Somewhere in Freehold, N.J., hundreds of teen girls were screaming.
I'd just emerged from a NJ Transit bus pulled over to the side of Route 9, and the screams were rippling through the atmosphere from thousands of feet away, over the noise of traffic. It was a sign I'd come to the right place. Wherever the screams were coming from, that's where Magcon would be.
Magcon stands for "Meet and Greet Convention," a sold-out weekend-long traveling event—New Jersey, Austin, Chicago—showcasing 11 teenage boys and one accessorized girl. The boys aren't pop musicians or actors or, for the most part, possessors of the sort of talent that would have made someone a teen idol in previous years. They're social-media savants, famous and desired because they've built a successful feedback loop of fame and desire, among a mostly female online fanbase as large—and loyal—as Lady Gaga's.
On Twitter, the twelve members of "the Magcon Family," as they are billed, have more than 10 million followers among them. On Vine, the number is a staggering 25 million—taken as a collective, the Magcon teenagers have eclipsed celebrities as big as Ellen, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, and comedy rapper RiFF RaFF for dominance on social media. There are thousands of pages worth of Twitter mentions, fan Tumblrs, and YouTube tributes.
In all the frenzy surrounding their fame, the most notable thing isn't that no one has asked what exactly their heartthrobs are doing. It's that no one seems bothered if the answer is, well, nothing.
"I mean, I saw bands," one New Jersey mother told me, trying to account for her daughter's enthusiasm. "I saw Journey. I used to go the clubs in New York. Whoever came up with this"—she motioned toward the gaping electric space that contained all those girls—"is a freaking genius."
Only a week later, as inexplicably as it had begun, the whole thing would fall apart.
The Family revolved around Nash Grier—a 16-year-old from Davidson, North Carolina, who'd skyrocketed to impossible success with a Vine of himself shirtless and lampooning the Christian right. The Vine was reposted by Tiffany Shemasko, an account-holder with 300,000 followers. Grier garnered 10,000 Vine followers overnight—on his way to a current peak of 7.1 million, making him the most popular user the app has seen since its launch in January of 2013.
His Vines have blended slapstick adolescent male theatrics (goofy faces, pranking his friends, inside jokes) with impeccable charm and charisma. In six seconds, Grier is a remarkably captivating teen idol.
Magcon's beginning, though, came through Aaron Carpenter, a teen who'd become a Twitter celebrity through his humorous photo captions. Last October, Carpenter posted that he'd be at the Galleria shopping mall in Dallas, TX. He had some 200,000 followers at the time. More than 200 girls showed up.
This sparked the interest of a family friend in Louisiana, entrepreneur and single dad Bart Bordelon. While taking Carpenter's family out for lunch, he pitched the idea of duplicating this mayhem, but with a team. Carpenter was in, and soon, his connections and awareness of the teen web were being mined for other assets. Most of the teens were Southern-based, like Cameron Dallas and Nash Grier, while a few others were farther gets: Omaha, Ontario. The only requirements were exceptionally large social media followings and cuteness.
Bordelon then tracked them down for the first Magcon, a sold-out event over two days in Houston.
Matt Espinosa, another Family member, had a similar rise to Carpenter's: His first touch with fame was in a mall riot he started in Virginia after posting his location to Vine.
The remaining teenagers—Carter Reynolds, Hayes Grier, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Caniff, Jack Johnson, Jack Gilinsky, Jacob Whitesides, Cameron Dallas, and the one female Family member, Mahogany Lox—had their own various appeals: some in good looks, some in singing talent, and most in their fortunate placement in Nash Grier's orbit.
New York magazine included Grier and Dallas, Magcon's second-most-beloved star, in its list of "30 People the Internet Needs You to Know." The magazine called Dallas a "comedian," though he is as entertaining as a washcloth, and Grier a "Jesus-loving Vine star," which painted Grier in a light that he's not often fully open about. Though Grier occasionally posts about his Christianity, it's usually done with levity, as not to alienate any of his many, many fans.
Not on the list was Bordelon, the freaking genius who converted six-second online video clips into hundreds and hundreds of ticket-buying bodies in real life. "I wanted to start something that my daughters could go to," he told me at the event. "It's wholesome, you know?"
"I've had so many girls come up to me and say, 'Bart, Magcon saved my life,'" he explained, a gathering of girls standing within listening distance. "'I quit cutting, I quit having suicidal thoughts, I quit wanting to hurt myself because I look forward to Magcon.'"
