The Boys of Buzznet
By Japhy Grant
If you're over 20, chances are good you've never heard of Jeffree Star, who goes by the moniker 'Cunt: Queen of the Beautifuls' as well as the more kid-friendly 'Queen of the Internet.' At 21, he's one of the Internet's first certifiable hits: a cross-dressing, make-up obsessed kid from Orange County who's amassed nearly 3 million comments on MySpace and has translated his Internet celebrity into a successful music career. His first single, 'Plastic Surgery Slumber Party,' bumped Justin Timberlake and Shakira off the top of the iTunes Dance Charts to become No. 1 when it premiered. The shocker: It stayed there, topping the chart repeatedly throughout 2007. His clothing line is a top seller on Hot Topic's website, and he has the requisite reality show in the works, from the producers of Perez Hilton's VH-1 show.
He's also in the middle of a fight with Matthew Lush. I have back-to-back interviews with the two of them at the coffee shop below the offices of Buzznet, the 'social media' company that relies primarily on far younger users and the content those kids create -- unlike Facebook's genteel interactivity or MySpace's utilitarian giddiness harnessed by both veteran and up-and-coming bands. 'We look within our own community for people who are very active already on our site,' Buzznet publicist Jennifer Garnick explains. 'We have personalities from all over the world, and in some cases they are posting tens of thousands of photos or journals. If they look interesting, contribute to the community very actively, and market themselves well to develop their own following, we'll take a closer look at doing something specific to highlight them.'
Buzznet dubs those users 'buzzmakers,' which means they get premier accounts denoted by a pink star on their page, free publicity, and one-on-one help developing content for their profiles. Matthew's Velcro elevator stunt was filmed at the Buzznet office and edited by a Buzznet editor. For Valentine's Day, they ran a huge promotion on their home page -- a contest in which viewers could insert themselves into photos of Matthew pouting his lips for a pucker.
When Jeffree enters the caf' -- wearing his signature bright-magenta cropped hair, high heels, and a three o'clock shadow -- Matthew sits in his chair, silently sipping his water bottle. As soon as Matthew leaves, Jeffree turns to me, pushes up his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and carefully enunciates, 'If you weren't here, I would have punched him in the face just now.' The genesis of the fight has to do with Jeffree having hit an audience member at one of his concerts, after allegedly being called a faggot and having a bottle thrown at him. Matthew posted a video chastising Jeffree for throwing blows. 'Violence is not the answer,' Matthew intones seriously in the clip.
Jeffree says he doesn't buy Matthew's act. 'He's not Jesus,' he says. 'So I'm just supposed to stand around while people throw shit at me and get assaulted? I'm sorry, I'm going to defend myself. I'm not gonna fucking get murdered.' On a roll, he slams Matthew's support for PETA: 'I don't work at Wal-Mart. If I want to buy nine kangaroo-skin bags at Marc Jacobs, I'm going to buy them.'
Ask Matthew about Jeffree and he says, 'I think he's mostly eye candy. I have a lot of these morals that I believe in, that come with me, that I hope will spread through people. I don't just put up a front. There's more to me than my appearance.' If it sounds like a middle school fight, keep in mind the average age of a Buzznet viewer is 13.
I can't wonder if this spat is manufactured. Instead of answering that question outright, Jeffree tells me the story of how he and Matthew first met two years ago: 'Matthew posted a bulletin on his MySpace saying, 'Everyone comment on Jeffree Star's page saying to let Matthew Lush stay at your house.' I woke up, logged in and saw I had 500 comments about this guy I never heard of. So we did a video of Matthew and me making out. It's funny shit, just like causing a lot of attention online. We never met [before that]. Of course, it was my marketing idea. I was all, 'Ooh, get on my Hello Kitty bed, take your shirt off, and let's take a picture of us making out.' '
This is what separates the boys of Buzznet from New Kids on the Block, Davey Jones, 'N Sync, or any other sexually nonthreatening guy whom tween girls have historically drooled over as they made the transition from Ken Dolls to dating. Matthew and Jeffree are their own publicists, and they don't see guy-on-guy action as a threat to their fame. In fact, it only seems to drive their fans into more of a frenzy.
Andy Warhol had his superstars, but the buzzmakers are another breed entirely. They aren't hangers-on who add flavor to the cultural gestalt by their very presence. Instead, they're out there on the virtual street, day in and day out, manufacturing the culture, selling it, and bypassing the middlemen at media conglomerates. Matthew estimates he spends 14 hours a day online. The kind of loyalty their fans give in return is what the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi's CEO Kevin Roberts dreamed of in his book Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. 'Take a brand away and people will find a replacement,' Roberts writes. 'Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don't just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately.'
Even when his detractors are noisy and rude, Matthew insists there are no 'haters,' just people who have yet to come around. 'You have to understand that not everyone is going to love you,' he says. 'But you don't look down upon them and curse them out and yell at them, because they'll just hate you more. You just have to look at them and their potential to change.'
Internet celebs are the fulfillment of Warhol's promise that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Jeffree was famous for being famous before he was famous for his music or product lines. Matthew has nebulous dreams about 'having huge protest marches' to highlight his activism, unaware that his close connection with viewers and PETA ads have far more impact than the 15 seconds of news coverage a demonstration would get.
That they're both gay seems incidental not only to themselves but also to their viewers as well -- unless you happen to be a gay kid trapped in the middle of nowhere. The popularity of these online stars means there's hope. It also means that chances are you're not the first gay person your 12-year-old teenybopper friends have heard of.