To hear her tell the story, Twitch streamer Sweet_Anita has lived a fascinating and unusual life.
Here’s what you might learn watching her stream the first-person shooter Overwatch: Anita takes care of 35 animals, including rabbits, rats, chinchillas, and cats, although in the past, that number has swelled to 200. Her mother contracted an illness from a volcano. For one year, Anita lived in a treehouse in a field, where she was raised by hippies. She has attended almost no formal school. To make ends meet, she has sold hand-picked pastel-coloured sea glass from the English coast. Once, she fell into a pit of corrosive acid, human excrement, and dead livestock.
And if you watch her Twitch streams, you’ll certainly learn that Anita, 28, has Tourette's Syndrome, a rare neurological condition. She says that she was diagnosed four years ago, after a lifetime of yelling obscene outbursts to strangers on the street and sometimes spanking random passersby without knowing why. During her streams, she’s constantly “ticcing.” This entails bird-like whistles, popping sounds, and a stream of usually sexual vulgarities: “I’ll fuck your friends,” perhaps, or “Can I come on your biscuit?” in her delicate English accent, often several times a minute. Other tics aren’t so blatantly sexual, like the oft-heard “bitch lasagne” and, a little cutely, “kitten.”
It’s easy to see how a woman launching into a nonstop chain reaction of obscenities would quickly become appointment viewing, and indeed, over the past month Anita’s Twitch stream hit the big time. One October afternoon, minutes before she signed on, 1,600 viewers were dutifully waiting for her arrival. Some devoted fans parroted her own verbal tics in chat: “any biscuit fuckers? ? any biscuit fuckers? ? any biscuit fuckers?,” “Fuck the cunt,” “FISH FISTERS.” Soon, Anita arrived, with waves of long brown hair falling over a red camisole. “Hello everyone,” she said in a syrupy tone. She immediately whistled, then plucked her mouth into a pop. Then, eye contact with the camera: “Go fuck your friends. Can I fuck your friends?” A torrent of donations and subscriptions followed.
Within just one month – a season after she started streaming – Anita gained just about 150,000 followers. Over the weekend, Twitch gave her a coveted partnership, which awards her more monetisation options. Anita’s rise to Twitch fame has been so meteoric, and the circumstances around it so singular, that I knew I had to write a profile of her. With rising fame comes more attention from new fans, from reporters and from sceptics. Anita and I would speak two times, once over Discord voice chat and once over Discord’s chat app. We’d talk about her life experiences, her very unusual streams and her doubters. Those last ones she brought up first.
When we spoke, the first thing she talked about, unprompted, was what she calls the “conspiracy” about her Tourette's Syndrome. “I find it kind of flattering, to be honest,” she said with her signature silky confidence. “Like that’s very flattering that they think I can credibly be a voice actor. So I’ve taken that from it but not really much else. Regardless of what people think, I’m still going to have Tourette’s” – she whistles – ”so it’s not like I can stop, and it’s not like it’s going to change anything about me or how I engage on stream.”
Citing concerns over her privacy – understandable, for a woman on the internet – Anita said she couldn’t put me in touch with her mother, or anyone who knows her in real life. Or show me any pictures of a house full of cats or chinchillas. Or share any medical records related to her Tourette’s diagnosis. What’s more, I was also unable to find anything about her online. It’s as if Sweet_Anita sprung fully-formed out of nowhere a couple months ago.
It’s in the nature of things that Twitch streamers present, whether or not they’re taken as, something other than entertainers. The intimacy of the medium – live, and accompanied by a chatroom – suggests acquaintanceship, perhaps even friendship. It would be a strange, disconcerting feeling to realise that a new friend simultaneously had a novella-worthy backstory and no discernible connections to the world. Who are you really?, one might ask. Anita’s rise has drawn followers, but also had some people wondering where she came from, and whether every extraordinary story she tells is for real. By drawing viewers in with an intimate picture of a rare neurological disorder and answering prying questions about what it’s like to be her while gently deflecting questions about her off-camera life, Anita raises a pair of related questions: What is the relevance of authenticity on Twitch, when the goal is ultimately to entertain? And what does it mean, in an age when technology can facilitate real-time access to another person while concealing as much as it reveals, to ask who someone online is?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that to be diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, a person must express at least two motor tics – winking, twitching, grimacing, shrugging, stretching – and at least one verbal tic – whistling, lip-popping, grunting, barking, repeating one word over and over. About one per cent of children have Tourette's Syndrome, with men three times as likely as women to develop it. The popular representation of Tourette's, as seen on South Park and the like, in which the person swears uncontrollably, is known as coprolalia – Greek for “poo talk” – and is actually only seen in 10 per cent of Tourette's patients.
