“Apparently in his past he was caught up in an incident where he might have stabbed or been around a stabbing with one of his friends, or something like that,” Grier told the Daily Dot in a recent phone interview. We’re supposed to be discussing his first film, The Outfield, but we’ve clearly hit a nerve. “He moved on to be one of the best neurosurgeons in the world. People just hang on to that, and he’s probably not going to be president just because of that story.”
Never mind the details about Carson’s past. Grier knows exactly what it’s like to have your persona haunt you for all of the wrong reasons. The difference between the two is that the mistakes of Carson’s youth weren’t recorded on any smartphone, while Grier’s been streaming in high-definition since high school. He’s grown up in the spotlight, for better or—more often—worse. Even as he hits new milestones, he’s still striving to reinvent his public image.
Grier, now 17, began his ascent to digital superstardom as a freshman, attending a private school in Davidson, North Carolina. He played lacrosse and was hoping to secure admission to a “small Ivy League” school and then pursue medical school. “I was working my ass off, didn’t talk to anyone except for my family,” he recalled. It was 2013, the year of Vine’s launch, and Grier started making videos on the service to entertain his friends.
“Someone showed me a video app, and I downloaded it to waste some time on a weekend,” Grier recalled. “I made one or two of them and I had a thousand followers the next day. I made another one—it’s only six seconds—and then the next week I had 100,000 followers. I was like, ‘All right, I want to keep this feeling going.’”
Six months later, Grier found himself on a trip to Iceland with fellow Vine star Jérôme Jarre. Grier tweeted for Icelandic fans to meet him at the mall, and in Reykjavík, the capital city with only 121,822 residents, 6,000 fans mobbed the scene.
“It was insane, like the Beatles or something,” laughed Grier. “At that exact moment, that’s what I knew. Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life.”
Grier’s popularity has only skyrocketed since then. He sits at 12.3 million fans on Vine, with powerhouse numbers on pretty much every other platform. He’s working on a documentary, as well as a reality show that follows his life as he makes said documentary. He’s released a clothing line with Aéropostale, and has attended Fashion Weeks in Milan and Paris. He’s toured to meet fans in person at Magcon and DigiFest, raking in appearance and signing fees along the way. His \digital influence can bring in between $25,000 and $100,000 for a single mention on social media.
But he’s also experienced the other side of Internet fame. He’s been swatted—a dangerous prank in which people falsely report emergency scenarios to send police after their victim, often with the goal of surreptitiously catching the event on camera—on several occasions, resulting, Grier says, in having “guns pointed at my head five or six times.”
“It was insane, like the Beatles or something.”
“It gets to a new level when you get fame or whatever this is called,” Grier said. “The Internet, it’s the most dangerous place, but also the most powerful place.”
Grier awkwardly straddles both ends of that spectrum, due to a combination of his age and his antics, which have ranged from effectively harmless to incredibly harmful. For some, Grier embodies the idea that Vine is the domain of talentless teens, and it seems every bit of content he creates supports that bias.
But the main issues that have plagued Grier are more specific and stem from his early days on the platform. Perhaps most notably, Grier produced a Vine video in 2013, in which he films an OraQuick home HIV test with the tagline “Testing for HIV… It’s not a gay thing.” Grier responded with “Yes, it is! FAG!” He’s since apologized and deleted the video from his channel, noting that he recorded the video at a time when he assumed only his school friends would see it, but it’s since been reuploaded and the backlash plagues Grier to this day.
That wasn’t an isolated incident: Grier’s social presence from 2012 and 2013 was peppered with homophobia that he’s since mostly purged from his accounts (although some still linger). He’s also faced backlash for a sexist video with fellow stars Cameron Dallas and Jc Caylen, telling girls how to make themselves attractive to teen boys, a rambling mess of contradictions and misogyny.
“I have completely different beliefs and views than I had two years ago, and especially three and four years ago,” he explained. “A lot of the controversial stuff I made is four or five years old now. I was a kid when that stuff happened.
“The Internet, it’s the most dangerous place, but also the most powerful place.”
“It’s what humans do, make mistakes and learn from them,” he continued. “If anything, whoever makes more mistakes and is still going and still learning, that’s the person who is doing it right. It shouldn’t matter what you’ve done—it’s how you come back from it and how you learn from it. That’s what I have done and intend to do for the rest of my life.”
Through it all, Grier’s millions of fans have stood by him. For them, Grier is still the Vine star next door, and that relatability has helped create the bounty of teen stars on the platform.
“I’m open about everything,” explained Grier of his relationship with his viewers. “I think that’s what’s gotten me to this point. I’m super honest. I”m going to tell [it] how it is, whether it’s good or bad. I think the Internet lacks that, especially when I started making videos. … That honesty that people usually don’t get through a screen is what I try to bring.”
Grier very much acts his age. He embodies the archetype of the idealistic and bewildered college freshman who’s realizing the world is more than the sheltered view he grew up within. At a time when Grier should be making plans for school, he’s instead starring in The Outfield, a quiet coming-of-age tale about sports and family versus art and passion (with a side dish of class issues played by his fellow Viner, Dallas). It’s a dull but competent film, and Grier and his compatriots will get better with practice and age. Grier plans to keep moving in the entertainment direction, calling college “not directly aligned with what I’m doing right now” but says it’s something he wants eventually.
“It’s raw now. I’ve learned more in the past two years than I’ve learned in my entire life.”
“College is always going to be there,” he said. “I want to go to film school at one point; I want to go study philosophy at one point as well. Maybe I’ll use that for some roles someday. Going to a course and studying that for a role would be amazing too.”
Grier has big ideas, and he’s frustrated about the state of the world but trying to figure out ways for his fame and his art to help make a difference. He’s just starting to become engaged and attentive to politics, since 2016 will be his first opportunity to vote. He’s unsure about the Democratic and Republican candidates right now, and worried about the influence of entertainment on the political process. With the ears and eyes of young people on him, he’s figuring out his place in the greater discourse.
“I’ve learned a lot about my influence and how to use it, and what I want to use it for, and what the world can best use it for,” Grier explained. “At this moment in time I don’t think it’s politics. My voice is heard by the youth, and the youth doesn’t really affect much of politics because you have to be 18 to vote. But, for example, I want to make a movie about climate change. I want to go to Africa and bring a couple hundred fans with me, where we do a mission trip and build a whole village. I want to do little things like that, projects that can take a couple months, and those will add up by the time I’m 20 years old. If I have even five of those under my belt, I’ll feel good about myself. I have plans to get those off the ground soon.”
These sorts of plans are the result of Grier finding himself, both by living away from his family in a Los Angeles apartment and by touring extensively.
“I’ve gotten to see the world firsthand and experience it without a filter and without anyone else’s opinion,” he said. “It’s raw now. I’ve learned more in the past two years than I’ve learned in my entire life. The people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve built, the things I’ve seen. I kind of had my own perspective on life… these past few years opened me up to everything, whether it’s religion, meeting people, or doing things in the business world.”
Grier also wants to write more. He’s already directed two music videos and hopes to do more. He sees himself making “legit films” by age 25. For now, he’s still just a kid.
“I’m about to turn 18, and I’ve got a lot under my belt,” he laughed. “I’m ready to just create and do my thing and try to change the world. I’ve got a plan—hopefully, it will work.”
Illustration by Tiffany Pai