Madeline Budd, 16, who has been on and off the app for years, considers herself a TikTok meme. Several months ago, a video of a dance she posted went viral, and other users began adding on to her video, called a “duet” on TikTok, whether in earnest or jest, causing views to soar.
“I make fun of myself all the time, and I’m aware of how cringy I am,” Budd, who goes by Blackladder on TikTok, said
TikTok users say one reason the app is so conducive to viral fame is the ability of other users to build off existing trends while finding ways to make them feel new.
“I go to school and go through a regular day and sometimes kids come up to me at school and do the meme dance,” Budd said. “You never know what’s going to go viral. That’s what makes TikTok interesting.”
Not all TikTok stars want to be a meme or earn their fame from cringey content.
Gilmher Croes, 25, dreamed of becoming the next Jim Carrey, but living in Aruba, he said he had no way of getting to Hollywood to make his dreams come true. So he started making comedy on TikTok, imitating Carrey’s elastic facial expressions and goofy persona, earning more than 17.8 million fans.
“I was doing the exact same thing Jim Carrey was doing, but for some reason the new generation, the meme world, I find it a little toxic,” Croes said. “They try to bring everyone down.”
The price of TikTok fame
TikTok users like Bails and Godwin have used negative attention to build their channels, but the hate can still take a toll on them.
In Bails’ first viral video, he was lip syncing the song “L-O-V-E” sung by Nat King Cole, a classic he knew from the Lindsay Lohan film “The Parent Trap.” He said not only were people making fun of his looks, but they were specifically homing in on the size of his lips, calling them small and thin.
“I always noticed I had small lips. I didn’t think it was a legitimate issue, but it was a little bit of an insecurity of mine,” Bails said. “When I started seeing confirmation from other people telling me something I was already insecure about it ... it got to me.”
He went on to get lip injections, he said, even making the procedure the subject of a YouTube video on his channel.
“It can drive you to do some crazy stuff,” Bails said of the hate comments.
Apps like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have enabled young adults, teens and children to find viral fame without the help of adults or professional managers to mitigate hateful responses.
Yalda T. Uhls, founder and executive director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializes in how media affects youth. She said young people all have different responses to viral fame.
“If they’re driven to go viral for fame and notoriety and attention, certainly it’s going to make them really happy, but they really don’t have the life experience to understand what this means and how it’s going to affect them long term,” Uhls said.
As more young people go viral on apps like TikTok, it’s imperative for adults to help teens and children navigate the ups and downs of fame, Uhls said.
Bails said when he needs advice, he often turns to Godwin’s mother, whom he lovingly called his “mom-ager.”
“Kids can build their own careers but there’s nothing around them to support them, so they have to have an adult or few caring adults to help them through the process,” Uhls said, adding that teens and their families often have the added burden of navigating whether an adult has their best interest at heart or is out to use a viral star for their own financial gain.
Hate comments aside, Bails and Godwin say the hardest part of their day is usually coming up with new and creative ideas for content. They make and post an average of two to three videos on TikTok each day and typically will do a live broadcast with their fans in the afternoon or evening. They also find time to film and edit at least one video each week for their respective YouTube channels.
Standing in Bails’ vacant living room, the pair discussed old videos, including a successful series they posted recently in which Godwin dressed in Bails’ heavy, orange makeup.
“I was putting all my dark foundation on her. It was so funny,” Bails said, as his laughter bounded through the mostly empty apartment. “She looked like Donald Trump. It was scary.”
After filming their videos in the morning, Bails and Godwin often spend several hours a day using the broadcast feature on TikTok, which gives them the ability to livestream and interact with their fans. One function of those streams is that fans can give them money, and this is where Godwin and Bails say the majority of their income comes from. Companies have also hired them to advertise products in their videos.