Column, Movie Diary

The price of fame, popularity and persona

By Dom Cioffi

A few years ago, my son told me that one of the kids in our extended neighborhood was “internet famous.” When I asked what that meant, he told me that he had thousands of followers on his YouTube channel (which featured him building things and then blowing them up) and was making money.

My reply was something like, “He may be internet famous, but I seriously doubt he’s making money. And if he is making money, good luck sustaining it.”

My son scoffed at my reply and used this kid’s story for months in an attempt to initiate his own internet stardom campaign. My response to this plan was always the same: “Do your homework without being told and bring home As and Bs every semester and I’ll actually give you startup money for your plan.

This turned out to be a hurdle too high and eventually the idea faded away.

Now, I knew who this kid was. I didn’t know his parents, but I knew where he lived, and I’d seen him around over the years. Thankfully, he was not someone my son ever hung out with, probably because he was somewhat older and a bit of a loner.

One night I got curious and started hunting around for the kid’s online channel. I eventually found it and while he did have a couple thousand followers, I was pretty confident he wasn’t making any money. A couple of his videos had some substantial views, but the bulk were just the inner musings of an angsting teen getting his aggressions out with firecrackers.

Over the course of a couple nights, I think I watched the majority of his videos. I actually became intrigued with the kid’s psychological state of mind. He seemed normal enough but every once in a while, an oddness crept out that appeared on the edge of disturbing. Sometimes it was the way he laughed; other times it was the way his body shook when an explosion had just occurred.

I remember thinking that the kid was so fully invested and unique enough in what he was doing that he might actually appeal to a substantial crowd. From a parent’s viewpoint he was awkward and strange, but I could see where a whole subset of kids might find him wildly entertaining.

Occasionally, while I was out on a run and passing his house, I would glance into the backyard hoping to catch a glimpse of him in action. I was never lucky enough to see or hear anything, but I did recognize a dilapidated redwood playset where he staged several of his “events.”

A year or so later, while my son and I were out doing errands, we happened to drive by the kid’s house, which appeared empty and devoid of activity. When I inquired about the kid, my son said that the family had moved away.

That night I went back online to look him up, curious if he was continuing his activities elsewhere. After an hour, I gave up. From what I could tell, he had removed his channel and deleted his videos.

My gut told me that his life had not gone in a positive direction. I had no reason to think this other than an intuitive feeling. The channel seemed intensely important to him, so to completely delete it must have meant a monumental shift in his state of mind.

I had not thought about this kid for several years until I watched this week’s film, “69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez,” a Hulu original film that features a young man whose obsession with internet fame actually made him a worldwide celebrity.

Several weeks ago, I watched a documentary on Paris Hilton that admittedly caught me off-guard. Learning about this woman’s story made me remember that the most uninteresting celebrities can sometimes have incredibly interesting backstories. That’s certainly the case with Danny Hernandez, the controversial rap artist better known as Tekashi 6ix9ine who has become the poster child for internet fame over the last few years.

It only took watching one video by this performer for me to peg him as someone more interested in shock and fame than creating in actual music. In fact, I found him absolutely repulsive.

My first reaction to a documentary on his life (I mean, he’s only 24 years old), was to scoff at the notion. And then I got curious. Could the same thing that happened with Paris Hilton happen here?

Well, I’ll be honest, the kid’s story is intriguing. And while I still have little interest in ever listening to his music, I do have to admit that his obsession with fame and his ability to influence the people around him to that end, was a bit genius.

We are living in weird times for many reasons, and one of them is certainly explored in this film. Fame is an interesting concept, and the internet has made it more accessible than ever – but at what cost to our collective conscious?

Check this one out if you want to watch an interesting character study on a shifty, exploitative, hyper-focused youth who engineered a money-making persona that eventually took over his life.

A disconcerting “B-” for “69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

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