Jake Paul Promised Them Fame. Was It Worth the Price?

Jake Paul Promised Them Fame. Was It Worth the Price?

In the vast world of YouTube villains, there may be none as famous as Jake Paul.

The 24-year-old Vine star turned vlogger has polarized viewers with videos of dangerous pranks and stunts (though he continues to bring in millions of views). He is a serial entrepreneur linked to several dubious and misleading business ventures (though that hasn’t deterred investors). He has repeatedly offended and alienated his collaborators (though he keeps finding new ones). In 2020, he declared the coronavirus a “hoax.” It can often seem that he lives to provoke outrage.

Now, Mr. Paul is facing allegations of sexual misconduct from other influencers.

Yet he remains the blueprint for many social media stars today. Without him, it’s hard to imagine the current land rush of so-called “collab houses,” where young content creators film videos, throw parties and spur drama. Or the proliferation of prank videos on YouTube. Or the bad-boy archetype embodied by so many influencer-entrepreneurs born on TikTok.

At the center of these comparisons is the Team 10 house, an influencer collective and talent management agency founded by Mr. Paul in 2016. The vision: He and six other creators, aged 14 to 19, would live together and leverage their collective followings for views and cash. Everyone would benefit, but no one more than Mr. Paul.

“I know it’s a cliché, but, like, literally, I want to create an empire of dozens of talent under me, to take my power and multiply it so that I become bigger than myself,” Mr. Paul told The New York Times in 2017.

Back then, the arrangement was uncommon; sure, influencers lived together (the O2L house and The Station had already come and gone), but the houses weren’t all businesses in their own right. Now, such setups are increasingly common — and highly lucrative.

“People look to Team 10 house as the inspiration for collab houses today,” said Brendan Gahan, the chief social officer at Mekanism, an advertising agency. “The Beatles didn’t invent rock ’n’ roll, but they’re the most famous rock ’n’ roll band. Team 10 didn’t invent the collab house, but they became the most famous collab house and really defined it. They created the culture.”

But that culture is now being re-evaluated, as stories mount from creators who say they were exploited for views.

According to several former house members, Mr. Paul could also take 10 to 20 percent of Team 10 members’ YouTube ad revenue for up to five years, even if they left the group. At the time, it sounded like a good deal; Mr. Paul would help them become stars in their own right.

On May 24, 2016, Mr. Mitchell arrived at the Team 10 house with a single suitcase. For several weeks he didn’t have a bedroom, so he slept on a leather couch in the living room.

Mr. Mitchell was given a room to share with Alissa Violet, who was 19 at the time and publicly dating Mr. Paul. “It kind of felt unreal,” Mr. Mitchell, who is now 19, said. “I’d seen those people on social media before, growing up. I’d see all these funny videos so when I went out there I was like, ‘Whoa, this is real.’ It was like I was living in a dream.”

Ms. Mitchell, AJ’s mother, would regularly fly in and stay at a nearby hotel. On some occasions, she even spent the night at the Team 10 house, sleeping in the room her son shared with Ms. Violet. “For me, as a mom, I’m very protective of my kid,” Ms. Mitchell said.

She said that when she called older members of the group to check on her son, they assured her that things were going well; AJ, she said, never let on otherwise.

“All I know is they were doing a bunch of silly stupid videos, being kids,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Sometimes being reckless, but doing silly videos.”

To get views, many YouTubers, including Mr. Paul and David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, relied on pranks and practical jokes, drawing from a lineage of entertainment franchises like “Jackass” and “Punk’d” as well as the work of creators like Mr. Paul’s older brother, Logan. The people living and working in the Team 10 house served as subjects for all kinds of antics.

In his downtime, Mr. Mitchell would write songs in a notebook and play them on his keyboard. One day, he came home to discover his keyboard broken. Mr. Paul told him it had been thrown in the pool for a video.

Followers were the primary currency of the Team 10 house. “If you got tagged in one of Jake’s YouTube videos, you could get 50,000 followers,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Jake would use that to manipulate everyone. If anyone didn’t do what Jake wanted, he’d tell everyone else in the house not to tag them. Jake had a monopoly, and he decided who got famous.”

