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.

When AJ Mitchell received a direct message from Jake Paul in early 2016 about an opportunity in Los Angeles, he was intrigued.

An aspiring musician in small-town Illinois, Mr. Mitchell had earned more than 80,000 followers on Instagram. Mr. Paul, who was raising capital to start a media company focused on influencers, said he could help him become much bigger.

Aaron Mitchell, AJ’s father, said he “was not very impressed with Jake” and that he didn’t want his son, who was 14 at the time, involved with Team 10. However, after extensive conversations with Mr. Paul’s parents, Greg Paul and Pam Stepnick; Mr. Paul’s assistant, Erika Costell, who was in her mid-20s; and Neels Visser, another member of Team 10, he and his wife, Allison, decided to allow AJ to join the group.

The arrangement worked like this: Each of the influencers could live in the Team 10 house (a rented mansion in the upscale Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles) for free if they agreed to produce regular content for social media (which Mr. Paul would monetize) and participate in brand deals. (Mr. Paul declined to comment on the financial arrangement he had with house residents.)

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.

Mr. Paul’s YouTube channel offers an incomplete record — many of his videos have been removed — but it includes footage of members of Team 10 being electrically shocked without warning and facing pressure to jump from the mansion’s roof into a pool. The videos give the impression of a rollicking frat house during rush season rather than a collaborative work environment.

Former Team 10 members told The Times that Mr. Paul once chain-sawed through a bedroom door to wake up two people in the house. One of Mr. Paul’s former assistants recalled arriving for work to find her desk had been smashed for a video. The Times sought comment from Mr. Paul on the material of the YouTube videos and the accounts of former Team 10 associates, and he declined.

It wasn’t just people in the house who were affected by Mr. Paul’s pranks: In 2017, a man sued Mr. Paul for hearing loss after the influencer blared a car horn at him; the case was later dismissed.

“When it comes down to someone having to do something to get attention, every single day you have to do crazy stuff,” Mr. Mitchell said. “If you go back and look at those videos, you see a lot of crazy stuff and you’ll see why kids are drawn into it, because it was a house full of kids doing whatever they want. Every day it was a new crazy thing, but people wanted to watch it.”

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.

It wasn’t until recently that Mr. Mitchell told his parents the full extent of what took place in the house. Ms. Mitchell said she is horrified and angry. “I’ll tell you right now, had I known anything about any relationship with a girl 10 years older than him I would have had the law involved,” she said.

Several months after Mr. Mitchell’s departure, the rest of Team 10 was forced to move; neighbors said Mr. Paul had created “living hell” for them and turned their sleepy neighborhood into “war zone.”

The following year, Ivan and Emilio Martinez, two YouTubers from Spain who had lived in the Team 10 house, spoke about their decision to leave. In a YouTube video, they said Mr. Paul bullied them, terrorized them with pranks and made racist comments mocking their background and language skills. (The two speak English as a second language.)

In a 2018 interview with the YouTuber Shane Dawson, Ms. Violet described what it was like to date and work with Mr. Paul. “He’s not a physical abuser, but mentally and emotionally, 100 percent, every day, 2,000 times a day,” she says in the video. “I can’t even remember a conversation where it was me walking away feeling good about myself.”

“If we filmed a video, and he had to push me into a bush, normally, you’d nudge someone or pretend to push someone. He would actually shove me,” she says, as she shows scars to the camera. “He would just do it way too hard.”

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.

Fighting has helped Mr. Paul expand his audience. It has also made him richer: In an interview with ESPN last year, Mr. Paul said he earned “eight figures” for a fight against Nate Robinson, a former N.B.A. star. For his most recent fight, against Ben Askren, a former mixed martial arts champion, Mr. Paul’s disclosed pay was $690,000. (After the fight, Mr. Paul wrote in an Instagram post that the fight had drawn 1.5 million pay-per-view customers.)

Where other YouTubers, like David Dobrik and James Charles, have faced financial fallout after accusations of misconduct, Mr. Paul has yet to see such consequences. “If Jake’s sponsors and investors don’t hold him accountable, then why would he change any of his actions?” Ms. Paradise said.





Source link