(Roger Kisby for the Washington Post)

Tiptoeing on social media’s tightrope

Lele Pons made millions on YouTube by turning herself into a perfectly generic social media star

“Lele, we might need you to sit up a little.”

It’s a weekday morning in late August, and Lele Pons’s body is slouched in an armchair in her three-bedroom apartment; her mind is deep in her phone. Her manager, Sam Shahidi, is trying to guide the 23-year-old social-media phenom through a taped interview with a journalist.

She has just walked downstairs to her living room wearing white sweatpants along with some of her branded merch — a black hoodie with a white rectangle under the words, “YES I’M.” The idea is for Pons’s followers to use permanent marker to write in the blank the word they want to define them.

Pons’s rectangle reads, “INSECURE.”

Social media star Lele Pons, 23, was the first to reach a billion loops on the micro-video site Vine. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

Her long blond hair has been blown dry into soft waves, and she is heavily made up. This afternoon, she is scheduled to tape a new YouTube video in which she and Twan Kuyper, who acts as her fictional boyfriend, will play farcical social media vloggers going on their honeymoon.

The apartment, featured regularly in her video shoots, is decorated generically with neutral couches and several orchid plants. A Ouija board and a game of Twister sit on the bookshelf. There’s a hole in the wall where a friend threw her in a staged fight during the filming of one of the slapstick videos that have made her a multimillionaire YouTube star with aspirations for greater fame.

She became the first to reach a billion loops on the micro-video site Vine in 2014 and is sometimes credited with popularizing the phrase “Do it for the Vine,” an exhortation to live one’s life in service of the social media post that will result. She is so representative of a generic online personality that it is hard to tell what has exerted more influence: YouTube on Pons or Pons on YouTube?

(Darian Woehr/The Washington Post)

She and her mother — who serves as an occasional extra playing herself in Pons’s videos — live here together.

There’s a golden crocodile displayed on a side table because Pons, who was born in Caracas and lived on a Venezuelan farm until she was 5, loves crocodiles.

Shahidi has said that crocodiles are a topic that engages her. “I’m obsessed with them. It’s the only thing that gets me off my phone,” she says, as she looks at her phone.

Crocodiles remind her of her wild, solitary early childhood when she would watch them from her house in the country.

She’s explaining distractedly that her father, who lives in Miami, arranges for small alligators to be delivered to his pool when Pons visits, so that she can swim with them as a form of therapy.

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All of a sudden, she stops. “Wait, is this the interview?”

It is. Pons looks confused. “If you can tell me, like, ‘action?’ ” she asks.

Action.

Pons sits up.

“Well,” she says brightly, with an uptick in energy. “I’m obsessed with them,” she says of the crocodiles and continues the story she told before, just more colorfully, as if the previous exchange had never happened.

The distance between her real self and her on-camera self has grown in recent years, as Lele Pons has evolved from a 16-year-old high school student creating videos about how to skip class into one of the biggest entertainers on social media.

She has lasted — and outlasted other social media personalities — because she does nothing to subvert the expectations of her fans and nothing to offend. She has all the right fights at all the right times. She lives by the rules of Instagram and YouTube and is in turn rewarded by them.

Her videos had 121 million views on YouTube in August, and she has created posts sponsored by Google, Tinder, the “Dragon City” video game and Budweiser. She appeared in a Jack in the Box commercial. She recently recorded a Spanish-language pop single, “Celoso” (“Jealous”), that reached triple platinum status for Latin music on the American music charts. She plans to release a new music video this month that she wrote, directed and edited. She wants to be an entertainer and cringes when she’s called an “influencer.”

Among her fans are the platforms that mon­etize her: “She is vulnerable, hilarious and insanely creative,” says Jake O’Leary, global head of artist marketing at YouTube, noting that her content connects with the platform’s global audience.

She’s nostalgic for her early start on Vine, the video platform that made her famous. Now, social media is so big that “it’s less fun,” she says. “It’s less fun, but you just have to adapt.”

“No one even told me a schedule for posting. I just needed it,” Pons says of creating videos for Vine. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

Short videos, supersized success

Eleonora Pons was born in Caracas, Venezuela. Soon after she was born, the family moved to the countryside to take over a family business that manufactured farm equipment.

“I didn’t talk until I was 3,” Pons recalls in her apartment.

Even after she could talk, “she was much better drawing or painting or a story board, instead of having to tell her story with her own words,” says her father, Luis Pons, an architect and interior designer.

When Lele Pons was 5 years old, she and her mother, who is Italian and a pediatrician, were kidnapped and ransomed, a common occurrence in some parts of Latin America. The experience spurred the family to move to Miami.

