It all started with a six-second video.
In early May, Steven Kelly posted a clip of himself lip-syncing R. Kelly’s hit “Ignition” to the popular micro-video-sharing website Vine. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior shot the footage on the way to prom as a goof.
With a head of tousled dark brown hair, emerald eyes, enviable abs and an easy smile, Kelly looks like he could be an Abercrombie & Fitch model. The morning after prom, he woke up to find that his Vine video had several thousand likes. “It was weird, but in a good way,” he says. Turns out that was just the beginning—the video has now been viewed more than 3 million times.
“This kind of popularity online is not the norm,” says Washington, D.C.-based social media consultant Alejandra Owens, “but it’s not rare.”
Kelly is one of a number of social media-savvy personalities who are finding large audiences through online platforms. Owens says we’re starting to see the first wave of breakout stars, such as Michelle Phan, a popular makeup tutorial vlogger on YouTube who now has her own line of cosmetics with L’Oréal as well as a book. “If Kelly wants to take it to the next level,” Owens says, “he’s going to have to work really hard—and fall down a few times.”
The Bethesda teen got a first taste of offline success in early June at DigiFest, a festival in New York City devoted to social media stars and music acts. Because of the popularity of his prom video, the 18-year-old was invited to appear on the Vine stage at the festival.
There were 15,000 screaming fans waiting for him when he walked out for a short Q&A. “I told myself, ‘I’m just going to be myself and enjoy it,’ ” Kelly says.
His mother, Rose Kelly, was surprised at how relaxed he appeared. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe that’s my son,’ ” she says. “Steven has always been a little shy and had a little bit of social anxiety at school. He hated giving oral reports and didn’t like being in front of people.”
Kelly’s friend Mark Melmed certainly didn’t think of him as a heartthrob in high school. “He was a funny guy, even a goofball,” says the 18-year-old from Kensington. “His followers online are a bunch of girls, though, so he puts on a different image there—like the pictures with his shirt off.”
Kelly came home from DigiFest with a stack of business cards from various entertainment industry executives. One was from the president of Major Model in New York City, one of the top modeling agencies in the world.
Rose Kelly called the agency and was shocked to find out that it wanted to sign her son to a modeling contract. There was only one problem: Steven had plans to play football at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Given the NCAA’s rules about income and promotion—never mind the time and effort Kelly would spend training and playing for a Division I team—it wouldn’t be possible to do both.
“We talked about the opportunity for weeks,” Kelly says. “It’s all we talked about. In the long run, though, I didn’t see myself fully committing to football.”
His mother was supportive of his decision to put off college and pursue a modeling career. “I’ve never seen my boy this happy,” she says. “As a parent, all you want is for your child to be happy.”
In July, Kelly went to New York City for three days of photo shoots. “Strangers passing us on the sidewalk would say, ‘Oh my God, that’s Steven Kelly,’ ” his mother says. “When we came back to our hotel at night, there would be a posse of girls waiting for him and screaming his name.”
Now Kelly’s portfolio is being shopped around the globe to a variety of clothing manufacturers and lifestyle brands. In the meantime, he has been sent clothes and jewelry from companies such as Yes Man Watches and Kiel James Patrick with hopes that he’ll post a picture of himself on social media wearing their products.
Kelly connects with fans on the video chat site YouNow, which pays him based on the number of users he draws to his live video stream. July’s check was for about $1,300. He posts multiple times a day to his feeds, usually flattering selfies or random thoughts, such as: “The single life is getting pretty boring” or “I could easily have Chipotle every day.”
“Ultimately, that helps me grow my brand and helps people find out who I am,” he says.
His bedroom is plastered with letters, pictures and gifts from teenage girls. One day he mentioned on social media that his favorite candy was Sour Patch Kids. Ever since, bags of the candy have been pouring in to the P.O. box he set up so he wouldn’t have to give out his home address.
“I say, ‘Make sure the bags are sealed, honey,’ ” his mother jokes.
Nevin Martell is the author of Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations (Possibilities Publishing, 2014).