When the whirlwind July 28 wedding of YouTube superstars Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul finally got underway, three hours late, it went off exactly as planned — which is to say, it was a dizzying clusterfuck.
The live-streamed, hotly anticipated ceremony took place in Las Vegas’s Graffiti Mansion with a giant hashtag (#JanaForever — “Jana” being the couple’s ship name, a portmanteau of “Jake” + “Tana”) scrawled across the roof, amid a backdrop of celebrity impersonators, a fistfight, a crowd of dazed reporters, and a collection of outdoor mall outlets. What was promoted as an exchanging of rings was better characterized as a facetious litany of moments designed to go viral, artifice presented with frenzied urgency but no earnest emotion.
Sure, the wedding was technically legally binding, but that alone surprised plenty of people: The couple had just started dating in May, got engaged in June, and announced their wedding date just over two weeks ago, at VidCon. The ceremony, staged to the hilt and fully live-streamed on streaming platform Halogen for $49.99, doubled as a giant promo for Tana’s new MTV reality webseries, included Jake’s internet-troll brother Logan declaring they wouldn’t last a month, and ended with the couple leaving separately. Many weren’t convinced that this was anything more than the stunt it very much appeared to be.
Whether or not Paul and Mongeau’s love is sincere is entirely beside the point. The implications of their gaudy Las Vegas nuptials aren’t really about love, modern relationships, or even the demise of good taste. Instead, Sunday’s affair was steeped in the traditions of YouTube prank culture, which is all about doing it for the “Likes” and subscribers. No one knows that world better than Jake, best known for mild Disney stardom and being Jake Paul everyday, bro, and Tana, best known for her loyal fanbase and last year’s disastrous TanaCon.
The real union on display was the marriage of reality TV’s extreme artificiality and social media’s presentation of “authentic” media figures. “Jana” represents a new phase of internet celebrity — one that combines all the aesthetics of reality television with the self-aware, DIY marketing hustle of the influencer.
How fake was this wedding? Let us count the ways.
If you’re new to the world of Jana, here’s a quick recap. Jake Paul, age 22, is an Ohio native and former Vine star turned massively popular YouTuber. Both he and his older brother Logan Paul came to fame in the early 2010s through their love for pranks, which they established with a spontaneous, Punked-in-six-seconds ethos on Vine. The Paul brothers’ audacious stunts — such as jumping over moving cars and trashing their LA mansion for clicks — evolved into a hugely influential part of YouTube culture as Vine fell by the wayside.
You might remember 24-year-old Logan Paul as the controversial YouTuber who gained international notoriety (and a permanent YouTube black mark) after posting a video in Japan’s “suicide forest” in 2018. Little brother Jake has never reached those same lows, although he did earn the moniker of “reality villain for the YouTube generation” from the New York Times, thanks to the shock-jock vibe of many of his pranks.
Mongeau’s tactics are a little more subtle. Her vivid “storytime” vlogs, in which she dramatically recounts stories from her own life, have spawned multiple memes and gained notoriety for their tendency to clickbait viewers. (For instance, in one video she famously claimed, “I almost died in an Uber … no clickbait.” Her driver was a creepster, but non-lethal.) Mongeau’s 4.7 million YouTube followers are paltry compared to Paul’s 19 million, but her fans are extremely loyal and eager to commune; last year, her attempt to hold a “TanaCon” as an alternative to VidCon turned into a Fyre Fest-level disaster when 20,000 people showed up. But Mongeau has turned that seeming failure into a big win, dramatically increasing her profile with the stunt. She landed a webseries for MTV, MTV No Filter: Tana Turns 21, which launched in July and promises to “follow Tana Mongeau and her crazy crew for a behind-the-scenes look as they navigate vlog life, studio time, partying and the occasional controversy.”
With all those fans and all that intense performativity from both partners, the Paul-Mongeau wedding was always going to fuel plenty of public and media speculation. But the circumstances surrounding this relationship meant that it cultivated legions of skeptics long before there were rings involved.
