Why you should care

Because she’s reaching an emerging generation. 

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It was the very first event of the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, and Candace Owens could hardly believe she was speaking. “I uploaded a video onto YouTube five months ago, and I am sitting on the CPAC stage today,” the 28-year-old said, a made-to-inspire nod to more than 1,000 acolytes gathered for her panel titled “An Affair to Remember: How the Far Left and the Mainstream Media Got in Bed Together.”

Two years ago, she was a liberal in Stamford, Connecticut, trying to start an online database to allow social media users to report online bullying — a nod to her own traumatic racial harassment as a high school track athlete and cheerleader. But Owens was criticized by progressives concerned the site, Social Autopsy, could be abused to “dox” innocent people. The backlash led in part to her political conversion. She watched as mainstream outlets shamed her, in her view. The only site that covered the story accurately was the “white, nationalist” Breitbart News, she said to Dave Rubin, a YouTube news personality. This was in April 2016, and Owens found confirmation in Trump, who was on the television near daily claiming the media was lying. “I realized my friends were my enemies, and my enemies were my friends,” Owens says.

We are living in such a special time. We are watching the slow, and painful, death of the mainstream media.

Candace Owens

Owens says she spent a year to “rebuild as a person,” shell-shocked by the negative coverage of Social Autopsy. Now she is a brimstone-raining headliner for Republican rallies. Her first video, featuring her satirically “coming out” to her parents as a conservative, drew a quarter-million views after its posting last August. It has since spawned dozens more under her channel, Red Pill Black, a nod to The Matrix and her purported political awakening. Armed with undeniable charisma and a well-sculpted persona, her online popularity has led to appearances on Fox News and dozens of radio, TV and online appearances, carried on the back of videos like “How to Escape the Democrat Plantation” and, her most popular one thus far, “WTF? Black Lives Matter Has a List of Demands for White People!”

The director of urban engagement for Turning Point USA, a nonprofit engaging young conservatives, Owens appears poised to break through from internet famous to actual famous. In the whirlwind of CPAC, she took selfies with Chris Loesch (husband and manager of media personality/NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch), rubbed elbows with Sebastian Gorka (bombastic fired Trump White House aide turned Fox News pundit) and then sprinted off to a meeting at the Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The latter trumped an interview with OZY, as it turned out, though she texted us her apologies: “This day has been impossible.”

It’s not difficult to see why Owens is in such demand. Outspoken Black conservatives often soar to stardom quickly as Republicans seek to elevate their comparatively few minority voices. Their moments can be fleeting, but the former Vogue employee and University of Rhode Island journalism grad has the chops to stick around. Her direct-to-camera appeals are filled with fury, but also an acerbic wit reminiscent of Tomi Lahren’s star-making “final thoughts” segments on TheBlaze — except more clever.

In that sense, Owens is more Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the skilled if confounding agitator who turned her Apprentice appearances into a White House gig, than Diamond and Silk, the YouTube personalities who opened Trump campaign rallies with a shtick crossing into the absurd. Owens praises Trump’s tax cuts and his cultural stances, but rarely advocates specific policies (she has said she supports gay marriage but hasn’t arrived at a position yet on abortion). Her online persona’s most consistent belief is outrage. “Black people are not a monolith,” she says in another broadside aimed at “the media.” “We all have different ideas, and I hope they keep pretending we don’t exist, because that’s the exact market I’m after.”

But her authenticity has come under question. Other vloggers note that Owens once wrote the tea party was “bat-shit crazy” in a post for Degree180, a news site she helped found after leaving a private equity firm in 2015. Her overnight ascent has frustrated other African-American Republicans, inspiring intense, and perhaps envious, reactions. Wayne Dupree, a conservative blogger and award-winning podcast host, interviewed Owens. But when asked by email to comment on her, he wondered why this story wasn’t about him. Eugene Craig, a former vice chairman of the Maryland GOP, said he considers Owens “an opportunistic person who, for the development of her own celebrity, uses and attacks Black culture while claiming to do minority engagement.” He criticizes her for posting videos mocking Colin Kaepernick, the protesting quarterback. “So original,” Craig gripes. “She’s a Tomi Lahren in blackface.”

Of course, Lahren, now a Fox News contributor, has achieved incredible success to ease her notoriety for racially charged statements. And Owens could too, helped by a shift from traditional media — which the Edelman Trust Barometer recently reported has become “the least trusted institution” globally — that has buoyed the careers of everyone from Lahren to Ben Shapiro, the Daily Wire editor in chief and popular podcaster. As conservatives have gone from railing against the mainstream media to abandoning it altogether, they’ll tune in to new platforms and new people like Owens. “We are living in such a special time. We are watching the slow, and painful, death of the mainstream media,” she said at CPAC, joining a co-panelist to “wave goodbye” to the media gathered in the back. “It was fun standing up there and pointing to them, saying, ‘You’re fake news! You’re fake news! You’re fake news!’” Owens said in her subsequent radio interview with Dupree, reveling in the spectacle. “I felt like Donald Trump there for a second.”

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