Roy Purdy is trying to choose a weapon. There’s a basket of props, mostly fake blades, in the corner of the room, and he’s holding them up one by one to the mirror, pointing them at his own head in the reflection. He picks a small styrofoam shank first and, immediately unsatisfied, drops it on the ground. He does the same thing next with a plastic knife. And then he discovers the samurai sword.
We’re at a multi-channel network (MCN) in Downtown Los Angeles called Collab, a maze-like series of offices and studios that help Purdy make and put out his content. There’s a potential new distraction at every turn—video games, a bar, a basket of toy daggers—and grown men and women are grabbing at him to pose for selfies. The place is like a WeWork for upcoming and established social media stars. Purdy arrived here, as he does almost everywhere, on his skateboard, laser flipping in the building’s garage and flying down the hallways.
He walks onto a small stage and stands in front of a red curtain, suggesting angles for the photographer shooting him.
“Do it straight on,” he says, after testing out a few poses. “Like you’re looking down the barrel of a gun.”
Roy Purdy is a 20-year-old YouTuber from Appleton, Wisconsin, a small town about 30 miles southwest of Green Bay. (That's his real name, if you're wondering, courtesy of a great-grandpa.) Last August, he surpassed 1 million subscribers, in addition to his always climbing Instagram following of 2.7 million. His success as an internet phenomenon, over the past few years, can mainly be attributed to his humorous displays of public dancing, as well as his brightly colored wardrobe and geometric, 80s New Wave–esque pink and green sunglasses, which he first purchased at a party supply store.
“My dad, he gave me a lot of his clothes,” Purdy says. “I copped his style. But I don’t think he really knows what happens on the internet—he texts me to check my email, when he sends me an email.”
Whether his father knew it or not, Purdy first went viral in high school with his “#RunningManChallenge,” where he danced through the halls as other students walked to class. (It’s racked up 4 million views on YouTube.) The graduation video, “when u graduated af,” that he uploaded a month later has since received almost 6.5 million views. In it, Purdy, in cap and gown, dabs as he accepts his diploma to Drake’s “We Made It.”
“I made my first videos in the school my senior year,” Purdy says. “I wanted people in the background, and I couldn’t do anything at the local mall anymore. They banned me for, like, a year.”
Without a camera in his face, Purdy is reserved, almost pensive. He’s not as boisterous as his online presence would lead you to believe, and when we chat, it’s as if he would rather be—inoffensively—someplace else. He is, in a word, shy.
He speaks with the ease and casual demeanor of the best skater from the ninth grade, as if every single one of his talents just happened upon him. Like skating: “My babysitter gave me [a board], and I just, like, started riding it in my driveway.” And dancing: “I played in an 80s cover band for a while.”
Purdy skates very well, by the way, and his signature dance move, where he bends his legs left and right, arms swinging wildly, while his knees nearly touch the ground, is wonderfully surreal on every view. It looks as if he’s about to break both his ankles. (He’s “rubber legged,” as the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica put it.)
The current staple of Purdy's content is a fusion of these elements—a vibrant wardrobe, an impressive trick, and a potentially popular dance—and they all encapsulate his brand, which is nicely summed up in a slogan on the merch he sells: “good vibes only.” Watch “IN NEW YORK I MILLY ROCK,” as he kickflips and literally milly rocks next to a cop in Times Square, and try not to smile. Or the moments—five, in total—where he boogies around the University of Colorado, Boulder’s campus with a mannequin head atop his own stuffed into a hoodie, making him appear six feet tall. And my personal favorite, a 30-second clip where, at the last opportunity, he happily side-steps around signs that read “BAD VIBES,” “DRAMA,” “FAKE FRIENDS,” and “DEPRESSION,” and finally takes the lefthand route toward “SUCCESS,” over the righthand turn of “FAILURE.”
His aura is that of goofy self-awareness, and he is not, like many in the crowded landscape of vloggers, reliant on shock value. He isn't, like notorious Instagrammer Supreme Patty, reduced to squeezing whole limes into his eyes before hurling himself blindly into harm’s way or pouring milk over his head in a restaurant while screaming, “Little Dick Gang!” He’s never lowered himself to obnoxious or cruel stunts, like either of the Brothers Paul, Logan or Jake. Those content creators have inspired massive followings, but also invoke the ire of just as many, if not more. Purdy, on the other hand, is in the process of building a career being seemingly the most likable person on the internet.
