In HERO 16, social media superstar turned social media magnate Cameron Dallas talked us through what it takes to convert teenaged-goofy lol clips into some serious business. Here, we share the interview and shoot by Fabien Kruszelnicki and Zoe Costello.
Don’t underestimate the power of lust. Like an obsessive high school crush, millions of teenagers follow Cameron Dallas’ every move on social media. The virtual boy next door churns out videos and images quicker than you can drag to refresh, offering a kind of access and intimacy that just didn’t exist for his distant ancestors: the teen movie star pinup, or the 00s boy band. Representing a generational shift in the way fans communicate with their idols, and what those idols actually do in the first place (if you don’t think lol-skits don’t have as much cultural currency as a heart-throb hit single, you’ve been living under a rock), Dallas personifies a new kind of famous. Mix that with an entrepreneurial spirit, you get fireworks.
James West: So take us back to the very start, your first post. You just did it for fun?
Cameron Dallas: My very first post was on Instagram, I actually downloaded the app in class. I was a senior in high school and a lot of teenagers were studying at home, and I was on my phone a lot. So I ended up going on Instagram, I spent some time on it and learned what it was, and what you could do. I think for me what I saw was an opportunity to create my own brand.
James: A brand from the very first post?
Cameron: Yeah, so I started posting and branding myself as a model. And then it elevated throughout the year… it went from selfies, to self-timers on my phone, to begging my sister to use the self-timer on her laptop, and putting it on my mom’s ironing board, and picking out my out outfits and editing them and posting them. Then onto hitting up photographers at my high school. I’m very analytical so when I started to get successful on Instagram I looked to branch out on to other platforms like Twitter and YouTube. Then Vine came out and it was gonna blow up, so I decided to post content on there.
James: So you wanted to brand yourself as a model. Did you see social media as a kind of publicity tool to start with? Or did you imagine that you would become so well known for actually creating your own content for social media as its own thing?
Cameron: Oh, I didn’t think I would be as big as I am now, keep in mind that I’m managing myself and doing everything myself… I would do brand deals – I would go to the US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, and I would go to all the little start-up stalls and I would hustle. I would pitch myself like, “Yo, I have all these followers on Instagram.” And they’d be like, “Oh yeah, have some free stuff, post for us.” And I’d be like, “Nah, nah, I wanna get paid.”
Cameron: I don’t want your beanies. You know? And I started doing posts like that, and it kinda just elevated from there.
Fabien Kruszelnicki: When did you first realise that it was becoming big? When did it first hit you?
Cameron: To this day I’m still constantly getting surprised. Like, “Oh crap, oh crap.” And then there was my very first business meeting in New York… I’m surprised my mom let me go. I went on my own, I was eighteen by that time, out of high school. It was with Judy McGrath, so she was responsible for kinda making MTV, she was the CEO of Viacom. But she went off and started this thing called Astronauts Wanted [a company whose mission is to “create socially-driven programming in collaboration with top social media stars”] and she brought me over and I was educating them on the whole [social media] space – who was big, who wasn’t, what works, what doesn’t, but I didn’t continue with that. I think I did a little video with them. While I was there I had my first meet-up and about a thousand girls showed up. I told them [the fans] that I’d meet them, and I showed up late at like eight o’clock, it was at the Time Warner Mall [at Columbus Circle]. And I walked through the front and they were all looking the other way, and then they all turned and saw me, they started running towards me, and I got scared, and there was this really big guy and he told me to come with him, he had an undercover cop badge, we started running round the whole city, like going down into the Subway.
Cameron: And coming out, like trying to dodge them and stuff. We were passing by these hotels and one of the security people saw me running, then they see this guy running behind me who’s an undercover cop, and a bunch of girls screaming… so they’re confused and they grab me and throw me against the wall. I’m like, “What are you doing bro!?” Apparently the President was in town.
James: [laughs] Oh shit, not a good time to be running around.
Cameron: Yeah they didn’t know what the frick was going on but they let me go and I got home and that’s when I was like, “Wow, this could be something.” And if I ever have a meet-up now it has to be organised and I have to have security.
