Karen and her 13-year-old daughter stand in the Aeropostale store — a long-time purveyor of teen sportswear staples — at the local mall.
“Oh my God,” Summer shrieks. “It’s Bethany Mota!”
Karen steels herself for a case of the back-to-school “gotta have its,” as she calls them.
“Who?” Karen says, thinking Summer sees a friend. Summer points to a poster of a cute teen on the wall of the store. “Bethany Mota,” she says again, using an exasperated tone familiar to mothers of teenage girls. “You know — from YouTube.”
Mota is a video blogger who has her own clothing line at Aeropostale. But that doesn’t explain the rock-star level of excitement Summer has for her — or why every piece of clothing emblazoned with Mota’s label is suddenly a must-have.
Summer has gone through phases. She idolized Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and One Direction, but she has never been so excited — over a video blogger, no less.
Karen has no clue who Mota is, but teens and tweens like Summer — and the stores, brands and companies that aim to reach them — do. Mota — a teenager who amassed a huge following, thanks to her video blogs on YouTube — represents a new system of celebrity and stardom, one where authenticity is key and connection is paramount.
Summer’s older sister had left her some makeup, and she wanted instructions on how to do a “smoky eye,” a fairly advanced technique. While YouTube is full of beauty how-to videos by professional and amateur artists — it’s how media mavens like Michelle Phan built an empire, after all — Summer somehow stumbled upon Mota. She was instantly hooked, and watched a slew of videos in a single session.
“I liked her right away. She seemed a lot more like me than the other beauty bloggers out there,” Summer says. “Watching her videos is like hanging out with a friend in her room, being goofy together and playing around with clothes and makeup.”
Mota is a lot like the girls who form the core of her audience. Born in 1995, she’s a Northern California girl, who was home-schooled as a child. She entered junior high, but retreated back after being cyber-bullied in 2009.
“I was 13-years-old. It was summertime. I was really bored and I didn’t have anything to do,” Mota told the Today Show. “I had been bullied at the time, so I feel like YouTube was kind of my outlet, just to kind of do what I wanted and express my creativity through my content. I wasn’t really focused on gaining popularity. I was just wanting to have fun.”
Her first video was a so-called “beauty haul,” showing off the contents of a shopping spree at Sephora and MAC. Soon, she expanded into fashion advice, DIY crafts and fun lifestyle experiments, especially as she grew her audience deepened the fan base.
“I was able to share my opinion with girls all around the world and I was able to make these new friends,” she said. “It was such an incredible thing to me, and I’m so thankful that I have that relationship with girls around the world.” She even gave a nickname to her fans, whom she calls her “Mota-vators.”
Mota is a one-girl show — even now, she shoots, edits and stars in all her videos herself, without the help of a director, editor, stylist or professional. Though her production quality is higher these days, her homemade, accessible aesthetic is still decidedly non-slick.
Yet that hasn’t kept audiences away. In the five years since her debut, she has over five million subscribers — more than Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Marie Claire and Glamour combined. That’s a lot of reach for a teen, as well as a sizeable audience any website, magazine or TV show would envy. And it’s enough to build a small media and fashion empire upon.
In some ways, Mota’s appeal is somewhat of a mystery to the untrained eye. Unlike child stars of the past, she’s not overly media-trained or unnervingly precocious. She’s perky and upbeat, but still sounds like a normal girl. She makes goofy faces and uses silly voices, often to poke fun at herself, and her videos are, at times, full of awkward pauses and goofs. Unlike most entertainers, her talents aren’t immediately discernible — she’s not a singer, dancer or actress. She’s just a girl chatting about makeup and shopping at a webcam.
But her very normality is what makes her so popular. “You just relate to her,” Summer explains. “You listen to her and trust her because she’s not that different from you.”
The very tools of her medium — video blogs, Instagram pictures and tweets — emphasize her ordinary teenager roots. “When she pops up in my Instagram or Facebook, she’s not all that different from me or my friends,” Summer adds. “I follow other stars on those networks and Twitter, and you can just tell they’re rich and famous. Even Taylor Swift now posts pictures of all her celebrity friends and stuff, or posing in backs of limos and whatever. But Beth is kind of one of us, if you know what I mean.”
