We used to describe celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton as “famous for being famous”. But the TikTok megastars featured in the Netflix documentary “Hype House” are famously common. Unlike the wealthy descendants of celebrities, this class of superstars achieved stardom virtually overnight, for seemingly arbitrary reasons, all dictated by a mysterious algorithm.
“I know it sounds so stupid. You are a 20 year old millionaire. What do you have to be depressed about?” says Alex Warren, a TikTok star with 14.7 million followers. “But that’s what I struggle with. I feel like I can’t be depressed.”
On “Hype House,” these ordinary teenagers-turned-icons agonize over the nature of their casual celebrity status, worried their fame will fade as quickly as it appeared. The Hype House of the same name is one of the oldest on TikTok content houses, where social media stars live together and shoot videos. This concept is not new – the stars of YouTube, Twitch and Vine experienced with these collaborative and live projects for years.
Thomas Petrou (8 million followers) is the de facto manager, although he says he doesn’t get a cut of the profits – he calls himself the father of the house, but in addition to making sure everyone washes their dishes, he makes sure the Hype House brand can earn at least $80,000 a month to stay afloat. His influencer friends like Vinnie Hacker (12.9 million followers), Jack Wright (8.8 million followers), Alex Warren (14.7 million followers) and others live for free on $5 million mansion – all they have to do is post on the official Hype House TikTok once a month, which generates the venture’s revenue through ongoing branded content deals. Additionally, TikTok now pays creators directly for the traffic they generate on the platform.
The Netflix series marks the end of an era for Hype House, focusing more on the challenges these influencers face than the antics of these young millionaires.
All things considered, the videos these TikTokers post aren’t all that different from what any average teenager would post (except they now post from a mansion). With nearly 20 million followers, the official Hype House TikTok features the stars experimenting with new filters, iterating on the latest trends and, of course, dancing.
Over the course of the eight-episode series, a cloud of anxiety hangs over the scenic Santa Rosa Valley home. Some Hype House members aren’t producing content on behalf of the group as often as Petrou wants because they feel uninspired and disillusioned. In one scene, some Hype House members try to come up with content ideas while lying on giant beanbags, but the best idea they can think of is doing a “lit handshake”. They can live for free in a beautiful mansion, but they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves.
Meanwhile, Alex Warren is clinging to straws, staging stunts that aren’t getting as much online engagement as he wants. Even as he deals with troubling family situations and a foot injury, he is terrified of taking a break from mental health.
“When you stop posting in that line of work, you lose engagement,” Warren explains in a confessional. “You don’t get sick at this job. If you get sick, you lose followers, which is a loss of revenue, which is, you know, your job.”
The influencer gold rush
TikTok’s stardom is becoming understandable as a career on the internet, as dozens of startups spring up with the aim of helping these suddenly famous kids navigate brand deals and partnerships (for a share of their riches, of course). On YouTube, most early creators made a profit through ad revenue, but at least in the platform’s early days, there wasn’t the same attention to monetization that there is now. Other platforms are also eager to capitalize on the success of TikTok and its biggest stars – Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage creators to post on their platforms instead of TikTok.
“As an influencer, our entire lives are put on this weird pedestal more than a traditional celebrity,” explains Nikita Dragun (14.2 million followers) on the show. “You have to become a spokesperson, an activist, a model, a publicist, a manager… You have to be so many things at once.”
For the most part, the growth of content creator monetization is a good thing – there are more tools than ever before to help creative people make a living doing what they love. Even Linkedin has a team of 40 people dedicated to working with creators. But at the same time, some creators feel pressured to monetize every aspect of their lives. Some of Warren’s following comes from his posts about his relationship with his girlfriend Kouvr Annon, also a TikTok star with 13.6 million followers – but Warren struggles to separate their private lives from the content they produce, forcing his (rarely) relationship off camera.
In this internet age, accelerated by the growth of TikTok, it’s not just about posting videos. It’s about pulling together as many different revenue streams as possible to ensure that if your platform dies tomorrow (it’s happened before – RIP Vine), you’ll still have a career. After all, TikTok stars don’t get most of their income from TikTok itself. The fortune comes from brand deals, sponsorships, merchandise sales, podcasts, reality shows and unexpected forays into music and acting.
“Hype House” emphasizes these creators’ self-consciousness about their own mediocrity. They’re charismatic, funny, and conventionally attractive enough to entertain the masses, but they know their fame has more to do with luck than talent, so they worry their good fortune could be snatched away at any second. They emphasize what they would do if they had to return to their hometowns, where many of them have divided families; they worry about being “canceled”.
“Social media is a numbers game. Your money depends on the numbers,” explains Warren. “If people stop watching as much as I’m posting, it means I’m doing something wrong, so what am I doing wrong and how can I get these people back?”
Warren’s anxiety isn’t unfounded — something as arbitrary as a change to TikTok’s algorithm can stunt its growth. When you’re used to the explosive growth of social media, how do you deal with it when those numbers start to level off, or worse, plummet?
In addition to worrying about TikTok’s algorithm, the content houses’ business model is similarly shaky. Since the beginning of the venture, Hype House has faced a series of judicial actions, including a dispute with fellow influencer and former Hype House member Daisy Keech. in a recent youtube video, Petrou says he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits. While legal issues are not addressed in “Hype House,” Petrou describes waking up and vomiting due to the stress of running the collective. These content houses should, in theory, ease the burden of independent creators – as part of a collective, they have a team around them to come up with ideas, collaborate on videos, and generate an additional income stream from shared accounts. But instead, “Hype House” makes it seem like trusting each other without clear financial arrangements only made the stress worse.
“I don’t understand the hype either”
Among the Hype House social circle is Charli D’Amelio, the most followed person on TikTok with 133 million followers – Forbes estimated that she was also the highest-paid creator on the platform, earning US$ 17.5 million last year.
“I like it, post, like any other teenager in the world,” D’Amelio said on the reality show Hulu did about her suddenly famous family. “I was posting on social media… I don’t know.” As D’Amelio once joked in his TikTok biography, “don’t worry, i don’t understand the hype either.”
But even the biggest star in the creative economy has doubts about whether his stardom is sustainable. In the pilot of “The D’Amelio Show”, she reveals that she has already thought about what she will do if she doesn’t keep making millions, or if the pressure of her lifestyle becomes too much.
“Being on calls with CEOs of companies… I’m like, is this fun?” says D’Amelio. “So no matter what really happens with social media, I can always get into marketing because I know how it works. I know behind the scenes of everything, which is nice.”
It’s bizarre for D’Amelio to have a backup plan when she makes more money in a year than most people will make in their lifetime (plus her children’s lives, plus her grandchildren’s lives… be big on TikTok.) But for viewers, the goal of shows like “Hype House” and “The D’Amelio Show” is to humanize these social media stars. For production teams, the goal is to make money off Netflix and Hulu, and for the stars themselves, it’s to get an extra paycheck, help them maintain and bolster their fame… It’s all terribly metaphorical. They leverage this semi-manufactured vulnerability to become even bigger stars.
Perhaps the biggest winner here is TikTok. This has been the app’s appeal all along: Like Alex Warren, you can go from living in your car to living in a mansion, all because people like your short video clips. But it’s lonely being at the top, even when you live with ten of the most famous people on the internet.