Is Jake Paul a Social Media Genius or a Jerk?

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Is Jake Paul a Social Media Genius or a Jerk?

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LOS ANGELES — With grave concern, a television reporter for KTLA described the mayhem in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Beverly Grove in July: The residents of a graffiti-marred, $17,000-a-month white contemporary house, led by a 20-year-old “social media megastar” named Jake Paul, had turned this “tightknit community” into a “war zone.”

“A recent stunt involved tossing furniture into an empty pool and setting the pile on fire,” the reporter informed viewers. “Neighbors said flames eventually grew higher than the house.”

With the news crew still mingling outside, Mr. Paul bounded out of the house, his peroxide-blond hair flopping, trailed by a squadron of artfully coifed teen-heartthrob types. They mocked the reporter’s fusty brown oxfords, and whooped as their leader clambered onto the roof of the KTLA van (“Jake, I wouldn’t do that,” the reporter warned), where he stood triumphant — symbolically, at least — over the old-media landscape.

Facing a scene that looked like a boy-band version of “A Clockwork Orange,” the reporter grilled Mr. Paul: “They say that you have created a living hell out here, that you’ve created a circus.”

Mr. Paul responded with a smirk: “But people like going to circuses, right?”

The stunt made global headlines and turned the YouTube prankster into a social media villain. A “moronic menace to society,” Canada’s National Post called him; an “absolute terror,” according Mashable, “the worst person on earth,” in the words of Deadspin. But to Mr. Paul and his devotees, who track his pranks religiously and call themselves “Jake Paulers,” the incident was something much greater.

“It was gold,” he said.

He has 10.5 million subscribers on YouTube, and seemingly five million haters. This high school dropout from Ohio has already outlasted Vine, the short-form video platform that gave him his first taste of fame; survived an ill-fated turn as a Disney star; cut a rap anthem (“It’s Everyday Bro”) that became, simultaneously, one of the most viral and reviled songs on the internet; and established himself in the eyes of grown-up America as an embodiment of everything that is wonderful and horrible about Generation Z.

And all that, basically, has been a warm-up act. Even as controversies stack up and the #jakepaulisoverparty hashtag circulates, Mr. Paul is leveraging a Johnny Knoxville taste for outrage with mogul-size ambition to build an empire out of that sprawling Beverly Grove house, serving as a Svengali and star maker to the YouTube stars of tomorrow. Think of it as a factory of social-media talent, a scrubbed, web version of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records for pre-tweens.

A genius or a jerk? A punk or a prophet? In a media landscape where clicks are money, does it even matter?

“I know it’s a cliché,” Mr. Paul said in a rare interview at his home two weeks ago. “But, like, literally, I want to create an empire of dozens of talent under me, to take my power and multiply it so that I become bigger than myself.”

“My personal goal,” he said, “is to be a billionaire.”

From Disney to YouTube Rapper

Mr. Paul, who is arguably the most polarizing personality on YouTube, remembers the moment back in Westlake, Ohio, when he told his parents, Greg Paul, a real estate agent, and Pam Stepnick, a nurse, that he planned to skip his senior year of high school and move to Los Angeles with his brother, Logan, to pursue fame.

It was not as crazy as it sounds. He and Logan, who is two years older, had already established themselves as breakout stars of Vine, that Ritalin-addled showcase of six-second comedy snippets that, for a moment, seemed like it might swallow teen culture.

“There was real-life opportunity to make a career for ourselves, for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We were working with brands and advertisers. I was, like, 17 years old, making more money than my parents.”

For the Paul brothers, Hollywood proved to be anything but a boulevard of broken dreams. Leveraging their millions of social media followers, along with their well-honed skills for rubber-faced comedy and ambulance-worthy stunts, each started a YouTube vlog that became explosively popular. Web fame soon led to mainstream work on television: Jake earned a regular role on the Disney Channel sitcom “Bizaardvark,” playing — what else — a goofy young social media star.

But while Logan set his sights on becoming “the biggest entertainer in the world,” as he put it to Business Insider, his younger brother sought a career beyond the camera’s glare. He wanted to become the Dr. Dre of social media.

“I saw what he did,” Mr. Paul said of that N.W.A. rapper turned mogul, “how he was a celebrity himself, and then he took that, brought people under his wing, taught them how to make music, and then put those people in front of his audience. Out comes Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Tupac. And then he used that network to launch different companies and go into merchandising, obviously his big one being Beats by Dre.”

