What does it take to be a TikTok star? Three women tell all

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Cosmopolitan

His mouth is distorted into the shape of a letter box and it moves, warped, as he tells his reflection off for not being “cool” enough. It sounds as if he is trapped in a dustbin underwater. It’s 1am and I’ve spent the last three hours jumping from one acid trip to the next. At least that’s what it feels like. It all began with a “quick pre-bedtime social-media scroll” – something I usually have control over. With the other apps, I’m alright at putting them down and getting some sleep. But this is TikTok. And TikTok is different.

I’ve flicked through a chef chopping onions at Road-Runner speed, a couple performing a perfectly coordinated pat-a-cake dance routine (only using their feet instead of clapping hands), and then I was mesmerised by an Ariana-esque woman expertly lip-syncing rap songs while pulling faces that ranged from “Why don’t I look like that?” to “How has she given herself that many chins?”

Each looped clip lasts no longer than a minute but many of those miming, dancing and pranking on the platform are hoping to stick around far longer. That letterbox-mouth guy has 28,000 fans. The Ariana lookalike? That’s Holly Hubert, who – on TikTok – is equally as big as her pop-star counterpart. She has mastered the art some spend a lifetime trying to perfect: that of captivating an audience in seconds.

When Holly (known to her 16 million fans simply as Holly H) reveals she’s just 23 years old, I’m relieved. At 27, I’d presumed that I was too old for TikTok – then the pandemic hit, and I craved distraction.

And I wasn’t alone; the app saw a 27% increase in engagement during the early weeks of lockdown, with more traditional celebrities, such as Jennifer Lopez and Hailey Bieber, signing up too. But for Holly – who joins me via Zoom from Guernsey, where she’s retreated with her family for the duration of the restrictive measures – creating snappy videos has been a part of her life since she was 16.

In fact, when she reached university age, she begged her mum to let her spend a year trying to build a bigger online following instead of doing a degree. “I said, ‘Give me a year and if it doesn’t work, I’ll get a proper job’,” Holly tells me, before explaining that she did indeed manage to hit over 100,000 followers – on the micro-blogging site Vine. However, in December 2016, it seemed like all her hard work was for nothing. “Literally two days [after hitting that number] I had an email telling me the app was closing down.”

In the background, Musical.ly (a lip-sync video app) had been slowly growing in popularity. Towards the end of 2017, it was acquired by ByteDance, a Chinese technology company, and together they then became TikTok. Today, TikTok has had over two billion downloads. Holly was an early adopter of Musical.ly, taking the formula that worked well for her on Vine (e.g. filming herself dancing on a kitchen counter with the caption “Break-ups be like…” before switching to a shot of her crying and eating crisps) and replicating it. Her “breakthrough” upload on TikTok? “I was sat on my bed, bored and eating a carrot.”

To an outsider it may have looked like frothy fun, but Holly was watching her peers make money on other platforms; she knew that becoming “internet famous” had the potential to be lucrative and long-term, compared with traditional routes. So she grafted at it.

In the beginning, Holly uploaded a video every day until her following grew (she now allows herself the odd break), across several platforms (she also has 1.5 million Instagram followers and 376,000 YouTube subscribers). But it still took a while for any TikTok money to roll in. Apps take time to become monetised, as big-name brands wait until they’re established before advertising on them. Today Holly partners with the likes of Warner Brothers, PrettyLittleThing and Disney on videos.

On a typical day, Holly wakes at around 8am in her family home. Her mum helps coordinate her schedule, which starts with posting a TikTok video for her UK fans, who she then engages with via DMs and comments for an hour (“No you’ve made my day!”). She’ll then plan the rest of the week’s content, speak with her management and receive briefs for any events she’s agreed to attend.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Next comes four hours of planning, filming and editing content, followed by an Instagram livestream and more chatting with fans on all platforms. At 9pm, Holly switches her focus to engaging with US followers until bedtime at 11pm. If she oversleeps or doesn’t post a video, her comments section becomes flooded by people frantically asking where she is. “Some fans fly around the world to meet and become friends in real life,” she tells me proudly, before describing a time pre-lockdown when she was asked to leave a shopping centre as her swarms of admirers posed a security risk. When it comes to scoring a TikTok hit, Holly says her most popular videos are “usually the ones where I’m being a weirdo”. Her relatability keeps her (predominantly female) audience hooked.