Fame wasn’t always the province of the everyday teenage girl. Early celebrities were linked to the aristocracy or great wealth. The Romantic poet Lord Byron, for example, was considered a rock star in the 1800s, well-known for his darkly handsome good looks, his scandalous amorous life and his accomplished offspring as much as his poetry.
Celebrity culture as we recognize it today, though, didn’t take hold until the rise of mass media, beginning in the late 1920s with the growth of the movie industry and, later, the groundswell of broadcast television.
Studios groomed stars, choosing promising up-and-comers, giving them makeovers that involved everything from wardrobe revamps to elocution lessons, and trotting out backgrounds and “stories” to the press. They even arranged “dates” between single actors and actresses, tipping off tabloids and gossip columnists about when and where the so-called couple could be caught on camera. Celebrity was a top-down process, heavily managed by a well-oiled Hollywood industrial machine.
But that machine began to fumble, starting with lowering of the bar on who could become a celebrity. Andy Warhol, the 1960s conceptual and pop artist, posited the idea that everyone would have their “15 minutes” of fame. He said people would be famous for simply being famous, instead of for skills, talents or contributions to the world.
Warhol’s ideas have now become living realities, what with the rise of reality TV and the fascination with Hollywood socialites such as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and the various “Real Housewives.” Today, you can become famous for wearing outlandish clothes, making a sex tape or being the best friend of a famous person.
At the same time, collective media savvy has demystified the star-making machinery. We know there’s an Oz behind the curtain, pulling strings and levers, and creating illusions of greatness and beauty.
That star-making machine is breaking down, as well, but the tools for creating your own celebrity — albeit at a smaller scale — are now in our hands. With the rise of Internet and social media, anyone with a Twitter or Instagram account can amass “followers” and build an audience. And many — like Mota — are taking advantage of it.
With the democratization of fame, today’s stars need to connect with fans and keep a constant relationship with them. They offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of lives and careers on Instagram or tweet at fans on Twitter. The new illusion is of intimacy — your favorite star is right there in your feed, along with your real-life friends and acquaintances.
This new model of fame has powered careers ranging from stars like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to Rihanna. Even an old-school star like Beyonce, who keeps up a carefully professional, highly-groomed facade, must play the new-media game, offering glimpses of her daughter and her husband Jay-Z on Instagram.
The key word to succeed in this new model, according to public relations and marketing experts, is “authenticity” — and that’s what Mota has in droves for her Mota-vators. She is cute and personable like many stars of the past, but she is also highly, genuinely relatable, in part because she takes great pains to actually communicate with fans. She’s diligent in answering questions and responding to comments, even giving shout-outs to people in her early videos, making them feel included in her work.
Even as Mota gains in reach and influence, she remains down-to-earth — her tastes in fashion and makeup haven’t upscaled as she’s made more money or become more famous. Instead, she still focuses on brands and stores that any normal teenager in middle America can shop at, such as Forever 21, Aeropostale, H&M, Sephora and other mall favorites.
Shopping, fashion and style bloggers often get inundated with freebies by brands in hopes that they’ll be reviewed, but Mota still buys much of her own clothes and makeup, which gives her opinions added weight and authenticity. She also pays for her lavish giveaways — which makes them much more like gifts she gives back to friends, rather than offloading free merchandise to a demographic.
More than anything, Summer seems to appreciate Mota’s niceness. She isn’t snarky or cool — her persona is like the cheerful, happy friend, or an older sister who’s happy to share what she knows about fashion and makeup.
“I remember I left a comment for her in a YouTube video, a question about how a dress she bought fit,” Summer says. “I was totally stoked when she replied. Not only was it helpful, but it felt like I wasn’t just talking to the Internet, but a real-life person who cared enough to answer back. And she was super sweet, too.”
Mota even manages to deal with trolls and haters with a degree of equanimity and insight. “Some of them just want attention,” Mota told Business Insider. “You have to treat them nicely or don’t respond at all.”
At an age when girls are navigating complex, sometimes treacherous social territory, Mota offers an almost innocent escape. And her fans — and their mothers — are grateful for it.
