Elijah Daniel has owned the internet over and over and over again.
There was the time he started a petition asking the U.S. government to make “Party in the U.S.A.” the national anthem. And the time when he, as the short-tenure mayor of Hell, Mich., declared heterosexuality illegal. Oh, and the time his erotic short story about President Donald Trump shot to the top of Amazon.
Mr. Daniel’s satirical stunts and entrepreneurial ventures take aim at people with power, whether they be politicians, social media influencers or tech executives. Think of him as Sacha Baron Cohen meets Mark Cuban for the TikTok generation.
“I’m always viewed as the anti whatever,” Mr. Daniel, 26, said. “On TikTok I’m on anti-straight TikTok or alt TikTok. When I was on YouTube I was the anti-YouTuber. When everyone was doing vlogs flexing Gucci, we were doing dollar store drag queen things. In marketing, I’m an anti-marketer. I don’t tell people to go buy Facebook ads. I look for out-of-the-box, funny ways to do things. If it’s not going to make me laugh, I don’t care to do it.”
His career could be seen as a blueprint for how to succeed in today’s digital media landscape, if you’re willing to make a few people mad in the process.
For someone so online, Mr. Daniel had a pretty disconnected childhood. Growing up in Michigan, he was home-schooled, and his parents limited his TV and internet usage, as well as his access to secular music. (They were very religious.)
His mother ran a Christian newspaper where Mr. Daniel wrote a weekly column, making Bible verses accessible for kids. “I would take a Bible story and rewrite, minus the killing and rape,” he said.
In middle school, he pivoted to marketing the paper. Calling and pitching local businesses excited him, and he began studying marketing techniques on Coursera, an online education platform, while he worked to finish home-school.
At 14, he secretly set up a Twitter account and began posting jokes. He noticed parody accounts were popular and made a few of his own, which got him in with a loose social circle of parody account administrators.
They traded tips. Breaking news and celebrity gossip performed well online, Mr. Daniel learned, so he spoofed the Twitter account @BreakingNews and later set up a fake celebrity news site.
“We were just making fake news up and making fun of people,” Mr. Daniel said. Sometimes, his made-up stories were written up by real celebrity news outlets, which he found hilarious.
Still, he disliked how parody accounts piggybacked on other people’s concepts. He wanted to be known as himself, and for his own good ideas. So, at 15, he set up a personal Twitter account.
“I was like, ‘I’ve been making literal fake people famous,’” he said. “‘I’m going to start making myself famous.’”
Shortly after Mr. Daniel’s 18th birthday, Taco Bell flew him to New York to star in a prank-based Valentine’s Day ad. It earned half a million views in a day, a huge feat by 2013 standards. Mr. Daniel was already becoming known for his stunts and comedy, but began to make a name for himself as a marketer, first for an EDM clothing brand and then as the founder of his own firm.
At the time, the tech scene was all about apps, and start-ups in San Francisco and Los Angeles were looking for help getting attention online. But Mr. Daniel found himself frustrated by the way executives resisted his advice.
“I was like OK, I’m consulting for all these brands, but they’re not listening,” he said. “I might as well just apply this to myself and make myself an influencer. I know how to do brand deals properly. I’m not just going to be like, ‘Hey guys, love this fit tea, swipe up! I’m going to do stunts, but in a profitable way.”
In 2016, Mr. Daniel’s content became increasingly political. He is openly gay and has always been wary of conservative politicians, but he felt that Donald J. Trump posed a new kind of threat. That January, Mr. Daniel got drunk and high and tweeted that he was going to release a “50 Shades of Grey,” but with Mr. Trump as the protagonist.
Within a week, he released “Trump Temptations: The Billionaire and the Bell Boy,” a fictional account of Mr. Trump and a male lover, on Amazon. It blew up before it was taken down, at which point Mr. Daniel released it for free on Wattpad, a self-publishing site focused on fan fiction, where it was viewed 2.3 million times.
“I went on Fox News to talk about it and wore a Christmas sweater with weed leaves all over it, when they were trying to pass California recreational laws,” Mr. Daniel said. “People on the internet ate it up.”
