There’s a lot Jessi Smiles can do in a six-second video. Pound Pringles. Pretend she peed her pants. Twerk on a geek at a video-game store. She can also put every guy on the Internet in his place. “For all those boys saying that I’m hot,” she coos in one clip, “just wait until you see my dick.”
On a bright afternoon in her sparse Miami Beach apartment, Smiles thumbs through some recent videos on her iPhone. She’s 20, tall, curvy, pretty and blond, dressed in black leggings and a blue blouse. She just finished applying makeup, and positioning a stool by a camera, so the light is just right. Her older brother Joey is collecting money for a beer-and-pizza run before she shoots a new video, which she’ll shortly post to her 3 million followers. It’s one of the three or four she films each week. “When people say I’m a ‘celebrity’ or anything like that, I hate that,” she tells me, in her slight Cuban-American accent. “I just think I’m well-known on the Internet.”
Smiles is famous on Vine, the latest “It” app in the constantly changing landscape of social media. Launched in January 2013 after being purchased by Twitter for a reported $30 million, Vine lets people record and share microsize video loops, six seconds or shorter. “Your grandmother’s on YouTube – it’s not cool,” says Marcus Johns, a precocious, good-looking 20-year-old with more than 4 million followers on the app. “Vine is the thing now. Kids in our ADD generation want to express an idea and move on to the next thing.”
While recognizable faces – Wiz Khalifa, Kate Upton, President Obama – have been popping up on Vine, the medium’s biggest stars are these quirky nobodies who have mastered short-attention-span theater better than anyone. Vine’s rigid format is deceptively difficult to get right, but it usually requires some cocktail of charm, humor and sex appeal – just the stuff that Smiles has deftly branded.
Less than a year ago, she was a cashier at a day spa, going by her real name, Jessica Vazquez. Now she’s topping her old annual salary each month (though she doesn’t disclose the figure, her many sponsors, such as Wendy’s, pay around $3,000 for a mention in a single clip). “My whole life has done, like, 20 somersaults,” she says. “It happened very fast. When you’re on Vine, you become a brand. Everyone is a brand. I’m a brand, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”
She sounds jaded for a reason, as is clear when her ever-present mom and manager, or “momager,” as Cristina Ferrero calls herself, shows Smiles a couple of newly posted Vines. In one, a woman in an orange poncho says, “Did you all know that in prison people don’t like rapists? They actually rape them. Kind of funny how that works, huh?” In another, a heavyset man, also in an orange jacket, says, “Hey, your first day in there, beat the shit out of the biggest guy you can find.” Then he flashes a photo of a scruffy, boy-band-cute dude and adds, “Just grab your ankles and pray.”
The guy in the photo is Curtis Lepore, a top 10 Viner, and Smiles’ ex-boyfriend. Last summer, they became Vine’s first reality stars, courting each other so publicly it was hard to believe it wasn’t staged. As their online romance unfolded in daily updates, it became the biggest story Vine had ever seen, spawning countless hashtags, video tributes and talk of a reality show. When the couple Vined their plans to meet in New York, some 2,000 screaming fans mobbed Washington Square Park to watch their first kiss. But the fairy-tale romance quickly became a nightmare. A few weeks after their high-profile meet-up, Smiles pressed charges against Lepore for allegedly raping her.
Today, he’s due in court, which explains the Viners who’ve donned prison orange in support of Smiles. As she watches the clips on her mom’s iPhone, Smiles’ ordinarily sunny disposition goes dark. “I don’t like this,” she says, as she puts her head in her hands and groans. But when I ask her what she thinks she and Lepore had in common, she regains her composure. “Vine,” she says. “That’s it.”
“I am not a rapist,” Curtis Lepore tells me over pizza in North Hollywood, two weeks after I visited Smiles. Dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with the words POPULAR DEMAND across his chest, and tattoos poking out from under his sleeves, the 30-year-old barely makes eye contact as he says these words. Compared to the chipper, blue-eyed pop-punk persona he projects online, he seems bitter and depressed. Even his trusty sidekick Buster Beans, the Roomba-riding Boston terrier and most popular dog on Vine, seems to notice, as he yaps for his master’s attention. “OK,” Lepore says as he relents and picks Buster up. “I’ll hold you in my lap like a baby.”
