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The sharp rise and hard fall of Vine and its first star couple
Amid the end of Vine, a look back at the app’s first stars gone awry.
“Babe, I’m pregnant,” a 20-year-old Jessi Smiles says as she rises from bed, looking down at her distended belly covered by a Miami Dolphins tee.
A 30-year-old Curtis Lepore turns over, shifting his sleepy expression from the stomach to her face, and replies, “No, you’re not.”
As he falls back to sleep, Lepore pops the balloon under her shirt with a pin. Smiles, whose real name is Jessica Vazquez, shrieks as she looks at the camera with amused fright.
And then the scene repeats. She wakes him, he pops her belly, she cries. Again and again.
While not all vines are scripted or funny, the original short-form videos follow the same structure: The Vine user records up to six seconds of footage on their phone, then publishes the end result for their followers, or the world, to see.
And like other vines, too, Lepore’s skit with Smiles is just one of more than 39 million vines being archived come this January.
In October, Twitter announced it would be killing the Vine mobile app. Then in December, it announced the Vine app would be pared down to a simpler application called Vine Camera, which lets users create six-second vines to post to Twitter or save to their phones. The Vine website will be turned into an archive where preexisting vines will loop on, ad nauseum.
But this clip’s significance is more than just a numbers game. In this vine, Smiles, who also garnered fame on the app, acts out a funny script with Lepore, her then-boyfriend of just a few weeks.
It’s Lepore’s only vine featuring Smiles that he hasn’t deleted from his personal account—the only evidence on his profile that the two were ever in the same room together, let alone dated. (Smiles has erased all trace of their relationship from her Vine account.) Just a week after uploading the last remaining vine acknowledging their relationship, Lepore allegedly raped Smiles while she was unconscious.
While this specific clip of Lepore and Smiles may seem to be just another quip shared online, these few seconds serve as a metaphor and embodiment of so much more—a small fraction of time that, at one point, brought so many people together; a calculated moment of humor and chemistry shown melding on the glassy screen; an indication of the lighter moments during the app’s early days, shortly before Vine became an uglier place.
Smiles had just broken up with Lepore a few days before he allegedly raped her. She and Lepore spoke to Rolling Stone in an article on the pair’s relationship through Vine. (Neither Smiles nor Lepore returned requests for interviews from the Daily Dot.) The couple was collaborating on vines and meeting with management, but Smiles began to feel pressured by the relationship. After breaking it off within the first week of her nearly three-week long trip, she stayed at a friend’s house for a few days.
On Aug. 31, 2013, during the second week, Smiles hit her head while filming a vine of herself flipping upside down on a bed. Lepore called and asked to help her, in case she had a concussion. After getting dinner together, Smiles was still feeling sick, so she went to sleep.
Smiles said she awoke to Lepore raping her. “I was very, very, very upset,” she told Rolling Stone. “And he was freaking out. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m scared.'” She had him drive her back to her friend’s house, then went to the hospital to report her rape to the police after calling both her friend and her mom. On Sept. 18, police arrested Lepore for allegedly raping Smiles. The following day, he was released on $1oo,ooo bail.
The details of Smiles’ case remained quiet for months until TMZ dropped the story on Jan. 16, 2014, the day after Lepore pled not guilty. Smiles gave TMZ permission to use her name, which Lepore took as a ploy for publicity. “They could have run the story and just had there be, like, an unnamed victim,” he told Rolling Stone. “So, I mean, you can draw your own conclusions as to why she would have endorsed that.”
Others felt similar and attacked Smiles online, accusing her of lying and sending her death threats. Team Jessi and Team Curtis fans on Vine angrily split into factions, responding to the allegations through their own recorded fleeting moments of vitriol, and harassing the Vine stars themselves.
On Feb. 21, 2014, Lepore pled no contest to felony assault, a step down from the felony-sex-crime charge he faced—he agreed to enter counseling and complete 24 days of community service. When Smiles spoke at Lepore’s progress report hearing the following April, she broke down in tears. “You’ve hurt me more than I knew I could be hurt as a person. … I forgive you, Curtis. And with that forgiveness I can finally let you go,” she told him.
Lepore, on the other hand, found her laughable. “I didn’t do anything to this girl,” he said, “and she’s still going on with it.”
In a span of less than a year, Smiles had gone from being a teen with a low profile living in Florida to a coveted, then hated, Vine star, to a sexual assault survivor trying to move on with her life. Lepore’s life followed a similar arch from his stand as a felon and accused rapist.
The couple’s cataclysmic demise, both apart and together, mimicked their own initial rise to fame on the platform, as well as Vine’s launch as social media channel. Vine’s released their iPhone app in January 2013, six months after the company’s founding, and three months after being acquired by Twitter for $30 million.
Within mere months, the app rapidly gained popularity, becoming the most downloaded free iPhone app by April. Lepore joined Vine in January 2013, having just quit his band in New York and moved to Los Angeles to get into video game graphics. Meanwhile, Smiles got her start that summer, post-breakup and working as a makeup artist in Miami.
Back then, Lepore was known for his bizarre characters and witty sketches, particularly those featuring his trusted Boston terrier, Buster Beans. Smiles’ Vines, on the other hand, relied less on plot and became more of her own inner dialogue, where she shared a more intimate, ridiculous side of her personality through relatable quips and jokes.
From May to July of that year, Lepore’s account jumped from 10,000 to 775,000 followers. Smiles’ fame skyrocketed more rapidly, her account jumping to 1 million followers within her first month on the app.