Tourette's Syndrome is something a child’s parents might notice between the ages of five and nine. There is no cure, only mitigating treatments like behavioural therapy and medications similar to those used for ADHD and OCD, according to the CDC.
Anita describes it as a feeling of having her body “hijacked.”
On stream, a viewer asks Anita whether she’s assembled her new gaming PC. No, she replied. “Unfortunately, I’ve had such a cunt. I’ve had such a busy cunt. I’ve had such a busy day,” she said.
Watching a woman tic for hours on end, and say some of the most hair-raising strings of words one might ever hear, has drawn thousands of fans into Anita’s orbit. Some of them are hooked on her poker-faced delivery and non-reaction to the mudslide of obscenities coming out of her mouth. It’s comedic, and Anita knows it. When I asked her whether she feels self-conscious about people laughing at her and not with her, Anita says she’s completely aware of how she comes off.
“I know it’s silly to say – kitten – stupid things all the time,” she told me in an interview, a tic punctuating her sentence. “I know it seems really outlandish and strange to shout about fisting cats and things like that. It’s fine to laugh, and I even laugh at myself. It’d be silly to expect everyone else not to.” Her fans on Discord are called “fish fisters,” a play on one of her tics.
I stumbled upon a clip of Anita’s stream on the subreddit Livestream Fail last month. The subreddit is usually littered with clips of gross-out behaviour, streamer vs. streamer drama, and headlines featuring the word “exposed.” That day, it featured several videos of Anita punctuating half-sentences with “cunt” or “balls” or “dick.” Watching her, my head filled with questions about what it’s like to be unable to control your behaviour while also streaming video games live for several thousand people at once. I wondered whether her stream broke Twitch’s Terms of Service. I wanted to know why somebody who had Tourette’s would expose themselves to the hate-ravenous masses online, and, especially, with such poise and good humour.
Anita’s streaming career started with an unintended guest appearance. Back in March, a Twitch streamer named Jake Woof was queueing up for some Overwatch games when, he told me, he heard a soft, musical voice so unusual that he and his teammates were sure it belonged to a professional voice actor, or an impressionist. It was Anita. After some time playing together and listening to Anita’s funny impressions, Woof confessed that he was live-streaming their game and, consequently, his viewers loved whatever was going on with her. Intrigued, they had begun investigating this strange and bewitching teammate – Who is she? Is she for real? Is she a professional? They found nothing.
“She’s a naturally entertaining conversationalist,” Woof told me over a Discord call. “That, along with the different accents and voices Anita could do, made us think that she was a streamer or should be a streamer.”
All of this was before Woof and his teammates had even heard Anita tic. She says she was using push-to-talk, a voice chat setting that would mute her mic unless she pushed a button. That setting, she would later tell me, is what made Overwatch her “special place – kitten – where I got to role-play as a normal person. With push-to-talk, I could completely edit out all of my tics.”
Woof suggested that she give streaming a shot. Anita had no idea what Twitch was, she told him, and had one looming concern: Tourette's Syndrome, which she said caused her to inadvertently and compulsively say obscene things. Surely, that would be cause for a ban. Woof said not to worry about it, that Twitch would understand. And anyway, as she later told me, if Twitch did ask for proof she had Tourette's Syndrome, she has a letter from a doctor saying as much. (When I asked Anita whether I could see that letter, she declined. Her manager, Jake Oliver at Omnia Media, said that he has seen it, but also could not share it.)
