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In the past year, 17-year-old Cory Kennedy has appeared on three magazine covers (not counting this one), been the subject of an L.A. Times feature story, racked up over 10,000 friends on MySpace, palled around with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and been photographed in nightclubs from L.A. to Paris. She even has her own Wikipedia entry.
The high school senior is a bona fide celebrity, but she’s not famous for singing, for acting or for having any particular athletic prowess.
Cory Kennedy shot to fame on the Internet, after a hip young photographer started posting her pictures on his Web site. Kennedy’s eclectic style and easygoing attitude quickly garnered attention and the page views started building.
She is an oracle for the digerati generation, an online icon who heralds the increasing influence of the Internet and the decreasing role of mainstream media in the modern-day fame game.
Though most adults have never heard of her, to many teens Kennedy is a hero. Never before has the desire for fame been so great among young people. And never has there been a conduit as quick, as global and as easy as the Internet. After all, if Cory Kennedy can become famous in 15 megabytes, why can’t they?
“The expectation and aspiration for fame is greater than it’s ever been among young people,” says Samantha Skey, executive vice president of strategic marketing for Alloy Media + Marketing. “They don’t just want to be famous. They expect to be famous. The whole notion and reality of fame is changing dramatically for young people today. The notion that one must have a particular talent to cultivate fame is antiquated.”
As a recent Psychology Today poll found, 31 percent of American teens believe they’ll be famous one day. “On the one hand, teens aren’t so different from how they’ve always been—they want attention and they want to be popular,” says Chris Gonzalez, executive editor of teen sites for CondéNet. “What has changed is the Internet, which gives them immediate access to put themselves online and have thousands of people come and see who they are.”
While that idea may be abhorrent to an older generation who values their privacy, most Gen Yers and Millennials have spent their entire lives in front of a camera. “There are a lot of kids who, as they were exiting the wombs of their mothers, their dads had a camera,” laughs Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “When they took their first steps, blew out their birthday candles, they were recorded. Today there’s a notion that history isn’t what’s written in books. It’s what there is video clips of and becoming a part of it is a very powerful draw.”
That lure has led to an explosion in the popularity of sites such as MySpace and YouTube. MySpace claims to have 70 million unique active monthly users; a recent Forrester report shows that nearly 80 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use the site weekly. While once MySpace and its brethren were primarily social networking sites, today they’re self-promotional tools. “For marketers looking for the next big thing, the Internet is like one big unending farm team,” says Thompson.
Take the music business, for example. As costs (and piracy) have skyrocketed and CD sales have slowed, record executives are looking for a proven track record online, rather than an unknown with a loyal—but local—following. “Artist recruitment, development and scouting is all done online,” says one executive who asked not to be identified because his company doesn’t allow employees to speak to reporters. “Back in the day, the executives were the gatekeepers to stardom. Someone would say, ‘This girl is going to be huge, let’s go for it,’” he continues. “Today, they don’t have that same liberty. They’re trigger-nervous because giving somone a shot requires a lot of money and potentially their jobs. They’re looking for success and traction before they believe in someone.”
“The Internet is a huge democratizer,” agrees Jane Buckingham, president of The Intelligence Group. “You don’t have to get in the door of a Hollywood executive. You just have to have masses of people choose you.”
But, of course, you do need talent. “It’s hard to be truly creative, to come up with great content,” Buckingham says. “These individuals don’t have writers to write their copy, editors to edit their stuff or stylists to make them look fantastic. For the most part, they’re doing it on their own, yet being judged by the same standards as someone who is being produced by a network.”
Of course, Cory Kennedy is not the only online celeb. Others who have transitioned from online to mainstream notice include Tila Tequila (née Nguyen), who parlayed her notoriety as the first MySpace celebrity (she currently has over 2,262,264 friends on the site) into an MTV reality show; LonelyGirl15, who came to fame originally as a real video blogger before being revealed as a fictional character, and Marie Digby, whose acoustic performance of Rihanna’s hit song “Umbrella” gained her nationwide attention and a spot on Last Call with Carson Daly.
Others on the verge include Meiko, a 25-year-old singer who used MySpace to gain recognition and released her self-titled debut album in June without a record label (it has since sold over 3,000 copies) and Heidi Cannon, a singer described by Nylon editor in chief Marvin Scott Jarrett as having “an all-American look but an indie spirit.” For a primer on how to move from online to mainstream fame, they need look no further than Esmée Denters. The 18-year-old Netherlands native got her start by posting a video of herself on YouTube singing TLC’s “Waterfalls” in her pink wallpapered bedroom. Fast-forward one year, and she’s since been signed to Tennman Records, Justin Timberlake’s label. A video of Denters singing Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” had 5,711,289 downloads, while her version of Timberlake’s “What Goes Around” had 11,760,559—no wonder he took notice. Recently, Denters also served as one of the launch faces of AlphaKitty, the YouTube channel started in September by ex-Seventeen magazine editor in chief Atoosa Rubenstein. “For AlphaKitty, Esmée was the equivalent of putting a celebrity on the cover of a magazine,” says Rubenstein. “We launched with five videos and within one week we had one million page views. That was because of Esmée.”
Rubenstein knows firsthand the power of online celebrities to pull in eyeballs—even when they haven’t yet hit the mainstream. She put Teddy Geiger, a 19-year-old musician from Rochester, N.Y., on the cover of Seventeen’s November 2006 issue, despite fierce internal resistance. “Nobody knew who he was. Even people at the magazine didn’t understand why we put him on the cover,” Rubenstein remembers. “But he had a very strong MySpace fan base, and I was banking on that fan base to come out and support him.” They did. According to Rubenstein, Geiger was the magazine’s best-selling November cover since 2000—beating out Cameron Diaz and Nicole Richie in the process.