I can remember watching the initial signs of their connection stirring in real time. That May, I had jumped onto the Vine bandwagon as a way to entertain myself during breaks at my summer job. Between snippets by rising stars like Brittany Furlan and Jerome Jarre, millions of other Vine users and I bore witness to Smiles and Lepore’s growing love story.
At first, the flirtation between the couple felt like a running joke, a way to stir conversation within the community while creating fun content. A Vine featuring a flirty quip from Jessi Smiles turned into a goofily-executed reply from DIRTYCURT (Lepore’s username at the time) with Buster Beans in the background, and cute exchanges in the comments section of each other’s videos.
Post after post, however, their budding romance began to feel less like a ploy and more like a 21st century rom-com meets Disney Channel original movie. On Aug. 4, 2013, after months of building antics, Smiles and Lepore finally met IRL in front of thousands of fans, their proverbial meet-cute in New York City documented across the platform that brought them together. Even Nev Schulman from MTV’s Catfish came out to Washington Square Park to watch the interaction go down.
Lepore made an admittedly cute video commemorating the day, during which he asked Smiles to be his girlfriend. Like any alluring John Green-esque setup, she said yes. The video below is dated from a few days after the meet up, but is now unlisted on Lepore’s channel.
Watching these videos now is creepy, almost haunting. But back then, in the eyes of other young adult viners suffering through her own relationship qualms, Smiles and Lepore’s genuine chemistry seemed like the 2013 version of #relationshipgoals. The couple lived thousands of miles apart on opposite coasts, yet somehow still fostered this authentic, organic relationship through the Power of Social Media—no narrative could have been more picturesque.
Smiles and Lepore’s interactions on the app changed noticeably after August passed, however. Their cute collaborations stopped, and Smiles’ Vine presence came to a near immediate halt after they announced their breakup. I remember fans commenting on vines, asking why they split up so soon, accusing their relationship of being a PR stunt to gain followers.
When Smiles returned to Vine and Twitter, her messages were missing the wit and passion with which they once radiated. Sometimes, her posts exuded negativity thinly veiled as hope or optimism. Lepore’s vines continued without a hitch, as if to prove that the breakup hadn’t impacted his work.
It was around that same time, somewhere between Smiles’ short sabbatical and the end of Lepore’s trial, that I deleted my Vine account and removed the app from my phone altogether.
In the months after Vine’s initial launch, the app felt sort of like a short-form YouTube channel revolving around a community, like I was watching a close club of Vine friends collaborating with each other and responding to one another’s vines with remakes of their own. Just as they believed in Smiles and Lepore’s relationship, many viners had faith in Vine and wanted to help contribute to its success.
Between the come up of younger viners like Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas, and Vine’s lax moderation of racist memes and online abuse, however, I lost that community vibe. Popular vines shuffled and updated constantly, and I became more familiar with one-vine wonders over witty content creators who used to rule the platform. I grew bored and disengaged, so I left.
According to Smiles, she too feels that this was one of the reasons Vine fared poorly over the past few years. When Twitter announced Vine’s discontinuation, Smiles uploaded a YouTube video on her feelings toward the end of the platform that brought her fame but torture, too.
“I saw it coming. … The thing is that they started allowing teenagers to rule the app. People like … the Magcon boys [a group including Grier, Dallas, and other viners who participated in the Meet and Greet Convention touring group], they became famous on the app, which brought a lot of teenagers to the app,” Smiles explained in her video.
“Which made people that were older on the app, that used to be big, it made them cater to these teenagers, which just… I mean it just made for content that wasn’t funny,” she concluded.
Smiles’ concerns echoed those of many other users who saw Vine’s looming demise. Nearly 20 viners even had a plan to save the platform a year ago that involved paid partnerships with Vine, but the deal never panned out, causing more viners to jump ship and build their networks on platforms like Musical.ly, Instagram, and YouTube.
Now, two and half years after Lepore’s trial, Smiles and Lepore are two of the many former Vine stars turned YouTubers who have left the app out to dry. Smiles’ latest vine is from March—a clip promoting her YouTube channel. Lepore’s last vine is a response to Twitter’s announcement from October.
“Life is just crazy to see how something so important to so many people… the things that they did to climb on the app were disgusting and crazy, and weird, because everyone was so obsessed with it, and now those people don’t even have the app on their phone,” Smiles commented on Vine’s fleeting popularity.
The end of Vine is the last step for Smiles and Lepore to take in order to close the door on that part of their lives if such a thing is possible—to end a story nearly as old as the failing app itself.
In February 2015, one year after Lepore’s trial, his felony charges were reduced to a misdemeanor after he completed a year of counseling and his 24 days of community labor. This February, Lepore will be done with his 24 months of probation, too.
Though Lepore once stated in interviews and on social media that he would share his side of the story once his charge was reduced, his only statement on the case and allegations came via his attorney’s 2015 announcement on his felony reduction. Lepore wrote that he’s decided not to talk of his own volition.
“While I appreciate those that have supported me through comments, messages, and posts, I’m not a bully and I don’t want to generate hateful comments towards anybody,” Lepore wrote. “I cherish my loved ones and value my daily interactions with my fans. My only wish is to be able to do what I love and continue to make you guys laugh.”
Smiles, meanwhile, has been extremely vocal about her past as a Vine star through her YouTube channel. Through two videos, “Draw My Life” and “There IS life after sexual assault, Breaking my silence,” Smiles openly discusses how Vine and Lepore affected her life, for better and worse.
“I went through so many phases of wanting revenge on him, or just wanting him to suffer the way I suffered … but on the day that he was arrested, I cried,” Smiles said in the latter video. “It was almost like a little glimpse of that inner knowledge that I had, I guess, that was telling me, ‘You don’t want to hate him, you want to forgive him.'”
Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.