“Let Me Make You Famous”: How Hollywood Invented Ben Shapiro

“Let Me Make You Famous”: How Hollywood Invented Ben Shapiro, by Tina Nguyen.

The night of January 10, 2013, was a triumph for Ben Shapiro, his first big score — but Jeremy Boreing, the Hollywood producer who’s the architect of Shapiro’s vertiginous rise, couldn’t get past the wardrobe.

Dressed in a dark junior-banker suit, with his College Republican flop dangling over his forehead, Shapiro, then the editor at large at Breitbart News, had been booked on Piers Morgan Tonight to discuss his new book, Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America, and to debate gun control.

As he watched the Morgan hit, Boreing realized that Shapiro’s look, while perfectly adequate for a right-wing think-tank talking head, wasn’t going to cut it in many of the demographics they wanted to conquer. Shapiro quickly agreed to revise the right-wing-dork look, and the makeover began: Boreing and a wardrobe stylist emptied Shapiro’s closet almost completely, took him to Macy’s to re-stock, gave him an objectively better haircut, replaced his personal trainer, and presto, the Ben Shapiro look emerged—a decently-fitted button-up shirt in neutral blues and grays, tucked into better-fitting jeans, and a jacket that didn’t look too expensive. He wasn’t exactly a GQ cover subject, but he was, quite crucially, no longer an Alex P. Keaton stereotype. “You can only be good at so many things. Ben is good at a great many things. This is not one of them,” said Boreing. “So, we structure it for him and simplify it for him. That’s why he always looks like Ben.” …

Months before the Piers Morgan interview, Boreing and Shapiro had devised a site that would eventually become the Daily Wire, which they viewed as a next-gen media company representing the 21st-century right — an heir to Drudge and Breitbart, supercharged with modern-media hood ornaments, like podcasts and video, which happened to be Boreing’s specialty.

To get attention, they needed personality: someone to put forward their attacks, and someone who could withstand being attacked, too. After the Morgan hit, it dawned on both that Shapiro had to become the brand. “‘You being a brand brings a lot of security. . . . You being a front man gives us a ton of security,” Boreing recalled telling him. “I can better accomplish that with video. I can expose a lot more people to you with video, I can expose them to you in a way that they’ll remember, because people are visual. . . . Let me make you famous and we’ll have a much louder voice and a much bigger platform to advance our interests.” …

Shapiro and Boreing aren’t the first to turn the culture war into an entertainment product, but they have been among the most successful, in part by avoiding the errors of Milo Yiannopoulos, who burned through millions of dollars trying to turn offensiveness into a salable commodity, and Steve Bannon, who turned Breitbart into a warship but left it rudderless when he was booted. Instead, Shapiro and Boreing have emphasized Hollywood-style marketing and distribution, prioritizing entertainment value over ideological purity. Shapiro’s heterodoxy hasn’t satisfied the culture warriors at Breitbart and the devoted MAGA crowd, who see him as ideologically impure, nor has it endeared him to the anti-Trump left, given his blunt, provocative commentary on race, gender, and academic freedom. (He continues to argue that transgenderism is a “mental illness.”) He criticizes Trump for his insufficient conservatism nearly as often as he berates mainstream media for overhyping Trump’s failures.

And yet, the formula works. Shapiro’s fans are legion—enough to constitute a political faction of their own. Every time he debates a pundit, student, or high-profile liberal, his fans immediately compile his remarks into YouTube clips. (“Ben Shapiro DESTROYS race baiting Congresswoman during Congressional Hearing on Campus Free Speech,” for instance, has over 3.2 million views.) “The business model is not activism, or even news,” Boreing told Shapiro at the beginning of their venture. “The business model is personality.” …

Los Angeles is a mostly liberal city, but it’s also become a crucial engine of modern conservatism. Andrew Breitbart got his start there, as did Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Perhaps it’s something in the water, or a response to the progressive monoculture, or the proximity to Hollywood, but the West Coast conservatives have always had a more tactile understanding of the optics of the culture war — an instinct for how to weaponize the clash of civilizations, against celebrities, against migrants, against the academics of U.C. Berkeley and the socialists in San Francisco. …

Boreing came up with the [PragerU‘s] signature visual style after a photographer came after them with a fair-use claim; their solution was to use illustrations instead. The simple blue and orange stick figures now mark videos with more than one billion views, making PragerU one of the most effective conversion tools for young conservatives. At the center of it all was Boreing, who by then had become a leader of the West Coast conservative movement. “We would always run every major decision past him just to get his insight,” said Estrin. …

Shapiro had achieved megastardom, even as he oscillated in his opinion of Trump. To his former culture-warrior brethren, Shapiro was trying to have it both ways: pretending to be a populist one day, then trying to stake out a position as a Respectable Conservative the next, and then pissing off everyone by, say, tweeting inappropriate comments during George H.W. Bush’s funeral.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Shapiro argues effectively against some of the left’s fantasies with passion and effectiveness, a true cultural warrior. And there is a huge audience for that.