The young people of Ohio weren’t physically distancing, and Gov. Mike DeWine needed to do something.
“Young people think they’re pretty invincible. That just goes with the age,” DeWine said. They are “the hardest demographic to reach … You’ve got to have the right messenger.”
But who? The Republican governor is 73 years old. As the pandemic swept the country in late March, he needed Charli D’Amelio — even if he didn’t yet know who she was.
Charli is simultaneously a completely ordinary teenager and a complete anomaly. This spring, she had two events to celebrate. She turned 16 with a quarantine-style party where family and friends drove by her home in Norwalk, Conn. Oh, and she became the most popular creator on TikTok.
For her May 1 birthday, she created a short video of herself dancing to “Sixteen” by Ayesha Erotica while wearing a hoodie printed with the words “Charli’s 16 Squad.” The hoodie was only for her inner crew, but it looked like a piece of merchandise that her more than 58 million TikTok followers buy in droves.
Thanks to her online stardom, she’s danced onstage with Bebe Rexha at a Jonas Brothers concert, appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and will voice a character in the upcoming animated flick “StarDog and TurboCat.” Her family — which includes older sister and fellow TikTok influencer Dixie, stay-at-home mom Heidi, and father Marc, a clothing entrepreneur who came up short in two local political races — recently inked a production deal with Industrial Media to create a reality show. She’s finishing her sophomore year of high school while being attacked online by Perez Hilton.
She’s been on TikTok for a little more than a year.
The app where users create, view and share short-form videos has reportedly been downloaded more than 2 billion times. It’s one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, and Charli D’Amelio is its undisputed ruler.
As with most TikTok stars, Charli creates all kinds of videos, but dancing is her specialty. Goofy dances. Choreographed dances. Solo dances. Group dances. Trending dances. Original dances.
She mostly films them in ordinary spaces like her bedroom. Her dad makes sure she makes the bed first. This is in part why people like her videos so much: They feel like she’s a peer. And TikTok rewards authenticity above all.
For outsiders, her popularity might feel as elusive as TikTok’s appeal in general. For insiders, there’s no explanation necessary. It just makes sense. She’s Charli. Just say her first name and everyone knows who you’re talking about. Try to figure out exactly what sets her apart from the other teens dancing in their bedrooms on TikTok, and you won’t get too far.
Pose the question to Charli, and she’ll shrug and tell you she has no idea. Her TikTok bio reads, “don’t worry i don’t get the hype either.”
Ask any number of her friends, fans and collaborators, and they all tend to repeat the same things: She’s a genuinely real but genuinely talented 16-year-old girl just having fun online.
Ask fellow influencer Avani Gregg, and she’ll tell you it’s that Charli is “the most caring person,” and that when hackers took over Gregg’s TikTok and Twitter accounts earlier this year and posted graphic videos of people being executed, Charli was the first to call and check on her.
Or ask TikTok star Madi Monroe, who will tell you “literally everybody on the Internet sees Charli as just like a normal girl. They look at her, and they’re like ‘Oh, my gosh, I could do that, too.’”
Pop star Bebe Rexha will say she’s “ truly passionate” and that she and her sister Dixie are “loving, humble and very hard-working.”
Dixie, meanwhile, will say, “She’s very natural and happy and shows her personality, but also has a real talent for dance.”
And while that all might sound somewhat benign, it comes with real power. The best way to explain involves a Midwestern governor, a manufacturer of cleaning products and an unprecedented global pandemic.
DeWine teamed up with Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble and the ad agency Grey Group to craft a campaign to reach Gen Z. And they called Charli. But she had a demand: The campaign must have a charitable component.
Once they agreed, she came up with the choreography — after finishing her math homework. The dance, which she posted on March 24, is at once simple and complicated. After some hip flares and hand motions, a full body roll mimics the instructive lyrics of “Big Up’s” by Jordyn & Nic Da Kid feat. Yung Nnelg.
“It just took off. It’s absolutely crazy, the number of people who have seen it.”
— Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine
Charli encouraged fans to post TikToks of themselves replicating the dance, with the hashtag #distancedance. It spread quickly, earning a short segment on “The View.” After nine weeks, Charli’s video has been watched more than 192 million times and has spawned nearly 3.5 million other videos with more than 16 billion combined views. P&G donated a product for each video to Feeding America and Matthew 25: Ministries.
“It just took off. It’s absolutely crazy, the number of people who have seen it,” DeWine said.
“I’ve never met a young influencer with such poise,” Kenny Gold, Grey’s director of social in North America, said. “She could so easily just cash in, do stuff ad hoc and charge per post. But she wants to influence societal change.”
As an added bonus, she has gained approximately 20 million followers.
Charli’s story is both highly unusual and increasingly common. She began dancing at age 3 and cycled through ballet, tap and hip-hop. She heard about TikTok at school but didn’t give it too much thought.
“My life before TikTok was very normal,” she said. “I would go to school, go to dance, do my homework and go to bed. It was pretty much like every other teenager’s” life. She kept a vision board, topped with a photo of Jennifer Lopez, whom she had wanted to dance with since she was 12 years old. Eventually she downloaded the app, immediately taking to it as “a place for me to be creative and express myself.”
Her first video, posted on March 30, 2019, doesn’t exactly foreshadow her future success. For one, it’s a simple lip-syncing gag with a friend that’s filmed horizontally, while TikTok videos typically appear vertically.
