When Barbara Dunkelman tells me about her teenage years, I’m reminded of the cafeteria scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. I picture Dunkelman, looking at a penciled map of the cliques. “You got everybody there: Freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, JV Nerds, Asian nerds, the cool Asians…”
Dunkelman, who says she “didn’t belong” in her high school’s social cliques, learned early on the value of community. Her upbringing in Canada was “normal,” save for anxieties that plague typical teenagers.
She was unusually tall, standing 5-foot-9 at the age of 12. She preferred baggy clothes, basketball, and video games. “I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, physically,” she remembers. “I didn’t belong in any group. The girls were very popular and pretty and well-dressed — I had no idea how to do any of those things. I was into sports, but I wasn’t a jock.”
Now, a little more than a decade removed from high school, Dunkelman, 29, has found herself at the center of a large community of people who maybe also feel like they didn’t belong anywhere. And on the internet, Dunkelman might be the most famous person among them.
It’s a balmy August afternoon in Austin, Texas, and RTX, the annual convention for Rooster Teeth productions, is in full swing. And if Dunkelman stops to meet this fan approaching for a photo, we’ll be late. The live recording of the Rooster Teeth Podcast, where she spun a yarn to a capacity crowd of 4,000 about the stains on her hotel room towels (it was gross; it killed), had run just a little long.
“I’m sorry,” she tells the young man wearing a pair of thin, round glasses. A blue RTX lanyard hangs from his neck. Other fans in lanyards across the street soon spot us and begin to approach. “If I stop to say hi to one person, other people are gonna see and come over, too,” she tells me. “You’ll be there awhile.”
I don’t doubt Dunkelman is sorry. If she had time to spare, she probably would have gotten to know his name, where he’s from. They’d take a selfie. She would have done it, I think, because not long ago Dunkelman was also just a fan of Rooster Teeth. Their roles could easily be switched. But in this timeline, if Dunkelman stopped, she’d lose time for the dozens of others waiting a couple blocks away at the mixer that’s in her podcast’s name.
This year’s RTX has attracted 63,000 people to the Austin Convention Center, and we’re trying to sneak by all of them. A black armored car arrives, and after a headcount, we — Dunkelman, Rooster Teeth producer Trevor Collins, two publicists, and me — climb in before more people can spot us.
“There are people who see us as friends,” she says once the car is moving. “We do like that. That’s something we do create. But you also don’t know people like they know you, and you want to make sure there is still a boundary.”
Dunkelman isn’t a celebrity, at least not by the traditional descriptions of movie stars and musicians. But she is an actress and personality, like an MTV VJ if they existed in 2019. You’ve maybe never heard of Barbara Dunkelman before today, but her pioneering rise feels a lot like how creators can become famous in the decade ahead.
Originally from Montreal before moving to Ottawa in 1997, Dunkelman graduated with a marketing degree (after being rejected from a “very selective” film program), which put her on the path to a dream gig at Rooster Teeth, the online media company founded in 2003 with a legion of followers worldwide. It has 45 million subscribers on YouTube and 5.7 billion views in total, but only occasionally gets mainstream coverage save for the very good profile in its hometown alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle.
For seven years, Dunkelman oversaw fan outreach for Rooster Teeth on Facebook and Twitter while building up her own personal fanbase.
Keeping track of her varied projects requires a few bullet points:
- She now stars as one of the four heroes in the hit anime series RWBY, a show with its own action figures and T-shirts she’s asked to sign at conventions.
- She has her own clothing line, French With Benefits.
- She has a sex and mental health podcast Always Open that, based on conversations I’ve had with listeners, offers some of the most important advice young people need.
- Behind the scenes, she’s working on a new initiative that will bring the 16-year-old studio back to its personality-driven roots.
With 462,000 followers on Twitter, 338,000 on Instagram, and 66,900 subscribers on a mostly defunct personal YouTube channel, Dunkelman has reach that many Twitch streamers, social media influencers, and even some working actors may envy. But Dunkelman’s “fame” is only the byproduct of a multi-pronged career that exists at new media companies, like Rooster Teeth, that have formed over the last decade and a half.
In a secluded corner of the outdoor patio of Rain, an upscale gay lounge in downtown Austin booming Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Dunkelman explains to me the day-to-day mechanics of her job that fans don’t see. “Director of Social and Community Marketing” is what her LinkedIn says, and no work day is ever the same. Her podcast and acting duties also make things even more complicated.
For the majority of her work, Dunkelman’s team of five social media managers answer to her, as they receive feedback from Rooster Teeth fans on its array of content — from RWBY to Red vs. Blue, to Nomad of Nowhere, Camp Camp, gaming division Achievement Hunter, the podcasts, and more.
Then, she’s got meetings for Always Open: What’s this week’s episode about? Who are the guests? Are they available? Every episode begins with a shot of alcohol — can we drink that? Figure it out, because now the boss has to record Camp Camp and RWBY. “And then sometimes, I’m traveling for a convention,” she says, breathless, and 10 minutes away from greeting fans at the mixer. “It’s always different.”
