One of North Texas’ biggest celebrities is a 17-year-old kid from Frisco named Alex Lee. Never heard of him? Consider this: with 2 million Instagram followers, Lee has more people scrolling through his photos than Mark Cuban, Kelly Clarkson, or Bishop T.D. Jakes. He has more Twitter followers than Norah Jones and Jordan Spieth combined. He has been written about in the New York Times, appeared on Ellen, will star in an upcoming film, and is working on recording an album. He sells apparel branded with his name on his website, alexleeworld.com.
But if you have no idea who Alex Lee is, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Before November 2, 2014, no one had heard of him. Lee was just a kid working at a SuperTarget in Frisco. Then someone took a picture of him bagging groceries. That photo circulated on social media, and, before his shift was over, Alex Lee was a megastar, known to the world simply as Alex From Target.
Alex From Target is the newest type of celebrity, part of a growing cohort of young teen stars whose claim to fame is that they have no claim to fame. They have looks, or more precisely, a look: stretched almond eyes, incandescent irises, dark eyebrows, puffy lips, Bieber-esque baby cheeks, and disconcertingly shiny, white teeth. They exist mostly on social media sites such as YouTube, Vine, and Instagram, where they became famous and where legions of devoted tween and teen followers obsess over their every move. This month, some of them will appear in the flesh at DigiTour, a concert-like event built around people like Alex Lee.
I am neither a 14-year-old girl, nor am I a parent to one, and so stumbling across DigiTour came as something of a shock. My first question—What is it?—turned out to be the most difficult one to get my head around. The website didn’t help much. It showed 26 mug shots with names I didn’t recognize. They could pass for so many teen celebrities of the past, most trading in either the sweet, bashful charm of a young Jason Priestley or the watered-down James Dean look that lent Luke Perry his sex appeal. There are very few girls on DigiTour. Only three of the 26 listed “artists” for the Dallas DigiTour stop are women, including Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister.
Additional searching on YouTube (and a little uncomfortably creepy late-night scrolling through the Instagram accounts of teenage girls) revealed more of what to expect from DigiTour. The event is something like a Comic-Con for tween girls obsessed with cute boys online. Instead of dressing up like Yoda, girls attending DigiTour are invited onstage to pretend they are at prom with their baby-faced idols, or squeal in reaction to the very PG-13 answers the boys give during live-staged sessions of Truth or Dare? The sum total is a bizarre version of high school rendered as performance, with all the messy complications of adolescence smoothed out into a stream of snuggling selfies.
The highlight of DigiTour is the so-called “meet and greet” session, in which attendees who shell out between $110 and $324 can walk down a red carpet and meet their favorite social media stars. They leap on backs, press foreheads together, or sometimes steal pecks on cheeks as strategically positioned friends immortalize the moment on Instagram. As each girl walks away, the boys of DigiTour repeat on cue, “I love you.”
Every generation struggles to understand the icons launched by the generations coming after it. How, for example, could you have explained Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 to the 77-year-old woman watching TV who was born before the advent of the incandescent light bulb? Or what could you say to the mother whose first kiss came while dancing to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers when she finds her preteen daughter prancing around her poster-clad room, lip-synching to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”? Watching videos of DigiTour makes me feel a little like that: old, out of touch, baffled.
But if you dig into any cultural phenomenon, you find commonalities in the mechanics of celebrity manufacturing and stars whose ostensible talent took a backseat to celebrity potential. The stars of DigiTour made me think of my own generation’s equivalent, the New Kids on the Block, the archetype of superfluous boyish cuteness resold as cultural phenomenon. But the list hardly stops there. The Monkees were a TV act before they were a successful band. KISS went from hedonistic New York rockers to cartoon-starring caricatures. And yet, when trying to understand just what lends the DigiTour stars their appeal, I kept coming back to Murray the K.
If ever there was a needless star, it was the hysterical Murray the K. In his essay “The Fifth Beatle,” Tom Wolfe recounts how the loud-mouthed New York disc jockey worked his way into the Beatles inner circle simply by infiltrating their first press conference at JFK airport. There was Murray the K sitting on the floor at the feet of jet-lagged Beatles shouting, “You’re happening, baby!” over the protestations of the rest of the irritated press corps. The band took a liking to him, and Murray became a celebrity by osmosis, aided by the way his medium—radio—brought his voice as well as the Liverpool-accented mutterings of his new Beatles besties into the intimacy of teenagers’ bedrooms all around the country.
The stars of DigiTour seem to be participating in a similar media alchemy, with social media improving on the intimacy of radio exponentially. Now not only do the cute boys of DigiTour enter the privacy of bedrooms, they do so in live, interactive videos that feel identical to FaceTime chats. They occasionally respond to fans’ comments on Instagram, tweet back and retweet, like and follow, and indulge in all the other flirty winks and nudges social media affords. DigiTour stars are active within the same digital environment that forms the architecture for all our other social relationships, and so each image or video clip stands in as part of a stream of shared memories. (Remember that time when Nash Grier bumped heads with one of the guys from Jack & Jack, or when Dylan Dauzat read YouTube comments in one of his videos?) It doesn’t take too much willful suspension of disbelief to feel like they are winking at you, offering entry into a world that is all laughter and infatuation, a version of adolescence divorced from the messy burgeoning of social and sexual identity.
What is different about this new phenomenon of social media star is that the internet has managed to obviate the need for any of the trappings that were once necessary to produce a celebrity—the hit song, the popular TV show. Just as the internet has created a more perfectly efficient market for everything from books to pornography, the technology of celebrity has now evolved to the point where you can become known simply for being known. And as it turns out, when it comes to teen idols, that’s the only thing that seems to be important, that you can pass as the cool kid in every school in America, with all the defining, confining characteristics that earn entry into high school cliques. The result is, stars can be generated—like Murray the K—simply via their proximity to notoriety, which the internet now produces haphazardly, like some self-replicating, fan-generating, fan-populated fame machine.
Which is why the meet-and-greets—the main attraction of DigiTour—are the event’s particular genius. Here, perhaps unlike any other celebrity phenomenon in history, a star-obsessed fan can enter into the fantasy world of celebrity. Shelling out your $110 doesn’t just get you a selfie with a selfie star. When celebrities like Alex From Target are famous simply for being in photos, to actually be in one of his photos is to participate in Alex From Target’s very raison d’être. The shutter click of the smartphone camera closes the feedback loop of internet celebrity-dom. Fans step into the medium and become the message.
A version of this column appears in the September issue of D Magazine.
SEPT. 6 | SOUTH SIDE BALLROOM