Tahira Yaqoob talks to the social media sensation Breanna Youn’s parents about their daughter’s fame, converting to Islam, and their decision to move to Dubai.
Social media sensation Breanna Youn’s parents convert to Islam and move to Dubai
She is just four years old but already has close to a million fans hanging on her every move.
Like many little girls, the impossibly cute Breanna Youn loves Hello Kitty, ice cream and all things pink.
But the similarity ends there. For despite coming from a modest background with a father running his own seafood export business, in her short existence, Breanna has been propelled from being a normal toddler to having a jetset lifestyle of being flown business class around the world, put up in five-star hotels, chauffeur driven in limos and inundated with designer labels.
It is all thanks to an Instagram account her mother started in her name just four months ago.
At first, 27-year-old housewife Jocelyn thought nothing of posting videos and pictures several times a day of her daughter’s sweet lisped sayings or staring up at the camera with huge soulful owl eyes.
She assumed only friends and family would be interested in Breanna’s day-to-day life as she scampered off to school with her six-year-old brother Braxton, danced to Korean pop music and had the occasional tantrum when she wanted ice cream or chocolate.
But then the followers started coming in droves. At the last count, they numbered 780,989 with an average 30,000 new followers joining every day.
They have showered her and her family with gifts, from business-class flights and free hotel stays to Louis Vuitton handbags, Chanel and Tiffany jewellery, hampers of chocolates and cookies, banquets and reams of outfits.
One mystery benefactor – who prefers not to be identified – even flew the Youns to the UAE. The family is now hoping to make a permanent home in Dubai, thanks to a huge Middle Eastern fanbase.
Her fans dwarf those of Pixie Rose Curtis, the Australian three-year-old who was dubbed the Princess of Instagram earlier this month and made international headlines with her 68,000 followers - less than a tenth of the number eager to find out what Breanna does next.
“I don’t know why people love Breanna so much,” Mrs Youn says honestly.
“She does not have any special talent that she is good at, like dancing, and she does not do much on camera. She only does a little drama and smiles and poses.
“But she has something inside her that makes people love her and makes them happy. She is just very sweet.
“Whenever I put her in front of a camera, she is a natural and loves posing. There is something special about her.”
One thing is for sure – like America’s Honey Boo Boo and much of today’s younger generation, Breanna wears her heart on her sleeve and is completely comfortable living her life in public, in front of a camera - much as the glare of publicity on one so young might leave the older ones among us slightly discomfited.
From her heartrending sobs when her mother watches another child’s videos on YouTube or when she discovers she has 600,000 followers - “I’m crying because I’m happy” she weeps - to her infectious giggle, imitating Shakira’s dance moves and telling her followers: “I lub you”, she is completely at ease in front of the lens.
Her hundreds of thousands of followers are besotted, with some even telling Mrs Youn: “I love her more than my own children”.
One mother posted a message saying her day was not complete until she had seen Breanna online.
Part of her appeal, no doubt, is her ability to cross cultures and geographical boundaries.
Half Korean, half Filipina, she speaks four languages– English, Korean, Tagalog and some Arabic – and her videos show her zipping seamlessly between all four with Breanna often signing off by saying “bosaah” (kisses in Arabic).
Her popularity first began rising a year ago, when her mother joined Facebook and posted pictures of her photogenic daughter.
At the time, the family was living in Busan in South Korea, where Breanna’s Korean father, Junghyun, 34, was running his seafood business.
“People followed me because of her and said I must make a separate Facebook account for her,” says Mrs Youn, who is from Davao in the Philippines.
She began a Breanna fan page, which drew more than 165,000 fans, then started posting six-second videos on a Vine account, which quickly attracted 250,000 followers, many from the United States.
But it was when she started an Instagram page for Breanna that she was swamped by fans, mostly from the Middle East.
“Most of them were posting comments in Arabic,” says Mrs Youn.
“There were thousands of them. It was difficult for me to understand so I had to get them translated one by one.
“I have no idea how they found her in the first place but they love her.”
Most of her followers in the region are from Saudi Arabia. Breanna has had invites to present on game shows and model everywhere from Bahrain to Indonesia, while her fanbase has spread as far afield as Malaysia, Kuwait and Singapore.
It was one such invitation that first brought the family to Dubai in May for a two-week holiday.
The trip had a profound and lasting impact as Mr and Mrs Youn – who were brought up Catholic and Mormon respectively, but decided to convert to Islam.
Mrs Youn began wearing an abaya and encouraged Breanna to learn Arabic from YouTube videos. Together with their new-found Arab friends, the four-year-old quickly picked up phrases such as “fideyt kum” (I’m dying for you), which have become a signature of her Instagram videos.
Mrs Youn thinks much of Breanna’s quick-spreading fame is down to her high-profile followers, from prominent Emiratis to celebrities like the singer Shamma Hamdan, who drove excitedly to pick up Breanna in her Mercedes Benz and took her for dinner at the Burj Al Arab.
“Now Breanna knows she is famous,” says Mrs Youn. “If we go to the mall, she will ask why people are not taking pictures with her. She is used to it.
“In Korea, she got attention and people wanted pictures with her because she is cute. Here, they want to take them because they recognise her. It makes us feel really special.
“These famous people love this ordinary little girl and now she is extraordinary.”
Are there any pitfalls to fame – particularly of the 15-minute variety – at such a young age? And is there a danger of overly proud parents becoming addicted to the attention their child gets?
Critics have been quick to accuse Pixie’s mother, PR guru Roxy Jacenko, of posting unsuitable pictures and cashing in on her child’s fame by demanding companies pay $200 a time for Pixie to pose with their products.
And the Youns have had their fair share of negative comments, with Mrs Youn prompted to post a message on Instagram last week stating: “This account [was] made to capture the special moments of my life for my adorable children Braxton and Breanna. Not wanted to be fame, exploit or anything else [sic].
“My children are living just like other normal kids. They play a lot, sleep a lot, eat a lot…I am sharing it for them to see when they grow up as memories and also to make people happy. I know what’s best for my kids.”
Mr Youn admits he worries about the negative impact fame can bring.
“Sometimes I worry about what will happen in the future when they grow up,” he says.
“We cannot stop this now. If Breanna is sick and we do not post a picture or video for three or four days, we are bombarded with thousands of emails from every country asking what happened.
“We are treated like famous actors here. Even if we are in a restaurant and Breanna is hungry, people hug and kiss her and you cannot say no. I hope people keep loving her.”
Mrs Youn adds: “As parents, you are happy that people love your children. They fall in line for Breanna’s picture at shopping malls.”
As for the children, they are simply happy to be in Dubai, where they are treated like royalty.
Breanna says: “I love Dubai more than Korea, even though it is very hot.”
Braxton adds thoughtfully: “I am smart, but Breanna is beautiful.” The family returned to South Korea in June but yearned for Dubai and were back a month later, where they enjoyed their first Ramadan and Eid as Muslims.
The city, says Mr Youn, is a natural fit: “All our friends and business partners in the Philippines are Muslim.
“It was a big decision because it changed everything and it is very different from Korean culture. Koreans love drinking and smoking and temptation is everywhere.
“I could not stay there. The children are happy here and as Muslims, we feel we belong here.”
The Youns, who are living in a temporary rented apartment, are hoping to find a permanent home soon.
As for the future for their children, Junghyun and Jocelyn’s hopes are pretty simple and do not involve fame or fortune; only that they “go to a nice school and complete their education.
“As parents, we did not finish school but we want that for our children.”
“They can be models, actors or doctors. They can be whatever they want, we will support them.”