Cyrus, 26, the oldest Dobre brother, stepped out of his McLaren in $15,000 Nike Mags, replicas of Marty McFly’s self-lacing sneakers. “I come from the future,” Cyrus joked to Brian Sokolik, his manager. The younger two brothers, 20-year-old twins Lucas and Marcus, soon arrived in the Ferrari, followed by Darius, the middle brother, in a luxury SUV.
This is what backflips can get you.
The Dobre brothers now have 26 million YouTube subscribers among them. If you have kids with Internet access, there’s a good chance they’ve watched the Dobre brothers. If they haven’t, maybe they’re fans of one of the other groups of rambunctious famous boys on YouTube: Jake Paul and Team 10, the Vlog Squad, the Dolan twins. Tween idoldom has been broken into pieces and distributed to many, like horcruxes.
The Dobres had traveled with their cars to the West Coast for VidCon, an annual convention where YouTube stars put in face time with fans and potential business partners. Hilton was one of four media interviews they had lined up two days before heading to the convention, where they’d complete a whirlwind agenda of meet-and-greets, interviews, onstage Q&As, and meetings with brands that want a piece of what they’ve built.
But right now, the L.A. celebrity gossip-wrangler wanted to know how the Dobres had managed to avoid the controversies — petty feuds, tasteless jokes, flirtations with alt-right personalities — that had befallen other young men who have become massive YouTube celebrities.
“I don’t think you guys are awful,” Hilton told them, uncertainly, as the interview began. “How have you guys managed to avoid awfulness?”
Cyrus responded like a media-coached athlete who just wants to go out there and give 110 percent. “We spread positivity because they’re the next generation,” he said of their young fan base, adding, “We just wanna be a positive role model."
There’s nothing awful about a backflip. But backflips can get boring. Even if you do a perfect backflip, you land right where you started. The Dobre brothers are trying go places. Their strategy is simply to never stop moving. As they sat in Hilton’s backyard, they’d already rented a Velcro wall for tomorrow’s video shoot.
In their early Vine videos, Lucas and Marcus didn’t talk. They backflipped into a snowbank, over two friends who are bent down to tie their shoes. But as they became more famous, it was necessary to give more of themselves on camera, to show that the boys were more than just a good stunt men.
YouTube stars talk, they have personality. Dobres’ version of this is a kind of brotherly banter that fills the space before they get to the stunts. To an adult’s eyes, their appeal can be baffling. The brothers dare each other to complete a series of stunts in an ongoing contest they call the “Dobre Olympics.” The tasks are simple: whoever can hang from a bar the longest wins $10,000. Whoever can stay buried in sand the longest wins $20,000. Their banter is punctuated by fake punches and cartoon sound effects. The brothers keep filming no matter what, even if the contest idea doesn’t work, the jokes fail to land. They improvise around it and keep going. The Dobres stick to a self-imposed mandate to publish a video every day.
A video titled “Living In A UNDERWATER HOUSE For 24 Hours!” (11 million views) opens with Marcus hammering invisible nails into a shed that the brothers have placed in a swimming pool. The setup is: He’s tired of living in a normal house, it’s time to live underwater. “Everyone like it up and subscribe in five seconds" Marcus tells viewers. He counts down so the army of young Dobre followers can contribute en masse to their engagement metrics. Then the brothers goof around in the pool for a bit before settling on a challenge: rescuing a stuffed duck from inside the partially submerged shed as fast as possible. They do the contest, Marcus swims back to the house. Lucas joins him. The video ends.
No matter what adults think, the views speak for themselves: the Dobres’ collective channel has 7.3 million subscribers. The twins have a separate channel with 16 million subscribers. Cyrus has 2 million on a channel with his wife and fellow influencer, Christina Kalamvokis. The Dobres’ cars even have a channel, with more than 300,000 subscribers.
The people who watch the Dobres’ videos are mostly children. The kids love it all: the fake punches, the “Olympics,” the jokes, the inspirational rap songs they perform on tour in between backflips. But the brothers want more — a television show, the twins say.
When you try to peer past the backflips to find out what more the brothers have to give, this is when you realize that the Dobre brothers can be very quiet.
