IN GOD WE TRUST
Meet the Mormon YouTube Influencers Shaping Millions of Teen Minds: ‘Church Is a Big Part of Our Life’
A new generation of LDS-affiliated influencers have taken the social media world by storm, racking up millions of followers and views with their modesty-first raison d'être.
The same introduction prefaces each of Summer Mckeen’s YouTube videos. A message, in lowercase Courier font and splashed across a distorted backdrop of a rainbow, reads, “Hello I’m Summer Mckeen & here’s my video.” Depending on the type of video—vlog, beauty tutorial, Q&A—the 20-year-old will then launch into a one-way conversation with her camera.
Mckeen’s sunny face, framed by blonde waves and distinctive dark eyebrows, fills the screen as she invites her subscribers to join her on her Starbucks run or a photoshoot. Astute viewers may notice that on her trips to the coffee chain, she will never actually get coffee. You see, indulging in caffeinated substances is discouraged by her religion—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
“Being LDS, we try to stay away from any addictive substances,” Mckeen told The Daily Beast. “So, drinking and smoking and even coffee we try to stay away from. Overall, we just try to be clean.”
The social media influencer was raised Mormon in Oregon before moving to California at the age of 18. And she is one of several prominent, Gen Z Mormon YouTubers who are paving the way for a new breed of celebrity, a sort of anti-Kylie Jenner role model for teens, if you will.
For the McKnight sisters, twins Brooklyn and Bailey and younger sister Kamri Noel, being on YouTube is something of a family business. As young children, they often modeled hairstyles on their mother Mindy’s beauty tutorial channel, Cute Girls Hairstyles, which was launched 10 years ago. Now, the twins are 19 years old and Kamri is 16. Combined, they have over 8 million subscribers. They talk about YouTube as if it is an inheritance.
“I’ve pretty much been doing YouTube since before I could read, so it’s always been a part of my life,” Kamri explained. “It was pretty natural that when I was 13 it was time for me to start my own channel.”
Though the sisters have not specifically dedicated any videos to talking about being Mormon, Brooklyn describes the family as “extremely religious,” meaning their religion inevitably influences the content they produce.
“We’ve just kind of been showing our life [through YouTube] and our church is a big part of our life,” said Kamri. “Whenever we’re at church, we are always vlogging after church.”
In a few rare instances, they have partnered with the church to vlog religiously affiliated service trips or to promote charity campaigns. Yet, though they do not often talk about their beliefs directly, their “fans are very aware of what religion we practice,” Bailey told The Daily Beast.
After watching a few videos, it is not hard to understand why Bailey is so sure that viewers know they are LDS. The content they create skews more kid-friendly than that of many other YouTubers, with flashy graphics and themes like twin-swap pranks and dressing up as characters from Disney movies. They never curse or partner with brands that aren’t “clean.” Brooklyn and Bailey just completed their freshman year at Baylor University, a private Christian college in Texas, having never attended a college party. Bailey explained, “I don’t want my brand to be tainted by a picture taken of me with somebody else who might be doing something inappropriate.” She clarified that it’s not just because they are underage; they insist that they will never imbibe alcohol “even if we are past 21.”
Unsurprisingly, the strict standards of the LDS church do not always align with social media culture. Each of the young women The Daily Beast spoke to lament the distinctly 21st-century dilemmas that come with being Mormon and an influencer. Summer Mckeen described her experiences on a trip to Fiji, presumably referring to the sponsored trip she took with the Dote shopping app last August. (Disgraced college bribery scandal star Olivia Jade Giannulli was also on the trip, but that’s a story for another day.)
“I went to Fiji and everyone was posting bikini pictures,” Mckeen said, “and it’s, like, the norm to be posting pictures of yourself in a swimsuit when you’re on vacation and everything, but for the people who are LDS that’s not really the norm.” (She did, for the record, end up posting a few bikini pictures.)
The McKnight twins have also found themselves isolated at events with other influencers because of their religious standards. “There have definitely been times where we have had to say no [to going to events],” Bailey said, “or go and drink water, or maybe we don’t attend the party, or we’re the only ones wearing modest outfits, et cetera.”
The inspiration for this article was a video posted by 16-year-old Utah native Marla Henry, better known by her YouTube alias “Marla Catherine.” The 12-minute-long video, called “PREPARING FOR COACHELLA (my first time!),” shows the teenager excitedly getting ready to go on a sponsored trip to the music festival. She would be staying in an Instagram-worthy sprawling villa with several other young YouTubers, complete with pastel-colored bicycles and a swimming pool filled with flower petals.
In the video, Henry struggles to find outfits for the three-day festival that adhere to her modesty standards as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Festival clothing and covering up typically do not go hand-in-hand, especially at Coachella where hordes of famous models flock to the desert in bralettes and barely-there denim cut-offs. With her spoils from Urban Outfitters and Claire’s laid out on the bed in front of her, Henry explains to the camera, “The thing is, I basically have, like, modesty standards I’m trying to uphold, but still look cute.” It is an age-old teenage girl problem—fretting about what to wear to an important event—only the girl is a devout Mormon and the event is a VIP influencer trip to Palm Springs.
“I just feel like with my religion, I’m shaping my life to fit the religion rather than trying to shape the religion to fit my personal life,” Henry told The Daily Beast. “Basically, I want to make sure that my life is in line with the Gospel as close as possible and I’m not going to let going to a festival temporarily detract from my standards.”
Of all of the girls, Marla Henry seems to be the most openly religious. Her channel, which she runs with her older sister, has racked up 1.4 million subscribers and in the description she provides a link to the LDS website. The channel is fashion-focused, a sort of virtual guidebook in stylish modest dressing.
In 2017, Allure published a story about the disproportionate number of popular Mormon beauty bloggers. Back in 2011, a Salon essay titled “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs” sought to understand why it seemed like so many bloggers were Mormon, peppered with witticisms about their homes that “look like Anthropologie catalogs” and “elaborate astronaut-themed birthday parties for their kids.” There are Reddit threads devoted to answering the same question. The most direct connection between Mormonism and blogging seems to be the longstanding value in the church of journaling and keeping written records.
YouTubers like Mckeen, the McKnight sisters, and Henry are simply adapting the tradition to the Gen Z era, in which parents armed their kids with tablets or smartphones and, subsequently, shorter attention spans suited to consuming content in 10-minute bursts. In the case of Brooklyn, Bailey, and Kamri McKnight, they literally represent the next generation of Mormon bloggers, following in their mom’s beauty-blogging footsteps.
With social media celebrities, especially on a platform like YouTube where confessional, stream-of-consciousness-style videos are popular, a certain level of authenticity is demanded. Being spiritually required to maintain a “clean” lifestyle and therefore a clean image is handy when you are expected to broadcast your entire life to the masses.
With more than two million subscribers on YouTube, her own reality-TV show on Snapchat and a Maybelline lip gloss line, Summer Mckeen is very much a celebrity, even if her name is unfamiliar to those above the age of 22. Though she is insistent in her devotion to “continuously progressing [her] relationship with God,” she is conscious of the influence she has over her fan base of “young, impressionable girls.” Having started her channel when she was 13 years old, she has grown up in the public eye, and with that has had to grapple with her shifting religious beliefs.
Mckeen explained, “I think it's important to look at [the church] and see like, OK, what are they teaching, what are the beliefs and is it something that I believe for myself or is this something that I think I believe because my parents believe it?”
After reflecting for a moment, she added emphatically, “I have kind of figured out my own testimony and I love the church so much.”
Correction: This article originally referred to Summer Mckeen’s last name as “McKeen.”