Mention “that French Guy” to typical teenagers today, and they will know exactly which French guy you are talking about.
Jerome Jarre, they will tell you, is a 24-year-old from France who has become famous for making comical six-second videos on Vine, where he has 8 million followers. The Vines include Jarre walking up to strangers in the street and hugging them, or hanging out with his best friend, a squirrel — though he pronounces it “sqiw-well” with his French accent.
Clips of his stunts have been viewed more than 1 billion times on Vine. He is so famous, that when he recently organized a meet-up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the riot police were called in to quell the crowd of thousands.
What few teenagers know about Jarre, however, is that while his stardom took off in 2013, until last summer, he was essentially homeless in New York, surreptitiously sleeping on an office floor and using a promotional onesie from a startup as a blanket. He showered in a nearby gym, gaining free access only because the young woman behind the counter recognized him from his videos, and scrounged for other people’s leftovers.
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Jerome Jarre was born in Albertville, a small town in the French countryside, and raised by his single mother, Agnes Jarre. In stark contrast to his online persona, his mother said in a phone interview, “young Jerome was quiet, shy and constantly bullied. But he was always happy.”
She added that her son had a fierce entrepreneurial spirit, which led him to drop out of college at 19, against her wishes, and set off to China, and then Toronto, trying to start a half-dozen companies that all failed.
“Through all of this, I felt like I had no purpose; I was totally lost,” Jarre told me in a recent interview in his apartment near Union Square. “My business partner Chris Carmichael, who I’d moved to Toronto with, kept telling me to find my purpose in life.”
Then one day, a strange app called Vine was released. Jarre downloaded it on a whim and knew immediately there was something there. At first, the six-second videos he posted to Vine were as boring as everyone else’s: a clip of a pool table, a candle flickering. And then one evening in a Toronto bar, while in the restroom, he pulled out his phone and did a goofy dance in front of the mirror.
“By the time I got back to my seat, I had 16 likes,” he said. “I was so amazed that 16 people I had never met before had seen and liked my video.” This is when he learned that the goofier his clips, the more people enjoyed them.
After his last startup, Atendy, an event planning service, failed in 2013, Jarre bought a one-way bus ticket to New York, arriving with $400 to his name. He had no job prospects, and everything he owned was stuffed into two small suitcases. He spoke broken English, which he’d taught himself mostly by listening to the audiobook “Crush It!” by Gary Vaynerchuk, on how to turn a social media hobby into a business.
Unlike other 20-somethings who arrive in the city to chase a dream, Jarre didn’t think he needed an internship, or even a place to live, to make it. All he needed was a smartphone with a front-facing camera.
“I would wake up each morning and spend the entire day out in the street making Vines,” he said. “Most days I would end up with one great Vine, but some days I would end the day with nothing to post.”
His hard work soon paid off, though not necessarily in monetary terms. A video he posted asking “why is everybody afraid of love?” went viral, and he was asked to appear on “Ellen.”
His Vine account started racking up followers by the tens of thousands each day. He then struck a deal with Vaynerchuk, from the audiobook he had listened to, to start an advertising agency that focused on Vine stars.
“It took him all of seven minutes to convince me to start an agency with him,” Vaynerchuk said. “He understood Vine, Snapchat and Instagram in a way that no one else did.”
From there, everything snowballed.
One way to describe Jarre’s life now is to think back to the Beatles in the 1960s, when throngs of women screamed at the mere sight of the band.
That may seem like an exaggeration, but when I took a walk with him around Union Square last week, he was stopped every few feet by squealing teenagers who begged to take a selfie with the 6-foot-3 Frenchman. Some girls were brought to tears; others proclaimed they “couldn’t breathe” at the mere sight of him. During one loop around the park, he was stopped more than 50 times.
What makes Jarre so loved by his fans (he likes to call them “friends,” saying that “fans” sounds too hierarchical) is that he is relentlessly positive. There is rarely a photo or video of him in which he is not grinning from ear to ear. The messages he espouses — sometimes in videos, other times in all caps — are meant to inspire kids who have been bullied or are insecure.
While these missives may seem quixotic to adults, teenagers eat them up. During one of our meetings, Alexis, a young teenager with mismatched socks and pink hair, ran up to Jarre and begged him to go to prom with her.
“I look up to him in every way, shape and form,” she told me. “He’s my best friend.” The wallpaper on her smartphone was a quote from him.
Jarre is used to this by now, but the level of fame still surprises him. When he visited Iceland last year with another Vine star, Nash Grier, the two sent a note on social media saying they would pose for pictures at the Smaralind shopping mall. When they arrived, the mall was overrun with more than 6,000 teenagers. The sole security guard on duty thought the mall was under a bizarre terrorist attack.
“I expected 20 people,” Jarre told me. “Seeing all those people was actually really scary.”
He was surprised again a few months ago when an advertising agency offered to pay him $1 million to plug a brand, which he would only identify as “an unhealthy food product,” on social media.
After thinking about it for a week, and daydreaming about buying his mother an apartment in Paris, he turned down the offer and explained why in a YouTube video.
“My purpose in life wasn’t to come to New York City to convince people to eat unhealthy food,” he told me.
After taking a hiatus from the ad agency he helped start, stepping back from Vine, and traveling for a few months, Jarre returned to New York on Dec. 31, this time with grander goals than making a million dollars.
Last week, he started a show, of sorts, on Snapchat under his personal account JeromeJarre, which is part talk show, part art project and part motivational talk for his millions of followers. Robert De Niro, who recorded his first Vine video with Jarre during the Tribeca Film Festival last year and was astounded by the attention it got, is providing office space for the Snapchat show. A mere mention of something on his Snapchat channel can quickly become a worldwide trending topic on other networks.
Last week, Jarre challenged those watching to stop trying to take perfect selfies online, and to post ugly selfies instead. By the end of the weekend, there were more than 120,000 ugly selfies tagged with his name or the hashtag #UglySelfieChallenge.
“Everyone is looking for a purpose in life,” he said as we walked through New York. “The reason we all go to the cinema, or online, is because we haven’t found a purpose yet. We are always wondering why we’re here. But I’ve learned that we have to create that purpose for ourselves.”
When I asked him if he had finally found his purpose, he became shy for the first time. Then, a teenage girl ran up out of nowhere and gave him a smothering hug.
“My purpose,” he said, “which I finally found thanks to social media, is helping all of these people find their purpose.”