Jake Paul was suddenly Jake Paul, Inc., the head of Teen Entertainment and Media Kingdom, or Teendom, a company he started this past January centered on a talent label called Team 10. The team, which never actually had 10 members (but who’s counting?) was made up of an ever-evolving crew of teen idol types under contract to Mr. Paul, who sought to turn them into web stars.

Not yet old enough to legally drink alcohol, Mr. Paul was now a mix of talent manager, executive producer, life coach and motivational guru to a constellation of rising YouTube vlog stars, several of which had more than two million subscribers. He also acted as a resident adviser, given that a half-dozen of them bunked full-time at the social media “incubator” that was the Team 10 house.

Before long, the venture was drawing interest from more than just angry neighbors. Heavyweight investors like Ron Burkle and Gary Vaynerchuk jumped aboard. In Dr. Dre fashion, Mr. Paul debuted a merchandise line, Fanjoy.co, hawking a collection of skater-ish sweatshirts and T-shirts to the swelling army of “Jake Paulers.”

Even so, the tent pole property of Team 10 was, and remains, Mr. Paul’s daily vlog, a seven-day-a-week, web-based reality show consisting of “Jackass”-style stunts, “Punk’D”-style pranks and “Real World”-style domestic drama involving life around the Team 10 house.

Not that those Generation X references would mean much to Mr. Paul’s target audience, who were born in the George W. Bush or Barack Obama years. And the brand stakes its existence on keeping these attention-challenged adolescents coming back for more.

Because it really is every day, bro — to cite Mr. Paul’s mantra. It has been for more than 335 straight days and counting.

That is why Mr. Paul decided one day in May, on a whim, to transform himself into a rapper. “I woke up, and I was like, ‘What if I make a song today, and make a music video for it, all in one day’” he said.

As Mr. Paul tells the story, he spent a few hours tracking down a producer and booking a studio, maybe 30 minutes scribbling out some rhymes for himself and his crew, and another few hours to record the track. That afternoon, Mr. Paul secured a glassy hilltop mansion in Coldwater Canyon as a location to shoot the video (it seemed like the perfect parody location of a cliché hip-hop video, he said) and rustled up a white Lamborghini as a prop.

“To me, the whole thing was a joke,” he said. “I was like, I’m going to morph into a rapper and just go for it, 100 percent.”

Flexing like a “Friday Night Lights” extra and grabbing his crotch like LL Cool J circa 1987, Mr. Paul threw himself into the role, rapping: “It’s everyday, bro, with the Disney Channel flow, 5 mil on YouTube in six months, never done before.”

One of Mr. Paul’s rap videos.

Video by Jake Paul

No one was going to confuse it for Kendrick Lamar. But the pre-tweens of the Jake Paul Army scarcely cared.

Released on May 30, “It’s Everyday Bro” shot to No. 2 on iTunes. Three months later, the video has been viewed more than 115 million times on YouTube. At a recent live performance, Mr. Paul rapped the first line, then held the microphone toward the audience. The crowd of 12,000 finished the song a cappella. “They knew every word,” Mr. Paul said in astonishment, “even the Martinez’s twins’ lines in Spanish.”

One Day With Team 10

By 9 a.m. on a sweltering Tuesday in late August, a cluster of teenage girls was already padding around the leafy sidewalk outside the angular white stucco house near Hollywood’s Fairfax district where Team 10 is based, waiting for a chance to squeal “Jake!” or “Erika!” or “Kade!”

Strolling around the house that morning, it was not hard to find evidence of the youthpocalypse portrayed in media reports. In the backyard, next to a giant trampoline, an overturned office chair teetered at the edge of the “bonfire” pool, now filled with water, but with a flat-screen television lying facedown on the bottom.

A spirit of anarchy, however, was noticeably absent. Inside the cavernous and scarcely furnished main floor, the house felt more like the office of a Silicon Valley start-up than a modern, teenager-filled “Animal House.” Handwritten notes exhorted housemates to tend to their trash. A mini-basketball hoop hung on one wall. A pink tie-dyed banner emblazoned with the Team 10 logo blanketed another.

