When Everyone Knows Your Name

How USC students found fame online

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Illustrations by Wanda Felsenhardt

Much to Sharon Osbourne's dismay, the famous-for-nothing stars of today à la Kim Kardashian have proven that celebrity goes way beyond talent, and money is more than a salary. From Instagram endorsements to “doing it for the vine,” this is a land where follower counts equate to social status and likes and retweets are the common currency.

While becoming a career-Instagrammer is not what your adviser may have planned for you, that doesn’t stop 20-somethings from making their names known. Columbia may not have a red carpet, but like any good USC student knows, we have no limits.

So how does an everyday girl in an instant world navigate her way through this complicated terrain and still come out on top? Where there’s a news feed there’s a way.

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"Are you Maddy from Twitter?" She walked into the Starbucks, dropped down on the first available spot, and propped her feet up on the chair next to her. 

“I’m sorry I am such a hot mess right now, but it has been a DAY.”

This is Maddy Lanier, both on- and offline. She is crassness in winged eyeliner, fierce and ready to take on the world. The local Twitter royalty has had many posts go viral, but she is most well-known for her tweet about Malia Obama.

“I wanna hear one more republican parent complain about Malia Obama like their son isn’t doing lines of cocaine in a frat house before church.”

Maddy describes her “brand” as using Twitter as an emotional outlet while simultaneously using humor to cope with the world around her. She is always present, an open door ready to let you into her world at all times, with a quick retort in her back pocket at all times if necessary.

“I used to not be like that and be sort of closed off, but then when I started experiencing more traumatic things in like 2014, I became more open,” she said.

In the middle of this high-traffic Starbucks, Maddy had no reservations about sharing her story. In April, her father committed suicide, leaving lasting impacts on herself and her family. She turned to Twitter during this time to channel and sort through her thoughts at the time. Girls quickly began to reach out to her in her DMs, sharing similar instances of trauma.

“I had no idea how many people could relate to me,” she said.

As time went on, she began acting as a hub for advice for any girls who might be struggling. Maddy then made her DMs open to the public so there was no barrier between herself and someone who might need help. Unfortunately, that invites unwelcome commentary.

“For every weird guy who’s sending me s**t, I’m helping probably like five girls,” she said. “So I’ll just block the guys and keep it open if I’m able to help the other girls.”

It’s not all Dr. Phil here, though. While Maddy does take discussion seriously, she also masterfully capitalizes on her 140 characters with wit and intellect. Her viral content has even extended from cyber-land to her real life.

“I’ve served people at my work who will be like, ‘Are you Maddy?’ and I’m honestly shocked,” she said. “One time I even had a family that tipped me $40 because their daughter recognized me from Twitter!”

From standing up to trolls to standing up for causes like Black Lives Matter, Maddy leaves no leaf unturned on her profile. While this may seem like an admirable feat, every hero needs to take off their cape every now and then. 

“I do think it’s essential to have a break every so often so that you don’t get overwhelmed,” she said. “I did miss the memes, though. That’s why I had to come back.”

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"I just use my phone!" I found K. Lee Graham with her long, dark hair draped over her shoulders as she sat at a small table in the new law school, studying even though it was only the first week of class. Somewhere in the distance, you can almost swear Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is playing.

“Would you mind if I took this call?” she asked. “My mom forgot her password, and it’s my job to remember it for her.” Any millennial child is more than familiar with this plight.

This exchange is only a fraction of the sweet-as-pie kindness that exudes from K. Lee. The former Miss Teen USA pageant winner and Instagram elite holds about 32,000 followers on the photo-sharing application. When scrolling through her profile, you are met with candid smiles, breakfasts that are almost too cute to eat and uplifting messages.

“Instagram allows me to kind of put out the images that I have in my head to the world,” K. Lee said. “It’s my matter of self-expression.”

Like any high school freshman alive in the iPhone age, K. Lee was usually posting funny pictures of herself and her friends online. That all changed in 2014.

“When I first started really getting people to follow me was when I did the Miss South Carolina Teen USA and then, consequently, Miss Teen USA pageants,” she said. “When I won that was when I went from about 5,000 followers to 15,000 followers in the matter of a month or two.”

Within the same year of being launched into the spotlight, K. Lee braved the Big Apple alone at 17 years old.

“I felt very young, and that’s when I started having an Instagram following,” K. Lee said. “It felt weird because I was still so in my own little world, posting what I thought was funny and made me laugh.” 

The competition judges may have given her 10s across the board, but fans are fleeting and criticism isn’t always constructive. From then on, K. Lee had to learn to throw on her favorite accessory: rose-tinted glasses.

“You have to remember that social media, for whatever good it has, also provides an opportunity for people to hide behind a fake persona and hide behind the fact that they don’t have to tell you something to your face,” she said.

This optimism truly helps paint the way K. Lee sees and depicts her life. An artist all her life, K. Lee admittedly curates her life, showing the things she finds most beautiful on her Instagram.

“Having an artistic outlet is good for everyone, and for me photography and even modeling is what that was for me,” she said. 

When asked how she captures such lovely images for her profile, she said she just uses her iPhone whenever the moment strikes her.

“I think you can find beauty in your everyday life, no matter who you are.”

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Women and millennials alike are taking what once seemed vapid and vain to many, and transforming it into a source of empowerment and a reflection of the overall human experience. Whether it’s through uplifting images, or an uncensored line of communication, women like K. Lee and Maddy are reaching the masses in a way that most can’t.

So maybe these girls aren’t the next Jennifer Lawrence tripping across the Oscars stage, but they are representative of the rise of a generation who has sought to make a name for itself.

Now that you know their names, @ them next time you have something to say. 

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