His antics continued. He rewrote the Bible in 24 hours, giving Rihanna the role of God and casting drag queens as her disciples. He started a YouTube channel and gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers. In 2017, he filmed a segment for “The Maury Povich Show” with his friend Christine Sydelko and the YouTube star Tana Mongeau; in it Mr. Daniel pretends to be a closeted gay man cheating on his girlfriend. The clip has been viewed more than 21 million times on YouTube.
In a 2017 stunt, Mr. Daniel was named the mayor of Hell, Mich., for a day; in that short period, he declared heterosexuality illegal in the town. In 2019, he pretended to buy Hell for several million dollars and banned its residents from flying American flags — a rebuke of the president’s rejection of requests to fly pride flags at American embassies.
“Within 30 minutes of me posting about it, I had CNN and everyone hitting me up for interviews,” he said. Mr. Daniel decided to lie to all of them. He just wanted to see what they’d run.
Since he was a teenager, Mr. Daniel had experimented with music. He created beats on his laptop, primarily producing for Christian rappers. In 2017, he created a rap alter ego, Lil Phag, meant to poke fun at SoundCloud rappers, and began releasing his own tracks.
Mr. Daniel’s second album, “Resurrection,” hit several Billboard charts. After that, in 2019, Mr. Daniel started an EDM pop duo called Adam & Steve with his fiancé, Sam Fishman, who is known online as Dr. Woke. Billboard dubbed them “the gay Chainsmokers.”
Mr. Daniel was in the midst of a music tour when the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S.; on March 10, he canceled the rest of his dates and returned home to Los Angeles to quarantine.
If his audience-building strategies once seemed unorthodox, today they’re regarded as ingenious.
“I’ve never seen another marketer like him,” said Jesse Leimgruber, a founder of Neoreach, an influencer marketing company that has worked with Mr. Daniel. He described Mr. Daniel’s sense for social impact as almost intuitive. “He just sees things as ‘this will be huge,’” he said.
“When you first get that fame on social media or you get a little bit of viralness, it’s like, ‘OK, what can I do? Should I start acting, or get on Instagram, or make YouTube videos, or what?’” said Lex Morales, 19, a TikTok star with 1.2 million followers. “Elijah has just done it all. He’s taken this platform and just grown it.”
Among his followers, he’s seen not only as a master of the internet but as an agitator for change. “He’s a mobilizer. He speaks for the other kids. He gives a voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Hannah O’Kelley, 20.
This year, in the midst of a devastating pandemic and a presidential election that has deepened political divisions, Mr. Daniel has been using his platform more earnestly.
In March, he founded Cult for Good, a nonprofit aimed at getting supplies and basic goods to the homeless population in Los Angeles. In June, he helped promote a false-registration campaign led by TikTokers ahead of a Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla. He has also openly criticized influencers for disregarding public health guidelines during the pandemic and is in an ongoing feud with Bryce Hall, a TikTok star who held several parties in violation of an order from the city.
That’s not to say his antics are over. This summer, Mr. Daniel began working with Clash, a short-form video platform built by a former Vine star. To parody the TikTok collab mansion trend, Mr. Daniel developed “The Clash,” a reality show starring several influencers, among them Claudia Conway.
Last week, Mr. Daniel, his fiancé and former roommates, along with Katia Ameri, a start-up founder who gained fame as the Zoom Bachelorette, moved into a sprawling estate in the Hollywood Hills with a massive swimming pool and a one-acre vineyard.
The idea for the house started as a joke. Mr. Daniel released a teaser video in mid-October for something named the Rocketship House, a collab house meant to mock start-up culture and influencer culture. But the idea stuck, and investors were interested. The house, called the Villa, will be a content studio and an office space for the group as they develop brands and release products, the first of which will be a makeup line in the vein of Jeffree Star Cosmetics.
Mr. Daniel spends the majority of his days at his Tuscan-style Hollywood Hills estate coming up with new ideas, often in bed. He’s laid-back, quiet and, in his words, would “rather be at home with my dogs chilling, starting stuff.”
“I hate attention on every level,” he said. “All my stunts are one offs. They’re massive press stunts, but I don’t ever want to be a celebrity.”