The unraveling of Magcon took place, as it had to, on social media. Four days after the convention I got seven text messages in a row from my friend Joe. The first was "Magcon Twitter is insane right now," followed by a series of screencaps of tweets from both Magcon fans and the teen stars themselves. Taken together they suggested that Magcon had been ruptured permanently.
"I think Magcon is over?" Joe texted.
I logged onto Twitter to assess the damage. Carter Reynolds, one of the twelve, had tweeted "I'm gonna miss the family. Love y'all." Accompanying the tweet was a picture of the boys in a huddle.
I'm gonna miss the family. Love y'all. pic.twitter.com/DcOp3zN8bz
— Carter Reynolds (@Mr_Carterr) April 18, 2014
Girls started to tweet frantically at the boys, asking for confirmation of the rumor. The teary-eyed emoji was tossed around. "IT CAN'T BE REAL," they wrote. "WHY BABE WHY?" they pleaded.
A little after 11 p.m., the rumors were confirmed. Nash Grier's younger brother, Hayes, revealed that he, Nash, Cameron Dallas, and Carter Reynolds would no longer be participating in Magcon. (The tweet has since been deleted, for reasons unknown. One thing to get used to with the Magcon Family is that tweets, Vines, and Instagrams are all subject to removal on a whim.)
Barely an hour later, nearing midnight, seven of the top ten national trending topics on Twitter were related to Magcon. #RIPMagcon #thanksbart #cutformagcon. On Vine, tributes poured in, each made with a level of emotion associated with the death of a close friend. More than a few Twitter users wrote threats of suicide. An entire wing of the deep teen internet was falling apart.
Four days earlier, the line at the iPlay America complex wrapped around a parking lot. Most of the hundreds of girls had been waiting for hours. "What is it that the boys do, exactly?" I asked a group of eight girls tightly huddled in line.
"They're beautiful," an Elle Fanning lookalike replied wistfully, without pausing. Her friend, who gave her name as Marissa, added, authoritatively, "They sing; they dance; they are cute."
So: largely the same things they'd done online: karaoke, awkwardly executed backflips, the occasional bro hug. It was still unclear how this could possibly go on for six solid hours. It was like bringing your favorite Twitter comedians out to dinner for an all-evening barrage of one-liners.
I asked if the Magcon boys were anything like Justin Bieber. This question appeared hopelessly dated to the teenage girls. I felt like my parents asking how to unfriend an inappropriate dental hygienist from Facebook.
"They're actually our age, and we can meet them," someone said. The latter point seemed to be among the main draws for the bubbling crowd. Unlike a One Direction, Austin Mahone, or Justin Bieber concert, the Magcon NJ event was two days long and an easy $32 for general admission. (A VIP ticket, however, which guaranteed access to the Magcon Family for autographs, hugs, and selfies ad nauseam, was $150. These tickets were the first to sell out.)
Houston, Dallas, Orlando, D.C., Nashville, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, New Jersey, and Atlanta. The Family would see the whole country—and thousands of screaming fans—in under eight months.
"They're better than Justin Bieber. There's more of them, so no one has to share," another girl in a grey cardigan chimed in. All 1500 tickets had been sold and the venue would be at its maximum capacity. Someone would have to share.
Bordelon, dressed in loose khakis, brown leather boots, and a Magcon T-shirt beneath a cool-guy blazer, was tan and youthful, and his bayou drawl, especially when deployed for gravitas, was as affecting as a cool pastor's. Sometimes—like when he told me that Magcon is "clean and wholesome," and that its staff (the number of which Bordelon wouldn't disclose with me) are "selfless workers"—he sounded more like a missionary than a man getting decently rich from a handful of good-looking teenagers.
— Bart Bordelon (@BartBordelon) April 26, 2014
Unless you are a teen girl with a camera, Bordelon is a difficult man to get a hold of. One of the stranger phenomena relating to Magcon is that any person within the orbit of its stars—especially those who have cameos in their Vines and mentions on Twitter—build their own small cults of personality. Near the entrance to the hall, a cluster of girls was taking selfies with a gray-haired older in loose-fitting jeans. It was Nash Grier's dad.
Bordelon was outside the venue, taking photos and signing autographs for an impenetrable cluster of girls. It took a long while, and a fruitless conversation with an event representative, before I found him again and told him I was writing about Magcon for Gawker.
"Oh, I'm very familiar with your site," he said. "Can you give me an idea of what you're going to be writing about?"
I told him I was interested in new fame and Magcon's role in perpetuating social media stardom. He said that he hadn't quite figured out how to handle the demands of the press, of which I'm not sure there's much. Most of the media, he said, are actually fangirls in disguise. When I assured him that was far from the case, he bristled and said he'd talk later.
