CreaTyler laying on the ground next to the stairs of a private jet.
Photo courtesy of Mauricio Leyva
Life

The Influencer Next Door

Depending on whom you ask, Tyler Johnson, aka CreaTyler, may be one of the internet’s most elusive or most dubious influencers. To me, he’s just someone I grew up with.
HM
Brooklyn, US
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

Tyler Johnson had, for a while, existed as a strange and gleaming figure in my head. Not only was he an old classmate, but he was this glossy, mythic story I often revisited. Perhaps this is why I was a little jarred to see him during our first Zoom call in late November. Suddenly, he was no longer just a story—he was sitting outside his apartment in Beverly Hills smoking a blunt.

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There was little resemblance that night to the image of celebrity that had built up online and in our hometown over the past four or five years since we last saw each other. The Instagram glow I’d come to associate with him was almost completely absent—he has scruff now, at 23, and wore a faded pink winter jacket with a Carhartt beanie over his chin-length hair, Airpods in his ears. He looked extremely New Hampshire, as if fresh from getting stoned in the woods after hockey practice. While those who grew up with us in Hampton know the name Tyler Johnson very well, the internet knows him simply as CreaTyler.

If you’re the kind of person who followed hypebeast vloggers in 2017, chances are you remember CreaTyler, one of the genre’s leading creators at the time. His videos generally lack narrative, but, for their embarrassing rich-kid-as-auteur aesthetic, they are habit-forming. They are, unapologetically, lifestyle-porn montages set to throbbing club music: glamorous vacation spots, girls permanently in gorgeous swimwear, fast cars, those rent-a-grounded-private-jet photo studios, coiffed teenage artboys. These artboys, with their editing skills and corporate-sexy yet sterile aesthetic, film themselves and each other showing off their golden lifestyles. In one video, CreaTyler Jet Skied near Casa Mis Amores while on vacation in Sayulita. In another, he filmed himself flopping around on the bed in the master bedroom of what, he claimed in the video, used to be “21 Savage’s old house.”

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As the protagonist of his videos, CreaTyler performs a kind of self-congratulatory awe as he films himself gliding through bizarre, half-photo- shopped landscapes. He has generated a few more than 120,000 subscribers on YouTube, and his nearly 200,000 Instagram followers have seen him post only 65 times—yet he’s attracted both the vehement criticism and fervid fanbase often afforded only to vloggers bigger and more prolific than him. This seems to point to an essential quality of influencer culture: You don’t have to be a Logan Paul or a Tati Westbrook in order to cause a stir; you only have to be entertaining—even for a brief moment—and create a character that can speak to the concerns of your audience, for better or for worse.

In CreaTyler’s case, consider the wave of copycats, the parodies, the memes (and gay fan fiction inspired by said memes), and the editing tutorials on how to re-create his aesthetic. In the tradition of our most prominent influencers, consider the alleged scamming scandal he was at the center of, which would affect how his fanbase considered his content. Even if you don’t know CreaTyler, observing his world is enough to understand that he’s part of a generation of young people chasing a vague idea of digital celebrity.

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But CreaTyler is now mostly an apparition online. He’s known for dropping a new video, campaign, or website, and then disappearing for months. His legacy lingers in speculation theory videos, and Reddit threads, and extremely thorough blog posts that investigate his ambiguous background and even more unclear current whereabouts—some of these offerings are more popular than CreaTyler videos themselves. The more you dig into CreaTyler, the more you’ll find questions rather than answers. No one’s quite sure what he does for a living, or why he continues to vanish from the internet time and time again. Just take a look at the comment sections on any of his YouTube videos or Instagram posts:

Followed since 2017 and still don’t know wtf this dude does.

If this guy stopped disappearing and actually put his mind towards making content with a purpose and message he would gain a way bigger following. Dude is obviously skilled in video editing and production, i can see him going far. Am I the only one that thinks this?

Finally, the king of vague Gen Z hype marketing videos has returned.

