‘The Story of a True Artist’ by Dominica Phetteplace: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

I was once a star on YouTube. With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo.

Our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together. Most of the screen would show whatever video game he was playing, with his joke commentary. The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head. Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blond hairbow headband atop my black hair. I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the video game. That was my commentary.

At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers. Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star. But I felt like a star. I got fan mail and hate mail. I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top half of my head.

My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting.

“I don’t get it,” they would say. “Can you explain it?”

“Exasperated sigh,” I would say. “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help. Shakes head.”

But I did have an agent, and that agent helped us get an endorsement deal from Taco Bell.

“It’s very important that the sponsored content you create remains authentic to your audience even while it elevates the brand,” she said on the conference call.

Cam and I agreed even though we knew this already. We agreed even though neither of us would ever be caught dead in a Taco Bell.

Always get the last word.

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The video Cam put together showed him playing Battlefield, only all the bad guy heads had been replaced by Chalupas while the bullets had been replaced by Nachos Belgrande. The top half of my head was where you’d expect it, only my eyes had been replaced by rotating Doritos Locos Tacos that occasionally shot lasers to give Cam an assist. The hilarity was enhanced, as ever, by my hardworking eyebrows.

Actually, it was some of our best work. And we got $5,000 for it. My half was enough to put off foreclosure for another couple of months while my dad continued to look for a job. If we continued to get more deals like that and grow our audience, my parents might not have to work at all, and we could move into a Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool. That was the plan.

But after our big Taco Bell deal, Cam announced he was leaving YouTube, thus severing Cam&Lo.

“Sad face. It’s not you,” he said as he brushed his ironic Justin Bieber bangs from his face. “I need to pivot mediums in order to grow as an audience. This disruption will be good for the both of us. Find me on Vine, my handle is CAMCAM.”

Cam and I were artists in several different mediums, not just YouTube. We were best friends and collaborators. One of our installations in progress was the performance of trying to be popular. Like all worthwhile art, this was very difficult to execute, but we were making progress.

We had begun to eat lunch in the courtyard with the others. We went to parties on Friday nights. The ultimate goal was to continue to look down on the popular kids while being popular ourselves. It was going to be so awesome and meta, once finished. Now it was never going to be finished.

Cam ended us in first period.

In second period he was posting his first Vines.

By third period he already had 100,000 followers and counting.

At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.

“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.

“Sigh,” I said.

“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out. Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”

I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

“Wait,” he said.

So I stopped and paused a moment before turning around. I truly felt like the act of pausing and turning around would turn everything else around. Cam was wrong and would admit as much as soon as I faced him again and then things could get back to the way they were supposed to be.

“Yes?” I said when I was ready for my apology.

“My lawyer is sending you a contract. Check your email,” he said. Then I stormed off for real.

The contract arrived in fourth period. His lawyer used to be our lawyer. Now his lawyer was asking me to sign over my moral rights to Popular Kids for fifty dollars. Only a monster would ask for so much in exchange for so little, but financial straits being what they were, I took it.

I already knew my next installation would be the most powerful form of revenge I could think of.

The only way you can ever really hurt another artist is to create a work so awesomely brilliant and so similar to your rival’s that you obviate the need for your rival to exist at all. Aiming for suicide-inducing greatness sounds risky and cruel, but Cam was too much of a narcissist to ever self-annihilate. I could only hope to make him feel jealous and unnecessary, pretty much how I felt as I watched his follower count tick up, up, and up.

Of course each of us as humans contains the abyss, but by fifth period I felt like I contained nothing but the abyss.

How could he do this to me?

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