Dunkelman hasn’t had a typical day since 2011. That summer, aged 21, she emigrated from Canada down to Austin for a job at Rooster Teeth. It was a job that did not exist until she got there.
“They invented the job for me,” she explains. “It was a new position. Day one was surreal. It was strange. It was a mixture of emotions, a little bit of fear.”
There was also frustration, as Dunkelman saw firsthand the United States’ byzantine immigration laws. “There was this company that wanted to hire me, and it was a whole process trying to prove there was no one else who could do this job.” Even for what looked like a fun, laid-back gig at a company that made online videos where goofball space marines shot each other, there was “all this paperwork and all these lawyers. It should have been so simple.”
Expectations were high for Dunkelman upon her arrival. She had the company’s unofficial keyword in her title: “Community.” An engaged community of fans is what separates Rooster Teeth from many other, bigger brands, and certainly other animation studios. Pixar has never organized a bunch of conventions for its fans, but Rooster Teeth has.
Ever since Rooster Teeth went viral in 2003 with Red vs. Blue, its hit sci-fi satire based on the Halo games, the studio has taken care to nurture the fans who follow them from convention to convention. Their efforts haven’t always been perfect, but encouraging its community to thrive allowed fans to socialize online and IRL at small local gatherings. As with any fandom, the community took notice of some individuals in their ranks. One in particular, who went by the handle “BlawnDee,” became a standout. It was Dunkelman.
“BlawnDee Should Work at Rooster Teeth” is the title of a surviving forum group of 400 members who campaigned on Dunkelman’s behalf. Little did they know Dunkelman was already in talks with co-founder Burnie Burns for a job.
Dunkelman became a fan at 14, when her two brothers got her hooked on Red vs. Blue. A year later, she registered as a member on the Rooster Teeth forums. That started everything.
“I joined the website and instantly fell in love with the community,” Dunkelman recalls. “I stayed active and went to conventions. I would volunteer when I could.”
Today, the social media landscape is far more varied than it was when Dunkelman took over social media for Rooster Teeth. It was basically Facebook, Twitter, and forums in 2011. Today, conversations happen everywhere.
“It’s hard to find where people talk,” she says. Though an informative tweet can go to Rooster Teeth’s millions of followers, “if someone doesn’t have Twitter, they wouldn’t know that information. It’s always changing.”
She tells me how Rooster Teeth wants its website to be the hub for its communications in the future. It’s a tall order, because in its current state, the community forum — once a bustling nexus for the entire fandom — has become a ghost page, a vision of Web 2.0. in decay. Fans have expressed frustration over the state of the forums, notably in a long 2017 thread on Reddit where fans yearned for a central forum. Like the old days is a commonly heard refrain. (Today, Reddit has effectively taken over as Rooster Teeth’s primary community hub.)
Dunkelman says reclaiming ownership of its own space is an ongoing mission.
“It’s not in a great working place, and that’s being updated,” she says. “I always want to make sure our community is heard. It’s a disappointment when we can’t communicate adequately what we can’t get done or don’t have the team to do those. It’s a work in progress.”
“I joined the website and instantly fell in love with the community.”
Everything changed for Dunkelman at Rooster Teeth when RWBY debuted in 2013. The brainchild of the late animator Monty Oum, Miles Luna, and showrunner Kerry Shawcross, RWBY (pronounced “ruby”) is a “magical girl” fantasy anime of four teenage monster hunters who save the world. It is now one of Rooster Teeth’s biggest franchises, its success enabling the studio to produce gen:LOCK, a new series starring Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan.
Unique to Rooster Teeth, the studio has an open environment where employees at any level are allowed to pitch or audition for shows. There’s even an annual “Pitch Fest” that’s held internally. “I wouldn’t say opportunities fall into our laps, but they are easier to access for us,” Dunkelman says.
“I wasn’t going to audition at all. I don’t think I’m good enough,” she recalls to me about RWBY’s creation. At the insistence of colleagues, she caved in and wound up having a “terrible” audition for a supporting character named Pyrrha. “I was questioning everything about it. I’m holding the papers, and I forget to look up.”
To her surprise, she was cast as Yang Xiaolong, the older sister to main character Ruby Rose. She was subsequently tailored to Dunkelman’s appearance (a mane of blonde hair) and personality, including her exhausting love of puns. “She’s motherly, protective, which is what I am to my friends and younger brother.”
During RTX, Dunkelman stands in the middle of a sea of yellow wigs worn by cosplayers. They’re all Yangs. There’s Yangs cosplayed by teenagers. Yangs cosplayed by older women. Yangs cosplayed by men. There are beige jackets and homemade golden gauntlets. One of them, who goes by the name Kisses Cosplay, has wheeled in a custom Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle she modded to resemble Yang’s bike. She tells me it isn’t street legal. “Yang is my spirit animal,” Kisses says minutes after the meetup. “I am Yang.”
“I really love Yang,” another cosplayer tells me. “I love her spirit, her power, her fire. She just brings out the best in me.” When I ask them whether it’s Yang or Dunkelman whom they love, they tell me “both.” They see the two as one.
Another cosplayer, a high school student named Elena, tells me she aspires to work as an “online content creator,” and tears up when she begins to talk about Dunkelman.
