One frigid morning last November, Christian Akridge emerged from his hotel bathroom in Secaucus, New Jersey, with the promise of big news. “Don’t go in there,” he warned, flinging the bathroom door closed behind him. “There’s normal poop, and then there’s what I just did.”
Few topics animate Christian quite like excrement. He talks and tweets about it so often, in fact, that it seemed unlikely to be the news in question. Instead, he announced a special outfit for his appearance that day at a massive gathering of Internet stars and their fans. “I’m going to wear a dress!” he said, sounding delighted with himself.
Though only 14 at the time, Christian’s preferred aesthetic could best be described as suburban dad: khaki shorts, Hawaiian shirts and pulled-up white socks. He gets away with it because he’s considered good looking among teenage girls on the Internet, where he goes by the name Christian Leave. Only a month before, he’d planned to apply for a job at a taco shop in his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. But then David Graham — the founder of PressPlay, a touring group of young social media personalities — found Christian’s comedic videos on Vine, where the young teen had amassed nearly 100,000 followers in only a few months.
Now Christian was standing on a packed convention floor in New Jersey, a black dress slipped over his T-shirt and jeans. It was a strange look that only added to his growing reputation as someone who would do anything to make his fans laugh. Christian had also somehow procured a bag of marshmallows and was eagerly handing them out to the iPhone-wielding girls who stopped him every few feet to say hello. Or, really, to scream hello. (“OH MY GOD IT’S CHRISTIAN! HI CHRISTIAN!!!!”)
Fans — including one who’d flown in from Japan and another dressed in a cat onesie — kissed his cheek, bear-hugged him, or demanded piggyback rides. Some handed him gifts (love letters and portraits), while others begged him to follow them on Twitter. There was similar excitement online, where teens — some at the convention, others who wished they were — posted breathless tweets: “I have a video of Christian saying hi to me im done.” “Christian Leave is so hot like bend me over a table please.” “Who the fuck is Christian Leave and why is he suddenly everywhere?”
Though Christian wasn’t as well known as some of the more established Internet celebrities in Secaucus, he had the advantage of being a new face. On Vine, Christian eschews the predictable or “relatable” humor of other young comedians — how boring school can be, the insolence of people who hog the iPhone charger — in favor of offbeat scenarios. In a Vine that’s been “looped” more than 6 million times, for example, Christian pretends to be two moms. When one asks the other how old her child is, she quickly does the math in her head and says, “Uh, well, 468 months.” Cue the grown son (also played by Christian), who stands nearby and angrily says, “Mom, I’m 39!”
Watch exclusive video from on tour with Christian Leave.
Many of the girls in attendance prided themselves on being early adopters of talent; they could tell me exactly how few followers Christian had when they “discovered” him. But their devotion seemed to be about more than his ability to entertain them. “Some [social media stars] act one way online and then another when you hang out with them in person,” one teen girl explained. “Christian’s just himself all the time. He’s a genuine and happy person, and he’s always there for his fans.”
Always there for his fans. If there’s one requirement of social media celebrity, that’s probably it. A 2014 Variety survey of teen girls found that they preferred YouTube celebrities to traditional movie and television stars because Internet stars seem more authentic — and, perhaps as importantly, more accessible. They can interact with boys like Christian at conventions and at PressPlay tour stops, but fans also expect daily contact on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat when the boys return to the relative privacy of their messy bedrooms. Meridith Valiando Rojas, the founder and CEO of DigiTour (a social media star showcase co-owned by Ryan Seacrest), may have best summarized how teen celebrity has changed in the last few years: “That Tiger Beat poster on the wall now talks to you.”
What might it be like to be that talking Tiger Beat poster? I decided to trail Christian around the country for nearly a year to find out. I was curious to see how a goofy, optimistic, sensitive kid (one who values his private time and his close-knit friendships) might adapt to the expectations of teen social media celebrity. Christian had always wanted to entertain people, and he was getting that chance — and relishing much of it — earlier than he could have imagined. But his growing popularity came with significant pressures: concerned parents meddled with his creative process; mean girls bullied him and each other online; occasionally, suicidal fans expected him to save them. As I watched Christian struggle to make sense of his rising profile, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could this 14-year-old be Internet famous and not hate his life?
