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There are plenty of ways to become famous online—from capitalizing off a segment on Dr. Phil to uploading makeup tutorials on YouTube to having enough TikTok dance videos go viral. But in many instances, achieving internet fame—and keeping it—is also about who you know. The latest viral figure suddenly getting multi-million dollar brand deals may just be a nepotism friend, or the best friend of someone who is already famous.
The nepo-friend isn’t new (although their perks have changed over time), nor is the discourse on the way nepotism functions in Hollywood and other creative industries. Last fall, a New York Magazine cover story on nepo-babies prompted an online discourse analyzing which of Hollywood’s most prominent stars we might not know today, had they not been related to someone already well-established in the industry.
But nepotism extends beyond family ties. Many public figures have become known online just by hanging around their famous friends. Think: Anastasia “Stassie” Karanikolaou, a childhood bestie of premiere influencer Kylie Jenner, or YouTuber David Dobrik’s friend Natalie Mardiduena (known online as Natalie Noel), or YouTuber Tana Mongeau’s long-time friend Imari Stuart, or Kris Tyson, friend to popular YouTuber Jimmy “MrBeast'' Donaldson.
After years of appearing in their friends’ YouTube videos or Instagram posts, they have built an internet persona and following of their own—Karanikolaou, for example, has 10 million Instagram followers, numerous brand deals, and recently co-launched her own Vodka line. In an ultra competitive landscape for influencers, these new stars have a head start thanks to the sheer luck of who they knew starting out.
When friendship become business
Just as access is a means to capital for nepo-babies, nepo-friends are no exception. Knowing a major influencer can often mean starting out with a built-in fanbase—and that’s the basis for business models that work to push would-be influencers into stardom.
For example, Jake Paul’s Team 10 and several other content houses that came after it operated by putting groups of creators together under one roof—some more well-known than others—to boost one another’s social following by appearing in each other’s videos. “If you got tagged in one of Jake’s YouTube videos, you could get 50,000 followers,” AJ Mitchell, who was recruited by Paul to join Team 10 in 2016, told the New York Times in 2021. (Multiple influencers who lived in the Team 10 house or attended parties there told the New York Times that Paul fostered an environment filled with bullying and exploitation. In 2021, TikTok influencer Justine Paradise alleged that Paul sexually assaulted her at the house in 2019. Paul denied the allegations in a statement.)
Catalina Goanta, an associate professor at Utrecht University whose research focuses on social media influencers and influencer marketing, notes that an already successful influencer can help their friend capitalize on an internet following and negotiate with managers and lawyers to maintain and grow their brand.
“There’s this idea that anyone could be internet famous, but having a head start breaks the myth that influencer marketing is democratic and that anybody can be successful doing it,” she says.
Behind our fascination with famous people's friends
Nepo-friends have always existed in some form, and the interest they draw is natural—they can offer a unique and personalized view into the world of a given star. In American culture, the friendships of the famous have been a much-discussed topic since at least the 1930s, when movie studios created entourages made up of their stars to garner publicity. Later, entourages served to provide support and security for stars—the group of friends, associates, employees, and cousins that revolved around Elvis Presley even got their own name: The Memphis Mafia. (They are also depicted in Sofia Coppola's upcoming film Priscilla.)
“Being the friend of a famous person buys you access,” says Landon Jones, a former editor at People and author of Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers. “The commodity that a group like the Memphis Mafia offers audiences is that potential access to an otherwise mysterious celebrity.” Members of the group would go on to attempt to capitalize off their proximity to Presley by releasing tell-all memoirs after his death.
After waning in style in the 1980s, the rise in popularity of rap made the concept of celebrity entourages trendy again in the 1990s. Rappers went everywhere surrounded by groups made up of friends, bodyguards, aspiring rappers, and other associates. "The entourage has acquired a certain pervasive chic," reported the New York Times in 1994. "At the recent MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall, artist after artist entered ensconced amid a horde."
According to Jones, keeping up with who ends up hanging out with well-known figures is just part of being a fan. People have loved celebrities since the classical period of the Greeks and Romans, when famous figures were seen as gods. “Even now, on a deeply psychological level, celebrities and the internet famous can be seen as divine beings by their fans,” he says. “You want to feel a sense of intimacy with a phenomena and that their personal circle can offer closer proximity to them.”
So fans are delighted when they see their favorite pop stars continue to hang out with their old buddies, from Justin Bieber and childhood friend Ryan Butler, to Taylor Swift and Abigail Anderson—whose friendship is immortalized in the 2008 song "Fifteen." Social media has slightly changed the benefits for a nepo-friend. They don't have to depend on plus one invites to a red carpet or the chance to be seen at an exclusive restaurant. Through strategic posting and tagging, they can create their own public narrative—and take on business opportunities. Imagine if Instagram existed when "Fifteen" was released.
Simply being friends with an internet celebrity can only take you so far. After the initial follower count bump, it takes a level of savvy to maintain or even grow that presence online. Mardiduena, for instance, went from being Dobrik’s assistant in his vlogs, to becoming the president of his self-titled multi-million dollar company, a Sports Illustrated model, and the founder of lifestyle brand Eladay.
Sometimes, nepo-friends can reach a level of success that allows them to transcend their origins. Take Jordyn Woods, for example, another close friend of Jenner who grew a significant following on social media after Jenner included her across her Instagram feed. When Jenner and Woods had a public fallout in 2019 over an alleged cheating scandal, it didn’t impact Woods’ influencer lifestyle. She’d already grown a strong enough online following of her own (12 million Instagram followers and counting), and has since gone on to have a successful modeling career, secure brand deals, and launch a clothing brand. Similarly, former Team 10 member, Alissa Violet, who reportedly dated Jake Paul and later had a public fallout with him, gained millions of Instagram and YouTube followers who proved they were more interested in her brand than in her ties to Paul.
It’s not just the nepo-friend who wins. For influencers, it’s often a mutually beneficial exchange that may result in the original celebrity gaining even more clout. “If you're an influencer at the top of the game and you manage to bring some of your friends to the top of the game, then you’re creating a cluster of power and influence,” says Goanta. “David Dobrik is probably also thinking about what he can gain from his friends becoming powerful.”
Write to Mariah Espada at email@example.com.