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Cameron Dallas Opens Up About His Dark Past with Drinking and Social Media — and How He Found Recovery

Jason Sheeler
·4-min read

Steven Taylor Cameron Dallas

Cameron Dallas came to fame the new-fashioned way — by goofing around on social media. His pouty lips, floppy hair and an uncanny knack for selfie vulnerability turned him into a Justin Bieber-ish smartphone pinup when he joined social media. His junior year in high school, he created a Twitter account. After amassing a few thousand followers, he got paid $100 for wearing a Pura Vida bracelet in a post. It was the first money he'd ever made.

After Instagram launched in 2010, he joined and quickly had 150,000 followers. Then came Vine, the short-lived video-based app. Two years there, eight million more followers. Today he has 63 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and YouTube and a reality show (Chasing Cameron) under his belt. But 10 years later, after a lot of likes, a lot of parties, a lot of drinking — yet very little authentic human connection, the 26-year-old tells PEOPLE, "I didn't realize just how draining it had become."

Dallas was raised with his older sister Sierra in Chino, California, by their single mom, Gina, who worked as a sales rep. His dad was "not around much," and the family lived in a garage apartment attached to a daycare. "I would come home and try to do homework, and all I could hear is the other kids playing," he says. He was in middle school when MySpace, a social media platform centered on music, launched. "They had a 'Top 5,'" Dallas says. "It made me want something from the Internet. A seat at the cool kids' table."

Cameron Dallas on Vine

Fame wasn't good for his academics. He says he "barely graduated" from high school. "People would ask me, 'What do you want to do?' I didn't have a clue." Dallas pretended to attend classes at a community college near his home. Instead he drove around the corner, napped in his car and spent a whole lot of time on his phone. He began posting his location to see who would show up. Tween girls quickly did — in droves. Then he and other influencers like Shawn Mendes and Aaron Carpenter realized fans would pay admission for a meet and greet. They went on tour, gathering in local Holiday Inn ballrooms; Dallas says he'd pocket $1,000 a day.

Perhaps more rewarding than the money: the dopamine rush of feeling so loved. By 2014, Dallas was one of the first on Instagram to get a million likes on a post. He could earn about $20,000 for a sponsored post. He was able to move to L.A. and live on his own. Dallas began obsessively tracking his number of followers and likes across platforms in a daily journal. Each day the numbers climbed he felt a rush.

"The high that it can give and [what I would do] to facilitate that high — social media was a drug for me," he says. But when the numbers were flat — or worse, down — he felt "confused." He'd spend hours studying the ever-changing algorithms of social media platforms, trying to find hacks and ways to crack the code to get more followers. "It took a lot out of me," he says.

Cameron Dallas in 2016

He began drinking a lot. "[I had] no set schedule, no one to tell me what to do, and I knew everyone at all the clubs," Dallas says. By 2019 the world was starting to see his breakdown in real-time, with a series of scandals and ultimately an arrest.

With the support of his sister and his mom, Dallas entered rehab, focusing on "addiction, anxiety, depression and a bunch of other things." After that, he enrolled in an intensive outpatient program. Last May he celebrated a year of sobriety. Now, he says, he's starting over: "I'm excited for the first time in a long time just to see what happens."

In the last year his focus has been "all self-care, self-work,” and he knows it's real — "it's like the opposite of social media" — because people like his mom, sister, sponsor and girlfriend "actually saw me do it. Really saw me."

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Cameron Dallas in 2019

While Dallas hasn't touched booze or drugs, he still uses social media in careful moderation. "I can't go back to how it was. I can't. But social media isn't always bad," he says. "It's just how you use it." He's scrubbed his Instagram of anything prior to October 2018 and posts a few times a week; only a few are paid. He's trying to focus on his music. He recently released a new album, Dear Scarlett. In one song he sings, "I'm not the kid you know from the Internet."

For more from Cameron Dallas, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.