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Inside the sex, money, and scandal of Instagram’s puppet community

What is behind the #PuppetWave?

In many ways, Craig is an unusual 21-year-old. He spells his name “Kreeg”, and his primary income source is breaking into cars, stealing them, and selling them on. A Puerto Rican who lives in Alief, Texas, he is enrolled in a college which he does not attend – but instead pays someone else to go to his classes for him. He raps in a group called Rich Broke Dudez, and recently he was called out on social media for sending a girl an unsolicited picture of his genitals. One way that Kreeg is unusual, however, stands out more than any of the rest. Kreeg is less than two-foot-tall and he is made of fleece. Kreeg is a puppet.

“So basically Kreeg all he does is just buys clothes, talks to girls all day, makes music,” explains Kenny Figueroa, an 18-year-old customer service worker from Texas, who created Kreeg and his profile on the photo-sharing site Instagram @HypebeastKreeg.

 

A post shared by @hypebeastkreeg on

Over the last few months, a “puppet wave” has taken over the social network. People post on the site posing as puppets, and get in fights, expose one another for cheating, and even have funerals. There are entire puppet families, made up of parents, cousins, and grandparents. There are even “Make Puppets Great Again” hats, riffing off those worn by Donald Trump supporters. To outside eyes, there is virtually no information about who is behind these accounts, and what they hope to achieve.

“There's always a new wave going around,” explains Figueroa. “You know Kanye [West] had a wave where everybody was wearing ripped up clothes, looked like they just got inside a blender you know, that was the wave at the time. It's just now there's a wave for the puppets, the puppets are taking over.”

*

Mr Green Bags and PJ the producer do not get along. The former is young-looking, with a round face and a mop of ginger hair, though he poses on Instagram with money and toy guns, and writes his captions in all capital letters. The latter is, in his own words, “the first puppet producer” and wears a hat emblazoned with his own initials. Recently PJ kidnapped Mr Green and taped up his mouth, before taking a picture for social media.

“Mr greens is my son,” says PJ, when I reach out to him over Instagram’s direct messaging service to ask about the beef. Instead of speaking to his creator, I am speaking to the puppet himself, and his quotes are copied verbatim from our Instagram messages.

“My life ass a puppet is good,” PJ explains, “Mr green is a fan of me iam the reason why he started he  was hating and watching my growth for 3 months straight then he ran out to get a puppet to try and be like me.” When I ask for clarification about how the two puppets met up in order to take Instagram photos, PJ reiterates that Mr Greens is his son. “Is the same person behind the account?” I ask. “What u mean” he replies.

 

A post shared by MR.GREEN BANDZZ (@mr_green_bags_) on

When I reach out to Mr Greens on Instagram to ask if he would like to speak with me, his reply is simple. “Yea as long as u not working with pj the producer.”

*

After browsing the profiles of various puppets, one question would not leave me. Why? I assumed, from the beginning, that there was something to promote, or sell, or advertise. I assumed there was something to figure out. Though a YouTube series about “urban puppets” does exist, these puppets are not connected to those that are most prominent on Instagram (their creator has even spoken out to deny a connection). Some puppets have comedy shows, or music to promote, but those with the most followers often do not. Seemingly, they just exist. They have no purpose.

Yet somehow, in assuming that there must be a TV show, or a book, or a secret art project, I forgot the number one driving force behind nearly all Instagram trends. Why have you created a puppet? Why does your puppet have genitals made out of felt? Simple. For social media fame.

*

For Figueroa, the creator of Kreeg, the explanation is multi-layered. He designed Kreeg as an alter-ego – a “person who’s like kids nowadays” in that he goes out and spends a lot of money “because of what rappers say”. Figueroa is attempting to make fun of this lifestyle with Kreeg, who is obsessed with clothes and drives a Power Wheel, a battery-operated toy car designed for children. “I think I spent over $2,000,” says Figueroa, who buys Kreeg’s clothes from thrift shops.

 

Stuntin' comes easy when you an OGHit the link in my bio #puppetwave

A post shared by @hypebeastkreeg on

Because Figueroa is attempting to make Kreeg as realistic as possible, a puppet penis was almost inevitable.  