Mongeau began dating Paul on the rebound from a dramatic series of previous relationships that included actress Bella Thorne, whom she dated in 2017 and remains friends with, and Instagram influencer Brad Sousa (who honest-to-god became famous for looking like Justin Bieber). Mongeau and Sousa broke up in April, immediately before fans started noticing Mongeau and Paul hanging out. Paul, meanwhile, had ended things with his previous girlfriend, YouTuber Erika Costell, back in fall of 2018. But despite both vloggers being single at the same time, legions of fans and internet gawkers speculated that Paul’s new relationship with Mongeau was a hoax.
Yet Lindsey Weber, co-host of the celebrity-explainer podcast Who? Weekly, told Vox that Paul and Mongeau’s relationship makes a lot of sense. She pointed out that Mongeau’s vlogosphere and Paul’s prank pack had been united in the form of Team 10, a drama-filled YouTube network headed by Paul which is similar to blogging networks or podcast networks. “[The networks] are known for a certain kind of humor,” Weber said, “and they exist to bring in new content creators, boost up the old ones, and make more and more money.” Mongeau joined Team 10 in May 2019, when her relationship with Paul was still new.
“I guess the only way to explain how they got together is that they were two YouTubers existing in the same sphere, and obviously they became friends … and it was kind of an obvious thing,” said Weber. “Which is why when people say their relationship is fake, I’m kind of like, ‘yes and no,’ because part of me is like, of course these two who have so much in common, who know everything about YouTube and how it works and how to make money off of it, would make a great couple. It’s like meeting somebody at work — it’s not unusual for them to date each other.”
Perhaps because they were both so YouTube-savvy, the couple completely leaned into that perception that their relationship was fake — in fact, they more or less bear-hugged it.
They milked every moment of buildup to the wedding, starting with the engagement — which took place at a nightclub as part of Mongeau’s 21st birthday party. Mongeau posted the news as an Instagram story, and, of course, tweeted it out.
JAKE JUST PROPOSED
— TANA TURNS 21 ON MTV OUT NOW (@tanamongeau) June 24, 2019
— TANA TURNS 21 ON MTV OUT NOW (@tanamongeau) June 24, 2019
Despite publicly claiming to be offended by people who doubted their relationship, the couple deliberately exploited the skepticism. Tana Turns 21 contained an entire episode touting the uncertainty. “Tana’s Friends Doubt Her Relationship w/ Jake Paul” sees Mongeau’s manager, Jordan Worona, bluntly pointing out how much more power and clout Paul has as an influencer, not to mention his bad reputation, then awkwardly asking, “Do you like him as a … person?” To which Mongeau replies, “Something about him kinda, like, scares me.”
Bring on the wedding date announcement! ”No more broads in Atlanta / no more girls caught on camera / I’m loyal to you and all the spray-tanas,” Jake wrote to Tana in a poem that announced their wedding date. The reading of the poem happened in mid-July at VidCon, the seminal YouTube fan-and-industry conference — from which Paul claimed to have been mysteriously banned. Nonetheless, he filmed a prank video from the conference, in which he appeared to sneak past VidCon security in order to “surprise” Mongeau by showing up during her panel and announcing their wedding date — live and in front of thousands.
(The VidCon banning, incidentally, either never happened or was very quickly retracted. Meanwhile, Mongeau herself returned to VidCon one year after her rebellious, disastrous effort to call out what she saw as poor treatment of vloggers by VidCon officials. The difficulty of knowing for sure who is anti-VidCon, who is banned at VidCon, and who is just pretending to be anti-VidCon and/or banned at VidCon is a tiny microcosm of the greater difficulty of knowing what’s real or not real on the internet in 2019.)
Post-VidCon, the couple subsequently announced their wedding as a “Holy Cloutramony” — clout being the social brownie points that all influencers seek — and urged invitees to “Come camera-ready: What happens in Vegas will end up on YouTube.” They also invited numerous reporters from prominent media outlets, some of whom wrote up firsthand reports of the wedding that ranged from breathless to baffled. Even while on the plane to Vegas, the wedding party portrayed their antics as rowdy, raunchy, and slightly incomprehensible; it all started to seem like absurdist performance art.
