We are completely fascinated by the phenomenon of attractive, famous men who are famous for being attractive. They’re not curing cancer, they’re not writing great literature, they’re not putting out fires. They’re just nice to look at. And somehow, that’s reason enough for hundreds of thousands of fans to follow them. (For example, check out our insanely popular Murray-Swanby-in-underwear photo gallery over here.)
Documentary filmmaker Charlie David (who, as a former boy-bander, knows a thing or two about being a sex object) decided to grab a camera and follow some pretty boys around for a while. Why exactly do these men exist? How are they made? How do you conjure up a celebrity out of social media? How do they make a living out of it?
The result of those inquiries is a new film called Studlebrity. It looks into the weird online world ruled by an elite group of handsome men, where the primary activity is hitting a thumbs-up button on as many chiseled torsos as possible. We asked David about what it was like to make this strange cultural artifact, and he was kind enough to explain his process, occasionally with brutal honesty.
How did you come to make this documentary?
I was noticing a huge influx of attractive young guys with tens and hundreds of thousands of followers (earned or purchased) on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Many of them didn’t have an obvious skill, trade or perspective they were trying to promote or share with the world. From a superficial glance it appeared they were simply gaining a following from posting a bunch of photos or videos in various states of undress. I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out what was motivating their actions and if perhaps there was some depth behind the apparent vanity. …
Some people may not agree with or admire some of the trouble the West Hollywood guys got themselves into (Pablo Hernandez was arrested, Murray Swanby was ongoing tabloid fodder and Topher Dimaggio became an exclusive for adult video company Men.com). At the same time at least these guys were authentic and brave enough to put their lives out there for all to see. They have the attitude of, ‘you don’t like me? I don’t give a shit, moving on!’ Though I may not make the same decisions in my own life, I actually find their attitude really refreshing and less desperate than those who try and manufacture a perfectly polished image hyper aware of what others think in a constant effort to gather ‘likes’ and followers.
How do the economics work? Who is actually paying them to live like this?
I think there are a very select few Studlebrities who actually make a living through their social presence and fewer who make a very good living at it. I’ll quantify ‘very good living’ by setting the benchmark at six figures. There is generally a lot of noise online and so it takes a special type of personality who has proven a consistent audience for a corporate brand to take notice and to invest in them. How that works has a huge range of possibilities from traditional product placement in their videos or photos, ‘shout out’ endorsements, club or public appearances, Adsense on YouTube videos, monetization reward levels linked to views, non-cash support such as gear or swag, or exclusive deals which require the personality to do a certain number of posts within a time frame for a certain amount of money. Some Studlebrities, especially those involved in the digital video world, have proven themselves worthy of million dollar offers but these are absolutely the anomaly and not the norm. Most of these guys may not actually directly make any money off social media at all. It’s simply a marketing platform that they hope will translate into cash at some point.
What was the biggest challenge in following these guys around?
Overall it was really a pleasure working with all the guys though they certainly provided logistical challenges that turned out to be great moments for the show.
For example I arrived with my crew in Los Angeles to begin filming and received a phone call from Topher informing me that Pablo was in jail and likely wouldn’t be available to film that evening. As a director, first I swear, then take a breath and realize this is a gift and we need to look at this as an unexpected storyline. That’s the exciting aspect of documentary — you can plan and plan what you expect your subjects to do in any given situation but it’s always guess work and sometimes what you can’t have predicted turns out to be the best part of the show.
Mark and Ethan were challenging in a different way. They were extremely generous with their time, super excited about the show and completely available during filming. After they’d seen the locked picture they expressed their pleasure and interest in promoting the show. Then they signed with a manager and suddenly communication stopped. Leading up to the release they completely flaked which was ultimately disappointing. They contacted me the day of release saying they didn’t like the show anymore and didn’t want to be seen alongside the other characters. My guess is they got cold feet about it or new management thought it wasn’t brand friendly for them. I get that, I really do and I feel sorry they had such a turn of heart after being so excited about the show. I personally feel Mark and Ethan come across exactly how I experienced them — sweet, positive, energetic, hopelessly in love and a little naïve due to their youth. Perhaps they were scared of association with the other guys in the show but standing next to a tree won’t make you grow leaves. In this instance I chalk it up to the strangeness of this entertainment niche in the first place and the development of a new generation of talent on YouTube, Vine, etc. who suddenly find themselves in the very real place of needing management to navigate their careers.
What happens to guys like these as they get older?
That’s anyone’s guess at this point as the Studlebrity is still such a new phenomenon. I think there will be lots of people with veiled jealousy who will poisonously chirp they’ll end up in sad states of post 15-minute stardom. And that may be true in some cases. I’d like to give it a positive spin and hope that at least the guys I had the pleasure to document will traverse this new frontier gracefully and find a way to transform their social into other business endeavors and opportunities to better society. World peace perhaps? Maybe I’m going too far.
What’s the line between sexy modeling and doing porn? Do these guys feel a stigma around porn?
I think it would be unfair to say that just the guys featured in Studlebrity may have various levels of being sex positive or sex phobia. I think that’s a reflection of our society in general. Topher Dimaggio was working as an exclusive model for Men.com which is a porn company while filming the show. As a director I decided not to shy away from that because that’s real. That’s what he does. He’s not just an Andrew Christian model and WeHo pretty boy. He does porn. It’s not my place to pass judgment and really I have no judgment on it. In the show I didn’t try to frame his story as a cautionary tale because that’s not the way he views his life. He’s not embarrassed of his choice to work in adult entertainment, he celebrates it.
I’m always shocked by how negative people are toward those who work in adult entertainment. The verdict is so often quick and harsh. Instead of exploring the idea that these guys are real people with real emotions, and are simply on a less travelled road of the human experience people de-humanize them and regard them as trash. And yet I challenge you to find me a gay guy who doesn’t watch porn. In my book if you’re an active audience member you’re a participant as well. So check the judgment at the door – or maybe do some introspection on why the active sex lives of others is so upsetting.
Do audiences respect these guys? Or do they just want to look at them as objects?
It’s been awesome to have dialogue with people who have watched the show and shared their thoughts. That’s why I love my job! I always hope to inspire a conversation – even when they may be uncomfortable.
I’ve had people tweet, email or write reviews where they say things like, ‘I always preach that it’s not about looks and yet I follow all these guys so obviously I’m a hypocrite.’
That’s a powerful acknowledgement and admission. I also think there’s a direct correlation to those we follow online and how we feel about ourselves. Following a bunch of chiseled abs may be inspirational to some and leave others feeling inadequate. If a message of inadequacy is being routinely reinforced every time you are online — you should strongly consider cleaning your social platforms of anyone who makes you feel that way. Taking a few moments to consider how different profiles are affecting you as a person and electing to either keep following or free yourself can be incredibly empowering.