Any discussion of Bethany Mota, 18, social media goddess and ascendant fashion icon, needs to begin with her metrics. Mota’s most popular YouTube channel has more than 4.8 million subscribers, more than Lady Gaga’s. As of this writing, upwards of 2.2 million souls follow her on Instagram, more than Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Glamour and Cosmopolitan combined. Her twitter following is a mere 1.15 million, not great but nothing to sneeze at.
Mota, who graduated from high school last year and still lives with her parents in a quiet northern California city they’d prefer remain confidential, is a haul video superstar. In this YouTube genre, women — almost always women — go shopping and then discuss their latest “hauls” for the camera.
It’s really as simple as that. No stylists, no editors, no models stomping down the runway. Just a kid in her room with a pile of shopping bags. In one recent video that has racked up more than 600,000 views, Mota shows off a series of blouses, hair accessories, and beauty products, as well as a sunflower dress. “I love sunflowers,” she notes. “They’re one of my favorite flowers.”
Subjected to this Warholian monologue over lunch, most of us would probably ask for the check. But we’re not in the demo. Haul stars like Mota have tapped into a market, and increasingly, established fashion brands are taking notice.
Before Christmans, Aéropostale (ARO), a teen apparel fixture with its stock near a five-year low, introduced a Bethany Mota–branded clothing and jewelry line. There are Bethany Mota sweaters, Bethany Mota skirts and even a Bethany Mota sequined bustier.
While YouTube has been a launchpad for celebrities in the past (for instance, Justin Bieber), the Mota deal is perhaps the highest profile alliance to date between a public company and a celebrity whose exposure is almost completely limited to social media. Mota has had a few brushes with established media entities: she has been featured in “Teen Vogue” and contributed to chat and makeover shows on the tween-centric YouTube network AwesomenessTV. But she remains very much a phenomenon of social media: a celebrity whom Us Magazine will never have to assert is “just like us” because, for all intents and purposes, she is us. Uncoached and self-taught — she’s the strongest indication yet that what teenagers really want to watch is themselves.
If successful, the Aéro deal could pave the way for other social media stars to cash in on their notoriety without the institutional filter still imposed by the mainstream media. The idea behind Mota’s partnership deal, says Mota’s agent Max Stubblefield of the United Talent Agency, “was, by design, to prove the model.” If it works with consumers, get ready for a defiantly prosaic new microfame golden age that that makes reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “The Hills,” with their trumped up feuds and pseudo-cliffhangers, seem as stylized as classical ballet.
Greeting Her Public
I arrange to meet Mota at the Westfield, a mall in San Francisco, on the Friday after Christmas. It never occurred to me we’d have company. But Mota had tweeted to her million odd followers that she’d be making an appearance, and I arrive to find her surrounded by several dozen girls.
“She’s super famous and super pretty,” Meleina McCann, 15, of Oakland, Calif. says. “She’s super sweet and so relatable. Her videos are so personal. It feels like she’s speaking to me.”
“She’s always laughing and smiling,” adds McCann’s friend Ella Philips.
Nearby, a teenager with braces and an Aéropostale “Motavator” t-shirt, mutters “Oh my god!” and fans herself as if she’s about to faint, urging a friend into the scrum while she fights off an apparent anxiety attack.
Turns out the girl has nothing to worry about. Mota, wearing a dark pink skater skirt, wedges that playfully riff on work boots, and a backless sweater from her collection, receives everyone with hugs, smiling for their selfies (or more accurately, usies) and signing autographs.
Following these brief encounters, some of Mota’s throng are too dazed even to check their phones. They wear face-cracking grins and babble as if they’ve just seen the risen Christ. After meeting her idol, the nervous young woman prances in place and graciously thanks Mota’s father for having given the world his daughter.
Once Upon a Time
As Mota tells it, she discovered the YouTube’s beauty community after a friend started bullying her online.
“I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to leave my house,” Mota tells Business Insider. YouTube “was kind of an outlet for me to be myself and not really worry about what anyone thought.”
The production values in Mota’s first video, a Mac and Sephora make-up haul from June 2009, which she made by balancing a camera on a stack of stuff because she didn’t have a tripod, don’t meet her current standards. But even at 13 the girl knew her make-up.
The angst-ridden teen found a new community online. As her viewership numbers grew, reading the comments on her videos and tweeting with her fans became a dependable pick-me-up.
Since then, Mota has starred in hundreds of videos, which she also edits. Her shopping hauls remain her primary focus, but she has created videos on DIY crafts, hair and make-up tutorials and interior decoration. In 2010, she launched a second YouTube channel, Bethanyslife, which is supposed to be more personal. It has attracted a mere 1.6 million-plus subscribers. Mota declined to comment on her earnings, but estimates by several sources familiar with YouTube advertising suggest that she’s easily pulling down $40,000 a month from her videos alone.
Some teens in her position would be embarrassing themselves on TMZ, but Mota still describes herself as a homebody. “Whenever I have free time I love to just lay in my bed and watch YouTube videos, watch movies,” she says. “Just basically do nothing.”