“She’s an inspiring character, and Barbara, I really like her as a person,” she says. “I learned everything from Barbara.” Everything? “About life in general. The things they talk about on the podcast, Always Open.”
She shows me Dunkelman’s autograph on her gauntlets. “As someone who wants to get into the entertainment industry, I think she’s really inspiring as a woman who puts herself forward.”
“It’s intense to know people are relying on us to give the right advice,” Dunkelman admits. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve only had so much life experience. All I can do is give my opinion and hope it helps.”
Back at Rain, Dunkelman remembers the “confusing” summer when Always Open debuted — arguably the greatest, if not unfortunate time for such a podcast to premiere.
By 2016, Dunkelman was a regular on the Rooster Teeth Podcast and recognized for RWBY. Her brand — typified by crass humor and unvarnished honesty about her personal life — prompted management to give Dunkelman a “female-driven” podcast. Everyone’s intentions were good, but the concept felt hollow.
“They were playing with the idea of an all-girls podcast. But that’s just taking something and branding it as ‘female,’” Dunkelman says. “Like a BIC pen. They made a pink one for women. I didn’t want a pink pen podcast. I wanted to make sure that, whatever it was, it wasn’t just for the purpose of putting women on a show.”
The show became Always Open, and it stands out amongst Rooster Teeth’s gamer-focused programming and action-fantasy animation. Set in a mock diner, the show stars Dunkelman and guests from inside and outside Rooster Teeth (previous guests include cosplayer Jessica Nigri and former adult film star Mia Khalifa) engaging in honest conversations about sex, dating, mental health, and pop culture. Like classic talk radio, they also answer questions sent in by viewers.
Almost every episode of Always Open begins with Dunkelman and guests doing a shot of alcohol recommended by listeners. Concoctions include a Texas Peppermint (chocolate and cake vodka, peppermint schnapps, and Baileys), a Polar Bear (½ Rumple Minze, ½ vanilla vodka), a Raspberry Kamikaze (vodka, triple sec, fresh lime juice, and raspberries), and Cum in a Hot Tub (two parts vodka, one part white rum, and five drops of Baileys).
“We’re talking about things that are nerve-wracking,” Dunkelman explains. “It’s nice to take a shot to loosen everyone up a little bit, and to celebrate that we are all here.”
Always Open started as a sex podcast — an early design for the show’s logo was a pair of legs akimbo — but its scope quickly broadened as the national conversation became fixated on the behavior of President Donald Trump. The recording of the show’s seventh episode (titled “Young Love Is Stupid?”) took place on election morning.
All day, Dunkelman felt confused. She was at once charged up over the possibility of a female president and anxious over the alternative. “I was under the impression it would be a no-brainer,” she says, “The country would see this guy’s a fucking moron. I was excited we would have a female president. That’s what I thought was gonna happen.”
It didn’t happen. Suddenly, a raunchy podcast where women (and men) can be honest about sex and whatever else comes out of someone’s mouth after a shot of cinnamon vodka felt dramatic. Maybe even important. Here, Dunkelman says, women were free to “grab their own pussies.”
“We’re talking about mental health and relationships and self-care, things people our age, especially women, need to be paying attention to,” she says. “I think it came at a time we needed it, and continue to need it. We live in a very scary climate, and a lot of women feel very unsure with their place. We need female creators and female voices talking about our power and our importance, which I feel that’s being threatened.”
Always Open continues to be Dunkelman’s passion project and possibly one of the few shows that could grow outside the company. “I would like it to grow beyond Rooster Teeth,” says its creator. “We don’t talk about Rooster Teeth. We don’t promote our merchandise. We just talk. Growing beyond Rooster Teeth is very possible.”
In late 2018, Dunkelman and a few other longtime Rooster Teeth staff assembled behind the scenes to form a new, unnamed, talent-first initiative. After 16 years of producing content, Rooster Teeth now faces a different internet, one dominated by boisterous personalities and an “influencer” economy.
Dunkelman and several other members of the studio are tapping into what gave Rooster Teeth a leg up against its earliest competition on the internet: personality.
Rooster Teeth started with creative people making stuff. Now, “we’re looking to get back to that.” Internally, “we’ve compared it to SNL,” she says plainly.
RT Shorts, a sketch comedy series that ended in 2013, will return “to give cast [more] personality than we’ve had before.” Dunkelman will write and direct sketches.
“I want to encourage women to get involved as well,” she says. “We have a very male dominated writers’ room in everything we do, and I’d like to get female voices in there.”
Dunkelman is now at the start of her next chapter at Rooster Teeth, one that will see the former social media manager and message board poster influencing the productions that first made her a fan in the mid-2000s.
I ask her about the future of Rooster Teeth. Will its goals in the next decade fundamentally change its relationship with its community?
“We are their friends; we are not these big, untouchable celebrities people follow on Twitter,” she says. “I feel like we’re still at the stage where we have that underdog mentality, and that’s, I think, why people root for us and wanna see us succeed.”
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Update: An earlier version of this article stated Dunkelman was from Montreal. She lived in Montreal before moving to Ottawa at the age of 7. We apologize for the error.