Lepore never expected this kind of notoriety. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, the son of an engineer and an optometrist’s assistant, he hungered for bigger things. A hyperactive, creative kid, he won the lead in local plays and $3,000 in a costume contest for designing a robot suit with flashing lights and a spinning bow tie. “He was a goofy kid, but always a good kid,” his mother, Gayle, says. “When a bully would come to the house, Curtis would always walk away.” Turned off by the beer-guzzling locals, he went straight-edge as the lead singer of a hardcore band, GhostXShip, and he quit his job as a financial planner. “He was always trying to find his niche,” recalls his childhood friend, Michael Ringold.
After a rift with his band, Lepore moved to L.A. in January 2013 to pursue a career in video-game graphics. But while unemployed and couch-surfing at friends’ homes, he stumbled on a more compelling diversion: Vine, which had debuted that month. With its quick, easy-to-make videos, Vine drew people turned off by higher-end productions on YouTube. As Brittany Furlan, a top Viner, puts it, “I was not tech-savvy, which is why I never did YouTube. With Vine you could shoot it and edit it on your phone.”
Lepore had already amassed 20,000 followers on Instagram, mostly for posting silly photos of Buster Beans. But the snappy video world of Vine felt even more like a natural fit. “I could be myself, and I could be funny,” he says. With just six seconds, though, there was one big challenge. “Basically,” he says with a laugh, “you have to not suck.” He started with his dog, shooting a clip of Buster gnawing some grub while Lepore made “nyum nyum” chomping sounds. But it was a spoof of a scene from Jurassic Park – taking off his sunglasses in shock, then cutting to a tortoise chewing lettuce – that landed him on Vine’s highly competitive popular page. “The driving thing on Vine,” as Johns puts it, “is the incessant desire to be number one.”
For Lepore, who had once considered himself “addicted” to World of Warcraft, scoring on Vine quickly became a new obsession. He’d spend his days plotting out his new videos, and refining his comedic bits. Though Lepore has plenty of ego, there wasn’t just that at stake; there was money. Marketers wanted to exploit the millions of hard-to-reach millennial eyeballs watching Vines. “Vine is mobile first, and also about real time,” says Rachel Tipograph, former director of digital and social media for the Gap, one of the first brands to come on board. “It’s a wonderful place to spread news really fast.”
Though there’s no advertising in Vines, the medium was tailor-made for product placement. To capitalize on the heat, dot-com marketing companies formed to hook the sponsors up with rising stars. The biggest, GrapeStory, was co-founded by wine video blogger Gary Vaynerchuk and dorky Vine celeb Jerome Jarre. When they saw Lepore’s clips, they knew he had the right stuff. “He figured out the short-attention storytelling that works well on Vine,” Vaynerchuk says. “How to captivate you in six seconds, and that takes talent.”
As he accrued fans, Lepore was among the first to get an endorsement (Virgin Mobile). Companies such as Aquafina and Jolly Rancher followed. Lepore could make anywhere from $1,000 for reVining someone else’s video – the equivalent of a retweet – to $16,000 for a pair of six-second clips of his own. Successful Viners can make six figures a year. “Once some money started coming in, then you could see that he was actually happy,” his mother recalls. With more than 4 million followers, he was one of the top 10 Viners in the world.
Like Lepore, Smiles had spent years struggling to find her place before she latched onto Vine. Despite winning singing competitions as a kid in Miami, she felt alienated. Her parents had split when she was young, and while the big extended family got along, she had never found her place outside of them. “I was always pretending to be something that I wasn’t, because I just wanted to fit in,” she says. “I didn’t want to eat lunch alone.” Instead, she began acting out, telling off teachers and getting suspended for wearing sweatpants to high school. With only eight months to go before graduation, she dropped out and spent the rest of her senior year being homeschooled.
She didn’t fare much better at college, and left Miami Dade after a semester. Her attempts at national fame floundered when she didn’t get past the auditions for The X Factor and The Voice. Like millions of young hopefuls, she resigned herself to a day job – working at a laser-removal spa and doing makeup – instead of doing what she loved. “I’ve always wished that it could be a reality but, you know, the world kind of tells you it’s not,” she says. “And then you’re just like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to my nine-to-five job, and I’m not going to do what I want to do.'”
