Last winter, the YouTube star Emma Chamberlain starred in the music video for her boyfriend Tucker Pillsbury’s single “neverletyougo,” though to this day, neither of them will exactly admit to her appearance. Tucker, who performs under the moniker Role Model, has, however, fessed up to writing the song about falling in love with her.
“My dad always says that me and Tucker are soft-launched,” says Emma. The music video, she concedes, “was so soft launch. Tucker, be honest, that was a soft launch.”
“There’s no proof that she was there,” Tucker counters.
“Yeah, there’s no proof,” Emma deadpans, jumping sides once again. “It was a clone. Tucker’s been cloning me. Put that on the record: ‘Tucker’s cloning me.’ I’m kidding.”
In the clip, filmed during frigid golden hour in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, Role Model crosses paths with a faceless girl in a glossy black Aritzia puffer and decides to serenade her down the sidewalk. “Boys mad, got the girl they dream ’bout / Girls mad ’cause I ain’t as free now,” he croon-raps over a woozy beat, detailing the milestones of early love: bringing your significant other home for the holidays, showing off on Instagram, enjoying on-the-books sleepovers, basking in the awe of having found one another. “Texting me, told you come have sex with me / Respectfully, I think about you sexually.” (Much of Role Model’s songwriting is like this; nothing and everything is a euphemism.)
They go on like that, in one long, continuous take, walking the couple blocks around Valentino Pier, a small waterfront park that offers the borough’s best view of the Statue of Liberty, before embracing in a kiss at the end. Emma’s never confirmed her appearance outright, but her fans, many of whom have followed her for years, don’t need her to; they know her hair, her nails, her gait. They also know, though we never quite see her face, there’s no way she wasn’t grinning at him, too.
“I was laughing the whole time. You can’t help it,” Emma admits. “We had a really good time—”
She catches herself. “My clone did, I mean.”
I meet Emma and Tucker on a sunny Friday in Los Angeles, where the late January sky is blue and warm. After weeks of violent rain, LA is back to looking like a postcard. We’re sitting in a bedroom that’s been converted into a fitting room, cramped with racks of clothing for the both of them. Though the couple has attended a handful of public events together, they have also, up until this point, been intentional about keeping their nearly three-year relationship offline. Not an easy feat, for a preeminent Gen Z influencer and an up-and-coming pop musician.
In short, “neverletyougo” was a spot-on soft launch, which, for the record, is a bit of marketing jargon the internet has been repurposed to characterize the stages of declaring a romance online. Early on, Emma and Tucker agreed they wanted to keep things off social media, a place where intimacy is always warped; in TikTok parlance, they are a paradigm of a covetable, low-key, “private but not secret” relationship.
A Valentine’s Day GQ couples shoot, though? It decidedly feels like…not that.
“I know that people are going to be like, ‘Emma, you’re a fucking hypocrite,’ because I always said this is something I will never do,” she tells me when we first sit down. “There’s parts of our relationship that are going to be private forever, and those things we keep sacred. But I don’t think we need to be secret anymore. It’s just like, I’m over that shit.”
“That used to be my mindset: ‘I’m protecting this at all costs and not letting anybody see it.’ But, actually, that’s not fun. It’s not fucking fun. And what’s life about? Having fucking fun, okay? Shit should just be fucking fun! Why stop yourself from doing that?”
Emma, in the midst of hair-and-makeup preparations, is perched on a folding chair wearing baggy jeans and a cropped black jacket; recently a platinum blonde, she’s now sporting a shaggy, reddish-brown cut. (Bleaching your hair, Emma warns me, is tricky business: “You end up with a shag whether you wanted one or not.”) Tucker sits in the doorway on the opposite side of the room, facing out into the hallway as though he were in time-out. These are comical optics. As I sit in the middle of them, I imagine, briefly, that I am suspended within a very 21st-century version of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 1970s performance art piece Relation in Time: two lovers/artistic collaborators, sitting back to back, bound together by their hair.
So, is this…?
“A hard launch? Totally,” says Emma. “This is hard-launch vibes.”
Tucker overhears her using the term from across the room and pipes up: “We have to stop saying that!”
For the record, we are not at Emma’s mid-century LA home: that zen, 1950s-built, multimillion-dollar pad full of cozy beamed ceilings, honey-colored marble, and sublime tchotchkes that was recently featured in Architectural Digest. Instead, we are at another mid-century LA home: a light-filled, sparsely furnished spot overlooking the green hills of Eagle Rock, with maple-wood walls, floating shelves, and some vaguely global decor. There are a handful of books stacked on a living-room side table: Eve Babitz, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Anaïs Nin. (The “LA Airbnb Starter Pack,” if you will.) In the kitchen, there is a sole hand-inscribed copy of Alison Roman’s cookbook Dining In. As the day unfolds, this is where Emma and Tucker will play house. He’ll crack eggs into a pan. She’ll film him with a vintage camcorder. Whenever they catch each other’s eye, they’ll stick out their tongues or goofily throw up a middle finger. In between shots, they’ll turn their backs to the crew to steal sips from a shared Juul, which Tucker has stashed in his pocket. Giddy in their own little world, they’ll appear majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love.