Karen, for example, checked out Mota’s videos and found herself both relieved and impressed. “She really does seem like a girl who Summer and her friends would pal around with at school,” she says. “She’s not too edgy, not too shallow, not too done up — just really sweet and relatable and friendly and fun, which is sometimes all you want from your teen stars, I guess.”
But Karen was more impressed with Mota’s commitment and drive. “I was amazed at how many videos she’s done, and how involved she seemed with her audience,” she adds. “She hasn’t even started college yet, and she’s already created an empire. I told Summer she could learn from that initiative and dedication, but of course she rolled her eyes at that. But I hope she sees some of Bethany’s entrepreneurial spirit, gets inspired by that and does something as enterprising in her own way — and still remains nice about it, of course.”
Karen might be onto Mota’s true secret to success. Mota’s girl-next-door appeal and tastes make her seem ordinary and just like any other shopping-obsessed teenager, but the teen’s marketing and business savvy belie her youth.
Internet sensations, particularly in fashion, style and beauty, are able to expand Web-based fame into consulting or higher-profile editorial or writing gigs, but Mota is poised to go beyond Warhol’s predicted 15 minutes.
She has modeled for stores, such as JCPenney and Forever 21, but her deal with Aeropostale is one of the first to actually consult on a clothing line over the course of several seasons. She’s also launching her first fragrance with the store, as well as a home decor line.
Mota’s deal with Aeropostale didn’t arrive just out of nowhere — she landed the partnership with the help of her high-powered agent, Max Stubblefield of United Talent Agency, as well as her lawyer Jon Moonves, showing she’s aligned herself with a strong business team to protect and forward her interests.
She’s also making appearances overseas at stores that want to work with her, so travel videos detailing her local finds and favorites are a growing part of her repertoire. And when she does appear, crowds approach Bieber-level numbers, full of adoring teenage girls eager to meet their idol and friend.
Mota’s popularity doesn’t just translate into adoration and huge social media numbers, though. The teen is making plenty of money from her efforts. Mota and her team haven’t revealed financial figures, but Yahoo estimates her videos generate $40,000 a month, just on views alone.
In the long run, Mota admires the career arc of someone like Lauren Conrad, the star of MTV’s reality series “The Hills,” who transformed her reality-TV fame into legitimate fashion lines with Kohls, as well as a series of best-selling young-adult novels and how-to books.
The focus, according to her team, are deals with long-term potential to get her name and “brand” out there beyond Internet channels, and certainly with her forays into beauty and home, she’s positioning herself as a kind of “lifestyle guru” for teens, a la Martha Stewart or Gwyneth Paltrow.
Meanwhile, Mota continues to generate content and interact with her fans. Despite her work for brands, she still makes about two videos a day, and taking the time to interact with fans on social media.
“I don’t want to leave my viewers hanging with no new content to watch,” she told Business Insider. “Making new videos for them, always tweeting, always posting Instagram pictures, interacting with them and really getting to know them is a big priority to me. I think that’s like my responsibility. Without them I wouldn’t be here so I want to give them what they want to see.”
Ultimately Mota’s fans, like Summer, really want to see themselves represented in their entertainment and media. Mota could post about anything and her band of Mota-vators would be happy to hear from her. “To be honest, I like the stuff that she shows us in terms of fashion and beauty, but we have really different body types and coloring, so it doesn’t always work for me,” Summer says. “So I don’t really buy what she mentions. I just like watching her talk. It’s like having a pen pal or hearing from a friend who lives far away.”
Mota will have to strike a fine balance as her Internet empire grows.
“I am so thankful for the support of my viewers. They are the reason that I keep uploading videos and they continue to inspire me every day,” she told Elle. “Seeing them get super excited and emotional at meet-ups is the most amazing feeling ever.”
In the end, stars like Mota offer a new take on the push-pull between intimacy and distance of celebrity. She may not talk about her personal friends or her own dating life, but she’s happy to share what matters to her young fan base — she offers not intimacy, but proximity, enabled by an extensive social media strategy that offers a peek behind the curtain.
Summer, like many fans, doesn’t expect being left behind. “I’m excited when she does something cool,” the teen says. “It’s almost like I’m getting to do it right along with her.” ♦