In the summer of 2005, when she was 15 but not yet famous, Cory Kennedy went to a Blood Brothers concert at the El Rey Theatre. She remembers what she was wearing--black leg warmers, beat-up black Converse sneakers and a canary-yellow Lacoste mini-dress that she'd had to beg her mother to buy her. It was "back in the day," at the end of ninth grade, when she was still going by her full name, Cory Kennedy-Levin. She was going to a lot of concerts then, and at this one, a guy named the Cobra Snake saw her and took her picture for his hipster-party photo website.
In the non-Internet world, the guy's real name is Mark Hunter, and the scary nickname was mostly wishful thinking. Bright, friendly and energetic, Hunter was also young. A year or two's difference, and Cory might have recognized him as the 2003 Associated Student Body vice president at Santa Monica High School. After graduation, he had discovered a knack for taking pictures of L.A. nightlife, and he had been posting them for free on thecobrasnake.com, which was becoming a fairly popular website. Hunter, then 20, especially liked the El Rey because all sorts of interesting people went there, from movie stars to posses of L.A. teenagers like the pretty girl in yellow he saw that night out on the town.
That was how it started. That was the first flicker of what would become the--What? Phenomenon? Moment? Cautionary tale? Success story? Footnote?--of Cory Kennedy.
If it's hard to characterize, it may be because hers is a dispatch from uncharted cultural waters. Never before have media, technology and celebrity collided with adolescence at such warp speed. Never before has it been so easy for, say, a middle-class kid with a curfew and no driver's license to rise to international fame almost without her parents' knowledge.
Put it this way: By the time Cory Kennedy's mother realized that her child had become, in the words of Gawker.com, an "Internet It Girl," the Web was riddled with photos of Cory posing, eating, dancing, shopping, romping at the beach, looking pensive and French-kissing one of the (adult) members of the rock band the Kings of Leon. She had European fan sites. She had thousands of people signing on to her MySpace pages. She had fashion bloggers dissecting her wardrobe ("a cross between the Little Match Girl and the quintessence of heroin chic," one wag called her taste in fashion). She had people watchers from the Netherlands to Japan speculating about her life story. (Was she a junkie? A refugee from Hyannis Port?) She had designers begging her to wear their clothes and deejays offering her money to show up at their nightclubs. She had invitations to party with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
She was living, in short, a teenager's dream and a parent's version of "Fear Factor." And the obvious questions--at least for her mother--were, "What happened? And how?"
"I still have no idea," half-jokes Jinx Kennedy, a rangy 56-year-old who, with husband Barry Levin, 63, runs a for-profit high school degree program. We're in her Santa Monica living room, a cozy space filled with overstuffed sofas and framed family photos. In the kitchen, a white board above the microwave reminds the Kennedy-Levin children to "do chores" and "make bed" and "return your breakfast tray to the kitchen." Sports schedules hang on the refrigerator next to the straight-A report card of Cory's youngest sister. The It Girl, her mother says, is in her room, enjoying her last hours of freedom before heading off to her new school.
"I didn't connect the dots," she says, sighing. "But I'm real connected now."
It's hard to overstate the speed with which the Internet can now make someone a cultural icon. A YouTube video, a flub on "American Idol," a stupid pet trick--virtually anything can become a fast track to celebrity. What that means is still working itself out; all that's clear is that it's become unbelievably easy to get and leverage attention. A nobody can become a somebody at a moment's notice, just because everybody is always watching everything.
Cory Kennedy became famous after the people who watched Hunter started watching her too. It was the late autumn of her sophomore year at Santa Monica High School. They had exchanged numbers that night at the El Rey. Hunter needed office help, and soon Cory and her best friend, Maggy Rogow--a senior at a private school that made "internships" a prerequisite for graduation--were doing after-school clerical work for Hunter two days a week.