Photography by Cait Oppermann
Branden Miller collects fragrances. He’s got 25 in total, arranged carefully on top of a wooden dresser in his Daytona Beach, Florida, bedroom. The spread — which includes colognes, perfumes, and at least one unisex scent — is expensive, each glass bottle cast in its own sultry shape. “Would you like to smell some?” he asks. I say sure, and he starts ripping a piece of paper into small strips, placing them in a row on the dresser. “This is my favorite thing to do,” he says.
Branden, 25, lives in a one-bedroom in a quiet gated complex 15 minutes from the Daytona shoreline. He shares the apartment with his long-term partner, Xavier, a long-limbed drug and alcohol counselor and graduate student he met on BGC, a pre-Grindr gay dating app geared toward black men. The apartment’s decor is mature. Hanging by the door, there’s a framed painting of a rainy Paris street. Leaf-like decals billow across the walls. “Everything in my house I bought with my porn money,” Branden tells me.
He started doing porn when he was 18, and it paid his bills until recently. But his life changed in 2015, when he made a video in which he, wearing a blonde bob wig with brown roots, delivered a monologue in a husky half-whisper: “I just want to let you girls know that I’m a real messy bitch — a liar, a scammer. I love robbery and fraud. I’m a messy bitch who lives for drama.” Joanne the Scammer was born.
Branden had performed in character online before. As Miss Prada — a transgender diva, trouble-making comic, and occasional prostitute — he’d amassed both fans and notoriety. But Joanne is his most successful invention so far. Today, Branden’s Joanne the Scammer Twitter account is, objectively, an internet sensation. It’s populated with endlessly clever missives, both video and text-based, about ripping people off, robbing, cheating, and lying. Some posts are outrageous, but others are strangely empowering. “Scam today before today scams you,” goes one recent tweet.
In videos, Joanne wraps herself in gray fur, speaks in an exaggerated posh accent, sucks down Newport cigarettes, and runs up charges on other people’s PayPal accounts. She hacks, she steals, and she lies under oath. Joanne the Scammer is an egocentric criminal, and she wears her flaws like an elegant necklace, paid for with embezzled funds.
Branden’s life is less action-packed. At home, he keeps the curtains drawn, the AC on full-blast, and the lights low. Some of his hobbies include painting, giving himself facials, and hand-making dog toys out of socks and yarn. He doesn’t leave often — unless it’s Friday, when he goes shopping. After the scent-smelling session, we drive his Chrysler to a strip mall full of chain stores a couple miles away; it’s only Thursday, but he makes an exception. He’s dressed in sweatpants, a Polo cap, and white Air Jordan slides with socks. Colored contacts make his eyes a stormy, unnatural gray.
Ulta doesn’t have the cologne he wants, so he picks out some $36 body cream made with Dead Sea salt instead. “Shower time is fun,” he says. “You sit there and you have your little moment.” The lady at the checkout counter asks if there’s a chip in his credit card. The card in his hand is scratched up, ancient-looking, and literally held together with tape. Definitely no chip.
“What’s the deal with the chip anyway?” Branden asks her.
“It’s supposed to be safer so people can’t steal your identity.”
“Oh wow,” he says, giggling a little.
Our next stop is Volusia Mall, a 93-acre, by-the-books shopping center. As we cross the hot asphalt toward Dillard's, Branden tells me that buying fragrances makes him feel powerful. “I like to go in here like I’m not going to buy something, then prolong it, and buy something at the last minute,” he says. “It makes them think you don’t have money, then bam.”
Today he’s on the hunt for Spicebomb, the masculine scent by Viktor&Rolf, makers of Flowerbomb. “When I’m buying perfume for Xavier, I lie and say it’s for my mom,” he tells me later. “Some things are too gay for me.” Since he’s picking up cologne, though, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He finds Spicebomb straight away, then eyes a Gucci scent he doesn’t have yet. He buys them both.
Branden grew up in Hopewell, a small city in Virginia. He was adopted as a baby by an older white couple: Buddy, who died of cancer when Branden was 12, and Veronica, a stay-at-home mom. Branden didn’t learn he was adopted until age 17, when a family friend broke the news. He doesn’t know much about his biological parents, except that they were black and Puerto Rican. “I read my adoption papers when I found out,” he says. “It said a lot about my mom, but not her name, nothing I could contact. On my dad’s side it was just like, ‘Black and tall.’”
