Taryn Southern & Jessica Rose – The Webutantes (Photo by Brady Brim-DeForest)
Let’s get the big news out first. Two of the hottest stars on the web are teaming up: Jessica Rose and Taryn Southern have formed a web production company, Webutantes, and are developing a number of original web series slated to come out in the next year. We had a chance to catch up with the young web stars to talk about their new venture, their ever-evolving careers and their plans to shake up Hollywood’s outdated perceptions of women.
It’s El Coyote on a Thursday, and the place is frantic. For an internet star, Taryn Southern isn’t easy to find. I work my way through the labyrinth of assorted rooms, each teeming with overrun tables, making a lap or two before I realize there’s there’s a hidden back room to the restaurant. Taryn welcomes me in, where her group overflows the long narrow table in the corner. It’s a party for her latest web series, Private High Musical, which just wrapped up its inaugural season.
She holds court graciously, pausing to hug Mr. Belding himself, Dennis Haskins, on his way out. Haskins reprised his iconic role as high school principal in the series, or at least something close to it. He captures the group’s attention for a moment, gushing on how much he loved working with everyone, most especially the show’s creator-producer-star Taryn. The rest of the cast claps and smiles before returning to their gabbing, slogging down a few more house margaritas.
It could be just another cast party full of new found pseudo-friends promising to keep in touch and be BFF’s now that the shoot is over. But looking around the table of beaming LA up-and-comers I can see the mark of Taryn’s handiwork. These aren’t the random survivors of the casting gauntlet. These are a hand-picked lineup that all share one thing in common—they are all friends with Taryn.
Her friends, it turns out, are who she relies on most. This isn’t the first time she’s worked with Angie Cole, Katy Stoll or Kate Albrecht and it probably won’t be the last. A few days later we schedule another chance to talk, this time with the new business partner she’s been telling us about. “Jessica’s in Bulgaria shooting a film but should be back by next week,” Taryn tells me as we work out the next meeting. That Jessica of course is the Jessica Rose, the original Bree from lonelygirl15.
Getting Down to Business
When Taryn and Jessica arrive at our office, it’s hard not to notice Taryn’s brown hair is several shades darker and now sports vicious looking bangs that cloak her forehead. She’s just come from what she says is the “most expensive haircut I’ve ever had.” It turns out it’s for a role in yet another web series, Madison Lane, that she’s about to shoot the next day. It’s sponsored by TRESemmé and stars Taryn as a ruthless young editor at a high-end fashion magazine.
How did these two meet? You might have thought it was this past summer while shooting TheWB.com‘s mystery thriller Sorority Forever, but in fact it was almost two years before, just as Jessica was outed as an actress and not an innocent brown-eyed young vlogger that captivated millions of YouTube lonelygirl gawkers. “I came up with this idea of doing a scripted show similar to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Taryn recalls, “about the life of a web celeb. Jessica completely embodies what that is.”
Taryn had already made a name for herself in the many circles in which she runs. Some knew Taryn as a former finalist on American Idol, others knew her as the star of DirecTV’s first foray into original series, Project MyWorld, which Taryn also produced. But what would really put Taryn on the web video map was Hott4Hill, her 2007 musical parody of Obama Girl where she professed her sexually-driven devotion to Hillary Clinton. The sultry video racked more than three million views and landed her on the national media circuit—CNN, MSNBC, Good Morning America, People Magazine, FOX, NBC—bringing Taryn onto a stage few web stars have yet to trod. Waxing political behind a webcam is one thing, but thrust on the press junket with a candidate to defend is a different game altogether. “I’m on Hardball and not going to the talk about my political views? C’mon.”
Last summer she spent a few rounds sparring with Chris Matthews on Hardball the same week she hosted daily celebrity puff pieces for Cosmo—maybe Matthews underestimated her, and you can’t fault him for that really. It’s easy to underestimate Taryn. She’s barely over five feet and rarely makes a video that doesn’t bare her mid-riff at some point. IGN recently ogled her as their “Babe of the Day” and Maxim did a spread on her a little while back. But the more you learn about Taryn, the more you see this is all part of her own little game on all of us.
Taryn the producer is orchestrating her career like a grand puppet master—casting Taryn the singer, Taryn the actor, Taryn the babe and even Taryn the gossip queen where needed. It doesn’t surprise me when I find out she graduated from the University of Miami with two degrees and a 4.0 at just 20 years old, an age when most of the college set are still deciding on their first major. She’s always a step ahead it seems.