Im sorry that there’s nothing fun to do here,” Christian told me six weeks later, in January, as we sat in a funky coffee shop in Wichita Falls. The drought-plagued city is perhaps best known for its innovative sewage recycling program — or, as Christian put it, for “drinking our own poop water!” He and one of his two best friends, Austin, had already given me a tour of downtown, which included riffling through local thrift shops and climbing up building fire escapes to take panoramic selfies.
At the time of my visit, Christian and his family were renting a modest home down the block from Fallspointe Church, where Christian’s dad, David, is the executive associate pastor. Fallspointe is Pentecostal, though David was quick to tell me that it’s “Pentecostal without the weird,” which I took to mean without the speaking in tongues. Christian plays bass guitar in the church band, and he seemed to take pride in Fallspointe’s inclusiveness. “We’re all about love, and we take the people”—active addicts, former convicts—”other churches don’t want,” he told me. “It makes for a fun time.”
When Christian began posting videos to Vine in the summer of 2014, his parents didn’t think much of it. “He had like 800 followers at first, so to be nice and help him out we would email our friends and say, ‘Let’s get him to 1,000!'” recalled Christian’s mom, Misty. “Before we knew it, though, he was at 10,000, then 20,000, then 50,000. Girls seemed to really like him.”
Christian’s early Vines were heavy on puns. In one from August 2014, only weeks after he created his account, we see him in a shoe store with what he calls “too many shoes.” As he pans his iPhone camera toward a wall of sandals behind his face, he says, “There’s more than I can sandal!” Within a month, Christian started getting noticed by other Viners with bigger followings. One was former PressPlay member Jack Dail, who urged David Graham to consider adding Christian to the tour.
Though Christian’s social media footprint was small (he only had about 3,000 followers on Twitter and 9,000 on Instagram), David thought Christian’s Vines were quirky and creative. It didn’t hurt that the teen also looked the part of a social media star. He has an agreeable face and thick, dirty blond hair that inspires girls to type in all-caps and exclamation points. But when Christian told his parents that a man from the Internet thought he was funny and wanted to fly him to Philadelphia the following week (for a PressPlay show), they reacted with appropriate suspicion. “It was surreal,” Misty said. “I said to Christian, “Are you sure this isn’t some sex-trafficking thing?'”
They felt better after speaking with David on the phone. He explained that if all went well in Philadelphia, he might decide to manage Christian and offer him a permanent spot on his tour. Misty accompanied Christian to Philadelphia, and she couldn’t believe how girls reacted to her son. “They went crazy,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘He’s just a kid with smelly feet!'”
Christian’s social media numbers grew rapidly in the two months between the Philadelphia show in November and my visit to Wichita Falls. He now had some 300,000 followers on Vine, 86,000 on Instagram, and 60,000 on Twitter, where he was adding about 1,000 followers a day. When I asked Christian’s parents if any of this might go to his head, they didn’t seem worried. School would keep him grounded, they told me, as would his close friends and his involvement in church. “We’re not going to home-school him or do anything differently,” his dad said.
At Christian’s high school, students reacted with bewilderment to his fame — and skepticism that he’d done anything to earn it. I’d heard horror stories from several other PressPlay members, who told me they were harassed by classmates as their online fame grew. “It’s the weirdest thing having all of these people from around the country dying to be your friend, but at school you’re a nobody who’s considered obviously gay if you’re trying to be funny and creative on the Internet,” says Mikey Murphy, a 17-year-old YouTuber with more than a half million subscribers.
Christian was worried enough about the reaction that he didn’t use his real name on Vine, but he didn’t stay anonymous for long. After the school newspaper wrote a feature about the famous freshman, some students “said things” behind his back, including that he bought his Twitter followers. “That’s the dumbest and most annoying [rumor],” he told me. “Until recently I didn’t have enough money to pay for sneakers, so I definitely couldn’t buy followers. I never would, anyway. It’s like the last thing I would ever do.”
His parents couldn’t always be counted on to support his artistic vision either. One of Christian’s best Vines, which he created about a month after my Texas visit, opens with him in the passenger seat of a car while his friend Austin drives. We see their elbows accidentally touch on the center console, but instead of removing them and talking about the Dallas Cowboys, they eye each other longingly and decide to hold hands. The Vine, which ends with Christian smiling, isn’t his “coming out” video — it’s a clever nod to how two best friends might act if they weren’t worried about being called gay.
