the it girl issue

Cory Kennedy Was the Internet’s First ‘It’ Girl

But the “indie-sleaze” muse never really felt seen.

Photo: the Cobrasnake
Photo: the Cobrasnake

Cory Kennedy has a hard time looking at the photos that made her famous — the shots in which she’s a tipsy teenager at parties with the Olsens and Lindsay Lohan and Steve Aoki. There’s one that is particularly well known among those who remember who she is in which she’s squatting on the sidewalk, looking elfin and disheveled, smoking a cigarette. When I bring it up recently, she declares, “That’s not the person I am today,” balling one of her hands up in a fist and struggling through a sudden-onset stutter. “It’s me screaming out for safety. It’s not just an image of me partying. It’s me looking for the ground. A pose I became famous for, ironically.”

Kennedy might have been the internet’s first “It” girl. She rocketed from teenage anonymity to virality after becoming a muse of sorts to the party photographer Mark Hunter, a.k.a. the Cobrasnake, at the time only her second serious boyfriend. But unlike the influencers who followed in her wake, she never really felt she was in charge of her own image and never really cashed in on it either.

At 33, Kennedy looks nearly as young as she did in those photos with her droopy eyes that seem to float upward under their hoods and a mouth that’s almost always smirking. Her skin is clear now and her hair perfect and the fast-food-themed Jeremy Scott outfits she once wore are replaced by, at least when we meet up near her apartment in Greenpoint, old Céline and Jil Sander. Her party-girl days are, she insists, behind her: “I’ve been pretty much minding my own business, keeping my head down.” Also, “I don’t get invited to anything.”

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Kennedy was a 15-year-old living in Santa Monica in 2005 when she met Hunter, then 20, at a Blood Brothers concert and became his so-called intern, tagging along with him to parties where he shot everyone from Kanye West and Katy Perry to Lady Gaga and Telfar Clemens before they were filtered and famous. In December 2005, he posted an album of pictures of her titled “JFK CORY KENNEDY” to his then-popular photo blog — “All the kids knew about it,” she says — and overnight she became who-is-she-and-how-did-she-get-there famous. “I really didn’t like getting my photo taken,” she says. “Maybe there was something in my eyes. You could see there was more going on there than being at a fun party.”

In 2007, the Los Angeles Times profiled her, observing, “Never before have media, technology and celebrity collided with adolescence at such warp speed.” As Natasha Stagg later wrote, she “gave bored, binge-drinking Midwesterners like me a peek into a life I knew I wanted … it was like our generation’s Warhol Superstars were being defined and I had already aged out of the running.” In 2008, this magazine published — with their permission — her and Hunter’s BlackBerry texts during New York Fashion Week (“U at the partyyyh?” the Cobrasnake asks. “Ya,” she responds. “Chromeo hasn’t played yet.” Also: “V gallos herre.”). She met all the celebrities of that moment: “They wanted to be friends with me. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’” “Clearly,” Kennedy says, “I was numbed, I was zombified. I don’t think I paid for a drink until I was 24 or 25. I blacked out a lot.”

Not everyone wanted to be friends. Gawker mocked her relentlessly, once describing her as “a malnourished teenager who dresses like she raided her retarded grandma’s basement and does nothing with her wasted life but pose for pictures on a Website and hang out and live off her parents while waiting to get famous for some as-yet-unrevealed talent.” The resentment confused her. “I was a kid, and 75 percent of people thought I was a heroin-addicted, drug-addict rich kid.”

Kennedy was no Hyannis Port Kennedy, despite what many people assumed. But she had her own problems even before the Cobrasnake entered her life. She’d spent time at an inpatient program at UCLA for depression, and her internet fame unsettled her family. Looking back, she doesn’t blame them for not knowing how to handle what was happening to her, like when her sisters’ classmates dressed as her on Halloween. “It wasn’t like I was an uncontrollable force. I just needed a little bit of talking to,” she says.

