He noticed her right away when she came in the door: Big dark eyes and a ballerina’s build, her nails glistening blue-green in the lights of the Chipotle. He was a year out of high school, a gangly shy kid about to start a job at Home Depot, but he wasn’t too shy to go over and ask for her number.
She wouldn’t give him her number. But she liked him enough to give him her username on the messaging app Kik.
Later, when he wasn’t looking, she took a picture of him with her phone — from the back, sloped shoulders, hair poufing out from his floral ball cap.
By 10 a.m., there’s already a line down the sidewalk, wrapping around the corner of the Roulette theater in Brooklyn: big kids in high school and even college, all the way down to little ones holding Mama or Daddy’s hand. They’re mostly still bundled up in coats and parkas on this early-spring morning, and the wind makes the VIP tickets in their hands tremble. Those tickets cost about $100 apiece. For them, it’s worth it, because they’re about to meet DK4L.
DK4L: That’s De’arra and Ken 4 Life. De’arra Taylor, 21, and Ken Walker, 22, are not singers or comedians or actors. What they are is a couple. They’ve been dating about three years, and they’ve been making YouTube videos together for almost as long. You’ve never heard of them, unless you’re one of their 3.6 million YouTube subscribers, in which case you’re obsessed with them.
To their fans, they’re as beloved as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, except that you never get to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z try to put on 100 layers of clothes at once, or fill a giant balloon full of soda and Mentos, or just walk around a mall goofing off. That’s DK4L’s shtick: doing random things — but doing them together.
Now they’re on their first tour, put together by a company called Fullscreen Live, which arranges live performances for social-media stars. Each show consists of a VIP meet and greet, then a 20- or 30-minute stage show that’s like a combination of The Gong Show and a preteen birthday party, with dance contests and a few party games and a lot of audience participation.
When they announced the tour, there was some scoffing on Twitter among non-fans:
“I can’t believe De’arra and Ken going on a tour for being a couple.”
“Couples are really on tour … for being a couple. Nowadays it takes so little to be famous.”
“u gotta b outta ur rabbit ass mind to pay for that.”
But fans did pay. Like Jamiah Dunson, 17, who came in from New Jersey this morning, just for this. She’s been standing out here for an hour. Her ticket is in one hand, and in the other she’s holding a Coke bottle, because she knows how much De’arra loves Coke. She’s nervous when the line finally starts to move.
“I’d never met anybody that was really well known before,” she’ll tell me later. “To go in there, I didn’t know what I should say or how they would react, or if they would be the same as they were on TV — I mean, not on TV,” she corrects herself. “On YouTube.”
Right now, though, the doors to the Roulette open, and Dunson finds herself climbing a staircase, where she has to wait some more. A lady comes and gives everyone VIP badges. They wait some more. Then the lady comes back and opens another door.
And there they are: De’arra and Ken. They look just like they do on YouTube, and they start screaming and jumping up and down, and so Dunson starts screaming, too, then they all hug and take selfies and post them to Snapchat as if they’ve been friends for years.
“Would you clean that ceiling,” Taylor asks Walker, “for a million dollars?”
They’re walking through a parking garage in Atlanta, on the way to a meeting with their lawyer, who’s working to set up a new sponsorship deal with a major nonprofit. The ceiling of the garage is indeed pretty disgusting, crusted with a thick curtain of urban stalactites the color of snot.
“Mmmmmm,” Walker hedges.
“How about $2 million?” Taylor says.
“Yes, $2 million, I’d clean that ceiling,” Walker says.
They get to the escalator. Walker takes hold of either side and does a push-up of sorts, lifting his feet off the ground and trying to hold it as long as the escalator ride lasts. Taylor just laughs and stretches out the wad of slime she is carrying around with her. A fan made it and sent it to her — it’s a fad, DIY-ing this Silly Putty–esque substance of glue and Borax — and they play with it constantly, passing it back and forth, letting it make fart sounds or rolling it into strings.
This is how they are: constantly entertaining themselves and each other, asking what-if questions, doing little stunts. It’s a lower-key version of their personas on video.
There was never a time when their relationship was wholly private, no time when they belonged only to themselves. When they were first hanging out — not quite dating yet, “just talking” — Walker had an iPhone, and Taylor immediately wore out the battery taking videos and pictures. He wasn’t big into social media back then: “I was kind of laid-back, real reserved.” But Taylor had always loved taking pictures and video, and she had a healthy following on Instagram.
When she first posted pictures of the two of them together, something weird happened: Her likes and comments spiked, and so did her follower count. It took them both by surprise. “People on the internet made a big deal, like, ‘Oh, this couple’s so cute,’ ” Walker says. “We were over here just loving each other.”
“People were just like, attracted to it,” Taylor says. “When we started posting couple pics, I hadn’t seen a couple on [Instagram]. Ever.
Ever, ever, ever … People just weren’t out on the internet when we were, broadcasting their relationship.”
“I guess we made it kind of relatable,” says Walker. “Like, these two young kids, in love with each other, with these cute pictures. People related to it, like, Oh, me and my guy could have that. We were just taking the most regular pictures.”
When they hit 600,000 Instagram followers, someone told them to get a YouTube account.
That was in 2014. Now, they work three days a week making YouTube videos. They do everything themselves: They’ve learned about lighting and angles and editing all on the fly. They never work ahead of schedule: Each video gets produced in one long haul, sometimes late into the night, until they’re satisfied with it and can post it and go to sleep.
In numbers, they’re still not anywhere within the orbit of the gamer PewDiePie (57 million subscribers), or British beauty-tip queen Zoella (12 million subscribers), or even that 5-year-old who unboxes toys. But it’s enough — enough that kids all over the country know their names, their favorite and least favorite foods, the names of their cats (Penelope and Pierre).