“I went to an all-black school, and people would say, ‘Branden, you’re black,’ or ‘Branden, you’re adopted,’” he says. “I was like, ‘No, actually I’m white.’” He laughs about it now, but remembers the discovery as traumatic. “That was tragic, I’m not going to lie. I found out I was adopted, and then I found out I was black. I was like, Oh shit, none of these people are really related to me at all! That was a fucking…” He stops for a second. “I thought I was white. I had white friends. I was a white person! I still have my moments where I’m like, Oh my God. That’s really awkward.” Once, he asked his mom why she hadn’t told him the truth. She said she was scared he’d run away.
Branden says he was always interested in entertaining, and good at determining what worked. In one old photo, where he can’t be older than 9, he wears an unkempt black wig. One hand is on his hip, and the other held high in the air, like a pint-sized homecoming queen waving from atop a parade float. “The wig was always a sign of funny for me,” he says. “I put the wig on and people laughed.”
As a teenager, he’d go on his family’s computer to watch Chris Crocker, the pre-Vine performance artist who rose to prominence after his teary-eyed “Leave Britney Alone!” monologue went viral in 2007. Branden was a fan, but also convinced he could do better. “My goal was to upload a video on my dial-up computer and be funnier than Chris Crocker,” he says. “I thought I was going to blow up on YouTube, like him, because I thought I was funnier.”
At school, he struggled with telling friends he was gay. Branden says he dressed “trade,” the nebulous slang term for a man who’s into guys but doesn’t advertise that fact. “I was very masculine. I had braids. I had girlfriends. I acted the whole part,” he says. “Not too many people knew I was gay. It’s really awkward, but they thought I was a ladies’ man.” He came out at 16, after his older sister found gay porn on the family computer. “I remember my mom saying to me, ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!’ Shit like that.”
After finding out the truth about his birth parents and his race, Branden started playing around in drag. “I went to high school in drag with one of my friends and it shocked everyone,” he says. Before graduation, he dropped out. And for several months after, he dressed as a woman every day. “Creating the characters stemmed from me finding out I was adopted, and trying to run away from that,” he says. “I knew at the end of the day I wanted to be a man, but I just didn’t want to be myself. I felt like everything was a lie.”
Branden’s never held down a conventional job. When Buddy died back in 2003, Veronica collected enough money to keep her kids happy. “Anything I asked for I got,” he says. “Thinking of going to work was scary for me. Even in school, I could never listen. I don’t like authority or being under someone, so I thought of ways to get easy money.” After leaving high school in 2008, Branden moved to Florida with his adoptive mom and started dating Xavier.
He started doing porn not long after the move, signing up for a cam site after a one-off XXX video he posted got a bunch of attention. He typically acted straight, catering to viewers who fetishized gay-for-pay actors, like another character entirely. He performed for years and, sometimes, sold fake porn videos over Skype comprised of cobbled-together footage from other places on the internet.
As a teenager, Branden created the Miss Prada character. She uploaded campy pop songs to SoundCloud and appeared in vulgar YouTube videos, sometimes professing her undying love to Chris Brown. “I’d double dutch in an eight-lane highway for your dick,” she said once.
In 2014, Branden overdosed during his first-ever hard drug experience. It started when a friend gave him a crystal of MDMA. “It made me say ‘I love you’ to people, which I never do,” he says. “One time I gave my dad something for Christmas, and I said, ‘I love you’ and my mom said, ‘Buddy, Branden said he loved you!’ And he didn’t say nothing back.”
Branden didn’t want the unselfconscious high to end, so he kept swallowing more. On the third day in a row of no sleep, while listening to P!NK in his bedroom, he sensed something was wrong and dialed 911. “I don’t know if that was from the anxiety or the overdosing, but I was in the hospital looking at some little girl running around like, I’m gonna die. I remember fighting myself to wake up, then I felt this really peaceful feeling, like, OK, I’m just gonna die.”
