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The New Celebrity

Arts & Culture | November 11, 2014

The overnight celebrity-narrative is familiar: a previously unknown person posts a video of himself or herself singing/dancing/applying makeup/styling hair/doing standup comedy (the list is infinite) and, seemingly overnight, they achieve the Holy Grail of “internet fame.” These are ordinary citizens who, through their own creative efforts, talents, or perhaps even pure strokes of luck, achieve online notoriety. These are the YouTubers, the Viners, even the Instagrammers, who have skirted the typical Hollywood routes to fame, the ones who are changing what it means to be famous.

Whether this new breed of celebrity proves to be a threat to traditional Hollywood culture remains to be seen. A large part of the appeal of the Internet star seems to lie in their relatable nature. Countless tabloids feature pages of Jennifer Aniston grocery shopping, or Katy Perry mid-Starbucks run, with the headline “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” The American public seems fascinated with the idea that celebrities can be normal people too, and herein lies the appeal of the online celebrity: they are us.

Most of America’s favorite YouTube stars began their careers as ordinary people who happened to post videos online. Justin Bieber was just a regular Canadian teenager with a YouTube channel before he was discovered and scooped up by Island Records. Other YouTubers, such as Tufts’ own Aaron Idelson (thatsoaaron), rely completely on their relatable nature to achieve their fame. Idelson’s videos (viewed by 17,238 subscribers), much like those of other popular YouTube and Vine users, focus mostly on aspects of their lives as American adolescents. They chronicle big changes, like rough break-ups and the first semester of college, to which many of their fans can relate. For the most part, their videos are not focused on a central talent, but rather on reaching out to their viewers and assuring them that other people share their experience.

Contrary to traditional celebrities, who seem like distant figures of our popular culture, Internet stars have an everyman’s touch which seems to endear them to viewers. “I think [internet stars] are more personable, and more involved with their audience and their viewers and their fans,” Idelson says. “Whereas a movie star is more professional, and cut off from the people that made them relevant, I’d like to think YouTubers realize that we would not be here today if it weren’t for you.”

But how does one become “internet famous?” A good way to start is to have a talent. In 2007, YouTube beauty sensation Michelle Phan was just a college student with a gift for applying makeup. Years after posting her first video “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial,” Phan now has 7 million subscribers and a cosmetic line with L’Oreal.

Alternatively, many Internet stars achieve their fame through lack of discernable talent. Rebecca Black’s music video “Friday” was viewed on YouTube over 72,000,000 times, and rose to popularity through its seemingly unintentional humor. Black now has over one million YouTube subscribers, and although her video was once an internet laughingstock, Forbes magazine points out that Black likely earned over one million dollars through iTunes downloads and revenue from page views on YouTube.

As in Black’s case, with the online world’s expansion Internet fame has the potential to be as lucrative as other forms of public influence. Large corporations have been shelling out substantial sums to Viners and YouTubers to endorse their products in their videos; such covert advertising could pack a larger punch than televised ads.

Business Insider reports that one Vine star, Cody Johns, was able to pay off his entire college tuition with a single campaign of 6-second Vines. One such ad shows Johns flipping and diving over various obstacles, all while also tossing a Coke bottle. The captions reads, “#ShareaCoke on the run! #sp Coca-Cola.” These sponsored videos, present on YouTube as well, serve to benefit both parties involved—Internet stars earn income and companies expose their products to the users’ audiences of subscribers.

Idelson was also able to make money from his YouTube videos. “I worked with Google, and I put ads on my videos and whenever people viewed the video and clicked on the ads I made money,” he explains. “And then in 2012 I was partnered with a company called Fullscreen, which was much more involved. It was still ads, but they play certain ads, and boost content.” Fullscreen’s website describes the group as “the first media company for the connected generation,” truly a sign that businesses and advertising agencies are beginning to capitalize on the Internet fame movement.

So why doesn’t everyone just pursue a seemingly simple career online? The questionable longevity of digital celebrity is a major deterrent. It is apparent that Internet fame can be profitable, but much less clear how long such a career can last. For household names like Justin Bieber (who, according to Forbes, currently has a net worth of $80 billion) the Internet was simply a substitute for the conventional Hollywood route, a different means to the same result of traditional celebrity status. Right now, it seems as though today’s online stars must rely on more long-established structures of celebrity culture if they want to achieve real fame. What remains to be seen, however, is if Internet stars will ever be able to achieve successful careers without transitioning offline, if Internet fame itself can last longer than six seconds.

“I’ve never thought about not going to college,” Idelson says, “because although Internet fame may be something right now, I don’t know how long that would last for me. The idea of ditching out on [going to college] to make videos always seemed bizarre to me.”

But while Idelson may doubt the longevity of a career in Internet fame, he still asserts that right now, a YouTube personality can pack the same amount of star power as a traditional celebrity. And walking through the hallways of any American high school, you’re almost bound to hear someone quoting something they saw on Vine or YouTube. Pop culture references today are no longer solely limited to movies and television; our language is peppered with phrases like “Ooh kill ‘em” and “on fleek,” which originated on Vine.

At the moment, time-honored modes of stardom still seem to dominate. If we want to refer to a power couple, we talk about Brad and Angelina, or Beyoncé  and Jay-Z, not Rebecca Black and her boyfriend. We anticipate each of Lady Gaga’s red carpet appearances. We follow Taylor Swift when she posts the lyrics for her upcoming album on Instagram. Perhaps there is something satisfying and validating about a celebrity who has gone through the conventional auditions and Hollywood struggles to achieve their stardom.

Yet these stars also have the backing of an American Hollywood that has existed for decades. The emergence of the internet celebrity is recent, and their star-power is growing exponentially. In recent years, the Teen Choice Awards have begun including a category for Favorite Web Star, indicating that these celebrities have garnered enough recognition to be placed on the same platform as TV and Movie Stars. Perhaps all these internet stars need is time: time to cultivate their material, time to achieve a greater following, and time to establish an even greater sense of legitimacy in American culture. Maybe then, the “new celebrity” will be able to compete with the tenure of the traditional star.

Header art by Julie Doten.