(CNN) — What do you get when you put a former opera singer, two ex-boyfriends, her French mother, an adopted Scottish brother, a Dutch tango instructor, a Norwegian flower designer and a cheery Argentine house manager together into a sprawling 40-room French chateau?
Well, you get “The Chateau Diaries,” the unlikely YouTube quarantine hit that has made a star of Stephanie Jarvis and her friends and family.
Buying the chateau
Fifteen years ago, Jarvis was living in London, despairing over the cost of housing and complaining about it to her best friend (and ex-boyfriend), Nic, when she realized how relatively inexpensive it was to buy a rambling chateau in France.
“For the price of my two-bedroom flat and Nic’s two-bedroom flat, we were able to buy this chateau. It was the same amount of money as the sale of those two. It’s completely insane,”Jarvis says.
Jarvis had grown up in a large home in England after her British father and French mother bought a large country estate and set about making it into a home for Alzheimer’s patients. Her parents, both nurses, believed living in beautiful surroundings would be beneficial for the patients. So the Jarvis family moved into the attic and placed the patients into the main house below.
Flash-forward several years and Jarvis, then 29 and half-heartedly pursuing a career in opera, decided she missed living in a large, happy home surrounded by people. So she pooled her resources with her ex and decided to buy a chateau with him.
“For me, I just love being with loads and loads of people around me. There’s nothing I enjoy about the thought of living alone in a flat.”
Chateau de Lalande
Jarvis scoured the French countryside for the perfect chateau, one not too close to major roadways but not too far from important amenities (like cheese shops and good thrift stores).
In an area not far from Limoges, she first set eyes on the 16th century Chateau de Lalande. She knew she was home.
A dashing ex … and an elusive one
Though Jarvis bought the chateau with her ex, she got moral support (and free labor) from her parents and her then-boyfriend, Michael Potts.
Potts, who was remarkably encouraging of his then-girlfriend buying a chateau with her ex, recently bought into the property, and now Chateau de Lalande is jointly owned by the three of them.
While Jarvis spends much of the year at the chateau, the other two owners spend a significant amount of time away.
Potts is an implausibly dashing photographer who travels the world and keeps a primary residence in the Netherlands with his girlfriend, Ruth.
Nic, known as “the elusive Nic” in the “Chateau Diaries,” generally shuns the spotlight and prefers to not appear on camera when Jarvis films her vlog.
His wife, Marie, and their son, Antoine, feature prominently on the vlogs, however, and have become a beloved part of the roving cast of Lalanders who inhabit the chateau. The family lives in Belgium during the school year, but are renovating a separate apartment in the chateau.
They spend long stretches at the chateau over the summer and winter holidays. They also decided to ride out the pandemic there.
“I think it takes a very strong woman to be fine with your husband still owning something with his ex, especially when it’s not just a little something, when it’s this big part of your life, and in fact, I would say that Marie embraces it more than he does … It was [Marie] who said “Nic, we’re going to Lalande. We’re having it [the lockdown] there.’ “
Volunteers keep it running (and help plan elaborate costume parties)
Jarvis recruits an ever-changing group of volunteers who have skills in cooking, cleaning, gardening and landscape design.
Volunteers are helping Jarvis to restore the chateau; pre-pandemic, they helped her attend to the guests. Free room and board is offered in exchange for their work. And sometimes they just stay on indefinitely.
Norwegian volunteer Marie Wiik initially came to the chateau to help cook and design the occasional flower arrangement. Now she’s set up a large floral studio at the chateau and has gained her own impressive online following, showcasing her flower design.
Dutch tango instructor Selmar Duin showed up at Lalande just as the first lockdown hit France. He drove up to the chateau in his camper van, accompanied by his dog, Diesel. Initially shocked by his appearance (he’d been on the road and unaware Jarvis was locking down and no longer taking in her scheduled volunteers), his carpentry skills and ability to MacGyver solutions to the chateau’s problems proved so useful he has been officially hired.
Argentine Natalia “Nati” Oliveto was so capable as a volunteer she was hired to handle all guest reservations, house management and fan mail coming into the chateau.
Other volunteers help with elaborate table settings and decoration projects. Since Jarvis loves a theme party, volunteers need to have an appreciation for spur-of-the-moment disco parties, James Bond nights and extravagant Versailles-inspired galas.