Then, one day early last year, Smiles was doing makeup for a model who told her about Vine. Smiles had dabbled in filming YouTube makeup tutorials, but Vine seemed like a quick way to blow off steam while sitting in traffic on the way to work. Smiles’ videos were quickie goofs: ordering a “caramel cockiado . . . the biggest one that you have” at a Starbucks drive-thru, singing Ariana Grande or waxing scatological (“Girls are not made of flowers. We fart, poop. And when we’re on a date with you, thinking of farting, holding it in, it hurts. Sorry!”).
After posting a Vine called “The Shit Guys Care About” (her answer: three seconds of her twerking in short-shorts), she hit the popular page, doubling her followers overnight – and getting the attention of social-media companies like Collab, which helps online stars monetize their videos. “You increase your followers,” Smiles says, “you increase your probability of getting a brand deal.” She and her mother realized they’d stumbled on a potential gold mine. “I said, ‘This is a business opportunity,'” Ferrero recalls. “Because she’s very business-savvy. She can sell ice to an Eskimo.”
Two months after her first Vine, Smiles, who had 100,000 followers, quit her day job and soon scored her first brand deals. Marketing teams recognized she had the looks and personality of a breakout star. Soon enough, real celebrities wanted to hang out with her too. “Guys, stop asking me if my life has changed since Vine. It hasn’t,” she says in one video clip. On cue, Pharrell leans in and says, “Hey, Jess.” She waves him off. “Pharrell, one second, I’m Vining. So anyway . . .” She still can’t believe Pharrell knew her Vines by heart. “He was a fan,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going on?'”
By August, she had more than a million followers. Fans were asking her to twerk in public. Kids were stopping her in the streets. “I was so in love with Vine,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.'” When Smiles occasionally recoiled over the catty detractors and pervy commenters on Vine, her mother urged her to stay strong. “I told her, ‘You’re going to need to learn how to grow thicker skin,'” Ferrero says. “‘Because as long as you’re being talked about, it’s OK. And it’s great for business.'”
For the stars of Vine, posting comments on and re-Vining one another’s videos wasn’t just friendly, it was a necessary part of the business, a way to network and glom off one another’s followers. So as Smiles and Lepore soared to the top of Vine, they naturally began trading posts. They saw something recognizable in each other: their comic timing, their slapstick sense of humor, their nerve. “There were a lot of guys on Vine,” says Smiles, “but nobody approached it the way that he did.”
“It didn’t seem like she was afraid to be who she was,” Lepore recalls. “She’s not afraid to make herself look, like, ugly, which is very taboo for girls, because girls tear each other apart. So I liked that she had that confidence in her. She would twerk, and shake her boobs, and talk about sex all the time. So I knew she wasn’t shy.”
Before long, they started talking privately in texts and FaceTimes. Though they seemed right out of odd-couple central casting – the saucy Latina pop singer and the tattooed straight-edge punk – they shared not only Vine but their newfound celebrity on it. They were also both extremely ambitious. Though their videos looked spontaneous, they were carefully choreographed. The more they spoke the more they felt an attraction. Neither had had much in the way of long-term relationships before, and this felt fresh and alluring. “It was kind of like, ‘Hey, you’re funny and I’m funny,'” Smiles recalls. “ ’Let’s just be together.'”
As their courtship spilled over online, Viners watched it like their own private reality show. Lepore would upload videos for her, and Smiles would swoon over them on Twitter. Lepore’s six-second lip-sync serenades to Smiles – “I can be your hero, baby . . .” – set the fangirls’ hearts aflutter. “NO STOP STOP,” one teenager begged in her comment. “IT’S FOR ME CURTIS.” To which another replied, “uhm, are you just jealous because you can never get a guy like Curtis?” Smiles played it up. “Haven’t met anyone like him before,” she posted, “but I’m sure you’ll find your Curtis one day.”