The video did exceptionally well in its first few hours on Vine, but then it was gone. “My mom made me take it down,” Christian explained. “She said it could give people an impression of me that’s not accurate.” When I asked how much he pushed back against that decision, he seemed surprised by the question: “Not much. I live at home, and my parents make the rules.”
Still, Christian’s growing social media numbers came with collateral damage his parents couldn’t control. Girls began sending him explicit messages and naked pictures; others called him ugly, stupid, lame and talentless. That’s not altogether different from the experience of many teens navigating high school in the age of social media, but, to Misty, the difference was one of scale. “There’s a mention of him on Twitter or Instagram or Vine every few seconds — it never stops, and it’s impossible to keep track of it all,” she told me, shaking her head in disbelief. “I just worried that he was 14 and having to deal with all of this.”
Christian, who sat next to me on the couch as I spoke with his parents, leaned over to show me an especially provocative message he’d received earlier from a fan who hoped to “eat his juicy ass.”
The sexual desperation of certain fans wasn’t what bothered him most, though he did tell me he found that “sad.” What got to him was how cruelly his fans could treat him — and each other — online. It was hard for Christian to keep up with it all, including when girls would message other girls to insist that Christian said they were ugly. “Twitter is a terrible, mean, awful place,” Christian told me, sounding more serious than I’d ever heard him. “I like to make people happy. That’s why I entertain. But there’s so much bullying and negativity.”
Some fans expected Christian to be their de-facto therapist. Girls messaged him to say a friend of theirs was severely depressed, and might he please talk to them? Christian wasn’t sure how to respond, but when he did the girls often seemed fine. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, nothing’s wrong. What’s up with you?'” he recalled. One girl messaged Christian directly on Twitter to say, “I’m really sad and am thinking about cutting myself. You’re the only person who can stop me.”
Many of Christian’s fans had a seemingly unquenchable need for his attention. Christian wanted to go to school, hang out with his friends, maybe even date a girl. But when he tried to take a day or two break from Twitter to recharge, some fans lashed out. “People are like, ‘You never talk to us anymore. You’ve changed,'” he told me. “I’m like, ‘You don’t even know me! How would you know if I’ve changed? Maybe I haven’t changed my underwear in a month!”
Christian got to meet his fans every few weeks at PressPlay tour stops across the country. In January, at a banquet facility near Los Angeles, I found him up on stage, sitting on a throne. About 100 teen girls waited in something approximating a line for a chance to sit on his lap and take a selfie. Nearby, a PressPlay member whizzed by on a mini-skateboard while another did an impromptu somersault off the stage. Everywhere I looked, well-coiffed white boys — there’s a stark lack of diversity among the tour’s roster — joked around with fans.
Two decades ago, at the height of America’s boy-band craze, there was at least the illusion that some part of female interest in young teen stars was driven by ostensible vocal abilities. If young social media stars are the new boy bands — and they sure do look and dress the part — that pretense is now gone. The “concert” portion of a PressPlay show feels like an afterthought. Most of the boys don’t sing, so they do little more than hoot and holler and spray each other with silly string. Christian does perform at shows and occasionally croons from his bedroom (fans even made sure his cover of Vance Joy’s “Riptide” rose as high as #4 on the singer-songwriter chart), but girls don’t pay $70 for a PressPlay ticket because Christian and the boys are skilled performers. They want one-on-one time with their crushes—and to leave with hugs, selfies and a sense of being part of the PressPlay family.
Overseeing that family is David Graham, a youthful 40-year-old who alternates between responsible adult and wannabee teenager on tour. He sometimes appears in videos with the PressPlay boys, and is in constant contact with most of them via text message. The mother of 15-year-old PressPlay member Dakota Brooks jokingly laments that her son “probably communicates more with David than he does with me.”
Before breaking into social media management in 2010, David spent much of his career in another industry — reality television — where talent can seem equally beside the point. He produced “Reality Bar Crawl” (a tour featuring MTV reality stars), worked for the now defunct Fox Reality Channel, and helped organize reality show awards ceremonies and after parties.
