Shawn Megira is nothing special. He doesn’t sing in a boy band or star in a reality show. But when the 15-year-old Long Islander posts a selfie to Instagram, teenage girls freak out like they just met One Direction.
Megira is, to use an emerging portmanteau, “Instafamous” — a self-made micro-celebrity, known for his work on the Internet only. And like celebrities who have achieved fame through more conventional means — celebrity parents, sex tapes — his fame comes with benefits: like a sponsorship deal with L.A.-based clothing line Ambition Apparel and dozens of beaming “fans” begging for his picture. More recently, Megira was the subject of the brilliant short documentary “Instafame,” produced by the creative agency Sylvain Labs.
Megira’s life doesn’t even compare to that of people like Gabi Butler, the Instagram “cheerlebrity” whose every photo earns tens of thousands of likes, or KC James, the “viner” whose six-second films reportedly scored him a TV show.
James, at least, writes short comedy; Megira, Butler and their largely teenage cohort are another animal entirely — ordinary kids, elevated to actual fame by some combination of savvy self-branding and other people’s voyeurism.
One particularly striking scene in “Instafame” has Megira sitting on the couch in his family’s unassuming, suburban house, mumbling through questions and fidgeting with his phone while his mom takes pictures from the stairway. But on Instagram, where he currently has 52,000 followers, or on Tumblr, where his handle is “sexillusion,” Megira portrays himself like some kind of glamorous, hoodied teen idol … not a guy who goes to the mall with his mom. (A mom who is, it’s worth noting, baffled by her son’s mysterious celebrity.)
Both the gap between Megira’s personalities, and the apparent randomness of his stardom, are kind of unsettling — a weird collision of teenage impulses and digital habits guaranteed to make just about anyone feel old. But it’s also oddly resonant. Here, for instance, is what New York University psychologist Niobe Way said to filmmakers, on the subject of teen social media fame:
My guess is with these kids … is that [they get] a very strong high from it, because you’re getting a lot of attention. But it’s not fulfilling what they deeply need and want, in terms of this kind of human connection.
That could probably be said not just of the Instafamous, but of all of us.