When he did, Bordelon told me the Magcon boys "are the most famous celebrities you've never heard of," a sales-pitchy party line for people over the age of 18. All you need these days to become a teen idol is a webcam and a nice smile; Instagram stars like JennXPenn, YouTube stars like ThatsSoJack, and Vine stars like Too Turnt Tina could also vie for the title Bordelon bestowed on his stable. (YouTube has its own version of Magcon called Digitour, but two girls I met at Magcon tell me they went and it was boring, and the cast of characters wasn't as cute.)
Inside the windowless event space, Rihanna played at top volume. Purple and red lights flashed. On stage, an unnamed hype man in a black fitted cap, cradling a microphone like an MC, yelled encouragement to the unruly crowd. The room looked fit for a blowout bat mitzvah or wedding reception: A concession stand selling soft pretzels and sodas greeted people as they entered. The enormous stage was positioned toward the back of the space and covered the length of the room. Behind it two LED screens projected the event, bookended by the sleek black-white-and-red MAGCON logo on large vinyl signs.
Plastered up against a barrier were hundreds and hundreds of girls, holding placards and singing along merrily.
The only sign of the Family was DJ Mahogany Lox, bouncing around in cat ears on a podium and trading shouts with the hype man: "Are you ready?" "Let's go!"
Then, with a curious lack of organization or announcement, 11 boys appeared. The sound was cataclysmic. From the back of the room, I could see the rows of girls push into each other, stacking into a single self-bruising teen-girl mass, waving their arms in the air frantically. The screams almost outpierced the music. Over by the sides, a few girls were in tears.
Each teenager was dressed in some variant of the Magcon uniform: tank top, sunglasses, and Vans. They linked up to each other, arms over shoulders, rapping along to "Buckwild," an awkward party song with an 8-bit beat and living-room production. They steered aimlessly across the stage wearing shit-eating grins, not so much romancing or working the crowd as testing the hypothesis that the allure of teenage boys lies in how good they are at fucking around. They made a compelling argument.
The show, if you could call it that, carried on for hours, the volume of the crowd never diminishing. The atmosphere was apocalyptic after-school party, heightened when Lox turned up LMFAO's "Shots."
I kept waiting for something to happen. A few of the boys backflipped. They announced they were now Vining live. There was a choreographed dance sequence. Banter. One boy, Jack Gilinsky, sang a song. Without windows or clocks, I had no idea how much time was passing. Not once did the group of superfans near the front of the stage lose its energy.
There were frequent breaks for the stars to go off and hang around in the wings, by requirement meeting fans with VIP tickets. When the teenagers on stage weren't in the spotlight, they looked unapologetically bored. Six hours is a lot longer than six seconds, and you can't edit out the dead air.
Along with the charismatic teenage fucking around, the Magcon Family also managed to be irritating and offensive in a particularly teenage way. The Vine videos have leaned heavily on cartoonish mimicry of black popular culture and vernacular. Grier often features his little sister Skylynn in his Vines, the most popular of which shows the toddler exclaiming, "TURN UP!" while Grier dances behind her. "Ratchet" is deployed frequently. The boys are often seen twerking or grinding to 2 Chainz. All 11 boys are white, and the crowd at the event was also heavily made of up middle-class suburban white girls.
When not making use of black popular culture the boys can be found mocking women, and their understanding of how women act: A Vine of Grier starts "Girls be like—" after which he smashes his face into a sheet cake over and over, ending with "—no makeup!" (It's been revined 250,000 times.) Another Cameron Dallas Vine has him donning a girlish lilt: "Selfie!" He frowns. "Ew, you can see my age-defying marks!" It's gotten 200,000 revines in under three weeks.
Grier and his friends Cameron Dallas and JC Caylen came under fire briefly last winter for making a YouTube video entitled "What Guys Look For In Girls." In nine minutes, the three boys, who had the ear of over 15 million teens at that point, ticked off a list of things that were, in their estimation, unattractive to guys, including among them body hair, an "obnoxious and loud" demeanor, and being easy. The video was taken down only five days after its posting, when it drew heavy criticism from other well-known video personalities. Hank Green of the popular YouTube show Vlogbrothers said the video wasn't "just offensive, it's actually abusive."
Bordelon told me that in his estimation, there was nothing dangerous about putting this much social capital in the hands of people who can't legally drive or vote. In any event, Grier tripled his number of YouTube followers in the month after the video was posted.
