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You can’t bring this girl down

Times Staff Writer

This is “Online Nation” co-host Stevie Ryan outside her comfort zone: When the line on the teleprompter reads “revolting beverage,” she delivers it by sticking her fingers in her mouth and gagging. A viral video of a cat she introduces triggers her to meow for effect, then to bark when the director requests that she go with it sans meow. Another Internet video called “Show Beast” sparks a “Thriller"-esque scary stance and tone, which amuses her bosses until they ask her to try it one time “like a girl.”

“I don’t want to be a girl,” whines the 22-year-old whose alter ego, the tough-talking chola Little Loca, made her a YouTube sensation and is about to turn her into a TV personality.

Ryan is sitting on the Minimalist white set’s spiral staircase to nowhere. She then crosses her legs, tilts her striking face and does indeed act like a girl. She later admits, though, that she’s still getting used to being told what to say, how to say it and, toughest of all, having no say about the finished product.

Executive producer David Hurwitz observes, “You couldn’t create her, right? She’s beautiful and talented but has no ego, and she’s completely uninhibited -- but never in a dangerous way.”

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Ryan is one of the four hosts of “Online Nation,” a modern-day “America’s Funniest Home Videos” that premieres on the CW at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. In a very fast 30 minutes, the clip show zips through 40 or so videos but also reinforces how much YouTube has changed both show business and popular culture since its launch two years ago. As much of a mom-and-pop operation as the homemade productions it features, “Online Nation” cuts costs by hiring unknowns as hosts, producing four shows two days a month and not paying for its content. (The network cannot air the videos without permission from the owners, however.)

“This show goes off and features all the people who have the motivation not to procrastinate but to create and go out and shoot and upload,” said executive producer Paul Cockerill. “It really is a new world out there, and this is really bringing to light all their creations.”

If it weren’t for the ever-popular video-sharing on YouTube, Ryan might still be stocking jeans at Levi’s, waiting for that next commercial audition. Similarly, her co-hosts Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, ( www.rhettandlink.com), both 29, who have been friends since first grade, might still be goofing around in North Carolina, showing their musical parodies and short films only to their pals.

Instead, they are hosting the first network TV show dedicated to the artistic endeavors of amateurs like themselves who grew up with the Internet. (The fourth host is Joy Leslie, a 29-year-old actress meant to represent Internet junkies everywhere.)

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“It’s not about Hollywood connections anymore,” Cockerill quipped. “It’s about your Internet connection.”

All you need these days, Cockerill says, is some ingenuity, a quality Ryan seems to have in spades. As a 12-year-old girl in Victorville, Ryan spent a lot of time socializing in Internet chat rooms and filming herself with her father’s hand-held camera.

“I had all my real chola friends with me and I’m like, ‘What up, you guys?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t be all getting pregnant and stuff,’ ” she said. “I was so young. I don’t know where it comes from, but since I was young, I’ve been a total camera hog.”

This is how badly Ryan wants to be a star: When she was 18, she dug a hole under a fence to sneak into the filming of a Moby music video and was chosen to stand next to the musician. That, and a divine message -- “It was like one day God woke me up and said, ‘Take your own head shots, girl’ ” -- inspired Ryan to take some pictures, develop them in her photography class, Google the names of Hollywood agencies and send them off.

The first part she landed was for Hilary Duff’s “So Yesterday” video, in which she played a Marilyn Monroe wannabe.

“I was like, ta-dah! I’ve made it! I’ve won my first Oscar!” she said. “Of course, it was just a little part, but that day I saw my reflection in this huge lens, and that is probably a moment in my life I will never forget.”

After a brief stint living in Huntington Beach and working in commercials, Ryan moved to Los Angeles. When the acting leads fizzled, she took a job at Levi’s and decided that the new video website she was addicted to was the answer.

Ryan posted vintage-style silent films she starred in and edited, and was stunned when fellow YouTubers called her everything from ugly to stupid.

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“Where I was from, I was nah-uh, you say that to my face and you will get knocked out,” Ryan said. “That’s the environment I grew up in: We’re strong females. I’m just not used to people being mean anonymously, and it brought out the tiger in me. I let that Little Loca attitude come out. You can’t bring this girl down.”

Then something really loca happened: Little Loca became an Internet star. More than 10 million people have watched Ryan playing 10 different characters, but Little Loca is, by far, the most popular. Ryan recently posted her 101st video as the ponytailed, hoops-wearing Latina for whom she’s best known.

“It’s been the time of my life,” Ryan said. “Show or no show, it’s been really fun meeting new people and finding myself as an artist.”

Last spring, a casting director asked Ryan to e-mail a tape of Little Loca introducing videos. Across the country, “Rhett and Link” were first approached about allowing the CW to show one of their popular music videos, “Fear of Frogs,” in the pilot episode. Then the duo was asked to e-mail a tryout tape.

“The whole process was so interesting because we don’t have a head shot; we’ve never been to an audition,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve always aspired to create for a bigger and bigger audience. But we’re just in the middle of North Carolina doing our thing and putting it online.”

“ ‘Audition’ sounds scary and ‘head shots’ sound very painful, so we’ve avoided both,” Neal deadpanned. Now, the BFFs, who come to Los Angeles once a month to tape the show, are considering swapping coasts.

“If somebody is sitting at home watching TV and sees this, they could think, here’s my outlet,” Cockerill said. “This is just a generation’s way of communicating.”

For a “poor girl” from the desert, it’s a lot more than that.

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“My life is probably the coolest life in the world,” Ryan said while eating lunch recently in the dressing room the four hosts share. “Maybe not in the world, but definitely in my life. . . . I don’t know anybody with a cooler life.”

“Rhett and Link” would beg to differ.

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com


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