I first became aware of internet personality Joey Salads because of his dick. It’s a very big dick. I found it scrolling through Tumblr one afternoon: Some gay blog posted screen grabs from Snapchat, where one of Joey’s collaborators had posted his dick. But this blog hadn’t violated Joey’s rights; Joey had shown his dick intentionally. Multiple times, in fact — once wrapped up in a hot dog bun, with Joey drizzling mustard on top. Another time, inside a box. (Yes, just like that Lonely Island song). Joey wanted me to see his dick, and he wants you to see it, too. He wants you to see everything from his life, even if you don’t like it. His 1.2 million YouTube Fans, 553,000 Vine fans, 282,000 Instagram fans regularly tune in for Joey’s Jackass–style stunts and pranks. The more he shows, the more he shocks, and the more views, shares, likes, validation — and compensation — he receives. Joey’s been shocking for a while now — pranks of his involve peeing in his own mouth or attempting to mail a full-grown man in a box — but these days some of this most attention-grabbing stunts are shocking not just for their slapstick violence but for their politics.
“I’m okay being viewed as a conservative,” Salads (born Joseph Saladino), 22, tells me on a hot July afternoon when I arrive at the modest house in Pasadena, California he rents with his collaborators, Stevie Croutons, 23, and Ryan Edge, 28. “Many people respect me for coming out as one; others don’t because it’s a liberal-dominated world.”
In real life Joey is tall, built, with tattooed arms. He still has his Staten Island accent. I am in the presence of what one might call a “bro,” a man’s man, someone who epitomizes self-confidence. He has that winning, handsome smile, which works in his favor, suggesting he probably gets away with more than most average dudes could.
Salads got his start on Vine with the series “It’s Bashing Time” — where he would do just that: bash things, things like cellphones, laptops, TVs and a gingerbread house. But Joey wanted more time (and, likely, more ads) than Vine’s seven-second limit allowed, so he made the jump to YouTube. Since then, he’s racked up millions of views doing pranks and what he calls “social experiments.” Some notable examples include ‘showing how easy it is to abduct a child’ (by approaching children, with the permission of their parents, and getting them to leave with him) or to drop a date-rape drug in a girl’s drink (by putting pills into girls’ drinks on camera while they weren’t paying attention). He’s YouTube’s answer to John Quinones — of What Would You Do? fame, who got his start on ABC’s Primetime secretly filming actors purposefully causing uncomfortable situations — seeing how “real people” would react to uncomfortable scenarios. “I’m showing how easy it is for someone to become victim to bad situations from bad people,” he explains.
After I introduce myself to Salads — along with Croutons (née Steven Centineo, a fellow Staten Islander with a weed-smoking penis tattooed on his thigh) and Edge (a self-described “sober/dog owner/car enthusiast,” with a dollar sign tattooed on his cheek) — there’s a knock at the door, which Croutons answers. It’s the police.
“Does Joey Salads live here?” the cop asks. Salads goes to the door, and the cop pulls out his gun. “Get on the ground,” the cop yells. “You like fucking little girls? Huh? You like that?” the cop continues to yell, increasingly less convincingly. He picks Salads up, pushes him against the door, and moves in closer. “Huh, you like that?” he says. The interaction becomes sexual. The cop is grinding on Joey. It is all one big joke, intended for me. I realize: This is their way of saying, Nice to meet you. They pranked me.
After the guys celebrate how great the police prank was, we sit down to talk about Salads. Why he does he do what he does? How did he choose to do pranks? What’s the point?
“Controversy,” he says. “Get people talking, show a little of truth to a situation.”
I asked how they come up with video ideas, how they keep their audience watching.
“We film two videos a week for the main channel, and only post one. So I have, like, six videos ready to go. [We post] anything politically relevant; anything I see in the news. We’re constantly coming up with new stuff.”
Croutons and Edge sit watching as Salads talks. It’s obvious that everything revolves around him. At one point Croutons says, “I’m pretty much his servant right now. In a good way… We all just help and benefit each other. We feed off each other.”
But as he continues to churn out videos, Salads’ vaguely do-gooder “experiments” quickly made way for more controversial fare. In April, he addressed the national conversation around which bathrooms transgender people should use in the worst way possible — by dressing himself in drag, entering a women’s restroom and recording people’s reactions.
“All the liberals who hated it were sharing it saying, ‘Fuck this guy.’ The people that liked it were like, ‘You make sense,’ and would share it too,” says Salads. “But that video went viral because it got 60,000 dislikes and 30,000 likes. The hate is always stronger than the love.”
As a follow-up, Salads tried the same stunt with actual trans people.
“I got them to go into the girls’ bathroom [and] everyone was complaining. [The transgender women] were talking about how they always get kicked out of girls’ bathrooms… People [had] a problem with the ones [who] look masculine. Then I did one with a transgender person [who] looked more feminine. Nobody complained. I was showing both sides.”
Salads insists his intention was to show that people get freaked out when they see a transgender person in the restroom who doesn’t pass — that is, a person who doesn’t, in Salads’ view, sufficiently resemble a member of the gender with which they identify. His “social experiment” was solely scientific, he says (although some debunked it). I asked how he would feel if a transgender man were to use the restroom with him.
“I don’t give a shit who is in the restroom when I am, because I’m a guy,” he says. “But during my research, women feel uncomfortable when a manly trans [person] uses the bathroom with them. Like 90 percent of the people I asked said they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their daughter was in the bathroom with them.”
Playing on people’s sense of discomfort — or, more bluntly, their fear — is the foundation of propaganda. Not only does it get people’s attention — which is everything to someone like Salads — it creates the impression that a problem exists where one doesn’t. Take, for example, the restroom “experiment.” There is no evidence transgender people (or cis men posing as trans women) are entering restrooms to attack women, but 64 percent of transgender people have themselves been the victim of sexual assault.
Like Trump, his candidate of choice, Salads repeatedly utilizes people’s fear of the unknown or unfamiliar to evoke strong reactions, while denying that he’s doing any such thing. (Salads, after all, as he says, is only conducting “social experiments.”) When he runs low on ideas for experiments, well — that’s when we get to see his dick.
Speaking of, I have stalled long enough. I bring up the dick.
“This guy’s penis is insane,” Edge says. He would know. It’s because of his Snapchat channel that Joey’s penis became so well known and well covered (by the internet).
Shortly after photos of Salads’ privates went viral — he took it even further; one showed him peeing into his own mouth.
“We did a Jackass–like movie with TwinTV [a prank YouTube channel he frequently collaborates with] called NFG,” Salads says. “A lot of people took the video of me peeing in my mouth out of context. I didn’t swallow it. But they took that scene and posted to the internet, ‘Joey Salads has a fetish for drinking his own piss.’ I’m like, ‘NO.’”
“So after that I made a series of videos making fun of myself for it,” he says. “I did a video of me drinking my piss in a public prank, then people would be like, ‘Oh shit, this guy is funny, he’s embracing it.’”
Still confused, I ask, why piss into his own mouth?
“People wanna see it,” Salads says. I guess they do.