All of this chaos was undoubtedly, meticulously orchestrated. What’s more, the method behind the madness wasn’t just about grabbing attention or making headlines. It was arguably a response to, and an outgrowth of, the many ways in which individual content creators like Paul and Mongeau have been increasingly shunted to the side as YouTube culture has changed.
Mongeau and Paul represent a part of YouTube culture that’s been struggling to survive
Combining these two high-energy households and their large fan followings into one entity — a.k.a. “Jana” — isn’t just a high-maintenance prospect. It’s a lucrative one.
In the wake of widespread changes to YouTube’s search, recommendations, and advertising algorithms, both Paul and Mongeau have learned to up the clickiness of their content and use their influence over followers in order to bring in brand sponsorships. The extreme and overt marketing of their personas to advertisers has evolved in large part out of a site-wide shift among YouTube influencers forced to make up for lost advertising revenue due to the aggressive algorithm updates and demonetization of videos. Writing about this culture shift earlier this year, The Verge’s Julia Alexander noted that Logan and Jake Paul had both been at the center of the push to up the ante on YouTube’s most lucrative creator content, and that it was inevitable someone — it turned out to be Logan — would make a mistake:
It wasn’t a sustainable form of entertainment, and it seemed like everyone understood that except for YouTube. The Paul brothers were on their way to burning out; all it would take was one grand mistake. Even critics of the Pauls, like [Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. YouTube’s most popular creator, PewDiePie] empathized with their position. Kjellberg, who faced controversy after controversy, spoke about feeling as though right or wrong ceased to exist when trying to keep up with the YouTube machine.
“The problem with being a YouTuber or an online entertainer is that you constantly have to outdo yourself,” Kjellberg said in a 2018 video. “I think a lot of people get swept up in that … that they have to keep outdoing themselves, and I think it’s a good reflection of what happened with Logan Paul. If you make videos every single day, it’s really tough to keep people interested and keep them coming back.”
The backlash to Logan Paul’s Aokigahara Forest video, as well as growing alarm over reports that YouTube was a home for disturbing kid’s videos, caused the site to massively crack down on all types of individualist content: edgy, avant-garde, sexualized. While that shift ironically did nothing to quell the rapid ideological radicalization of YouTube, it did have a profound effect on the vloggers, gamers, and grassroots artists who had built the site and its culture.
The iconoclastic, quirky, organic, and arguably not-TV-ready content that YouTube creators had built brands around became more unprofitable than ever. The only way to truly “beat” YouTube’s ever-more-strict demonetization algorithms was to produce massive amounts of content, which took massive amounts of resources and readily available cash. That meant that YouTube’s top content began to shift away from individual content creators and toward corporatized networks with the resources and production values needed to game the new system.
This shift left creators like Paul and Mongeau struggling to figure out how to stay on top of the YouTube ecosystem while continuing to profit from their videos. The result? A new era for how creators operate on YouTube and across social media.
With huge drops in ad revenue, the best alternative for YouTube influencers like Mongeau and Paul was to appeal directly to brands, corporate sponsors, and the public itself — selling their own calculated personas as their products.
That may sound like a no-brainer. After all, isn’t that what influencers on other platforms do all the time? Sure. It’s only been a few weeks, after all, since that viral Instagram engagement tour turned out to be a carefully crafted marketing stunt. If YouTubers turn their high fan engagement into brand sponsorships, perhaps that just makes them good at their jobs. Think back to the sheer pageantry and theatre of this spring’s massive feud between beauty YouTubers Tati Westbrook and James Charles. Not only was it pure, petty human drama, but it also doubled as a massive advertisement for Westbrook’s products (she sells beauty vitamin supplements). No one planned the virality of that moment, but imagine how much more lucrative it could have been if they had.
