Jennelle Eliana’s Rise to Vanlife Stardom
How a 21-year-old and her pet snake took YouTube by storm
A 21-year-old woman living alone with her pet snake in a van traveling around the state of California might not sound like a recipe for viral fame, but since she uploaded her first video barely two months ago, Jennelle Eliana has become a YouTube sensation.
Eliana is the closest anyone has come to becoming an overnight star on YouTube. She garnered more than 1.3 million subscribers in her first three weeks and is projected to hit 2 million in the coming month. Though she’d posted just three videos by the end of July, hers was the most subscribed-to YouTube channel in America that month. “If you haven’t heard of Jennelle Eliana, you might want to open your ears, because she’s just about everywhere right now,” Dan Courrier, host of Creator Fundamentals, a YouTube channel that provides tips on audience growth, said in a recent video.
Part of what makes Eliana’s success so fascinating is that she essentially came out of nowhere. It takes most YouTube vloggers years to gain an audience, but Eliana, a seemingly average girl living in a beat-up van, did it in a matter of weeks. Other YouTubers have produced videos offering their own speculation on the phenomenon, and Internet sleuths have devised elaborate (and false) conspiracy theories. But in reality, there’s nothing nefarious about Eliana’s meteoric rise.
Eliana never even started out looking for fame. As a teenager growing up in Sacramento, California, she became interested in sustainable living and spent hours watching other vanlife YouTubers. After graduating high school in the summer of 2016, she got a job working for a sporting goods company in Silicon Valley (she prefers not to name the company over safety concerns) and enrolled in community college part-time to study marine biology. She moved into an apartment with a roommate, and was stuck paying $900 per month for a home she really only used for sleep. After seeing others live out of their vans, she was interested in living more sustainably herself.
So, in July 2017, she pulled together $2,500 and purchased a 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer. She spent a month refurbishing it, borrowing tools from her former employer to get the job done. She outfitted her vehicle with everything she’d need to live, including a hammock to sleep in while she was finishing the conversion. By January 2018, she’d constructed a proper bed. The transformation from van to home included ripping out the van’s original carpet and adding three types of insulation (Great Stuff home spray, a layer of Reflectix, and Polyiso foam board), a steel bar sink, and storage. Because Eliana only uses her sink for brushing her teeth and washing her face, the Valterra manual hand pump attached to her faucet is connected to a 64-ounce Hydroflask, as opposed to a bigger water tank. For the majority of her water needs she relies on a seven-gallon plastic tank that she fills up with purified drinking water.
Eliana forwent a stove buildout in favor of a Dometic CFX 28-inch compressor fridge refrigerator, where she keeps snacks. For 99 percent of her meals, she eats out. “It’s a luxury I can afford now that I don’t pay rent,” she says in a video. She added Velcro dots around her front windows to attach felt-covered Reflectix pads to keep out the sun and stay warm while she’s sleeping. She keeps her shoes in a basket, her clothes in trunks, and a pop-up “dining room table” in a pouch behind the van’s passenger seat.
The most unique thing about Eliana’s van build, though, is her custom snake terrarium. She added sliding glass doors to a kitchen shelving unit, and uses an eraser wedge to keep them closed. Because her pet snake, a ball python named Alfredo, needs to keep warm, Eliana installed a heating pad below the makeshift tank connected to a thermostat that runs off the main car battery.
For two years after Eliana moved into her van, she remained in Silicon Valley and still worked her 9-to-5 hourly job at the sporting goods company. She documented some of her local travels around California on Instagram, but it wasn’t until June 26 of this year that she finally launched a YouTube channel.
“Sup dudes and dudettes, this is my crib,” she wrote at the time. “I’m 20 years old and I’ve been living in this self-converted 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer for sometime now. I’m so stoked to finally be here on YouTube. Stay tuned for some wild and not so wild adventures.” Her first video, “VAN TOUR | SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER lives VANLIFE with PET SNAKE!” took off almost immediately.
