Is Social Media free money for the young, bold and outspoken social influencer?
For some, social media is a tool; for others, it’s an outlet of socializing and venting; for others, it’s a job and even more. It can be, for a “lucky” few, a door to a different world and a certain kind of fame. The Netflix Original documentary American Meme, released Dec 7, 2018, focuses on a handful of influencers who have made their careers via their online antics, convincing a generation that this kind of life is the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Goodbye, boring desk job with the torture of regularity and micromanaging bosses. Hello, freedom, self-expression, endorsement deals and fame!
Filmmaker Bert Marcustakes us inside the lives of these celebrities. We see their rise to fame, their struggles to sustain their influence and their relationship to their carefully constructed, alternate online identities. What we get is is a cautionary tale of what happens when people sell their souls to become internet stars.
Josh Ostrovsky (aka the Fat Jew)
Josh Ostrovskey is a moderately rotund, Jewish comedian who rose fame via his comic alter ego, which can be found on Instagram, @thefatjewish, where he has 10.5 million followers. He’s achieved great success but has also been dogged by accusations of blatant plagiarism, for which he’s done some apologizing and after-the-fact crediting. He is a new kind of comedic celebrity — one who eschews the stand-up circuit in favor of stunt jokes that play well on YouTube and funny screenshots that get lots of “likes” on Instagram.
Thus far he has parlayed a profane sense of humor that mocks the tropes of social-media culture and the hipsters who propagate them; an apparent affection for pot, pets and grandparents; and his own slovenly, outlandish physical appearance (he strolls Manhattan streets, sometimes in a Day-Glo thong or in his grandmother’s printed nightgown, often with hair styled in a perpendicular-to-his-head ponytail that he refers to as a “Jew unicorn”) into a huge web following and the beginnings of an old-fashioned entertainment career.
Josh has been hired for numerous commercials and even modelling. He’s hosted music events and in 2015 launched a wildly successful wine called White Girl Rose. In the movie, he talks about the fact that he knows he cannot hope to stay atop the influencer heap forever and has taken wise steps to diversify. He’s a comedian AND a shrewd businessman.
Kirill Bichutsky (aka the Slut Whisperer)
Kirill might be one of the movie’s most fascinating personalities because he is so open about his personal sadness. He’s a photographer who achieved online fame by first cataloging, and then spurring on, nightclub debauchery, the “Slut Whisperer” produces blatantly misogynist and soft porn fat-phobic content that’s undeniably exploitative. And though he doesn’t seem repentant about his attitude, he certainly seems to grasp that what he’s doing carries no intrinsic value to society.
He spends the majority of the film hungover and speaks at length about his suicidal thoughts. What was once a wild good time of his younger self is now purely exhausting. He wakes up unable to remember the night before and he has to go get on a plane to do the same thing again the next night in another club, on the other side of the country. He confesses to regular blackouts and deep exhaustion.
There are numerous scenes of him visiting his parents, which helps make him more of a sympathetic character than some of the other American Meme subjects. He comes off as a sad, overgrown frat boy who took a long, wrong turn down a lucrative, intoxicating path.
“I was never a club kid, this is more of a social experiment. How big can I get a brand to be, and can I get paid for doing something stupid.”
A look at his Instagram today reveals less of a parade of the infamous “champagne facials” than it did in previous years. Perhaps he’s moving beyond his frat boy persona!
Brittany Furlan, the Vine Girl
Brittany Furlan is a comedian who moved to Los Angeles to find fame, who instead was the most followed female on the now-defunct Vine app at one point. She talks at length about the ridiculousness of her Vine days. We get to see a photo shoot nearly naked and sticking out her belly to mime an “is she or is she not pregnant” Beyonce Instagram post, for one example.
Brittany is another story of a good or at least creative and profitable thing gone bad. She was able to achieve Vine success and creative independence the way she could not as an actress or comedian in more conventional platforms. Due to her wide exposure and popularity, Time Magazine declared her one of the most influential people on the internet in 2015. But it was a constant struggle to stay on top. Former collaborators went on the achieve greater numbers of followers, and then Vine closed up shop in early 2017. “It was like starting over, from the very beginning.”
She talks about “the haters” and the mean things said about her during her notorious days of Vine fame. Furlan laments the response to her videos, but the gross, insensitive, sometimes blatantly racist clips shown offer proof that the criticism was warranted.
Now she’s found another platform, being Tommy Lee’s fiancé, who co-starred in his own infamous sex tape, with then-wife Pamela Anderson back in. Brittany and Tommy in started dating 2017 and of course confirmed/promoted their relationship online in a funny video. It what would happen if she introduced the tattooed rocker to her mom. “Who is this guy?” she yelled while impersonating her mother in the video. “He looks like a gang member. Is he in a gang? Is he gonna get us killed?”
In what is arguably the most cringe-worthy moment in the Meme movie, we get to see Tommy Lee (pretend?) pick a booger out of Brittany’s nose and then (pretend?) to eat it. Let’s just hope for Furlan that the marriage lasts longer than Vine!
Paris Hilton, who claims she invented the “selfie”
What risk is being so “out there” really if you’re born rich, amirite? American Meme spends a lot of time explaining Paris’s huge influence on the rise of the new type of celebrity, with her groundbreaking reality show, The Simple Life. In what might be called a dubious “inverse achievement”, she paved the way for a rise to fame via a sex tape and the Kardashian era. Paris did all this before Instagram, and she was a viral sensation before the rest of the world knew it was possible to capitalize on a global fan base.
She practices her deep, soulful expression while “confiding” of her loneliness. “I’m constantly travelling… so it gets really lonely sometimes,” Hilton explains. “I’ve been through so much in life, and I don’t really trust people. I’ve just grown accustomed to being (expletive) over. She claims she feels closer to her fans, her “little Hiltons” then just about anyone else. Her daily morning routines starts with a sweep of her social media (and a healthy dose of ego-driven gratification) when she interacts with her followers. “I feel closer with them than I do with most people I know,” she says. “They’re really like my family.”
Getting attention is so ingrained for this celebrant that she imagines the click of paparazzi cameras even when she’s alone. “It is weird,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll just hear clicks and flashes even when they’re not happening. Just over the years, especially if I’m at, like, Cannes or something like that. When I’m walking to my hotel room and there’s no one, I’ll hear this noise forever.”
But Paris inadvertently admits she needs the validation and she suffers from FOMO, a “fear of missing out”, describing it being “like a sickness”. The reason she pops up at clubs and music festivals all the time is because she can’t bear the thought of missing an event, she confesses.
“Yes, I’ve built a big empire and a huge business, but I don’t know, sometimes I’m like, ‘Do I even want to do this anymore?’ ” she says. “I see all my friends who are not in the industry, and they now have two or three kids, and they’re so happy. They don’t go out, they’re just with their families, and that is what makes them happy.”
There are more personalities featured in American Meme, but many more prominent and more current content creators, like the Kardashians and PewDiePie aren’t featured. What’s clear is that this kind of fame is as fleeting as others, and is no more guaranteed to bring with it happiness or wisdom.