It’s been said about Julia Allison… “She can’t act. She can’t sing. She’s not rich. But thanks to a genius for self-promotion, she’s become an Internet celebrity.” Ms. Allison has learned the art of personal branding and specializes in distinguishing herself from the pack with a joie de vivre and an innate sense of knowing what to leverage when?
Marketing may be a dated term in this Web 2.0 world we live in…a hackneyed meme attributed to the billboard boys, TV execs and those Mad Men who ran fast and furious in the second half the 20th Century. With all the changes we have experienced in this last decade, Internet branding may have taken the place of Marketing while reputation management and its economy have definitely become the new black!
Like muscle building in fitness training, exercise is essential in building up one’s specs! Brand reputation is a discipline separate from traditional marketing campaigns. It recognizes that due to increased transparency and access to information, ‘traditional branding’ can no longer be fluff unsubstantiated. It can however be fluff substantiated as long as there is an audience to lap up the pablum that is being fed; e.g. the Paris Hilton syndrome. That is not… however… the case with Julia Allison.
With attention comes power and control over one’s destiny. People are now viewed in terms of their identification where personal branding now trumps actual products. In the case of Julia Allison, she learned early on that to make it in today’s field of journalism, she had to not only know her craft, she had to differentiate how to best use her craft to become her own story.
In a recent interview, when I asked Julia what prompted her to become an Internet Celeb, she quickly denied that such an unlikely path was her goal. “I think it would be a bit inane to say ‘Oh yes, I set out to become an ‘internet celebrity,’ as if I checked a box my senior year at the career center, next to ‘aimless law student’ and ‘soulless banker’,” she postured.
She also believes that “Internet celebrity is arguably the least useful media vocation one could fill, although some could make a case that “reality show star” trumps it, if only by sheer ridiculousity. And yes, I realize “ridiculousity” isn’t a real word. I couldn’t think of anything else that quite captured that genre’s inherent absurdity.”
With that said, there was a time early on in her career when it occurred to her that the conventional methods of query letters and job postings were not going to get her a job in journalism. “I had just graduated from Georgetown in May of 2004, and I moved to Newport Beach, California with my then fiance.” I thought, “I can write from anywhere. Which is true, technically. But what I didn’t realize was that editors gave assignments to writers they knew. And I couldn’t meet editors from anywhere but New York.” So she moved.
What followed was a number of humbling years of interning. where countless story pitches were overlooked by editors. “And that’s when I had that one ‘triggering event’ inasmuch as there was just one. I remember seeing a magazine cover featuring Tom Wolfe (in his signature white suit), and hearing from my friend Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist at the Daily News that Wolfe made $6 per word for his writing vs. my $50 per 700 word column.” It was at that moment she had her epiphany: “People would read Tom Wolfe simply due to their familiarity with his byline. Tom Wolfe had transformed himself into a brand.”
So a plan to brand herself was put into motion. “I thought – somewhat unconsciously at the time, later much more consciously – if people were familiar with me, and with my byline, I could: A) be able to publish my writing in a wide variety of publications, B) be able to write about what and whom I wished, and C) be able to make a decent living off of my writing.”
And she was correct! While familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, in today’s Web 2.0 environment it can also nurture micro-fame. “But, like any wish fulfillment scenario, it also comes with a multitude of unintended consequences.” Reputation is definitely a double-edged sword. While the public’s expectations are constantly changing, the very things that create celebrity status can sour and fall out of favor in an instant similar to the fluctuating fortunes of political careers.
Linked romantically with former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., her relationship was used in attack ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Ford’s unsuccessful run for United States Senate in 2006. Allison tells the story without regret: “I went out with Harold a few times when I was a sophomore & junior in college. It wasn’t serious, but I was beyond naive about press (and hell, the world, really!) at the time, and I think quite a few people took advantage of that. But, you know … those were lessons I needed to learn, one way or another. Life hands you whatever lessons you need for the evolution of your consciousness (Eckhart Tolle) and in this case what I needed was a lesson on why you shouldn’t date politicians.”
She also put several publicity events together that spotlighted her ability to be innovative and controversial at the same time. On Halloween 2006, when Allison was dating a columnist for the newspaper AM New York, she solicited the costume designer who created the wardrobe for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (as she puts it: “no one has better costumes than Drag Queens”). What she ended up with was a Halloween costume made entirely of gold Trojan XL condoms, complete with a condom wand and pumpkin for distributing said condoms. She called herself the “Condom Fairy,” and as a result, the story has become the urban legend she “has never been able to live down!”