It was the first love story to unfold like this online, and other top Viners were awed. “I thought that it was amazing, like when Justin and Selena started dating,” says Christian DelGrosso, a Canadian actor with 2 million followers. Brittany Furlan, the Vine star, understood the appeal. “There are so many young girls on Vine,” she says. “They see these two falling in love in front of everyone’s eyes – they feel like they’re a part of it.” But Furlan was among the skeptics. “I didn’t feel like it was real,” she says. “I thought that they might just be doing it for publicity.”
Mention this theory to Lepore now, and his face sinks. “I was never trying to do it for fame,” he says. But with each of them gaining as many as 30,000 new followers a day, Smiles admits that it wasn’t just Lepore she was after. “I was not only caught up in the relationship,” she says, “I was caught up in the publicity from Vine. I had never been popular in high school, and I was having my diva moment. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m superfamous!’ I was like, ‘Look at me!’ And I was getting recognized.”
After only a few weeks flirting online, they decided to meet for the first time in person in New York, which, as Lepore announced in a Vine, would happen August 4th at 3 p.m. in Washington Square Park. The Internet erupted in hashtagging delight – #jessimeetscurtis – over the news. “Jessi Smiles and Curtis Lepore are slowly taking over my life and I’m not the only one,” one fan tweeted. “I’m just able to admit it.”
Their fans weren’t the only ones freaking out. So was the socialmedia outfit Collab, which was now managing both Smiles and Lepore. When Collab heard about the meet-up, it immediately wanted in (the company declined to comment for this story). “When Collab found out about it, they were like, ‘We’re gonna make sure you guys don’t meet until the meet-up, and we’re going to make it this big event,'” Lepore recalls. “They paid for it. Yeah, they saw dollar signs.”
There wasn’t much of a plan for what would happen at the meet-up, however. The team left it to fate. Collab dispatched a video crew to New York to tape the meeting with the hope of getting a television deal. “We were, in reality, filming a pilot for a TV show,” Smiles says. “That’s the reason the meeting happened in public, because Collab wanted that moment on camera.”
While the fame machine took over, Smiles and Lepore barely had time to process their emotions. For Smiles, it felt like a fun and flirty, but somewhat superficial, connection. “I was like, ‘I know who this guy is. Cool. Let’s be friends. Oh, OK, we’re talking and FaceTiming. OK, let’s meet in New York.’ It was like a blink.” But, over in L.A., Lepore was crushing hard. A self-described former nerd, he felt like this knockout funny girl could be the one. “I definitely was falling for her,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Smiles hesitated when Lepore said he wanted to ask her to be his girlfriend in front of all their fans. “I always had a feeling in my gut, like, ‘Oh, no!’ Like, ‘What’s going on? This is moving too fast. Everything’s going too fast.’ ” Lepore, she says, insisted on publicly asking her to be his girlfriend, despite her desire to play it more low-key. “I felt like we should get to know each other,” she says. But Curtis was committed. “I’m like, ‘You’re the one that wants to come here to reveal yourself in front of me,'” he recalls. “‘I’m going to ask you out in front of everybody.’ She was kind of reserved about that point. That was probably my first warning that she didn’t like me as much.”
Collab didn’t have to recruit people to show up. The news of the meet-up went viral on its own, and Lepore and Smiles arrived separately to Washington Square Park to find a mob scene. Thousands of screaming fans stormed the park with JESSI HEARTS CURTIS signs, flowers and cameraphones at the ready. Nev Schulman, host of Catfish, MTV’s hit show about online dating, couldn’t resist coming to the park to see what all the fuss was about. “What was nice about this,” Schulman says, “was that a younger online audience could see that you could become friends online, and then turn it into something real.”
But for Smiles and Lepore, reality became chaos. As Lepore squeezed his way through the throngs looking for Smiles, hysterical fans shredded his bouquet of roses and jostled his dog. “I started screaming at the people, because I was so scared that Buster was going to get trampled,” he says. Across the park, Smiles felt “terrified,” as she shoved her way past the mass of outstretched hands and iPhones. “This is a fairy tale,” she told herself. “Even if it doesn’t work out for the best, you’ll still be friends.” Then they saw each other, and, as the crowd cheered, they spontaneously embraced. In the Vines that quickly went online, they are spinning in each other’s arms, looping endlessly.
