Titled after the first video ever uploaded to YouTube, ME @THE ZOO combines original footage of Crocker with web videos from fans and haters alike, painting an intimate portrait of a young transgendered gay man who may be a fad or a star, and possibly a harbinger of what lies ahead.
“There are those who entertain and there are those who observe,” says Crocker, who roams the house where he lives with his paternal grandparents, camera in hand, documenting every aspect of his life and posting videos to the web. Though born male, he identifies as a woman, which some around him don’t understand. In one of his many home movies, his grandma says, “I can’t realize you’re a girl when you are standing here looking like a guy.”
Growing up gay in small-town Tennessee, Crocker was the target of bullies. Fearing for his safety, his grandmother pulled out him out of public school and taught him at home. Fixated on being liked, but cut off from the outside world, Crocker finally found his own way to connect: at home alone with a computer.
In a bedroom filled with decorations that reflect his undying love for Britney Spears, Crocker began performing monologues, dressed as a girl and dancing in front of a camcorder, and posting the videos to MySpace. Practically no one watched – until his 2006 video “This or That” caught on, generating eight million hits in six months, as well as new followers and “friends.” Crocker fervently defended Spears when he felt the media was ganging up on her, posting the rant-video “Leave Britney Alone!” It swiftly went viral, propelling him to a new level of fame, as well as attracting scorn and mockery from fans and haters alike.
The film also spotlights Crocker’s relationship with his homeless mother, Tanya, who gave birth to him when she was 14. An Iraq War veteran, she suffers from a substance abuse problem and post-traumatic stress syndrome, but accepts and loves her son for who he is, as he does her. Although raised by his paternal grandparents, Crocker is still very close to his young mother, who has endured much hardship throughout her life. He explains how he “saw some of my younger mom in Britney. And I was drawn to her. It was familiar to me.” In a poignant scene, Crocker comes to her aid after receiving a call from the psych ER of the local hospital, and checks her into a hotel for the night.
Crocker could handle hateful reactions in the blogosphere, but quickly discovered the price of celebrity after receiving threatening phone calls at home. However, things started looking up when an independent production company shot him in a reality-series pilot. He headed to LA to pitch it, relishing in the attention of media and fans, but Crocker and his backers failed to sell the series. Though he had a guest spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and appeared in a Sierra Mist commercial, his fame appeared to reach a plateau.
Back in Tennessee, Crocker eventually cut his dyed-blonde locks and assumed, at least at home, a more demure look. Turning to music, he recorded several songs, one of which, “Freak of Nature,” was accompanied by a risqué music video and skyrocketed to #2 on iTunes. The 24-year-old now earns a monthly check from Google via a YouTube partnership and revenue-sharing program, but his future remains uncertain.
ME @THE ZOO was directed, produced and edited by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch; produced by Nicholas Shumaker and Jack Turner; executive produced by Vin Farrell, Jim McKay, Michael Stipe and Rachel Grady. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.