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Following for Fame

by Liz Hunter

For past generations, getting famous meant starring in Hollywood movies or must-see TV, but in today’s world, fame is measured in likes, views and followers on social media. It’s as easy as putting on a Chewbacca mask from Kohl’s, laughing and filming it live for Facebook. That’s exactly what Dallas native Candace Payne did just weeks ago, shattering Facebook’s video record with more than 117 million views in only two days. Another 15 minutes made on the internet.

While Payne may not be looking to turn her 15 minutes into a cameo in the next Star Wars film, resulting in years of celebrity, there are those who have man- aged to make a name for themselves online where just a few likes and followers grew to thousands or more and have led to lucrative opportunities.

Not surprisingly, some of South Jersey’s own are included in this bunch. Like Wood- bury’s Grace Helbig, who started vlogging on YouTube in college and eventually had her own channel, DailyGrace, which amassed nearly 2.5 million subscribers and over 211 million video views. In 2014 she became a New York Times bestselling author with Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pre- tending to be a Grown Up, and in 2015 she had a (sadly) short-lived show on E! Helbig is currently on tour with her second book, Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It.

Or there’s Rowan alumnus Jesse Ridgway, whose YouTube alter-ego is McJuggerNuggets. His claim to fame is his series of funny prank videos featuring his friends and family. Think dad running over video games with a ride-on lawnmower (32 mil- lion views). And Maple Shade’s Ryan Abe who grew his YouTube and Vine channel, Ryan’s Average Life, one funny video at a time and now has over half a million sub- scribers and earned a spot on the cast of YouTube’s Settle Down Kids, a comedy collaboration group.

While there is a way to earn an income on social media through ads or being named an official YouTube partner, most online celebrities thought they’d never make a dime off their posts. Social media was simply the best way to show the world their passion or talents.

Clicking Post
The internet is not necessarily known for its kindness, so the thought of posting a video or image for the world to see can come with a sense of trepidation. What if no one watches? What if no one ‘likes’ it? Getting beyond that initial fear, though, can be liberating. “Posting my first video wasn’t even my idea,” says Christina Grimmie, Marlton native and cast member on Season 6 of The Voice. “My friends suggested I sing on YouTube, so I did. I wasn’t looking for fame and never expected much to happen from it.”

She was only 15 at the time, and after posting a half dozen videos, she noticed the view count kept going up. “That’s when we noticed it was an actual thing and the people watching were from all over the world,” she says.

Laura Vitale turned to YouTube as an outlet for her passion for cooking. Born in Italy, Vitale moved to South Jersey when she was 12. She worked for years in her father’s Italian restaurant, but when it closed due to the economy in 2008, Vitale had no job and felt lost without a purpose.

“Cooking was a way to feel connected to family and friends because I had moved so far, it was a way of feeding my soul,” she says. “I told my husband that I wanted my own cooking TV show, or I could write a cookbook. My husband suggested we do our own show on YouTube. I thought [ YouTube] was only for cat videos, but he said we’d be able to do it my way and it would feed my need to talk and spread my message of cooking.”

The couple built a second kitchen in their home’s basement and didn’t film a video for a year. “I would run away every time the camera came out,” says Vitale. “One night my husband said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’” So she did. With her husband behind the camera, Vitale filmed episode one of Laura in the Kitchen in January 2010, beginning with a classic Italian dish: bruschetta.

“The response was amazing,” says Vitale. “People were telling me how relatable I was. They saw me as the girl next door. And that’s truly how I am. I’m not different from you. I just want people to get in the kitchen.”

Megan Kroh’s interests were in all things beauty from makeup to hair. The South Jersey resident started post- ing videos when she was a junior in high school. “I enjoyed watching other beauty gurus on YouTube and it seemed like a lot of fun, talking about makeup, sharing their love for beauty, so I decided to sit down, grabbed any camera I had and [started filming],” Kroh, now 22, says.

“It was hard at first, because you’re sitting there by yourself in your room with the camera, and it’s weird,” says Kroh. “But the more you show your personality and show you’re a normal person, the more people relate.”

YouTube has proven its worth as a platform to launch celebrities, but Instagram, the youngest social media network, has been particularly useful for those who like to be behind the camera, like Merchantville’s Nicole Angemi.

Known on Instagram as @mrs_angemi, Angemi helms one of the network’s most controversial accounts, posting graphic images of dead bodies, infected organs or severed limbs. The 36-year-old mother of three has been a pathologist’s assistant for about 10 years, and started a blog, IHeartAu-, as an educational outlet. “I wanted to show a broader audience the type of things you would learn at a medical conference, where they show organs from surgeries or autopsies, and we find out why the surgery went a certain way, or why the patient died,” she says.