“Even Korea likes me,” he says, laughing, when I ask about the scope of his fanbase. “Kim Jong-un, hit me up!”
Perhaps the best illustration of Purdy’s affable appeal can be found on a Reddit thread titled “God is dead and we killed him,” where someone posted his “Milly Rock” video, presumably to encourage vitriol. Instead, the post is flooded with comments about how much he’s loved, and why, exactly, that is: “Kid’s got moves, is goofy AF and doesn’t bother people or make fun of strangers like other youtubers do,” writes one commenter; “I love his cheesy smile. You can see he’s just having a grand time,” says another. “Maybe,” one commenter concludes, “this guy is unhateable.”
Purdy is a party. He paints his nails and owns rainbow grills. He is pure, unadulterated escapism. He is the future: a walking, living, breathing meme in the flesh. He seems—refreshingly yet quite jarringly, given everything happening the world—perfectly content all the fucking time.
Purdy’s precipitous rise in this evolving industry of independent content creation owes a lot to his manager, Sam Leigh, a former military cop and assistant at CAA in his early 30s. As the founder of inArtists, “an entertainment and marketing firm specializing in the convergence of digital and traditional talent and media,” Leigh is driven by one goal: to make sure social media stars receive the money they deserve. Other than Purdy, he has clients such as J.Cyrus, a rapper comedian; Kenny Knox, a dancer; and Blake Webber, who frequently does voice-overs on top of popular Instagram clips of 6ix9ine and Cardi B.
Leigh signed Purdy in mid 2017, and has found much success with his client. Purdy's posi-vibes, naturally, are good for advertisers, and services like secondary ticket marketplace SeatGeek and AXE body spray have paid Purdy to incorporate their products into his robust Instagram account. (Purdy is, essentially, his own distribution platform. To put his social influence in perspective, he has a similar number of Instagram followers to major media companies, like HuffPost, VICE, and BuzzFeed.) Leigh declined to say how much brands pay Purdy per post, but he will say that Purdy earns income from “various avenues”—Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Music, Amazon, Twitch, YouTube, touring, film, and TV, in addition to the explicitly branded content hashtagged “ad,” per FTC guidelines.
“Gen Z has the highest buying power of any demographic,” Leigh emphasizes, about Purdy’s key demo, “spending $143 billion, 41 percent of which goes to shoes, accessories, and apparel, making ‘merch’ a key revenue stream in many clients portfolios” as well. This is music to the ears of advertisers, of course, who spent over a billion dollars on social influencer marketing in 2016, and increased spending in 2017.
Purdy, on the other hand, is in the process of building a career being seemingly the most likable person on the internet.
As a manager, Leigh’s passionate about getting Purdy the best deals and contracts. Because of “Roy’s aesthetic,” Leigh is able “to carve out ‘cameo clauses’ where appropriate,” which basically demand buyers working with Purdy pay him if they use his image in any marketing before a given project is released.
“Digital artists need union protections in place,” Leigh insists, “to ensure the dignity and longevity of their work.” In recent months, inArtists has begun working closely with SAG-AFTRA to secure just that.
“The changes in this business are happening at lightning speed,” David P. White, the director of SAG-AFTRA, said in an email about content creation. White specifically referenced the demonetization of YouTube, and said Leigh “is one of the significant voices championing the dignity and rights of the artists in this evolving industry.” (In partnership with Janson Media, a media distribution company, inArtists aided in getting King Bach, formerly the most followed person on Vine, onto Amazon Prime. Right now, according to Leigh, Bach is the only independent content creator on the streaming platform. But he believes, with its 100 million subscribers around the world, that won’t be for long.)
But Leigh also sees himself as a producer—a gentle nudger, a father figure, an invisible hand. He’s a Virgil to this young Dante, guiding Purdy through the uncertain hell that the internet has become. He does not—and cannot—tell Purdy what to do, but he tries his best to set him up for success. Though he’s a content creator, Purdy doesn’t always have the self-imposed motivation to create content.
