Read a profile of the 21-year-old internet star Lele Pons and you’ll hear a story of success, comedy and glamour. Known for her slapstick sense of humour, Pons became the most-looped and followed Viner on the now-defunct social platform Vine. After its demise she diversified, branching out into YouTube comedy videos and Instagram domination (she has 23.2 million Insta followers and 8.6 million YouTube subscribers). She’s modelled for Dolce & Gabanna; she was one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 last year; and also starred in Camila Cabello‘s ‘Havana’ video (558 million views and counting). But behind her huge success is an intriguing story of vaulting ambition, through which she has betrayed friends, appeared to obsess over her follower count, and reportedly lied about performing charity work. Over the past 18 months, more and more of her friends, acquaintances and peers have spoken out about how she got to the top, and everything she did to get there.
September 2016 – falls out with best friend
Following a public falling out with Lele, her best friend and a fellow Viner Amanda Cerny speaks out to clarify the situation the two of them (from 5.26 in the below video). It transpires that Pons had known the code for Cerny’s phone for months and had been using it to delete Cerny’s Instagram pictures and videos – as well as deleting her first ever YouTube video, twice. Pons then told her fanbase that Cerny had been deleting her material and this was the reason for their falling out. When Cerny posted to Instagram to clarify the situation, Cerny says that Pons sent the police to her house to ask her to take down the post. Cerny’s video, unsurprisingly, is called ‘Why I dumped her’.
June 2017 – called out for ‘rudeness’
Nine months later, another former Viner, JessiSmiles, discusses her dealings with Pons in a YouTube video called ‘The Rudest YouTubers I’ve Ever Met’ – a list that also includes the now-infamous Logan Paul.
She calls Pons a “weird cookie,” adding: “If you ever met her one-on-one you would realise how absolutely bizarre she is. My experiences with Lele Pons have always sucked. When I had more followers than her on Vine, she did not know how to compute that. If you know anything about her relationship with Amanda Cerny, it makes a lot of sense because Lele Pons is cuckoo for coco puffs when it comes to numbers.”
Jessi goes on to describe three encounters with the Viner in which Pons is openly rude. In the first instance she reacts defensively when Jessi invites her out for her birthday; in another she blanks Jessi’s brother when he introduces himself; in the last she brags about how she has just passed Jessi in followers at a nail salon. “So yeah, Lele Pons, you are one of the rudest YouTubers I’ve ever met in person,” Jessi says.
July 2017 – a charitable act is doubted
A month later Lele is the subject of a scandal when she claims to have donated her hair to charity – when she hasn’t. Internet sleuths figure out that the hair in the photo she shares is just hair extensions, not her own hair. She deletes the photo, explaining on Twitter: “I cut my hair with the intention of donating it. Sadly after trying I learned charities who donate wigs don’t accept colour-treated hair so I’m finding other ways to help those affected by hair loss because of cancer. This is still a priority for me.”
She later clarifies that she used hair extensions in her Instagram post to show the length of the hair she had shorn off – adding that at the time she took the photo, her hair was being collected to make a ponytail, because she still intended on donating it – before learning it would not be accepted. Doubters remain.
October 2017 – aspersions over product placement
In a critical examination of Pons’ content, YouTuber Eddy Burback notes that despite being 21, Pons still centres her videos on school life and aims her videos squarely at children. He also picks apart the way she produces content – building it around sponsorship from brands, rather than creating content and later having it sponsored.
He says: “The thing about Lele’s content: Lele doesn’t seem to make stuff and get sponsored so she can keep making stuff. It seems like sponsors will contact her and will say: ‘We’ve seen that you’ve made a video centring on another company before, can you do that for us?’ And she goes: ‘Absolutely!’ But here’s the problem, kiddos… Lele’s audience is very young, and when you’re not clear about sponsorships to young kids, things get a little tricky. If you’re trying to deceive children into liking certain brands, that’s one of the scummiest things you can do in entertainment.”
December 2017 – accused of not writing her own book
At the end of November, the Vine co-creator Dom Hofmann tweets that he is working on a Vine follow-up. Responding to the news, British YouTuber and former Viner Tom Harlock tweets: “If anyone tells Lele Pons I’ma fucking rip your face off bitch”, and the post garners 200,000 likes. Lele responds by subtweeting Harlock: “Dear haters: stop following me and follow your dreams”.
Harlock later discovers Lele has been looking at his entire Instagram story – against her own advice – which prompts him to create the below video in December, in which he calls her out for: lying to her friends and followers about the controversies above; not being funny; pitching her content at 9-17-year-olds to “manipulate” that internet-based audience for money; and, Harlock suggests, not actually writing her own book, Surviving High School. It’s a speedy summation of all the evidence about Pons’ poor behaviour to date.
February 2018 – comedy credentials questioned
Former Viner Cody Ko – his biggest following is now on YouTube – is a comedian, actor and podcaster with a biting comedic style. In the below video titled simply ‘Lele Pons is bad’ – posted in February, and which has swept in more than 1.2 million views since – Ko tears apart one of Pons’ sketches, ‘Homework’, which is currently sitting at around 7.4m views. Like Harlock, Ko mocks the fact that Pons’ comedy is aimed at children and questions why she is still such a success. “This was written by a four-year-old,” he says incredulously.
Lele hasn’t responded to her critics since November.