Staying at the chateau
Before the lockdown, Jarvis’ main income came from renting out five rooms of the chateau as a bed and breakfast. She supplemented that with music workshops and other events held on the grounds.
In 2018, she began appearing in a UK reality series called “Escape to the Chateau DIY,” which features several Brits fixing up French chateaux. Her appearances on the show were a hit, and it inspired Jarvis to start her own YouTube channel, featuring other behind-the-scenes moments at Lalande. She taught herself to film and edit but the daily running the chateau didn’t leave a lot of time for her new hobby.
And then …
… the lockdown!
When the pandemic hit, Jarvis found herself in the perfect place to quarantine, with one big problem: Without paying guests, how would Jarvis pay the bills?
“Lockdown changed our business completely. It closed it down, utterly,” she says.
“But it didn’t change our life very much because we’re a big household. And there’s so much space, and so much garden, that we didn’t really feel locked down in the way that some people have.”
Jarvis started filming more of her daily life during quarantine, sometimes posting as many as five half-hour videos a week.
“I’m so lucky because it’s easier for me to make so much content because of the people around me. You know, I can wake up in the morning and I’m going to wander around. I’ll ask Marie what she’s doing, I’ll ask Selmar what he’s doing, I’ll ask Dan the gardener what he’s doing, and then I have the videos. I’m lucky, but that’s because of the others. If I was sitting here by myself, I wouldn’t be able to make five videos a week.”
Jarvis’ fans have created an online community, who anxiously await each episode’s first live airing, and comment along during its initial broadcast.
“I think I’ve been stunned by how much being able to join our life has helped some people, who were completely isolated. Some women have been saying they haven’t seen anyone else since March.”
Before the pandemic, Jarvis had about 10,000 followers. “I was excited because I got to 10-thousand,” she says. Now she has surpassed 100-thousand followers.
She receives letters daily from grateful fans who say her videos have not only provided entertainment during the pandemic, but have also actually helped alleviate their depression.
Jarvis’ friends and families have become stars in their own right, being recognized in airports and stores across Europe. Her delightfully disapproving French mother, her adopted Scottish brother (usually attired in a dizzying ensemble of clashing plaids), and her new South African stepfather all have their own social media accounts and followers.
The much anticipated wedding of her mother (Jarvis’ father died in 2005) was turned into a “Midsummer Night’s Dream”-themed extravaganza, which aired on the reality show and featured in several of Jarvis’ blog.
Earlier this year, Jarvis started accepting online donations through Patreon to help restore the chateau. Money she earns through the site is going toward fixing up the chateau’s chapel and restoring a now-drained historic lake on the property. (Disclosure: This writer contributed money after spending several lockdown days binge-watching her YouTube series.)
“Patreon is about $22,000 (USD) a month, which is completely life-changing. And I didn’t launch it till February, so this is since February, it’s gone from zero to $22,000 a month. It’s just insane.”
Jarvis is now able to tackle restoration work she didn’t know she’d ever get to.
Since that Patreon account is a nonprofit and all money can only be used for renovations, she now earns her personal income (and keeps the chateau running) via the money earned from her vlogs. “Which means that my YouTube ad revenue keeps everyone in food and, let’s face it, wine,” she says.
Vlogging European culture
Jarvis’ vlog adventures are spotlighting an area of south-central France less known to tourists. Besides highlighting life in her chateau, there are trips to the nearby Limoges factory store and to local brocantes and thrift stores brimming with ridiculously cheap French fashion.
“Europeans travel a lot and we’re really guilty of not visiting our own areas. We go to work everyday and then we go on holiday. And we don’t think about what’s around us. And I was really guilty of that. Because of the vlog, I’ve discovered my local area much more as well.”
For now, Jarvis is happily hunkered down in her chateau for Christmas, celebrating each day of advent with a different vlog, and eagerly anticipating such Lalande traditions as the “Boxing Day Barbecue.”
She’s glad her videos have been enjoyed by so many people this year, and hopes others might consider saving a chateau, too.
“I think French chateaus, they kind of deserve to be a thing, you know? The amazing history … it would be wonderful if people come and start to get passionate about restoring them and looking after them.”