iJustine Goes from YouTube Sensation to Producer by Taking the High Road
The Internet star says South by Southwest audience's reaction to documentary A Brave Heart was "mind-blowing"
For Justine Ezarik (aka YouTube phenom iJustine), the decision to transition from making everyday – but hugely popular – videos to producing a feature-length documentary was more personal than business.
It started when Ezarik, 30, befriended Lizzie Velasquez on Instagram. Though YouTube turned Ezarik into a star, Velasquez encountered a very different, cruel reception – at just 17 years old she stumbled across a video with 4 million views that dubbed her the “Ugliest Woman in the World” because of a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight.
Velasquez took up the mantle of combating Internet bullies, and she and Ezarik eventually crossed paths. Ezarik said she felt compelled to help her new friend “in any way [she] could,” ultimately leading to a role as a producer on the documentary A Brave Heart, which tells the story of Velasquez, now 26, and her bravery in the face of bullying.
“Obviously I wanted to get her story out there,” Ezarik told PEOPLE, “but [getting involved] was more me coming at it from a friend perspective.”
Mixing friendship and work has proven successful for the pair, who were met with a standing ovation when the film premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, on March 14.
“Seeing the reactions of the crowd, when little kids stand up and say, ‘This really touched me, I can’t wait to show it to my friends so that they won’t bully people’ – it’s cool to see it from their perspective,” says Ezarik.
“And having adults stand up in the audience and say that it’s not just kids that are being bullied,” she adds. “It’s very cool to see how impactful it’s been.”
As a producer, Ezarik said she was more concerned with her friend’s message than anything: “We just want to tell the story. We’re not 100 percent concerned that it’s the most perfect-looking thing ever.”
She also took personal enjoyment in finally getting to see the finished project with Velasquez (and, oh, say a couple hundred casual acquaintances).
“The best part [of South by Southwest] is, I hadn’t been able to see the movie with Lizzie next to me,” she says. “To actually be able to sit in the theater and exchange commentary back and forth – I know it’s such an emotional movie, but it was another success to be able to see it with her. And to see the audience reaction? It was mind-blowing.”
As she continues pursuing a career as a producer and Internet celebrity, Ezarik – who’s also starring in Fight of the Living Dead, a zombie-apocalypse reality competition premiering Sunday on CONtv – has a pretty straightforward mission: Take the High Road.
Naturally, it’s a motto she got from Velasquez.
“We often don’t know how to respond to negativity [in real life or online]. I sometimes want to engage and try to bully the bully. That’s not an answer either,” she says.
While she acknowledges ending bullying altogether is a lofty goal, she hopes, through her work, she can do her part: “You can definitely subside it and make the Internet a much friendlier place.”