“We’re starting to see influencers for what they are,” Buzzfeed’s Lauren Strapagiel wrote skeptically following the “Jana” engagement announcement; “brands with something to sell.”
But the worlds of prank culture and vlogging culture that Paul and Mongeau dwell in can’t really exist in other social ecosystems. Moreover, they thrive on a specific presentation of reality that mixes YouTube vlogging culture’s assumed authenticity and levels of intimacy with a surrealist milieu. YouTube creators and their fans welcome that strange, over-the-top vibe that comes from keeping the camera on 24 hours a day, all while trying to drum up “original” content while still just being yourself. At that decibel level, inviting a fake Oprah Winfrey, cutting your wedding cake with a samurai sword, and blatantly staging a fist-fight starts to seem like casual behavior.
Someone just threw a glass of champagne at jake and I at the fucking altar holy fuck HAAHAHAHAHAHA. jana don’t need no press. wow. just married. honestly made it better…. to slow dance while they scream. i love you @jakepaul ….. hello tana paul!
— TANA TURNS 21 ON MTV OUT NOW (@tanamongeau) July 29, 2019
That level of everyday drama has primed YouTube for a reality-TV-influenced makeover. Mongeau herself joked in her Instagram announcement for Tana Turns 21 that “I’ve always been talentless, but to finally be talentless on an MTV reality show is such an honor for me.” Savvy YouTubers who run what are known as tea channels are already profiting from monetizing the kinds of community gossip that basically double for the filler moments in a reality contest where all the other contestants gawk at the person who’s serving up the drama of the day. Given this background, arguably no two people on YouTube are better positioned to deliberately shift their content creation away from authenticity toward fauxthenticity — toward the glossy, scripted, carefully edited presentation of reality TV.
Both Paul and Mongeau purport to be fans of reality TV themselves, added Weber. “These YouTubers grew up on reality TV, and they’re very smart about this,” she said. “They see the tropes on reality TV that are very successful and they put those narratives into their own work.”
Moreover, fans who watched creators like Paul and Mongeau rise through YouTube culture understand and appreciate the marketing knowhow behind the wedding performance. They may think “Jana” is fake, but more than 76,000 of them have viewed the live stream of the wedding since Sunday — which means that $49.99 live-streaming fee, incidentally, has netted the happy couple roughly $3.8 million.
As Alexander noted, the paid live stream makes the wedding seem like traditional pay-per-view — but as Jake Paul himself has observed, the live-streamed performance is really not unlike the dynamic between wrestling promoters and fans: at this point in the culture, wrestling marketing has blatantly embraced the “fake” reality behind wrestling matches, and courting fans by nodding toward the bouts’ scripted elements. Meanwhile, legions of wrestling fans already know the game is faked — but they’re signing up for the entertainment value, anyway, and for the parts of the spectacle that can’t be fabricated.
“At this point, I’m at peace with the question of ‘is it fake or not,’ because it doesn’t matter,” Weber said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or fake because it’s entertainment. Their work is being entertainers, and because they live a pseudo-reality-show lifestyle … everything in their lives has to be part of the show. And this is just another part of their lives.”
That self-aware dynamic between fans and creators, combined with the marketing tactics the couple deployed on every front, makes the “Jana” wedding a new level in internet artifice. Even without Mongeau’s sparkling new webseries episode that followed less than 24 hours after the couple tied the knot, the messy blurring of lines between sincerity and performativity meant that no one was surprised when, at the end of the night, the couple left in separate entourages and Jake Paul was shortly thereafter seen partying with a cadre of beautiful women, without his new bride. (So much for “no more girls caught on camera.”)
But then, no one was ever supposed to be surprised by any of this. The wedding was never about marriage vows, but about merging a carefully presentational form of high drama with the spontaneous hijinks and trappings of prank culture — and getting an audience that came for the spontaneity to buy into the staged drama.
And if many of those fans are demanding refunds — maybe they’ll get credits toward the couple’s inevitable live-streamed breakup.