BACK IN JANUARY, just as the MTV series “Skins” premiered, network execs found themselves in a panic at the prospect that their new show, which features an ensemble cast of actors ages 15 through 19, might be in violation of federal kiddie-porn laws because of its explicit menu of sex in just about every flavor imaginable (not to mention drugs and alcohol). In the ensuing firestorm of publicity, the usual suspects — the Parents Television Council, Sean Hannity, the Media Research Center, Fox News — wrung their hands over the end of civilization as we know it. Facing them down on the other side was a pastor’s daughter named Tina Wells, who, in the onslaught of their wrath — “If MTV could throw virgins into a volcano and sacrifice them, or set puppies on fire, they’d do it to get ratings,” the MRC’s Dan Gainor screeched — stuck firmly to her message: “Skins” shows the real teen world, and parents had better get over it. And how does she know?
She talks to 9,000 teenagers every day. They tell her their secrets, what they love and don’t love, and she whispers those secrets back to grown-ups in words that we can understand. She’s an interpreter of teendom, but she’s also the staunchest advocate its denizens have ever had. She hates “Gossip Girl,” for instance, and wrote rancorously about the show on the Huffington Post: “I have a real problem with how marketers perpetuate stereotypes without even taking the time to ask their audience.” But “Skins”? “I was very haunted by the characters,” Wells said on Joy Behar’s talk show. “I was haunted by the decisions they were making, but it’s realistic … I think it’s the reality that’s making people so scared of the show.”
So how does a single, childless 30-year-old from Camden County, New Jersey, become the arbiter of what is and isn’t real for teenagers and wind up talking about it on national TV?
You have to start young.
WELLS WAS 16 when she went into business for herself. Or rather, as she tells it, she fell into business, writing product reviews for a teen publication based in New York. “I guess they liked them, because they kept sending me stuff to review,” she says. “I was getting free products from FedEx every day. My parents were saying, ‘What’s going on?’” By the time she was 18, she had 10 clients, and had enlisted her friends to work as reviewers as well, for the reports she produced. She sent one to a client one day, and the client told her, “I just hired a marketing company whose reports aren’t half as good as yours. You have a business here. Figure it out.” Wells did, at Hood College, a tiny liberal-arts school in Maryland, where she found a professor to mentor her. “I worked all night on my marketing plan,” Wells says. “She ripped it apart. I redid it. She told me, ‘That’s when I knew. You had that bounce-back. You didn’t take criticism personally.’”