I meet self-described gay god Matthew Lush backstage after the Jared Gold fashion show in Los Angeles's historic Union Station. Gold is a young designer from Utah who designs the sorts of things Marie Antoinette would wear to a Neko Case concert. Matthew's hair is teased up in a powdery-blue bouffant that makes him look like a human Q-Tip, and we're cramped in a tiny hallway that doubles as a dressing room; a steady stream of models, photographers, and glitterati glower at us for being in their way. Nobody seems to realize that Matthew is huge on the Internet.
That changes as soon as he walks out into the crowd. The conceit of this show would never fly during New York's prestigious fashion week, but in L.A. the industry has long been more focused on stars than, well, style. The models at this show are all Internet celebrities, and in an egalitarian publicity stunt, tickets were offered up on the Web. Not that these ticket holders are allowed to get close to the stage -- velvet ropes and separate entrances keep the hoi polloi at a comfortable distance from the usual fashion crowd -- but after the show all bets are off.
This explains why a couple dozen tween girls are mobbing Matthew as their mothers stand around and share bewildered looks. Oh, my God, it's Matthew! shouts one girl, running over for a hug. I ask another why she likes Matthew, and she answers in a breathless incantation: He wants to stop global warming, and he cares about people, and he's really nice! She pulls out an actual pen-and-paper autograph book and waits patiently for her turn.
There are so many reasons to dismiss Matthew Lush that we might as well get them out of the way: He's 19. His primary cultural contributions are online videos in which he pushes PETA's pro-animal agenda or talks about how he won't date boys who are meat eaters. In one clip he attaches himself with Velcro to the walls of an elevator. And he always seems to believe his own hype.
Maybe he should. It's far too easy to call Matthew, Jeffree Star and others like them self-absorbed narcissists -- like, duh. Whatever their other talents may be, the reigning royalty of the Internet are first and foremost experts at self-promotion. The reality is they're very good at it, having quickly become stars to the most-sought-after market in the world -- the tween and teen audience that companies like Disney will spend billions of dollars this year wooing.
But unlike the products of that sanitized High School Musical factory, these stars are outrageously, unapologetically queer. One 14-year-old girl at a time, they're beating the hype machine at its own game.
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.
Clint Catalyst is the elder statesman of the online scene. He's a bit cagey about his age; his MySpace profile says he's 69, but I'd guess he's in this 30s. He was a minor celebrity off the Internet before he became one on it, back when he lived in San Francisco and spent his nights working the doors of nightclubs and doing meth. (One of the truths about being an Internet celebrity is that your life is an open book -- forever.) Clint has a pasty China doll-like appearance and was asked to pose for the cover of Sons of Darkness, an anthology of gay vampire fiction. More modeling gigs followed, including a cover shoot for his own drug-fueled roman clef, Cottonmouth Kisses.
Eventually, he cut ties with his San Francisco friends, sobered up, and moved to L.A., where he found himself having to go back to working at clubs to make ends meet. That's how he first encountered Jeffree Star. He was kissing my ass to get in, Clint says. They don't hire door people to be nice, so with him I was, like, 'No, you and one friend.' I can remember this girl was like, 'I love that you give Jeffree Star so much trouble.' Clint didn't know whom she was talking about. She used this term -- 'web celeb.' Then I saw [his MySpace] and went, 'Oh.'
Clint admits that his own first forays on the Internet were modest. At first I treated my MySpace account like I would a nightclub and let very few people through the door, he says. But after checking out Jeffree's profile, a lightbulb went on. Soon he was developing his own following on multiple sites, and when Buzznet contacted him to let him know they had set up an account for him complete with his own banner, he joined the crew.
When I interview Clint, he gives me an envelope with press clippings inside -- if you care what old-school media has to say, LA Weekly named him one of 100 people to know -- and on the front, written in neat block script, is a list of his upcoming projects. At the top it reads, For Lisa Hammer's movie Pox, I was cast from my MySpace profile. A starred item at the bottom notes that two directors he's worked with since are Screen Actors Guild signatories, and that this will soon make him a card-carrying actor, all without going on traditional auditions. With my look and my mannerisms, he says, I know this wouldn't have happened without the Internet.
The relationship Buzznet's stars have is quid pro quo. They sent Audrey Kitching -- one of Buzznet's punk princesses and another of Jared Gold's models -- out on the Warped Tour summer concert series to blog from the road, and Clint was their official host on the red carpet at the Emmys. With his flamboyant appearance, Clint was his own draw for celebrity interviews. Clint gets exposure, Buzznet gets free talent.
Clint has enough perspective to see the impact that Jeffree, Matthew, and he have on how the current generation of teens perceives gay people. A lot of them see I'm from Arkansas and go, 'How did you end up [here]?' I say, 'The same way you did, and the same way you can get out if you want -- or the same way you can stay there and be content. You just have to know there's a bigger world.'
All three notice they have very few gay fans. At the Jared Gold show, while Matthew was being mobbed by girls, I asked a gay guy beside me what he thought of Matthew Lush. He's a douche bag, the guy said. Anybody can set up [an automated] bot to go out and get hundreds of thousands of friends. It's pathetic.
But if the key to social change and equality is visibility, maybe we need these fame whores. At long last, for mainstream Middle American tweens, the popular kids are weirdos and outcasts. The girls who obsess over Matthew, Jeffree, and Clint will probably grow out of it, the same way women before them grew out of their love for Zack or Slater. But they won't lose their exposure to a world where gay boys cuddle with bunnies, cross-dressers fight back, and former meth addicts become unintended role models. It's not sanitized or polite, but for this virtual generation, it's what's real.
Matthew says his fans have no choice but to accept all sides to him equally. I'm an activist, I'm vegan, I'm gay, he says. They're more eager to see what's behind everything because they think I'm cute. It's like a complete package that they have to accept. It just happens to be a very pretty package to them.
Even more so than simply just being out there and gay, the message these guys send is, as Jeffree puts it, pro-expression.
If I can use my celebrity power at all, Jeffree says, it would be to make people more open-minded about everything, whether it's sexuality or how you look. So many people write me and say, 'My mom hates me because I'm gay,' or 'I don't want to dye my hair blue because everybody at school will call me ugly.' It makes me sad to hear people say that. I just want everyone to stop caring what everybody says.
You can find writer Japhy Grant online, too.