Noah Schnapp got a taste of fame in 2016 when he was cast as Will Byers on the Netflix drama “Stranger Things.”
But the 15-year-old actor admits that his “really young fans” have never even heard of the series. “Sometimes I’ll see a group of little kids on the street, and they’ll be like, ‘Noah, “Renegade” for us!’” he says.
That’s code for being TikTok famous. Renegade is the most popular dance to hit the internet ever, with everyone from Lizzo to Michelle Obama either attempting their own version or retweeting someone else’s. When 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon created the dance, she posted it on Instagram, not TikTok. But she quickly noticed people catching on to her routine. “I tried to comment under people’s posts saying it was me, but nobody would believe me because I wasn’t famous on TikTok,” she says.
As fleeting as fame can be, TikTok is the rare platform where many users aren’t out to achieve stardom or notoriety. The video app is meant to allow people to post funny, random — sometimes choreographed — clips of themselves. TikTok launched in China in 2016, only arriving in the United States two years later. It didn’t experience its first big boom here until the end of last year.
Now, the app — which reached 2 billion downloads worldwide as of last April — has become the platform of choice during quarantine (sorry, Quibi), as people are stuck at home with little to do. But like all content providers during this time of uncertainty, TikTok creators are experiencing their own strife. How do you make silly videos when you can’t leave your living room and there’s so much sadness and suffering going on in the world?
Still, that isn’t stopping them from signing lucrative sponsorship deals with Hollister, Truly Beauty, Tinder, House Party, Kaiser Permanente and other brands. TikTok stars are pocketing $5,000-$20,000 per sponsored post, with some making much more, according to one influencer.
Brooke Averick (@ladyefron, because of her love for Zac Efron) downloaded TikTok when quarantine started, “out of boredom,” she says. A 24-year-old preschool teacher, she uploaded a clip in which she reads a letter her younger self had written to her older self. “That was the first video I posted, and it did super well and got a million views,” she says. But Averick doesn’t know what her TikTok presence will look like once the pandemic is over. “In my mind, TikTok is so associated with quarantine,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like it will be a part of my life when all of this is done. I feel like it’s all temporary.”
One of the downsides of TikTok success amid the coronavirus is that the influencers can’t fully cash in on their perks. In the past, most viral sensations would get invited to big events or on talk shows. But now, they’re quarantined at home just like the real celebrities.
Adam Ray (@adamrayokay) used to get spotted by fans every time he went out. That still happens, even when his face is covered. “When I go out, I always have a mask on, right?” says the 21-year-old. “But people still recognize me. I don’t even talk sometimes. And I’m just like, what triggers?” His manager says his nails give him away: acrylics that are hanging on by a thread. “A lot of people know me, but I’m not red carpet, Met Gala vibes, you know?” Ray says. “That’s famous.”
Rosa, Ray’s alter ego, isn’t just a character. “She’s an exaggerated version of myself,” Ray says. “I was just in my room, and I had ordered a pair of lashes from this Instagram company. Then Rosa just came.” Even with 6.5 million followers, Ray believes that the quarantine has stifled some of his artistry. “If the whole pandemic wasn’t happening, I feel like Rosa could have been so much further,” he says. “But stuff happens and, like, obviously I’m grateful for my life.”
Unlike Shakespeare, who supposedly wrote “King Lear” in lockdown during the plague, other TikTok users are also struggling with creating videos while sheltering in place. “There’s way more stress on us to make content because everyone is in quarantine and they’re expecting more content,” says 19-year-old Sarah Lugor (@shreksdumpster), who has 2.3 million followers. “I think I’ve actually made less. I used to post every day, six times a day,” says Lugor, who now takes days off in between videos.
Tre Clements (@treclements), a 19-year-old dancing sensation from Virginia, whose most popular video has more than 30 million views, echoes that sentiment. “It’s so weird because you have a lot of time, but you have no motivation,” he says. “You can’t go anywhere to get new ideas. It’s really difficult, but we push through. We make it work.”
When Clements says “we,” he means it. There is no playbook for influencers. Regular kids become viral sensations from their bedrooms and have no formal guidance when it comes to negotiating deals or seeking out representation. They end up relying on each other.
“We basically have an influencer union,” Lugor says. “Once we started talking about numbers, we started realizing how much companies were kind of playing us.”
“We basically have an influencer union. Once we started talking about numbers, we started realizing how much companies were kind of playing us.”
Before blowing up about a year ago, Brittany Broski (@brittany_broski), 23, had “no idea” that creators of her size (“maybe a couple million” followers) had full teams. She thought those were reserved for the likes of Jenna Marbles — the famed YouTube star. Now, Broski is using her experience to help her friends. “What does a manager do? What is a talent agency?” she asks. “What’s a good number to ask for, for brand deals? It’s cool to be able to help them because the worst shit ever is being lowballed and clowned by these brands. I try to help where I can because it’s dangerous for creators. People will use and abuse you.”
Digital creators also run the risk of putting all their capital on an app over which they have virtually no control. That’s become more of a dilemma as the Trump administration has signaled that it wants to ban TikTok in the United States. For a lot of creators, that wouldn’t just mean losing their followers but also a piece of their livelihoods.
Emma Chamberlain used to worry about the risks of relying on platforms, but now she thinks it’s an irrational fear. “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. I try to be on every platform, you know? I also have a podcast and my coffee company. I’m trying to do other things at the same time so that no matter what happens, I have many things that I’m passionate about and excited about so that I don’t feel this pressure on one thing,” she says.
At 21, Tatayanna Mitchell (@thereal_tati) has decided to diversify her streams of income. In addition to her sponsorships, she has a dessert business and plans to start a beauty collection. And she still works at a hospital as a patient-sitter. “If TikTok got banned, then I’m going on my YouTube,” she says. “I’m almost at 100,000 subscribers on there, and if I keep on promoting and putting out good content, they’re going to want to watch me.”
Chamberlain agrees, saying, “When you build a community that’s really strong with people that love you, they’ll follow you wherever you go, usually. They’ll find you wherever you go, if they want to. The real ones will come with you, you know?”
Perhaps the biggest success story of them all on TikTok, though, has been the rise of Charli D’Amelio (@charlidamelio). Since posting her first video last summer, D’Amelio — who is 16 — has become the most followed person on the app, with more than 70 million fans. She, along with her older sister, Dixie, her mom and her dad have signed with UTA in all areas.
Before quarantining in her home in Connecticut, D’Amelio was invited to dance alongside Jennifer Lopez and appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon. But D’Amelio doesn’t see herself as a celebrity.
“I consider myself a normal teenager that a lot of people watch, for some reason,” she says. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense in my head, but I’m working on understanding it.”