The meet-up paid off, in followers, at least. Within a day, Smiles and Lepore had each gained 100,000 new fans online. But the pressure to keep the fairy tale going was relentless. “We knew it would be a huge market and we have to get moving,” recalls Rob Fishman, co-founder of Niche, a socialmedia network that helps connect brands with online stars, who has worked with Lepore and Smiles. “When two Viners command thousands to show up in New York, that was clearly a signal that if someone was trying to reach an audience, this would be an awesome way to get word out. It was like it was made for TV, except it was for real.”
In addition to the reality show, there was talk of a Web series, T-shirts and merchandise. When the occasional skeptic questioned the sincerity of their relationship, the couple were quick to defend it. “Is what you and Curtis have real or just for Vine?” someone asked Smiles on Twitter. “Okay, seriously, is this even a question anymore?” Smiles replied.
But behind the scenes, she was having reservations. After the meet-up, they eventually snuck away for dinner, and that’s when the trouble began. A meat-eater, Smiles balked at having to go to a vegan restaurant. And despite her chosen medium, she thought he spent way too much time on his phone. “We were, like, sitting across from each other, and he was on his phone, like, looking at Twitter, saying, like, ‘Oh, my God, did you see how many followers we went up today?’ And my mind was like, ‘Uh.’ I was just like, ‘What? What?'” But she fought off her emotions. “I didn’t allow myself to feel that,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is great.’ Like, ‘Hey, this food is great. Everything is great.'”
When Lepore recalls that time now, he does so with anger – as if wanting to prove that Smiles was more into him than she might imply. He says that she concealed her age from him, telling him she was turning 21 when in fact she was 19. “I didn’t want to be associated with a girl that was drinking underage, because it looked bad,” he says, not to mention the fact that he was straight-edge. “So she told me this lie about her age to maintain my interest, to basically use our relationship as some sort of gain.” Then again, he admits, he was using her too. “We both benefited off the relationship,” he adds. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t benefit off of it, because I did.”
He also says, bitterly, they slept together that first night, “within the first two hours of meeting each other. We went back to my hotel room and we banged.” For Smiles, however, whatever did or didn’t happen that night is beside the point. “That’s something I don’t care to share,” she says, “and I feel like even if we had sex, I don’t think it has anything to do with what happened.”
After New York, the two spoke frequently, but Smiles was feeling increasingly besieged and less enthusiastic. Some Viners were cynical about the big, brash romance, and began trolling the love story. “I was sad when I left New York,” Smiles says. “There were a lot of people making fun of the meet-up.” But there was, it seemed, a lot of money at stake. Two weeks later, Smiles flew to L.A. to visit Lepore and meet with their management, who were busy lining up brand deals.
To keep the buzz and their followers growing, the two churned out collaborative Vines shortly after Smiles arrived in L.A. There’s the one of Buster breaking up their kiss, the other of them dancing with the dog to his theme song, “Do the Buster Beans.” They shot another at a convenience store. One, they did in bed. “Babe, I’m pregnant,” Smiles says, as she sits up with a large mound under her Miami Dolphins T-shirt. “No, you’re not,” Lepore replies, then slaps her stomach and (cue the punch line) pops the balloon underneath.
But for Smiles, shooting the Vines with Lepore and reluctantly sharing them with her fans only left her feeling more uneasy about the relationship. She’d had enough of his food, his music, his phone, and she wanted to be her own person again. “Vine to me has always been me alone, in my room, Vining because I loved it,” she says. “And all of a sudden I didn’t love it anymore, because it was a game.” Four days into what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half-week trip, she broke up with him. “When I was actually in his presence, I didn’t feel it,” she says. “And I couldn’t fake it anymore.”
Lepore told her he loved her, and became “distraught,” she says. But the reason, he says, was he felt he had been used. “I was like, ‘So you used me for my following,’ he says. “And that’s when she was like, ‘No, no, no. . . .’ ” According to Smiles, Lepore tried to negotiate a friendship, though she says she felt he wasn’t ready for that because he wanted something more. For the next few days, she stayed at the home of a friend who was out of town.
