October 5, 2018
STRANGER: Demetrius Harmon
LOCATION: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, 509 South Glenoaks Boulevard, Burbank, California
THEME: An internet personality with a positive attitude talks about finding fame online
“I’m the most normal person you’re going to meet,” Demetrius Harmon tells me as we meet for dinner. On a regular day, the 20-year-old wakes up, calls his friends, plays the video game Fortnite, he might make the occasional YouTube video or get on Twitter to share his thoughts. Pretty normal.
What distinguishes Demetrius is the fact that more than a million people are listening to him.
The internet personality found fame making comedic videos for YouTube and the app Vine while living in his hometown of Detroit. He quickly developed his massive following (more than two million combined on Instagram and Twitter) by making people laugh, and parlayed that into making people think — his more recent efforts include videos revealing his own struggles with depression and self-harming, in a bid to help others going through the same struggles. And he’s started dabbling in poetry to share some stories from his stressful past.
Throw in a nascent modeling career and a thriving clothing line that started when he was just 12 years old, and it’s hard to put Demetrius in any one category.
“I’m a renaissance man,” he says, flashing a broad smile. “I do everything, and I have no idea what I’m eventually going to end up doing, so I just try outdoing myself.”
We’re perhaps an unlikely dinner duo; a 38-year-old white British immigrant sitting across from a 20-year-old black guy originally from Detroit with a nose ring and dyed blonde hair, who have exchanged just a handful of emails and texts to organize our meal. But there’s no awkwardness, and that’s in large part because of how friendly, relaxed and talkative Demetrius is from the moment we meet.
At his suggestion, we’re having the dinner interview at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken fast food spot in Burbank, California. It’s a simple, brightly lit place, huge windows line the place, inside are tables with red-and-white checker tablecloths. The attention to detail is less on the decor and more on the service and food, and as I’ll learn later that night, both are outstanding.
“I’m a very picky eater, but I love chicken,” he says while we browse the menus. We order our food, and drinks — Sprite for him, a Stella Artois for me. He asks me what my drink is, I tell him beer. “I know nothing about that,” he says. I tell him that’s a good thing given he’s not 21.
His age is relevant to his burgeoning yet undefinable career, because many of Demetrius’ 1.19 million followers on Twitter are his age or younger. I tell him that’s a vast number of some very impressionable people, and wonder whether he feels a sense of responsibility in things that he posts online. “I try to not filter myself, I try to be as raw as I possibly can to show them the realistic part of me, not just the ideal,” he says, referring for example to tweets where he shares his depression. “But I also realize that I have a responsibility to these people who look up to me. It’s a juggling act.”
A through-line of all his work appears to be his desire to take his negative and positive experiences, and help others around his age who might be grappling with the same issues. And now he’s in the City of Angels, he’s also got his eye on a television show to further spread his message.
“I have an idea for a show and to just see it fleshed out and come to life would be great,” he tells me. “I know TV shows take time getting pitched and picked up, but I believe in it so much. It’s about a certain degree of my life, speaking from the perspective of my age, because this age is hard, especially with social media. You aren’t supposed to be doing much at my age, this is like working up to what you’re supposed to be doing” when older, he says. “But we have 14-year-olds making a million dollars, 20-year-olds that have Porsches. And social media’s a highlighter, so you compare yourself to them, and you’re stuck in this idea of ‘I’m supposed to be someone.’ Your life just started and already you feel like you’re not doing anything. So it’s that story.”
And it’s a story he’s happy to share. “I love talking.”
Demetrius’ story starts with being born in Detroit on March 1, 1998.
He went to high school in the city, and showed an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. When he was around 12 he started a clothing line, based off his graphic design skills. He got into art due to the Japanese manga Naruto and its online game version Naruto Arena. He and his friends would fill journals with their own Naruto stories, with his friends doing the art while he wrote the tales. The game also had a discussion forum, and some users would put their own art as their signatures in comments. Demetrius was inspired to learn photo editing, eventually creating his own style.
He wanted to sell his own art, but doubted there was a market for it. So instead he used a website that allowed him to upload his designs for clothes, and then sell them and make a commission. Two sales in, and he’d made $6 commission. “I was like, bet,” he says, then laughs as he has to explain to this befuddled Generation X guy across from him that “bet” means “OK, we’re doing it.”