After she entered grade school in Miami, “immediately we figured out . . . she had learning disabilities,” her father says.

Her parents divorced shortly after they moved to Miami. She had to work hard to keep up in the classroom. Luis Pons says she was diagnosed with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and Tourette’s syndrome. They hired tutors and therapists to help her.

She didn’t stop playing with her Barbies until she was 14 — “which is not normal,” she says. She also remembers being the class clown and the popular kids saying: “Lele! Lele! Do something funny. Make us laugh.”

During high school, she trained as a classical opera singer. Around the same time, a friend showed her a new app called Vine, where she could create a six-second video on her phone.

“I didn’t get that in my school because my school was like a school for engineers and doctors. My mom was a doctor, she probably wanted me to go to a good school, but I was not born for that.” In Vine videos, she found something she enjoyed, almost a passion. “And then it just, like, blew up.”

Her first Vines were about how she was doing poorly in school, how she would cut corners to do something, or how she was not seen as the popular girl. Her father thought her work was brilliant and an extension of the kind of drawings she used to make to tell a story when she was little. She was making at least one, sometimes two Vines, a day.

“No one even told me a schedule for posting. I just needed it,” she says. If she didn’t make one, she felt the day was wasted.

She can’t remember her first sponsored deal, sometime around 2013. Her father says it was for MTV.

When she was on Lincoln Road — the famous outdoor shopping district in Miami — and people asked for selfies, she knew she was getting somewhere.

In 2016, Pons made Time magazine’s list of “The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet.” (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

In addition to the crocodiles, growing up, Pons mostly watched telenovelas, Latin American soap operas. She says she sometimes watched five episodes a day. She loved the drama of them — an evil twin sister or a suddenly blinded stepmother — and they often depicted the love story she wanted to have. She appreciated the plot climaxes and the resulting adrenaline. (Venezuelan telenovela star Gaby Espino was the inspiration for Pons’s nose job.)

She says she used to like doing stunts for her videos, and they often show her walking into doors and falling down.

In a change of pace, first lady Michelle Obama, seeking to reach the massive audience of young people who followed Pons, invited her to the White House in the fall of 2015 to help promote her initiative to encourage students to apply to college. Pons remembers when she met Obama because it occurred almost one month after her nose job. The medical procedure caused her to take one of her only significant breaks from posting.

Her mother cried when she met Obama. But Pons rushes through that story to tell of her meeting her “only true idol” — Shakira.

“You know, Michelle Obama was more elegant, and I was on my best behavior. And it was very inspiring. But when I met Shakira, I was crying, I was a mess, I was sweating, I smelled because I was just, like, very, like, anxious. . . . I was just a mess.”

In 2016, Pons made Time magazine’s list of “The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet,” joining Caitlyn Jenner, Kanye West and Donald Trump.

In 2017, she walked the runway for Dolce & Gabbana; she was one of Forbes’s 30 under 30; she has a role in Camila Cabello’s “Havana” video.

Pons’s followers are interwoven with her life story. Her book, “Surviving High School: A Novel,” starts each chapter with her number of followers. It was not an instant classic. Kirkus wrote, “Lele Pons is your typical social media star: pretty, quirky, insecure, and sensitive,” and added that she “puts an inordinate emphasis on the value of physical attractiveness, financial gain, and fame.” School Library Journal was even harsher, calling it a “frivolous book” in which Pons “comes across as arrogant and unlikable; case in point: ‘My life is dope and I do dope things. People think I’m cool and want to be around me; I attract crowds like moths to a flame, I am in demand.’ ”

Pons and Nick Cannon co-host the Teen Choice Awards in 2018. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

For all her fans, Pons seems to over-index on haters, who have created a YouTube subgenre of videos about how much they hate her. A sampling: “Lele Pons is bad,” “What’s wrong with Lele Pons?” and “Lele Pons is still bad.” Fellow YouTuber Jessi Smiles counts Pons among “THE RUDEST YOUTUBERS I’VE EVER MET.”

“Lele is an underdog. She gets the most negative comments,” says Shahidi, who manages Pons with his brother John. “Everyone says she’s not funny, and everyone wants her to fail.”

She may have earned this lack of affection.

In 2016, Pons had a public breakup with her fellow Vine star and former best friend Amanda Cerny. Amanda told gossip site the Dirty that Pons had been swiping Cerny’s phone to delete the most popular posts.

Pons won’t discuss Cerny’s allegations. “We have never commented on it and prefer not to,” Shahidi says. About haters in general, Pons says that they are the reason she sticks to comedy.

In other instances, her artifice for the camera has backfired. In 2017, she posted that she cut her hair to donate it, only to be outed for cutting off hair extensions. (She says she intended to donate the extensions and didn’t realize that they would not be accepted.)

