YouTube star Trisha Paytas cries into Domino’s pizza boxes on her kitchen floor with the hypnotic facility of Britney Spears gyrating in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform while pleading, Hit me baby, one more time. When Trisha’s not in her LA apartment devouring delivery food, she’s sitting in fast food parking lots, sometimes bored, sometimes hysterical, always consuming—7-Eleven nachos, Burger King Mac ’n Cheetos, Taco Bell Cinnabon Delights, often with an image of herself eating and crying emblazoned across her stomach on one of the t-shirts she sells to her obsessed and ravenous fans. Trisha also releases her own music, but it’s the drive-through confessionals and chain restaurant binges that have made her iconic to her 4.5 million YouTube subscribers.
Trisha is the apotheosis of the American mukbang. She’s been recording herself eating since 2015, though the genre began in South Korea, nearly ten years earlier, when generally silent hosts started broadcasting themselves demolishing gigantic dinners. The allure was partly social. The mukbang—literally, an eating broadcast—appealed to viewers looking for companionship during their own meals, but the early videos were also, notably, often free of conversation. The promise of a virtual dinner partner, then, doesn’t fully explain the attraction of the mid-aughts mukbang. There was something inherently pleasurable about just watching someone else enjoy a really big meal.
The Korean phenomenon crossed over to the United States through a 2015 compilation video of YouTubers reacting, dumbfoundedly, to the eating broadcasts. “So wait, is he just eating?” social media star Tyler Oakley famously asked. It took only three weeks for American bewilderment to turn consumptive. On April 24, 2015—twenty-two days after Fine Brothers Entertainment released their mukbang reaction video—Trisha Paytas filmed her first.
By then, Trisha had already tried everything she could to get famous. She’d competed on the second season of Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, appeared on an episode of My Strange Addiction for her excessive tanning habit, performed on America’s Got Talent as a rapper, and spoke out on Dr. Phil against slut-shaming. She’d also, a month earlier, self-released her first EP, Fat Chicks, in the hopes of becoming the body-positive Britney Spears she’d dreamed of being ever since moving to Hollywood in the mid-aughts.
The “Fat Chicks” single didn’t make a splash, but the footage of her lying on her sofa eating junk food started a digital movement. Baked goods and Funyuns became her “ . . . Baby One More Time.”
Trisha had already tried everything she could to get famous.
In the span of the video’s forty-one minutes, Trisha eats Disney princess cupcakes, a bag of Ruffles, scrambled eggs and buttered toast, and peanut butter from the jar, all washed down with a canned Starbucks energy drink. Whereas her Korean forebears gorged mostly in silence, Trisha rattles on about the dramas and nonevents of her life. She starts off the video dejected, bemoaning men and Internet-haters and loneliness and her body until, eventually, she’s spent so much time snacking and updating strangers that the abjection and the shame and the heartbreak that prompted her to start filming becomes an afterthought. Despite its quantity, the whole spectacle is so mundane that even she seems kind of bored with herself. It was her first mukbang, but it had all the world-weariness and prosaicness of her two-hundredth.
Still, the unsensational video blazed a trail for eating vloggers across the country. Trisha has gone on on to film countless more eating videos that consistently attract six- and seven-figure views, and she’s inspired many more American mukbangers to eat fast food in their cars for strangers to watch, from Steph Pappas to Wendy’s Eating Show to Chantal Marie.
For all the copycats, Trisha is inimitable. She’s at once unremarkable and dazzling—tedious, unimaginative, yet insanely videogenic. She doesn’t even dramatize her enjoyment of food; usually she’s too distracted, too busy talking about how hot it is in Los Angeles or how much traffic there is or how annoying her boyfriend is to play up the spectacle of eating. She isn’t even particularly good at eating: Trisha won’t touch almost any sauce, eats only the skin off of her fried chicken, can’t have cheese on her burgers, and prefers her pizza plain. The most successful professional eater on the Internet has the palate of an eight-year-old.
