NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — "Excuse me, Michelle? Could we get you on our radio show for a few minutes?"
Michelle Fields — political YouTube celebrity, aspiring Fox News host, recipient of numerous online marriage proposals from lovestruck Republicans — is in demand. Walking down "radio row" at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday morning, Fields can hardly take a step without being approached by a longtime Twitter follower who wants to express his affection, or a blogger who hopes she will stop by his panel later, or a fan who saw her on Hannity the other night and thought she made some great points, and did he mention that she looks great, and would it be OK if he just gets a quick picture with her?
At the moment, Fields, wearing heels and a Megyn Kelly-red dress, is being pitched by a producer from a Christian radio station in South Carolina who wants her to come on air and talk about "something millennial-orientated." Fields obliges, and before long, she is perched in front of a microphone, cheerfully explaining how Obamacare is a plague on her generation. At the end of the segment, the host allows a moment for self-promotion: "If people want to follow you as...uh...a political celebrity, or a talking head on Fox, or whatever, how could they follow you?"
Fields doesn't seem to mind the interviewer's struggle to describe what, exactly, she does: Her line of work may defy the conventions of career-building outside Washington, but at CPAC, her trajectory is perfectly clear.
These days, the conservative movement's marquee annual conference — once a staging ground for rank-and-file culture warriors and their most outspoken leaders — has become defined by careerists spinning through the right's revolving door of partisan media, professional politics, and résumé-building activism. Clean-cut young networkers looking to climb the ladder swap business cards and promise to follow each other on Twitter. The strivers who roam the halls here come in different shades: the think-tank intern who wants to grow up to be Jim DeMint, the blogger who dreams of a nationally syndicated talk radio show, the college Republican who aspires to become a hero-wonk in the mold of Paul Ryan.
But the breed that best exemplifies this new generation of conservatives may be the pumps-clad activist-slash-internet-personality gunning for a coveted gig at Fox News.
For this strain of aspiring political stars, Fields' story is instructive. As a student at Pepperdine, she was active in the libertarian organization Students for Liberty. "My passion wasn't TV," Fields says. "I had never thought about it. My passion was organizing people and fighting the good fight." But when she moved to D.C. after graduation in 2011, Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, who had been introduced to her while she was in college, asked her to help cover a teachers union rally for their website. Fields ended up sticking a microphone in Matt Damon's face and pressing his buttons just hard enough to provoke a minor eruption from the actor over the "intrinsically paternalistic" mentality of education reform advocates. "We uploaded it on YouTube and I woke up the next morning and I was on TMZ and Yahoo and it said, Libertarian reporter gets in fight with Matt Damon," Fields recalls. "And that's how I became a reporter."
She was quickly scooped up by The Daily Caller, which produced videos of her deftly baiting Occupiers, and she began spending hours every week shuttling back and forth between D.C. and New York to appear on Fox News. She would sit in a McDonald's near the NewsCorp building, clicking through Google News links to study the topics for a given segment. "I won't go on unless I feel 110% confident that I can talk about the issue," she says. "Otherwise, I turn it down." The Caller and Fields parted ways in 2012, but her efforts and charm paid off, winning advocates in Sean Hannity and The Five co-host Eric Bolling. She now hosts an online show for PJ Media's Next Generation TV, and appears on a weekly Saturday Fox News segment.
She likes her current job, but she's not shy about making her ambitions known. Asked to describe her dream job, she says, "I want to host my own show on television." On Fox? "Ideally."
This serendipitous turn toward talking-head fame was made possible by a conservative media establishment that has exploded since the early days of talk radio and amateur blogs. Once a peanut gallery where right-wing hobbyists snarked about Bill Clinton and passed along chain-letter conspiracy theories, the conservative press has grown into a dynamic industry with new, well-funded ventures launching all the time. (Just last week, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that the conservative publisher Newsmax was building a 24-hour cable news channel.) Fox News, with its dominant cable ratings and sizable influence over the political news cycle, sits atop the food chain, and most established websites on the right now employ what industry insiders call a "Fox girl" — an attractive young woman tasked with hyping her colleagues' work on the channel. The dream is to follow in the footsteps of writers like Jedediah Bila and Townhall's Katie Pavlich, whose online notoriety and respective books eventually won them paid contracts as network contributors. Those jobs are tough to come by, of course, and competition can be fierce. But the ever-expanding media ecosystem on the right has made it so that every camera-wielding activist, intern, and blogger is one viral stunt away from a potentially lucrative career in the conservative press.