And while they won’t tell me what their finances are like, a little rough math says they’re making at least a couple grand per video. That’s at least a six-figure salary just from YouTube advertising, before other sources of income like brand endorsements and tour money. This kind of profitability is no longer so unusual — there are “hundreds if not thousands” of people at this level of YouTube success, says Joshua Cohen, who runs tubefilter.com, the Variety of the online entertainment world. All this profit hinges on something traditional media can’t give to its audience, Cohen says: intimacy.
“For YouTube stars, it’s a very personal relationship they have with their fans,” he says. “It’s a one-on-one conversation with millions of people. Finding balance between having a personal life and vlogging about it on YouTube can be incredibly taxing for a lot of people.”
For Walker and Taylor, their relationship and their livelihood are inextricable.
“The way I look at it,” Walker says, “I don’t even look at us like ‘Hey, we’re a brand,’ even though we are. We’re in a relationship. We love each other. It is what it is. It just so happens to be a brand.”
When Jamiah Dunson watches De’arra and Ken 4 Life videos, she often watches them alone.
Her best friend was the one who first showed her the DK4L channel, and her other best friend was the one who got the tickets to the Brooklyn show. If those friends come over to Dunson’s place, they might watch the videos together. But usually, Dunson watches them alone in her room on her phone, in the evening when she has some time to herself. She watches videos of a few other couples — like Domo and Crissy, who are also on tour. But DK4L’s are her favorites.
Dunson has a YouTube channel herself, and for a while, she shared one with “the person I was a couple with,” she says. “DK4L inspired me, so I asked him one day, did he want to start a YouTube channel?” A few hours after they posted their first video, it had 150 views, which seemed pretty good.
But then it didn’t really take off. “I know you have to be patient as a YouTuber,” she says, “but the views were growing very slow. People lost interest. It could have been the pace we were posting at, or the material … I felt like I didn’t really know how to edit videos.”
There were problems with the relationship, too, she says. “When we finally broke up, I thought, Might as well just delete the channel. It wasn’t going anywhere.”
Someday, she’d like to be part of a couple’s channel again. Until then, though, she has this: The anticipatory darkness of the Roulette theater, echoing with the voices of keyed-up teenagers all waiting for the show to start. Then the stage lights up with a video reel — De’arra and Ken dancing, De’arra and Ken pranking each other. And then they’re there, bounding onto the stage with all the energy of an old-time vaudeville act.
The crowd screams, Dunson included, their phones outstretched, recording, screens glowing like a constellation of tiny new stars.
“A lot of couples that have come up on the internet have gone wrong,” Taylor says. “Being together just because of the sake of the YouTube channel. They fall off. They break up.”
She and Walker are sitting in the living room of their luxury condo, just outside downtown Atlanta. The walls are all glass, with an epic view of the suburbs stretching away into the distance. The place is full of state-of-the-art camera equipment; there’s also a custom-built jumbo upholstered bed and a separate closet for Taylor’s vast collection of shoes.
Taylor’s nails, covered in tiny gems, throw out little sparkles of light. A few days ago, she turned 21. They rented out an event space and threw a huge soirée, with all her friends and family, and they posted the location and time on Instagram so fans could come party with them.
“It’s because of the audience and their interaction with the audience that they have these opportunities,” Cohen says. “So a lot of people feel an obligation to be as open as possible with their fans. On the other side, they also need to set barriers and figure out some way to have a private life. And I think everyone figures it out on their own.”
Walker says, “If you have issues going on inside your relationship, you’re going to have issues going on with your brand to the point where it falls apart in the brand and your relationship will go right with it.”
“If you don’t do that it’s going to be a lot of pressure, in your relationship,” Taylor says. “You’re out in the public eye, it would probably be hard to break up. Because it’s like everybody’s looking at you, if you break up, it’s gonna cause pandemonium.”
“We met when I was 18,” she says. “And then we started getting so many followers, and on top of followers we started getting so much money. We’re not married, we’re young, so it was like — that can usually mess up somebody.”
They had to learn as they went. Early on, they’d sometimes tweet at each other when they were mad at each other. But soon they had enough followers that a snarky subtweet would draw speculation from fans.
“We were like, ‘Let’s work on each other, let’s keep it all internal,’ ” Walker says.
“I don’t think putting your personal issues on the internet is ever a good look,” Taylor says.
“There were so many things that could have tore us down,” Walker says. “I think the way we figured it out was, ‘Let’s just make sure we’re happy with each other. Everything that comes after that, we can handle that.’ ”
It’s a contradiction: What people are attracted to is the sense that they’re authentic and unfiltered. But in fact that authenticity has to be carefully curated. Otherwise they’ll end up as someone else’s idea of who they are.
“We’re not just out here talking about ‘Let’s protect our brand,’ we’re also talking about trying to protect our relationship,” Walker adds. “We love each other, we don’t want anything to happen to each other. The brand, that comes second.”
In the end, they share an important goal with their fans: “I hope these guys stay together forever man after all these memories and great times there is nooooo way you guys can even think about breaking up :(,” one fan wrote in a video’s comments section.
They all want DK4L to be 4L, for real.
“We have a lot of pressure,” Taylor says. “People say, ‘Your kids are going to be so fricking cute, you gotta have babies.’ ”
Then she laughs. “That being said … When the time does come, everyone supporting us now is still gonna be there, and it’s gonna be, like, crazy. Pandemonium. It’s gonna be trending, the day I get pregnant.”
*This article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.