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This teen has 3M Musical.ly fans. But after being bullied, she goes to school alone.

Musical.ly star Zoe Laverne blows off bullies
Credit: Ebony Cox/IndyStar
Zoe Laverne Pemberton is a 17-year-old who started her Music.ly career in 2016. Since then, she has more than 3 million followers. "What I love the most about Music.ly is you can be yourself on the app and post whatever you want," she said.

GREENWOOD, Ind. — Parents tell this to their teens at least once a week: "Go clean your room."

But when your teen is a social-media celebrity with more than 3 million followers, even that can take a surreal turn.

Last month Douglas Wright, 51, who owns Doug's Franklin Auto Care Center here, sat down in a customer's minivan and heard giggling from the back seat.

The customer's daughter was staring at her phone, watching Wright's 17-year-old daughter, Zoe Laverne Pemberton, perform live on lip-sync video platform Musical.ly

"I told the girl: 'Send Zoe a message to clean her room.' The girl responded, 'I can't talk to her that way; she's famous," Wright said. "I told her, 'Sure, but I can. I'm her father.'

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"So I called Zoe on FaceTime," he said. "Then the girl watched my daughter talking to me on her phone but also watched me talking to her in the car."

If that sounds confusing — almost Twilight Zone-esque — Wright will be the first to agree. He and his wife, Debbe Pemberton, 66, who live in this Indianapolis suburb, are pondering a very-2018 question: How do you raise and protect a teenager who is an internet celebrity, herself influencing millions of other teens? They have no simple answer.

High school fun 'robbed from Zoe'

Credit: Ebony Cox/IndyStar
Zoe Laverne Pemberton is a 17-year-old who started her Music.ly career in 2016. Since then, she has more than 3 million followers. "What I love the most about Music.ly is you can be yourself on the app and post whatever you want," she said.

Earlier this year, Zoe's parents decided to home-school her to keep her studying until she graduates. As her social-media following grew, she received more attention from her classmates at Greenwood Community High School — and it wasn't always good attention.

"(Zoe) probably would've had it easier staying in school. The teachers there weren't on her like her mother is now," Wright said with a laugh.

"But back when Debbe and I grew up, high school was the best time of our lives," Wright said. "You hung out with friends every day after school. In a way, that's been robbed from Zoe. She won't have those same experiences we had."

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Zoe, who is known on social media as Zoe Laverne, rose to prominence on Musical.ly. She also has amassed 245,000 followers on Instagram.

The videos she posts to YouTube with her boyfriend, Chicago teen Cody Orlove, 16, regularly rack up 500,000 views. The duo, who have a 2-month age difference, have branded themselves "Zody." 

The couple's biggest hit is CHEATING ON MY BOYFRIEND PRANK, in which Zoe tricks Cody into thinking she was planning a date with another boy, and of course, he is devastated. It was viewed more than 1.5 million times in June alone.

What is Musical.ly? It's not for grown-ups

It's through Musical.ly, though, that Zoe has flourished. The video-sharing app, launched in 2014, is an easy-to-use platform for users (or musers, as they call themselves) to upload funny, irreverent videos of them dancing, lip-syncing or just goofing around.

Musers also can livestream using the platform's Live.ly feature. But while Musical.ly, which is owned by Chinese tech company Bytedance, has more than 60 million active monthly users worldwide, it remains largely off-the-radar to adults.

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The majority of musers are 13 to 24. 

"Facebook is for old people," Zoe said, laughing in her kitchen.

And those dozen or so Facebook profiles purporting to be her?

"None of those are me. They're all pretending. They're catfish. And it's pretty creepy to be honest," she said.

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"No grown-ups allowed" is hardly a new sentiment among teens.

"Obviously, unsupervised digital technology creates opportunities for sharing or seeking explicit content in a new way, but for hundreds of years teens have been carving out private spaces to explore and connect with each other," said Amy Gonzales, assistant professor at Indiana University's Media School. "(These platforms) seem like a very normal and healthy part of adolescence, manifesting in a digital world."

