Early in Hulu’s “The D’Amelio Show,” TikTok’s biggest star Charli D’Amelio speaks to the camera.
The 17-year-old has already achieved TikTok superstardom, posting short, choreographed dances on the way to more than 100 million followers. She has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” danced onstage with Bebe Rexha, appeared in a Super Bowl commercial and been profiled in The Washington Post.
But her justifiable nerves come as D’Amelio makes her first foray into traditional media with the release of “The D’Amelio Show.” The docuseries, in the style of a wholesome “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” follows the D’Amelio family — Charli (123 million TikTok followers), her older sister Dixie (54.5 million), father Marc (10.5 million) and mother Heidi (9.5 million) — as they grapple with online fame. It begins streaming Friday, one week after fellow TikTok star and D’Amelio’s friend Addison Rae made her mainstream acting debut in the Netflix movie “He’s All That.”
D’Amelio and Rae are the latest social media darlings attempting the perilous trek to mainstream success.
Traditional media is salivating at the prospect. Social media’s young followers, who eschew traditional entertainment platforms, are still a largely untapped market.
“The question is whether that new media star can actually deliver their followers on a traditional media platform,” said Elaine Lui, the “etalk” and “The Social” TV personality who runs the website LaineyGossip.com.
But the path to traditional stardom for the creators who have made their names on the Internet is littered with failures. After being named one of the most influential people on the Internet by Time magazine in 2015, Vine star Brittany Furlan embarked on an acting career that still hasn’t taken off. YouTuber Tyler Oakley has tried several different paths to the mainstream — including competing in “The Amazing Race” — but is still known mostly for his vlogging. Fellow YouTuber Jack Maynard broke free from the Internet by going on the U.K. reality show “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!” only to be removed after his past offensive tweets surfaced. “AwesomenessTV’s Next Influencer,” a reality show about a group of TikTokers trying to become famous on the app, has an astoundingly low 1.7/10 rating on IMDb.
SQUARE PEG, ROUND HOLE
Their primary hurdle has been the cultural mismatch. Online media is “such a unique environment. YouTube had a difficult time translating to traditional media spaces, and I think TikTok will even more so,” said Jamie Cohen, a digital media and media studies professor at Queens College.
Online platforms have their own visual style — a filter that superimposes dog ears onto a person’s face wouldn’t be out of place — that doesn’t always translate to film to television. And they offer their popular personalities the kind of flexibility and freedom unheard of in traditional media, allowing creators to react quickly to the feedback of their viewers.
“Influencers are real-time actors,” Cohen said. “If something they do works, they repeat it, but they don’t know until they’ve done something if it will work.”
Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh suffered one of the biggest crossover flops for an Internet celebrity. By 2019, Singh had racked up more than 14.8 million YouTube followers, making her one of the most followed YouTube personalities, creating comedy videos.
NBC offered her a coveted late-night show titled “A Little Late With Lilly Singh,” taking over the time slot previously held by “Last Call with Carson Daly,” and becoming the first woman of color to host a late-night talk show.
“I’m excited to build a writers’ room, to be able to riff and come up with creative concepts,” Singh told Interview magazine at the time. “So far in my career, in terms of writing, I’ve been the only person in the room.”
The show bombed in spectacular fashion. A week after it aired, Teen Vogue published an op-ed saying Singh “falls into a category of non-Black people of color in entertainment who have built massive followings often by mimicking Black culture and leaning heavily into Black stereotypes.” It lost 25 percent of the time slot’s audience in two years. Bad reviews flooded IMDb, where the show has a 1.5/10 rating, and Rotten Tomatoes, where it has a user score of 16 percent. After two seasons, it was canceled. To make matters worse, Singh’s YouTube channel languished, failing to gain any new followers while she focused on her doomed late-night TV dreams.
Singh couldn’t be reached for comment.
NBC misunderstood her brand of humor, YouTuber Drew Gooden said. Most of her YouTube videos, in which she made jokes about school and parents, were aimed at a young audience. But her NBC show aired well after midnight.
Online personalities like Singh can also lose creative control when working with a large network, hampering the freedom that made them successful online, he said. On social media “you have full creative control. As long as you’re not being super offensive or racist or whatever, you can pretty much make whatever you want and post whatever you want,” he said.
That calculus changes when large corporations are involved in producing and developing content. Suddenly, the creator is no longer in charge, no longer making niche content for its niche audience.
Reaching a larger audience also means being the focus of more scrutiny, a lesson Addison Rae is probably learning this year.
