According to current numbers, the third most popular user on TikTok is Addison Rae, a 20-year-old from Louisiana who currently has over 81 million followers. Forbes named her as the highest-earning personality on the platform last year. You may have seen her lazily teaching Jimmy Fallon some dance moves that are popular on the app that she didn’t create. She also has some songs, is BFFs with Kourtney Kardashian, and got up to greet Donald Trump at a recent UFC fight. Wikipedia describes her as a ‘singer, social media personality, dancer and actress.’ She can currently be seen in the Freddie Prinze Jr. role 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 shallow showcasing of dance scenes, musical numbers, and close ups of branded snacks that feel like a book report on Shakespeare by a kid who read the Wikipedia entry and presented it while wearing a lot of lip gloss.’ Rae’s acting has not been celebrated by the critics.
There’s always a risk when it comes to talking about internet celebrities, one we’ve never fully been able to cast aside: how do you explain this new, ever-evolving phenomenon that is truly impacting the entertainment world without sounding hopelessly condescending or 150 years old? There’s still this near-instinctive urge to dismiss such figures out of hand, deeming them to be a frivolity with no staying power or tangible signs of talent. We went through this spiel with bloggers and vloggers and anyone talking over a video game. There’s a specific strain of stardom that’s never inspired much respect from the same media and audiences who remain perplexedly intrigued by them. TikTok celebrities, like Instagram influencers and Vine stars before them, seem preordained to be written off as flashes in the pan who will infuriate us until we move onto the next fad of the day. Maybe your kids or nieces and nephews will talk about them, but they seldom stray from their own ecosystem of recognition. It allows any of us older than 30 to be content with the knowledge that the kids aren’t on our lawns, dammit.
So, what happens when one makes an appearance?
Rae got popular through TikTok dances but that’s not what made her a celebrity. Not really. As anyone who watched her on Fallon will know, it’s not like she’s the most proficient or vibrant dancer on the platform and she didn’t create the choreography that helped elevate her to such heights of fame. She seems perfectly pleasant in interviews and has an expressive face on her TikToks but I’ve struggled to find much else about her that piques my interest. Granted, I am not the target audience for her brand of, shall we say, influencing, but there are plenty of celebrities I don’t get whose appeal makes total sense to me. I understand what, for example, the Paul brothers were selling to the masses, as tedious and repugnant as it often was. Rae and her contemporaries have proven to be far more perplexing a celebrity conundrum, and now that she’s ‘going Hollywood’, the stakes feel different.
In her excellent newsletter, Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge described another TikTok celebrity, Bella Poarch, as ‘a blank slate customized for mass engagement.’ The appeal lies less in some undeniable form of talent or charisma and more in the possibilities presented by being a conventionally pretty white woman who’s perfectly malleable for an eager industry trying to tap into that ever-profitable youth demographic. I feel like Rae fits this mold too. Sure, she’s singing and dancing and acting, but it never seemed like she was doing those out of a love of the craft or desire to create. It’s just a thing you do when you get famous, and she’s already a pre-established figure to her audience so she doesn’t necessarily need to be good at any of those skills. Such ideas seem frivolous in the grand scheme of things because they’re not qualities that TikTok or the internet necessarily prioritize. What they want in reality is ‘relatability.’
Ah, relatability, that harsh mistress of constantly moving goalposts and inevitable backlash. We’ve discussed it many times before on this site in relation to everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Chrissy Teigen to whatever the hell’s going on over on Instagram these days. The appealing sense of normalness and approachability Rae seems to embody is especially potent on TikTok, a site of immense popularity that can catapult anyone onto the phones of millions of fans. Like YouTube, the platform’s algorithm dominates what we see, and the end result is that we consume a lot of videos of the same white faces doing dances they didn’t create. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the likes of Addison Rae got big for TikTok viral dances rather than the Black creators who choreographed them in the first place. TikTok is full of startlingly talented comedians, but it was Sarah Cooper and her hacky lip syncs to Trump speeches that became the platform’s stand-up representation.
No social media powerhouse has more potently weaponized the notion that anyone could become famous in a flash than TikTok. But what do you do once you’re big on TikTok? You can do sponsored content, but you can’t readily monetize your videos in the same way you can on YouTube. You can have ten million people see a clip you made but you’re not getting any cash from it. For a long time, you struggle with the double-bind of having everyone know you and want something from you but with none of the financial safety nets to balance it out. I can hardly blame someone like Rae for grabbing every opportunity thrown at her, regardless of merit. Frankly, the notion of who ‘deserves’ to be famous is kind of a scam anyway. Merit has never had a damn thing to do with it, and we’ve been having those arguments for centuries. Hell, we’re still having them over reality TV stars despite a solid two decades of that subgenre redefining modern entertainment.
So, I try to avoid grumbling over the dang kids and their TikToks who don’t fit into my personal definition of fame, one that is flexible but often instinctively adheres to more traditional notions. But still, I am curious as to the long-term guarantees of this shiny new world. Eventually, you have to be good at something. The algorithm will turn against you as it did for many YouTubers. Platforms fall or become irrelevant. There’s always something newer and shinier around the corner, populated with 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 to work on them? Perhaps she can diversify her portfolio enough to ensure she retains some sort of staying power. Whether it’s in Hollywood or remains online could go either way. When your job is essentially to be likable, you need to figure out what to do when that quality is eventually ripped from your hands.
Header Image Source: Vivien Killilea // Getty Images for Netflix