Still, as her renown has spread, travel videos have become a recurring theme. She has made appearances in Asia and hopes her next overseas trip will be to Paris, where she’d “probably take a lot of Instagram pictures,” she says. The cuisine could be a hurdle however. “I’m not normally very adventurous with food,” she admits, “but I would try my best.”
At home, “I always eat mac and cheese,” she adds. “That’s what I’m known for, just very simple food: sandwiches, French fries, very unhealthy but yeah that’s what I eat.”
She’s done videos on nutrition but isn’t about to abandon her favorites. “I’m not like, ‘No I can’t eat the french fries because they're full of grease,’” she says. “I do like sending out that message that girls don’t have to eat a certain way to feel confident.”
On camera, Mota is relentlessly upbeat and bouncy. She clowns around and talks in silly voices. More than anything else, she is a virtuoso of positivity. Her videos are often litanies of praise for stuff her audience might want to buy. During her recent video detailing her Christmas presents, she raves about a catalog of items, including Lady Gaga’s Fame perfume (“The packaging’s gorgeous and the scent is absolutely in-credible”), a Michael Kors watch (“I don’t even want to touch it because it’s just so gorgeous”), green tea–flavored mints (“I’m obsessed with green tea and so I’m very pumped to try these”) and a dress “that is literally me. It is perfection… When I saw this I kind of squealed.”
Mota’s videos evoke a 13-year old girl’s G-rated fantasy of life at 18. On camera, she barely touches on school, work, friends or any of the other things that probably still preoccupy recent high school grads. And sex? No way. Instead, last year’s Valentine’s Day video showcased some heavy petting with Target. Starbucks got a peck on the cheek.
Love For The Haters
Back at the galleria, far too many tweens have swarmed the Aéro store to permit a sit-down interview, so we trek to the other side of the mall with the store manager and Mota’s father, Tony. He enthuses about many aspects of his daughter’s improbable rise, from what a great role model she is to the shrimp he ate in Singapore when Bethany had an appearance there. Tony, who is dressed in a grey sweater and faded jeans, says he works in dairy service and now helps to manage Bethany’s career. Asked whether his daughter’s fame has turned into a paying gig for him, he politely declines to comment.
Eventually we find a coffee shop under the mall’s large dome, where Tony buys a slushy orange drink for Bethany and a coffee for me. I ask Mota to describe her personal style. “Definitely bohemian, so it has that laid-back kind of free-spirited vibe,” she says. “It's also girly and very comfortable. Once in a while I can be a little edgy.”
Emphasis on “a little.” While other stars of the street-style blogosphere tend to favor more unique or au courant looks, Mota shops mainly at mall stores like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, H&M and Aéropostale, outlets her fans already know and find relatively affordable.
While her unscripted videos project energy and spontaneity, in conversation she is calm and measured. Homeschooled throughout high school and during much of her childhood, she has little to say about her friends or how they perceive her Internet celebrity. She doesn’t know if the bully who catalyzed her career is aware of her success, but she wishes her well.
Of course, there are plenty of bullies on the Internet, too, and Mota has had to contend with her share of free-floating anonymous bile. Initially, she found that the trolls validated her online presence. “The first hate comment I got on a video, I was really excited about it,” she says. “I was like ‘Yes, I got my first hate comment!’”
The online rancor soon grew tiresome, but it taught her some things about people. “There are different reasons that people leave hate online and most of the time its not personal,” she says. “Most of the time they’re having a bad day and they could be like ‘I’m going to make this girl’s day a little bit worse.’”
A couple years ago she discovered a “constant hater, who was always saying anything negative about my video or my appearance that she could pick out.”
Mota messaged her. “I don’t know why you don’t like me,” she wrote. “I don’t know what I did to you, and I just wanted you to know that I don’t have anything negative towards you and wish you nothing but the best.”
The message resonated. “She was like, ‘I’m so sorry! I don’t know what I was thinking.’” The hater became an ally, defending Mota in the comments.
“Some of them just want attention,” Mota says. “You have to treat them nicely or don’t respond at all.”
Mota’s immense fanbase requires constant cultivation. "I don't want to leave my viewers hanging with no new content to watch,” she says. “Making new videos for them, always tweeting, always posting Instagram pictures, interacting with them and really getting to know them is a big priority to me. I think that's like my responsibility. Without them I wouldn't be here so I want to give them what they want to see."
She details a social strategy rigorous enough for a business school case study. In addition to being on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube “all the time,” she delights fans by calling them on camera, and she stages lavish giveaways.
In a video this holiday season she offered up three prize packages, including a MacBook Pro with a Marc Jacobs case, an Alexander Wang purse that retails for about $900 and hundreds of dollars in gift certificates. Entering the contests required giving Mota some social media juju. One, for example, required subscribing to her YouTube channels, giving the video a thumbs up and leaving the name of a favorite Christmas song in the comments, “Because I’m obsessed with Christmas music and I really want to know what your favorite song is.”
