Photographs by Gavriel Maynard, words by James Branson, video by James Millynn
I’M STANDING OUTSIDE a photographic studio in Erskineville, Sydney, with an absurdly spray-tanned and very famous young man named Kurt Coleman. As we talk about the unusual species of fame Kurt has stumbled upon a young girl on her way back from school walks past and does a double take.
“Hey, I know you,” she says, confused at this intrusion of the digital world into her regular, three-dimensional life.
“Oh my god, it’s you!”
She’s excited now. He neurons have made the connection and she’s starting to cry (really, she is).
“Oh my God I can’t believe it!” she half screams before running away with tears streaming down her face, like it’s 1963 and she’s just met Paul McCartney in the flesh.
While myself and a few other Sneaky staff look on, completely shocked by the scene, Kurt Coleman – internet sensation – gazes at his phone and checks how many people have liked his last selfie.
“How often does that happen?” I ask, amazed at witnessing the kind of obsessive fandom usually reserved for world-famous actors or musicians.
“All the time,” Kurt says nonchalantly.
THERE ARE TWO possibilities when it comes to assessing Kurt Coleman’s personality. He might just have the most severe case of millennial narcissism ever witnessed. Any cranky old baby boomer searching for a symbol of the moral and physical turpitude of Generation Y could – if they knew how to use Facebook – navigate to Kurt’s page and declare with bullish confidence that the world as we know it is coming to an end.
Alternatively, Mr Coleman might just be one of the smartest, funniest kids I’ve met, with a razor sharp sense of humour and an instinct for the brand new rules of celebrity being established by the social media revolution.
Personally I’m leaning towards the latter.
Kurt has a dedicated fan base that’s been established using nothing but the sheer force of his own self obsession. Yes, there are some haters – “your (sic) the gayest cunt” – isn’t out of place in the comments section of his Facebook page. But those naysayers are just as obsessed with this strange character as his diehard fans, and in a world in which the value of your personal brand is measured by likes and comments made by casual clicks, the only thing that really matters is whether or not people are paying attention.
And Kurt Coleman certainly knows how to attract attention.
“My new years resolution is to be perfect,” Coleman said on a twenty second video posted to his Facebook page that received 365,000 views.
“Just like I was last year. For the whole of 2015 I’m just going to be perfect and, you know, I’m just gonna let ya’s all know that it’s my resolution, and I love you.”
“And I love me.”
LOVING YOURSELF, no matter how strange you are, is at the core of Kurt’s message – and it’s probably the reason he attracts so many fans. This spray-tan addict is exactly the kind of guy that in another era might have had an almighty awful time at school – he would’ve been bullied for his unusual persona and his sexuality (it’s very difficult to tell whether or not Kurt is gay, straight, bisexual or asexual) almost certainly would have caught the attention of any asshole jock within tackling distance.
But Kurt gives absolutely no shits. He loves who he is, despite (or most likely because of) his almost alien-like disposition.
This enormous self-confidence has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans. Kurt’s complete disdain for those who despise him is hugely admirable – I wish I were possessed of his attitude towards his army of haters.
He is truly all about positivity – to those who send venom his way Kurt Coleman simply smiles, looks over his sunglasses, flicks his hair and says “whatever”.
“They’re just not as fabulous or perfect like me. It’s their problem,” Kurt told me in the lobby of a spray tan shop.
LOCATED IN A BACKSTREET of Chippendale, Sydney, are the offices of John Scott. John is a celebrity agent of sorts who has seen the light and transformed his business from working with established, old-fame celebrities to focus on the world of internet stardom. His website, Platform Me, acts as a marketplace in which brands can buy endorsements from what John describes as his “social media superstars”.
“I saw the old world of celebrities disappearing, but my kid was following all these people on Instagram and Facebook. I thought there was a really great opportunity to create a business in which companies can get involved with social media stars.”
Scott describes Platform Me as an “ebay” of personalities. The site features a number of people who have established large followings on various platforms. Anyone wishing to sell a product and use one of his superstars to endorse what they’re pushing can, at the click of a button and the entry of a credit card number, buy such an endorsement.
So far, Scott’s clients have had varying levels of success – the world of social media fame is relatively new, after all.
Some have certainly established a very fine lifestyle for themselves – Rochelle Fox, for example.
Ms Fox’s blog attracts 10,000 unique visitors per week, and you can purchase a blog post written by Rochelle endorsing your product for $1800. Because of her online popularity, Fox also spends a fair amount of her time in luxury hotels. The deal goes like this: She gets to stay at a hotel for free in exchange for posting photographs on her site in which she’s cavorting around in its luxury pools, spas and bedrooms.
I tried approaching a hotel near the Sneaky office and offering them a similar deal.