But there was money coming in, too, and members of the group had questions about where it was going. When Team 10 formed, Mr. Paul set up and controlled business email accounts for each member to solicit opportunities. Mr. Mitchell said he was not aware of the opportunities that he was being pitched for or what was coming in. In the 14 months he spent as part of the group, he said he was paid directly for two brand deals but never received payment from Team 10.

Mr. Mitchell relied on small amounts of money he received from his parents to cover expenses like meals out with the group. Mr. Paul had convinced Mr. Mitchell’s parents that their son would be taken care of, but no meals or structure were provided for him or the other teenage residents. Most of them had never been expected to shop or cook for themselves, and didn’t have the means to do so.

“People see these mansions and they see people living like royalty, but no one knew I was sleeping on the floor or I didn’t have food,” said Mr. Mitchell.

Veena Dubal, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, said: “We have all these laws in place that have been around for a century to protect child performers, but they have not been extended to safeguard the health, welfare and safety of children influencers.”

Because these young creators make money through a variety of revenue streams, and are not employed by a single entity, they can be vulnerable to exploitation. “If there’s not some entity taking responsibility as an employer, then we’re going to see the kind of exploitative and unsafe practices that we have been seeing,” she said.

The allure of living independently and building a following had worn off. “At first I was like there’s no parents here and we get to be free and do what we want,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I felt, like, free in a way. But having Jake be the adult was weird because we all listened to Jake. He was the boss.”

During parties, marijuana and alcohol were available in the Team 10 house. Mr. Mitchell said he once drank so much that he blacked out.

The group often attended parties where guests in their 20s and 30s would mingle with teenagers. Mr. Mitchell said he began a sexual relationship with a woman nearly a decade older than him whom he had met at an influencer party. He understands now that the relationship could not have been consensual given his age.

“I was a baby. I had a baby face,” he said. “I feel like that’s just weird now.”

By late 2016, Mr. Mitchell had left the Team 10 house, though he remained part of the group for several months after. His mother, who was staying at a hotel nearby, had found out about a party at the house and drove over to pick up her son.

In a YouTube video posted on April 9, Justine Paradise, a 24-year-old TikTok influencer, accused Mr. Paul of sexual assault. The incident, she said, involved forced oral sex and took place at the Team 10 house in 2019.

“In a situation like that, there was nothing I could do,” Ms. Paradise said. “I was physically restricted, and I felt emotionally restricted afterwards to even say anything about it.” Three friends whom she told directly afterward about the incident corroborated her account. Ms. Paradise said she plans to file charges.

In a public statement posted to Twitter, Mr. Paul denied Ms. Paradise’s allegations, calling them “100% false.” Mr. Paul’s lawyer, Daniel E. Gardenswartz, said in a statement to The New York Times: “Our client categorically denies the allegation.”

Railey Lollie, 21, a model and actress who began working with Mr. Paul when she was 17, said he often called her “jailbait” and commented on her appearance. She said that one evening in late 2017, after filming a video, Mr. Paul groped her. She forcefully told him to stop, and he ran out of the room.

Ms. Lollie quit shortly after the incident. “I was with Jake for months, and I saw what kind of person he was behind the scenes and what kind of person he put out to the rest of the world,” she said.

In the business and entertainment worlds, the name Jake Paul continues to have cachet. In March, Mr. Paul announced he was starting a new venture fund; already, powerful figures in Silicon Valley have agreed to contribute to the fund.

“These older investors come in who have no idea about social media and they see he’s got a lot of followers. From their perspective, it’s success,” Mr. Mitchell said. “The real story is, Jake should not be getting any money from investors from the things he’s done in the past.”

Mr. Paul, who was an athlete in high school, began a boxing career in 2020. “It brought back the competitive, athletic Jake Paul,” he told Rolling Stone recently.

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Posted by Krin Rodriquez

Passionate for technology and social media, ex Silicon Valley insider.