On Monday, The Wire published "The Private Lives of the Cheerlebrities of Instagram," which explores the Internet culture of teenage cheerleaders who get famous on Instagram. Cheerlebrities, as they're called, collect hundreds of thousands of followers by sharing cheer photos, selfies, and silly shots with friends. It's the familiar high school social strata laid out on the social web. Many of those followers are other high schoolers. Others happen to be older men ogling 15-year-olds.
The post touched a nerve on the cheer web, but not one that I expected. I thought the creepy comments I found on Instagram from those ogling older men might start a conversation about the (possible) overexposure of high school girls. It didn't. Instead, the cheer world is in a tizzy over something one cheerleader said about two other cheerleaders. Here's the paragraph that's inspired hundreds of tweets, Tumblr posts, and Facebook status updates over the past 36 hours:
Gabi [Butler] says she doesn't focus on her looks when posting photos, although some of the other cheerlebrities do. "I know some of them, like Jamie Andries and Carly Manning on Cheer Athletics. What they're known for is kind of like the hair and makeup and abs," she says, giggling. "I'm kind of like the opposite. Like, I post a lot of videos of me tumbling, hard work stuff, and motivating things."
Cheer fans are outraged.
wait who is talking crap about Jamie Andries and Carly Manning— emily valentine (@_emilyvalentine) December 17, 2013
“@monzyyyy: What do you gain talking bad about someone?” nothing— Jamie Andries (@CAjamieandries) December 17, 2013
Some cheerleaders have sent Gabi mean messages, wondering why she would shade Jamie and Carly. So Gabi and her dad, John, (who was on the line with Gabi during our first interview and called me on Tuesday) were not happy. He told me that my post is "a character assassination on [Gabi]." He added, "I'm really upset, because I try to protect her."
Gabi and others have accused me of taking her words out of context. I went back to my transcript of the interview and this is what I asked: "Do you know the other girls that are cheer famous too? Are you on the same team, or do you see them at competitions? Or you don't really know them?" The quote was Gabi's direct response. She says she didn't intend her answer as an insult, and, frankly, I didn't hear it as one.
But as I've discovered through Tumblr and cheer forums, the unspoken rule of the cheer world is that you don't call another girl out for her looks. Cheerlebrities are supposed to get famous for their athleticism, not their hair.
Thankfully, Gabi and Jamie have since made up (on Twitter at least).
But as Gabi's dad told me, cheer world is still reeling from the incident. "I know industry leaders in this sport, people who make a lot of money by this sport, and they are very upset," he said.
The outrage illustrates the difference between the hundreds of thousands of followers cheerlebrities have on Instagram and the much smaller number of hardcore fans who really love the sport. These fans are often cheerleaders themselves, just not incredibly famous ones. The cheer world is governed by this small, tight-knit group of cheerleaders/fans — girls who are dedicated to preserving the dignity of the sport.
They don't like it when outsiders (let alone reporters) look in on their insular world. One cheerleader wrote to me via email (emphasis mine):
Cheerleaders in our world work so hard to try and show everyone that we can be known for something more than our looks and your article ruined that for us. For years we have been trying to get respect for what we do and now because of you we're back to the beginning with trying to prove ourselves. Your article is disgusting and I hope you've been informed of the hate it's getting on ALL social media websites. Next time you decide to get into the world of all star cheerleading, our world, make sure you portray it in a positive way.
It's an interesting dynamic — serious fans say outsiders will never understand competitive cheer, but platforms like Instagram and Facebook invite the attention of outsiders. The hundreds of thousands of followers are meant to be silent voyeurs. Even the concept of "cheerlebrities" brings out various opinions in cheer fans. There's a host of semi-anonymous Tumblr posts from these insiders wondering why the cheerlebrities get so popular. One girl insists that "cheerleading isn't about who looks the prettiest":
And another cheer fan wonders if she's the only one questioning cheerlebrity culture:
And so Gabi's comments have reignited the debate. Do cheerlebrities have to be pretty to be popular?
It sounds silly, but it's a question that continuously comes up in women's sports like cheer, gymnastics, and tennis. Just this summer, Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli faced backlash from Twitter trolls who didn't think she was as attractive as Anna Kournikova.
As Gabi and other cheerlebrities have made clear, they want to be taken seriously for the amount of time they put in at the gym (Gabi's there five days a week) and the athleticism and precision of their competition routines. It doesn't matter what's on Instagram, it's the cheering that's important. Gabi says Carly (at right) is known for her basket tosses just as much as her hair.
And cheerlebrities and cheer fans alike take pride in the fact that the sport is intense. Take Gabi's coach, who tells the squad to get serious in the trailer for the Youtube series "Cheerleaders":
"You will cry, you will vomit, you will hate life, and I will put your ass on blast every single practice. You won't have a life till after Worlds, and those are the sacrifices you'll have to make to be on this team."
So cheerleading is a serious athletic pursuit, but casual fans might not realize that from an Instagram selfie. What to do about cheerlebrities? One cheer insider thinks we all need to move on. "Yeah, you have some amazing cheerleaders that get credit," she writes on Tumblr. "OKAY. Get over it."