Shortly after Fields finishes with the Christian radio station, she bumps into Scottie Hughes, a host for an online outfit called the Tea Party News Network, who sports big blonde hair and a Southern accent. Hughes' break came in 2012 when she caught a local Democratic official in Florida on camera musing about how Christians want Jews to "die and convert so they can bring on the second coming of their Lord." She now has a book contract, but the deadline is coming up and she confesses to Fields that she's struggling to put words on the page. Rather than hire a ghostwriter — "It has to be in my own voice!" — Hughes has downloaded a transcription software called Dragon, and she plans to dictate the chapters into a recorder.
"I'm going to walk around the house, preaching to my dogs," she says.
"You're going to write your whole book like that?" Fields asks, smiling and sounding a bit perplexed.
"I'm gonna try!"
If the plan does not seem thoroughly thought-out, Fields is too polite to say so. In fact, her unfailing niceness is one of her trademarks, a characteristic that distinguishes her from many in the partisan press. For example, when she's asked about Ronan Farrow's teleprompter woes on his new MSNBC show — a source of endless amusement in the conservative press — Fields flashes a pout. "I sympathize!"
While she maintains that she can be "feisty" on TV, she admits she doesn't have the killer instinct that drives many of her colleagues on the right. "My main goal isn't to destroy people," she says. "I don't walk around with 'hashtag war' stamped on my forehead ... I'm a happy warrior."
The goodwill has not always been reciprocated. In 2011, as her profile began to rise, the D.C. media gossip blog Fishbowl D.C. launched a ruthless campaign targeting her various wardrobe choices, with one headline snickering, "Fields Takes Fox To Titty City." Her inbox filled with hate mail from liberal critics who laced critiques of her economic views with commentary about her cleavage. Fields, who was new to Washington at the time, says she was shocked by the vitriol and "partisan sexism." But she quickly came to learn that martyrdom at the hands of the Left is the stuff that conservative media careers are made of.
"It actually was a good thing because I feel like I gained so many more fans who saw this as someone who was unfairly targeting me," she says now. "People wanted to see what I was about and they added me on Twitter."
A great number of those people are male admirers who make little effort to conceal their attraction to Fields. Her Instagram selfies frequently precede a river of shameless virtual cat calls, such as, "Great legs," and "Always stunning," and "Sexy!" and "Marry me." Fields calls the comments "flattering" but says her fans are more interested in her ideas than her looks. Meanwhile, her mother, an active Facebook user, has received so many messages and friend requests from men who would like to digitally court her daughter that she has been forced to open a second, private account.
Around noon, a skinny guy with a shaved head and a leather jacket who looks to be in his thirties approaches Fields and introduces himself as Jon Kabbash. They hug, and then she presents him as her very first fan. Kabbash, who shows off his tattoos and says he is "starting a movement called hip conservatism," first saw a video of Fields when she was still in college. He immediately added her on Facebook. "I listened to her speak and I was like, 'She's going places,'" he says. "She has the look, and she's good on camera but she understands the arguments." They have never met in person before now.
Kabbash goes on to proudly describe his devotion to Fields, recalling how he sent her early productions to prominent talk radio hosts, and describing the great pains he's taken to win over her mother. "My plan was, so I wouldn't look like a Facebook minion or a stalker, to become friends with her mom," he explains. "I'm sort of like a Republican Eddie Haskell. You know, I sort of come in and I'm like, 'Very nice to see you, Mrs. Fields. You look very pretty today.' So I'm harmless and lovely and her mom trusts me." When he learned that Fields' mom spoke Spanish, he even began posting messages on her wall in her native language. "I just go to Google Translate ... Her mom doesn't know that I'm monolingual illiterate." For Christmas, he asked her for an address to send her daughter a present. He was given a P.O. box. "She's not stupid," he says. "Just in case I'm a crazy stalker."
As Kabbash talks, Fields stands nearby, clearly embarrassed by the adoration. But such is the plight of the CPAC celebrity — and it will only get worse the further up the ladder she climbs. After a few minutes, Kabbash begins recounting his heroic online defense of Fields after a particularly nasty liberal blogger joined the pile-on. "I made it my mission to go after the guy and just attack him..." he says, but then stops suddenly, mid-story, his eyes drawn to a passerby.
"It's Katie Pavlich!"
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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