Developing a series about the life of a web celebrity meant landing Jessica Rose. “I wanted to create this world that takes women who are dealing with this world of web celebrity,” Taryn tells me. “We conceived it as a half-hour, Larry David-esque show, chronicling our misadventures around Hollywood trying to make our web videos.” Jessica jumps in, “and trying to pay rent when you’re getting paid a web celeb salary which everyone knows is sh-t.”
It’s somewhat sobering to hear this admission from one of the most recognizable faces on the internet, a reminder that the business side of web television is still in its infancy. These aren’t life-changing deals, and ultimately even the lucky ones who can say it is their full-time job are still looking for their next paycheck.
“We both had those typical Hollywood stories of what happens when you move to Hollywood. I mean, Jess found lonelygirl off of a Craigslist ad,” Taryn adds, ” and I definitely had my share of getting jobs in really interesting ways.” Many times that meant making the job for herself rather than waiting for someone else to notice her. She explains, “you learn how to be resourceful and how to create an audience for yourself when everyone else in Hollywood doesn’t want to give you that opportunity.” Jessica agrees, “it’s more rewarding coming up with the concept yourself, you get really excited about it. You have more control over it. And we both hate auditions.”
Taryn takes the lead in the interview, clearly showing how she handled her own on the national press rounds, with Jessica following her lead. The two balance each other well. Jessica is the quieter one, the thinker, the writer. Taryn is the quarterback, the business woman, the leader.
A Woman’s Perspective
Together Taryn and Jessica have formed Webutantes, a web production company looking to develop comedy series from an authentic female perspective. “It seems like all the major productions on the web are created by men,” Jessica explains, ” it’s men’s companies creating women’s web series.” She lists off some of her latest projects: Sorority Forever, created and directed by the all-male Big Fantastic, and Hooking Up, created by Woody Tondorf and the HBOlab team. Even lonelygirl15 was created by EQAL‘s Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfried.
“I love how all these men think they can write for women’s heads,” Taryn chimes in, they do a decent job at it, but not great.” Jessica, in fact, has written about six different projects the pair are moving forward with at various levels. Taryn plugs her partner, “Jess has written a very very funny, raunchy comedy that is really all about the inner thinking of women. I think a lot of men would be shocked to hear that women really think that way.”
This is the reality of Hollywood these two are setting out to shake up. “A lot of what we’ve read in scripts,” says Taryn, “is a little cheesy—women are dirtier than that.” Almost on cue, Jessica jumps back in, “one time a guy wrote the line, ‘Ooh, I wonder what Brad and Angie are doing today?’ Girls don’t think about what Brad and Angie are doing today.”
The two have used their sexuality to break through, and now it appears they are looking to use it to break down traditional sexual norms, especially in comedy. Tina Fey comes up, and without prompting, Taryn professes that Tina is in fact her hero du jour. “I think that she’s brought such a fresh perspective. She’s not afraid to be funny and sexy. I’m powerful and I’m running this sh-t, so get out of my way. But she doesn’t parade her sexuality. She’s just good at what she does.” Taryn’s blog in fact, says she aims to be the Tina Fey of the online generation.
“I’ve really embraced the internet for what it can be as a voice for me and for other women. I’m sure that there’s a lot of women out there, and I know this being from Kansas, that don’t agree with my perspective… to be powerful and to be sexual and be all of those things.”
What about this new form of interactive celebrity? What is it like to be a creator, producer and star, subject to the internet’s unrelenting ability to shower both love and hate with virulent force? “I can be exactly who I want to be on the web,” says Taryn. “You can leave a comment and tell me I’m a whore or I’m a bitch, but I can still keep doing it. And I can be successful and I can make money from it. If you have a message and you can do it in an entertaining or unique way then people will appreciate you for it. And that’s what’s awesome about being a weblebrity or whatever you want to call it.”
Jessica tells us about her first reactions to the comments on lonelygirl15. “I was so mad at first,” she says, “web video was so new for entertainment when I first started lonelygirl that I wasn’t used to seeing bad comments about every single person.” A few years later she’s a bit more seasoned in the web’s unabashed ways. “Now I’ve come to accept that no matter who you are or no matter what you do, you’re going to have a million horrible comments about you as well as a million good ones.” So does she read them? “I occasionally do,” she admits, “but not for my own sake—not like what do they think about me. For Sorority Forever I would skim it and see what they think of the show. Sometimes there are bad comments and I even agree with them.”
