Superstar influencer and teenage sensation Charli D’Amelio became the first person to win 100 million followers on TikTok on Sunday, just over a year and a half after joining the platform. The 16-year-old hit the milestone in front of the world’s biggest celebrities and the YouTubers, Instagrammers, Musical.ly and Vine stars who preceded her.
“100 million people who support me,” D’Amelio tweeted. “I really can not believe this is true.”
Primarily popular with Generation Z (over 60% of its US users are in their teens and twenties), TikTok hasdue to control of its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. There have been moments where it feels like the future of the social media platform, especially in the US, where it is attracted to the anger of President Donald Trump, is on a shaky ground. But through it all, TikTok̵
While this year has been tough for most, D’Amelio has had an extraordinary 2020 by anyone’s standards – no matter a teenage schoolgirl who just over a year ago just filmed dance videos in her bedroom. Not only has her profile in the app grown exponentially from just 1 million followers a year ago, but her career outside of TikTok has also exploded.
Among his accolades, D’Amelio made his feature film debut this year; launched nail polish, makeup and fashion brands with big brands; appeared in a Super Bowl commercial; had a Dunkin ‘Donuts drink named after her and appeared in a music video with his hero, J-Lo. Her first book, Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping It Real, is coming out next month. A Forbes report released in August suggested that D’Amelio had earned $ 4 million last year on its various offers.
D’Amelio has not only carved a new and unexpected career for himself, but for his entire family. Big sister Dixie is embarking on a music career, her mom and dad are following their own, and they are posting all content on their family and individual YouTube channels as well as being signed to United Talent.
But as beautiful as they all look, Charli is definitely the star. Without her TikTok fame pulling them out of obscurity, there is no doubt that they are all still living the quiet life of their home state of Connecticut.
If you are not familiar with her content, you may be wondering what it is D’Amelio is doing that justifies such admiration and popularity. The answer is hard to pinpoint – even for those who have followed closely, even for D’Amelio himself.
Back in August, I got a message that Charli D’Amelio had gone live on Instagram. I joined the stream to see D’Amelio, wrapped in a purple-pink filter and engrossed in playing with a Lego Friends model she had made earlier that day. She tells Live in her soft, low voice. “Look! Friends, besties,” she said, holding a few figures up to her phone camera.
“What in the world are you looking at?” said my partner.
“I’m just trying to figure something out,” I replied. “To work.”
I had heard of D’Amelio’s meteoric rise to fame long before I knew anything about her or her content, and I had tapped “follow” mainly out of curiosity. For most of this year, her TikTok biography has read, “Don’t worry, I’m not getting hype either.” But I was determined to get hype.
From what I could originally see, D’Amelio was a humble, beautiful, silly, sensitive, deeply normal teenage girl whose work (largely consisting of dancing, drawing faces, and drinking iced coffee) was uncontrolled and unpolished. At the same time, she seemed mature and young for her age – mixed with confidence in her older peers and threw her energy into eyebrow-raising TikTok dancers, but also happily messing with Lego and openly embracing the “kid” side of being 16.
It was clear that she was tapping in. “It is precisely her generosity that is the key to her success,” said Zoe Glatt, a digital anthropologist and critical cross-cutting feminist researcher at the London School of Economics. “With her beautiful girl-by-the-side vibe, she exemplifies the ideal package for a TikToker: Relative, authentic, normatively attractive, youthful, funny, tireless and uncontroversial.”
The qualities of authenticity and relativity that audiences seek in influencers are often elusive, says Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies media, technology and culture. “However, we should not overlook the roles of both luck and privilege in the production of celebrity,” she says.
As upper-middle-class white Americans, Charli and the D’Amelio family, who found wealth quite unexpectedly, fit the bill on both counts.
Earlier this year, D’Amelio was mistakenly credited with creating the “Renegade” dance, which was actually the work of black teenager Jalaiah Harmon from Atlanta, Georgia – not something she had claimed, but it was widely accepted because of her viral version of dancing. “This story tells us something about the culture of TikTok, where white creators often lend themselves to aspects of black culture,” says Glatt. The episode led to D’Amelio and others more often adding dance credits to their TikTok captions to ensure the creator was recognized.
The longer I followed D’Amelio, the more I became convinced that despite her supposed normality, she has a certain thing that sets her apart and inspires affection. Duffy believes it is tied to the way she both adapts and challenges ideas about femininity. “She enjoys traditionally feminized activities (shopping, cosmetics) but defies conventional codes of performativity,” Duffy says.
It also helps that she grew up competing in dance competitions, Glatt points out. “TikTok, with its short-form videos based on sound recycling, is the perfect platform for dance trends to emerge: fast, fun and catchy routines performed to popular songs that other users can recreate,” she says.
In fact, it’s hard not to be happy about D’Amelio, who seems like a sweet, funny and unproblematic young woman. Even when chased around LA by camera-waving men three times her age shouting invasive questions about her romantic life, she is polite and smiley and speaks kindly when confronted with shady things that people have said about her.
Something about her personality and the timing of her journey has clicked both with the TikTok algorithm and the audience, and no matter what alchemy has happened, it can not be easily reproduced for anyone trying to emulate it. It also makes her an attractive partner for brands, which is why so many lucrative partnerships have been offered to her, says Glatt.
But even though her rise to fame looks like the social media adventure is coming true – an average teenager making videos in her room, catapulted into the limelight and becoming the most famous internet influencer on the planet within a year – it’s not all brand deals and sunshine.
The TikTok star is full of pitfalls and options for cancellation. Rarely does a day go by without a scandal that can range from the trivial (a relationship drama, an ego-driven beef) to the really serious (racism, older influencers caring for fans who are minors). D’Amelio has been pretty much immune to this – any appearance on TikTok Room (an influential news source on influencers on Instagram) is usually the result of someone having something bad to say about her.
What she is not immune to is the jealousy and bullying that comes with superstardom. The biggest threat to her right now is overexposure – people get so tired of waiting for her to get up that they impose impossibly high standards on her and then claim that she has fallen short.
An example of this is the reaction to a YouTube video released this week. In it, D’Amelio jokes with a friend and another influencer James Charles about how cool it would be to reach 100 million followers on TikTok – something that would always happen to watch on her track – exactly one year after first hitting a million. She also asks if she can get Dino nuggets despite being served a dinner prepared by a chef’s friend of the family.
The reactions to it have been disproportionately cruel. At the more benign end of the scale, D’Amelio has been labeled “justified”, “disrespectful” and “rude”, but there has also been a massive influx of commentators picking her up to kill herself – an inexcusable thing to say for some reason, do not remember a child for something so harmless. According to Glatt, this incident demonstrates “the fragility of online fame, especially for young women who are held to impossibly high standards of conduct compared to their male counterparts.”
The timing does not seem insignificant. It’s easier to get followers on TikTok than on other social platforms, but it’s still a huge achievement to be the first to reach the 100 milestone, and there are many people out there who think she does not deserve it.
In an Instagram Live, D’Amelio reacted in tears to the comments, saying, “I do not even know if I want to do it anymore. These are messy things that people say – like people telling me to hang People who just openly respecting the fact that I’m still human is not OK at all. “
But she also quickly jumped back and tweeted: “Tomorrow I will come back and usually send content with a smile on my face! At the end of the day I know I am a good person with a good heart and I will never change that about myself. I love you all !! “
Such resilience will serve her well if she is to survive in the ruthless world of internet fame. Social media stars come and go – longevity is never guaranteed. But so far? There is absolutely no reason why D’Amelio should not have his view on the next 100 million.