I only tell you all this to illustrate how bonkers it felt to gossip about this past peer of ours whenever I met up with friends back home in Hampton, when insane rumors about him would circulate (“I read online he might be doing meth!”). Even now, I still see all of us huddled in basements and kitchens, chuckling in awe and embarrassment as we watched him, from a friend’s cellphone, partying at Coachella or boating in Ibiza, unsure whether to fawn or scoff. We would always circle back to his humble beginnings, to when we were still relevant in the CreaTyler Universe: Someone would bring up his Prom-posal flash mob at the Market Basket his girlfriend worked at, someone else would mention that one clumsy New Year’s Eve party he threw. When I texted my Hampton Hotties group chat, asking if anyone remembered what his senior superlative in the yearbook was, one friend chimed in: “most likely to be hated by thousands online.” (It was actually “Best Dressed.”)

Even in high school, he had a passion for what I would call “making content,” and it was during this time that his efforts became serious; freshmen sported his line of Seacoast Swell shirts in the hallwayshis first clothing brand back in the day—an idea born from an economics class project. If you look up its long-dead Facebook page with 151 fans, it reads: “Seacoast Swell is a lifestyle/beach clothing brand inspired by New Hampshire, allowing people like YOU to represent their locality.” This was one of the first slivers of what was to come: a power to commodify local experience and mythology, which would surge far beyond local in a short time.

CreaTyler holding a camcorder.

Photo courtesy of Mauricio Leyva

He seemed tired and distracted on our call. He’d been up since 5 a.m. working at the studio he’s building to support his new clothing brand, Utopia. All I could think about was our early years: the short film that he helped me shoot for my film school application during senior year and the review I wrote about one of his earliest YouTube channels on my archived Blogspot from seventh grade. “Twisted Tyler Films is a YouTube created by a zany kid named Tyler,” the post read. “TTF has an impressive amount of views for an indie YouTube Channel. With almost 6,000 Upload views, TTF seems to have a promising future.”

The first video we ever made together was an unhinged middle school project we did to get out of writing a class report. Tyler edited it with cutting software he had illegally ripped off the internet. “I probably still did that back until like two years ago,” he said over Zoom, laughing. This was before our paths diverged and I became a film school dropout and Tyler became one of the internet’s most elusive influencers.

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Tyler and I both spent a concerning amount of energy trying to get into fancy film schools across the country. By the end of senior year, the time had come for me to prove on paper that I was in fact the budding filmmaker I believed I was. I enlisted all my horny and weepy theater department friends, as well as Tyler, to help me make a short video for applications. While our resulting film was technically fictional, its plot wasn’t far from our reality: a group of navel-gazing drama club kids living in a small town trying to get out, the climactic scene involving two gay boys crying in a car.

Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that I based what I expected to be the first of many films on my life. I was a gay boy bent toward pop music videos, obsessed with compiling Tumblr mood boards and Spotify playlists that would work as the score to any scenario. At the same time that I was work- ing on my maudlin gay Superbad ripoff, Tyler was at work on his own, better film, a short documentary called Teenagers Have an Adventure Like the Movies. It involved getting classmates to join him on a series of summer adventures—cliff diving, making a Slip ’N Slide at the beach, exploring abandoned tennis courts. I can still recall the first title card: “Everyone wants an adventure like in the movies.”

It’s not a shock to me now that this is my favorite video of Tyler’s to this day—both of our projects were an exercise in the same impulse: to turn our humdrum lives into resplendent drama. His video had a DIY, scrappy vigor to it, a dreamy and rigorous performance of adventure. It was clumsy, earnest in intentions, clearly influenced by the work of other adventure YouTubers like Casey Neistat, but it stands in my memory as a warm demonstration of bravado.

I’m not sure there’s one point when I realized Tyler Johnson had become CreaTyler, but if I had to choose a moment, perhaps it was when his strong spike of followers led to trouble.

Teenagers went semi-viral, and the internet, for the first time, was introduced to CreaTyler. The local newspaper put him on the front page under the headline “Winnacunnet Teen’s ‘Real Adventure’ YouTube Video Goes Viral.” Blake Wasson, one of Tyler’s closest friends at the time, who had a hand in helping make the video, is quoted in the article lavishing Tyler with praise. “He’s different than the rest of us,” Blake told the paper then. “He sees things differently, and he has some interesting talents. A lot of us wouldn’t be able to achieve what he’s achieved, and we don’t really have the ambition.”

Blake, a filmmaker and photographer himself now, is still effusive about that video and toward Tyler, despite their having grown apart since graduating. “One thing I loved about Tyler was his constant, overwhelming excitement,” Blake said via email. “I remember the look on his face whenever he pulled the camera away from his eyes—there was always a mood shift that only made the rest of us anticipate the finished product.”

