Jessi Smiles and Curtis LePore represent a new breed of celebrity: the six-second video star.
The platform on which they both made their names, Vine, made its debut in the app store one year ago. Its six-second video restriction apparently tickled a nerve, just like the character-limit of its parent company Twitter, and it was the fastest growing app of 2013. Today, Vine has 40 million users. The micro-bursts of jokes, stunts and sketches gave birth to a dedicated community and teeming subculture, with its own humor, its own heroes and its own harrowing controversies.
LePore, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., is a tattooed rocker. He rose to prominence on Vine with videos, like the one below, of him clowning around with friends and his dog Buster Beans. With 3.5 million followers, he is the ninth most followed Vine user, or “Viner.”
Smiles, real name Jessica Vazquez, from Miami, Fla., came to Vine fame by posting her thoughts on life and love. Her self-deprecating humor helped her gain 2.8 million followers – the 13th most on Vine.
After commenting on each others' videos, they arranged a meeting in front of thousands of their followers at a New York City park last summer. LePore stood on a stage with a microphone and proclaimed, “So I like this girl named Jessi Smiles.”
Backed by a chorus of teen girl screams, Smiles jumped on stage. They shared their first kiss before a horde of blinking cellphones, launching a very public, and very brief, relationship.
During the course of a few weeks, the couple posted videos of their dates, propelling their online celebrity status. They were America’s sweethearts, social media style. Then suddenly, to the disappointment of fans, they broke up.
Now this month, a bombshell hit the “Vine-a-verse”: news that Smile has accused LePore of rape.
A community divided
According to court documents, Smiles says she was sexually assaulted in her sleep on Aug. 31, 2013. A detective with the Los Angeles Police Department told America Tonight that LePore was arrested and charged with the rape of an unconscious person. He posted a $100,000 bond and pleaded not guilty. The case is still pending.
The allegations fueled a furious online reaction, dividing Viners into #teamjessi and #teamcurtis. Some of the comments aimed at Smiles have been violently misogynistic, mostly on the theme that she is a “liar” and a “whore,” and made up the allegations for publicity. LePore has been called a “pig” and a “rapist.”
In true Vine fashion, both Lepore and Smiles each released videos reacting to the rape allegations. “There’s two sides to every story,” Lepore said soberly in his.
In hers, Smiles offered up a six-second dance in gratitude to her supporters.
Rape allegations have provoked ugly online reactions before. Earlier this month, Daisy Coleman, the teenage girl at the center of the Maryville rape controversy, tried to kill herself after being harassed online for attending a party, according to her mother.
The Internet also breeds a particularly virulent strand of misogyny, like when a feminist activist successfully campaigned to get Jane Austen’s image on British banknote last year. She was inundated with such terrifying and graphic threats that two people were criminally charged and Twitter instituted a “report abuse” button across its platform.
A new kind of celebrity
But reactions may have also been amplified by the particular world of Vine.
Platforms like YouTube and Vine “are the television shows of teenagers these days,” explained Mat Honan, a senior writer at the Internet culture magazine Wired. They’re the new incubators of youth culture, “things we’d call MTV culture 20 years ago,” he said.
Even more so than reality TV stars, social media celebrities can seem truly authentic and unscripted, provoking particularly intense attachments among fans. When YouTube sensation Jenna Marbles broke up with her boyfriend in December 2012, for example, her young acolytes responded with comments like, “I feel like my parents are getting divorced” and “everything I know about love is a lie.”
Celebrity usually sneaks up on Viners, with followings built through word-of-mouth, without agents or advertising. Unlike YouTube, a person can easily share a video they like to their stream with a single click, skyrocketing six seconds of slapstick into a blockbuster hit in certain online social circles.
“Pretty quickly you get these self-selecting communities,” says Honan. “I can see how you can build these passionate user-bases. The mechanics built into it help create a kind of hothouse environment.”
When Vine stars Jerome Jarre and Nash Grier made an appearance at a mall in Reykjavík, Iceland earlier this month, the Iceland Review reported a “frenzy” that led to minor injuries and car damage.
Vine celebrities trademark their own brand of humor and collaborate with one another. Visual tricks and hashtags quickly become memes. A viral Vine sparks dozens of responses, emulating or parodying the original post. Super-fans can get their own a taste of fame with a witty take on their idol’s work. All of this fuels the platform’s cult-ish insidery appeal.
“In the course of a couple weeks that put forth 10, 20, 30 videos that are really funny, really cute, people on Vine notice and attract hundreds of thousands of followers,” explains Daniel Wein, a student at George Washington University, who made a Vine last year that went viral, and earned him the first ever Vine journalism award.
“And that’s how we’ve seen a whole new type of Internet celebrity on Vine, which is another social platform, come about,” he said.
The passionate and vicious response of Smiles and LePore fans didn’t surprise Wein. He believes it’s the result of real life puncturing their manufactured personas, which are in a state of perpetual goofy humor.
“You’re taking what’s obviously a very serious allegation of rape and taking millions, literally millions, of people that follow these Vine celebrities very closely,” he explains. “And this contrast of what people think they know about these people and what’s actually going on in their lives is very hard for people to comprehend.”
It also makes it hard for Vine’s community to obey its clearly-stated commenting policy: “Say something nice.”