“It went from selfies, to self-timers on my phone, to begging my sister to use the self-timer on her laptop, and putting it on my mom’s ironing board, and picking out my out outfits and editing them and posting them.”
James: With Vines, which are kind of spontaneous, was there a point when you were like, “Right, I need to have a strategy here. I need to do this amount of stuff in a week, these kind of things are doing well.” When did you start thinking about it like a business?
Cameron: Right from the beginning. I went through different phrases, like public pranks were fun. Then I started getting into like skits and they were doing well. I just keep it fresh, you know? I like to change it up for my fans and I like to give them random stuff.
James: With the different platforms, how do you harness the power of that six-seconds for Vine, and then also work out long-format stuff?
Cameron: I spent a lot of time on YouTube and I noted my own attention span [laughs].
James: Which is how long?
Cameron: Um… really short. Actually Vine was made because people have such a short attention span.
James: It’s kind of dropped off the radar a bit now.
Cameron: I mean it’s just another social media app, it’s another outlet, kind of like MySpace.
James: Do you think Snapchat’s the way to go now?
Cameron: Snapchat’s a big one. They’re doing really well for themselves. And right now the biggest app for the youngest generation is musical.ly.
James: So you have to draw out a whole plan of what to make for each new app, do you have a spreadsheet or something?
Cameron: [laughs] I don’t have a spreadsheet, I need to get better at that. I’m so bad at organising. It’s all in my noggin. I just got an assistant to help with everyday things because I think about all that stuff and I forget like…
James: …Like, “I need to wash.”
Cameron: Or like, “Oh I have to call my mom!” No I’m actually pretty good at that, my mom would kill me if I didn’t.
James: And now you’re working on a new unscripted series for Netflix? How do you put together something that’s loosely scripted, but not?
Cameron: It’s nuts, it’s just like real life. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, a lot of stress and a lot of things that people don’t really get to see. Especially for me, with the new generation – how social media has impacted them and what the future is gonna look like. You get to see how these kids are perceiving the whole thing, and how their parents are perceiving it.
James: I guess there’s a massive information gap – some parents still talk about ‘going on the computer’ you know? Each generation moves on in massive leaps and bounds digitally. Like I’m asking you about strategy and you’re like, “No, I just do it.”
Cameron: It’s crazy, there’re kids that end up making more money than their parents by doing these things – it’s cool to see how they manage themselves and set up business accounts. You go on Instagram now, and they’re like, “Oh business email blah blah.” That’s cool.
Fabien: So where do you think it’s going to take you now? Do you want to get into more of the behind-the-scenes stuff, or do you still want to be the face of it? Do you want to produce other social media stars, do you wanna be in more movies?
Cameron: I like to change things up and do a little bit of everything. So I see myself behind the scenes, yeah – I actually have a company called MAGCON which stands for ‘Meet and Greet Convention’. It takes artists, like musicians and like social media kids, and we go and we tour around. But my vision for that is not really specifically the tour, I’m more set on creating it as a brand, kind of like a Disney. I’m trying to work it out – I imagine it being more like a record studio or something like that which manages different people.
James: So are you on the lookout for other social media stars to become part of MAGCON?
Cameron: Oh I’m constantly looking at other people and helping them, I have a lot of friends in this space as you can imagine.
James: Do you think younger kids in the social media business are looking up to you as the way to go?
Cameron: I think I’d be a fool to say no, I’ve definitely had some of the kids come on MAGCON and I give them a lot of advice.
The biggest thing for me is to help them understand – because they are so young – that they have to be on top of it all the time. Some of these kids will drop out of school and stuff like that and they start doing this full-time but they end up just chilling at home relaxing instead. But you have to make content, right?
James: Do you think they need to keep their personal life and their vision for their brands separate, because its quite an intimate thing isn’t it, social media?
Cameron: Well it depends, it depends on the person’s brand. Like me specifically, I think mine’s a mixture of both, I’m very personal with my fans, they know a lot of stuff, I let them in on a lot.