Social media stardom comes with fans, bullies

Credit: Ebony Cox/IndyStar
Zoe Laverne Pemberton is a 17-year-old who started her Music.ly career in 2016. Since then, she has more than 3 million followers. "What I love the most about Music.ly is you can be yourself on the app and post whatever you want," she said.

Zoe was a freshman when her Musical.ly videos — mostly her offering makeup tutorials and deftly lip-syncing to pop songs — began gaining serious attention well beyond her high school classmates. 

"I couldn't walk down the halls without people making fun of me," she said. "It's simple; it was jealousy. But it hurt. People threatened to fight me all the time. I'd go to the counselor crying," she said. "But when I got home, I'd get online and it all felt easier."

Zoe took refuge in the thousands — and soon millions — of musers (she prefers to call them supporters, not fans) who cheered on her videos and sent positive comments. Other followers trolled her. 

People messaged me and told me to kill myself. I used to pay attention to the hate so much, but now it's just a giggle inside me.

You're literally sitting behind a screen trying to hurt my feelings. I know I'm here for a reason, though.

So when someone is mean to me now, I'll message them: 'You're probably angry, having a bad day. But you don't need to take out that anger on other people.'

Musical.ly's public-relations representative, Hilary McQuaide, addressed the bullying that can occur via the app, noting: "Promoting a positive environment is our top priority, and we continue to work on additional and enhanced measures in our commitment to this priority." She cited in-app reporting, private account settings and keyword filters. 

When Zoe is not studying at home, she spends hours communicating with her friends, both supporters and other social media stars around the world. In early June, more than a dozen teens arrived in Greenwood from as far as Texas and California, all to celebrate Zoe's 17th birthday. 

They slept at the family's home for the weekend. Wright and Pemberton took turns running to the airport to pick up friends that Zoe never had met in person.

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"Some parents put their kids on a plane and shipped them out — parents that never even talked to us," Wright said. "That really concerned me."

"I gave one mother my phone number, and I woke up the next day with 35 new numbers messaging me," Pemberton said.

One Musical.ly video that Zoe recorded of herself at the party, flanked by Cody and a friend holding balloons, was liked nearly 400,000 times, with 26,400 supporters leaving birthday messages.

Likes can mean money, opportunities

cody and I are secretly 5 😘💗😂

A post shared by zoe laverne (@zoexlaverne) on

Zoe and her family are not naïve to the opportunities that come with such massive online numbers. Nor is Cody, who quit school this year to focus on growing his following, largely by broadcasting his daily routine six to eight hours a day to up to 50,000 viewers at a time.

"I treat it like a job," he said. 

Musical.ly allows fans to send gifts to their favorite livestreaming musers that equate to actual cash. Brand partnerships and sponsorships can mean large paydays.

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Zoe's dream is to leverage her online celebrity into an acting career.

"I want to move to California and be somebody," she said. "I'm always begging my mom to contact people. I want to be in a TV show or a movie. Just to be an extra in the back of a scene, I'd love it."

Pemberton and Wright have allowed their daughter to wade slowly into the world of sponsorships. The viral cellphone app Pigeon Pop offered her more than $3,000 a month for 1 minute a week sponsoring the game, Wright said.

A representative from Nike also has reached out — at which point Pemberton said she realized her daughter needed legal representation.

Zoe has earned thousands, not millions, but her opportunities continue to expand.

"We'll do whatever it takes to make sure her future is secure," Wright said. "We want to make sure she's taken care of for the rest of her life."

Simultaneously, they say they want to keep their daughter safe — and innocent.

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"(Fame) has made her mature a little faster than most kids. She wants to get this career going, but we want to protect her," Pemberton said. "It all does scare me, to be honest.

"We do designate no-phone time in the evening so we can sit at dinner and communicate together," Zoe's mom said. "But she's ready to get back on that phone. She's got friends and fans — and she's got to keep it going."

Follow The Indianapolis Star on Twitter: @IndyStar


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