How Charli D’Amelio Became the Face of TikTok (2024)

When President Trump signed an executive order to force the sale of TikTok, many Americans wondered, perhaps not for the first time, what the fuss was about. The Chinese-owned app has become popular with teen-agers worldwide, but it’s not the most inviting place. After signing up, new users are firehosed with a channel of videos made by random people who are referencing unfamiliar trends. The videos themselves are embellished with strange hashtags (#xyzbca) and wild special effects. Anticipating this disorientation, the app directs you to successful and welcoming accounts. The person whom TikTok often appoints as your Virgil is the platform’s most popular creator. She is not an Instagram heiress, a world-class athlete, or a successful recording artist. Charli D’Amelio is a soft-spoken, Connecticut-bred high schooler who performs short dance routines, often in her bedroom. Since joining the app last spring, D’Amelio has amassed more than six billion likes and eighty-two million followers.

Feeling dumbfounded by D’Amelio’s popularity, or “not getting the hype,” is a TikTok rite of passage. The reaction is so prevalent that D’Amelio referred to it in her profile bio, which read, “Don’t worry, I don’t get the hype either.” The conditions that led to her success are an unusual alignment between a social-media creator and an algorithm. Fame on TikTok has been, to a certain degree, automated. Unlike other social-media platforms that connect you with your friends, TikTok is a discovery-based app. Users can choose who to follow, but the “For You” page, a stream of videos curated by TikTok, is where most people direct their attention on the app. Every time you watch, like, or engage with a video, the algorithm becomes more effective. The reported average watch time on TikTok is forty-five minutes.

D’Amelio’s videos have been algorithmic gold from the start. The TikTok creator Madisen Dewey, who makes popular videos about the app’s algorithm, explained how D’Amelio joined TikTok in the spring of 2019, which was a particularly fertile time for virality: “Back then, there were far more people consuming, rather than creating, content. Users were able to gain exposure at a faster rate, and, at the time, no one was doing dance content.” When the majority of TikTok’s content still consisted of lip-synching and humor videos, D’Amelio began posting short, approachable dance routines, and more or less ignited a movement. Her first major viral moment spawned from her coverage of Jalaiah Harmon’s “Renegade” dance. (Many falsely credit D’Amelio as the original “Renegade” choreographer.)

Although D’Amelio is a trained competitive dancer, her TikTok performances seem casual and unlabored. The New York City-based choreographer Grace Buckley, who has worked with D’Amelio in the past, said that the teen-ager “has always had a natural, self-assured sense of style while she’s dancing, which has translated very successfully to TikTok.” D’Amelio has refined the subtle components of a TikTok dance performance: facial expressions, hand movements, timing, and flow. “Her command of dynamics makes it look effortless,” the dancer and YouTuber Luna Montana told me. “Technically, she is very relaxed and slow, and moves slightly behind the music. You watch her and think, Oh, that looks easy. Let me try it!” A user attempting to learn a more complex dance routine (such as “Renegade”) might watch one of D’Amelio’s videos hundreds of times. Visiting her profile became an almost necessary step for users looking to participate in a dance trend.

These skyrocketing watch counts made D’Amelio a good solution to TikTok’s “cold-start problem.” Marc Faddoul, an artificial-intelligence researcher at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information, explained, “Charli is a very ‘median’ user, both in terms of her demographics and the type of content she produces. That makes her a very safe recommendation choice that can generate engagement across the board, including for users that don’t have a very detailed history to infer preferences from.” But D’Amelio’s value to TikTok and its culture goes well beyond metrics. She “carries the perfect message for the brand’s strategy: on TikTok, everyone can be famous and happy!” Faddoul said.

The young people who form the majority of D’Amelio’s fan base certainly grasp the power of her online influence. “They understand what it means to have a following and are more willing to put themselves out there to get it,” Dewey said. Someone like Charli, a girl from a normal suburban family who has achieved this dream with TikTok, becomes an idol. Unlike influencer culture, which often conveys unattainable standards of beauty and wealth, TikTok culture reveres ordinariness. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that Charli D’Amelio has become as popular as she has, nor does it surprise me that people might be confused by it,” Boman Martinez-Reid, a successful creator, told me. “People want to see normal people go on to do great things.” Kudzi Chikumbu, TikTok’s director of creator community in the United States, describes D’Amelio’s success as a “testament to her hard work and consistency—most of all, her relatability.”

With each passing day, more red-carpet walkers and industry proponents appear on the platform, and outspoken creators, such as the comedian Brittany Tomlinson, worry that TikTok will become generic and corporate. “The best-case scenario is that plain-Jane creators will continue to rise to fame and be recognized for their talent,” she said. “The worst-case scenario is that it becomes overloaded with brands and celebrities, so much so that we’re forced off the app.”

Creators now face a more harrowing threat than a polluted culture: a federal ban. Trump’s executive order has provoked a wave of panicked content on TikTok, ranging from enraged rants to political pranks. Many of the app’s stars, with their livelihoods on the line, have made concerted efforts (if not desperate pleas) to divert their fandom to other social channels. Meanwhile, the confident D’Amelio has carried on with business as usual, interrupting her usual dance programming with sales promotions for her beauty products and her upcoming book, “Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping It Real.” D’Amelio’s blissful apathy is a symptom of her achievement; she now maintains a degree of financial and cultural security that transcends any platform. TikTok’s future is in limbo, but her career is not. In the event of a shutdown, come September 15th, D’Amelio will be just fine dancing on her own.

How Charli D’Amelio Became the Face of TikTok (2024)


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