Woof wasn’t the first Overwatch player to fall under Anita’s spell. Weeks after she met Woof, Anita encountered another player named Brandon, who says that after hearing her voice, he became convinced she was the voice actor for the Overwatch hero Tracer (she is not). It was Brandon who helped Anita set up her channel.
“I knew straight away that she would be Twitch viral, so I offered to be a moderator for her channel, and that’s how I became her first mod,” Brandon told me.
Today, just three months later, Anita has 160,000 Twitch followers. Reddit was a key force in that near unprecedented popularity upgrade. In a clip posted to Livestream Fail, a viewer asks if she plays games other than Overwatch. She responds: “I do play The Forest, I play Bioshock, I play with my dick on a Tuesday – fuck you – and – Jesus – fuck you – bitch lasagne, bitch lasagne, bitch lasagne.” In another clip, Anita thanks viewers for giving her the confidence to hit a personal milestone: public speaking. “So thank you ever so much to everyone who touched my cunt and fisted my kitten.” The crowd went wild. The whole thing was an instant meme, with a sweetly educational aftertaste.
One Livestream Fail moderator named John told me that, over the last month, clips from Anita’s stream have easily earned thousands of upvotes on the 350,000-subscriber subreddit.
“It’s the silly absurdist humour,” John told me. “The swearing and the whistling and the tics… I don’t think they were laughing at her. I think they were laughing at the comedic timing. I don’t think they were mocking her disability.” Almost every day for a few weeks, somebody would post a clip or two from her stream on the subreddit. It wasn’t long before she one day rivalled the viewership of established Overwatch streamers like Félix “xQc” Lengyel. She once pulled in 14,000 viewers.
Who is Sweet_Anita? For starters, we don’t know whether “Anita” is her real name or a pseudonym.
On stream and in our interview, Anita tells her life story in a way that plays out like a Disney movie. She grew up in East Anglia and spent most of her teenage years in what she would only refer to as “the southwest,” where she is now. She tells her viewers about the year she spent living in a treehouse full of hippies. She talks about her mother’s chronic illness, which is why she’s had to take care of her since she was young. She talks about her own issues growing up: On buses, she would pinch the back of people’s arms. She’d say ridiculous things to strangers on the street, and couldn’t seem to help it. Elephants. 51. I touched a kitten.
At the age of 13, Anita says, she decided she needed to figure out what was going on. As she tells it, she took a bus to see her primary care doctor alone. Anita presented herself for observation and, in response, was told that she was young and probably attention-seeking and would be fine in time, she said. Embarrassed and ashamed, Anita said she stayed away from people after that. Caring for animals was her refuge – sometimes up to 200 at a time, she said, mostly small ones like rodents and rabbits. (Anita has shown a rabbit on stream.) They live with her mum, who is not far from her, so Anita can continue to caretake. Anita said her condition made it difficult for her to progress in school or hold down a job, and along with her family’s vet bills, Anita fell into debt. To make ends meet, Anita said, she started her own business selling glass she collected by the ocean. Her hobby is collecting animal skulls.
Anita would not connect me to real-life friends, family, or housemates that could confirm her story. Reached again for more details about her treehouse year, her mum’s volcano illness and the number of animals she cares for, Anita politely declined, again citing privacy concerns. I spent many hours online attempting to trace her social media profiles to any personal details about her for fact-checking. Her entire Sweet_Anita internet presence, it seems, was from the start separate from her personal one – not an uncommon move for a large Twitch streamer, but an unusual one for a beginner.
Nobody expects the star of a television drama to be a consistent person on- and off-screen. For reality television, there’s some expectation of authenticity. For YouTube vlogs, maybe a little more. Livestreaming is on the far-flung end of this spectrum: Lots of viewers expect nothing short of total candidness from their favourite streamers. Twitch’s biggest personalities speak frankly about their childhoods, their exes, their fears, and their dreams to audiences of thousands, who respond in real time. Twitch is a two-way platform, and unlike television or radio, viewers’ questions, comments, and shitposts convert into content that the streamer reacts to before their eyes, immediately and openly.
