The former child skater pulled himself out of poverty with his viral videos––and even broke into Hollywood––but at what cost?
It's just before 1 PM on a Saturday when 16-year-old Steven Fernandez rolls into Fresno, California, after spending the night in a $50-dollar motel room he shared with half a dozen adult handlers. Although he's been napping in the backseat of the black $36,000 Lexus he owns but doesn't yet have a license to drive, the social media wunderkind perks up when he sees the scores of young girls who've been lined up since before sunrise to meet the person they call Baby Scumbag. They spot him from several hundred feet away and start to sob while sprinting into oncoming traffic as the car pulls up to his rap show at the historic Tower Theatre.
"Hello beautifuls," Fernandez says, mostly to himself, throwing up a peace sign. "Look at that fat booty, oh my god."
The girls are desperate to catch a glimpse of Fernandez, a five-foot-five skater with a childlike face and a right elbow scarred from a 14-stair gone bad. Although he was a promising athlete as a young kid, Fernandez's real fame came at age 11, when his cousin Jose Luis Barajas filmed him in a video called "How to Get Girls" and put it online.
The segment, which racked up millions of views on YouTube, catapulted him to notoriety as a child Lothario. As part of his brand, Fernandez started appearing in photos as a preteen with scantily clad older women who were, perhaps, hoping to get noticed by his newfound friends, like rapper Mac Miller. Improbably, the Compton-raised kid born of Mexican immigrants parlayed this persona into a bit in the T.J. Miller movie Search Party, in which he played a sketchball kid who sold fake IDs. When he was featured in a 2014 PBS Frontline special as a child star whose preternatural skill for self-marketing took him from poverty to rubbing elbows with A-listers, he seemed to embody the American dream—albeit the LA-version in the age of Instagram.
Ostensibly, Fernandez has been carted to the Central Valley by a rapper named Cherry Garcia to perform under the moniker Lil Cloud, though the child star is the first to admit that he doesn't know much about music. Meanwhile, the girls chasing him into traffic don't seem particularly invested in his heavily autotuned odes to alcohol and narcotics, either. There's an unspoken understanding between both the artist and fans, then, that the concert is merely perfunctory. Before it begins, there are much more important duties for Fernandez to attend to—specifically, a series of meet-and-greets with adolescent girls who won't stop grabbing his dick.
Many of these girls, who refer to themselves as "Scummys," paid $150 for the privilege. And if that seems like a lot to spend on a photo op with an underage Instagram personality, consider the amount of energy some Scummys put into writing fanfiction about the guy they refer to as "my skater boy" and "my secret crush." Take for instance the author of i n s e c u r e, a 32-chapter saga of a girl from Compton with an absent father, a history of cutting, and a nagging feeling that she's undeserving of love. The story climaxes with her giving Fernandez a hug with her legs wrapped around his chest, his abnormally strong core supporting her weight.
Today Fernandez rarely skates, which suggests he isn't quite as strapping as the Scummys might like to believe. During the meet-and-greet, one girl runs and jumps on top of him so hard that he tumbles over. But, being the professional he is, Fernandez gets right back up and lets the girl wrap her legs around him.
There's another much more significant way in which the chivalrous hero of Scummy lore differs from the Baby Scumbag of reality: Steven Fernandez is an accused rapist awaiting trial, according to Detective Ninettte Toosbuy of the LAPD. She says that in late 2015, the then-15-year-old had sex with a 12-year-old girl alongside two adults—his 23-year-old cousin Barajas and a 27-year-old professional skateboarder named Keelan Dadd—in exchange for an appearance in a non-existent upcoming MTV special. He's been charged with having sexual contact with a minor and rape, according to Toosbuy, and his case is a particularly significant one in a society where the line between celebrity and civilian has become muddled and the barriers of communication between the two have essentially evaporated. What's more, Fernandez's is a cautionary tale about the lack of protection afforded socioeconomically disadvantaged kids who go viral.
Ask any of Fernandez's young fans what they think about the charges and they'll tell you the alleged victim just wanted attention. His family, for their part, stands behind him too. His great-aunt Marisela, who is also the mother of codefendant Barajas, serves as a guardian of sorts and never misses a performance. Fernandez himself says he's been falsely accused. Initially, the LAPD claimed that his behavior was so psychologically sophisticated that the district attorney's office should charge him as an adult. Meanwhile, Fernandez's attorney has claimed that the child star was himself a victim.