In that latter role he reached out to Keenan Cahill, a then 15-year-old with Maroteaux-Lamy syndrome (which can sometimes present like dwarfism) who became Internet famous in 2010 for lip-syncing on YouTube. “By talking to him and his mom, I learned he had hundreds of unanswered emails in his inbox — invitations from reality shows, nightclub, celebrity artists,” David recalls. “And he didn’t know what was legit and what wasn’t.” Keenan’s mom eventually agreed to let David manage her son, and two months later Keenan filmed a video with 50 Cent that’s been viewed more than fifty-two million times on YouTube. Keenan went on to film videos with Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, among many others, and credits David with much of his success, including helping him earn enough money to pay for college.
In late 2013, David began managing other young social media personalities, and soon launched the PressPlay tour in a crowded market. (A number of big tours, including MagCon and DigiTour, were already established). David proved to have a good eye for young talent, but he’s struggled to keep some of his bigger names. YouTubers Mikey Murphy and Luke Korns, who were among PressPlay’s best draws when I first started following the tour, moved to Big Frame, a leading digital management and marketing firm. Jack Dail, a popular PressPlay Viner from Wisconsin, decided to quit social media altogether. “Hope you understand,” he tweeted to his 644,000 followers. “God has a plan for everyone.”
David doesn’t pre-approve what the PressPlay boys post (“Fans demand an authentic relationship,” he says), which can sometimes lead to trouble. Bored in math class last November, Christian tweeted, algebra? more like algaybra, only to delete it soon after. That same month, on a visit to a friend’s house in another state, Christian filmed a broadcast on YouNow — a live-streaming video platform popular with teens — that briefly showed a Confederate flag on a wall in the background.
“Christian’s 14, and he’s just starting to truly understand the responsibility that comes with all of this,” David says. “He’s absolutely not racist or homophobic, but he can be clueless like a lot of kids his age — and he’s just starting to realize that he’s under a microscope.”
Though top Viners can make tens of thousands of dollars a month, Christian isn’t yet at that level. David declined to talk specifically about what he and the boys earn at tour stops, except to say that each of his performers gets a modest appearance fee. Christian banks a few thousand dollars most months through merchandise sales (t-shirts and hoodies), YouNow (where popular broadcasters get tipped by their fans), and advertising on Vine, Twitter and Instagram.
The ultimate goal for someone like Christian, though, is bigger than mere social media celebrity. “I want to mainstream the boys as quickly as possible,” David says, meaning he hopes they’ll succeed as actors, singers, comedians or television stars. “If you’re a TV show or a movie and you’re casting for a role, do you want to choose a boy who might be beautiful but who hardly anyone knows, or do you want to hire the kid who has hundreds of thousands of followers and who can send out a tweet and guarantee that viewership will go up?”
There is some precedent for an attempted transition from teen Internet celebrity to mainstream star. The day before PressPlay’s LA show, I visited 17-year-old Nash Grier and 21-year-old Cameron Dallas — two of the biggest Internet celebrities in America, with more than 10 million Twitter followers combined—at the upscale apartment they shared in Hollywood (before their landlord evicted them for partying too hard).
Nash and Cameron were about to begin filming The Outfield, in which they play close friends and high-school baseball teammates. This was Cameron’s second movie — his first, “Expelled,” was produced by AwesomenessTV, which launched as a YouTube channel in 2012 and was snapped up a year later by DreamWorks. Both Expelled and The Outfield are small-budget films, though, and it remains to be seen whether movies starring social media influencers can become mainstream hits.
Nash and Cameron hadn’t slept much the night before our 10 a.m. interview. I knew this because as I was getting up at six that morning, Nash tweeted that he was going to bed: “I don’t sleep a lot but when I do it’s like I’m in a coma… good luck waking me up.” (When I checked later that morning, the tweet had 23,000 “likes” and 12,000 retweets.) Nonetheless, the boys showed up only a few minutes late. Both wore sweatpants, and Cameron had a pimple above his lip, but otherwise they looked remarkably refreshed.
