POSTED: Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 11:00pm
UPDATED: Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 11:04pm
CNN — The set-up is simple. A beautiful woman looks directly at a camera and does short, jokey skits about relationships, pop culture and whatever else is on her mind.
The woman is Jessi Smiles, a young Cuban-American from Miami. Smiles was a struggling 20-year-old juggling two jobs when, about a month ago, she started posting videos to Vine, beginning with remakes of popular Vines other people had created.
Now she has more than 1.9 million followers on the social-video network, has started and ended a public relationship with an equally "Vine-famous" guy, and has quit jobs as a makeup artist and receptionist to pursue her dream of acting full time.
Vine is a mobile app from Twitter for sharing videos that are no more than six-seconds long. The videos are created on smartphones and tablets using a single button to start and stop recording, and clips can't be imported, edited, reordered or deleted.
Even with those limitations, or possibly because of them, Vine has become a hit since its January debut.
The medium has even created a vibrant online subculture and its own cast of cult stars, called "viners."
They are not household names like Robin Thicke, Bruno Mars or Beyonce (though many real stars do have large Vine audiences). But Vine celebrities like Smiles, KC James and Curtis LePore have millions of followers. Some say they are recognized on the street daily, with fans asking if they can get a picture with them and a signed autograph.
Josh Darnit makes cute and funny Vines with his kids and has half a million followers. The most popular comedian on Vine is Josh Peck who has 3 million followers. Peck was already famous from his television show on Nickelodeon, "Drake and Josh."
KC James is another Vine-grown superstar. He writes and produces mini-comedy bits, usually pulling in friends to act them out with him. The 22-year-old now has 2.5 million followers on Vine, which makes him No. 5 on the list of most popular Vine users. (For reference, One Direction's Harry Styles is No. 18.) Like Smiles, KC said he is recognized in public regularly.
How does he explain the explosion of interest in his videos?
"I'm just being myself and being goofy. I like to make my Vines relatable," said James.
James has also parlayed his Vine celebrity into a career. He said he has a TV show in the works as a direct result of his Vine posts, and is excited to finally have the opportunity to follow his dreams of comedic acting and writing.
Vine itself is not profitable, but posters with big followings can make money by plugging brands on their own channels or appearing in Vines for companies. Both James and Smiles are represented by a company called Collab, which has licensing rights to all of their YouTube content. James also has appeared in Virgin Mobile ads on that company's Vine account, which were arranged by GrapeStory, another Vine talent agency.
"My life has completely changed. I've had the most amazing opportunities and such great exposure because of Vine," said Smiles. "None of this would have been possible without it."
Their followers have created fan pages and imitation accounts, and the comments on their videos are typically things like, "Please follow me!!! I will do anything for you to notice me."
Smiles is still adjusting to the attention. She said she is flattered by the knock-off accounts, though she is unsure why anyone would spend the time to do that.
"My mom still has to remind me that I can't leave my house without makeup and wearing pajamas," Smiles said. "People recognize me everywhere, no matter what state I'm visiting. It's surreal."
When Smiles arranged to meet her then boyfriend, fellow Vine star Curtis Lepore, in real life for the first time in New York City, they invited all their followers. The result was a "Super Vine," when thousands of fans show up in person to meet a Vine star and then film the mass gathering to post on Vine.
How do normal, everyday people catch the attention of so many strangers? What is it about this simple app that pushes people into celebrity status?
"It's kind of an escape for a couple of minutes. If people are having a bad day they can go to our Vines and see these people that are saying it's OK to be goofy," James said.
One reason some of these Viners say they are growing a devout following is their relatable nature. The Vines often tackle real-life scenarios and common pet peeves. The top Viners also tend to have one thing in common: comedy. People connect, and even become a little obsessed, with their down-to-earth, funny personalities.
"When people tell me that I changed their life because they were in a dark place and I helped to make them laugh -- that is the coolest thing," Smiles said.
Finding fame through an app is a new phenomenon unique to this generation. Though the videos are short, standing out is no easy feat. With over 13 million active users posting on the service, how does someone become a Vine star?
James advises, "Just be original. Spend time writing. A lot of people think it just happens, but it takes a lot of time and I work hard at my Vines."
"With only 6 seconds to shine, your creativity is pushed to another level," Smiles said.