By Monica Castillo
Like so many other teenagers growing up in 2019, Austyn Tester loves social media. But the 18-year-old influencer isn’t just obsessed with earning likes and followers. Since high school, Tester has dreamed of using his live broadcast following as a way to escape his small town in Tennessee, move to L.A., and chase fame. But even for an aspiring teen heartthrob like Tester, it’s not enough to be cute and online.
Liza Mandelup’s incisive documentary, Jawline, follows a group of teen boys, including Tester, with sizable social media followings who embark on a nationwide tour — and the legions of fans who pay hundreds of dollars to meet them in person. Waiting for the boys at every stop are mobs of young girls, not unlike the generations of Beatles, *NSYNC, Justin Bieber, and One Direction fans before them. Through Tester and 22-year-old social media upstart Michael Weist’s experiences, Mandelup gives audiences an in-depth look at a social media gold rush to gain followers, brand deals, and achieve influencer status.
MTV News spoke with Tester, Mandelup, and Weist at the Sundance Film Festival about their wild ride through this social media bubble.
MTV News: Now that you’ve seen the documentary with an audience, what’s it like revisiting this chapter in your lives?
Austyn Tester: It's so cool. It's like watching a videotape that, not my mother, but Liza made. I was a baby, and someone was filming me growing up. It's crazy how short two years is, but how long it can feel when you look back on it. It's like, my god, I've changed so much.
MTV News: Why did you decide to talk about positivity on your channel?
Tester: It's more just like my struggles in life, and how I overcame those. I can pass advice down and help others. It was me being influenced by other social media influencers, ones that I was fans of who would motivate me and keep me positive. I wanted to be like them. I want to spread the positivity like they do. Change peoples’ lives. It is constantly surrounding myself with positive people, even on the internet. Plus, why would I want to be negative or drama or anything? Why would I want to cause anyone harm or stress? Like, why not help them? Spreading love is better than spreading hate.
Director Liza Mandelup poses with film subjects Jovani Jara, Julian Jara, Michael Weist, Donavan Tester, and Austyn Tester at the Sundance premiere of Jawline
MTV News: How did you get in touch with Austyn to make a movie about him and his experience?
Liza Mandelup: I knew I wanted to make a film in this world, and I started filming various meet and greets. I found out that there were these meet and greets where these girls pay money to meet the guy that they have been following online really closely through the live broadcast apps. That sounds really crazy. So, I went to a couple meet and greets, and it was as crazy as I thought.
The emotions were just insane. These girls were just so in love with these boys that they've never met. They were telling me they were so connected to them and that they were the love of their life. They were best friends and they talk every day. How is this possible for a 16-year-old to be doing all this? We started filming those meet and greets and then eventually found Austyn. He was discovered out of obscurity by someone who had randomly seen him on the app, and it was kind of his very first time broadcasting. We started with him at the very beginning.
MTV News: And how did you get interested in live broadcasting, Austyn?
Tester: It's funny cause I have no clue. One day, I was like, let me download this live shooting app. I downloaded it, and I remember just sitting in my bed, criss-cross applesauce, just talking to the camera. Then someone popped up, "Hey." I'm like, "Hey, what's up?" I'm just talking to one person, and then I get at most five people where it was so cool. I was like, "Alright guys, I'm gonna be back on tomorrow." Then, five people showed up again. It was awesome. I just talked about whatever I wanted to, and I liked it.
MTV News: And then in the documentary, you go on this rollercoaster ride of a tour. What was it like to film those events?
Mandelup: With documentary you never know what is going to happen. We were always rooting for Austyn, especially meeting him so young and so early on and him trying to chase his dreams. I thought this is the moment he's getting on tour and everything's going to happen.
Tester: Yeah, it's definitely a roller coaster ride, just how everything took off from Kingsport to the city. There's just no opportunity there for me [in Kingsport, Tennessee]. I don't want to make it sound like it's the crappiest place on Earth, but for entertainment industry or anything like that, it is. You work in a factory or you're a doctor or teacher, and it's kind of boring. Doing the same thing every day the rest of your life. It's not for me.
MTV News: The documentary also shows what it’s like after a tour of meet and greets. How did it feel to go back into broadcasting after that?
Tester: It was definitely a crash. Every weekend there was like a thousand screaming girls, "AHHH, oh my gosh," and then, boom, back to Kingsport where I'm not managed anymore. It’s such a total lifestyle change. It was so hard adjusting. I started getting a lot of anxiety and stuff, just feeling like I didn't fit in.
Michael Weist: Post-tour depression is what we call it. It’s after big festivals where we have tons of meet and greets. Even going back to L.A. is still not the same as being on a tour bus every day, waking up and going outside to thousands of screaming girls. It's just different.
Mandelup: Austyn is just one story, but a lot of the struggle that we see is you're so young and you're working and you're being part of this industry — part of this ecosystem is that it brings you in and then spits you out. That is really hard for a teenager to experience when you naturally, as a teenager, have so many anxieties and things to have to deal with. Then throw that in the mix [and] it can be really harmful for someone.
MTV News: One of the things that really stood out about the documentary was that Liza included a lot of voices of the girls who go to these events. Why did you decide to include them in the film?
Mandelup: I saw the whole thing as this sort of triangle where it was like you have the manager, you have the talent, and then you have the fangirl. The structure of the film in my head was they all have to play off each other so that the viewer can understand the ecosystem.
When we were actually filming, I thought we'll have like one fangirl to counteract the boys. Each time I would meet a different fangirl, they were a chorus. One singular story doesn't necessarily explain what's happening. What's happening is hundreds and hundreds of girls are following one boy. It only made sense to weave them all together. They were all dealing with their own personal struggle. Every girls' story is heart-wrenching. It was like you wanted to give them a hug after or something like that. This made me think about that time when I was a teenage girl, too. That is a really hard time, and you really don't know where to put your emotions.
MTV News: Social media changes so quickly, what’s one of the things you noticed about this industry while documenting it?
Tester: I would say social media changes a lot. I mean, the app I used to live shoot on when I got noticed on by a manager is gone now. The platforms are constantly changing to the next. Some just kind of die out.
Mandelup: Even as we were finishing shooting, the app that they were using was done. The film takes place on the coattails of the social media gold rush. Everyone thought, I can get famous off of this, and that person did it, and he's making a ton of money and has millions of followers. It became oversaturated. I think what you see in the film is this world of everybody thinking that all it takes is just going live all the time or posting on social media all the time, and I, too, can become famous. It's actually not that easy. It’s really hard to keep up with. I think a lot of boys in the film struggled to keep up with that.
Weist: You can see my battles some of my clients trying to get them to stay focused because once they feel like they've made it they are really quick to be, "OK, I don't have to do it anymore." Well, if they don't, someone is going to come right up from the bottom and replace them, which happens.
MTV News: How has life changed for you since the end of the documentary?
Tester: I'm caught up with school. I'm a senior this year. I'll graduate in May, and then college will start in fall. Currently, I'm in school and a barista at Starbucks. People do not want to follow you if you have nothing to support. I'm not posting on social media as much.
MTV News: Do you have any words of advice for kids who might have followed you or might be interested in going after that social media lifestyle?
Tester: I would tell them to don't be discouraged by the negative comments. Remember why you started. It's very important to remember why you started this goal, why you wanted to obtain this goal, and, to never give up. It's going to get really tough sometimes. You are going to go up and down in life, but remember to stay motivated, stay consistent, and stay being yourself.