Jimmy ‘MrBeast’ Donaldson brought jobs to his North Carolina hometown. Now locals are part of the show, whether they like it or not.

The walls of Sup Dogs in Greenville, N.C., are covered in photos of college student activities, including events with YouTube celebrity MrBeast, who lives in Greenville and has built his company there. (Photos by Matt Ramey for The Washington Post)

GREENVILLE, N.C. — The mysterious structures appear on the outskirts of town with strange frequency: a re-creation of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a 10-story video game monster, giant dominoes. And then there are the earthshaking explosions, which have become so common that county officials distribute “planned pyrotechnics” notices over email and Facebook instructing homeowners not to call the police.

But living in the same town as YouTube mega-celebrity Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson does have its perks. His company is always hiring — for artists, cleaners, accountants, even construction workers with experience in building a haunted house. And he and his crew sometimes drop into local spots to perform their signature acts of stunt philanthropy. One waitress at a hot-dog joint won a private island.

In the online creator economy, Donaldson is an international legend with more than 200 million YouTube subscribers, famous for wildly viral videos in which he pays for 1,000 people’s cataract surgeries, stages his own Olympics, tours a billion-dollar superyacht and spends 50 hours buried alive.

But in Greenville, population 88,000, the 25-year-old multimillionaire holds a different kind of power. Since posting his first YouTube from his bedroom as a child, he has become a one-man driver of the local economy. One regional development official now ranks YouTube content creation among the town’s biggest businesses, alongside pharmaceutical manufacturing and the local forklift plant.

Donaldson’s contribution to North Carolina’s 12th-largest city now includes supersized production studios, a workforce-training program at the local university and a labor base of 250 contractors and employees. In one leafy neighborhood, he owns five homes where he houses friends and employees — basically an entire cul-de-sac.

The MrBeast company’s impact on Greenville throws a spotlight on how remarkably conventional the online-influencer business has become, bringing jobs, money and opportunity to cities thousands of miles from Hollywood. Donaldson has reshaped this Southern college town and its rural surroundings into what some locals now call “Beastville” — a small playground of viral spectacle centered around a huge, unpredictable star. And the people have changed, too.

There are the local schoolkids who want to be MrBeast, or at least appear in his videos. There are the college students who want his freebies to pay for tuition, bar money and rent. There are the adults at local institutions — the hometown college, the county government — who work to navigate the eccentricities of his online empire, and the folks eager to land one of his weird, part-time jobs. And then there are the everyday citizens of Greenville, who are mostly befuddled by the whole thing — and, at times, scared and annoyed.

As the creator economy grows, more American towns could soon look like Beastville, either as empowered engines of hometown influence or as bewildered backdrops for the latest viral craze. One man here said it was like living next door to an “otherworldly presence”: an open-air studio full of contestants and extras, where MrBeast is always the biggest draw.

Founded on the banks of the Tar River in the late 1700s, Greenville first became known for processing and warehousing tobacco. In the 1960s, it became slightly better known as the home of East Carolina University, a former teachers’ training college that now has 27,000 students and well-regarded medical and dental schools.

In job listings, Donaldson’s company tells recruits that the town is “widely recognized as the cultural, educational, economic and medical hub of Eastern North Carolina,” and local developers have started calling this part of the state the “Inner Banks,” riffing off the hot spot coastline of the Outer Banks.

But Greenville is flat and landlocked, its miles of soybean fields crossed with strip malls and industrial parks. People spend their whole lives here without leaving, and some folks don’t quite understand why Donaldson is one of them.

“He could buy anywhere he wanted to,” said Roger Peery, a cabinet builder who’s lived nearby for 27 years and whose brother went to school with Donaldson’s sister. “But he chooses to be here.”

In 2012, Donaldson was a bored 13-year-old student at the Greenville Christian Academy, a small evangelical school on the town’s rural fringe, when he posted his first video to YouTube under the username “MrBeast6000”: a short clip of him playing the sandbox game “Minecraft.”