It’s hard to imagine a world where someone eating a carrot nets millions of likes, but that’s TikTok’s USP in a nutshell, says Amy Bryant-Jeffries, partnerships director at Gleam Futures (which handles some of the world’s biggest online names, such as Zoë Sugg and Mrs Hinch). “On other platforms there’s an equal need from audiences to be entertained, informed, educated and inspired. On TikTok, entertainment dominates entirely.”

In its essence, the app is a mirror of what’s happening in society and pop culture – but one of those “fun house” hall of mirrors, where everything reflected back looks more comedic, distorted to the point where laughing and moving on to the next is your only option. That’s likely why Holly’s “stupid” videos have cemented her as a success story – although she doesn’t share numbers, her income is estimated to be in the six-figure region. The only real glimpse of her wealth is when Holly tells me she doesn’t drink, preferring to drive herself home in her Renault after nights out. “My friends said I should have got a Porsche!” she laughs, as if that was a very real possibility for a 23-year-old. And good on her.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“We’ve ruled out the ‘sibling theory’,” snaps Abi Clarke, at four other detectives (all played by her) during the morning briefing. Taped to the wall behind her is a pink piece of paper with “Does he like her?” all in capitals. It’s Line Of Duty… but the investigation centres on a friend’s love interest – and who the mysterious woman in his recent photos is. When I stumbled across it I actually laughed out loud; who isn’t a part-time detective when it comes to their friends’ crushes?

Abi’s skits – on everything from Love Island to The Sims – speak to me. And since joining TikTok last October, the 23-year-old comedian has reached a fanbase of 241,000 followers that she struggled to find on the traditional comedy circuit (when I interviewed her back in April, that number was 93,000 – showing just how speedily the app works). “When you do stand-up, generally the crowd is male-dominated and in their forties or fifties, meaning I can’t perform the material I’d like to,” she says. On TikTok, Abi can fill the “room” with an audience who will completely get her jokes, in part thanks to it showing her content to people who don’t follow her as soon as they open the app, via the For You page. Just a few weeks after her detective sketch went viral on TikTok (at the time of writing, it’s had over a million views and more than 133,000 “likes”), Abi was approached by Amazon Prime. “With TikTok, everything happens so fast.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The thing is, Abi posted that same sketch on Instagram, but it amassed just 4,600 views in the first six months of being live. So what is it about TikTok that accelerated her career? Mary Keane-Dawson, CEO of Takumi, which specialises in global influencer marketing, thinks it’s because success on the app is less dependent on your follower count, but rather your ability to create content people immediately want to engage with. “TikTok is a hotbed for experimentation,” she says. The relaxed nature of the app appeals too. “It offers creators the chance to show a different side to themselves.” One steeped in personality, rather than their traditional “trade” (such as beauty, fashion or fitness). The rawer and more authentic, the better, she says – audiences are rebelling against Insta-perfection and no longer want polished content 24/7. However, concerns that TikTok’s rustic charm will evaporate as it becomes more saturated are already rumbling. Right now, the #ads are minimal in comparison to its rivals, but as reality stars and the Hollywood elite join in, that’s already changing. Especially as professional management snap up stars like Holly, and she becomes less “carrot-eating goof” and more “lucrative global brand”.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Tajia Reed’s second video on TikTok went so viral her phone overheated. “I gained 100,000 followers in under a month,” she tells me. Now she has over 353,900. It’s a stark leap from the years Taj (who uses the handle @Donidarkowitz) spent posting regular beauty tutorials on Instagram, hoping to grow her followers (of which there are now 114,000 – a number that’s shot up by 35,000 since we first spoke three months ago).