There’s an intimacy to a live face-to-face connection, which is why it’s kinder to end a relationship over coffee rather than over email, but easier to do it the other way around. Unless you’re wearing huge aviators and a mullet wig à la Dr. Disrespect, viewers tend to expect that the streaming personality they’re watching is the streamer themself.
As fascinating as Anita’s story is, standard reporting practices necessitated I try to verify the details she shared. Even among Anita’s big fans, there are those who can’t believe the whole story, or that a person’s life could be this rich with improbability. But in four weeks of reporting, I wasn’t able to get corroborating evidence about the most colourful details of Anita’s life. As it stands, this is her account, shared by her.
Ten years after her first solo trip to the doctor, Anita said, she went to a hospital and demanded a diagnosis and some legitimate testing. For a week, she said, she collected her urine and handed it in to the hospital. Then, she received the letter.
“They didn’t go into the details of the wording or anything,” she said when I asked what the letter said. “They just said ‘Tourette’s Syndrome’ and that’s where they left it with me.” Anita chalks the delayed diagnosis up to a flawed healthcare system.
Tourette’s, she said, has been “the magic word.”
“It’s very validating and it’s made things a lot easier. When people have gotten upset with me in public, I’ve gone, ‘Sorry, I have Tourette’s,’ and people have known what that means,” she said. Now, whenever she gets into a taxi or shows up for a volunteering gig, she says, she has a speech: “Hi. I have Tourette’s Syndrome. If you bend over, give me some space or some warning. I might spank or hump you and I can’t guarantee which end of you I’ll hump, either. So just be aware!”
“You’re compelled to do things you don’t want to say or do,” she said when I asked why so many of her tics are sexual. “The more taboo, the more you don’t want to do it, the more likely it is to happen.” It’s like telling someone not to think of a white monkey, she said. They can’t help but do it. That an attractive young woman is forever asking viewers whether she can fuck their friends has attracted what Anita calls “the thirst.” She says she receives hundreds of messages each time she streams from men propositioning her for any variety of things. “We all know what it’s like to go to a bar or a club and have someone you’re not interested in come onto you,” Anita said, laughing. “It feels a little like that, but instead of one dude, it’s a couple thousand.”
Despite all the R-rated language in Anita’s channel, one seemingly benign word is banned: Banana. Seeing the word “banana” triggers an uncontrollable string of anime-ish mewing from Anita, and it is consequently forbidden from her stream. Sometimes, a viewer will offer her a monetary donation and, to trigger Anita’s Tourette’s, writes that word in the message description. It’s not fun and games to her. If she tics too much, she says, it exacerbates an autoimmune disorder that causes her to vomit blood.
“People think it’s funny to trigger me with trigger words but what they see they think is very cute and funny. What they don’t see is the aftermath when I can’t speak properly for a few days, and I can’t eat or I start puking blood. We try to warn them and we try to tell them they’ll be banned, but a lot of people don’t understand how serious it is.”
Anita’s tics rocketed her into Twitch notoriety, but she says they also prevent her from streaming full-time. Four hours is her limit because people intentionally trigger her, she says. But aside from controlling how long she streams, Anita refuses to let a few trolls get in the way. Of her triggers, Anita says, “It’s always been a hindrance, and if I’m going to be experiencing these symptoms to matter what I do, I might as well do whatever I want and do what I love.”
Anita appears to hold nothing back. That’s a new thing, she has said. She used to stifle her tics when she could, she said, but now doesn’t even try. “It’s very difficult to do and not always successful,” she explained. “It’s not easy – cunt – my cunt – my cunt is on fire – it’s not easy to suppress, and it makes things worse. Way, way worse.” She’s also afraid that if she acts ashamed of her Tourette’s then her viewers will internalise that it’s something to be ashamed about. To her, it’s not – after all, nobody chooses to have Tourette’s.