He soon became famous as a wildly inventive, slightly obsessive online-video mastermind, first for his hypnotically simple stunts (counting up to 100,000 over 40 straight hours) then for his dramatic spending sprees: “I Gave People $1,000,000 But ONLY 1 Minute To Spend It!” “I Uber’d People And Let Them Keep The Car.”

“Once you know how to make a video go viral, it’s just about how to get as many out as possible,” he told Bloomberg News in 2020. “You can practically make unlimited money.”

Donaldson is now the second-most popular creator on YouTube, beaten only by India’s best-known music label. Forbes estimated in September that he made $82 million between June 2022 and June 2023.

Donaldson in recent years began parlaying his internet fame into side businesses, including MrBeast Burger, a ghost-kitchen fast-food chain delivered via Uber Eats, and Feastables, a line of cookies and chocolate bars now sold at 7-Eleven and Walmart.

He also, with less fanfare, started snapping up real estate in the neighborhood where he grew up, offering premium prices for five brick homes near a senior center and an agricultural history museum and buying them under the name of a shell company to preserve his privacy, real estate records show. His mother — who has taken an active role in at least one of his business ventures, including helping execute the MrBeast Burger endorsement deal, according to a legal filing — still lives nearby.

The home-shopping spree became a source of local gossip and envy: One four-bedroom home with a sunroom and wooded backyard, which Donaldson’s company bought for $680,000 in 2021, had been sold four years earlier for roughly half that price. “I wish he bought this one,” said one homeowner down the block, sitting in his open garage one recent day, listening to the rain.

When Donaldson’s crew first moved in, the families and retirees of the subdivision outside Greenville, with its picket fences and towering oaks, were instantly unnerved. Food-delivery cars began arriving at all hours, and star-struck young kids walked the winding streets with their smartphones out, hoping for a sighting of the YouTuber next door.

“The sightseers, or whatever they were,” said Buddy Medlin, an insurance adjuster who lives on the block, “would crowd up everything.”

Donaldson already had a mythical, Santa-like reputation among Greenville’s grade-schoolers. At Sup Dogs, a hot dog joint where managers seat Donaldson’s crew at a reserved table on the roof so they can eat in privacy, owner Bret Oliverio said children in town for a recent Little League tournament peppered the staff with questions about what Donaldson was up to lately. So had Oliverio’s 6-year-old, who also was a fan.

“I told her, ‘Would you want to meet him?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, but I’d rather be in one of the videos,’” he said. “That’s almost like every kid’s dream now: to make it big in a MrBeast video.”

Local college students were just as excited for a chance at Donaldson’s legendary largesse. One worker rolling silverware at the Coffee & Spice cafe said his roommate got $50,000 for tuition. A waitress at the China 10 restaurant won a car. “He’s like a one-man lottery ticket,” said Ryan Hagwood, a recent ECU graduate who once won $1,000 by standing in a circle.

Some business owners in town have turned getting Donaldson’s attention, and free publicity, into an obsession. After seeing how a mob of children crowded outside a space near her hairdresser where Donaldson’s crew was working, Miki Ragsdale, the owner of a pastry shop, Aji, said she pitched his crew to come by and see how much candy they could eat. “Nobody got back to me,” she said.

The folks in Donaldson’s neighborhood say their initial fears of a descent into madness have faded. Medlin said his wife and two teenagers all now follow MrBeast on YouTube and sometimes talk about his latest video at the dinner table.

Donaldson has shared few details about who lives in the five houses, and his publicists declined to answer questions or make him available for an interview. The gabled suburban houses, with their dormer windows and half-acre lawns, give few hints of their unconventional status; one has a giant driveway with yellow parking bumpers for seven cars.

Neighbors say the homes seem to be used mostly by his friends and employees, and MrBeast job postings say new hires can use “company-provided housing for the first 90 days.” In May, after the New York Post reported on Donaldson’s home deals and some jeered that he was turning Greenville into a “company town,” he tweeted, “Only I could get canceled for giving people a place to live with no strings attached.”

