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Before she hit it big, Nguyen had posed for Playboy.com--its first Asian Cyber Girl of the Month--and modeled for car shows and auto mags and formed girl bands. But her big break came three years ago when MySpace founder Tom Anderson invited Nguyen over to his new site. She had spent plenty of time on websites like Friendster, but her outsize, confrontational personality kept getting her kicked off. She says Friendster booted her five times. "I joined MySpace in September 2003," Nguyen recalls. "At that time no one was on there at all. I felt like a loser while all the cool kids were at some other school. So I mass e-mailed between 30,000 and 50,000 people and told them to come over. Everybody joined overnight."
Pre-Tila, your MySpace friends were mostly people you actually knew. Post-Tila, the biggest game on the site became Who Has the Most Friends, period, whoever they might be. "Once they saw how I worked it, everyone did what I did and started promoting themselves," she says. Not everybody would call this a change for the better; there are those who might even prefer a friendly community to a global popularity contest. Not Nguyen. Over the next couple of years she turned her online persona into a full-fledged business. "This is my job," she says. "That's how you maintain your popularity and keep it alive."
Nguyen clearly grasps the logic of Web 2.0 in a way that would make many CEOs weep. She sells Tila posters, calendars, a clothing line of hoodies and shirts. She has been on the cover of British Maxim. She has a single due to be released online. She has a cameo in next summer's Adam Sandler movie. She has four managers, a publicist and a part-time assistant. It's hard to know how to read the rise of Tila Tequila. Does she represent the triumph of a new democratic starmaking medium or its crass exploitation for maximum personal gain? It's not clear that even Tila knows. But she knows why it works. "There's a million hot naked chicks on the Internet," she says. "There's a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don't talk back to you."
ON NOV. 28, 2005, A VIDEO WAS uploaded to YouTube. It shows two American River College students, Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, lip-synching to the Pokémon theme song. Their lip-synching is completely earnest. They're really into it. They're gonna catch 'em all. This video would go on to be viewed more than 17 million times. For six months it was the most watched video on all of YouTube. It's enough to shake your faith in a new medium.
Padilla and Hecox go by the joint nickname Smosh, and they are the Saturday Night Live of YouTube. Their videos are insanely popular. Their genius, if that's the right word for it, is in their unswerving, unwinking commitment to idiocy. It may also be in their shaggy haircuts. (Smosh is some kind of inside joke that has something to do with some friend of theirs talking about mosh pits ... Never mind.) Since Pokémon, they have done other theme songs, including those for Power Rangers and Mortal Kombat. They have branched out into sketch comedy as well. (Typical setup: a friendly game of Battleship gone horribly, horribly awry.)