Kennedy didn’t necessarily aspire to be a model, though she landed on the cover of several magazines, or a writer, though she started a blog and got a fashion column in Nylon, or an actress, though she guest-starred in the first episode of the 90210 reboot in 2008. The next year, after she’d broken up with Hunter, Kennedy, 19, moved to New York and partied at various since-closed hot spots: the Beatrice Inn, Max Fish, and Lit, where she DJ-d on Sunday nights. As she entered her 20s, she realized she could turn to being an influencer, but she rejected that, thinking, I’m not going to sell my soul. Instead, she decided she needed to get an adult job, “because I wanted to prove to myself that I was real or whatever.” But even here, her past haunted her. Once, when she applied for a job she saw on LinkedIn, she heard back from a recruiter who told her she’d written her college thesis on Cory Kennedy.

It was around that time, at 25, that she realized she was too heavily medicated to think through her life clearly. She was taking nine different pills, from Prozac to Risperdal. She spent the next eight years kicking them one by one. She even gave up vaping early this year. Mostly. As we guzzled more and more natural wine — “I love it dry and mineral-y” — she did take hits of mine and, as we drank more, also started asking for “little draggies” of my cigarettes. “More than ten years of my life had been robbed from me in a stupor of meds,” she says. “I had to get off the meds. I needed clarity, and I got clarity.”

Weirdly enough, “indie sleaze,” a new term for what was then just dirty hipster culture — American Apparel, electroclash, sweatbands, and all that — is having something of a revival, though Kennedy doesn’t quite see how it’s related to the real thing besides the smeared eyeliner. But she does have a theory: that there is a longing for a time when there was “human contact and interaction and friendships made outside of an app. That’s why I think the generation now finds us so fascinating, because they’re never going to get that, sadly,” she says. When I ask what was best about that time, other than the music, which she talks quite a bit about — her profile songs on MySpace included “Wolf Like Me,” by TV on the Radio, and “Over and Over,” by Hot Chip (“classic sleazy stuff”) — she says it was the sweat: “People sweating, running around, jumping over and on each other. You’re on the floor, you’re up in the air, you’re jumping, you’re singing, you’re drinking, you’re smoking, you’re making out with someone, you’re hugging your friend. It was action packed and it was a very positive vibe.” Then again, she says, “for me, it was probably a dissociative thing.” As for Hunter, who’s spent the past couple of years trying to capitalize on the indie-sleaze revival, “I wish him the best.” (They still text occasionally.) Though every now and then, she tells me, she asks, “If someone loves you, why would they post those types of incriminating” pictures? “Maybe he didn’t know. At the time, I was just like, Ahhh this is just what party photography is.

All night, she refers circuitously to her time in the spotlight only as that “whole stint” or that “whole thing” or “what happened to me.” She doesn’t seem to think she had all that much to do with it. At one point, she just says, “Poor girl,” referring to herself. She’s telling her side now, she says, because she’s hoping her story about being an overmedicated and “exploited” teen will help someone else.

So we don’t spend too much time dwelling on the dark stuff and hit several more bars, eventually joined by her boyfriend and an old friend we just happen to run into. We drink a bottle of wine each, Kennedy continues to puff on my vape, and at the end of the night we down a vodka-soda in a dive bar.

Kennedy’s voice gets an octave higher. She laughs and makes me laugh, often. She gossips, she spins hot-button conspiracy theories, she brags about her boobs (asking me to give them a feel) and admits to being friends with Bill Maher, who she says once gave her a really good cleanse recommendation. She is undoubtedly to this day a really good time. “I don’t think I took control of the narrative,” she says. “If I was more of an initiator, we would be having a different conversation. Was it the meds? Was it my personality? My age? Now I’m much more upfront about what I want and how I want it.” Now she’s a sleaze-free adult who prides herself on a diet of mainly “cruciferous vegetables and fish,” cares about composting, and dreams of having kids. Earlier today, she and her boyfriend closed on a house in Connecticut. “It’s less people, more trees. I want to live this bucolic life,” she says. “I want to garden, like a freaking hipster Martha Stewart.”

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Cory Kennedy Was the Internet’s First ‘It’ Girl