Internet celebrities are a thing. A relatively new thing in the realm of fame, but a thing, nonetheless. Urban Dictionary's definition encompasses the notion pretty accurately: "A limited and perhaps temporary state of notoriety enjoyed by people, groups, works or feats that are made public exclusively via the internet." The definition of "temporary" has yet to be seen, though. As distinct from bloggers or indie journalists that use online platforms as their main means of distributing information or stars that have been "discovered" online and have made the shift from internet sensation to real life celebrity (such as Justin Bieber, [insert drag racing/DUI comment here] and a handful of models), internet celebrities are a special breed, and they have social media sites (think: YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) to thank for their new found stardom.
The fame of some is arguably easier to wrap your head around than others. Some recent examples include Preston Chaunsumlit, Ian Connor (pictured below), and Gucci Me$$iah.
Casting director Preston Chaunsumlit, who rose to fame after he began starring in VFILES' web series, Model Files, is a fairly easy case. The "accidental casting director", who is described as "hilarious", a "model agent/weirdo", a "genius", etc., according to the variety of sources that have praised the series, has worked with DIS, Metal, Numero, and Details magazines, and made his webseries debut in 2012, with the launch of Model Files, a mockumentary web series about his life as a model casting director. The series "documents the change from being a person behind the scenes, a person of obscurity, to one starring in his own web series," Chaunsumlit says. As for his Internet "micro-fame," Preston told Fashion Week Daily that he does get stopped on the street, "if the street is in Osaka or Bushwick."
According to Preston, the show (which simultaneously sheds light on various aspects of the fashion industry and spoofs them in a manner that is completely on-point) came about when the editorial team at VFiles "wanted to shadow me for NYFW castings, and introduce a realistic portrayal of an industry that quite often times, presents itself in the worst ways." It has since been a huge hit, and is on its third season. The platform was well received, thanks, in part, to the success of Model Files (which debuted before VFILES actually launched its site). As of April 2013, VFILES, which was conceived and developed by Julie Anne Quay, was getting 1 million page views per month. In a review of the series by Gawker, the writer commented: "I love VFiles so much that I almost don't want to write about it for fear that it gets really popular then MTV turns it into a shitty television show ... One of the best series is Model Files." Last year, the New Yorker also covered an episode of the webseries, saying: "VFiles, a social network for fashion aficionados, developed a following thanks in large part to Chaunsumlit, thirty-three, who plays a charmingly hapless version of himself, an amiable dolphin swimming with the sharks of haute couture."
19-year old Ian Connor, the self-proclaimed "King Of The Youth", made his name thanks to his streetwear-dominated personal style and his large social media personality, which has resulted in 25,000 Twitter followers and 51,000 Instagram followers. Hypebeasts have been up on Connor for awhile now, and it seems everyone else got the message when underground artist/designer Wil Fry debuted a tee with the model/creative/style entrepreneur's face printed all over it. Of that project, Fry told us: "It happened organically. Ian and I are friends. There's no real crazy story. We weren't even gonna sell it." But he did sell it, in various forms (think: a jersey-style tee, gym shorts and a zip-up jacket), and it sold out. As for why it was so popular, Fry's only reasoning: "Cos its relevant." Nick Grant, style writer for Complex, shed some more light on it: "While [the Wil Fry set] may not have been that wildly available or even that wildly known, it certainly solidified Connor's clout in this niche-specific, internet-driven industry."
Oh, and in case garments with your face all over them isn't enough of an indication that your Internet relevance is high, Connor was sitting in the front row at Raf Simons' Dior Spring/Summer 2014 couture show last month. Raf loves the A$AP mob.
What it is that Connor actually does is a bit of a widespread mystery. Jake Woolf of Four Pins penned a piece this past summer on Connor's style, writing: "To be completely honest, even after meeting with Ian and hanging out with him for an afternoon, we still aren't entirely sure what exactly it is that he does or creates." Grant echoed this sentiment. He told us: "Ian Connor is quite the enigma. I don't know his complete background, so I won't say that his Internet 'success' is unwarranted, but it is quite the head scratcher." He adds: "His modeling is what I can't quite figure out. I'm not sure where or when that started but he's had some huge gigs, especially the few ones he's had with Bape. That is pretty impressive."
So, while Connor's actual contributions are somewhat unclear, Grant was able to shed some light on Connor's appeal: "His following stems from a collective group of kids who are young, vivacious and into fashion. His cockiness mixed with self-deprecation mixed with (probably fake) depression he tweets out on a minute-by-minute basis has definitely garnered him a lot of attention. The whole 'IDGAF about anything' attitude is that reckless rebelliousness the youth of today resonate with." Thus, some cases of Internet fame aren't as easy to ascertain as others, and yet, that does not diminish from the widespread appeal of these individuals.
One thing Connor does seem to have in his corner: Industry connections. According to Grant, "I think his connections in the industry have really helped his popularity. Especially with the A$AP crew." The fashion industry, whether its Raf Simons, Hood by Air's Shayne Oliver, or Alexander Wang, seems to love the A$AP mob and all of its stylish young counterparts.