Emma was born in 2001, four years before YouTube was invented, in San Bruno, California, which is, miraculously, the same San Francisco suburb where the platform would build its official headquarters. Growing up in the Bay Area, she started vlogging in high school, mostly about kooky mundanity—her first big hit was a Dollar Tree “haul”—and eventually dropped out to pursue it full time in LA. Now, at 21, Emma is already something of a YouTube elder, and is perhaps the site’s most manifestly influential auteur. Her thumbprint is all over the platforms she frequents: the lo-fi, instinctual video-editing style she pioneered as a teenager, full of meme-y zooms and quick cuts, has become lingua franca for vloggers.
During the pandemic, her vlogging style got more slow and cinematic, as she fashioned herself into a pensive lockdown flâneur: driving around LA in her car, eating cartons of Whole Foods strawberries in bed, standing in front of her bathroom mirror with a pair of orange Fiskars scissors and contemplating if she should cut bangs. A frequent comment under her recent uploads is that her videos make it seem like she’s the only person who survived the end of the world.
And as an early purveyor of a particular Gen Z-flavored, thrift-centric fashion sense and the “photo dump” ethos of candid, untidy posting, she’s broadly moved the needle among the Instagram set.
While she doesn’t vlog as much these days, she’s parlayed her influence (nearly 12 million YouTube subscribers, 16 million Instagram followers) into a namesake coffee brand, high-profile fashion and beauty partnerships, a very popular Spotify-exclusive podcast, and an ongoing gig hosting the red carpet for Vogue at the Met Gala, where she had a viral run-in with Hollywood’s Class Flirt, Jack Harlow, last spring.
Tucker, 25, arrived in LA around the same time as Emma, though he grew up on the opposite ocean in the coastal Maine town of Cape Elizabeth, just outside Portland. He started experimenting with music—rap, mostly—while he was failing his classes at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He eventually caught the attention of the late Mac Miller, incidentally a Pittsburgh native, who flew Tucker out to California, where he then stayed. A musician with his own loyal fanbase who released his debut studio album, Rx, under Interscope last year, he makes bright, hazy pop music with on-the-nose lyrics about having sex and getting stoned, pushing through depression and falling in love hard. (His musical hero is Matty Healy from The 1975.) He’s also interested in acting, and auditioned for the role of blasé stoner Elliot in HBO’s Euphoria, which ultimately went to another sinewy, tattooed musician-turned-actor: Dominic Fike.
Tucker has messy ’90s-heartthrob hair and a torso full of old-school tattoos, and speaks with a low, careful affect. (Emma, a professional chatterbox who’s spiritually more apt to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, tells me she admires how Tucker tries to do everything as precisely as possible.) I’m curious about his perspective on their private-but-not-secret aura, which he maintains is uncalculated.
“We just are trying to be professional within our own careers,” Tucker tells me. The reality of him dating a social-media supernova, who’s been monumentally famous since she was 16, makes for some inherent unevenness. “We had conversations about it from the start. My goal was to never be able to attribute my success or anything to someone else. I was always very proud of what I had built, so I was very scared I was just going to lose that.” After a rollicking headline tour and festival-circuit run last year, he feels confident that he hasn’t.
“We have a very just unproblematic, safe, private—when we want to be private—relationship,” he says. “We’re never going to be posting photos and selfies of us on a beach in Cabo.” That said, it’s not like Instagram hasn’t been of critical importance to their courtship.
While they had some mutual LA friends, their relationship started out like many modern romances: Tucker slid into Emma’s DMs to say her fit pic was fire.
(She remembers the outfit: a maroon turtleneck, black Dickies, black boots.)
But, Tucker confesses, the first moment he really fell for her was, incidentally, the day he first downloaded TikTok.
Scrolling through his feed, he caught a video of Emma, as he recalls it, “trying to twerk to a Dayglow song in the bathroom and surprising herself that her ass moved a little bit. For some reason—I don’t know why, had nothing to do with the twerking, I’m not a fucking creep—but it showed her personality.”
This, to me, actually makes perfect sense. “I feel like I’m good at reading people through a screen,” he clarifies, which is a very useful dating skill these days.
As the universe would have it, all of this went down in the first couple weeks of March 2020. They texted nonstop for two months before they ever met in person. “We were all desperate, we were scared of being alone,” he admits. They were sending goodnight texts. “Way too soon to be doing that.”
“You do this thing where you’re texting someone for two months, where you’re just fantasizing about the meeting every day,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god. She’s going to jump into my arms.’”
When they finally met, however, that is not what happened.
They agreed to hang out at her place. A nervous Tucker showed up on her doorstep carrying an armful of pizza from Crossroads Kitchen, the celeb-favorite LA vegan restaurant of which the drummer Travis Barker is an investor. Then she opened the door and… just sort of let him in.