He survived the night, but suffered through a serious bout of depression and anxiety in the incident’s wake. Irrationally afraid he was going to die, he would visit the hospital regularly, looking for someone to tell him he was going to be fine. He got better slowly, and kept making Miss Prada videos. Posted between shirtless selfies on Instagram, some of the clips racked up hundreds of thousands of views, but the success was inconsistent and he still relied on porn for income. Joanne came along at the right time: in pop culture, where her shamelessly messy persona was fated to resonate, and in Branden’s life, which badly needed a jump-start.
Today, keeping her relevant is his only job. “I literally have the most boring life,” he tells me while using a PlayStation controller to flip through YouTube videos on the TV, often starting one for a few seconds and then switching to the next. “I don’t get along with people,” he says. “People are really cheesy to me.” His dogs, a shih tzu named Tank and a yorkie named Bella, scuffle at our feet. Most nights, Branden stays up late playing Grand Theft Auto, wreaking cyber-havoc as a rifle-wielding white woman in tight pants and a Spring Breakers ski mask. Elements of Joanne the Scammer are based on this character, Branden says. Los Santos, the name of the sprawling fictional city that debuted in GTA V, where you can be anyone and do anything, is tattooed on his forearm.
At one point he switches to cable, pausing for a spell on Girl Meets World, the Disney Channel’s big-hearted reboot of the beloved ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World. “Her name’s Rowan,” he says, gesturing towards the show’s lead actress, Rowan Blanchard, a precocious Gen Z thinker with a sizable internet following of her own. “She tweets me, too.” Sky Ferreira, Jhené Aiko, and a host from The View have also paid their respects. “People would be shocked at my DMs,” Branden says. “Katy Perry said hello to me the other day — actually, she said ‘miss u bb gur.’ This is probably the one for me, though,” he says, holding out his iPhone for me to see. “She didn’t do nothing but send hearts, but it’s Solange Knowles.”
Once he started getting recognition for his Joanne persona, near the end of 2015, Branden deleted the Tumblr where he hosted the majority of his X-rated pictures and videos. And as his porn money began to run out, he got a call about doing a photoshoot as Joanne, and then another asking him to appear in character at a party. Each paid $1,000. “I was like, Oh shit, I’ve never made money without doing porn,” he remembers. “The porn customers are really nasty, and they don’t give a fuck about you,” he explains. “My fans now call me queen. They call me icon. They call me legend.”
Out back, twin houseplants dangle from hooks over Branden’s porch, which is dotted with overflowing ashtrays. He smokes menthols, just like Joanne. For a while, we watch old Miss Prada videos on his phone. One is a homemade music video for Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show,” which Branden directed with a friend and edited himself. While definitely amateur-looking, it’s impressive: Branden has a sense for timing, splicing visuals and sound with a precision that creates something unnerving or funny or both. He applies the same skills to his Joanne the Scammer videos, which are typically shorter. Part of Joanne is improv, he says, but as with his economically phrased tweets, it takes an editor’s eye to ensure something will pop off.
Joanne’s appeal appears to be a result of Branden’s technical gifts and of something less tangible: the character’s unhinged psyche, which connects with many on a spiritual level. “Knowing that someone is shifty and untrustworthy and that’s their calling card is very funny, but there’s also something deeper going on,” Chelsea Peretti, the comedian and Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress, tells me later over the phone. “I think women frequently are trying to be likable, and it’s so cathartic to see this female character that isn’t doing any of those things,” Peretti says. “Joanne the Scammer is 100 percent about her own gratification, and that’s appealing to women. Her attitude is like: what can I get from people? It’s your darkest, most self-centered self. You watch and you’re like, What if I just allowed myself to be that, full-time?”