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Senior year, Tyler began to seriously imagine a career in filmmaking: Johnson said he hopes to study marketing in college,” the newspaper article reads. “But he plans on continuing down the film path.” Neither of us got into our dream schools, though our films did land us at universities in the fall. After graduation, I moved to Chicago to attend a film school downtown, while Tyler ended up at Emerson College in Boston.

I discovered at film school that no matter how many lectures were given about the importance of stakes, or how many plot mountains were drawn on the whiteboard, I could not get myself to understand how movies worked. Crushed, cynical, and not hungry enough, I eventually stopped making films and transferred to a state school closer to home. I switched my studies and spent the next few years devoted to making a quieter, less flashy version of the movie I’d envisioned.

Tyler was dissatisfied, too. The summer after graduation, he met and collaborated for the first time with a group of other content creators, one of whom was Adam Horwitz, an internet entrepreneur who had a lifestyle company called Escape With Wolves (though it’s now called, simply, WOLVES); it had a similar aesthetic to CreaTyler’s.

“[Their] videos weren’t as good as mine, in my opinion,” Tyler told me over Zoom, recalling his first meeting with Horwitz and his crew in 2015. Still, he was enamored by Horwitz, by the mansion he had in the Hollywood Hills. It would prove to be distracting for Tyler come fall, when he was set to start at Emerson.

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Like me, he was responsible for putting himself through school for the most part, and it became clear to Tyler that the film school experience wasn’t worth the cost. If less-talented guys could live in a Hollywood Hills mansion making videos, why couldn’t he? Unable to focus, spending class time doodling ideas for new brands, he knew he needed to get out of Emerson—there was a better, brighter movie waiting for him out there.

He moved back into his parents’ basement in Hampton while all his friends were still away at college, making their own lives beyond our small town. “So, definitely that took a hit on my ego, maybe?” he said. “I felt like maybe it wasn’t the right choice or whatever.” So Tyler reached out to Horwitz, who told him to come out to LA and help him develop WOLVES. In return, Tyler would get to live with him in his mansion and earn a percentage of the company’s profits.

“I think the biggest problem content creators have nowadays is that they don’t have the right support system,” Horwitz said in one of the WOLVES videos back in 2017, when he was scouting for aspiring content creators to join his crew. “They don’t have the right opportunity, they’re not in the right community, and they don’t have the exposure that they want to begin.”

I think it’s when Tyler went to LA that I noticed he began to take down his old videos. Soon, none of his buddies from high school could be found on his channel anymore—they were replaced by the models, fast cars, and other artboys he’d discovered while living with Horwitz. According to Tyler, he wound up tagging along on trips around the world with Nick Ginsberg, a friend of theirs whose multimillionaire father invested in an app Horwitz was creating, which Tyler worked on. (Horwitz and Ginsberg did not respond to interview requests.) These new videos began to grow in popularity, and the comments on Tyler’s flexing Instagram posts became more fervent. “I thought I was really cool,” Tyler remembered with a chuckle. “But it was just like I never really even knew what Hollywood Hills was probably when I was in Winnacunnet!”

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When I asked Blake what he thinks of Tyler these days, he was conflicted: “I’ve never actually seen a single one of Tyler’s YouTube videos,” Blake wrote in an email. The golden image Blake has of Tyler and of their high school days is the one Blake prefers to keep. “And I won’t allow the countless reviews and comments and rumors to muddy those waters for me,” he wrote.

Naturally, it wasn’t all as glamorous for Tyler as it appeared in the videos. Though we saw him in videos driving Lamborghinis into an eternal sunset, he was, in reality, a cash-strapped teenager like the rest of us. “[I] had like $50 to my name at the time, and I just remember like almost crying, like what the fuck am I gonna do?” On the outside, it looked so ideal, Tyler said. “But in my eyes, it was like: How am I going to eat tonight, or how am I going to afford to eat for the rest of the week?”

Creatyler standing next to his computer.

Photo courtesy of Brian Vixchy

I’m not sure there’s one point when I realized Tyler Johnson had become CreaTyler, but if I had to choose a moment, perhaps it was when his strong spike of followers led to trouble. Attitudes soured toward him around 2017, when he was accused of scamming fans who’d bought his “private club” membership. The club, conceptualized as a monthly shipment of CreaTyler merchandise to members who paid a monthly fee, was a way for Tyler to monetize his following and fund the channel.