At an hour when some corporate Angelenos were still idling on the 405 freeway, Team 10 was hard at work. Justin Roberts, known as “the Freshman,” quietly labored behind a computer monitor. At 15, the home-schooled student still lives with his parents. That does not mean he is denied the Team 10 halo effect. The rap star Drake recently dropped in on his birthday party at the nightclub Tao.

The team matriarch, Erika Costell, a 24-year-old model from Michigan, mingled nearby in workout gear. Half of the Team 10 power couple “Jerika,” she has three million YouTube subscribers and got a big boost from her “wedding” video with Mr. Paul, “We Actually Got Married…” in June, which has attracted 21 million views, even though they actually did not get married. (“We’re not even actually dating,” Mr. Paul explained later that day. “It’s like the WWE. People know that’s fake, and it’s one of the biggest things of entertainment”).

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Sitting quietly on the blond-wood staircase was Mr. Paul, stroking his Belgian Malinois puppy, Apollo, who has 1.4 million Instagram followers. In conversation, Mr. Paul seemed 180 degrees from the fist-pumping, high-fiving uber-bro known to millions.

Off camera, I’m, like, chill and very laid-back,” Mr. Paul said, speaking in the polite, deferential tones of a student talking to a guidance counselor. “I don’t know if the word is ‘shy,’ but ‘reserved.’ I’m always thinking.”

The daily vlog is “an extreme version” of reality television, he said, and the Jake Paul who is the current scourge of greater Los Angeles is merely a character. “Literally, by saying the word ‘bro’ I do try to come off like a high school kid having fun,” he said. “What would a junior in high school say? What would their slang be? They use the word ‘savage,’ they use the word ‘lit.’ That isn’t my personal vocabulary. But it comes out on camera.”

The morning calm doesn’t last long. The YouTube channels demand fresh content, and by 10 a.m. the team and its dewy-cheeked cameramen piled into a convoy of sport utility vehicles and headed off to the gym.

“Dude, I’m still picking glass out of my cheeks,” said Chad Tepper, the unofficial masochist of Team 10, gingerly stroking his face as he rode in the back seat of Mr. Paul’s tricked-out Tesla X. Holding out his phone, Mr. Tepper showed off footage from the previous day, a stunt filmed by an ultra-slow-motion Phantom camera showing a fluorescent light tube crashing down over his shoulder, enveloping his head — very, very slowly — in a cloud of glass shards and noxious white dust.

Such stunts might look like spontaneous iPhone goofs, but it often takes eight hours of shooting to create enough material for a 10-minute video. At that day’s morning workout, for instance, an hour of sweat yielded 26 seconds of usable footage. Next, the team headed to a Ralphs supermarket on Sunset Boulevard, where they roamed the aisles brainstorming other stunts.

“Yo, what about just pouring milk into cereal?” Mr. Paul asked the group, his eyes partly hidden by his trademark “yellers,” or yellow aviator sunglasses.

Too dull.

“We need to do something where we light something on fire,” one team member said.

An hour later, the crew assembled at a parking lot and giddily began emptying their grocery bags. As the Phantom camera rolled, team members swatted a cup of Jell-O with a tennis racket, blasted Mr. Tepper in the face with mini-marshmallows fired from a T-shirt gun and dropped an egg onto the blades of a drone hovering at shoulder level, splattering several members of the team with an al dente aeronautic omelet as they doubled over in laughter.

Some stunts by Mr. Paul and his crew.

Video by Jake Paul

For the pièce de résistance, Mr. Paul attempted a fire-breathing stunt involving dish soap, butane and cornstarch. Over Mr. Tepper’s firm warnings (“Dude, I’m serious”), a cameraman ignited a puff of flammable foam in Mr. Paul’s palm. The Team 10 leader then blew a pillow-size fire ball into the warm Hollywood air, then turned to the camera triumphantly, squawking, “I’m a dragon!” as he flapped his arms melodramatically, cornstarch cascading from his mouth.

“A lot of people get this awesome feeling when they go to a club, or they’re out with their friends every night having fun,” he said later. “But the feeling for me is freedom. Like, I can literally do whatever I want, whenever I want.”

That has proved a blessing and a curse.

His overnight transformation into a rap star, for example, was a breakthrough moment, but it also made him, to some, hater bait of Vanilla Ice proportions.

