By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007
WOODLYN, Pa. -- Internet star Tila Tequila is grousing from her perch in the back corner of Bootleggers, a noisy, beer-poster-splattered bar in a suburban strip mall somewhere between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. She's here to meet some "friends," of which she has many. But it is obvious she'd rather be elsewhere. She's hungry. Tired. Leery of the tottering guy in the cowboy hat who won't go away, who keeps whispering into her ear.
It's not easy being a MySpace queen!
Tila Tequila is something like the Paris Hilton of cyber-celebrities, genus famous-for-being-famous. She says her talents include looking attractive, being loud and being accessible to any pimply dork with a computer. She calls herself a musician, but that point is debatable.
She's a star by virtue of her 1.7 million virtual "friends" on the social-networking site MySpace, where her success has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On average, she receives more than a thousand new friend requests every day, from people she doesn't know. She's such a major online presence -- all those digi-friends! all that attitude! all those half-naked photos !-- that PC World just named her one of the "50 Most Important People on the Web."
Now, Tequila (real name: Thien Nguyen), a 25-year-old model prone to prancing around in her underwear, is trying to parlay her MySpace popularity into a career as a recording artist. And she's doing so without the backing of a record label.
She says she's turned down offers from two major labels and multiple independents because she didn't want to cede control of her brand. And yes, she actually refers to herself as "the Tila Tequila brand." (She says she's "allergic" to booze; she just found the name ironic.)
Though the early returns might suggest otherwise, she's certain she can succeed while circumventing the label system. This makes her something of a guinea pig: As the traditional music business continues to struggle, can a self-made Internet celebrity become a self-made pop star?
"I didn't get involved in helping Tila on the basis of thinking we've found this great new musical diamond; I think of Tila as a cultural phenomenon," says her manager, Simon Renshaw, whose clients include the Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert and Clay Aiken. "She's a girl who created this fascinating career out of nothing and wants to try something different. She's passionate about music and wants to succeed just as she has in other parts of her career."
Says Tequila, her voice raspy, her kewpie-doll face framed by a cloud of her own cigarette smoke: "Nobody has been brave enough to try to do what I've done. I'm the test subject. No matter what happens, I feel like there's no failure because I've opened people's eyes."
Tequila has flown in from California for this party because the sponsoring radio station played a snippet of her first commercially available single, "I Love U." Well, that and she's getting an appearance fee. Nobody will say how much.
An abrasive, expletive-laced rap-rock revenge fantasy, "I Love U" went on sale at the online iTunes Store on Feb. 27. The Tequila-authored track was made available two weeks ago through other online music outlets. There's also an accompanying music video, in which Tequila isn't wearing much clothing. No surprise, given that she made her name as a car show model and Playboy Cyber Girl.
She says she was trying to shock people with her confrontational single. "I'm a loudmouthed girl who's trying to break the rules," she says. She calls herself "the real Madonna for this generation." She is not laughing when she says this. (If anything, she's like a belligerent, foulmouthed Fergie.)
The real Madonna is wearing colored contacts; her hair is newly dyed, her bosom evidently enhanced. The Vietnamese vixen, who was born in Singapore, raised in Houston and now lives in Los Angeles, is sporting a white tunic and black stretch pants. She's incredibly petite -- barely five feet tall in her size 5 Marc Jacobs boots.
She's pinned behind a table and surrounded by dozens of young men (and a few girls), most of them wearing Mardi Gras-style beads and lascivious expressions. She smiles gamely. Poses for pictures. Signs her name on color photos in which she's wearing a tiny denim skirt and a heart-covered corset strategically unzipped just past her cleavage. She also rolls her eyes and sighs.
On one handout glossy, she scribbles a dirty message and a smiley face above her signature. "Download my single," she commands, handing the picture to a wide-eyed fan. Her supplicant nods, then high-fives a friend.
"I don't come across like this untouchable big star," says Tequila. "My fans get to interact with me. They look at me like, 'She's my homegirl. I'm going to support her.' "
So far, though, they haven't done so in large numbers in the commercial music realm.
On Tequila's MySpace page, where you can listen to free music, her songs (including a snippet of "I Love U") have generated more than 40 million spins. She regularly ranks among the site's top unsigned artists.
On iTunes, "I Love U" sold 14,000 99-cent downloads in its first week -- a figure that doesn't even equal 1 percent of Tequila's MySpace friends. The song was on the lower half of the iTunes Top 100 chart for about a week before it disappeared completely. (On the other hand, the revealing video -- given away free with the single -- went to No. 1 on iTunes. This may confirm that while boys will dial in for soft-core porn, music is a much harder sell.)
"There's no evidence that MySpace, in and of itself, can be the cornerstone of music industry success," says Glenn Peoples, founder and editor of the music business blog Coolfer.com. "Same with YouTube. It's one thing to sign up friends and get people to watch your videos at no charge. It's another to successfully navigate the worlds of digital and physical retail, publicity, promotion and marketing, and then motivate consumers to actually purchase your music."
Tequila isn't exactly going it alone in the music business. She's signed on with a major publicist whose clients include Aerosmith and the Coachella Valley Music Festival. "I Love U" was produced by the Grammy-winning hip-hop hitmaker Lil Jon, with whom Tequila shares an attorney. She's represented by United Talent Agency. (She has a role in an upcoming Adam Sandler film in which, she says, "I play one of his hot friends.") And she's signed on with Renshaw's firm, Strategic Artist Management -- though Renshaw says he's unsure how to measure Tequila's music industry accomplishments.
"The only way we're really going to be able to evaluate and judge what she does, to be crude about it, is to figure out at the end of the day what her brand is worth. How much revenue can she generate on an annual basis globally?" Noting Tequila's other revenue streams -- merchandise, personal appearances, sponsorships -- Renshaw says, "Music is just a minuscule piece of her overall business."
It might stay that way. Whereas the indie-rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has become a self-sufficient success, thanks largely to buzz on sites including the influential webzine Pitchfork, Tequila is trying to break through in the pop space, which remains the domain of major-label artists. That's especially true on Top 40 radio, where saturation is critical to commercial success.
There are other hurdles, too, says Craig Marks, editor of Blender magazine. "Her problem is that she's just not that good. As a test case, I'm not sure she's going to measure up because I don't think she has the skill."
In her own defense (sort of), Tequila giggles, then quotes a fellow pinup.
"It's kind of like what Pamela Anderson said: She loves being the dumb blonde because if she finishes a full sentence, they think she's a genius. I totally wrote 'I Love U' in 10 minutes. It was just for fun. But I know my potential. When I go back to L.A., I'm going to write a radio hit and people will love it. It's going to surprise you."
She lights another cigarette, takes a swig from a can of Red Bull.
"And let's say it doesn't work. Okay, so [expletive] what? I'll just put out another one. And then another one. I'll do it until it works, even if it takes 20 songs." Ah, the limitless possibilities of cyberspace.