Promoting awareness of a mental health, neurological or physical condition on Twitch is nothing new, and in fact, Twitch streamers have a long history of raising money for such causes. Twitch has empowered countless gamers with chronic illness and disabilities to have fulfilling social lives and even full-time careers. In 2017, Kotaku profiled the Diablo 2 streamer Alara Shade, whose Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Brucellosis prevented her from holding down a nine-to-five. Live on Twitch, streamers like DeafGamersTV, TumblessGaming, or Blindgamer102 have demonstrated how they modify controllers, speak in sign, or do any variety of thing to continue gaming and interacting with fans. This two-way connection with individuals who may have more trouble socialising in the same spaces as able-bodied or neurotypical gamers offers some viscerally deeper understanding of what it’s like to live with a disability than, say, watching a YouTube documentary.
One 2013 incident led to years of doubt-casting on streamers whose symptoms are not utterly doubtless. Angel “ZilianOP” Hamilton was known for streaming video games from his wheelchair at home. Viewers believed he was paralysed from the waist down and would donate money to him as he gamed. Hamilton’s streaming career ended the day his camera caught him standing up at his desk and walking away. He adjusted the camera, but the jig was up. Twitch shut down his channel and offered viewers refunds. It was “fraud,” they told Kotaku at that time, and potentially damaging to streamers who do have disabilities like Keith “Aieron” Knight and the AbleGamers group.
In Knight’s situation, his stream wasn’t particularly educational. For other streamers on Twitch who live with mental or physical disabilities, or unusual conditions that impact their wellbeing, the streaming network offers unprecedented access to their innermost thoughts. It also lets viewers ask any burning questions they’d had about those conditions to live, present humans.
On stream, Anita hosts hours-long AMAs throughout which she answers questions viewers send about, say, whether she tics during sex (not much) or ever inadvertently yelled out the “n-word.” On that matter, she says she tends not to because her father is black and listens to a lot of rap, so, in her words, “It’s not a word that really triggers me in any sense.” On Twitch, Anita will answer questions for hours on end – sometimes with wine in-hand – and post clips on YouTube, where they earn anything from 9,000 to 41,000 views. Then, there are the touching moments on stream where Anita addresses the viewers in her chat who share their experiences with depression, having a stutter, or any number of challenges. With the calm of somebody who’s been there, Anita pours empathy into her mix of humour and storytelling: “Know that no matter how dark it gets, it’s only temporary.” Here, Anita will subtly allude to her own struggles along these lines. The viewers feel understood.
Of course, jealous or woman-hating Redditors are often excited to tear down the success of a new, young, attractive female Twitch streamer. And women especially struggle to have the symptoms of mental and neurological conditions diagnosed, something Anita has said has fuelled some of the suspicion around her. (Some doubters, she has said, are suspicious of her because she’s “good-looking and seems well-adjusted.” Her response: “Wow, so your opinion of me and my personality and my appearance makes me untrustworthy?”) But the backstory that Anita has woven throughout her streams, coupled with the sheer intensity of her tics, seems so unbelievable that there are some viewers who find themselves simply not believing it.
I spoke to several of Anita’s fans one-on-one, and while many trusted her entire story at face value, others questioned whether her streaming persona, and its backstory, were in line with the one she showed friends and family IRL. Alex Rodriguez, a frequenter of Livestream Fail, says that while he finds Anita to be funny, charming and beautiful, he has trouble metabolising her backstory. “Some aspects of her life just sound too fantastical,” he told Kotaku. He runs off some of the wilder stories: that she vomits blood if she tics too much, that her mum looks like a drop-dead stunning teenager. “That’s pretty out there,” he said. “And on top of all that she has one of the absolute rarest forms of Tourette’s Syndrome known to man.” Another viewer, who says he himself has a disability, told me that he loves her stream, but has trouble believing some of what she says about her life. Pointing out cases like ZilianOP, whose disability drew attention to his stream, he believes he has reason to be sceptical of a new Twitch sensation whose big pull is her Tourette's Syndrome.
On the subreddit /r/Videos, in between Reddit users’ remarks about how funny Anita was, a few kernels of doubt sprouted. Citing their own Tourette’s diagnosis, or their friends’, commenters described how Anita’s “Mad Libs-style” ticcing felt a little too seamless. Another poster who said he had Tourette’s scanned the clips posted in a thread and said that, while he believes she has it, too, he does not “think that she’s being genuine… She’s playing it up. And to be honest, I’m fine with that.” Other commenters who said they had Tourette’s said that while her symptoms appear extreme, they are in line with the diagnosis.