It wasn’t just Justin Bieber, who concluded “this guy’s a chump,” when asked to review the video on the web series “Celebrities Reacts.” “Everyday Bro” ranked high on YouTube’s list of most-disliked videos (it’s currently No. 7; Mr. Bieber’s “Baby” is No. 1), and the backlash dragged Mr. Paul into a series of highly publicized skirmishes with both intimates and rival YouTube stars.

Most prominent was the slugfest with his brother, Logan. The siblings traded menacing YouTube “diss tracks” over the song that were viewed hundreds of millions of times, each one solemnly dissected by teen magazines and gossip sites, as if they were nuclear threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

[Video: FULL SONG: The Fall Of Jake Paul (Official Video) FEAT. Why Don’t We Watch on YouTube.]

FULL SONG: The Fall Of Jake Paul (Official Video) FEAT. Why Don’t We

Video by Logan Paul Vlogs

At the same time, Mr. Paul was engaged in a high-traffic war of words with Alissa Violet, a former girlfriend and Team 10 protégée, which was quickly turning into a YouTube version of “All My Children,” with allegations of cheating, emotional abuse and betrayal.

By July, with the neighborhood battle raging, Disney had apparently decided that Mr. Paul had become too hot to handle and announced that it had “mutually agreed” to part ways with its star.

To Mr. Paul, the point was becoming clear: As a budding captain of industry, he might have to learn to steer the Team 10 ship through the ice fields without ramming every last iceberg.

“All I can do is control myself,” he said.

Following the fire-breathing stunt, Mr. Paul’s grueling day was far from done. Around 8 p.m. he gathered the crew around the kitchen table for the weekly Team 10 meeting.

“First of all, we hit 80 million,” Mr. Paul announced, gesturing toward a flat-screen television glowing orange with a graphic that read “80,095,981, Team 10’s current subscriber base. “And we’re also doubling the Kardashians in monthly growth.” Team members, many wearing Team 10 hoodies and T-shirts, erupted in applause.

“I really think in the next six months, we can triple that, if not quadruple that,” he said. “It’s about coming together and pushing your boundaries every single day.”

Afterward, Mr. Paul retreated to the only quiet place he could find — his Tesla, charging in the garage — to discuss his tumultuous summer. He seemed contrite. As was obvious to any Jake Pauler, he was making a big effort of late to to atone for his perceived sins, to stress the positives of the Team 10 mission.

He had uploaded an apology confessional in which he talked about the difficulties of coming of age in the public eye with few mentors, a mea culpa rap song (“Pressure hard, they all watchin now, make a mistake, world on me now”), and a hug-and-make-up rap duet with Logan, “I Love You Bro,” which has received 61 million views.

(“Jake Paul apology raps are my new favorite genre of music,” Seth Rogen said on Twitter.)

[Video: Jake Paul – I Love You Bro (Song) feat. Logan Paul (Official Music Video) Watch on YouTube.]

Jake Paul – I Love You Bro (Song) feat. Logan Paul (Official Music Video)

Video by Jake Paul

A week later, he would lead Team 10 off to hurricane-ravaged Houston, where they bought Sea-Doo water scooters and filmed themselves patrolling the flooded streets to rescue stranded storm victims and animals. Team 10 fund-raisers brought in about $150,000, he said.

To appease neighbors, he has toned down the noise and high jinks and, under a threat of arrest, has agreed not to shoot at the house without a permit. He was even promising to move, going on an aggressive house hunt for secluded quarters on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

“The people who are really close to me would walk in here and tell you that I’m a great person and that I’ve done nothing but good for them in their lives,” Mr. Paul said. “But I can’t be like, ‘Hey, I’m a good person,’ because no one cares. Anyone can say they’re a good person.”

Then again, what is hate, really, but just more content?

Later that evening, Mr. Paul headed back to the studio to answer his critics in the best way he knows how, a new rap video. Channeling Eminem in “8 Mile,” he cut a feisty track in which he owned up to seemingly every last insult the haters had hurled at him.

“Fake wife, fake life, no talent at all,” he rapped. “Let me tell y’all about all of his flaws.”

“Sometimes I wanna quit it all, sometimes I wish I wasn’t involved, sometimes I wish I could hate Jake Paul.”

It is safe to assume that impulse passed.

As of this week, the video had attracted almost 25 million views.

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