I got the sense that Nash aimed to impress amidst some public relations setbacks, including a long-deleted Vine that had resurfaced and gone viral. In it, he screams “Fag!” and suggests that HIV only affects gay people. “I’m still a boy trying to figure out life,” he told me. “And every human is going to make mistakes. I didn’t necessarily want the public to see me grow up, but to do what we do, it comes with it. We have to be ready for thousands of people to hate on us, or millions of people to love us. We have to be willing to be exposed. You can be living your life as a (traditional) famous person but not really putting a lot out there. Everything we do, we put out there.”
Cameron and Nash are in a different league than Christian, and I was curious if they knew of him. Cameron said he did — and that the young teen was one of only a few dozen people he followed on Vine. “If I like someone’s Vines, they must really stick out,” he told me. When I told them that Christian sometimes struggled to placate his fans, Cameron said he was “glad I got to go to prom before I did this.” “A lot of people [who do what we do] try to say, ‘Oh, the haters don’t get to me,'” Cameron told me. “And I think that might be true after you’ve gone through a period of the haters getting to you.”
Nash nodded. “The Internet is a very dangerous place.”
Nash and Cameron also echoed what I heard from Christian and many young social media stars: being on your phone all day (like it’s your job) is hard work. “There’s an expectation that we will always be active,” Nash said. “Every day we have to think, ‘What’s a Vine we can post? What’s a Snapchat story we can make? What’s some dialogue we can say to keep people interested? What do we have to promote today?'”
They were eager to begin filming—and then promoting — The Outfield, and like seasoned actors they spoke highly of the film’s script. But unlike seasoned actors, they were still learning how to act. (“We’ve been in classes,” Cameron told me.) When I asked whether they now thought of themselves as Internet celebrities or actors, Nash said neither label felt quite right. “Whether we’re called social media kids, or digital influencers, or actors, all those labels are limiting,” he told me. “In the end, both of us just want to entertain.”
Christian had never been on an airplane before going on tour. He appreciated the chance to see the country, but he and the PressPlay boys rarely ventured far from hotels and Chipotles (their favorite restaurant), spending most of their time on the road hanging out and collaborating on Vine and YouTube videos.
In LA, Viner Alex Ernst enlisted Christian’s help to make a video he called “2 kidnappers without candy.” (Alex doesn’t mind offending, nor does he shy away from politically charged issues; last May, he collaborated on a video about police shootings of unarmed black men.) It took about twenty minutes for Christian and Alex to film and edit the kidnapper Vine, which begins with Alex in a hoodie leaning out the van’s driver-side window. “Hey, kid, you want some candy?” Alex says. (They considered waiting for an actual kid to walk by but decided against it.) Christian then handed the phone to Alex, who filmed Christian looking confused and asking, “We have candy?” The Vine ends with Christian channeling a clueless kidnapper worried about the feelings of their potential target: “Well, he’s going to be disappointed when he finds out we don’t have any candy!”
Shooting videos wasn’t the only work the PressPlay boys did on the road. In a disheveled Boston hotel room a month later, I watched Christian and Mike Mancari — a lanky 16-year-old Viner David had recently added to the tour — chat with fans who had won a contest through the disposable phone and messaging service Hushed. The calls did not go well. The bad connection on Mike’s phone only added to the awkwardness of teens (who rarely use their phones for talking) trying to hold an actual conversation. Instead there were giggles, long silences and incomprehensible yearning. “This is the most screwed up Hushed I’ve ever done,” Christian said.
Mike suggested they go down to the lobby to buy Red Bulls. Two young girls, who had been waiting for the boys outside their hotel room, caught up to us as the elevator door was closing. No one said anything at first, but then one girl noticed that Christian was eating from a bag of Twizzlers. “You’re eating our Twizzlers,” she said. “And you still haven’t followed us on Twitter.” Christian, who dislikes pushy fans almost as much as he dislikes passive-aggressiveness, stared at his phone without acknowledging her.
It wasn’t the only uncomfortable moment I watched Christian have with his fans. At another PressPlay show, Christian practically ran from a group of girls to the safety of the men’s room. I found him there, leaning against the sink, his trademark smile gone. “They’re acting nice now, but they said mean things about me online,” Christian explained. “All they want to do is start drama.”
