Being funny on social media is serious business for Stevenson alumna
Depending on how she feels each day, Steph Barkley might decide to be Melania Trump. Or Vinny, an Italian man from New Jersey. Or Cheryl, the ditzy-yet-wise Alaskan.
Using her costume collection that includes 35 wigs, the Stevenson High School alumna plays a wide range of characters and creates comedy sketches about them, attracting more than 1.5 million followers on social media.
That attracted the attention of companies like Hulu, VH1, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Malibu Rum and others, who hired her to create comedy content.
"I love what I'm doing," said Barkley, who grew up in Lincolnshire and now lives in Los Angeles. "Every day, it's about how can I get this idea made? What I do in between (acting) auditions is constantly create material."
Barkley's career began on a completely different track. After earning an art degree from Indiana University, she hoped to work as a portrait painter and scenic artist. But instead she starting designing sets for films and TV commercials in Chicago. She moved to New York and became an art director and set designer for dozens of well-known movies and TV shows, including "Sharknado 2," a season of "Saturday Night Live," E!'s "Ice Loves Coco" and Bravo's "Bethenny Ever After."
Despite her success, her heart wasn't in it. So in 2012, Barkley made the tough decision to give it all up, move to L.A., join the improv group The Groundlings and pursue her real passion: performing.
"I just said, I'm going to stop (art directing) cold turkey and put all my time into creating content," she said. "And that was around the time Vine was coming out."
Barkley started posting videos on Vine, a social media site featuring 6-second videos, and quickly built an audience of 725,000 followers on that platform, in addition to 104,000 Instagram followers.
Sometimes she's just herself in the videos, doing funny sketches about ordinary things like watching "The Walking Dead" or cleaning ugly clothes out of the closet. In several videos, Barkley does an air-headed, Eastern European-accented portrayal of soon-to-be first lady Melania Trump.
"It's a fun character to play," Barkley said. "It has nothing to do with political views. It's a clownery. She was feeding me material. It doesn't matter what political views anyone has, you can laugh at it."
But in this year's heated election season, not everyone was laughing. Barkley got her share of nasty comments on the videos.
"As soon as I put Melania up, they were like, 'Why didn't you make fun of Hillary?' But I did make fun of Hillary! Trump supporters are so adamant to jump on it and be angry, before they even looked," she said. "I can't let it get to me, because it's too much. That's one thing I took from being an artist ... I don't have judgment on any type of person."
Barkley frequently takes her characters out into the real world. Once she took Vinny, her Italian man character, to Key West, Florida. She put on her gray Vinny wig, taped her chest down with Ace bandages and went to the beach, staying in character all day and talking to people.
"I'd give everyone looks and smile, and say, 'Those are nice shorts. They look good.' Or, 'Where are you from?' I was with my aunt and uncle, and I think they were disturbed," she said, laughing. "I love going out in character. It's kind of like an art form comedy. All of the art experience I've had goes into the detail of the characters now."
Barkley was just accepted to the Funny Women Fest in L.A., and she's been auditioning for acting jobs, landing roles on small TV shows, movies and web series. She's also writing a web series based on her YouTube channel's popular characters, police officers Costi & Sully.
"I like to make sure the laughing keeps going," she said. "It's not always easy. You're trying to get your stuff seen. But I ultimately have a blast doing it."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who'd make an interesting feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.