Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)
Matt Bellassai has been downing a bottle of wine a week on Facebook, but he swears he’s not even a fan of the drink.
“It’s like if you work at McDonald's you don’t want to go out and buy a burger,” Bellassai says over a bread basket and endless iced coffees at the Palihouse in West Hollywood. “My go-to drink is whiskey on the rocks now, because I feel like I'm slowly becoming an old man. At some point I convinced myself that drinking straight whiskey is the healthiest option.”
Bellassai is equal parts bubbly and self-deprecating in person, able to recognize his massive success and laugh about the absurdity of people’s attention to his unlikely fame. He’s approachable, dressed in the millennial business attire of a fashionable button-down, and on a break between meetings that swing him all over Los Angeles.
He’s only 25, mind you, but he’s made a huge impact in the social media world. If video of a man complaining about life while drinking an entire bottle of wine out of an over-sized glass has passed through your Facebook feed in the last two years, you’ve seen Bellassai work. He’s taken on everything, from annoying co-workers to the concept of mornings, all under the BuzzFeed umbrella. If you’ve wanted to rant about it, Bellassai has done it for you in shareable clips.
Now he’s taking control of his own entertainment future.
Bellassai joined BuzzFeed as part of its first fellowship program, straight out of Northwestern. It was the same time when BuzzFeed began expanding. He started out as a writer, moving on to personalized essays like his “pumpkin cleanse” and a donut tour of New York City. Then, in 2014, BuzzFeed launched the Distributed initiative, and Bellassai joined the social-first project, creating a BuzzFeedMatt Facebook page and a Tumblr called Literally Matt.
“It wasn’t well followed,” laughed Bellassai of the blog. Each day he’d go after a different topic, from Monday crushes to drink-fueled advice. It was the precursor to his breakout hit, Whine About It. He’d done some Vine videos and Instagram clips, and decided to convert his wine Wednesdays content to a short 30-second clips.
“We filmed the first episode and we had 45 minutes of footage,” he explains, so it turned into a longer clip. “It started as an experiment. Let’s try something dumb and see if that works. It was borne out of wanting to get drunk at the office, not out of wanting to be a video personality.”
The persona became so popular that Bellassai in January took home the 2016 People’s Choice Award for social media star, beating out viners like Nash Grier and Lele Pons. The win was made all the more memorable by a camera gaffe.
“If I had any delusions I made it, they evaporated,” explains Bellassai of the moment when they showed a random person on-screen instead of him upon winning. “I was in the aisle, and right before the commercial they came to say, ‘You won, act surprised, we’re going to come in on you.’ I saw them point to me, and then right as the camera came back to commercial, a seat filler walked in front of me, and the cameraman stopped on that guy. It’s not even like we looked alike.”
It’s emblematic of the mainstream’s slow acceptance of digital celebrities, who’ve risen to dominate the hearts and minds of the Generation Z set. Bellassai is one of several homegrown stars under the BuzzFeed brand, along with the Try Guys and Quinta Brunson. In April four major stars signed development deals with BuzzFeed, keeping them under contract for two more years for their creative outputs.
Bellassai thinks he's at fault for the move. In September, Bellassai broached the subject of outside projects, specifically writing a book or doing live performances and a potential TV show, an attempt to take what he did at BuzzFeed to the next level.
“I think that was a moment for them when they realized we have these people we’ve created, in a way, that we don’t know what to do with,” he says. “They offered me the deal that the others accepted, a two-year exclusive commitment.”
For Bellassai, two years tied to BuzzFeed was too long, He decided to walk away, and filmed his final Whine About It installment on Jan. 27.
“I thought, ‘Do I want to have that safety net, or take risks and have ownership over everything and start sowing the seeds for the next 30 years?’” he says. “Now in a way I lose a bit of the audience and they might not quite understand or accept this decision, but in the long term I can start investing in projects and people will end up getting more of me.”
Bellassai started his own Facebook page, has grown it to 395,000 followers in only a few months, and thinks he’ll soon eclipse the BuzzFeed-branded page at the pace he’s going. So far, he’s following the formula of drinking wine and complaining, but his hopes are to expand his brand. He’s done comedy and speaking tours, often appearing at colleges.
“People want to see me complain about stuff,” he says of the events. “Some of the questions I’ve gotten are, ‘What are you feelings on milk?’ The videos that I did at BuzzFeed made it seem like I was some improvisational wizard. I think that’s a weird part where people come up to me and just wait for me to do something.”
He’s also working on a book—not a memoir, he stresses—but a collection of essays inspired by his actual life. He’s also working on other video projects, primarily unscripted.
“I feel most comfortable being myself,” he emphasizes. “I'm not Daniel Day-Lewis.”
Bellassai says he’s not precious about where his work ends up, be it TV, film, or the Web.
“Wherever we can make the coolest and most entertaining stuff, I’m fine with whatever,” he says. “I just want to make cool stuff and make people laugh.”
Bellassai has pitched travel concepts and Daily Show-style gonzo journalism, playing to the character of the everyday guy who hates everything. He looks up to Billy Eichner’s trajectory, from Web sensation to TV star and eventually even a scripted series at Hulu.
“To me he is a good model,” says Bellassai. “You’re a personality, you can be in a scripted show, you can be in an unscripted setting. Kind of bridge the gap between write and comedian and personality.”
“When I get stopped at an airport people are always like, ‘you must be so hungover right now.’”
The road to stardom isn’t cut and dry. Bellassai doesn’t see himself like the other digital stars out there, looking for monetization for his video content. He still publishes on Facebook, which doesn’t allow creators to benefit from ads the way YouTube does with its homegrown stars. Bellassai looks at his digital output as a way to grow his audience in the long run. At some point, he figures he’ll do merchandise to help pay the bills. He doesn’t have plans to be part of VidCon—the biggest gathering of Web video stars each year in Anaheim, California—but did take part in the Tribeca Film Festival’s first digital creators event.
“I think it's more of a traditional path with a very deep understanding of coming up in digital,” he says. “I don’t think my audience is the VidCon audience. I think the VidCon audience is very young. The people who watch my videos is the 21-plus crowd who comes to a comedy club and gets drunk with me.”
Not that he’s drunk all the time, despite people always assuming.
“When I get stopped at an airport people are always like, ‘you must be so hungover right now,’” he laughs. “If they see me before noon it must be hungover, if it's after noon I must be wasted. I’m not constantly wasted, I’d be dead.”
Bellassai admits he’s taking a leap of faith, but it’s one he feels ready for.
“This is sort of the first moment in my life that I don’t have a safety net,” he says, noting that he does have one thread left: three months left on his parents’ health insurance until he turns 26. “If something flops, it’s almost, like, not your fault. Now it’s like a failure is your fault. There’s nobody else to blame it on but you.”