The pressure of everything felt like too much – the relationship, the business – her mind raced, she couldn’t sleep. So she did what she always did when she needed an escape: She Vined. On August 31st, Smiles shot a video of herself flipping upside down on a bed when she klutzily hit her head on a wooden chair. While she tried to laugh off the accident, posting a tweet about what had happened, the dizzy feeling wasn’t going away.
Seeing the tweet, Lepore rang her up, offering to help. “He said, ‘Let me pick you up,'” Smiles recalls, “and I told him, ‘Don’t do that, I’m fine.'” But Lepore was worried, he says, that she had a concussion. She needed someone to watch over her. When he arrived soon afterward, they went to get some dinner, and she agreed to go back with him to his place. Feeling lightheaded and nauseous, she got into his bed and fell asleep. And that’s when, she says, she woke up to Lepore raping her.
She pushed him off and ran into the bathroom. “I was very, very, very upset,” she says. “And he was freaking out. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m scared.'” After making him drive her back to where she was staying, she called her friend, who insisted she go to the hospital and report it to the police. So did Smiles’ mother, after Smiles called her crying on the phone. Smiles felt overwhelmed, confused and scared. “I would not have come forward,” she says. “So I understand, and I relate a lot to women who don’t.” When she went to the hospital and was asked what happened, she told them Lepore had raped her. “Be careful of who you trust,” she tweeted cryptically the next day. “Always be cautious for your safety. Be strong and don’t let your guard down . . .”
On September 18th, the police arrested Lepore in North Hollywood and took him to jail. When I discuss this with him now, he’s clearly frustrated that he can’t tell his side of the story because the case is still active. “Believe me,” he says, “there is so much I want to tell you right now. I want to just tell you everything. I want to tell the world everything.” There are some things, however, he will say. “We had sex every day when she got to L.A.,” he says. “So, we had sex that same week. I would have never done anything that I didn’t think a girl was insinuating, anyway. I’m 30 years old. I’ve been with girls since I was 16. I’ve been with my fair share of girls. I think that forcing yourself onto a woman, people that do that, is disgusting, and is unforgivable.”
“Her claim was that she fell asleep and woke up and he was having sex with her,” Lepore’s lawyer, Michael Levin, adds. “She said stop and he stopped.” But while precise definitions vary by state, the law in California is clear: Having sex with someone who is unconscious or sleeping is rape. And prior consent doesn’t change this. “Every day we hear from people who say, ‘I woke up and someone was having sex with me,'” says Jen Marsh, vice president of victims services for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. “It absolutely is sexual assault because there was no consent given to that sexual act, and previous consent does not qualify as consent.”
Whether or not Lepore thought Smiles wouldn’t mind being woken up this way is irrelevant. While in jail, he felt “shock, disappointment, anger,” he says. “I was terrified.” When he called his mother, she took his side. “I know all the details, and what he told me is what happens in every bedroom in America,” his mother says. “He was lovingly waking her up. He did not rape her.” The day after his arrest, Lepore was released on $100,000 bail.
He and his family weren’t the only ones reeling. Despite filing the charges, Smiles too felt distraught. “The day he was arrested, I cried,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘What is he going to do in jail?'” With the allegations not made public, Lepore and Smiles struggled to keep up appearances online. They each posted a brief note about their breakup, only to take it down soon after. For the most part, their fans were left wondering what happened to the couple who once seemed so happy. Smiles couldn’t help letting her distress seep online. “Hey, I’m sad,” she tweeted later in October. “And that’s okay.” And then, soon after, “People are so crazy in this world. Please be safe.”
Her followers would soon learn what was getting Smiles down. On January 15th, Smiles got a call from TMZ, the gossip site, about the case. She had long since stopped talking with Lepore. But he had pleaded not guilty the day before, and TMZ was going to run a story on their case around 3 a.m. her time. “I was devastated,” she says. “I stayed up until it came out.” What she ultimately saw, she says, was “terrifying.”
The sordid demise of their affair instantly spread across Vine, Twitter and into the tabloids, as fans and pundits expressed shock and awe over the news. How could the stars of this silly video world suddenly get cast into such a grim horror story? As one observer posted, along with a surprised emoticon, “oh my god.”
