Five-ring Circus

They Dance on Ice! They Vlog! They Want to Sell You Orange Juice!

What I learned by watching Maia and Alex Shibutani’s YouTube channel.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States skate during the Ice Dance Free Dance section of the Team Event on day three of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 12, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani skate during the Ice Dance Free Dance section of the Team Event of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Monday in South Korea.
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The first thing I learned after spending the better part of a day on Maia and Alex Shibutani’s YouTube channel is that the United States’ ice-dancing sister-brother pair appears to be as squeaky clean and wholesome as their drawn-by-Disney-animators looks imply. The “ShibSibs,” Olympic bronze medalists in team figure skating and prolific vloggers, seem to spend all their time smiling, working hard, and smiling while working hard. On their YouTube channel, you see them working on their choreography, working on their music, and working on their costumes, oftentimes late into the night. The videos display impressive vlogging literacy. Maia, for instance, did one in which she shared all her makeup techniques, beauty vlogger–style, and their edits frequently intersperse movie clips and songs as quick jokes. The closest they get to sibling discord is when Maia makes fun of Alex for losing his camera, and thus loads of vlogging footage, on a plane. They also film each other sleeping on planes as a gag, which, because many of their videos involve traveling to competitions, happens a lot.

Audiences may have cheered when Adam Rippon joked that he needed “a Xanax and a quick drink” after skating earlier this week, but it would be downright shocking if the ShibSibs ever referred to controlled substances. The 23-year-old Maia and 26-year-old Alex are much more likely to gush over some food from Koreatown or reach for a glass of orange juice while shouting out their sponsor, Minute Maid. The Shibutanis do a lot of shilling for sponsors, which, in addition to Minute Maid, include Polo Ralph Lauren and the 2024 Los Angeles Games. When a photo of the two debuts on a Minute Maid carton, they take a special pilgrimage to a grocery store to check it out. Brand ambassador–wise, I’m not sure you could do better.

Watching the ShibSibs’ videos will make you like Maia and Alex for how adorable and down to earth they are. The person you’ll really fall for, though, is their mom, Naomi, the woman who managed to raise a brother and sister who not only like each other but are so close they’re skating partners in the literal Olympics. The video tribute they recently put up for her might cause you to regret that you never achieved Olympic glory in the name of making your own mom proud.

Naomi Shibutani pops up in several videos, often accompanying her children while they travel or go on shoots with sponsors, relentlessly supporting her pesky camera-toting offspring in their quest for glory. The ShibSibs are hip to the fact that she’s the real star of their YouTube channel. “You get us tons of views, people love you!” Maia says to her mother in one video, begging her to mug for the camera. No argument there.

The videos also feature frequent cameos from coaches like Massimo Scali, whose enthusiastic utterances of “Awesome!” have become something of a recurring feature. You’ll also catch glimpses of stars like Kristi Yamaguchi, who the siblings perform with in a charity show. Other surprise cameos? Maia and Alex turn out to be friends with Dante Basco, aka “Rufio,” the child star of the movie Hook. This vlogging life, it’s unpredictable!

The most telling thing you learn from spending time on the ShibSibs’ YouTube may be that the demands of Olympic athleticism don’t leave all that much time for vlogging. In contrast to the “It’s every day, bro” mantra of the Paul brothers, the ShibSibs update much less frequently—we’re talking monthly—to the point that their long absences have become a running joke, and have likely dampened their follower count. Although they have a respectable 75,000 subscribers, up thousands in just the past few days, it’s a figure that pales in comparison to that of bigger YouTubers with view counts in the millions.

All of this is a relief in some ways. It’s nice to know that Olympians, even in our social media–obsessed world, are more concerned with practicing than uploading videos. If it means their vlogs are less instant and intimate, so be it. The Olympics already put athletes under an uncomfortable microscope, thrusting them onto the world’s stage during some of the most intense moments of their lives. Being a vlog star is a strange business, and the ShibSibs deserve to revel in merely (merely!) being famous, successful, well-adjusted Olympians.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

• Adam Rippon Skated Flawlessly but Lost to Two Guys Who Fell. Here’s Why.

• Why Isn’t NBC Talking About the Sexual Harassment Allegations Against Shaun White?

• Chloe Kim Is a New Kind of Olympic Hero

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Heather Schwedel

Heather Schwedel is a Slate staff writer.