“I’d heard of others in my field successfully using TikTok and didn’t want to be behind the wave.” She uses her two main platforms in different ways: on TikTok, Taj provides a side dish of comedy lip-syncs and voiceovers to accompany the main course of bold make-up looks. She now commands between £360 and £1,039 for a post (with TikTok at the higher end of the scale), depending on the brand and brief, and is a full-time creator.

Taj is also known for calling out those using the app inappropriately. “I like to tell the truth,” she says, explaining that she’s come across racist videos on the platform. “There are so many videos floating around of young, often white, people using the N word and other slurs.” Wanting to shine a light on these discrepancies, Taj regularly creates candid shorts, including one where she lip-syncs to an audio soundbite of “I don’t know if this is racist but it don’t feel right” with the caption “Telling all fat black girls they look like Lizzo”. She was trolled and praised in equal measure.

It seems that one of the things people like the most about TikTok – the freedom of speech and self-expression it offers – is also one of its biggest shortcomings. While nobody is denying that trolling exists on other platforms too, TikTok has been criticised for clamping down on the wrong videos.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A report published by The Intercept found an internal policy document encouraging TikTok moderators to hide clips featuring people with “ugly facial looks” and “[who are] chubby, or too thin” from the For You page. Equally, those shooting in a “shabby” environment. When I asked TikTok about these accusations, they said, “Like all platforms, we have policies that protect our users – however most of the guidelines reported in these accusations are no longer in place or were never implemented at all. The policies were an early attempt at preventing bullying.” The app refused to clarify which policies were falsely reported on.

They did, however, say they’re always looking for new ways to improve, including implementing a feature allowing you to ban comments containing certain words. Taj said trolls on TikTok are so severe she’s had to block “all weight-related words, ‘Lizzo’ and several variations of the spelling – people get really creative and use 14 ‘Z’s – and cake emojis.” Instagram has a similar policy in place. Unfortunately, as with trolling across the web, it’s mostly up to the user themselves. “I stopped caring after I saw one comment calling me fat, then another directly underneath saying I’m too thin,” Holly shrugs. Welcome to the internet.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Taking onboard my learnings, I painstakingly build a profile of my own. Gone is the professional headshot I use for Twitter and Instagram, and the neat bio outlining my professional accolades. Instead, I simply write “Can u not tho?” and choose a photo where I’m reclining across a bench, eating a burger. Flippant. I upload a clip of myself wearing sunglasses with a towel wrapped around my wet hair, which I then whip off, accompanied by a Drag Race soundbite (“You’re perfect! You’re beautiful! You look like Linda Evangelista!”). Oh, and I have filtered gigantic horns onto either side of my forehead. I go viral within minutes and quit my job the next day… Just kidding. I quickly get cold feet and delete the clip after receiving one pity like. I feel like an idiot – but then isn’t that the point of it all?

How to make a viral TikTok video

TikTok is where we’re supposed to be able to let our wild side out, to showcase our silliest selves. Yet, despite yearning for an app that celebrates imperfection, it can still feel surprisingly difficult to do that. You’re still putting yourself up for judgement, by friends, strangers and people you’ve not spoken to in years. No matter how “silly” we’re encouraged to be, we still live in an age where how we appear on the internet is seen as a marker of our success.

After all, for me, Instagram started out as a fun, unfiltered place to virtually hang out with friends (my fuzzy first post documented the inside of my fridge, showing it only contained rum and a block of cheese). My latest post is me looking glossy, make-up freshly applied. I think it’s safe to say none of us needs another app to serve us aspirational content and trigger comparison anxiety. But it may already be happening. Mixed in with the hundreds of comments on Holly’s posts about how much she makes her fans laugh are an increasing number of followers praising her shiny hair and fangirling over her wardrobe. So as its popularity grows, could TikTok morph into something entirely different? Things are changing at such a pace that by the time this is published, it may have already done just that. Will I stop engaging with the platform? Probably. As soon as I’ve finished watching a random teenager balance a stack of toast on his head, of course.

Follow Jennifer on Instagram and Twitter

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