When An Internet Celebrity Dies, It Can Be Like Losing A Friend

When the natural hair video blogger Meechy Monroe died of brain cancer at 32, it was gutting for women like me who considered her not just a celebrity, but something closer to a friend.

On June 29 this year, someone I follow on Instagram posted a quintet of photos with a couple of significant dates. The caption reads simply: “I am broken. Rest up sis.” The photo had been published by @MsVaughnTV, a Chicago YouTuber who specializes in natural hair and beauty — and lately, lifestyle vlogging. I have been following for years. The deceased was her sister, known to us viewers as Meechy Monroe. She died of brain cancer. Meechy was 32.

I read the news, gasped audibly, and then did something I almost never do: I left a comment, expressing my sorrow and sending condolences to the family. Over the next several days I found myself thinking about Meechy, especially because her sister kept posting photos and video clips of her: laughing, smiling, on a boat, on a train, with relaxed hair or natural coils, casually dressed or dressed to the nines, as a child, as a student. Alive and thriving. After more than a week of seeing these, I burst into tears one afternoon. My sobs were big and loud and initially surprising. Why did this affect me so much?

I was crying for Meechy and MsVaughn and the rest of the sisters I had come to recognize and know in large and small ways over the years of avid YouTube consumption.

I was also crying a little bit for myself.

Prince's death stole my self-control. Alongside thousands of fellow fans, I wept outside Paisley Park. When Whitney died, my eyes bugged, before leaking when the radio DJ played “My Love Is Your Love.” The tears, when Michael Jackson died, were somehow expected, because his legend and his music cast such a long shadow over my own life: I once wrote him earnest fan letters, something I have never replicated for any other star. Naturally, with the tears came the bitter aftertaste of his scandals and alleged crimes. Love is complicated, but it also allows for facts — facts gleaned from so many reports and out-of-court settlements. Still, the tears fell, unbidden.

I also cried when Aaliyah and Amy Winehouse died. I had felt a different kind of kinship with the two of them: Aaliyah was born the same year as my older sister; Amy was a year younger than me. They came into my life at different times, but we had all come up together somehow, even though we were worlds apart. My love for Aaliyah went back to swoop bangs and boxers under baggy jeans; with mouthy north London Amy, I felt like the boldest version of myself. I was crossing the street and listening to the radio when I heard the Aaliyah news, and the sob that formed startled even me. For Amy, I heard the news at home and felt a sharp pang of grief (like you might feel for a childhood friend you no longer speak to), something maybe twice removed but real nonetheless, clawing its way through my chest before it manifested as a short crying jag. I'd been listening to and writing about Amy since Frank, her first album.

Meechy Monroe, who was a couple of years younger than me, had occupied a space somewhere between celebrity and friend in my mind: I looked up to her in a way, but also felt intimately connected to her, by virtue of her tutorials and her age.

This was not the time to die, not by a long shot.

On a cold January morning in 2011, I scheduled my Big Chop and emerged from a small east London salon with a teeny-weeny Afro and an almost tangible amount of trepidation. Like the many black women I’d grown up around, I had no clue what to do with nonrelaxed hair, and so I turned to the internet. I cannot remember the site that introduced me to MsVaughn, but I know I was hooked pretty early on, even as I recognized that her hair type was not like mine, and her advice would be largely useless on that front. That’s how I first saw Meechy: She popped up on her sister’s channel, smiling, dark-skinned, probably rocking a flawless twistout. She had large, sleepy eyes, and you could tell by the way she looked at her big sister that she adored her. I recognized that look, because it is one I give my big sister all the time. They reminded me of my sister and me: We are close in a way that means I sometimes cannot remember if a memory is mine or hers. My sister is one of my People. My soul, in another body.

Meechy Monroe, who was a couple of years younger than me, occupied a space somewhere between celebrity and friend in my mind.

