Charli D'Amelio With more than 41 million followers is TikTok's biggest star.
"I feel like there are so many things that I can do now," Charli D'Amelio tells me, when asked to envision her life beyond the internet. D’Amelio and I are meeting for the second time, pausing our respective mindless weekend social media scrolling to connect with each other. Through my glaring laptop screen, it’s hard not to wonder how often the most followed TikTok creator puts her phone down and turns away from her eager 91 million followers on social media. D'Amelio describes her life as full of "teen stuff": "I still do school online. I go get coffee. I go swimming," with the added layer of being one of the most recognizable humans on Earth, just a month after her sixteenth birthday.
D’Amelio's rapid ascent can only truly be understood through the sudden relevance of TikTok, the Chinese video app owned by ByteDance, formerly known as Musical.ly. In 2018, when the app reached American shores, D'Amelio was 14, living in Connecticut, and pursuing competitive dance. She posted her first video — a sweet, silly, lip-synch — in March of the following year. Then she (and her entire family) became absurdly famous. From her first TikTok to the interview for this story, D'Amelio's following swelled to nearly 100 million across her social media platforms, with the TikTok audience comprising the bulk of her fandom. Her videos are a charming blend of dances, snippets of popular songs, and snapshots from her life, which had been set in her suburban Connecticut home and is now filmed in a glass manse somewhere in the hills of Southern California.
D'Amelio's longtime TikTok bio: "I don't get the hype either."
Sitting across from me virtually, her virality makes sense. Her glowing complexion and long lashes are magnified, and even though there are miles and screens between us, there is a warm kindness about her that makes it easy to imagine us as real friends. Throughout our conversation, D'Amelio reiterates the importance of kindness and positive thinking and makes a point to tell me that she plans on continuing to use her platform to empower her followers. Her morning routine also clicks, given all that I know about Generation Z’s beauty preferences: Moisturizer and minimal makeup. "For the most part I just wash my face after I shower," she says.
D’Amelio admits that she doesn’t quite comprehend her sudden celebrity. (See her longtime TikTok bio: "I don't get the hype either," which now directs to her new nail polish line with Orosa.) But it adds up for TikTok, an inscrutable platform in a digital landscape dominated by inscrutable platforms.
The Gen-Z-centric app's algorithm is deft at cozily placing users in front of the content they want to see: long, neon-green acrylic nails, tie-dye tutorials, peanut butter brownie recipes, D'Amelio dancing. While captivating and time-sucking, the app has also been accused of arbitrarily censoring certain community voices. Last year, it was alleged that the company was quietly suppressing the reach of anyone it deemed could be vulnerable to cyberbullying, including queer and disabled users (a spokesperson for the company said that while their "intention was good, the approach was wrong"), and has since discontinued the practice.
During the Black Lives Matter protests, users complained that the #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd hashtags had turned up with zero posts, despite being widely used. The company apologized and explained the incident was a "technical glitch." And TikTok’s seismic 800 million users (according to one estimate; it will almost certainly be higher by the time this story runs) and its corporate opacity have prompted alarm from world leaders concerned about its rumored ties to the Chinese government. On August 6, President Trump issued an executive order that would essentially ban TikTok in the U.S. in 45 days unless the app is acquired by a U.S.-owned company. The platform issued a statement in response to the president’s order, but it remains unclear what TikTok will look like in the immediate future. (As of August 20, no sale of the app has been finalized.)
I know a lot of people don't know that I study dance outside of TikTok.
Meanwhile, D'Amelio is mostly excited, if not a bit flummoxed, about the platform. "It comes naturally to me," she says of the rigorous posting schedule and impossible algorithm. In one video, D'Amelio eats cake. In the next, she dances in a crop top and sweats while holding a large coffee. When controversy surrounds her, D'Amelio turns to Instagram Live and Twitter to speak candidly with her fans.
D'Amelio's more recent move into the beauty space feels inevitable. On July 20, the D'Amelio sisters announced their collaboration with Morphe's new sub-brand Morphe 2, followed by the partnership with Orosa. The 16-year-old's relatable presence online and multiplatform brand partnerships offline have become emblematic of the future of influencer marketing. Whatever D'Amelio (who has reached mononymous status because everyone under a certain age knows who you mean when you say "Charli") posts instantaneously becomes relevant to the lives of millions of young people around the world.
"What’s next?" I ask imagining the possibilities at D'Amelio's neon fingertips.
"I've been a competition dancer my entire life. I know a lot of people don't know that I study dance outside of TikTok, but it is something that I definitely want to do more of," she says.
Whatever it is will definitely require a Dunkin' Donuts cold brew with whole milk and caramel. Caffeine will be necessary.