The brothers are most comfortable speaking kinetically. Acrobatics are a shared language in the Dobre home. Their mother, Aurelia, a Romanian immigrant, was an Olympic medalist in gymnastics. Their father, Boz Mofid, who came from Iran, was a gymnastics coach. The brothers still shoot some of their videos at the gym he runs in Maryland.
When there’s not a camera on, the older brothers do most of the talking. Cyrus has a master’s degree in strategic communication. In interviews, he’s the one who remembers to mention that the brothers are on tour (doing a traveling version of the Dobre Olympics). Darius is the one who likes Marvel movies, who seems to really mean it when he said he loved teaching autistic kids at his parent’s gym as a teen. His brothers joke that Darius is the one most likely to get arrested. (None of them are likely to get arrested.)
The cars, the stuff, are part of the inspiration, they say. “The cars are our childhood dream," Cyrus says, “but it adds to our brand too. It’s cool.” The stuff makes them “superheroes.” And it’s true that parents come up to the Dobres and thank them for giving their kids something to look forward to during otherwise hard times at home. Would the brothers have the same ability to elevate their fans’ reality if they drove Toyota Corollas?
The Dobre brothers are influencers, at times nothing and exactly like the market-optimized content machines you’re probably picturing. They tried L.A. and didn’t like it. In their downtime, they speak quietly to each other with words and looks. They’re not teen heartthrobs. That’s what people get wrong about the Dobres, says Sokolik, their manager. They’re not the next Justin Bieber. Instead, the team thinks of the Dobres as the next Mister Rogers, if Mister Rogers owned a bunch of supercars and rapped about being “lit.”
But that’s a different kind of trick than the kind the brothers are accustomed to performing. How do you turn a backflip into a cardigan?
Two days after their interview with Perez Hilton, the Dobres sat in the corner of a hotel lounge near VidCon with an entourage of girlfriends and wives, assistants, editors, cameramen, PR reps, and managers. The lounge was an invite-only space where creators who were represented by Fullscreen, a new sort of Hollywood company that exists to represent and support famous YouTubers, could be courted by brands. Invisalign, Bumble, and Kohls had people there. Creators picked a spot to sit, and the brands came to them.
When you have the attention of millions of young people and their parents, a lot of people want you to have a message — specifically, one that mentions the name of their product.
That’s a different kind of message from what the Dobres talk about when they’re attempting to channel Fred Rogers (who reportedly never did endorsements until Google put him in a smartphone ad 15 years after his death), but they have found ways to harmonize their corporate partnerships and their desire to mentor America’s youth. AT&T partnered with them to promote an anti-bullying campaign, a common topic of their rap songs. They’ve been paid to play Fortnite and to promote Coca-Cola and Wendy’s.
The brothers’ VidCon Q&A was held in one of the convention center’s main exhibition halls later that morning. A moderator asked the brothers questions. Fans ranging from about 5 to 12 years old had gathered with their parents in the enormous, half-full hall to hear what the Dobres had to say.
“By the end of this month, we will have another positive message,” said Cyrus, teasing an upcoming song. And how do the brothers deal with haters, i.e. the online-celebrity version of bullies? “We’re not targeting the people who talk trash," said Darius. "I’d rather make someone happy.”
Steve Perez, the brothers’ videographer, was part of the entourage that had accompanied the brothers to VidCon. Perez has known the family forever. The brothers aren’t quiet, he said. They’re private. When the Dobres first started to become famous, Perez said, there were people who wanted to exploit them: “We had to be able to read people very fast."
The young Dobre fans at VidCon see them as examples of what life looks like on the other side of adolescence: a world full of cool cars and futuristic shoes and sheds submerged in swimming pools. The less visible part of the world has to do with business partnerships and trying to figure out a way to adapt in an industry that tends to discard those who don’t learn to evolve.
The brothers are optimistic about their chances. They don’t feel burned out, they see themselves as natural showmen. “We’re just getting started," Darius says. “Everything is so organic. This is just like taking a shower.” They want to spend 24 hours in a volcano. They want to trap themselves in a cage with a lion.
Meanwhile, in the courtyard outside the convention center, boys who looked just like the brothers, but younger, were performing for cheering fans and TikTok followers. Some of them were doing backflips.