“Basically, we were selling this deal where you’d get two shirts and a hoodie for just $50 a month,” Tyler explained. “And honestly it wasn’t even that profitable because the box cost like $50. It wasn’t even that much of a good idea, but people were buying it.” But packages arrived late, some with the wrong merchandise. Some never arrived at all, and Tyler had to refund them. Tyler blamed the disastrous handling of the membership on a business partner whose name he didn’t “want to say” because of a “deep grudge” he holds toward that person. This person was in charge of manufacturing the merchandise, but he never fulfilled the orders for Tyler’s brand, and by the club’s second month, members had received nothing but had been billed twice. “I don’t hate anyone, besides him,” Tyler said when speaking about the failed partnership. He was hesitant to share any more on the topic.

“Maybe that’s egotistical of me to think,” he said. “But I just think I have all of the pieces for a very long, interesting documentary about sort of creating this internet persona.”

The other controversy that raised suspicions and outrage against Tyler came from his most popular video to date. Called “College Dropout,” the video recounts his time post-Emerson (sans the stint in his parents’ basement and the financial worries), and it features Brandon Amato, a fellow artboy who helped film Tyler’s videos. Featuring Amato was a way to advertise to Tyler’s fans that they could also join his crew and make their own Hollywood Hills dreams a reality, a campaign move straight from the book of Horwitz. Amato later said, in a now-deleted video on his own channel, that Tyler never paid him for his work. But for Tyler, that’s old drama. They ran into each other at a Coachella party and patched it up. “Me and him are actually cool now,” Tyler told me. “I was just at his house a few days ago helping him with his video.” (Amato did not respond to an interview request.)

In the influencer economy of churning out content that will attract eyeballs, the reaction to an event is normally bigger than the event itself. It seems no one was truly outraged over the scandal; they were more interested in performing their outrage—particularly other artboys aspiring to be like Tyler. On a Reddit thread, the original poster ended a very detailed theory on how the scamming might have happened, with a direct plea to Tyler. “Tyler if you are reading this, please stop everything it’s not too late,” the post read, in part. “Your 15 year old fans get a totally wrong idea about youtube, life and everything...”

The same less-talented artboys who groveled in the comment sections about how much Tyler inspired them were the same artboys who signed up for his monthly subscription, and they were the same ones who would go on to flame him in lengthy videos about his scamming, in the hopes of gaining more views than CreaTyler. These videos often did rack up a couple hundred thousand views, but as soon as the creators stopped posting about Tyler, they returned to their remote corners of the internet.

CreaTyler sitting on a surfboard in the ocean.

Photo courtesy of Valentina Quijada

After one of his long periods of inactivity during this pandemic summer, Tyler returned in October to promote Utopia. This time, he underwent a brand scrubbing: Most of the videos on his channel disappeared, including all the travel vlogs that defined the CreaTyler image. Only four videos remain on his page now; most of them are promotions for the launch of Utopia.

He even dropped the iconic prefix from his name, no longer Crea but now, simply, Ty. He sees it as a way to embrace who he is, perhaps a sign that he’s ready to move on. “[CreaTyler] was an Instagram name handle back in high school that I just had, and one video kind of worked well, and that’s how people recognize me, so I just stuck with that branding,” he said. “But now that I’m a bit older, I’m trying to be a bit more professional.”

At one point in our call, Tyler told me he’d been inspired by the Travis Scott and Fyre Fest documentaries—and that he’s thinking of making a tell-all film about the “real story of this kind of finesse” of his, he said. He has footage from pretty much every month of his life over the last five years that documents all the periods of his constructed adolescence. He’s considering pitching the idea to studios. Or maybe he’ll upload it to his own channel.

“Maybe that’s egotistical of me to think,” he said. “But I just think I have all of the pieces for a very long, interesting documentary about sort of creating this internet persona.” After we talked, I found myself rewinding to that first documentary he made back in school, my favorite, the one that begins, “Everyone wants to have an adventure like the movies.” It reminded me of a recurring thought I’ve had, as I’ve reflected on Tyler’s glossy mythology: As long as we continue craving those unattainable movies we design in our heads, we will never stop creating Tyler.