About a week ago, Todrick Hall, a former Arlington resident known for his YouTube stunts, posted a video titled Beauty and the Beat on YouTube. As we mentioned the other day, the video, a politically incorrect but funny -- and impressively elaborate -- send-up of Beauty and the Beast featuring Katie Stevens as a Belle who seems comfortable but out of place in her 'hood, has been linked by the Tosh.0 website, as well as by Gawker, The Huffington Post and a whole slew of other people, so many that at this writing, it's within 1,000 clicks of hitting 3 million views.
We've been following Hall since he was on season nine of American Idol, as we've been following the other North Texans -- Casey James, Tim Urban, and Alex Lambert -- all of whom made the Top 24 (with James placing third and Urban sixth) on that Idol season. But it's been a while since we talked with Hall, and Beauty and the Beat seemed like a good excuse for a chat. But first, here's the video again, with the stuff from the interview below.
Hall says he was inspired in part by The Real Housewives of Disney, a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Lindsay Lohan as Rapunzel and Kristen Wiig as a hot-mess Cinderella. Wanting to do his own Disney spoof, but not finding any black characters that he could play, Hall decided to bring his world to Disney.
"I thought, what would people in ... the ghetto think if a princess was walking through their neighborhood," Hall says by phone from the L.A, area. "And I wanted to show the dynamic, because in Belle's world, she was an outcast. Here, she's the only white person in a black community, but she doesn't see herself as different, necessarily. This is just a normal day in the life of Belle."
The video was filmed on location in Crenshaw, a southwestern Los Angeles neighborhood. The houses, park, street, barbershop -- that's all real. The only real problem Hall had with filming, he says, was persuading some of the crew to come to Crenshaw.
"The production team was a little bit scared to come to Crenshaw," Hall says. "They have nice cars and really expensive camera equipment, and they were a little bit nervous. But everyone was so nice and embraced us, and gave us free food and wanted to be part of the video."
Besides Hall and Stevens, who is also an American Idol alum, the video features Vonzell Solomon (also from Idol) and a cast of YouTube personalities including DeStorm Power, GloZell, Miles Jai and Antoine Donson.
"A lot of these people are YouTube stars who get asked to collaborate on stuff all the time," says Hall, whose stunts like this Beyonce flash mob -- which received praise from Beyonce herself -- have made him a YouTube star. "[The Beyonce video] may have made people think, 'OK, there's something special about this guy.' But when I told them the idea, they didn't even have the lyrics or anything, and they were all like, 'Yes, of course, I'll do it.' " Hall says he called his co-stars on a Monday and Tuesday, and recorded the song on Wednesday.
The response to the video has been mostly positive, although some commenters have accused it -- some with a hint of irony, some not -- of being racist. Hall says he was prepared for that.
"I think the energy of the video is really good, because [Belle] doesn't look down on [her neighbors]," Hall says. "The fact that I made Belle white, I knew was going to be controversial, but I don't feel like I'm laughing at my entire race. Certainly everybody in my race doesn't act that way. But there are people who do the things in the video. These are caricatures of something that I've experienced in my own life, in neighborhoods that I was raised in."
Hall says he expected the video to be popular, but he didn't expect it to approach 3 million views inside of a week. "I don't even know what the real definition of 'viral' is," Hall says, "but by any definition, this video went viral. It's the No. 1 most-shared video in the country. That just goes to show people appreciate you taking something and putting a spin on it."
Since his Idol run, Hall has not only been active on YouTube, but he's appeared in several theater productions in Los Angeles and New York (he also famously campaigned to be on Glee -- see clip below). He says that Beauty and the Beat has earned him attention from TV, film and Internet companies, and that his manager received more than 100 e-mails the first day Beat was online. "It's awesome," he says. "That one video opened so many doors." He can't say what those doors are yet, but even if the things don't work out, you can bet you'll still see him on YouTube.