For this special edition of FRONTPAGE as part of our Q2 insights week, we catch up with Charli and Dixie D'Amelio, sisters who have quickly revolutionized the art of TikTok to become cultural pioneers in their own right.
Charli D’Amelio, the 16-year-old dancing queen of TikTok, is deep in thought. From the scrunched-up look on her face, an endearing expression familiar to her 70 million followers on the video-sharing app, a casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that she is flummoxed by one of life’s imponderables, and not which of her parents is the better dancer.
“That’s a really hard question,” she replies, after some deliberation. “My mom grew up a competition dancer and sometimes does TikTok dances with me, but my dad did breakdancing, and that’s raw, so if I had to ask someone to break it down in the middle of a party, I would have to say my dad.”
“They’re both really good dancers,” Dixie, Charli’s 18-year-old sister and fellow TikTok sensation, offers diplomatically, adding: “There’s a lot of pressure at family reunions, weddings, and birthday parties.”
And then some. As their not inconsiderable number of fans suggests (Dixie is no slouch in the followers department, with her account garnering over 29 million to date), the D’Amelio sisters are as adept as their parents when it comes to cutting a rug — particularly Charli, who has been studying dance since she was just three years old. Dixie, the more outgoing of the two, is better known for talky videos in which she puts her comedic chops to use.
They are also good sports. Despite their age and burgeoning popularity, they are self-effacing, forthcoming, and generous with their answers, which they deliver without bratty or calculated affect. Asked, for example, if she and Dixie are given to spats worthy of Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Charli doesn’t skip a beat.
“I mean, we’re teenage sisters,” she says matter-of-factly, when we speak over Zoom in June. “So, obviously, we get into disagreements. It's usually about clothes. We’re the same size, so I tend to wear a lot of her clothes. But Dixie is my number one go-to person — we’re just so close, and our fights usually last two seconds and then we're over it and, like, ‘Hey, wanna go for a car ride?’"
The sisters are not always easy to tell apart — “We couldn’t be more different,” says Charli, “but we’re used to getting, ‘Oh my God, you guys look like twins!’”— especially on this day, on which they are both wearing high-waisted faded jeans and primrose-colored sweatshirts, their hair pulled back in a similar fashion. “That’s so funny,” says Dixie of their matchy-matchy outfits, “I swear, we haven’t even seen each other this morning.”
It’s a genuineness that goes a long way to explaining their regard on a platform that — despite its early rap for being inauthentic, a venue for creativity cribbed from elsewhere — places a premium on authenticity.
“Charli is accessible in a way I don’t think many other creators are,” says Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter covering Internet culture for The New York Times. “She’s incredibly humble, and polite, and unproblematic, which is rare in the influencer space. I think Dixie offers a similar appeal. Both of them feel very down home and accessible.”
Stephanie Hind, Head of Talent Management and Operations at TikTok, agrees. “On TikTok, no matter what type of creator you are — an athlete, a designer, an entrepreneur, an artist, or anything in between,” she maintains, “you’re celebrated for being your authentic self. It’s been wonderful to see Charli and Dixie find success by staying true to their passions, putting in hard work and determination into their content, and showcasing joy, creativity, talent, and humor in such an authentic way.”
Adds the girls’ father, Marc: “As parents, in the beginning we were sometimes, ‘Why are you doing videos in your room with your bed unmade and clothes on the floor?’ But Charli understood instinctively that not only did she want to portray her true self but that the people consuming her content wanted to see that from her.”
Theirs is an authenticity that extends to their boundless positivity and the causes (climate change, Black Lives Matter, anti-bullying) that they promote on their accounts, without coming across as cloyingly earnest.
“I’ve been saying these things my whole life,” says Charli, who was tapped in March by Procter & Gamble to create #DistanceDance, a campaign to encourage people to stay-at-home during the pandemic that generated more than 8 billion views and 1.7 million imitation dances from celebrities, influencers, children, families, and others. “The fact that I now get to share that positivity is so important to me. It’s truly what I believe, and now people actually listen.”
“She is the number one person on the app, and has a lot of very young eyes on her,” says Dixie, fidgeting with a piece of toy slime. “I think she's so happy to have the platform to talk about things that mean a lot to her. That’s important for me, too, but I don’t have the pressure that she has.”
Clearly it’s a genuineness that is resonating beyond the digital landscape. Charli is not only the most followed person on TikTok, but has also parlayed her popularity into collaborations with celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Bebe Rexha, as well as brands like Hollister and Sabra hummus, for which she appeared in a 2020 Super Bowl commercial (becoming the first TikTok creator to be featured in an ad during the coveted tentpole sports event). She has taken tentative steps into Hollywood, having provided the voice for Tinker in the upcoming animated film StarDog and TurboCat, and has appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
She even sat front row at Prada’s Fall/Winter 2020 show in February, a gauge of pop-culture currency if ever there was one. “Going to the Prada show was definitely something, like, I never thought I would ever be…,” Charli recalls, uncharacteristically reaching for her words. “It was my first fashion show ever, and it was like a dream.” The content partnership she did with the Italian fashion brand during the show led to Charli’s social and press mentions growing by more than 160 percent in the days following the event.
Not to be outdone, Dixie, who studied drama from an early age, made her professional acting debut this year as Georgia in the Brat TV series Attaway General, and has collaborated on shoots and videos with brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren and Dermalogica. In early July, she released her first single, “Be Happy,” which debuted at 41 on the Emerging Artists list on the Billboard Charts and has generated more than 40 million views on YouTube. There is also talk of the D’Amelio clan appearing in their own reality TV show, the family having reportedly signed a deal with American Idol production company Industrial Media.