Mota insists that she pays for these gifts with her own money. “There's just something to me about actually going out and buying a prize,” she says. Surely one great delights of starring in shopping videos is all the free swag that arrives, unbidden, on one’s doorstep. But Mota is ambivalent about featuring sample products in her videos. “I think it’s important to have an open mind about it, but I’m also very picky,” she says. “What I show in my videos is what I like, bottom line.”
She says that it’s a rare event when she features a product that she received for free, and in those cases she adds a text disclaimer to the video. (This is in keeping with Federal Trade Commission guidelines for disclosure, though the agency says it does not monitor bloggers for violations.)
When the adults on team Bethany — her lawyer, father, agent and friends at Aéropostale — talk up her “authenticity,” which they do constantly, they mean, at least in part, her energetic evangelism on behalf of the brands she loves. “Fans would sniff out if she were hocking product,” says her agent, Max Stubblefield. Mota’s lawyer Jon Moonves agrees: “Those girls have a pretty good B.S. meter.”
Whether or not this is a pose, it’s certainly smart positioning. Mota is such a natural marketer, goes the implication, that she doesn’t need to be paid to stump for corporate America. Her enthusiasm is utterly genuine, and therefore more valuable.
While Mota has done a few small partnerships in the past, including with Forever 21 and JC Penney, she now plans to focus on deals that she thinks have long-term potential. “I don't want to do something unless it feels organic...true to me, who I am and what my channel represents,” she says.
A Mega-Brand Takes Notice
Aéropostale reached out to Mota last year, after her videos caught the attention of its social media and client services teams. When Christine Miller, an Aéropostale executive, first spoke to Stubblefield about a collaboration, he told her that Mota wanted her own fashion line but that he knew that inking such a deal would require a gradual courtship.
First Aéro built a Mota-curated “Bethany’s Faves” section of its Web site. And in late August Bethany appeared at the Aéro store in Times Square, drawing 1,500 fans. Mota then paid a visit to Toronto. (This astonishing footage shows her fans thronging the Eaton Centre). By her third appearance, outside Chicago, the principals were drawing up plans for a licensing deal.
Mota’s first line, which all parties say Bethany worked with the company’s design team to create, arrived in stores in early December in time for Christmas. She’ll be releasing more collections for “all major seasons” this year, according to Aéro’s Miller.
“I have the freedom to pick the colors, the patterns and how I want to do it,” Mota says. “They're very open to my ideas. It's not like, ‘This is what you're going to do.’ It's more of me telling them what I want.”
Despite her youth, Stubblefield insists his client has a real knack for fashion design. “Bethany has shopped more and dissected and deconstructed clothes and shoes and handbags probably more than anyone else her age,” he says. “She’s got a little savant in her.”
Mota and Aéropostale declined to comment on the terms of their deal. While licensing arrangements vary in structure, Aviva Rosenthal, a partner at Los Angeles-based Act III Licensing said one common approach would include an advance and a guaranteed payout, with the licensee collecting 10 percent on the goods’ wholesale value or about 6 percent of retail.
Licensing, Rosenthal adds, depends on “huge knowability,” which is why few Internet sensations have scored such deals. One other exception: The Internet meme Grumpy Cat, who reportedly has movie and book deals and a beverage line in the works.
“This is starting to happen,” Rosenthal says.
The partnership does not restrict Mota’s social media activity or prevent her from endorsing other brands in her videos. “To assume that our consumer, and Bethany is a customer of ours, only shops in one place is old-school thinking,” Aéropostale CEO Thomas Johnson tells Business Insider. “We are completely comfortable with her doing what she does. It’s who she is. It feeds into her authenticity. If she was only doing a commercial for Aéropostale or Bethany Mota, her customer base would understand that quickly.”
Mota, who has not yet applied to college, plans to focus on her work for the time being. She admires the career arc of Lauren Conrad, former star of the MTV reality show “The Hills,” who has worked in fashion and created several clothing lines, including one for the retailer Kohl’s (KSS). Conrad, 27, who happens to be another client of Stubblefield’s, has also published several bestselling young-adult novels about being a young and famous reality TV star in Los Angeles, and she now has an online lifestyle portal.
As to Mota’s next step, it remains to be seen. “She’s 18,” Stubblefield says. “I think she’s still discovering what her dreams are.”
After Bethany drains her slushy, I suggest we head back to the Aéropostale to take a closer look at her collection. But when we arrive, dozens of fans are still there.
Crowd control becomes a concern as they surrounded her. “Bring out the stanchions,” the store manager says, and the mob of girls gradually forms a line extending out of the store and into the mall atrium. Curious passers-by begin to gather, wondering what all the fuss is about.
Amid the chaos, Mota is a picture of serenity. She stands beneath a banner printed with four pictures of herself and greets her public.
Alex Halperin is a freelance reporter living in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.
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