“It’s a really positive thing – let’s say I broadcast right now and I’m talking about my anxiety to 100,000 people and they’re like, “Oh wow, maybe I’m not crazy because there’s a bunch of other people like me.””
James: Do you feel like you need to keep a certain amount of your life off limits to keep you sane?
Cameron: There are certain things that I don’t talk about, like family problems and stuff. I would say that the new generation is really good at opening up to their fans – they’ve been open their whole life. There are people that get big off broadcasting, right, it’s kind of like a radio show except you can see them, they sit there and talk.
James: Maybe it’s good that people can share a lot more, to communicate in that way and encourage kids to be more open about how they’re feeling.
Cameron: It’s a really positive thing – let’s say I broadcast right now and I’m talking about my anxiety to 100,000 people and they’re like, “Oh wow, maybe I’m not crazy because there’s a bunch of other people like me.”
James: Do you still manage to connect with fans one-on-one now you have so many followers?
Cameron: Of course of course, I try to answer fans every day, comment back, message them, direct message them, and then MAGCON is really cool too because I actually get to meet them in person and talk to them. I’ve met some really big fan accounts, it’s so humbling, the fact that people will support you that much.
James: Yeah, it’s interesting. Did I see a video once where you were randomly calling girls up?
Cameron: [laughs] Huh?
James: And then you were like saying goodnight? I remember there was a video.
Cameron: Oh yeah.
James: I thought that was kinda cute, it’s nice that you still spend time doing that.
Cameron: [laughs] Yeah that’s very important, the relationship with your fans is probably the most important.
Fabien: Do you get anxious about having to live up to their expectations?
Cameron: Well, the thing is that it’s me, right? I’m me on social media I share myself – so I’m just the same when we meet.
James: Do you ever feel like you want a day off?
Cameron: Oh, I take days off all the time. Well, not all the time, but yesterday I had a meeting and then I literally did nothing. I’m trying to get better at that – I just went to Hawaii on vacation, didn’t use my phone all five days – but before that for a year-and-a-half I didn’t take any breaks. It was just constant every day until the stress built up. I was like, “Alright, I can’t do this anymore.”
James: And does that help you come back fresh with new ideas?
Cameron: Of course, I love that yeah. And actually I just started helping this kid Blake Gray to lm his skits, him and Joey [Birlem] and a lot of other kids on the MAGCON, helping them come up with ideas. Just simply guiding them through this space.
James: Do you keep notes of all the ideas you have?
Cameron: Yeah I keep a list – maybe I’m a little bit more organised in that sense.
James: Do you ever see in the future wanting to take it out of social media, into TV and write comedy or skits there, or are you not interested?
Cameron: I did two movies and… it just reminded me of homework where you have to go home and study. I didn’t do well with homework at all growing up. I’m really interested in music so I’m looking into doing that. To be honest I wanna stick with social media because that’s the new thing.
James: I guess it works in its own space. Some social media stars go on to get a TV show or whatever, and by that point it’s just different because you’ve grown in that sphere, you have that two-way conversation with fans. Sometimes as soon as you take it out to traditional media again it loses something.
Cameron: I agree. You just have to be smart with how you cross-over. Some people are, some people aren’t.
James: So many people see social media as a launchpad out somewhere, which is good, but then forget how they got where they are.
Cameron: Yeah, people get caught up in that. I deal with kids who think to themselves, “Alright I’ve got 200,000 followers,” or, “I have a million followers now, my dream was to act now I’m gonna pursue acting and get away from social media.” They look back at it and hate on it, you know? They lose sight of what is the new thing and how they got big, they try to cross over way too soon. I’ve seen it done before, and it’s bad – it’s bad news.
James: You mentioned music, you want to get into actually playing it? What kind of stuff?
Cameron: Yeah, rap.
James: How long have you been doing that for?
Cameron: Not long at all, but I like that, I like to learn how to do new things. Like fashion, I just got into fashion and I like learning about brands and stylists… photographers, just the whole realm. And I love music, I legit love music. So it’ll be fun.
James: Have you met many of your music icons?
Cameron: I think Drake’s dope, I haven’t met him. That would be dope, I’m sure he’s a cool person.