“I never really expected anyone to see my videos other than my friends,” she said. Then, in July, on her way to dance class, she posted a side-by-side video of her following the dance moves of a user named “Move With Joy.” Her phone started pinging constantly. She didn’t know what was happening. “I had like seven followers,” she said. But when she picked her phone back up after class, suddenly she had 2,000.
“It was crazy. No one knows how to react to that,” she said. “There’s no guidebook of what to do when you go viral on an app.”
##duet with @move_with_joy this is so cute i love this♬ step step flip flip shoulder shoulder hip hip - move_with_joy
“There’s no guidebook of what to do when you go viral on an app.”
— Charli D'Amelio
She still doesn’t know why it blew up the way it did. But it did. And things began changing, quickly. Her mom, Heidi, remembers weeks of Charli waking up to hundreds of thousands of new followers a day. Suddenly she needed representation — she now has an agency, publicist and manager.
Charli’s schedule filled with meetings. In between them, she’d make around seven videos a day. She became deeply acquainted with the city of Los Angeles, where she joined the Hype House, a collective of online creators who often collaborated with one another — and later left when it became a business.
Fans want to be her best friend while aspiring to be her. They beg for tutorials to her dances in the comments section. Some dedicated “stans” love to comment before a new video gets a million likes. One wrote, “Everybody just be honest … everytime you are early to one of her videos, you just get a good feeling inside.”
However that fame came about, it translates into big business. Earlier this year, Charli appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus alongside rapper T-Pain and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants Kim Chi and Miz Cracker. Soon, she’ll announce several brand licensing deals in fashion and makeup. Though her spokesman didn’t offer specific numbers, he said Charli “has the potential to make millions this year.”
That this whole TikTok thing was becoming a thing, that Charli wasn’t just popular but actually famous became clear when Dixie began noticing people recognizing her sister at restaurants. When Marc took Charli to a Jonas Brothers concert, he saw fans gathered around her, hoping to catch a glimpse.
For Charli, the landmark moment came when she finally met and danced with J-Lo in a TikTok during the Super Bowl.
Before meeting her, “I told myself, ‘Don’t cry. You’re going to ruin every picture you take,’” Charli said. But after chatting with her idol for a bit, “I just started crying. I could not hold back. She just embraced me with the biggest hug ever.”
Charli also discovered the pitfalls of the world knowing your name: The media obsessing over her dating life. The online bullying. The body shaming.
In February, she found herself at the center of a minor controversy after helping popularize a dance called the Renegade without initially crediting its 14-year-old creator Jalaiah Harmon. The episode caused several critics to consider the ethics of performing someone else’s trending choreography on TikTok — a common practice that can help you garner likes and followers. There doesn’t appear to be bad blood between the two, who eventually performed the dance together. Harmon — who described Charli to The Post as “very friendly” and said that meeting her was “really cool” — even posted a Distance Dance of her own.
During quarantine, Charli suddenly has more time on her hands. Her friend Monroe bought her an Xbox for her birthday, so they could play Fortnite for hours and chat over headsets from opposite sides of the country.
But “being stuck in your home can be mentally difficult,” Charli said. Especially since she finds herself spending more time scrolling through the comments, focusing on the negative ones. The dark side of TikTok. Of any social media platform. Jealousy abounds, sure. But sometimes the attacks come from established adults.
Perez Hilton, for example, has posted speculation about Charli’s love life on his celebrity gossip website and commented on her videos, “Anyone else think it’s inappropriate for a 15-year-old to dance to this?” Her fans and fellow creators rushed to her side, creating a Change.org petition, signed by more than 188,000 people, urging TikTok to ban him.
But then there were the moms. And you can’t kick off all the moms.
Teens often create videos in which they ask their somewhat clueless parents basic questions about TikTok, the joke being that the “olds” don’t understand the platform. But earlier this year, some creators had their moms rate the appearance of female teenage influencers, sometimes on a numerical scale. Charli became a prime target.
She tweeted, “why am i being rated by moms? yeah i’ll pass on that whole trend.”
She tries tuning out the trolls, but she’s beginning to feel the damage they can do. “I do have a lot of people looking my way to be a role model and to lift everyone up. And I try to do that so much that sometimes I don’t focus on myself, or how I’m feeling, or how things are really hurting me when I see people say nasty things about me. It’s really hurtful.”
She tries to remind herself that “the people who are able to do this without feeling bad must really have something hurting inside of them that they have to take out on other people.”
When one fan on Twitter asked how she deals with so much hate, she responded, “honestly it hurts really bad. i lost all of my confidence in myself i didn’t want to look in the mirror and i would cry when i started dancing because everyone was telling me how horrible i was but i realized dance is my safe place no one can take that from me.”
She told The Post, “I just hope that people actually listen to me when I say those things because I really do mean it.”
Though her sudden fame can be overwhelming, Charli is trying to “enjoy this moment for as long as I can.” She hopes to one day meet Lady Gaga. She doesn’t know why she became famous, so she doesn’t know how to remain famous. She’ll just keep making TikToks, while aiming to remain true to herself.
“We always talk about making sure we’re as happy today as we were before this started,” Marc said. “If we’re ever not, then we’ll need to scale it back.”
Until then, she’ll be dancing.