At the Internet celebrity's New York pop-up shop, merch wasn't the only thing up for sale.
He uses that smile—goofy, slightly menacing—like a weapon, deploying it strategically to send his army of fans, most of whom are between 13 and 18 years old, into an alarming frenzy. This weekend, he sent throngs of pre-teen girls and boys into paroxysms of joy at a pop-up shop on the far west side of Manhattan. Despite the first snow of the season, a line snaked around the block. Grown-ups were outnumbered by children three-to-one. A member of the security detail, inside, said that people had started lining up at 3am for a chance to see Paul in the flesh. It was an impossibly big moment—because, for most of his fans, Jake Paul exists solely on the internet.
Paul rose to fame on the now-defunct six-second video social media platform Vine before starting his YouTube channel, where he produces daily videos, a mix of pranks, music videos, and personal observations. He currently has 12.3 million subscribers, and has said that he averages 7 million views per video. (For perspective, this summer's most-watched episode of Game of Thrones racked up 16 million viewers.) Paul had a short stint on the Disney television show Bizaardvark, but for the new breed of online famesters, crossing over to traditional forms of entertainment isn’t the end goal. As he told us earlier this year: “Even Disney—off the record, but on the record—knows that I have the power. They love me because of that. I don’t act like it. I’m not walking around all cocky, but the tables have turned.”
For a while, anyone over the age of, say, 25 could be forgiven for not knowing who Jake Paul was. But he has spent the last few months parlaying that notoriety into something approaching real-world fame. And as social media influencers break into the mainstream, Jake Paul seems less like an aberration and more like a vision from the future, coming back to warn us of what lies ahead. Spoiler alert: it involves a lot of merch.
On Saturday, Paul, 20, was sequestered above his pop-up shop, which featured “Instagrammable” moments: little photo-taking areas that featured neon lights, silvery confetti, and overblown images with Jake Paul inside jokes, like yellow-tinted aviator sunglasses (known to his fans as “yellars”). A large balcony wrapped around Paul's holding room, and from time to time he'd do a lap up there. The kids below would gather and scream, holding their phones up. The songs he’s written and produced for his YouTube page—once made in jest, but now occasionally appearing on the very real Billboard 100—were piped in. The crowd sang every word to Paul, who stood at the balcony singing it back to them. He'd sometimes descend like a god from Mount Olympus in high-top sneakers. But those interactions were limited because, though small, the kids' collective enthusiasm could get the best of them and Paul could create a stampede that even 6-foot bodyguards had trouble containing.
The pop-up served a few purposes. First and foremost, it was a marketing opportunity—for Paul, but also for producers of the third-party products like fidget spinner speakers on display in shiny cases. And, despite Generation Z’s dependence on digital, it was part of a growing trend for experiential moments, things that could be captured and tagged and broadcast on social media. This was the Museum of Ice Cream, but for rude YouTube tweens. But mostly, it was a sort of throwback: to the classic Hollywood of the meet-and-greet. It was a shrine to Paul and, perhaps, a testing ground to see just how far his empire could unfurl itself. Jake Paul stores? Why not?
“They were foaming at the mouth, they were jumping on the cars yesterday,” said Nick Schefman, who was working at the event, representing the camera company ION360, which wisely wanted to be seen in-tandem with a man who makes his living filming himself. “I haven’t seen a level of intensity like this since … Justin Bieber.” (No one compares the maddening crowds to those of Elvis or The Beatles anymore).
Backstage, Paul was in coach-meets-entrepreneur mode. "I think people are attracted to [what I do] because I appeal to the mass of America,” he explained. “These kids, like, don't have much in their lives and aren't coming from rich families. Nowadays, high school and middle school, more than ever, there's a lot of pressure, there's bullying and social media. And this”—watching him and a small cadre of other social media influencers live lavish lifestyles on Instagram and YouTube—”gives them another outlet to live vicariously through another group of friends having fun and being positive."
Despite his reputation as a troublemaker—he's had a very public, very antagonistic relationship with his Los Angeles neighbors—Paul sees himself as a positive influence. "I'm a mentor to them, I try to teach them how to set goals for themselves, telling them how to deal with haters, reminding them to smile every day," he said. This might sound odd to older observers, who see him as the very avatar of millennial malaise—the manifestation of white male privilege with a dash of Jackass. But Jake Paul is looking to move from pranks to more message-driven forms of entertainment. Oprah, basically, but with more pranks.
Downstairs, chants of "We Want Jake" were crescendoing. The pop-up shop experience was well-organized, with groups of 100 or so being ushered in for a limited time, allowed to interact with the Instagrammable moments, and hopefully allowed a moment to pose with Paul for a selfie or speak with him. Then everyone was herded towards the merch, which was hung reverentially in a center vestibule as if at Barneys, and then toward the cash registers, where the line seemed to flow, not ebb. The gear was typical merch fare, an aesthetic that's well established: long-sleeve graphic T-shirts, hoodies, distressed denim jackets with prices ranged from $30 to $100 for a skate deck. Jake Paul might be the future, but his taste looks a lot like the present.
None of which mattered to his fans. "I think he's really funny, and just amazing," said Bianca Baron, an 8-year-old in braids and lipstick from White Stone, Queens, who was walking away with "a lot of shirts." "My whole school knows who he is, they'll be jealous I came."
Christopher Schernov, 10, discovered Paul on Vine and followed him to YouTube. "He has such a great life, it's so fun. I watch him every day. Every time he posts, I get the notification." Schernov and his mother came in from Staten Island for the pop-up. "Even if what he's doing doesn't seem interesting, I'll watch it and it gets interesting." When asked to place Paul in galaxy of traditional celebrities, Schernov was quick to dismiss the likes of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. "He's nicer to his fans, he has a lot of good advice. He has a better personality. He lets his fans touch him or gives us high-fives. Kanye West has his hood up."
Schernov was a clear Jake Paul superfan—a Jake Pauler—and was visibly excited while talking about him. But when Paul made a lap around the space, Schernov was excited, but didn't move toward him like the rest of the crowd. I asked him why. He shrugged. "I already have a selfie with him," he said.
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