits of subjects who were representative of the lower 48 of the United States: astronauts, ballerinas, boxers, garbage men, polygamists. He became obsessed with how a photo of someone could serve as a scientific document of their state in that place and time. “That was just magic for me, and I never put down the camera since,” he says. “What I’m doing now is just an extension of that.”

In a split second, Laita will even hop on a flight if he senses inspiration outside of LA. Soft White Underbelly’s most famous characters are The Whittakers, an in-bred family residing in Odd, West Virginia who Laita has been visiting for three years now. He takes them on Wal-Mart shopping sprees, to go bowling, to the state fair and to get haircuts. He documents their living situation in a rural forest town where the only establishment is a single post office, and tries to improve their lives in any way he can (he’s currently crowdfunding to buy them a new house). It’s a compelling depiction of poverty and how poor familial choices can affect generations down the line. Most importantly, though, Laita communicates with them like normal humans and turns a family who may otherwise be seen as disgusting or shameful into lovable characters who are just trying to get through the day like everybody else.

“It’s human kindness,” he says. “I’m just being kind to these people because I don’t know how much kindness they see in their week or their year.” Sometimes, though, that kindness can be taken advantage of. In a recent video, Laita flew to West Virginia after one of the Whittakers called him in tears, saying that her father died. He sent her hundreds of dollars for the “funeral,” only to find out that it was all a lie to buy drugs. In the video, he reveals that he’s sent over $100,000 to the Whittaker family. “It’s really draining,” he admits. “But I enjoy it at the same time.” After that last Whittaker video, concerned commenters urged Laita to cut ties.

That’s the thing: One end of the spectrum could liken Laita to a cruel, exploitative sugar daddy type who films his rock bottom subjects for personal, self-righteous gain. The other end sees him as a sort of Christ figure — a healer who is bringing awareness to the dark underbelly of America in ways more powerful than similar mainstream reality programs like, say, Intervention. In many ways, these videos are an addiction themselves. The sheer volume of content that comes out on the channel is binge-worthy, and you easily become attached to these figures like a drug, with Laita as your dealer.

Undoubtedly, the star of Soft White Underbelly is Rebecca, a 26-year-old transgender woman living on the streets of Skid Row. She’s become a celebrity on the internet and in Downtown LA, known for her suspiciously sharp cultural references and charming personality. Since her first videos in 2020, viewers have witnessed Rebecca’s peaks and valleys as she struggles with addiction in real time with Laita becoming something akin to a parental figure. He takes her shopping for wigs and dresses, buys her hotel rooms and phones that always get abandoned, and patiently listens as she spews her encyclopedic musings on fashion, art, music and cinema.

In one video, Laita tells her, “I’m so tempted to just take you home, lock you in my place, and never let you go.” The twisted chemistry between Mark and Rebecca has become an internet phenomenon, spawning various Reddit threads about their interactions with some users even digging into YouTube archives and finding an alleged channel she made as a kid growing up in Egypt. Some theorize that she was banished by her wealthy family for being gay, was then sex trafficked and ended up in the States with an expired Visa, which led her to this impoverished lifestyle on Skid Row. Viewers obsess over Rebecca lore like stans do with pop stars, fascinated by how someone so bright and conventionally attractive could end up living off a dumpster. “I think the world of Rebecca,” Laita says. “She’s actually getting her hair bleached right now and will probably walk through the door any minute now.”

Suddenly, I hear Rebecca’s voice on the Zoom call, and the interview takes an unexpected turn. At the time we were speaking, Rebecca hadn’t used drugs in three weeks. Laita is delighted to inform me of this “new Rebecca” and how positive the year is looking for her. “It’s like a yin and yang,” Rebecca says about her relationship with Laita. She shares with me her thoughts on the end of quiet luxury, Death Grips and Mugler. She even reads PAPER, citing our Amanda Bynes cover and saying how she ran into Bynes on the streets of LA right after it came out. It feels like I could talk to her about niche pop culture for hours.

“At first, I thought that this project was completely destroying my reputation,” she says. “But it’s actually empowered me in a way that I didn’t expect. I could start crying.” Though polar opposites, Laita and Rebecca have clearly formed a bond that is undeniable, and you can tell that he wants nothing more than for things to go her way. “She’s not a movie star yet, but that could happen if she stays clean and applies herself,” he says. “She’s such an incredible person.”

Rebecca riffs on and on about her love of the recent Chanel show (“She gets the award for most improved”), Fausto Puglisi, MK Ultra and abstract expressionism. She gets emotional about Laita’s enduring support for her wellness — “Because he has such an emotionally stable way of filming, it’s so genuine that you don’t feel insulted” — and even acknowledges how badly she’s treated him at times. “I deserve a bit of abuse considering some of the mistakes I’ve made for sure,” she says. “I mean, I’ll rough myself up a bit on purpose. It’s like walking through fire, you know what I mean?”

It makes me wonder what makes Laita so sturdy, and how he is so capable of absorbing these intense addicts’ energies without going crazy. Has he ever struggled with addiction himself? “If I have an addiction, it’s to my projects and my art,” he says. “I’m pretty obsessive about how I do that. I go to sleep thinking about it, I dream about it, I wake up thinking about it.”

After our interview, Laita released videos of the new Rebecca, to fans’ delight. He took her to meet the Queen of Melrose, where the two viral superstars tried on vintage clothes and gabbed about Madonna. Commenters relished in Rebecca’s lucid state and the mysterious muse’s future was looking brighter than ever. Then, on March 17th, Laita uploaded “Rebecca’s Final Video,” which features a version of Rebecca that is more self-destructive and combative than ever. Like the story of Frankenstein, Laita became completely overtaken by his own creation. He’d finally had enough. “I can love you and walk away,” he says in the clip.

Maybe we will see Rebecca return, or maybe we won’t. As a viewer, I’m holding out for a comeback, but I know that may not be the best thing for Laita’s mental health. “I’m very aware of how it’s draining me,” he says. “I have to really limit my time down [on Skid Row] now because I can feel it sucking the life out of me.” Even still, there’s something that keeps him coming back to the darkness, an unwavering desire to continue documenting the real stories of raw American life. Like when you’re passing a car wreck on the highway, Laita can’t seem to look away.

Photos courtesy of Soft White Underbelly / YouTube