Accidental fame is difficult even for adults, something I learned early in my time with Fernandez. Standing outside the theater after the show, a group of young girls spots me and begins to scream at an ear-piercing volume. I try to flee but there's no obvious escape route. It's unclear what's happening until one pulls out a phone and shows me a photo that Fernandez posted to Snapchat. There I am: sleeping in the front seat of his Lexus while he mugs in the background.
"He's more than a skateboarder, he's more than a celebrity, he's our soulmate," one Scummy opines. "Do you know him?"
After I manage to assure the girls that I am an adult woman in no way competing with them for their idol's attention, they release me from their circle.
"You're so lucky," another says before taking off. "I can't imagine what it's like to know the real Steven."
The problem is, there are conflicting narratives about who the "real Steven" is. According to LAPD Detective Ninette Toosbuy, he's a predator the likes of which she's never seen in her 14 years working the sex crimes unit. During a visit to her office in Reseda, she explained how the parents of a 12-year-old girl found messages from the teenager on their daughter's phone and brought her in for questioning. The girl then recounted how the child star—who was 15 at the time—had lured her into a car where he promised introductions to celebrities in return for sexual favors. The cop told me that Fernandez, Barajas, and Dadd later met her at an abandoned house for consensual sex, although no plans to introduce her to any stars existed.
Then, in November 2015, the LAPD conducted a sting by pretending to be the same young girl and asking Fernandez to meet up at that same abandoned house. This time, only Fernandez and his cousin showed up. Both were arrested, and two weeks later, skater Keelan Dadd turned himself over to investigators. This sex-for-fame scheme, Toosbuy says, had been going on for years, and all three cases are still in pre-trial proceedings.
Meanwhile, people who know Fernandez spin a much different tale—one of a child born to Mexican immigrants in one of LA's roughest neighborhoods who inadvertently hit it big as a teenage sex symbol.
Public records detailing his early life are scant, and his mother, Rosa Esparza, declined to speak to reporters citing instructions from a lawyer. However, the story that Fernandez's great-aunt Marisela tells me begins with his parents coming to the United States from south Juárez, Mexico, about two decades ago after losing a fortune in the hospitality industry. Standing in front of her Escalade after the rap show in Fresno, she explained in Spanish that after settling into Compton, on the border of South Central, Fernandez's father, Jamie, sold cars while his mother, Rosa, stayed at home.
Fernandez grew up alongside three brothers—Jamie, Jose, and Alex—and a younger sister, Jackie, but first moved in with his great-aunt Marisela, his grandmother, and his cousin, Luis Barajas, at the age of nine. That's also when he was gifted his first skateboard by his grandmother. He preferred the two-story home with a pool to his parent's two-room apartment behind a restaurant storefront, but ping-ponged between the two places throughout his childhood.
"My grandmother loved him so much, and my mom wanted her to be happy, so she had a room set up for Steven and my grandmother," his aunt Keiko tells me.
That grandmother would be the first of many adults—whether they be extended family members, skaters, managers, or fellow entertainers—to step into his life and provide the support he apparently lacked in Compton.
By the age of 11, Fernandez was good enough at skating to have sponsors sending him gear, like Primitive Skateboards and eventually Dirty Ghetto Kids (DGK). It was DGK that gave him his first solo video part, "Baby Scumbag's Dirty Ghetto Nightmare." In the video, the young kid and a slew of older skaters do tricks in Compton in between interludes of the titular character creeping around a spookified version of his parents's house with a flashlight. He grabs the breasts of a mannequin and stumbles upon a mysterious woman twerking upside down, a preview of the conduct that eventually made him a bonafide YouTube star capable of garnering millions of views per video.
The video was a crucial breakthrough in Fernandez's career, even if he still wasn't making any real money. While he showed promise, his aunt and others say he lacked the talent to immediately go pro, and much of his family viewed his love of the sport as less of a career than a hobby that might keep him out of trouble in a gang-infested neighborhood.
Fernandez says his career took a turn after he posted a photo of himself in front of a local 7-11 and noticed comments coming in from girls who said he was cute. (His aunt says that the switch came after an in-store event he did with DGK that brought in hoards of young women, at which point the company handlers started seeing dollar signs.) What's certain is that with the release of "How to Get Girls"—an eight-minute video of Fernandez harassing women on the street, making rape jokes, and then posing with sexy adults—things changed for him and his family.
"I know how you guys like booty, so I'm doing this thing called Instabooty of the week," Steven says in the video as he walks through the bedroom of Nikki Giavasis, an ex-cheerleader for the Houston Oilers. Her teenage daughter, who is filming, turns the camera on herself and sticks her tongue out.