Within her first month she had crossed one million followers and has since uploaded four more videos, mostly answering common questions about how she makes food (she eats out), where she showers (at a local gym), and why she chose to live in a van (she didn’t want to spend half her income on rent). Eliana explains that she does, in fact, live in the van and has for a while, despite the conspiracies calling her a fake. “I have been through a lot to make this my reality and I find it so ridiculous that people are accusing me of not living in my van because I’m too pretty or my van is too clean,” she says in one video. “Thank you! I work really hard to keep myself and my van clean and I’m glad someone noticed.” With every upload, Eliana’s fan base grows.
YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is powerful, and Eliana has grown so fast mainly because her videos are a confluence of everything YouTube viewers seem to be loving right now, which almost guarantees her a certain level of distribution. As more people watch and respond positively with likes and comments, YouTube spreads her content even further.
One of Eliana’s biggest draws is that she’s a solo female traveler, a category that is exploding on YouTube this year. Since 2016, uploads with “solo travel” in the title have risen 80 percent, year over year, with 2019 being the largest year yet, according to YouTube. And of the top 100 most viewed videos with “solo travel” in the title, over 70 percent were uploaded by women. There’s a growing interest from YouTube’s wide community in not just what it’s like to travel alone as a woman, but also as a woman of color. Black women are creating travel guides and trip diaries, and providing helpful information for those seeking to replicate their lifestyle. The majority of the top solo female travel content on YouTube is from the vanlife community, with videos related to vanlife having increased more than 4.5 times since 2017.
Eliana’s videos are lighthearted, lo-fi, and, though they fall into the broader vanlife and travel vlogger categories, they’re also a reaction against the over-produced, hyper-curated content many travel influencers trade in. Eliana doesn’t own any fancy equipment; she shoots and edits everything on her iPhone. Because her van doesn’t have Wi-Fi, she is often slow to upload. Her content is relatable to hoards of her Generation Z peers. “If you look at other videos of vanlife they’re all very similar, cinemagraphic shots of places they’ve traveled. They have expensive build outs and vans, the destinations they go to are luxurious,” Eliana says. “I try to be as realistic as I can be and very candid about my life. I don’t travel to all these amazing crazy destinations…. I have a cheap, beat-up van that I tried to make as cozy as possible.” Her pet snake also sets her apart. “Everyone else has dogs,” she says.
Eliana stressed that she’s a huge fan of the vanlife community, but many of the channels she grew up watching featured millennial couples who had burned out of the corporate world and wanted to uproot their lives to travel. Eliana says that for her, the lifestyle isn’t as much about travel as it is just not having to pay rent or buy into some corporate hierarchy right out of school. Eighty percent of Eliana’s subscribers are women aged 18 to 24, and her channel provides them with an alternative path that’s more realistic to what they might be able to achieve.
Her interest in sustainability has also helped her grow. Eliana thrifts much of her clothing and resells it on Depop, a popular clothing resale app, under the handle @ElianasGasMoney. “I try my hardest to cut down on waste and single-use products,” she says. “I use reusable bags and cups.” These interests play well into YouTube’s algorithm. Videos on sustainable living have doubled this year, according to YouTube. “I feel like now, we’re starting to be exposed to more content about what our world is going through with pollution, climate change,” Eliana says. “I feel like the younger generation is putting a foot down and making changes to their lifestyle so that we can all collectively make the world a better place, which is awesome.”
Last month, Eliana finally quit her day job at the sporting goods company and decided to go all in on YouTube. According to SocialBlade, a YouTube analytics platform, she could be making as much as $27,700 per month on ads. Eliana says she’d also love to partner with like-minded brands on sponsored content in the future. She never anticipated becoming a YouTube star, but now sees it as a huge opportunity. She is on an indefinite break from school and already planning her first big trip to several national parks this fall, all the while adjusting to her newfound fame. “I honestly have no words, I still don’t think I understand how crazy this is,” she says. “People recognize me in every city I’ve been going to.”
As her fan base grows, she’s also managed to win over many old-timers in the vanlife and travel community on YouTube. They see Eliana’s videos as further validation that their alternative way of living is gaining mass appeal. Jordan and Kaylee, a YouTuber vlogger couple who run a vanlife channel called The Nomadic Movement, commented on Eliana’s success in a recent video. “Knowing that one of her videos has more views than our entire channel, we want to tell you how that makes us feel,” Jordan said. “To be honest guys, it’s freaking awesome.”