I have a soft spot for younger sisters, and I can spot them 100 yards out. I love famous younger sisters — the Solanges and Serenas of the world — and no-name ones: We all share a certain ineffable quality. I never stopped watching MsVaughn, but I started watching Meechy a lot more. She was darker-skinned than her sister, and her hair type, while still looser than mine, was close enough that I felt I could learn from her. I watched her wash day and detangling videos, buying products she used and recommended.

I studied her twistout technique like I would be quizzed afterward. Meechy was the reason I attempted a Curlformer set. (It came out silky and bouncy on her hair; mine looked like a drowned poodle. Never again.) When she and MsVaughn announced events in their local Chicago, I longed to attend.

Among the hundreds of natural hair channels out there, Meechy wasn’t necessarily innovative or highfalutin. But she was real and funny and charismatic. She always seemed sincere, even when I felt she was selling me something. What did a little sponsored content matter between us? We were “friends.”

When Meechy first revealed her illness back in 2014, I remember calling my sister to let her know. I had previously worked with a cancer charity; I know how relatively rare brain cancer is. That it happened to Meechy, a healthy, fit young woman, was utterly shocking. Meechy was going to fight this, and she was going to triumph. I knew it as surely as I knew anything. When #GetWellMeechy got going shortly after the diagnosis was announced, the response seemed huge: Natural hair companies donated; well-wishes flowed in. Meechy looked so different, so suddenly: Her beautiful hair was gone, and there was now a backward C surgery scar on the side of her head. She posted a few hospital-bed photos on her Instagram account, but many more of her dogs, her sisters, and herself: looking happy, living life in new circumstances, keeping the faith.

I had previously worked with a cancer charity; I know how relatively rare brain cancer is. That it happened to Meechy, a healthy, fit young woman, was utterly shocking.

In May 2015, Meechy celebrated her 30th birthday with a party in one of her favorite Chicago neighborhoods. In a video she posted to YouTube, Meechy rocked wispy curls and told us her big sister had done her makeup. Later in the same video, MsVaughn announced her little sister was in remission, to cheers and loud whoops. Later that year, MsVaughn posted photos from her September wedding, where Meechy had been maid of honor: She was resplendent in pink — and using a wheelchair. After months of being away from Instagram, Meechy posted an update in February 2016, apologizing for her long absence from social media. She mildly noted some “health complications” and ended the caption with “#TrustTheProcess.” All the while, and up to her death, MsVaughn would tell us Meechy was doing OK, and that we should keep her in our prayers. Sometimes, Meechy herself would pop up in her sister’s photos, smiling gamely. This past September, Meechy posted a photo of herself — again using a wheelchair — with her sisters; MsVaughn was visibly and heavily pregnant.

Four months later, Meechy posted another photo, this time with her new niece. We had no way of knowing it would be the last photo she’d ever post.

She died holding the hand of her big sister.

In Meechy Monroe, I saw a version of myself: one of the best possible versions I could imagine. Surrounded by love, respected in her chosen field, surviving and thriving. And then it was gone. My tears, which have continued to fall, catching me off guard, are for a life lost senselessly. My tears are for her parents, and her siblings, particularly MsVaughn, who had been the way for me to even "know" Meechy. Because when I looked at her and Meechy, I saw my sister and me.

In the deep, dark places of my mind, my sister’s is the death I can never bring myself to imagine. When I look at or think of my sister, I find myself recalling Toni Morrison speaking to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a 2015 interview: “My sister? I need her.” I have never lived in a world without my own sister. I never want to. I cannot imagine what Meechy’s sisters are going through right now. I never want to.

On Instagram, MsVaughn posted photos of the family dressed in white, at her little sister’s repast. She said it was “lit.” A few days later, she posted another photo, ending the caption with: “To the natural hair community, I'm sorry for your loss. Didn't get a chance to say that yet.” It was a gracious gesture to include strangers in this most private of griefs. Meechy was MsVaughn’s little sister. But she belonged to us also.

Meechy’s videos and Instagram page are still up. I watched a couple videos over the weekend again, trying to remember her pre-cancer, pre-surgery, pre-death. I thought about her sister’s farewell message. I called my own sister on the phone, and we spoke for a long time.

Rest up, Meechy.

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