Donaldson spends most of his life at work, in a cavernous production warehouse known as Studio C. In a video tour last summer, Donaldson showed off his apartment there with a bed, a weightlifting bench and a refrigerator containing only yogurt, water and Red Bull. He told a podcast last year that he had left the studio only once in the preceding 20 days.

“All I do is wake up every day and obsess over how to make the best videos possible,” Donaldson said in another interview this year. “It’s the only thing that’s ever really made me happy.”

Wanted: ‘Can handle STRESS’

Adam Kenney’s roommate knew a MrBeast production manager, so when Kenney heard last year that Donaldson was casting for a big stunt, he thought he knew what to expect.

But when he arrived at Donaldson’s re-creation of “Squid Game,” the Netflix show about a capitalist dystopia’s deadly game show, he was blown away — not just by the sets, but also the intense amount of labor he saw off-camera.

Like 455 other contestants, the bartender was given a numbered track suit and instructed to compete in a gantlet of elaborate challenges for a half-million-dollar prize. He “died” early but still made $2,000 from two days of work, which mostly involved waiting, huddled in a giant crowd, as cameras and producers swung into place.

“It’s crazy how much work goes in behind the scenes that no one even knows about,” he said. “Everyone thinks these videos — you just run in and they do it in half an hour. We were standing for eight hours just for the first day. And it went for a week.”

The stunt, which Donaldson later called the “craziest video we’ve ever filmed times 100,” has since become the most-watched MrBeast video, with nearly a half-billion views. For locals here, it also helped highlight how rapidly the company has grown. Donaldson has said the video cost $2 million to build and produce, plus another $1.5 million in pay and prizes.

To build its workforce, Donaldson’s company has posted job openings for a wide range of roles, including producers, web developers, 3D prop artists, thumbnail designers and YouTube statistics specialists.

Writers, one posting said, must “research trends and tactics for retention against YouTube algorithm” as well as draft lists of props, challenges, prizes and punishments. Camera operators must be “willing to get dirty, run and jump to get the best shot.” One posting, for set construction designers, said applicants must have four years of experience designing theme-park-style attractions as well as “excellent creative intelligence,” “HUGE time management skills” and the ability to “handle STRESS.”

The productions are closely guarded secrets; some residents routinely drive past plots of land where Donaldson has built sets in the past, trying to divine what might come next. On one of the plots, near some manufacturing campuses on the edge of town, construction workers in trucks and heavy machinery lumbered recently around three enigmatic structures encircled with “No Trespassing” signs. One of the structures later appeared in a video in which Donaldson creates the “world’s most dangerous trap.”

His company has posted for a $25-an-hour summer intern on the accounting team to help manage the company’s debit card, which it said makes 1,600 to 2,500 transactions a month. For contract labor, “task force” members are hired at $15 an hour for on-call work assembling props and cleaning up messes after extensive shoots.

In the postings, the company says it specializes in the “foundational pillars of viral content” and offers recruits unspecified “competitive” salaries, health insurance coverage, company-matched 401(k) plans and relocation expenses. Employees, the postings said, have the opportunity to work “endlessly to create the best video content in the world,” “stay cutting edge in an ephemeral culture,” and “push the limits of what was once thought of as impossible.”

To help supervise Donaldson’s filming, officials with Pitt County Emergency Management, which covers Greenville, have asked pyrotechnics contractors brought in for video shoots to get permits for their blasts. They also distribute email and Facebook alerts to let residents know everything’s under control.

Many homeowners, however, never see the alerts, which in any case give few details. One July alert said a special-effects company called Cape Fear Effects would be overseeing some controlled explosions behind a volunteer firehouse during three filming sessions between 5 and 10 p.m., and that there was “no concern for public safety.”

But one resident in a manufactured-home community half a mile away said the booms shook the pictures off her walls at 10 a.m., leading her and several elderly neighbors to walk outside, terrified. “It felt like I was in a war zone,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she worried how people in her neighborhood might react.