Pons has fans as young as 9 and others who are 21. She doesn’t want to alienate any of them. It has made for a difficult mix of topics. One day, she’s twerking on a tree. The next day, she’s making a video about Dora the Explorer. The span of topics has drawn criticism over exposing children to inappropriate content.

Pons says she has noticed a hardening in the digital atmosphere over the past few years. People are more sensitive and quick to take offense. They’re out for digital blood. “If there’s any opportunity you can give them for you to fail, they will take it, and they will try their best to make you fail,” she says.

Her solution is to reveal nothing. “You will never see me cry,” she says. Her skits are born out of her experiences but are never too personal. “When I cry or when I feel sad, I’m going to talk to my mom.”

An immigrant, she never addresses the issue in her videos. Would she ever discuss Trump’s rhetoric about Latinos? “I would never — like, honestly, social media scares me to the point that I’d just rather be private and talk about it with my friends.”

She offers examples of what you can and cannot say on YouTube — and takes caution to a new level.

“You can say, ‘I like pasta.’ No one is going to say, ‘You like pasta! That’s horrible,’ ” she explains. But you cannot say, for example, that you don’t like puppies. “Then people would find fault with you for not liking animals.”

Pons has fans as young as 9 and others who are 21, resulting in a broad span of video topics and, sometimes, criticism. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

“If there’s any opportunity you can give them for you to fail, they will take it,” Pons says of people in Internet culture. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

Pons has fans as young as 9 and others who are 21, resulting in a broad span of video topics and, sometimes, criticism. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post) “If there’s any opportunity you can give them for you to fail, they will take it,” Pons says of people in Internet culture. (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

What comes next?

In 2016, soon after the Cerny episode, Pons signed on to be managed by Shots Studios, co-founded by Sam and John Shahidi and partially funded by their friend Justin Bieber. The production and management company also manages other Vine-turned-YouTube talent, such as Rudy Mancuso, Hannah Stocking and Anwar Jibawi. They often appear in one another’s posts.

Managing stars who were born online calls for a specific sensibility and guidance, says Sam Shahidi: “We have the stigma of influencers trying to be artists. The industry view is they aren’t talented: ‘Yeah they can build a fan base, but they can’t act or direct or sing or perform.’ We always have to work against that.”

A lack of critical acclaim has no apparent effect on the bottom line. “There’s quite a few eight-figure talents working in this world, and they are making this money consistently,” says Reza Izad, the chief executive of Studio71, a digital media production and distribution company.

Advertising revenue on YouTube for the biggest stars can range from $2 million to $5 million a year, one industry expert said, depending on the geographic breakdown of the audience. Individual sponsorship deals and other commercials can add onto that, not to mention Instagram, Facebook and other platforms.

International audiences are worth less to global advertisers than American ones, experts say. About 40 percent of Pons’s audience is in the United States, and 60 percent international.

YouTube is a lot like an old-school Hollywood studio, except that instead of Louis B. Mayer, entertainers are terrified of an algorithmic violation of the platform’s terms of service.

Shahidi says he is helping his clients climb the ladder of fame from 1 to 10 — 10 being a major role in “Pitch Perfect” or directing their own show. (He won’t say where he thinks Pons ranks right now.) He takes a long-term view and aspires to be in business with Disney. To do it, he’s setting strictures now to protect his clients in a world where regulators are paying more attention, and he predicts the business will soon start maturing and acting more like a grown-up.

One of the rules: no swearing for the camera. Pons doesn’t curse in any of her videos. She used to, but then, Shahidi says, “I said, ‘I think we need to stop swearing, and the market will change, and ad revenue will change, because Pepsi and others won’t want to put ads around someone who is swearing.’ ”

When the cameras are not on, Pons manages to colorfully swear at least 22 times in the short car ride to her afternoon taping.

She’s been at this for seven years, which can feel like a long time. Few YouTube stars think they will stick with it forever. In five years, Pons hopes to have a family.

“I get tired ideas-wise,” she admits. But she doesn’t see a day when she’s not posting. She says she’ll stay interested if she can evolve, which means releasing more music, traditional acting and maybe directing. “I didn’t come this far just to get this far,” she says. “I’m going to keep going.”

sarah.ellison@washpost.com

“I didn’t come this far just to get this far,” Pons says. “I’m going to keep going.” (Roger Kisby/for The Washington Post)

Sarah Ellison

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.

Additional credits:

Lettering by Made Up for The Washington Post; portraits by Roger Kisby for The Washington Post; photo editing by Moira Haney; video by Darian Woehr; art direction and design by Eddie Alvarez; copy editing by Emily Morman.

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