Standing outside of the event hall's entrance I spotted three or four security guards, standing watch over two teen girls from Brooklyn. The girls, who asked me to not give their names, were supposed to interview Bordelon on the previous day, but were held in a ten-by-ten foot "press pen" for seven straight hours and then escorted out, having seen neither the show inside or granted access to the boys or Bordelon.
When I asked what brought them back, they dejectedly shrugged. "We're supposed to write about it."
"Can't you write about what happened yesterday?" I asked.
"We write for a positive website," one of them said. "Our parents won't let us say anything bad." The website, a medium-sized teen-centered blog, was expecting full coverage.
Bordelon, with a sort of prophetic grandeur, had sketched out his vision of Magcon's future for me: a European tour, a stint out West, even some weekends in Australia and Asia. Many of the boys have acting and singing careers in their futures, he said. Between Nash Grier's blue eyes and Cameron Dallas' white teeth, their potential for stardom was strong. Listening to the screams, it was hard not to think the Magcon juggernaut was unstoppable.
Since the departure announcement, Bart Bordelon has remained mysteriously silent. Many of the boys shared their regrets and their apologies, promising that they're still a family, whatever that means. There's suspicion (all but confirmed by the favorites handed out on Twitter by Grier and Dallas) that the boys and Bordelon fell out. A search of the hashtag #ThanksBart turns up thousands of teen girls blaming everything and anything on the entrepreneur, the same man they'd apparently thanked graciously only weeks before for "saving their lives."
According to Taylor Caniff, one of the remaining Magcon Family members, Magcon even has a new owner.
There is a new owner of Magcon as well.. He's a boss so stop with the #ThanksBart
— Taylor Caniff (@taylorcaniff) April 26, 2014
Bordelon, enthusiasm faded but tan intact, posted a video days later, diverting attention to the upcoming Magcon in Atlanta, with what remained of the group. "We'll always love them," he says of the departed members. "They're always going to be a part of the original Magcon family."
Grier, addressing the controversy, wrote one of his most pointed, self-aware tweets to date. "It's our focus to appeal to you guys as much as possible," he wrote. "After all, you're the reason we are here."
Then, last week, Grier and Dallas were on Good Morning America to announce that they'd be making a movie together. Based on Vine.
New job pic.twitter.com/3oLevyYxgO
— Cameron Dallas (@camerondallas) April 30, 2014
The movie announcement wasn't a surprise, but the teens' invitation to be on Good Morning America was. Grier was noticeably twitchy and uncomfortable, fumbling through his responses and appearing standoffish and rude. Dallas more than a few times had to step in and smooth over his jabbering. The conversation proved, without much question, that neither boy was ready for a spotlight this luminous and large. Magcon and Vine had shielded them.
When Magcon began in November of 2013, it was a trial in whether social-media success can translate to in-person triumph. Portrayed and marketed as concerts or nights of entertainment, the weekend frolics largely existed as lengthy free-for-alls—teen girls screaming for a group of boys trying to extend their charisma past the six-second intervals and screen-mediated visuals of Vine.
The question now, following the events of Black Thursday: Can it continue without its most charismatic members? A group of girls I spoke to in New Jersey told me they expected Magcon to go on indefinitely, like Menudo: "The boys will go to college, but they'll bring in new boys and we'll follow them instead." Sweetly, none of the girls acknowledged that they, too, would move on in a similar way.
Inside the hall in New Jersey, with the original Magcon Family still intact, Shawn Mendes took the stage with an acoustic guitar, to perform syrupy slick covers of Lana del Rey's "Summertime Sadness" and Ed Sheeran's "Sing." He claimed to have not worked out the latter yet, and asked the audience to bear with him.
It was the first real sign of traditional performance all day. The audience quieted and held their phones aloft to capture Vine-limited six seconds snippets of Mendes's performance, squealing and cheering when the teenager's voice broke, or in moments of supposed vulnerability. I was standing with two moms who'd brought their 11-year-old and 12-year-old daughters to the event at their request, and it was the first time I'd seen the older generation in the room register any kind of interest.
"He's talented," one whispered to me. Her daughter showed up a second later, asking for money. The audience members turned to each other, whispering anxiously. The crazed energy of the room during the karaoke-level group performances had dissipated only two songs into the acoustic performance.
At the end of the short five-song set, Mahogany Lox turned on the upbeat thump of a popular song I'd never heard. The audience visibly turned away from their phones and toward the show again, ready to exult in more boyish romping and onstage Vining.
An announcement came down: Magcon would be taking a fifteen minute break. The boys needed some time to relax. They'd been working very hard.
[Photos by Dayna Evans]