The third most popular user on TikTok is Addison Rae, a 20-year-old from Louisiana with currently over 81 million followers. Forbes named her the highest earning personality on the platform last year. You may have seen her lazily teaching Jimmy Fallon some dance moves that are popular in the app that she didn’t create. She also has some songs, is BFFs with Kourtney Kardashian, and stood up to greet Donald Trump in a recent UFC fight. Wikipedia describes her as a “singer, social media personality, dancer and actress”. She is currently starring as Freddie Prinze Jr. of the gender swapped remake of She’s All That, which has a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Our own Lindsay delightfully described the film in her review as “a flat presentation of dance scenes, musical numbers, and close-ups of branded snacks that feel like a book review on Shakespeare by a kid who read the Wikipedia entry and carried it with a” lot Lip gloss.’ Rae’s acting was not hailed by the critics.
There’s always a risk when it comes to internet celebrities, one that we could never quite put aside: how to explain this new, ever-evolving phenomenon that is really affecting the entertainment world without sounding hopelessly condescending or 150 years old ? old? There is still this almost instinctive urge to dismiss such characters and mistake them for a frivolity with no stamina or tangible signs of talent. We played this game through with bloggers and vloggers and anyone talking about a video game. There is a certain type of celebrity that has never instilled much respect in the same media and audiences who are still amazed by them. TikTok celebrities, like Instagram influencers and Vine stars before them, seem preprogrammed to be written off as ephemera that piss us off until we move on to the next fad of the day. Perhaps your children or nieces and nephews are talking about them, but they rarely deviate from their own ecosystem of recognition. It allows each of us over 30 to be content with the knowledge that the kids aren’t on our lawn, damn it.
So what happens when you show up?
Rae became popular through TikTok dancing, but that didn’t make her a celebrity. Not really. As anyone who’s seen her on Fallon will know, it’s not that she’s the most capable or liveliest dancer on stage and that she didn’t create the choreography that made her so famous. She seems perfectly comfortable in interviews and has an expressive face on her TikToks, but I’ve struggled to find much else about her that piqued my interest. Granted, I’m not the target audience for their brand of, say, influencing, but there are plenty of celebrities I don’t understand whose appeal makes perfect sense to me. I understand what, for example, the Paul brothers were selling to the masses, as boring and repulsive as it was often. Rae and her contemporaries have proven far more confusing as celebrity puzzles, and now that she goes to Hollywood, things are different.
In her excellent newsletter, inside reporter Kat Tenbarge described another TikTok celebrity, Bella Poarch, as “a blank board tailored for mass engagement.” The appeal lies less in an undeniable form of talent or charisma, but more in the possibilities of being a conventionally pretty white woman who is perfect for a busy industry trying to attract this ever-profitable youth demographic open up. I have a feeling Rae fits into that shape too. Sure, she sings and dances and acts, but it never seemed like she did it out of love for the craft or a desire to create something. It’s just one thing you do when you get famous, and she’s already a fixture for her audience, so she doesn’t necessarily have to be good at those skills. Such ideas seem, by and large, frivolous because they aren’t properties that TikTok or the internet necessarily prioritize. What they really want is ‘mapping’.
Ah, reliability, this harsh mistress constantly moving goal posts and inevitable backlash. We’ve discussed it many times on this website in relation to everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Chrissy Teigen to everything that’s happening on Instagram these days. The engaging sense of normalcy and accessibility that Rae seems to embody is especially strong on TikTok, a website of immense popularity that can catapult anyone onto the phones of millions of fans. As with YouTube, the platform’s algorithm dominates what we see, and the end result is we are consuming lots of videos of the same white faces performing dances that they didn’t create. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that people like Addison Rae grew up on viral TikTok dances and not the black creators who choreographed them in the first place. TikTok is full of amazingly talented comedians, but it was Sarah Cooper and her hacky lip-syncing to Trump speeches that became the platform’s stand-up portrayal.
No social media powerhouse has used the idea that anyone could become famous in an instant more than TikTok as a weapon. But what do you do when you grow up with TikTok? You can create sponsored content, but you can’t monetize your videos as easily as you can on YouTube. You can let ten million people see a clip you made, but you won’t get paid for it. For a long time you have struggled with the double compulsion that you all know and want something from them, but without the financial safety nets to make up for it. I can hardly blame someone like Rae for seizing every opportunity that came her way, regardless of his merit. In all honesty, the idea of who “deserves” to be famous is some kind of fraud anyway. Merit has never had anything to do with it, and we have had these arguments for centuries. Hell, we still got them via reality TV stars, despite a solid two decades of this subgenre redefining modern entertainment.
So I try to avoid grumbling about the fucking kids and their TikToks that don’t fit my personal definition of fame, which is flexible but often instinctively sticks to more traditional notions. Still, I’m curious about the long-term guarantees of this shiny new world. At some point you have to be good at something. As with many YouTubers, the algorithm will turn against you. Platforms fall or become irrelevant. There’s always something newer and shinier around the corner, populated by younger, prettier people who are smarter, more talented, and more relatable than you. Can Addison Rae improve her acting skills while she has the luxury of working on it? Perhaps she can diversify her portfolio so that she retains a certain stamina. Whether it’s in Hollywood or stays online could go either way. If you want your job to be essentially personable, you need to figure out what to do if that quality is torn out of your hands at some point.
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Header Image Source: Vivien Killilea // Getty Images for Netflix