And last but not least there is Gucci Me$$iah. That’s his Twitter name. His real name is Max Henry. He is 16 years old and in 10th grade. He doesn’t have his drivers permit yet, but he does have 27,000 Twitter followers. Pennsylvania-based Henry started his Twitter account in January 2013. He told us: “I was just bored one night and made it. I thought I was gonna delete it the next day.” Interestingly, even he is somewhat puzzled as to why he’s so popular on Twitter. He volunteered that he has “no special skills or talents” to explain his Twitter popularity. When I asked him to shed some light on why he’s Twitter famous, he told me: “I’m just as clueless as you on that lol.
He offers up a couple potential reasons for his fame: 1 – “I guess my tweets are funny; and 2 – “I bought a durag, posted a pic, n my followers just went up.” I forgot to mention, he wears a durag, a pre-Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2014 durag. He was in class during Owens’ show in Paris, but says he saw the photos on Instagram. Of the collection, Henry said: “I didn’t really look too deep into it but I like the fact that they put the durag in. Not sure if they’re aiming for fashion or humor but I like it.”
So, what do we make of this new-found niche of fame? What does it say about us as a culture or a generation(s) that people can now become famous for being entertaining on social media? I think it reflects that fact that the majority of us want to be famous and that we are open to new ways of achieving fame. This has been pretty obvious with the rise of reality TV and social media, in general. Self-promotion (via tweets, edited Instagram selfies, and tagged, or more importantly, untagged Facebook photos) is not only acceptable, it is the norm. So, our collective idea of attaining fame is a lot different than it used to be; almost anyone can be famous famous now.
Chaunsumlit shed some light on our new take on fame, saying: “Is being discovered working at a grocery store packing groceries that different from being discovered on your Tumblr? Is creating one’s own fame on YouTube or doing realty TV without the help of a publicist, a studio, or a casting couch means said fame not legitimate?" As for whether this self-promotion, make-yourself-famous tactic is simply one were are experiencing now, he says: "I do not think it is a trend. I think it will become the only way eventually. The Internet with its social media and e-commerce, is increasingly becoming the way we live. Technology has allowed us to be able to become famous with our smartphone.”
But is being famous online enough? In Chaunsumlit’s case, it may be, because it is directly tied (and is arguably only secondary) to his work; “Model Files introduced me to this audience through documenting my life as a casting director in fashion,” he says. That is one scenario.
Another is Internet fame as the means to an end, which is obviously a bit less straightforward in terms of what it can and/or will amount to. Lil Government, a stylist, social media manager, contributor to Vice, VFILES, and art director (she basically does it all), said: "The internet is a world unto itself, but it has the added benefit of universal visibility from (potentially) all areas of our IRL [in real life] existence."
So, what does Internet Fame actually amount to IRL? For fashion bloggers (and Ian Connor, apparently), it takes the form of free clothes, free trips, front row seats at the various Fashion Weeks. For a handful of well known bloggers, it also amounts to big paychecks for sponsored posts and ad revenue. But that's certainly not the norm. For Gucci Me$$iah, who doesn’t have a website of his own and isn’t interested in high fashion, there is still some translation from the web to his everyday life: “I get to hang out with da asap mob n shit at their concert and people send me like clothes n stuff.” He’s also somewhat notorious at school; “people just say like ‘yo gucci messiah’ n shit in the hallways.” Like some that have come before him, Henry “definitely” wants to make something of his Twitter status. He told me: “I’m still exploring my talents and shit but hopefully something will come by the time I'm done with school.” What exactly that may be, he hasn’t decided.
So, just how likely is translating internet fame into a profitable venture? Some of the facts weigh heavily against Internet stars. Lil Government makes a good point: “Like IRL, being important or famous in one world can be just as useless and insignificant in another– picture John Galliano trying to walk onto the trading floor at the NYSE; nobody would give a shit, right?"
So, while the merging of pop culture and web culture has created an enormous audience for Internet stars that may be stronger and is certainly is larger than ever before, it is in the hands of the famed to make something of it. Rebecca Martinson, the writer of that strongly-worded sorority email that went viral last year, has since parlayed her notoriety into a writing gig for Vice. Preston has turned his web series into a hit that is currently on its third season with publications speculating that a TV show may come of it. There are other examples, but the truth is, just because you are Internet famous doesn’t mean you are being compensated for it.
Lil Goverment makes similar points: “Relevance doesn’t pay the rent, and just because social media and worldwide WiFi have made fame attainable to anyone, for any reason, one should never assume that being known equals being paid." And she has a message for those who want to turn online visibility into either real life fame or just a paying gig: "If you want to leverage your internet fame for cash, you’re going to have to do something other than be funny or cute. Basically, have a talent, and use the internet as a tool, and if the internet is your talent, then you better be really. Fucking. Talented.”
This article was first published in February 2014.