When asked the implications for marketers, Rubenstein’s answer is immediate. “There is a very real world happening in the virtual world,” she says. “It’s a very powerful message to traditional media that they’re not the only star makers. We’re getting sick of our traditional celebrities because now that the tabloids have turned them into more careful creatures, they’re boring,” Rubenstein continues. “What’s compelling about these people and why they’re breaking through is that as a culture, we still want to be stimulated and excited and shocked and these people make that possible. They’re real.”
William Sledd is one such example. A 24-year-old Gap salesman from Paducah, Ky., he started posting videos of himself doling out fashion advice on YouTube. Called “Ask a Gay Man,” Sledd’s signature opener is “Hey bitches.” Most of his videos have garnered about half a million views thus far, but a few have hit the two million mark and counting. “His videos get tremendous traffic,” says Rubenstein. “He may be the most subscribed to channel on YouTube. If I were the Gap, I’d put him in an ad or use him online. Mainstream marketers have a whole new slew of talent to choose from,” she continues. “There’s tremendous opportunity out there, but you have to look for it.”
Nylon’s Jarrett, an astute talent spotter and trend tracker, has also made it his business to follow the Web’s rising stars. In addition to putting Kennedy on the cover of his magazine and signing her up as a fashion advice columnist, Jarrett frequently features other online hipsters he discovers, too. One of his favorite sites is thecobrasnake.com, created by photographer Mark Hunter, where he posts pictures of young women he photographs at trendy parties in L.A. and New York. Hunter’s subjects are all races, all sizes and all styles—and it’s their very nonconformity that makes them so popular with young people. “Youth culture today wants to see someone who is a little bit more like them,” says Jarrett, “who has some personality and who is cool.”
Hunter, who discovered Kennedy when she interned for him, has himself become famous for snapping pictures of PYTs at trendy parties in New York and L.A. He, too, has been the subject of an L.A. Times story, and his Web site gets 25,000 unique hits a day. Though his subjects are largely young, Hunter says his audience is much broader than that. “My demo is a mix of 13 to 30,” Hunter says. “There are a lot of young kids who aspire to be fashionistas and they’re not old enough to come to the parties. But there’s also a lot of older people who don’t want to go out, but want to know what’s cool, so they’ll look to see how the kids are dressing and what’s going on.” Even Secret deodorant recently tapped Hunter to shoot its latest ad campaign using girls he discovered during his nights out.
While the new slew of stars may not be as talented as more traditional celebrities like actors, musicians and athletes, to many young people, that’s besides the point anyway. “Teens think about a character on The Hills [an MTV reality show] in the same way they think about actress Emma Roberts [Julia’s niece and the star of Nancy Drew],” says Skey. “They watch the fashion of both, want to know who both are dating and they think both have really pretty hair. The things that are relevant to teens about famous people are equally as relevant for both, despite their conduit to fame.”
She may have shot to fame online, but Cory Kennedy is no tech geek.Here, the teen on style, school and staying in the limelight.
WWDBB: Have computers always been a part of your life?
Cory Kennedy: Not really. Not until I had to start typing reports around sixth grade. I didn’t get an e-mail until I was in ninth grade.
WWDBB: How do you feel about being labeled an Internet celebrity?
C.K.: I don’t like it. [The name] just makes me feel like I do everything on the computer and I really don’t. That’s just how a lot of people found photos of me.
WWDBB: What would you rather be known as?
C.K.: Someone not on the Internet? I don’t know…real?
WWDBB: The image of conventional celebrities are controlled by press agents, but for you it’s completely out of control. How do you corral it?
C.K.: I just go with the flow. There’s so many people on the Internet, I can’t control it. I just continue being myself.
WWDBB: Now that you have recognition, what do you want to do?
C.K.: Keep going with my passions for fashion and music and film and education and writing. Keeping up with this culture that I love so much and using it to my advantage to travel and experience as much as I can.
WWDBB: How do you fit in school?
C.K.: I go to a very small public school and there’s not really many people who have the same interests. So I just really get my work done and go home.
WWDBB: What is it about you that you think made people want to learn more about you online?
C.K.: I think it’s because you could really catch my personality through the photographs. I wasn’t trying to pose or pout my lips. They were all true, candid photos and I had this different style and different look about me. It’s much different than the average celebrity. People were just so curious…like, why is she with all these celebrities? How does she know these people? Where does she get these clothes? Where is she from? How old is she? People wanted to know.
WWDBB: How would you describe your style?
C.K.: Eclectic. I like vintage and modern. I’m messy. Like my hair is just—I don’t do anything. I don’t dress formal. Everything is toned down. If I’m wearing a Chanel bag or carrying a Jansport backpack to school it’s like the same feel.
WWDBB: Do you think you’re a role model for girls your age?
C.K.: Yeah. I think so. I get a lot of messages about my style and how I’ve helped them come out of their shell, become more outgoing with dressing and shopping. And also, the story about how I’ve gained fame—they tell me “Oh, it’s so inspiring how you did that,” or “I really love that you don’t care what people think” or “You’re just yourself and you don’t change for anyone.”
WWDBB: Do you see yourself moving more into the mainstream in terms of notoriety?
C.K.: Not mainstream. But bigger, I guess. More well-known. Wherever that goes we’ll see because I don’t really know what’s coming up next. I have no idea.
WWDBB: Has becoming famous on the Internet made you want to be more tech-savvy?
C.K.: No (laughs). I mean I know how to use a computer but I’m not like an Apple genius.