“Rules to live by: Only help women. Only Scam Men,” reads one Joanne tweet from May. But Joanne’s comedy doesn’t just click with women: for anyone, life in 2016 can feel like one giant scam. There’s a racist television personality in the throes of an alarmingly legitimate campaign to be the next president of the United States, and there’s a near-constant stream of bad news to make your head spin or your heart ache: just within a couple weeks, we’ve seen Brexit, terrorist attacks in France and Turkey, citizens killed by police and police killed by civilians. If it feels like everything’s falling apart as you helplessly watch, wondering if anyone is looking out for you or your future, it’s no surprise that you’d find some relief in Joanne. She’s a fiercely independent hot mess who goes to obscene, hilarious lengths to look out for herself. The creation of a recluse, Joanne is a byproduct of how frightening and lonely the world can feel. But she’s also an escape from it all, a funny-as-hell reminder to keep your guard up, to scam today before today scams you. Recently, I saw a photo of a young woman holding up her college diploma on graduation day. The caption? “Just pulled off my biggest scam yet.”
“I play a character that lets me do whatever I want. It’s the one time I can kind of be free.”
The next day, Branden is making instant ramen in his kitchen. He says he almost exclusively eats Popeye’s fried chicken, so this is a rare almost-home-cooked lunch. A few beams of Florida afternoon leak through the closed curtains, but otherwise you’d never know what time it was. “Did you see what happened?” he asks. Apparently, he’d tweeted a derogatory word for Mexicans a couple days before, and last night there was a firestorm of backlash.
It’s not the first time he’s prompted critique. In postings that date back to 2011, he’s tweeted the word “tranny,” which is widely accepted as pejorative, especially when used by a cisgender man who dresses up as a woman for laughs. Joanne the Scammer calls herself Mexican-American and Caucasian, so her use of the n-word has been considered off-putting, even though Branden is black and Latino. Between 2010 and 2015, when he was performing as Miss Prada, Branden tweeted jokes about rape and made tasteless comments about Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna. He began to explain that Miss Prada was a fictional alter-ego, and not a real extension of his identity, in one notorious Instagram post from 2015, writing: “if you think I live my life as a transexual hooker with multiple std’s your crazy.”
“I was trying to confirm, I guess in a very messy way, that I am not my character,” he says today of the post.
Branden explains that he’s still learning about which words he should or should not say, and which mean-spirited sentiments are darkly funny and which ones cross the line. He tends to delete posts once he notices they’ve upset people. “I was completely un-knowledged at the time,” he says of his use of the “tranny” slur. “I would’ve never said it if I knew transgender was the modern term, because you got to be correct today.” Screenshots of his missteps, new and old, regularly flood his mentions.
“I said a lot of stupid shit. I would base my comedy off of a lot of unpopular opinions. They didn’t understand I was a character then,” he says about the offending Miss Prada tweets. “According to them I’m a racist, I’m transphobic, I don’t like Beyoncé, I hate Rihanna, I support women-beaters, literally anything you could think of. I get called names because I say ‘nigga.’ People are like, ‘You’re not black, you can’t say that.’ In order for me to say I’m black, I have to say I have [adoption] papers.” He pauses to slurp some noodles into his mouth. “It’s irritating to kind of have to prove myself sometimes. It’s really aggravating. Some of my tweets are really sick, but I play a sick character. I don’t really want to explain myself and give them that satisfaction.”
I ask him if he thinks Joanne is a good person. Scamming and identity theft are real crimes that negatively affect people all over the world every day — violations that wreck lives, not just credit scores. “No, I don’t,” he says without pause. “I do think she has good intentions. She’s here to make you laugh. That’s why I get so upset. My intention isn’t to hurt anybody.”
In a bizarre turning of the tables, Branden was the victim of a scam in May of this year, when a person posing as a Twitter employee swindled him out of his account information by promising to get him verified. “I thought it was sick, hilarious,” he says of the ordeal, throughout which he never broke character. “I’m busy with wine forgery right now babe. Can we chat later?” he wrote in one email to the real-life scammer, who demanded $500 in ransom. Branden never paid, and though all of his tweets were deleted, he laughs about it now. In the end Twitter verified his account.
The internet’s a fickle place, and web-based fame is just as fleeting as any other kind. After Branden’s old idol Chris Crocker saw his notoriety dwindle, he made porn. “When they’re living for you, they’re really living for you — it’s like you’re walking on air,” Crocker tells me later, over the phone from Tennessee. “The thing is, there will be a point when people turn on you. It’s just the way the internet is.” He says he’s a big fan of Joanne the Scammer, and thinks Branden has a better chance to have a lasting career than he ever did. “Branden’s going to make mistakes — we all do,” Crocker says. “But how he feels about himself and his work can’t come from public responses. If it’s self-fulfilling, that’s how he’ll keep creating.”