For the most part, though, Christian seemed energized by — and grateful for — his fans. He marveled at their devotion to him (he insisted that he didn’t understand it or deserve it), and he was surprised that he could make something trend on Twitter merely by asking his fans to make it so. A few weeks after my Texas trip, for example, he urged his followers to record themselves burping and Tweet him the video with the hashtag #burpingwithchristian. I spent the next twenty minutes watching teen girls burp (time I’ll never get back), and then I checked what was trending. There, among the hashtags #muslimlivesmatter, #powerball and #nabokov, was #burpingwithchristian.
Many of Christian’s fans have social media followings of their own, meaning the distinction between ‘celebrity’ and ‘fan’ isn’t always so clear-cut. “Some fan girls are content creators and mini-celebrities in their own right,” explains Byron Ashley of Big Frame. “Girls will have 3,000 or 7,000 followers on Twitter, and they’ve built their own fanbases by being so engaged in their particular fandom.”
A 15-year-old girl from the Boston area who runs a Christian fan Twitter account estimates that she’s spent about $3,000 of her and her parents’ money tipping Christian on YouNow. Tipping is one sure way to get noticed, because it’s otherwise hard to stand out among the hundreds of girls who frantically type messages in the live chat as Christian broadcasts. Everyone — including Christian — can see the messages, which during one live stream included “I want to marry you”; “Ugh I wish you would notice me”; “How old are you?”; and “You look like Bieber.”
The Boston-area fan had never met Christian in person before finally getting to hug him at a PressPlay show, where he showed her extra attention and gave her a free T-shirt. “This is one of the best days of my life!” she told me, still grinning ten minutes after meeting him. “He means so much to me. If I’m sad or depressed, just seeing Christian being happy makes me feel better.” Like many of Christian’s fans, she confessed to holding out hope of one day dating him. “But I live in Boston and he lives in Texas,” she said, “so I know that probably wouldn’t work.”
PressPlay boys clearly cash in on their sex appeal, but I was surprised by how safe — how big-brother-like — they seemed when engaging with girls at shows. (I suspected that a few of the boys might be gay or bisexual, though none were openly so.) That’s not to say that they always acted like angels. One tour member gained his following on YouNow partly by calling chat lines and talking to sexually aroused men while pretending to be a girl. (David told the teen to stop when he joined PressPlay.) And I saw David kick a 15-year-old off the tour after several girls complained that he was being overly flirtatious. David was particularly wary of misbehavior after some highly publicized sex scandals rocked Vine and YouTube. In one case, 25-year-old Mike Lombardo was sentenced to prison last year for exchanging explicit pictures with underage fans.
At a typical PressPlay show, dozens of parents try to make themselves scarce — reading a book in a corner, lingering outside — while their adolescent children chase after Christian and the rest of the boys. When I spoke with the mother of the Boston-area girl, she seemed suspicious of her daughter’s obsession with PressPlay — and of this new age of social media celebrity.
“Whoever thought of [tours like PressPlay] is both genius and exploitative,” she says. “What’s so strange about it to me — and what makes me feel 105 years old — is that the boys these girls are fawning over are just normal boys. Christian’s a kid from Texas who’s cute and who’s sometimes funny on an app. I mean, he’s not One Direction! But these girls treat him like he is, and this whole thing feels kind of manipulative and sad to me.”
Christian may not be One Direction, but in April he did get to travel to New York City for the Shorty Awards, which celebrate the best in social media. He was the youngest nominee in the Best Vine Comedian category.
It was a welcome diversion for Christian, who told me he was struggling with loneliness in Wichita Falls. His parents had recently reversed course and decided to home-school him. (He was missing too many classes.) This allowed Christian more time to travel for what increasingly felt like his job, but it also seemed like a tacit acknowledgment that they could no longer pretend he was a normal kid.
“This social media stuff is basically my whole life now,” Christian told me a few weeks before the ceremony, at which point he’d reached more than 500,000 followers on Vine, with 200,000 on Instagram and 100,000 on Twitter. He spent about half his waking hours communicating with fans and thinking of content for his social media accounts, and he sometimes had a hard time decompressing.
“If Twitter wasn’t part of my job, I would delete it in a half-second,” he told me. “The mean stuff girls say — I’ll stay up until 4 a.m. thinking about it. I’ve stopped posting as much on Twitter and Vine, and that scares me. I need to stay active, but I feel so much pressure.”
