Girls go gaga for Vine video boys at Itasca meet and greet
As the entertainment world focuses on Sunday's Academy Awards, gaggles of screaming girls insist that the real screen stars are at MAGCON in Itasca, where teenage boys famous for their six-second Vine videos mingle with a select few of their 20 million adoring fans.
After all, more people have used their cellphones to watch 15-year-old Nash Grier's short clip of himself holding a kitten than have seen best-picture Oscar nominee "Dallas Buyers Club" in a theater. With more than 6 million Vine followers, the oh-so-cute, blue-eyed North Carolina teen is the most-followed personality on the popular social media medium dedicated to six-second video posts.
He also has 1.5 million followers on Twitter, about the same on YouTube, another 3 million followers on Instagram, 1.2 million likes on Facebook, and no doubt legions of other fans on social media platforms that those of you who aren't 14-year-old girls don't even know exist.
Similar popularity numbers belong to the other "MAGCON Family" teens -- Aaron Carpenter, Cameron Dallas, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Caniff, Jack & Jack, Matthew Espinosa, Carter Reynolds and lone female DJ Mahogany LOX.
"It's a phenomenon," says 38-year-old MAGCON founder Bart Bordelon, ducking into a back corridor of the Westin Chicago Northwest to be heard over the screams of teenage girls.
A digital tech startup entrepreneur from Louisiana, Bordelon got the MAGCON idea after chatting last fall with the son of some family friends.
Aaron Carpenter said he was going to a Dallas mall to "meet up" with a few of his followers on Instagram. When a couple hundred young teenage girls showed up, Bordelon recognized the possibilities. At the end of September, he brought Aaron and a few other similar social media favorites to the first MAGCON (meet and greet convention) in Houston. Others followed.
"The one in Dallas just exploded," Bordelon says of a bigger, better MAGCON that drew more than 1,500 ticket-buying fans in November. Same for shows in Orlando, Washington, Nashville and San Francisco.
"The Chicago show sold out in 30 seconds," Bordelon says of the 2,500 tickets sold for the Itasca two-day show that continues from 3-9 p.m. Sunday. Fans pay $25 to get into the convention or $150 for a VIP ticket and the chance to meet the boys, get autographs, pose for photographs and maybe get a hug or even a kiss on the cheek. "These are the most famous people you've never heard of," Bordelon tells adults. "They're the 'boy band phenomenon' without the band."
Most adults who watch the clips of the boys making silly faces, dumping water on a sleeping friend or goofing around in the elevator on the way to a convention don't understand their popularity.
"They say, 'They don't have a talent. Why are they famous?'" says Bordelon, who notes that being famous without a traditional talent is their talent. "They have six seconds -- six seconds -- in which to captivate millions of people. They can make you laugh. They can make you cry. They can tell a story in six seconds."
Stepping onto a hotel balcony to wave to several hundred screaming teenage girls, Aaron seems every bit a 15-year-old high school freshman as he tries to explain his fame.
"It's overwhelming," the boy says softly, explaining how he posted some photos and videos on social media "and this happened."
Acknowledging that it wasn't quite that simple, Bordelon says the cool thing about the MAGCON family is that the videos show the boys as they really are. "It's not an alter ego. It's genuine," he says.
"I know they do Vines on the Internet," says Kara Ellrich, a former Schaumburg resident, who brought her daughter Brookelyn, who turns 13 Wednesday, and her friend Meredith Wilson from their homes in Valparaiso, Ind. Now 42, Ellrich remembers being a teenage girl crazy about Bon Jovi, but admits she doesn't know that much about the MAGCON boys.
"She knows that I'm obsessed with them," says Brookelyn who wears a special fan shirt she made for the convention.
"I don't even know their names," says John Poxon, who makes the trip from Hebron, Ind., with his 14-year-old daughter, Emma. Wearing his Patrick Kane jersey, Poxon gravitates toward a TV in hopes of catching the Blackhawks hockey game, while Emma shoots video on her phone of every encounter with the boys she says are "nice," "funny" and, well, "I love them."
Paul Bellucci, 43, of Northbrook, says he asked, "What's Vine?" when his 13-year-old daughter, Maggie, started gushing about the videos. He watched a few to make sure they were appropriate and ended up getting Nash's video feed on his phone. "I wake up first thing in the morning and I'm watching a video from Nash," Bellucci says with a shrug. "It's entertaining."
"I went to the Justin Bieber concert and I think this is better," Maggie says as she records videos of the boys on the 10th floor balcony from her perch in the lobby.
Just a few years ago, Bieber was a cute kid in YouTube videos, and now his mug shot accompanies stories about the dark side of fame. Bordelon says the MAGCON boys generally are home-schooled and have concerned families looking out for them.
"I really care about these kids," Bordelon says often. He assures skeptics that he tries to bring the boys' parents to every convention, that no one has become a millionaire through MAGCON and that the money is divided so that everybody "is taken care of." He won't give financial details or even the hometowns and ages of the boys, all teens, to assure their privacy, he says.
"It's not just that there's a T-shirt with our faces on it," Bordelon says, showing off a $20 T-shirt with their faces on it. "We're a family."
Girls and parents stand in line for hours to buy MAGCON merchandise. Whether it's a MAGCON T-shirt, the $20 iPhone 5 case or a $40 hoodie, "I can't keep it in stock," Bordelon says of the online store. "We're always sold out."
"It's a wholesome event," says Bordelon, a divorced father of 5, including three daughters. "They're not taking their shirts off. There's no grinding, no twerking."
Rob Mueller and his fiancee Michelle Gastright drove six girls up from Kentucky for the convention and also attended the one in Tennessee.
"The first time, I was like that," says Mueller's daughter Morgan, 16, as she watches younger girls scream and jump at the sight of the boys. "But now watching this, I realize it's a little crazy."
Girls unsuccessfully try to get to the floor with the boys' rooms.
"You know how ridiculous it is? Girls will sleep on the elevator all night just on the chance one of the boys shows up," Bordelon says.
A few of the boys sing. Most just sign autographs, pose for photos and give hugs. It's more party than show.
"A lot of them (female fans) are hurting," says Bordelon, who says the girls find encouragement from the upbeat videos and the anti-bullying message at MAGCON. "I get letters saying, 'Thank you for creating MAGCON. I no longer cut myself' or 'I no longer have suicidal thoughts.' It makes them happy."
As to whether they'll still be a MAGCON family touring the globe when the boys are 24, whether new boys will take their place, or whether they'll be pushed aside by some younger kids with new social media toys is uncertain.
For now, these "Viners" are making the most of their 15 minutes of fame, six seconds at a time.