The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mel Sommers created an Olivia Rodrigo TikTok trend. Now she’s getting used to the spotlight.

TikToker Mel Sommers is learning to embrace the limelight. (Mel Sommers)
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Mel Sommers isn’t particularly fond of the spotlight.

For most people, that wouldn’t matter. For her, it’s a paradox. The 21-year-old Corona, Calif., resident considers herself a creator, posting songs and videos to social media while making some spending money in the process, but the notoriety can become so overwhelming that she quit Twitter after a few of her posts went viral.

“Whenever I get attention, I get very anxious, very nervous. So I tend to just pull away and kind of disappear,” Sommers said. “I just started thinking too much of what other people thought of me.”

A year later, she joined TikTok, thinking of herself as a casual user, one who “had it just to have it.” So she was being a little tongue-in-cheek when she captioned a post in early January “can this be a trend? 😳” In the video, she re-creates part of the music video for Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.”

“I just love her music so much, and I wanted to promote it,” Sommers said. “I didn’t expect to start a big trend.”

Sommers’s video has gotten 7 million views, and it indeed sparked a trend that helped turn Rodrigo’s already popular song into a soundtrack for TikTok videos. (More than 450,000 use the tune in some way.) The trend has only grown since Rodrigo released her phenomenally popular debut album, “Sour,” which includes the song, on May 21. But it took a while for many who were mimicking Sommers to give her credit for the idea.

Sommers counts herself among the biggest fans of the former Disney Channel star turned pop singer. When Rodrigo put out her single, Sommers knew she wanted to do something — namely, re-create the moment from the video that finds the singer hanging out of a moving car, belting out “Red lights/Stop signs/I still see your face in the white cars/Front yards.”

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There was a small snag in her plan. “My friends know I’m very clumsy, so none of them were willing to take the risk of them driving as I put my head out the window like that,” she said. “They knew I would just fall out the car.” Instead, she chose her soft bed — little chance of injury there — as her landing pad.

The TikTok begins with Sommers — dressed in a T-shirt and hoodie, hair tightly pulled back, tears in her eyes, mouthing the lyrics. Then, when the bridge hits, the video cuts to her in a white dress, makeup replacing tears, hair flowing, as she falls onto her sheets and continues to mouth the words.

Soon, creators with millions of followers were re-creating her re-creation. Transporting the car scene to a bedroom solved the logistical challenges of mimicking the hit song’s music video and made it an easy trend to jump on — but not many who did were crediting Sommers with creating it.

TikTok is built on mimicry. If someone likes your video — your unique dance, your clever audio, your surprising joke setup — then they create their own version. Maybe they build on it, add their own spin. Maybe they try an honest re-creation. In the right circumstances, each video spawns dozens more.

It’s helped make the platform overwhelmingly popular, but the downside is the lack of recognition for creators of trends. And it’s not just ego at stake. In many cases, lack of recognition equals loss of potential endorsement dollars.

Nonetheless, Sommers didn’t mind not being in the spotlight. Her friends and family didn’t know she was on TikTok, and she didn’t mind keeping it that way. But then Rodrigo — probably unaware of where the creation began — reposted some of the videos on her Instagram Stories. (A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Suddenly, other creators were reaching out to Sommers, asking her to take a stand. If not for herself, than for the smaller ones who end up in her situation.

So she created another TikTok, this one titled “to all the big tiktokers who didn’t give me credit. love you MUAH😚.” It’s much the same as her original, only this time she falls back into bed with two middle fingers defiantly raised to the camera. It’s received more than 19 million likes.

As the attention poured in, she considered deleting her account, much as she did on Twitter. But she found her friends and family supportive. Plus, she managed to snag a few endorsement deals out of it.

Instead, she’s using her newfound prominence to create TikToks to raise awareness for mental health, in hopes of making some of her nearly 285,000 followers (up from 80,000 in early January) who might be suffering feel less alone. Sommers struggles with mental health as well — something that’s felt more difficult now that she’s becoming more prominent online.

While Sommers is grateful for the support, the attention can still overwhelm her. She dyed her hair blond in hopes of avoiding being spotted on the street. It hasn’t quite worked, evidenced by two friends she made at a Huntington Beach, Calif., Starbucks.

“After an hour, one of the guys said, ‘Oh my gosh, aren’t you the girl who started the whole Olivia Rodrigo TikTok trend?’ ” Sommers said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, that’s not me. That girl has blue hair.’ ”

After realizing they followed her, they weren’t fooled. But that’s okay.

Sommers is getting used to the spotlight.

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