From there his clothing brand took off, and from selling to friends at school and online it got to the point where in one month the teenager made $10,000. “It was ridiculous.”
I ask why he didn’t just quit school then and there and devote himself to his clothing company.
“I got black parents, bro,” he says with a shrug. “They told me you have to complete school before you do anything. My mom was like, ‘I don’t care if you got to college or don’t go to college, just please finish high school because that’s the basics of what you need.”
View this post on Instagram
It was a wise call, because business eventually slowed when he was about 15. Then Demetrius — who confesses he was never good at doing homework (I jest with him that he didn’t even read any articles on my site before agreeing to the interview) — focused on graduating high school.
Around that time, he started toying with YouTube videos and what was then a new app, Vine. It allowed people to upload six second videos, and many people used it to show off their comedic talents. He thought about using videos to promote his clothing brand, and doing some talking head vlogs and skits. “I didn’t take it seriously for about a year,” he says.
For his username, he chose MeechOnMars. The Meech part is the nickname he grew up with Then he shakes his head. “I never told anyone this because it’s such a lame idea, but I decided MeechOnMars because I was like, y’all not even on the level I’m on, like I’m so far I’m not even on Earth, I’m on Mars,” he tells me, deriding what he now sees as a weak username. “I hated MeechOnMars because I couldn’t even abbreviate it. I couldn’t do an acronym. MOM? Horrible.”
He credits his best friend Angelo with pushing him to follow through on some of his more offbeat Vine sketch ideas. “I literally couldn’t be who I am without Angelo. He’s the most carefree person I ever met,” he adds. They first met in high school, and are still making videos together.
When the baby doesnt come out how you expected https://t.co/AgR39zB7eZ
— The Artist Formerly Known As MeechOnMars (@DemetriusHarmon) January 28, 2016
Demetrius confides that he lacked confidence at the time he was making Vines. “I was very insecure. I’m still working on it now, but it was pretty bad up until recently. I would just identify things I don’t like about myself, but I wouldn’t do anything to fix them, I’d just accept them.”
He points to his mouth, flashing a smile that would likely win a dentist’s approval. “Like, I had a gap in my teeth, so I would just stop smiling. But then I got braces and that’s when the confidence came. But I feel like it shouldn’t have to take that. I didn’t accept myself. I had an idea of who I should have been, and I I was chasing that until recently.”
But what about the praise from his video fan base? He grew his supporters quickly, from hundreds to thousands and ultimately more than a million; building it with a mix of shout-outs (users promoting each others’ work), to commenters recommending him, to just simply having good quality, funny content. Didn’t it boost his confidence to have so many people following him?
“No, Vine was horrible, such a mean community,” he responds. The app shuttered in January 2017 and Demetrius says there’s a “fairy tale type” of nostalgia for it, but says that Vine was known for mean, offensive comments from its users, most of whom had blank profiles and no accountability. “It was just like being a comedian on stage and you’d be getting heckled.”
I ask what his parents made of the online abuse, and he tells me that he initially hid the videos from them. “I was very shy, very quiet at home. I wasn’t the person I was in my videos,” he says. He didn’t want to show them Vine from the start and have them close down his account immediately. So he waited until he built a following before showing them. He left the room while they watched his videos, and when he heard laughter he knew he’d have their support.
“I have very supportive parents,” he adds. The Harmons learned about building a safe online presence together, though his mother is more technologically savvy then his father, he says. But high school graduation was looming, and Demetrius had to decide what was next.
Before he can tell me, our food arrives. And what a mound of food it. Demetrius is having three wings with fries and greens. “Their chicken and greens are really good,” he says.
My meal is two chicken breasts, with baked beans and fries.
I take a bite. I get the spicy flavor of the skin, but it quickly turns to flaming heat. “It’s hotter than the sun!” I yelp.
“That’s why I’m just sitting here not eating yet,” Demetrius replies, shaking his head and laughing. While we wait for the food to cool down — it ends up being delicious — he continues his story.