When he gets into the bathroom, where the elder Giavasis is putting on makeup, Steven pulls at her leggings to reveal a thong. The model bounces her ass in the air before her Instagram handle flashes on screen.
"Like taffy," Steven says. "Very rare, bruh."
One fairly clear predecessor to Baby Scumbag's schtick is the 'Man Show Boy,' a kid who had a recurring skit on Comedy Central's The Man Show, which aired from 1999 to 2004. In the segments, an 11-year-old from Orange County named Aaron Hamill approached unsuspecting women on the street with one-liners and demeaning comments.
Hamill's act almost certainly wouldn't get green-lit for a mainstream cable show in 2016. Still, cultural mores haven't changed so much that public record of these kinds of behaviors could preclude someone from reaching the highest office in the country, as our president has shown, and they're considered even more excusable when performed by children. Take for instance this Fusion profile that called the Baby Scumbag persona an extension of his "loudmouth or carefree personality," or this LA Weekly write-up that fawned over the 37 million YouTube views Fernandez accumulated while dismissing his stunts as "just about as misogynistic and girl-crazed as a contemporary rap god." Even the PBS documentary failed to explore these issues, despite showing clips of their subject harassing multiple women. I was also guilty of describing Steven's behavior as that of a typical 13-year-old when I first interviewed him about his hopes and dreams for VICE in 2013. (His answer: "to have a 12-inch cock and to be a porn star.")
"What this child is doing is trying to enact an adult male sexuality and we think it's adorable somehow," explains Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College who writes about hookup culture and the sociology of gender. "But it really reveals just how exploitative and manipulative that sexuality is. When it's used against adult women, we think it's normal, and because he's trying to be grown up, we think it's cute, but obviously it's not cute at all."
The joke lands because of an age-old double-standard: society often simply doesn't conceive of men as vulnerable. When we chatted, Wade brought up the fact that some are repulsed by children's pageants because they require little girls to dress up like adults, while infant boys can be found sporting onesies printed with phrases like "Boobs Man."
"This is something we do to all our boys from the get-go," Wade adds. "And we think it's cute all along. And the fact that [Fernandez] is getting in trouble for it is really interesting because it goes to show that the behaviors that we teach young boys—and later men—to engage in is actually bad behavior. Potentially criminal behavior."
After "How to Get Girls" blew up, Fernandez moved permanently to the Valley and started focusing on his career. Crucially, he also transitioned from a school in Compton, where many students didn't yet have smartphones, to a school in the much wealthier area, where peers quickly picked up on Steven's burgeoning stardom and spread his content to friends outside of California. While enrolled at that school, he created more videos with instructions on how to get phone numbers, but also started spinning a tale about a poor kid just trying to make it.
"When you're poor for most of your life, it doesn't feel like you're really poor," he says in a video titled "How I Got Sponsored," while simultaneously munching on Ruffles and a chocolate Snack Pack. "You're already used to it."
Filmmaker and rapper Kreayshawn, born Natassia Gail Zolot, recognized the undeniable charisma in the kid and was touched by his rags-to-riches schtick. After the two met on Twitter in 2012, she stepped in to fill the role of a wise older sister and, she says, tried to steer him away from some of the more unsavory things he was exposed to as a pre-teen.
"He was my son," she tells me. "I sonned him."
Over lunch at a Hawaiian cafe in Culver City, I ask Zolot about some of the things she felt she needed to be protective about.
"I always saw him surrounded by all this craziness," she says. "He would tell me stuff like, 'This girl wants to pick me up, she's like 30, she wants to suck my dick.' I would be like, 'Don't tell me this, that's child abuse. You're like bragging about it like it's tight, [but] this breaks my heart.' It's like just how men prey on younger girls, there are women out there who prey on younger boys and they see opportunity in this boy who clearly knows about sex and talks dirty so they feel like, 'I can talk dirty with this boy.'"
Zolot referred Fernandez to her manager, Chioke "Stretch" McCoy, but eventually it became clear that the arrangement wouldn't fly. As McCoy describes it, the family didn't want an outsider coming in and running shit. By the time he was a teenager, Fernandez was supporting an unemployed mother, fronting medical expenses for a dad with eye cancer (who passed away in June 2015), employing siblings at a Huntington Park clothing store called Chapter Three, and propelling extended family into a sort-of pseudo-celebrity status.
"I always felt bad for him because he's a kid," McCoy told me. "Like a real-life kid who had the responsibility of adults."