“I had pizza boxes,” he says, “so I couldn’t even touch her.” A bad omen. They ate their slices sitting on opposite sides of the couch.
“I couldn’t speak, because I was shaking,” Emma says. “I didn’t want to be near him, because I was like, ‘He’ll see that I’m shaking, so I have to be far away.’” Afterwards, they played Fortnite. They did not kiss. It was a mess.
“I psyched myself out, because [we’d] been talking for so long,” she continues. “Like, what if I disappoint him? What if he doesn’t like me in person? What if I’m cringe? What if I’m weird? What if I’m ugly? What if I smell?” In hindsight, she realizes that while they texted everyday for months, they never once spoke on the phone.
“I thought we were never going to talk again,” Tucker laughs. “I almost cried on the way home. In my head, I was just like, ‘I fucked that up. We’re done, I got to move on.’”
A few days later, he mentions Emma mercifully phoned a friend, who messaged him to come to a group hang. “We literally just had to hang out [in a party setting] once, and then we were good,” he says. Though things weren’t smooth sailing yet.
The first TV show they watched together, a few weeks into seeing each other, was Too Hot to Handle, a Netflix reality series in which a group of wildly attractive commitment-phobes are placed together in a house and forbidden from any form of kissing or sexual contact, lest any infractions subtract from their collective prize money.
“I’m so vulnerable this time, and so I’m like, ‘Maybe you could come back over and we could finish the show,” Emma recollects. Turns out that Tucker, per his own meticulousness, had already committed the cardinal sin of finishing the show on his own.
Tucker, I begin, you were so invested that you just…went home and watched Too Hot to Handle by yourself?
“What a fucking freak!” Emma squeals. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, he doesn’t fucking like me. This is the truth!’”
This is also Tucker’s first relationship. I’m curious, on a scale from 1 to 10, how he’s feeling about being in one so far.
“Truthfully, I’ve always genuinely been against them. I can’t express it enough,” he admits. “I really was never picturing myself truly being in love.” He’d spent time, there had been flings, but he’d never felt the feeling of being “in love with someone and wanting to take care of someone, which just makes me sound like a dick. But I’ve honestly never… aside from my best friends, I’ve never felt the desire to take care of someone and be there for them.”
He pauses, considering if these are the right words. “I never thought that you could have someone that you feel like is your best friend and you want to sleep with them.” Then, he met Emma.
“That’s what clicked,” he says, laughing. “It’s like having a best friend that you can make out with. And I can’t do that with my guys back home, because they won’t let me.”
Tucker’s currently at work on a sophomore Role Model album that’s due out later this year. In the process, he’s been thinking beyond the honeymoon phase that was Rx, and taking a closer look at the complicated, self-critical feelings that come with actually being in a relationship. That being loved might mean having to try and love yourself back.
This past December, Emma once again spent the holidays with Tucker’s family in coastal Maine, just like he sang about in “neverletyougo” a year ago. (“Brought you to my family, yeah, my mama said it’s definite.”) She loves playing card games with his family and going to “weird bars” with his home friends. An only child, his siblings are the ones she never had. The state was a point of connection for them early on. She grew up spending summers in Port Clyde, more north up the coast. “I was so excited to meet a Maine man,” she tells me. They love L.L.Bean.
They hang with Emma’s folks when they’re back on the west coast. Her father, whom they both call CP (which is short for his Instagram handle, ChamberlainPaintings; his real name is Michael and he is a prolific oil-painter of peaceful Northern California sceneries), is teaching Tucker how to surf and play guitar.
“Her dad is my fucking boy,” he says.
She counters: “Honestly, my mom is your fucking boy.”
While Emma has made a living off sharing the gnarly details of her life for years, she’s been historically private about the particulars of her romantic life. Zits and tonsil stones and IBS have always been fair game for content, but love—or the respectfully, I think about you sexually of it all—has not. Plus, for a long time, her YouTube persona has been sort of a long-term ode to being alone.
“The difference is I’ve grown up on the internet,” she says. “I started as a teenager and I think a lot of times people still kind of feel like I am a teenager, which is understandable. But I’m an adult now and this—it’s real stuff.”
For Tucker—who had never watched one of Emma’s videos until they started talking, after which he watched all of them—the persona’s never mattered much. When he first messaged her on Instagram, he says, “it was a dark time and I was very much like, ‘Fuck it.’”
“I got a DM from her the next day and I was blown away. I freaked out, called all my friends, and I was like, ‘Do you know who Emma Chamberlain is?!’ None of them knew who she was,” he laughs. “It’s not really our world, my friends’ and mine back home. Now she’s best friends with my friends when we go home, they talk, they ask her for girl advice and everything. It’s beautiful. It’s like everything I wanted.”
Eileen Cartter is a GQ staff writer.
Photographs by Zamar Velez
Styled by Rachael Wang
Hair by Laura Polko at PRTNRS MGMT
Makeup by Jaime Diaz at RARE CREATIVES
Grooming by Jenna Nelson at The Wall Group
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina
Produced by Peter McClafferty