The press has said that “it’s easy to dismiss Julia Allison as little more than a rank narcissist” ¢â‚¬â€ and many of her vocal online critics have agreed. However, in Wired Magazine’s August 2008 cover story entitled: “Internet Famous: Julia Allison and the Secrets of Self-Promotion.” it details how she managed to storm the Internet with other unique events that received widespread attention. Once she invited handbag designer Mary Rambin and Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to dance in Jazzercise outfits in Times Square to Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘”Dancing in the Street,” which was filmed and documented by cameramen.
Here in a YouTube video following the cover story in Wired, Julia describes how she invests in her own “reputation economy” with Wired’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson.
However as previously mentioned, Julia isn’t the “Paris Hilton” fluff that sometimes gets applied to Internet Celebrities who reach for notoriety. In fact in early 2007, Julia expresses some of her own thoughts about the one-note overexposed wonder on Fox News…
Yes, there is rhyme to her reason and methods for her madness. Utilizing her brand awareness, she’s been hired in the “legit” world of corporate events – including keynotes and speaking engagements to top execs at Unilever, A&E, at DLD in Munich, at Next 6.0 in Denmark, at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, and at MediaBistro’s personal branding seminar.
She’s also been hired as a social media consultant for several companies, and as a brand ambassador with NonSociety for Kodak, Cisco, Axe and a handful of other entities. She’s an unofficial evangelist for Blueprint Cleanse (“I don’t receive payment, but do receive trade”), and was recently hired by Sea World in Orlando to launch their new roller-coaster, the Manta. “I believe in supporting companies and products I think are great, and I also believe that online entertainment has to pay its bills, and smart, ethical sponsorships are the answer to that,” she notes.
When asked what Internet fame has brought her, she thinks “it’s a bit early to say what it has or hasn’t brought me … but it certainly isn’t as if I’m now living in a West Village penthouse, paying for my Manolos with my black Amex while my bodyguards polish the tinted windows on my custom Escalade. I mean, I live in a studio. But you know, I’m pretty psyched that I can now afford health insurance.”
“The most important thing to me is to be able to share my life – my energy and enthusiasm and questions and confusions – through the work that I love – whether that’s a column or writing my blog or TV segments or my little chat show. And that is what the internet has allowed me to do, and so for that I am very, very grateful.”
“Listen, bottom line: there are consequences to every choice we make – each lifestyle we decide upon, whether public or private, whether as a lawyer or a journalist or a scientist or a hippie. Everything has pros and cons, and it’s up to you to do a cost/benefits analysis. No one else can do it for you. Anonymity and its accompanying privacy confers incredible freedom in one sense – you can make your life choices without a chorus of judgment. But there are some wonderful parts about being a bit more public – the ability to have a large scale conversation, to reach many people, to (hopefully) entertain, to think and wonder and learn and grow along with your audience. The opportunity to meet people you would never have met before, to embark upon experiences you couldn’t have imagined – the chance to have every day surprise you.”
In business school we learn that the ‘goal of management’ is to increase shareholder value. As it turns out, the definition of a ‘shareholder’ are those folks that have a vested interest in a company. While traditional business practices focus on the bottom line, brand reputation takes a more holistic approach on the importance of the individual. It recognizes that people can create value through excitement, buzz and celebrity leverage. Ms. Allison has learned to turn the old adage “its not personal, its business” on its head. In the world according to Julia Allison, “getting personal is her business!”
She poignantly sums it up as “I think everyone has a purpose in this world. Many times I’ve wished that mine were something more straightforward: to make people happy through song or dance or acting. Well. It’s quite clear I didn’t get any of those talents. But I can talk. I can write. I can wonder and I can share. It’s not much, but hopefully my little corner of the Internet gives people a bit of joy. I think that’s my life’s purpose. And for that I feel incredibly blessed.”
(Note: Also see my other Internet Famous stories on Nick Thune and Marina Orlova. If there is one common thread that connects Julia, Nick and Marina, it is their ‘joie de vivre,’ the joyous spirit they all bring to life, the roles they play and how they have all have found a unique way to fit into the grand scheme of the Internet landscape).