Lepore felt blindsided by the TMZ piece, and by Smiles agreeing to let them publish her name. “They could have run the story and just had there be, like, an unnamed victim,” he says. “So, I mean, you can draw your own conclusions as to why she would have endorsed that.” The accusation, the charges, and now, this story, meant one thing to him: She had just been using him for publicity all along. And no matter how arrogant and insensitive it might sound, he took to the Web to tell the world. “Wow. TMZ?” he tweeted. “It all makes sense now. Let the second publicity stunt begin!”
And just like that, Smiles and Lepore went viral again – but for all the wrong reasons. The couple who had risen to celebrity so fast now found themselves at the heart of their own scandal. And they were as ill-equipped to handle their fall as they had been to handle their rise. “I stopped living my life 6 months ago and that is NOT going to happen again,” Smiles tweeted. Lepore tweeted back, insisting that “There are 2 sides to every story. When the time is right I’ll have something to say. For now, don’t rush to judge.”
Of course, they took to Vine. But while they had once used the medium so deftly, this reality was too complex to be explained away in six seconds. The 6 million people who had united behind them split into two warring camps, #teamjessi and #teamcurtis. When Lepore filmed himself urging people to reserve judgment, they found him guilty anyway. “Curtis is a rapist scumbag!” one posted. Smiles even got death threats: “so jessi smiles told people Curtis raped her while they were dating. NO FUCK YOU JESSI I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN YOU LITTLE BITCH.”
With Lepore facing a felony-sex-crime charge, punishable by up to eight years in prison, his attorney persuaded him to plead no contest to felony assault, which Lepore did on February 21st. As part of the deal, Lepore agreed to enter counseling and perform 24 days of community service. After a year, the conviction should end up as a misdemeanor assault. Levin calls it a “huge victory.”
For Lepore, who maintains his innocence, it hardly feels like a win. “I didn’t want to take the plea. Absolutely not,” he says. “But I don’t have to go to jail, and I can move on with my life.” After taking his plea, Lepore uploaded a Vine to thank his supporters. “The rape charge against me has been dismissed,” he said. Smiles, it seemed, was happy to finally have an ending too. “Curtis plead guilty to a felony assault today in court,” she tweeted. “It is no longer going to trial. I am okay with this and thankful for it to be over.”
In their desperate rush for fame and their willingness to share, stage and manufacture intimacy online, Lepore and Smiles’ story is a cautionary tale of the digital age. But despite all the wreckage and bruised spirits, a main concern is their lucrative Vine identities. “It’s going to be difficult to rebrand myself,” Lepore says. “But I moved across the country when everybody thought I was going to fail, and I turned it into something bigger than I could’ve imagined. So if I can do that, then I can come back from this, you know?”
In late April, they faced off for the first time since the incident, when Smiles flew to L.A. to speak at Lepore’s progressreport hearing. Though she wasn’t required to go, she wanted the closure of telling Lepore how she felt. Smiles broke down when she saw his face. Lepore hadn’t known she was coming, and was surprised to see her. “It was just laughable to me,” he says. “I didn’t do anything to this girl, and she’s still going on with it.”
With her mother and a few friends beside her, Smiles addressed Lepore, who kept his back to her. “You’ve hurt me more than I knew I could be hurt as a person,” she said. “Insecurities and self-blame were all I knew after August 31st. Just like that, my life changed. No choice. No say. But here I am, and here you are. Breathing the same air. . . .You’ve convinced yourself that I want nothing but revenge and to ruin your life. That’s OK. I know what kind of a person I truly am and I know you do too.”
As Smiles spoke, Lepore didn’t meet her eyes. “I didn’t give a shit, I did not care,” he recalls. “I tuned her out.” But Smiles had one last thing to say before she left. “I hope you know that even though I have every reason on this Earth to hate you, I don’t,” she said. “I forgive you, Curtis. And with that forgiveness I can finally let you go.”
As they both try to put this behind them, they still have one thing in common – Vine – and are making videos again, gaining thousands of new fans every day. Lepore recently shot one in the Playboy Mansion, while he was visiting Hugh Hefner’s wife, Crystal, whom he describes as a friend. Smiles has launched a new channel devoted to her music, Jessi Sings. Their followers are up, and they’re taking on the future the way they know best, six seconds at a time.
This story is from the June 5th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.