Branden’s tweets are more popular than ever right now, but like they say, nothing gold can stay. This doesn’t seem to bother Branden — Joanne might crave fame and fortune, but he’s just trying to live comfortably. He’d like to parlay his internet celebrity into a role in a movie or a book deal, whatever will get him enough money to buy a modest house in Florida and never have to work for someone else. So far, he’s been paid to record personal greetings as Joanne, collected $10,000 to appear in a makeover video with viral hairstylist Anthony Cuts, and signed a three-video deal with Super Deluxe, a web production company and distribution network. The first will be a parody of MTV Cribs starring Joanne and a “borrowed” L.A. mansion.
“I have to be funny at all times. If I say something not funny, the one thing — they don’t give me a second chance. I’m cancelled.”
“Whatever happens, I already feel like I’ve succeeded,” Branden says. “I’ve made so many people laugh — and that was the goal. You can be anything you want. I’m happy I went my own route, as I always do. I will never be forgotten.”
Still, it must be daunting to know that there are people waiting for him to slip up. “That’s how it goes, though. People just don’t want you to succeed — at all,” Branden explains. “They know my past and they don’t feel that I’m worthy of being verified or talking to celebrities. I have to be funny at all times. If I say something not funny, the one thing — they don’t give me a second chance. I’m cancelled.” He stamps out his cigarette. “That just happens when you’re me.”
Branden tells me he’s comfortable in his own skin, but online and in person he does things that suggest he still struggles. “When you ask me if I’m gay, I say yes,” he says. “Do I flaunt it? No.” He says the attitudes towards homosexuality that surrounded his Southern childhood are ingrained deep, and keep him from being open about his love life. “I was raised a certain way,” he says. “I never kiss my boyfriend in front of my mother. I never hold his hand. She knows we date, and she knows I love him, but I never do that in front of nobody, actually.”
His words are a reminder that Earth is still a scary place to be yourself. Just days before we meet in Florida, 49 people were brutally murdered on Latin night at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, 45 minutes from Branden’s apartment. It was the closest queer hotspot, and though he rarely goes clubbing, when he did, he went to Pulse. “It was an emotional day,” Branden remembers of the mass shooting’s aftermath. I ask if he considered tweeting something about it from the Joanne account. “To me, that is personal,” he says. “I don’t want my Twitter to be personal. I like to detach myself 100 percent.”
For Branden, masquerading as someone he’s not provides a way to cope with — or maybe just circumvent — his feelings about his own identity. “It wasn’t my strategy, but it just so happens I play a character that allows me to do whatever I want,” he tells me. “It’s the one time I can kind of be free.”
On our last day together, we venture to buy smokes at a nearby 7-Eleven, where a wide-framed, round-faced man with a crew cut is hovering near the drinks fridge. “I swear to God I thought that was George Zimmerman,” Branden says as he climbs back into the car, referring to the Florida man who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin in 2012. “He killed that guy in Sanford, which is only 40 minutes from here. It was so fucked up. That’s why I stay in the house.”
Before we return to his apartment, we pick up Oreo Blizzards from the local Dairy Queen. On the way home, Branden takes a few detours, like he’s trying to stretch the outing for as long as he can. He puts on “Hawaiian Tropic,” an unreleased Lana Del Rey song with lyrics about crystal meth and Elvis Presley.
The street is lined with hunched-over palms, and there’s a small church on pretty much every block. One sign reads: GOD IS NOT LIMITED BY YOUR LIMITATIONS. “I went to my boyfriend’s church and saw people catch the Holy Ghost,” Branden says. “If I ever caught the Holy Ghost, I think I’d never be the same. I would never shut up about it. But they just do it and go home and continue to gossip.”
So you’re probably not religious, I say. “I don’t buy it,” he says, laughing. “I have this really lame theory that when people die they become stars. It’s not a popular opinion, but it’s a good one.” He turns onto a road that looks just like the one before it. “When I die, I’m going to become a star.”