While skating for DGK, Fernandez forged a close friendship with his teammate (and eventual co-defendant still awaiting trial) Keelan Dadd. Like him, the older skater was notable for acting out sexually in public. In a 2014 interview with the online skate magazine Jenkem, Dadd discusses threesomes, Benzes, and the time his internet-famous girlfriend vaped out of her butt. In 2014, the two co-founded a skate company called Honey, and their combined starpower was apparently enough to shut down suburban malls when they'd roll through for in-store events. Although Dadd initially agreed to participate in this story, he eventually stopped returning calls and texts.
McCoy adds that one of the saddest parts of Fernandez's story is that he never got a chance to prove himself as an athlete before getting sucked into all the attendant duties of being a star primarily admired for his physical appeal.
"[Skating] is like a sport," McCoy says. "It's not something you can do once or twice a week. It's something you have to do every day for hours to continue to get good at it, and if you take him away to do these meet-and-greets the whole time, he's not gonna be able to skate."
Meanwhile, Fernandez says school was incompatible with his follower count on Instagram—which at one point topped one million people before the account was hacked.
"It felt weird," Fernandez tells me of being the object of so much adulation. "There wasn't a feeling to it. I felt like people were clones, and I was just chillin' there and people were looking at me. [I felt] like more of an object."
Basically, Fernandez had become what Alice Marwick calls a "microcelebrity." As the author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, she's studied how early adopters of platforms like Twitter and Instagram became famous within the Silicon Valley tech scene. Eventually, when smartphones became ubiquitous, the concept trickled down and the idea of self-branding became as intuitive to most teenagers as it once had been to the Web 2.0 entrepreneurs who invented it. But just as the audience has grown for social media, so has the potential fallout from becoming "Instafamous."
"The internet used to be a nerdy, subcultural niche thing," Marwick tells me. "If you were super famous on the internet, you were famous for a lot fewer people. Now if you're super famous on the internet, you could have ten million fans."
Three days after our trip to Fresno, I finally get to sit down for a formal interview with Fernandez. Even though we've spent about ten hours together in a car by this point, I've barely heard him speak. I'm sitting with him inside the West Hollywood apartment of one of his adult handlers, Julie Sosa, which is decorated with a painting of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and various Sanrio paraphernalia. A wiener dog named Kirby licks at my feet throughout the exchange, which is tense because Barajas, Fernandez's cousin/manager/co-defendant, keeps interrupting as he charges his ankle bracelet.
Fernandez's family is happy for me to explore the "real" story, as they see it—one in which the cousins have long been the victims of predatory skate companies that take advantage of the pair because they're poor and Latino, and therefore perceived as dumb. Then, as the tale goes, after they made a bunch of money, haters and gold diggers came out of the woodwork. Barajas explains that what they feed most media outlets is just a rehearsed rehashing of the same tired soundbites.
"Usually what I tell everybody is that I skate, I go home to my parents. . . " Fernandez begins.
"And he does ratchet videos," Barajas interjects. "Not putting me into this, but how do you feel, Steven, as a kid going through this shit and it's like, people benefiting off of you? Even me?"
I remind Barajas that I'm here to interview his cousin, not him, and Fernandez continues.
"I've done so many deals where I've given some people jobs or gotten [other] people money," he says. "I always end up getting fucked at the end."
When he got his first check from YouTube, for $2,500, Fernandez puzzles, where did it go? And those subsequent monthly checks for double that amount, the ones that used to keep pouring in when he worked every day? He doesn't know what happened to those, either.
During the week I spend in LA, it becomes increasingly clear that Fernandez not only provides a paycheck for a whole clan of Kardashian knock-offs, but also their sense of meaning. They've all achieved through Baby Scumbag what social media researchers refer to as pseudo-celebrity.
Simply put: Fame is contagious. Think of Vinny Chase's Entourage. Or consider how Leandra Goodridge, a part-time makeup artist with her own cosmetics line, has more than 200,000 Instagram followers as a result of appearing in her friend Rihanna's photo stream. As Zolot explained it during our lunch together, our culture's obsession with fame leads to shameless attempts to piggy-back off of other's follower counts. That grim prognosis might also explain why a 30-something ex-NFL cheerleader allowed herself to be fondled by a famous child in "How to Get Girls."
"They're these little girls' moms and shit and they see him and they think, 'Oh, if I prey on him I can get in this music video.'" Zolot says. "It's just that Hollywood climb-to-the-top thing while you're climbing on top of a preteen."