Demetrius graduated high school in 2016. He had known since starting the clothing brand that he didn’t want to go to college, but didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I kept tricking myself, like I wanted to be a doctor because I liked making people happy, I wanted to change people’s lives. And then I wanted to be a chef cause I liked cooking. And when I got to the root of it, I just like creating, because it makes people feel good and I realized that that was what I was already doing.”
Los Angeles seemed the natural place to move because several other Vine stars and internet personalities he knew had gone, or were heading, that way. So at 18 years old, he moved West. “I was terrified,” he tells me. “But I felt like I had nothing else to do. It was either come here or stay at home. There’s nothing in Detroit. Just being here there’s events you can go to, people that you meet, a lot of my social media friends are here or will come here. No-one is coming to Detroit.”
Making it anywhere, let alone Los Angeles, requires networking and socializing, and Demetrius says that can sometimes be a barrier for him given his anxiety. “I have really bad anxiety, sometimes I feel like I don’t want to come out the house. But I’m not anxious in the sense of a normal anxiety, I’m very excited, I just have a lot of energy — look at my feet,” he requests, and I do. They’re bobbing up and down rapidly. “Sometimes that energy can go very negative, very positive or neutral.”
Anxiety is one of the personal experiences, along with depression and suicidal thoughts and positivist, that Demetrius tries to explain in his video short Be Happy. It’s one of the first things he created since his move, and is an autobiographical tale through which anxiety, happiness and other feelings take on human-like personas in conversation with him. He says it’s an accurate way of how he felt in high school, suffering but unable to explain to others how he felt.
Demetrius posted Be Happy online in September 2016 and within 24 hours it had gained 10,000 likes on Twitter, and plenty of praise. He was nervous about posting it because it wasn’t like the comedy skits he’d done on Vine. “This was the first body of work I was putting together that wasn’t funny. It had humor in it, but it showed a certain vulnerability to me that I hadn’t displayed yet. I was scared of being that vulnerable to people I did not know,” he says.
He also feared push-back from people who were fans on Vine but might not take kindly to his change in direction. “That attachment with being a Vine comedian, anytime you try to do anything that isn’t Vine, people will tell you go back to making your videos. But no-one gets on Vine thinking this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, everyone has aspirations outside of Vine. No-one ever wants to let anyone be anything outside of what they’re known for.”
Given the warm reaction to the video (the YouTube version has 138,814 views and 14,000 likes) he needn’t have worried. And the success led him to make another video.
Last year, he asked his Twitter followers for volunteers to take part in the documentary You Matter. The title stems from Demetrius’ own realization after battling with depression in his teenage years that his life mattered. He wanted to hear from people who had gone through the experiences of mental illness or self-harming, and collected a diverse group for the production.
“I just wanted to have genuine vulnerability, to show that black men go through this, white men, Arab women, Mexican women, every demographic I could get. I feel there are so many different demographics that support me, it’s very important to represent them,” he tells me.
Roughly a dozen people took part, and their stories are incredibly honest, raw, and tear-inducing. At one point in the video Demetrius shares some personal grief while sitting next to his mother, talking about the murder of his godmother and the death of his aunt from heart failure. The camera doesn’t shy away from showing his heartbreak or that of the other participants. But he says that was the goal, to help those who might be in similar situations realize they’re not alone.
“Someone needs to hear it,” he says. “Especially black kids. When I was younger no-one talked about it. But just cause someone isn’t, doesn’t mean I can’t or I shouldn’t.”
Demetrius’ online fame and his remarkable openness in his tweets and videos has even gained the attention of some schools, and he’s done a couple of lectures talking about his life.
In June, he was the keynote speaker at the Edsel Ford Class of 2018 graduation in Michigan, at the students’ selection. As part of his talk, he shared more honest stories about his mental health fights and revealed for the first time how his mother’s love had helped save him from killing himself. The summary he wrote for his YouTube video is a concise description not only of his speech, but what appears to be his goal as a content creator in Los Angeles:
I had the honor being the keynote speaker at Edsel Ford’s Class of 2018 graduation. At age 20 I’m not too far from where they are, even though it may seem like it. I give them advice on life, the dangers of comparison, the importance of receiving support and giving it, how fundamental it is to trust in your heart and to follow your dreams. I hope you all hear my words and believe them as well. Defend your dreams, because they’re all we have.