But for all their undeniable talent, personality, and relatable style (fans study the sisters’ choice of clothing, hairstyles, and nails with the rigor of biblical exegesis), their popularity is also the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. For one, they have an undeniably strong support system. Parents Marc and Heidi seem determined to ensure their daughters are happy and safe doing what they love most, while trusting them to make the right decisions and create content that they can be proud of.
“Unless it’s something that requires us to play the parent card,” says Marc, “we let them make a lot of the decisions about the opportunities that are presented to them. The girls are great. If there is something questionable, like foul language or whatever, they will ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’”
Outside the family there is also a solid team in place. The sisters are both managed by Barbara Jones of OutShine Talent and Billy Mann of The Well, and represented by the Hollywood powerhouse United Talent Agency (UTA) — a division of labor which can be confounding to outsiders.
“If you watch the show Entourage,” explains Greg Goodfried, the Co-Head of Digital Talent at UTA, “the managers are Eric, who help Vinny Chase with every aspect of his life, and we [he and his colleague Ali Berman] are Ari. We’re the ones who source and negotiate the deal, and then hand it off to the managers and the client to execute.”
Charli’s rapid ascent — she only started posting last May — is inescapably tied to the rise of TikTok itself, which has gone from a popular global app with negligible traction in the United States to a social-media behemoth, with over 2 billion downloads that has shaken up the entertainment industrial complex and global Internet order. As Goodfried affirms: “It was the right time and the right place for the right person to just emerge on a platform and become a superstar.”
TikTok was an idea whose time had come, and it didn’t hurt that the Chinese conglomerate that owns it poured over a billion dollars into marketing in the first year alone. But there are other important factors at play, including the superior video editing tools the app offers by default.
According to Lorenz, its success lies in no small part to being the anti-Instagram. “It broke the follow graph,” she explains, “and makes all American social networks, where users have to seek out and curate their own feed of content by ‘following’ people, seem archaic. Follower numbers on TikTok are much more of a vanity metric. The 'For You' page allows each piece of individual content to live on its own and find its own audience. This is a much better and more engaging way to deliver content than by following an ever expanding group of people/accounts.”
It’s also an easier point of entry for video than Instagram and YouTube, on which aesthetics and production values are key. “With TikTok, it’s literally just your phone,” explains Ali Berman. “Combine that with the emergence of a generation of parents who are more open minded to [social media], and for the first time, people were like, ‘Oh, this is something I can do.’”
“Talking to a lot of my friends,” says Charli, “TikTok is bringing them and their parents a lot closer together, which is really cool. I see a lot of parents and the kids doing dances together. I think it's awesome that it's so inclusive of people of all ages.”
Little wonder that brands, with varying degrees of success, are lining up like superfans at a K-pop VIP High-Touch concert. “We're seeing a ton of enthusiasm from brands,” says Berman, “especially around working with native TikTok creators. They’re really excited, because from a content perspective, it's a whole new muscle for them to flex.” While opportunities for paid media exist, savvy companies — like Parisian fashion label Jacquemus — are artfully bringing the personalities of their brand to life through the creative usage of in-app effects and filters, and, in the case of Givenchy, which partnered with Young Emperors as a part of its #GivenchyActingChallenge, original sound to encourage user creations.
However, what TikTok delivered to creators, brands, and families at warp speed, the global coronavirus pandemic took away. Just as Charli and Dixie were poised to take advantage of the many opportunities that have promptly come their way, like much of the world, the family retreated indoors to quarantine — hunkering down in a rental property in California.
“I used to want a break from it all for a couple of weeks or so,” says Dixie, who has been accepted to the University of Alabama where she plans to do a business degree. “But after this quarantine period, I never want another break again. I was having the time of my life and I want to get back to work and travel and meet people immediately.”
Though the break temporarily put paid to a slew of meet-and-greet appearances with fans, and led to the rescheduling of several projects – including the Hollister campaign that involved print and videos (not to mention the cancellation of Dixie’s prom) — it has also led to them accruing more followers than ever, with their individual accounts and the combined family one surging over the last few months. They might have been cooped up inside, but so was everyone else — an eager, captive audience for entertaining video content.
It’s also afforded the family a moment to hit the pause button and assess matters. “It brought us a lot closer,” says Marc, “and we were able to have a lot of conversations to prepare for what’s next. Hindsight being 20/20, these are conversations we probably should have had earlier, but everything happened so quickly.”
“When I stop to think about it, I'm like, ‘Whoa, this is so crazy,’" says Charli. “I don't even know how this happened. But if there’s one thing that I really don't do, [it's] overthink things.” Which is just as well, as in the weeks since we spoke, the news broke that TikTok may be banned in the United States due to national security concerns, and Charli and her ex, fellow TikToker Chase Hudson, (better known as Lil Huddy) were involved in a messy war of words as part of the TikTok influencer debacle known as the “TikTokalypse.”
Not that anyone should worry too much about the D’Amelio girls. In addition to digital content opportunities, live touring, podcasts, books, TV, licensing deals, and endorsements are all on the table. They’re not going away anytime soon. And on the advice of their family friend, wine critic turned author and marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk, Marc and Heidi have taught the girls not to “take the positives or the negatives to heart.”
Or, as Charli puts it: “My parents have always been, ‘We don't care how many followers you have. You still have to do the dishes and take out the garbage. They don’t put me on a pedestal. And I've always been big on making sure that what I put out on the Internet about myself is stuff I would want everyone to see. I'm a teenager and [am] obviously not going to make the right choices 100 percent of the time, but I do my best to be the best person I can be, on and off screen.” Spoken like an authentic voice of a generation.