But this refusal to grow up might, after all, be her boldest, weirdest act of consumption. Trisha is aesthetically descended from a long line of LA white girls who’ve opted out of any kind of maturation beyond their sexuality. The image of the California woman-girl hedonist blossomed in the 1970s with writers like Eve Babitz, who glamorized the idea of protracted adolescence—staying a reckless, over-indulgent, slightly grown-up Lolita who laughed at the imperatives of patriarchal capitalism (producing and reproducing) while wielding her unseriousness and sex appeal to wickedly enjoy their perks. In her social diaries and novels, currently being adapted for TV, Babitz lives out of hotel rooms, takes speed, sleeps with married men, and does everything she can to avoid getting a job. In real life, she wrote and partied into the early eighties, until she got sober and then, in 1997, sustained a burn injury that largely put an end to her public appearances.
Babitz was a gifted aesthete with ties to the art world—a nude photograph of herself playing chess with Marcel Duchamp taken when she was twenty was her entrée into public life and she went on to date Ed Ruscha—but there is something undeniably proto-reality TV about her conversational sensibility and obsession with Americana. When she bottoms out at a Palm Springs dinette watching her friends eat cheeseburgers and fries in Slow Days, Fast Company, she might as well be gazing at Trisha Paytas.
Trisha is the beginning and end—and beginning again—of this pop party-girl hedonism.
Trisha is only the tip of the surface of the unlikely televisual afterlife of late-70s LA female pleasure-seeking and public confession. As she drives her custom-made Pink G-Wagen—and new Pomeranian puppy (named, of course, Mukbang Gucci)—to every fast food joint in Hollywood, she recalls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, strutting across rural America and laughing at the responsibilities of adulthood in the mid-aughts reality staple The Simple Life. The debauched Peter Pan Princess continues to thrive on today’s reality-TV docu-soaps, where grown women often live like teenagers—and broadcast their experiences in confessionals forms. There are the West Hollywood waitresses and hostesses on Vanderpump Rules, who party and fight and stave off commitment and procreation; last season, it was revealed that breakout cast member Lala Kent even puts herself to sleep at night with warm milk in a baby bottle. The Iranian-American women of Shahs of Sunset, many now in their late thirties and forties, still black out in Vegas and wheedle their parents for money. Then there are the Real Housewives themselves, who have used their infamy for a second chance at high school, going to different themed parties every week and on group vacations that have all the petty raucousness of summer camp.
Unlike these other reality-TV personalities, Trisha is the editor, producer, and camerawoman of her own diaries. She is the beginning and end—and beginning again—of this pop party-girl hedonism. Her mukbang career fuels her luxury lifestyle. Interspersed between gas station and drive-through eating shows are haul videos showcasing $1,300 T-shirts and new sports cars. Behind every act of consumption is more consumption. She eats; we watch; she buys; we watch; she eats.
Trisha has called herself Andy Kaufman reincarnated in the body of a girl, but her Britney Spears fandom feels more central to her project. In our post-pop queen moment, when an Ariana Grande bop here and there is the closest we get to a diva at the top of the charts, Trisha might herald the future of bubblegum. She’s currently on a six-city tour where she performs her original singles, but the live mukbang part of the show is the real draw, when she consumes McDonald’s on stage, in real time. In June, a mash-up of the popular A Star Is Born meme, featuring Trisha, spicy chicken sandwich in hand, went semi-viral. In all seriousness, though, it might actually be the birth-of-a-superstar narrative of our moment.
The eating video queen of the Internet is the late-late-capitalist incarnation of the 1970s LA It girl and the early-2000s pop princess, distilling both autobiography and mass consumption to their purest forms possible. There’s no chorus or bridge, no semblance of a storyline, just the consuming of consumption in all its consumptive glory. In the neon light of Hollywood 7-Elevens, Trisha has made it.