The Louisiana native blew up on TikTok in 2019, where she made lip-syncing and dance videos while attending Louisiana State University. Within months, she had dropped out of school, moved to Los Angeles, helped found the creator collective the Hype House and rocketed to the top of TikTok, where she now has more than 80 million followers. She became a spokeswoman for American Eagle and launched both a makeup line and a podcast. Forbes estimated that in 2019 alone, she made more than $5 million.
But Rae’s breakout year has been beset with controversies. To promote the release of her first pop song “Obsessed,” she performed several TikTok dances on “The Tonight Show” in March while Jimmy Fallon held up cue cards bearing the name of each dance. Neither Rae nor Fallon credited the original creators of those dances, most of whom are Black, sparking a fierce online backlash.
When asked for comment by TMZ, Rae said, “it’s kind of hard to credit during the show,” seemingly ignoring that there was plenty of room on the cue cards for more text. ”(For his part, Fallon invited said creators on the show for their own segment in a later show and apologized to them.)
Three months later, Rae tweeted a photo of herself on the red carpet, holding a mic at a UFC fight, with the caption, “I studied broadcast journalism in college for 3 whole months to prepare for this moment,” drawing ire from those who thought she was hired as a journalist for the event. One sports reporter called it an “obnoxious and tone-deaf slap in the face to the people who actually studied for and are trying to make it in that profession.” The controversy only grew when she joked in another tweet, “nvm y’all got me fired.”
Despite the online banter, Rae, in fact, had not been hired as a journalist for the event. Her Instagram post was a joke, Vice reported — though the experience shed light on the perils of her growing mainstream fame. At the same event, she introduced herself to former president Donald Trump, drawing the kind of scrutiny that screams Mainstream Celebrity.
And now, she’s facing vicious reviews for her debut as the star of “He’s All That,” a gender-flipped version of 1999′s “She’s All That.” Rae plays Padgett Sawyer, a high school Instagram influencer who accepts a bet to turn the school’s least popular guy into prom king. The Post’s Sonia Rao said she is “an earnest actress but lacks the vocal inflection and range of facial expressions required to give depth to [her character].”
The D’Amelio family learned a similar lesson in October, when they became the target of online ire after posting a YouTube video in which sisters Charli and Dixie mock paella made for them by a private chef, behavior that was criticized as “rude” and “ungrateful.” Charli immediately lost a million followers on the platform and offered a tearful apology on Instagram Live.
All of which is “confirmation that fame works as it always does, which is the more famous you become, the bigger the target on your back,” Lui said.
Neither Rae nor the D’Amelio family could be reached for comment.
WHERE IS ALL THIS HEADED?
Despite the perils, mainstream fame continues to be a draw for those that have made their names online. Networks and movie studios have access to greater resources to promote and share their content, not to mention that they can reach larger general audiences than social media.
Gooden, who has more than 3.5 million YouTube followers, said he enjoys his creative control but is sometimes drawn to legacy media.
“I grew up wanting to be on SNL or at least write for SNL. [Now,] I probably make more money from YouTube than the writers at SNL, and my job is way less stressful,” Gooden said. “And yet, there’s still some part of me that’s like, ‘If they offered me a writing job, I’d take it.’ It’s SNL. It’s an institution.”
Though social media has become more mainstream during the past decade, many people still view it as inferior, he added. “You’ll be a successful YouTuber, and you’ll talk to someone, and they’ll ask, ‘What do you want to do next?’”
Lui, the gossip TV personality, said cultural pressure to achieve “the right kind of fame,” along with a dash of ego, drives many influencers to give traditional media a shot. “Somehow, the fame that everyone craves is still legacy,” she said.
Bo Burnham is the gold standard of the Internet crossover. The comedian began posting humorous songs to YouTube as a high-schooler in 2006. One rap titled “i’m bo yo." racked up more than 33 million views.
Two years later, he released his first EP and became the youngest person to record a Comedy Central half-hour special. Since then, he’s starred in his own MTV series and wrote and directed the 2018 award-winning feature film “Eighth Grade.” In May, he released the Netflix special “Inside,” which spent weeks in the platform’s “Top Ten” and received critical acclaim.
Burnham wrote, shot, directed and edited the series — the way a YouTuber or TikToker might. But instead of putting it all online, it was released on Netflix.
“It blurs the lines between platforms,” said Cohen, the Queens College professor. “And I don’t think we have a proper word to describe it [yet]. That language is developing in real time.”
Maybe it’s just the future.