ANAHEIM, Calif. — At “V” Spehar's first VidCon, the TikTok creator behind @UnderTheDeskNews continued to do what they do best: The news.
This week, though, many of their news video updates weren't presented from under their desk at their upstate New York home. The videos were instead filmed near or at the Anaheim Convention Center, where the massive annual social media convention takes place.
In the last two years, Spehar has become known for delivering the news in a short, digestible way. The creator, who uses they/them pronouns, has become a trusted source for those who turn to TikTok for the news, especially among Gen Z and younger Millennials. They've amassed nearly 2.5 million followers, and earned spots working with traditional news outlets like The TODAY Show and The Los Angeles Times.
Like many creators at this year's convention, Spehar, 39, joined TikTok during the pandemic. That meant VidCon was their first time meeting their fans at a convention, and soaking in their newfound fame in a very public environment. (NBC News is a sponsor of VidCon).
It was an exciting change of pace for the creator, who welcomed juggling posting videos with meeting fans and fellow creators at the convention, which is considered the go-to for the internet's biggest stars.
“Everyone has been so nice,” they said on Thursday. “I don’t know that I knew what to expect.”
Battling imposter syndrome
At VidCon, Spehar, dressed in a crisp peacock blue suit and signature sky-high bouffant hairdo, experienced being famous IRL first-hand while perusing booths on the convention center floor on Thursday.
Hailee and Kendra, a pair of TikTokers who are married, were among those who stopped Spehar to share that they are big fans of their account. The three chatted for a few moments before Spehar decided to return to the press lounge.
There, other creators — like Drew Afualo (@DrewAfualo, 7.4 million followers) Kris Collins (@KallMeKris, 44.5 million followers) and Celina Myers (@CelinaSpookyBoo, 25.6 million followers) — were hiding out from the crowds and the California heat.
“I’m having imposter syndrome,” Collins, who was also experiencing VidCon for the first time, shared with Spehar about the experience so far.
The two wondered whether their fans would even recognize them in-person without the TikTok schticks that made them famous.
Collins, for example, wasn't sporting the pair of tiny hands she normally uses in her videos. While she did have them with her at VidCon, they were in a bag, not on her hands, as she walked around.
Spehar worried whether people would recognize them when they weren't providing updates from under a desk. They, clearly, did not lug around a desk at the conference.
“It’s the first time we’re out of our phones,” Spehar noted.
The birth of @UnderTheDeskNews
Before TikTok fame, Spehar had worked at the James Beard Foundation as the head of Women’s Leadership Programs and Impact.
Their background in food policy meant they followed many chefs on the platform. One day, a friend of their sent them meat that couldn’t be sold to restaurants due to closures during the height of the pandemic.
“So I started making hamburgers on TikTok, and that was my original TikTok fame,” they said, adding that one of their hamburger videos reached 100,000 views.
The pivot to news came later. While working in food policy, Spehar was trying to help doctors and nurses figure out how to eat on the job, realizing that removing their masks for lunch would expose them to Covid. During one webinar where they were discussing ways this issue could be mitigated, the Jan. 6 insurrection was being played on a TV over Spehar’s shoulder.
Under the desk feels like a very safe place to hear about terrible things."
-Tiktoker V. Spehar on their account
After jumping off the webinar, Spehar was inundated with other calls from friends asking them to explain what was going on. Those calls inspired them to make a video, addressed to former vice president Mike Pence, which they made under their desk.
From there, they continued making videos explaining hard topics to their followers.
Spehar, who has dyslexia, said having to put things in simple terms for themselves allowed them to take hard concepts and make them tangible for their followers.
Going under the desk, rather than sitting at a desk, was also intentional.
“I didn’t want people to think I was a real news anchor, some sort of authority figure,” they said. “Under the desk feels like a very safe place to hear about terrible things.”
Spehar began regularly doing news updates from under their desk right around when President Joe Biden hit his first 100 days in office.
Becoming a go-to news source
Spehar said they didn’t intend to become an authoritative news figure. But, they speculate that people were likely drawn to UndertheDesk because they offer less "spin" than traditional media.
Roughly 53% of adults in the United States are more likely to get their news from social media, according to a Pew Research report published in January 2021.
For Spehar, joining a platform like TikTok also helped remove the barrier to entry that often exists in traditional media.
“With legacy media it’s like, ‘What’s your pedigree? Why should I trust you?” they said.
Now, they said, "I don’t have to survive a tradition newsroom."
Back in the VidCon press room, where nearly half a dozen mega-famous TikTokers had taken refuge on Thursday, Grammy-winning content creator Abigail Barlow jokingly asked Spehar how it felt to come out from under their physical desk.
“How does it feel to be out in the air?” asked Barlow, who won critical acclaim for her TikTok album “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.”
“The air feels good," Spehar replied.