I was getting pretty worried by 10 minutes to 6. I’d come to the mall for celebrity, but all I’d found so far was a Shea butter sample and a virtual-reality experience.
I’d searched Yard House and J.C. Penney, asked around the Apple store and quizzed all the kiosks. No one had noticed a pink-haired kid trailed by a gaggle of teenage girls. Nobody had seen anyone famous.
And then I realized that I hadn’t checked the food court.
This started with a tweet, obviously.
I was searching “Denver” on Twitter this Thursday, as one does, when I saw an announcement: Someone named Diegosaurs_ would be at Park Meadows Mall all afternoon. Someone named Diegosaurs_ also had about 400 retweets, and 200,000 followers, which is pretty huge as far as mall-appearance celebs go.
I clicked through the link on Diego’s profile and found myself at an unfamiliar site called YouNow. He had an even bigger following there — half a million in all — and an endless column of videos of nothing in particular.
I didn’t quite get what this was all about.
Was he a musician? A dancer? There was no really specific talent that had made this person famous, no performance except the social one. The most common elements of his videos were his amazing hair colors and his fans’ requests for marriage. It seemed to be an endless loop of adoration, no particular beginning or end.
Now, I’m not the type of person to get mad at the Kardashians. No, I’m kind of thirsty for fame myself — come on, all journalists love attention — and now a new variety of that sweet succor was right here in the metro.
I really had no choice but to go to the mall and figure this thing out.
Finding Diego, like I said, was harder than I anticipated. I tweeted at him to ask where in the mall he was. He liked my tweet, which was nice but not helpful.
I get it — I’m just one guy. In the hour that I puttered around trying out Shea butter and virtual reality (it’s at the Microsoft store!), Diego was retweeted about a thousand times and received a torrent of messages. Diego did not need me.
The end of this event was supposed to be 6 p.m. With 10 minutes left, I was getting so disheartened that I went back to the Shea butter kiosk and started interviewing salesman Dan as he rubbed some more weird goop on my hand. (Israelis work these kiosks so often because they are very good at selling things, he says, and because the dry air forces them to really understand skincare.)
As the goop dried — rather pleasantly, I have to say — I took a loop of Nordstrom and headed for the exit. But then I saw the food court, and then I saw 15 teenage girls, and then I saw a swipe of pink hair, and I knew I had arrived.
Diego graciously offered me a seat at his food court kingdom.
I sat to absorb the scene for a minute.
“Jeffrey. Jeffrey. I am in the middle of something. Stay over there,” one 16-year-old said into her phone. She was talking to her dad, who was about 40 feet away.
The fans had come from all over the Denver metro. Some had never met Diego, others had been to four of his events. A few had followed Diego for five or six hours through the mall and helped him pick out a pair of pink sweatpants at Zumiez, the group’s favorite store.
Eventually, I asked my big stupid question: How did this happen? How, over the course of two years, did this 20-year-old become connected to hundreds of thousands of mostly young mostly women?
“Everybody asks me, what are you famous for?” he said. “Nothing. Nothing at all. Not a single thing.”
For the next 20 minutes, the girls plied him with an insane amount of attention.
“Mmnnnn, look at those hands,” one girl grunted, drawing a little cringe from Diego. He retreated into his phone at times. “The worst is when they talk about me like I’m not there,” he said, but he didn’t seem to mind all that much.
He waited patiently when they got flustered. He rewarded them with little tokens of affection. Marlee, 13, got to be his “daughter” (calling people “dad” is a thing for this generation), but he was careful to maintain some boundaries too. When someone asked who the “mother” was, he looked around for the 19-year-old in the group.
“I love you guys,” he told everyone who left.
I really started to understand all this once the laptop came out.
That’s when things got really meta. The girls lined up behind him and he turned on his MacBook’s camera. After a little wrangling he had the video streaming out to YouNow, and suddenly 4,000 people were watching.
I was surprised at how kind they were. The viewers immediately started complimenting the girls. The one with the pink flowers was “like a SnapChat filter.” They singled out pink hair for her beauty. They all had PG fun, daring one girl to go ask a middle-aged man for his number.
Some of the girls were beside themselves. Marlee snuggled against Diego’s arm, looking totally blissed on the adoration loop.
Diego, meanwhile was chatting with the users. He paid particular attention to those who donated digital currency. “Thank you for the 1,000 bars. Thank you for the 500 bars,” he said, calling out donors by name.
He was getting tips, essentially, and they were worth real money. For a small fee, you can guarantee yourself a brush with a broadcaster. This fact surprised one or two girls, but the rest knew just how things worked.
I caught a glimpse of the screen as the 10-minute broadcast ended. Diego had made about $73.
The girls told me they were there for something deeper than likes.
They interrupted Diego when he said he was famous for nothing. What does he give them? “Self support.” “Inspiration.” “Self-worth.”
Ash, 16, said she had been with Diego since the beginning of his career.
“He was going through a hard time, and of course, so was I,” she explained.
“As a girl, in this generation, it just wasn’t easy at all to fit in and stuff. … He always said that he was always here for us, and he actually was, even if he wasn’t physically there.”
She showed me Diego’s name on her shoes. He bought them for her at a previous meet-up, on the promise that she wouldn’t smoke pot again. She hasn’t, she said.
And as we talked, Diego let on that this wasn’t exactly a publicity event.
It was more like normal life.
He doesn’t really leave his parents’ basement, he said, except for trips to Denver and tours with fans and other social-media stars. (DigiTour, for example, got him a couple hundred thousand followers.)
All the people he meets — this rotating cast — are his friends, he said, and also not his friends. They are his people.
I wondered how he ever looks away from his phone. Could I break my gaze with a dopamine drip so constant?
“I don’t. I don’t. I don’t,” he said.
And neither can his fans. Imagine if there were no barriers between your teen self and your teen idol.
Imagine if he said your name.
Imagine if you could meet him at the mall.