“No,” says Figueroa when I ask if the place he ordered Kreeg from, Nutty Puppets, makes puppets with genitals. “I went out to Michaels [an American craft store] and I just pulled down my pants and took a quick picture and I pretty much just copied it from what I saw.” The “how” is simple – imitation, scissors, felt. The “why” is perhaps harder to explain.

Figeuroa laughs when I ask this question. “Why?” he says, “It's really for the comedy… Girls on Instagram or Twitter, they always get guys sending them dick pics and it's revolting… But a puppet doing it - that's funny.” In a way then, it is satire.

It’s also just plain smart marketing. Figueroa’s aim with Kreeg is to become “social media famous”, which he hopes will help him (not Kreeg) become a stand-up comedian. To achieve this fame, Figueroa has imitated one of the most famous puppets of Instagram – known as Lux – who blew up on social media a few months ago after he sent a picture of his genitals to a YouTuber.  

“YALL! a fucking PUPPET just slid in my dms and sent me some dick pics ! I CANT MAKE THIS SHIT UP!!!” the YouTuber wrote on Twitter, before getting over 60,000 retweets. Lux denied any involvement but after social media users searched for the offending puppet he enjoyed a rapid growth in followers. It seems likely he targeted a high-profile individual in order to get his own profile up. A few days later he had a public fight with another puppet, with her own Instagram account, named Kiyah Brickz.

“As yall can see Lux was deep in prayer!” Kiyah captioned an image of Lux – who is visible from the eyes up – performing a sexual act on the lower half of a puppet, presumably Kiyah herself.  

*

Like our own, human, society however, the puppet community is mixed. As well as sex, drugs, and scandal there is a sweeter, softer side. Lux has a grandma, complete with flawlessly applied red lipstick and earrings. There are also puppet children. Musa Bradley is a 38-year-old from New York who created Fuzzy Beard, “a super lyrical bearded 10-year-old” with nearly 16,000 Instagram followers. Bradley takes the puppet into schools to teach children about “health, character and manners while preserving the Hip Hop culture one rap at a time.”

“The kids can hold him and talk to him,” says Bradley who studied child psychology, “I rap and then I sneak the knowledge in after the rap.” Bradley characterises Fuzzy as a mix of both Lisa and Bart Simpson, in that he is “cheeky” but also gets straight As. The beard is a metaphor for children who are forced to grow up too quickly.

Yet though Fuzzy is very clean cut – he says “What the fuzzy?” instead of any profanity – he interacts on Instagram with the rest of the puppet wave. Bradley has even reached out to Joselito, a “celebrity puppet”, who has videos on his social media of himself slapping a stripper’s ass. Bradley created a backstory with Joselito’s creator that the puppets are cousins, and they have since filmed videos together.

“I want him to be edgy anyway,” explains Bradley when we talk about whether he's concerned that this association might affect his work in schools. He was invited to go to the strip club to film a video but declined, and has clear limits on what Fuzzy can and can’t do. Whilst strip clubs are a definite no, Bradley doesn’t mind the association with Joselito, as he hopes it will raise Fuzzy’s profile.

“The reason why I even started doing more serious raps was because I go to schools and I go to a lot of correctional facilities and jails with a lot of rappers," he tells me. "Every rapper they bring in these schools are from the streets and rap about coke, guns, and drugs, but when they are in the schools they talk about staying in school and the kids listen because of their name.”

Quite simply, he says: “I have to be edgy because the children I’m trying to reach are edgy.”

*

The sexualisation of puppets is arguably nothing new. In the broadway musical Avenue Q, puppets have breasts, have sex, and sing about porn. Princeton – the main character – repeatedly sings about finding his “purpose”.

To outside eyes, it does initially seem as though the puppet wave on Instagram has no purpose. Yet each puppet’s creator has their own aim – whether it is fame, creating music, spreading comedy, or teaching children important lessons. Many accounts are also simply pure entertainment. For every puppet that is trying to promote an album or a comedy tour, there is another which simply seems to want social media fame. Thanks to copycats, the puppet wave is really just beginning. 

Before I hang up with Figueroa, I ask if he has anything in particular he wants to add, or a message he wants to spread. He leaves me with Kreeg’s personal motto. “Always remember,” he says. “Do not chase after hoes, let them chase you. Because you don’t wanna get tired.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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