Demetrius is planning for another lecture, “The World Is Yours,” to be held soon at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “They reached out to me to have my own lecture, whatever I wanted to talk about,” he says, adding that he plans to share how his biggest problem in school was staying focused, and then realizing that to graduate there were certain things he had to do in order to achieve his longer-term dreams. “I’m going to talk to them about how you can do anything you want, but there’s a catch — what do you really need to get to that point?”
For him, saving money was the one major thing he needed to do for the move to Los Angeles. He stashed away the bulk of his clothing line money, and has put away enough to live in his new city for six years. And that’s without advertising other peoples’ products. Although many people online with massive follower bases routinely flout products in exchange for cash, Demetrius says he does it “very rarely” because he refuses to promote products he doesn’t know or believe in. He says that’s borne from a desire to remain honest online in what he says and does.
And he thinks that honesty, and his race, have worked against him in getting some gigs. “I feel like there’s the safe blacks, and I’m not one of those,” he says. I ask him to explain. “I curse a lot, specifically the n-word, which is probably like white America’s least favorite word. But some people who have worked with brands have said this is the reason you’re not being picked up, because you’re not safe, you don’t represent what this brand wants.” He shrugs, telling me that he recently did a promotion with the Wendy’s restaurant chain and loved working with them. “I’m really a genuinely nice person, I just happen to curse,” and that can deter opportunities, he believes.
“Being black and also being young, it’s just not the most desirable,” he adds. “The safe blacks end up being the diversity hire because they need a black man — but not too black.”
i know i say it alot but thank yall for supporting me for being me and stayng true to myself, so many people told me that if i didnt censor myself, stop saying nigga, do for fake controversy brands wouldn’t touch me & i’d go nowhere and i appreciate yall for proving em wrong.
— The Artist Formerly Known As MeechOnMars (@DemetriusHarmon) October 6, 2018
One of his goals is to get on the Ellen show, to reach mainstream America and share his story, help people see he’s more multi-faceted than a guy who made skits or says the n-word in the occasional funny tweet. “I want to reach the white people that didn’t try to pay attention to me because of what they thought I was from seeing a video, hearing me curse, my skits.”
And before that happens, he’s got plenty to work on include his ongoing clothing line, a book of autobiographical poetry (it’s about 30 percent done), and some modeling.
“I don’t think anything right now is the final stepping stone in my life, but it’s good enough right now because I have a lot of control,” he says, then laughs again. “So I used to work at Little Ceasar’s, horrible.” Bad pizza, I ask? “Their pizza’s pretty good when you know how to order, but I didn’t like having a boss, especially from working for myself since 12, 13.”
Now Demetrius is his own boss, I wonder whether he’s found happiness.
In his online content, he’s talked about having “happy moments in the storm,” but now he confides to me that “it’s a different forecast — a lot of sunny days, some days it’s cloudy and the sun peeks through, some thunderstorms. But I feel like the person I am has changed.”
He says, “Now I feel like I know myself more and I have a better understanding of life and acceptance of the fact that happiness isn’t a destination; life is just good and bad. I’m a pretty happy person now, but I think it’s a mindset too. I make other people happy by me being happy.”
Demetrius says he loves meeting his followers (get those selfie requests ready, he’ll oblige willingly). And that’s not because of the fame. “I just want to reach more people and spread my ideals and the things I have to say, that’s 1.1 million people who might need to hear what I have to say.”
Our meal hits the hour and a quarter mark and it’s time to part ways. I realize that if you spend time with Demetrius, you’ll want to hear what he has to say. During our meal he’s amiable, funny, quick to laugh, and thoughtful while tackling everything from teenage insecurities to mental health and professional goals. And he’s got a unique tale to tell.
He’s animated when I ask why people should listen to him. “They don’t have to,” he says, and he flashes his warm smile again. “But the people who hear me, I’m feel like I’m the right person to hear from because of who I am: A black 20-year-old boy, man if you will, from Detroit, with blonde hair, going through depression, I lost my godmom to being murdered, I lost my aunt to heart failure, you know, I’ve lost — and now people see me win. It gives them hope. I feel like my story’s very important to me, it’s very important to them, so why shouldn’t it be shared?”