A self-proclaimed “hater” of social media, Angemi was encouraged by her husband to use Instagram for her blog and her oldest daughter helped her understand hashtags. Now on her fourth account (Instagram shut down her other accounts after some people reported them for violating terms of service), @mrs_angemi does not use images of the actual patients she comes across in her job, but will post from text- books, websites or other educational resources; however, a majority of the images she posts come from her own followers— of which there are more than 800,000.

Real world celebrity
After those first few posts, sharing their passions on social media became second nature, and soon enough, more than just fans were taking notice of their talents.

Grimmie’s YouTube account, zeldaxlove64, worked up to 2 million sub- scribers—now at over 3 million—and some of her videos have more than 16 million views. She caught the attention of Brian Teefy, Selena Gomez’s former manager, who took her on and Grimmie subsequently did two international tours with Gomez and released two albums. In 2014 she appeared on The Voice and ended up finishing in third place.

Since then, Grimmie has been busy, living in L.A., keeping in touch with her Voice family, and of course making music. She just released a brand new EP entitled Side A, and she’s touring with Rachel Platten.

“It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve been doing this for six years and that it started on YouTube,” Grimmie says.

YouTube offers a Partner Program in which users can monetize their con- tent by showing ads on their videos. Kroh became a partner not long after making her first post. “My channel didn’t grow overnight, but there was one video that really got me out there,” she says. “It was my full coverage foundation routine. It got a million views. When I found out about the partnership program I had no idea. I just thought it was a hobby. I didn’t know people made money on YouTube.”

While continuing to post her videos as ciaoobelllaxo, Kroh was also working at a salon in South Jersey, until she realized she was making more money through YouTube. Barely out of high school, Kroh was approached by Maker Studios, a network owned by Disney, to help grow her channel and bring her deals with brands and appearance opportunities around the country.

She signed a contract to share products from different brands on her channel, including Benefit Cosmetics, Urban Decay and Garnier among others. She recently attended a grand opening event with NYX Cosmetics where she held a meet-and-greet with over 200 people, and she travels regularly to New York City and L.A. for meetings and product launches.

Kroh did pursue her cosmetology license, which she obtained from PB Beauty School in Gloucester City, but YouTube is her dream job.

“I have been given the opportunity to work with so many brands, brands I would never have dreamed of buying because I couldn’t afford it, and I’m so grateful to work with them and have them know my name,” she says. But it’s not all about the money for Kroh. “If I don’t care for the product, I won’t do the video. I want to be honest and not just do it for the money.”

Gaining traction among viewers on YouTube helped Vitale get the attention of Food Network. “Someone in Entertainment Weekly mentioned me in an article, and next thing you knew, Food Network called,” Vitale says. “I was so nervous and thought to myself: ‘I’m not trained, I have nothing to offer.’ But I was surprised to hear that they loved me for the way I am and wanted to celebrate my message and personality.”

Her show Simply Laura is currently in its second season on Cooking Channel and is true to the essence of Vitale’s Italian roots with the personality so many—2.3 million to be exact—have come to follow and love. She also published her first cookbook, Laura in the Kitchen, last October.

“For me it’s not about the number,” she says. “I never looked at the number of followers and thought ‘I made it.’ What I see is a community, and hundreds of comments of people talking to each other, or thanking me for certain recipes, or teens who are learning to cook or busy moms looking for ideas. That small difference [in their lives] for me is enough.”

Vitale still films episodes for her YouTube show in her home, with her husband still behind the camera. And while she’s not exactly being chased by paparazzi, Vitale, who lives in Swedesboro, does get recognized on occasion. “I think it’s hilarious when someone recognizes me,” she says. “I had a woman stop me on the street in New York in the pouring rain.”

Angemi has reached celebrity status, having been written about across the world—from Philadelphia to the UK— proving the mass appeal of her gross yet intriguing posts. She has an intern who helps sift through the hundreds of messages in her inbox from followers sending images, however she’s not currently making any money from her social media account. She says she is recognized all the time though. “I’ve been asked for autographs and I just think it’s weird so I don’t do it. People ask me to sign their Target receipt. Who does that?” she says. “I just feel like I’m nobody. I’ll take pictures with people, and if I am ever able to do a book, I would sign that.”

For all the criticism celebrities get for being fake, it seems those who launched their careers on social media have managed to stay humble.

“I feel that in order to be successful through social media, you have to be genuine and unique,” says Grimmie. “If you come off fake it won’t be believable and it’s easy for your followers to see how you truly are.”

Vitale says she stays grounded by remembering what’s most important to her. “My family and my health; those things matter,” she says. “Everything else can go away. If you let anything change that you’ll end up alone. I’m grateful for everything and have no plans of stopping.”

Laura Vitale photo courtesy of Cooking Channel
Nicole Angemi photo courtesy of Maria Qualtieri

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3 (June, 2016).
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