“Um, I don’t think so…” said the receptionist, clearly confused. I exited the building before she called security.
CELEBRITY FOR IT’S OWN SAKE is a relatively recent construct. Before the explosion of mass culture spearheaded by the United States of America after World War Two, most people were famous for something. Charles Dickens, for example, was a massive celebrity in his time; the emerging middle class created by early industrial age Britain were the first large group of people with disposable incomes that could be spent on entertainment. The author’s novels, serialised in popular magazines of the time, made Dickens a massive star, in a similar way Brad Pitt is now. But Dickens was an author of unique genius. And even Pitt, despite being recognised these days mostly for being married to an incredibly hot and famous wife, is a semi-decent actor.
After mass culture gained it’s foothold in Western societies, we began to see people becoming massively famous simply for being themselves. Marilyn Monroe is perhaps the most obvious example. The actress wasn’t really that talented, to be honest. Her film roles are all largely the same: ditzy blonde bombshell in need of rescuing by a Don Draper lookalike. But what drew ordinary people to Monroe was her unique personality. She was the first person elevated to enormous, international fame almost entirely because of who she was, rather than what she did.
It’s no wonder Andy Warhol, inspired by the religious iconography he grew up with as a child, saw Monroe as the most pure representation of this newfound cult of celebrity, creating his infamous hypercolour prints of a woman idolised by the public for her charm in the same way they once idolised Jesus for dying on the cross.
And then came reality TV. Whilst shows that portrayed the real lives of people with dangerous or interesting jobs – think Cops – had been around for a while, the first television program to dump a bunch of completely random people with no discernible talents into a constructed setting was Number 28, which aired on Dutch TV in 1991. Shortly after, MTV aired what became the prototype for all reality TV: The Real World.
The program originally depicted issues of contemporary young adulthood – drugs, alcohol, sex, politics and the struggle to find a place in the world. But the show quickly devolved into the kind of TV you see everywhere now: trash. There’s a straight line from The Real World to Big Brother to Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
If reality TV was the crazy preacher on the street warning humanity of the coming apocalypse, the stunningly quick rise of social media was the rapture. Since Facebook became ubiquitous, and especially since Instagram removed any need for a celebrity to have anything interesting to say, some very, very strange people have become incredibly famous and influential for reasons not even they understand.
Take John Scott’s marquee client, Mimi Elashiry, a young lady who, after being laughed out of various modelling agencies on account of being minuscule, turned to Instagram to establish a fanbase that now numbers over 500,000. She’s parlayed that social media fame into a lucrative modelling career – Mimi is the face of Glue’s latest campaign and she’s started scoring a number of big commercial contracts.
“People connect with Mimi because she’s genuine and honest. She’ll never endorse a product she doesn’t love herself, and her fans recognise that,” Scott told me. “Advertisers right now are really keen to get involved with people who have that direct, unfiltered connection to their fans”.
Now, whether or not you’re going to say no to a big financial incentive offered in exchange for endorsing a product you don’t actually use yourself is a question I can’t answer – because there is absolutely no way anyone would ever offer me such an incentive.
I spent some time with Mimi during which she attempted to pimp my Instagram account with a view to helping me become famous, but it didn’t really work out. A photo she posted of the two of us did get upward of 27,000 likes, but it only resulted ten new followers. Sadface.
THE QUESTION I REALLY WANTED ANSWERED, however, was why these people are so famous? Neither Kurt nor Mimi really have any idea themselves. “I don’t know” was the answer they both gave when I asked if either could provide any insight into their notoriety.
Both Kurt and Mimi do seem to be genuinely nice people. Neither has that fake, programmable personality you often see in socialites or celebrities who have grown up doing things the old way. Take a look at Mimi Elashiry’s Instagram page and you’ll see a slightly quirky, half-hippy-half-urban girl who comes across as quite lovely and charming. Same goes in person.
Talk to Kurt in person and you’ll get what you see online, too: A very strange young man who wears his oddities on his sleeve and takes pride in his quirks.
Kurt could also be the most hilarious young man in Australia right now. His short videos are (perhaps mistakenly, perhaps not) almost perfectly tailored for his audience. They’re little bite-sized insights into the life of a beautifully weird young man. They’ve made me laugh more than anything I’ve seen in a long time.
I did entertain the notion that Kurt Coleman is not a real person: that he’s either a digital creation, existing purely on the internet – or that he’s some kind of exquisitely created Borat/Ali G-esque character.
If that were the case, his persona would be a work of unparalleled genius. Because if I were given a brief to create a comedic character in order to satire the world of internet fame, the character I would create is Kurt Coleman.
When you take a look at the voyeuristic, fleeting-fame driven culture we’re surrounded by, Kurt Coleman – internet sensation – is playing the game precisely how it should be played.