Thursday, July 18

Spill Sesh Spills a Secret of Its Own

For the last five years, Spill Sesh, a popular YouTube channel, has covered the world of social media stars, providing detailed recaps and tart commentary on their scandals and beefs du jour.

But even as the Spill Sesh channel racked up more than 700,000 subscribers, the person behind it kept her identity secret. She has not appeared in the account’s more than 1,000 videos and has disguised her voice with an audio filter called monster.

Her viewers have long speculated about who or what was behind the channel. Was it a content farm? Or someone related to a famous YouTuber? Or maybe a famous YouTuber, doing gossip on the side? On Friday, the mystery was solved when the person behind Spill Sesh revealed her secret in a new video.

She is Kristi Cook, a former TMZ staff member who grew up in Florida. In an interview with The New York Times, the first she has given under her own name, she said that she had initially kept her identity hidden because she felt it gave her more creative freedom. Now that she’s self-employed, and doing well enough to own a house in Los Angeles, she sees no reason to stay in the shadows.

Ms. Cook, 26, developed an interest in pop culture as a young girl, during what she described as her “Disney Channel era.” After that, she went online and more or less stayed there. “YouTube was where I was consuming all my content from middle school and beyond,” she said.

She contributed to USA Today in her first year at Florida Atlantic University. Then she moved to California and worked as a tour guide on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, outside Los Angeles. She soon landed an internship at TMZ that eventually became a full-time job, and dropped out of college.

“Our art department was called ‘the galleries,’ and we made photo galleries,” Ms. Cook said. “On the top of the TMZ website, there’s like five main stories, and two of them are photo oriented.” Her work involved “scouring Instagram every single day,” she said, an experience that prepared her for eventual career.

“One day in 2018, I stumbled upon a drama video,” Ms. Cook said, referring to an online genre known as drama commentary, in which a host recaps the ups and downs of people with large followings on YouTube. “I was fascinated by the fact that people were interested in news about YouTubers, because at the time I didn’t think mainstream media was covering it. They’re not on People magazine when you’re at the grocery store.”

She started her own drama channel — Spill Sesh — and proved adept at distilling Instagram posts, YouTube back catalogs and podcast episodes into informative videos for an audience keen to know the latest on Colleen Ballinger, Jeffree Star or the Try Guys.

Even if those names mean nothing to you, rest assured plenty of people are seeking out this information. Ms. Cook’s videos have been collectively viewed more than 350 million times.

Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College, said that so-called tea channels like Spill Sesh draw viewers by taking them “into the main dramatic parts of YouTube that are often seen but glossed over.”

When Spill Sesh began to catch on, Ms. Cook was worried about guarding her anonymity. “In the beginning, I think the scariest thing was people commenting, wanting to know who I was,” she said. But her decision to remain off-camera and to use the audio filter wasn’t enough to keep one viewer from sussing out her identity.

After her first viral video, she received messages from a stranger who had figured out her name through an old Instagram handle and comments from friends on Facebook and her LinkedIn page. Ms. Cook said she was worried that she would lose her job and the health insurance that went with it.

The person who guessed her identity turned out not to be a complete troll, and with his help she started deleting everything she could find about herself online and requesting that her personal information be removed from database websites.

As the popularity of Spill Sesh continued to grow, money rolled in from ads and sponsorships. In an average month, Ms. Cook said she makes about $20,000 from ads on YouTube alone. In her best months, that figure can be as high as $50,000, she said.

She told her parents what she was up to when she started making enough to rent an apartment without their financial assistance.

“I was like, ‘You guys. I’ve been doing this thing on the side. It’s YouTube videos,’” Ms. Cook said. They were confused, but supportive, she added. “I think it’s a hard concept, like, ‘How are you getting a check from this?’” she said.

The income also allowed her to leave TMZ and buy a house. “I would never be able to own a home if I did not do this,” she said.

Since leaving her day job in 2021, Ms. Cook has been a little less secretive about what she does for a living. In addition to family members and some friends, her fellow drama commentators know exactly who she is. On dating apps, she has referred to herself as a journalist and has tried to change the subject when asked for details.

Although she covers a milieu often overlooked by many large news outlets, she does consider herself a journalist. “I really try to make sure what I say is correct,” Ms. Cook said. “There’s obviously been times where I’ve gotten things wrong.”

She made her video reveal with Manny Gutierrez, who is a YouTube makeup artist known as Manny MUA, and who was the subject of the first Spill Sesh video. “The perfect full-circle moment,” Ms. Cook said.

In the video, as Mr. Gutierrez gives her a makeover, Ms. Cook reveals her face to the camera. “It’s actually Kristi,” she says, addressing her viewers in an undistorted voice at last.