Steven Fernandez's appearance in Fresno that September day—a total of about three hours worth of work—netted him close to $10,000, according to another manager named George Morales, who came on the scene after the arrests because the co-defendants were advised by their attorneys to spend time apart and now helps manage Fernandez as Lil Cloud.
Overall, the skater estimates that he's pulled in about $7 or $8 million in his endorsement deals and YouTube payouts. Barajas helped break down some of the pair's spending habits when they were splitting Baby Scumbag profits down the middle: dollar bills thrown in strip clubs, $25,000 shopping sprees at the mall, $4,000 monthly bills for delivery food, and $7,500 bets placed on UFC fights in Vegas.
"It was Ronda [Rousey] against Holly Holm and I bet on Holly Holm that she would knock out Ronda," Fernandez remembers fondly. "So I put $7,500 on Holly and she beat the fuck out of Ronda. I was really happy. I wish I could just gamble all day and get rich off that."
Sadly for him, the promise of the high life seems to be receding. Fernandez's mom is still living in Compton across the street from the house where she raised her kids. Barajas is on the hook for at least $125,000 to a slick criminal defense attorney, and profits are dwindling for Fernandez, too, since co-manager Morales entered the mix. For instance, each of those adults got a 25 percent cut of the money made in Fresno. Fernandez's trial looms, but there's still plenty of time to make some cash before it happens at events like one that was advertised for in February (but ultimately cratered due to a permit issue) in which Scummys could fork over $115 to see Lil Cloud perform at a carnival and eat dinner with him after.
"He's got so many people in his ear, his cousin and people making money off of him that they're probably trying to figure out what's the next bread ticket," says Zolot. "How can they make money off of him."
Court documents pertaining to Fernandez (who turned 17 in February) aren't public record because he's a minor. But Detective Toosbuy with the LAPD explained that the legal argument for charging the "How to Get Girls" star with rape revolves around the fact that he allegedly used coercion to obtain sex, something that's been illegal for a long time but was typically just considered a "woman problem" in the past, according to Toosbuy.
"In the case of Steven Fernandez, there were a lot of things told to these young girls," she told me. "'If you don't have sex with me, it's not gonna be good for you.' 'But on the flipside, if you do have sex with me, and I can make you a star.' 'If you want to be on my MTV show, you should at least try to have sex with my manager.'"
Although prosecutors likely wouldn't have done much about a situation like this 20 years ago, she says, they will now. Toosbuy initially pushed prosecutors at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office––who told me they can't comment on open cases––to try him as an adult. Now that the possibility of trying him as an adult is off the table, since the offender would need to have been 16 at the time of his arrest, the LAPD has pivoted toward a public safety angle. Despite the fact that Fernandez was systematically rewarded for predatory behavior at a young age, Toosby claims he's a danger to society who should be kept away from the public. No trial date has been set for him yet.
Public documents do show what's being alleged of the two adults involved in the case. Barajas stands accused in court of having intercourse and oral sex with a second minor as far back as 2013, as well as penetrating her with a foreign object. As far as the 12-year-old whose parents came forward and launched the investigation, Toosbuy says that Barajas and Dadd had sexual contact with her on November 4, and that Barajas continued the criminal behavior over the course of several days, culminating in his arrest on the 17th.
Meanwhile, Dadd has pleaded not guilty to an act of lewd behavior on a child and is staring down eight years in state prison. Barajas, who has pleaded not guilty to all 20 counts he faces, could see up to 144 years and change if convicted. Both were found "held to answer" in June of 2016, which means that a judge found there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. The district attorney's office told me the two are due back in court for another pre-trial conference on April 26.
Detective Toosbuy, who has a ten-year-old daughter, can't wrap her head around the fact that parents are giving their daughters money to spend on taking selfies with an alleged sex criminal––something that social media researcher Marwick says is the byproduct of a culture that worships celebrity at all cost. The detective also can't fathom the idea of staging an event for your young relative to be groped by selfie-seeking strangers, a possible byproduct of what sociologist Wade told me is the result of a permissive rape culture that grooms young men and women into a devastating double-standard.
"Watching some of these videos and knowing they were right there on YouTube, it's amazing how not one person went, "WTF? What is this?," adds Toosbuy. "But that has nothing to do with Steven or Jose for that matter, it has to do with these countless people out there who think that is just perfectly OK." She does qualify, however, the fact that the dazzling effect of money on a struggling family is not to be dismissed. She saw the PBS special that painted Fernandez as an inspirational skater and admits it was a great story––just one that turned out very, very sad.
"This started off as something positive," she says. "But then the American dream turned into a nightmare."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.