Bunny time!! pic.twitter.com/fclhrdbttC
– Sweet Anita (@Tweet4nita) October 26, 2018
Throughout our talk, I noticed that Anita ticced significantly less than she did on Twitch, and uttered significantly fewer expletives, too. For long stretches of time, Anita would describe her now-charmed life, her invigorating success on Twitch, her fabulous viewers, and didn’t tic once. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her about this. Streaming, she said, is “a very triggering atmosphere to be in. It does exacerbate it.” On a call without so many distractions and fewer triggers, she said, “it’s much easier to focus.”
In the hopes of getting more information about Anita’s condition, I sent two “Tourette’s Compilation” YouTube videos assembled from Anita’s Twitch streams to two experts on the disorder. (Both said that it would constitute medical malpractice for a doctor to diagnose a subject to a reporter without speaking directly to that source, which is why both asked to speak anonymously and only comment generally.)
Both agreed that Anita’s symptoms generally fall in line with the textbook definition of Tourette’s: two motor tics and at least one phonic tic. Both said that a Tourette's patient would tic more or less depending on their surroundings or circumstances.
What gave them both pause was the ease with which she displayed her Tourette’s, the fact that she didn’t cover anything up. For most Tourette’s patients, they said, “when the four-letter words come out, they’re trying to keep them from coming out. Sometimes they mumble them. She looks like she’s doing a show.” “Most people are embarrassed,” said the other expert. “They want to hold [the tics] back. They want to hide these things. She is displaying them readily.” They added that there are a “wide range of personalities in which Tourette’s can be in.”
Anita’s stance on this is firm. “I can’t stop ticcing,” she said. When I conveyed these experts’ misgivings to Anita, she did not return my request for a response.
All of this forms the familiar foundation of another one of Livestream Fail’s “exposed” threads, but the further down the Sweet_Anita rabbit hole I fell (Twitch clips, YouTube videos, old Tweets, Discord chats, moderator interviews), the more I realised that the factuality of what I was seeing on this channel only really mattered to me and a couple of haters on a couple of subreddits. Outside of idle curiosity and journalistic protocol, the details of Anita’s life – the animals, the acid pit, the volcano – are small details woven into a narrative meant for consumption, a bit of entertainment. Ought we to expect total, verifiable legitimacy from our online entertainers just because the expectation of such is what Twitch is best as marketing? On its “about” page, Twitch promises “unique, live, unpredictable, never-to-be repeated experiences” to its millions of users – the scientific formula for authenticity – but adds that these supposedly candid, real experiences are in fact “created by the magical interactions of the many.”
Ask any first-year undergrad whether there’s an objective truth to things, and it’s possible you’ll hear an earful in response about how, in fact, what’s real is all a matter of what you perceive. For Anita, that may be the case, too. Twitch is a platform for content creation, and for viewers, it’s a place where they go for entertainment. It’s possible that most viewers on Twitch want to watch somebody act out their life, authentically, without inspiring even a scrap of scepticism. It’s possible others simply don’t care, despite how intimate the platform is. Sweet_Anita is, definitionally, exactly what she presents herself as on Twitch; whether the person behind her is, in the end, is not the question.
Toward the end of our conversation, Anita explained to me why she collects skulls. She doesn’t talk about it so much on stream, she said, because mostly people are curious about her Tourette’s. Anita says she doesn’t think of the skulls as decorative objects, or collecting them as an idle hobby. She thinks of them as evidence of an animal existence, a memorial of a life. Collecting them while she’s walking, she said, “I just keep them alive for a little bit longer.” It’s a romantic notion. Anita animates the skulls with meaning, and, for her, a personal value. Anyone else might just see something a little morbid. Mapping a story onto some bit of entertainment, and raising its stakes, is one of the things we do. “I love that that little piece houses someone’s consciousness,” she said. “I think that’s incredible, you know?”