Christian sometimes made light of the situation, including in a Vine he titled “the obsessive kid with the crush.” In it, he brushes his teeth only to be interrupted by a fan — also portrayed, of course, by Christian — who pokes his head through the toilet seat. Startled, Christian spits toothpaste from his mouth as the fan says, “We gotta stop meeting like this.”
At the Shorties, he was joined by David and PressPlay members Taylor Baxter and Jack Dail (who hadn’t yet quit social media). “If I could be any superhero, it would be Spiderman,” Jack told Christian as the boys walked toward the awards ceremony in black suits. “Do you know how many Twitter followers he would have!”
The boys hammed it up on the red carpet, though this was clearly their first rodeo. Next to them was former Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, who showed up in a sparkly red hat with Mickey Mouse ears and claimed “a very basic knowledge of the computers and the fax machines and emojis and such things.” Christian chewed gum during his on-air interview and mostly answered questions with smiles and one-word answers.
“I’m sweating like a pig,” he told me once we’d made it inside, where he lamented that James Franco — an eager Instagrammer nominated in the Actor category — wasn’t in attendance. Christian then pointed out a teenager standing not far from us. “That’s Alex From Target,” Christian told me, meaning Alex Lee, who became an Internet sensation last November when a picture of him bagging groceries at Target went viral. Alex soon quit his Target job and joined DigiTour.
Once in our seats, host Rachel Dratch (of Saturday Night Live fame) joked about all the people we’d lost to selfie-stick impalements, comedian Hannibal Buress said that it was “great to be amongst fellow narcissists,” science guy Bill Nye took an Oscars-style selfie from the stage, and astronaut Michael Massimino bragged about being the first person to use Twitter in space.
When it came time for Christian’s category, I could sense him tense up in the seat next to me. He was up against nominees with bigger fan bases, but he held out hope of an upset. “If I win this thing, that would be huge,” he told me. Still, when I asked him what he might say from the stage if he won, he shrugged his shoulders.
It turned out not to matter. The Shorty went to Brandon Bowen, a 17-year-old self-described “professional fatty” from Georgia who excels in self-deprecating humor about his weight. Brandon didn’t disappoint in his acceptance speech: “I’m going to put this [award] on top of my refrigerator, so I can see it every five minutes.”
Christian spent much of the rest of the ceremony on his phone, where a mutiny was underway. His fans, many of whom were watching the ceremony online, were busy posting tweets with the hashtag #ChristianIsTheRealWinner. Before long, it was trending.
Three months after the Shorties, I met up with Christian at an August PressPlay event in Boston. It had been a busy few months for the now 15-year-old: He’d recorded another song, been courted by DigiTour, hung out with Cameron Dallas during a week-long trip to Los Angeles, and met with several ad agencies hoping to tap into his growing influence.
“I got to see how the other half lives,” Christian joked about his time in LA. Christian likes Cameron a lot, but he was taken aback by the relentless name-dropping and social climbing among some of the social media creators he’d met. “There’s a lot of pettiness and selfishness and insecurity,” he said. “People are using each other. Some aren’t stable at all.”
I joked that it sounded like good preparation for a future in mainstream entertainment. “I guess,” he said. “But I want to be different.”
Christian seemed to have matured since I last saw him. At a Cheesecake Factory in Boston, where some of the PressPlay boys gathered for dinner, he expressed a new interest in the business side of the tour. Worried that they weren’t promoting it enough, he pulled out a notepad and scheduled when he and the other boys would each tweet about it over the next week. Then he tried to convince David to add a Viner, who goes by the name Dope Island, to the tour. “He’s hilarious,” Christian said, “and he’d be a good draw.” When the dinner check came, Christian asked how much they’d spent and didn’t like the answer — $240. “We gotta chill,” he said. “This isn’t good for the budget.”
Back at the hotel, when I asked him where he saw himself in two years, he aimed high. “I want to have original songs out, I want to act, I want to produce, I want to manage other young people like me,” he said. “I want to do it all. I want to be, like, an entertainment mogul.”
David smiled and reminded Christian that he needed to be 18 to sign contracts — he might have to wait a few years to manage people. “Oh,” Christian said. “Okay, but I can still do everything else.”
He grinned as he jumped on a hover board and started zooming down the hotel hallway.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
His answer shouldn’t have surprised me. “To poop!” he said.