In March, for instance, Leigh helped get Purdy together with his friends, using the allure of pool, ping pong, and the general atmosphere of a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. If Purdy, along with some of his dancing buddies, began hanging out, and eventually a camera was introduced, the content would occur without much more than subtle goading, he thought. One of the guys who lived in the house was SavageRealm, a SoundCloud rapper who describes his music on Twitter as “lyrical trap Christian gospel edm alternative drill rap music.” SavageRealm is a good friend of Purdy’s from the internet and boasts 700,000 of his own followers on Instagram. (Leigh also represents him.) In the house was an elevator, a room with wall-to-wall mirrors, and a camera: What else, really, did Leigh have to provide?
Nothing, it turns out. In no time, someone played Famous Dex’s new song “Japan,” and the “Japan Challenge” was born: Purdy began choreographing moves, and two dancers, Kenny Knox and Lil Da, followed his lead, encouraging others online to do the same.
“They just started dancing and shit,” SavageRealm told me, through Twitter DM, when I asked how everything came about. “I was downstairs playing Fortnite… but all I could hear is hella loud footsteps.”
The finished video, which incorporates the elevator, the mirrors, and camera motions that tilt with the beat, was uploaded to Instagram at the end of March and has since garnered more than 4 million views and countless copycat entries.
Purdy’s growing social media influence is, he tells me, ultimately an effort to launch a rap career. He has a touring agent, he says, but needs more material before he hits the road in earnest. Music has been his passion since he was a teenager, and it’s clearly no accident that most of the songs he dances to in his videos are hip-hop.
“I handed out mixtapes to my teachers,” he says, about high school. What he’s done on YouTube and Instagram to acquire a following, he contends, “isn’t that much different.”
Most recently, he released a lyric video for his new song “Walk It Out!,” an inoffensive Asher Roth–like b-side that will surprise no one, and in early April, he was the opening act in a Midwest run of shows with Yung Gravy, another Wisconsin-born musician who has songs titled “Mr. Clean” and “Ice Cream Truck.”
Purdy’s mom, Brenda, a middle-aged embracer of new media who stage-dived at her son’s recent show in Madison, and whom he credits with his “happy-go-lucky” attitude, said “the energy of his positive vibe” exploded during that performance: “I believe the expression is, ‘It was lit!’”
Purdy mainly raps about how he’s going to keep living the life he’s living, even if you don’t like it (though most people clearly do). There are SpongeBob and Rick and Morty references strewn throughout (a cartoon of the former, wearing Purdy’s signature glasses, graces his Instagram avatar), and if this is what lies ahead, it’s not all that surprising. The trajectory from online persona to SoundCloud rapper while staying an online persona is fairly common. Ditto SoundCloud rapper to megastar. The paradigm of stardom and how to get there has shifted wildly, so much so that Walmart Yodel Kid, Mason Ramsey, made more headlines than anyone at Coachella not named Beyoncé. The sky’s the limit, and there is no longer a ground floor, in all of entertainment, but especially so in the music space.
A couple of months ago, Purdy had what might be considered his first traditional big break in music: He was paid to appear in Snow Tha Product’s upcoming song “Myself,” featuring D.R.A.M., who recorded himself greeting Purdy on set. The conceit of the video is an adult birthday party, a blowout in a mansion in Southern California, and the director, Damien Sandoval, who described the entire experience to me as “dope,” had Purdy splayed out on a table and dancing, among actual giraffes and “fire techno and fire pyro stuff.”
“He makes a bunch of cameos—I’d love to work on a video for one of his songs,” Sandoval told me over the phone. “Like, 100 percent.”
Purdy’s future in rap—an undefined amalgamation of Tyler, the Creator–inspired antics and original beats (he’s rapidly dropped two new songs in about a month)—is as uncertain as the industry he has found himself in. If people are still going to love Roy Purdy, his concentrated foray into music will certainly be the ultimate test.
The day after my time with Purdy, he headed to the desert for Coachella. He didn't perform as a successful rapper, but he wasn't your regular attendee either. Instead, he occupied a space somewhere in between, joining so many others vying for Insta-glory as the positive, internet-famous personality he’s perfected. As Leigh would later tell me, Purdy was barely able to walk a foot without getting asked for a photo.
“It got to a point,” he said, laughing, “where I asked Roy to take his glasses off.”
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