The blasts repeated half a dozen times throughout the day, as well as around midnight and just before dawn the next morning, she said. “My nerves were shot. I was torn all to pieces,” she said. “Imagine you’re trying to sleep and it feels like someone is literally running a car into your house.”

Randy Gentry, the county’s emergency management director, said “unforeseen delays” had forced the production to run later than expected and end around 11:50 p.m. County officials, he said, had determined it was safer for the technical crew to proceed with the pyrotechnics rather than defuse them. (They have since changed the rules.)

Some former MrBeast workers say Donaldson’s perfectionism fosters a ruthless work environment. Though Donaldson has rejected that criticism, he has acknowledged his workload can be brutal: In August, he said he was “dying mentally” from filming seven days a week. “I don’t have a life. I don’t have work/life balance. … And I don’t recommend it,” he said in a June interview.

The rumor around town, according to one ECU graduate, was that the average MrBeast hire lasts just 90 days before burning out. Others defend the high-pressure environment, arguing that a job with MrBeast has become as sought-after as a chance to work with a top Hollywood director.

“They’re so big up there. They can replace you so easily,” Kenney said. “That’s why they’re so uptight. They want everything to be perfect.”

Natalie Broder, a Sup Dogs server who used the $25,000 she won during a MrBeast challenge to pay her student loans and buy music-festival tickets and an espresso machine, said she remembers the crew saying before her segment that they were in the 19th hour of a 28-hour filming day.

“I don’t think it’s for the faint of heart,” she said. “But, I mean, you’re working with the number one YouTuber. You have to understand his drive.”

A job with MrBeast is very different from a job with one of Greenville’s other major employers: Thermo Fisher Scientific (laboratory instruments), Catalent (pharmaceuticals), Hyster-Yale (forklifts) and Grady-White (fishing boats).

To find talent, Donaldson partnered last year with ECU to create a training program for people who want to work in the creator industry, which ECU called “an emerging leader of the global economy.” The program will feature courses in “critical technical and creative aspects of producing content for YouTube,” though its start date has yet to be finalized, said Sharon Paynter, the university’s acting chief research and engagement officer.

Paynter said the course — which will allow students to earn a certified “microcredential” — is “aimed at training entry-level workers to be successful contributors to creator companies on Day 1.” She cited an industry market analysis that said entry-level jobs in the creator business start at around $50,000 a year.

“Every YouTuber is hiring people, and they’re spending like six months to a year training them. Whereas with this course, people can come out of the gate and already know the fundamentals,” Donaldson said last year in an announcement video with the university’s chancellor. “When they graduate, they can take 10 steps down the road and come get a job.”

Josh Lewis, the president of a local economic development group, the Greenville Eastern North Carolina Alliance, said MrBeast has expanded Greenville’s financial footprint: More viral videos means more local jobs, inbound flights, hotel stays, construction work, retail spending and tax revenue.

Lewis said his group is actively working to “grow the cluster” of local creators by touting proximity to MrBeast, as well as the budding local infrastructure.

“The vast majority of folks we talk to want to understand how they can scale this into a profitable venture where they can make a living,” he said. “We can help remove the luck factor out of the next generation of content creators by creating the ecosystem in which they can thrive.”

As for MrBeast, he said he’s become an avid viewer, if only to stay in the loop “in case there’s anything wild going on.”

“As we’ve seen in many of his videos,” Lewis said, “they like to blow things up sometimes.”

Reporting by Drew Harwell and Taylor Lorenz. Additional reporting by Razzan Nakhlawi. Design and development by Emma Kumer. Design editing by Chloe Meister. Photo editing by Monique Woo.

Editing by Mark Seibel and Wendy Galietta. Additional editing by Wayne Lockwood and Anne Kenderdine. Additional support by Megan Bridgman, Maite Fernandez, Kyley Schultz, Brandon Carter and Jordan Melendrez.

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