Taryn took some warming up to them as well. “It’s hard reading comments. I didn’t read them for a long time. Like when I first started doing my own videos, like Hott4Hillary….the comments would either be, ‘You’re awesome, I want to marry you!’ or, ‘You’re too skinny’ or, ‘you’re stupid’ or even, ‘you need to die a long burning death.’ She goes on, “look, I’m my own worst critic. I can sit here and tell you ten million things that are wrong with everything I do. But it’s a learning experience and I’m only getting better. If someone says something is bad, I usually agree with them, like I can see your point on that. I don’t take it too personally.”
Clearly there’s little that scares these two off—and they are going to need to tap that fearless hunger if they are going to make real headway in this town. Shifting Hollywood’s perceptions is never an easy feat, even for more established stars. These Webutantes are looking to do it twice, redefining not only what it means to be female stars but also how to connect with audiences in ways only the web generation seem to understand.
Back to their series about web celebrity which, much like these girls, has changed over the past few years as the space has matured. “We did shoot a [pilot] presentation for the series Webutantes, which was originally called E-lebrity,” says Taryn getting us back on track. “I think we learned a lot out from the experience of shooting a TV show that had so many evolutions. It was funny because all the networks wanted to meet with us because they were fascinated by this idea of web celebrity and what it was all about. And they didn’t know whether to send us to the scripted department or the unscripted department. They just couldn’t grasp us playing ourselves in these different scenarios. But it had a lot of evolutions and changed so much and we’ve changed so much in the past year.”
Taryn and Jessica have both rebranded themselves over the past year. This is a business after all that has a hard time getting over first impressions. “It’s really hard to be taken seriously when you start out a certain way,” Taryn points out, hinting at her frustrations with the system. “I started out hosting. Everyone said, ‘you’re a host, that’s what you do. That’s what you do well.'” Her hosting gigs have seen her manning the red carpet for the Grammy’s and the Golden Globe Awards, though it’s clear that these are just a day job for the young entrepreneur. Her transition into a young leading female actress has been via a handful of web series—as a troubled college freshman in Sorority Forever and a geeky high schooler in her own series Private High Musical—and a supporting role in an indie comedy film, Senior Skip Day, which made it to Comedy Central.
Jessica’s transition away from 150 episodes as Bree meant briefly heading to TV—half a season on ABC Family’s Greek—before her inevitable return to the web in TheWB.com’s first original web series Sorority Forever, HBOlab’s Hooking Up experiment and 60Frames’ yet to be released thriller series, Blood Cell.
Web entertainment as an industry is still so much in flux that it’s pretty obvious nothing is certain in this rapidly changing space. Even the webcam video blogs that made Jessica famous are now cropping up almost everywhere. I have to ask her straight up, are vlogs passé? “Yeah, they are kind of done now,” Jessica confides. “You go in and you pitch a show now, they want to know what’s the web angle going to be, are you guys going to do video blogs? That’s not what I personally would want to go see when I watch a show. If the show calls for it, sure, but if it’s forced in there we see that it’s just the web element and it’s stupid.”
So what is the next wave in web storytelling? Taryn simmers on this for a second, “I think the way we tell stories will be very different. The internet allows you to create an experience—I want to call it a fusion of video games with traditional entertainment. The idea that the viewer is actually playing a role and impacting the story. There’s an opportunity for the audience to be a character.” She starts thinking about one of their new web projects currently in the works, trying not to give too much away. “There’s a concept right now that I’m in love with that we’re developing where every audience member is a character and impacts the storyline and what happens. I think we’ll see more of that. I think entertainment will be less of ‘oh is it a web show’ or ‘is it a TV show’, but how is this part of this larger game play.”
The pair feels empowered by their positions as web series creators. You can see it in their approach to the studios, who were once firmly positioned as the only way to reach a mass audience. Now they are able to self-distribute and self-promote, reaching an audience of millions with virtually no formal marketing push. “We have gone to the studios, we’ve been in those rooms and we love working with them,” Taryn says. “But even they are seeing that they have to go to advertisers. They almost become middlemen. On the internet we can be our own studio in a way and talk directly to advertisers.”
What lies ahead for these two is yet to be seen. Success on the internet is about captivating attention and then holding it. Both of these young stars had vehicles that launched them onto the web scene, but now sit in the driver’s seat of their own careers. In order to succeed, they will have to don the many hats they have worn over the past few years, as both artists and entrepreneurs in a business that is still trying to find its own bottom-line.