A deep dive into the cute, boyish influencer culture on TikTok and beyond
The tight curls in Keanni’s hair bounce as he walks. Every time he turns his head, the cross that dangles from his earring shimmers in the light. He sits at the white kitchen island and watches as his friends Marian and Gabe practice their body rolls. Marian instructs Gabe to go right, and then to go left. A phone is perched up against a set of knives to record their every take. It blasts “No Idea” by Don Toliver, and Gabe just barely misses a move. After almost every attempt, Gabe jumps around and groans in embarrassment, but tries again nevertheless. Keanni and his other friend George, who goes by @drippengr on Instagram and TikTok, laugh as they watch Gabe squirm. Eventually, Gabe gets it right, and Marian posts the final product on her TikTok account, @asapmariann, for her more than 74,000 followers to view.
Keanni and his friends gathered at his house in La Puente before they set off to the Staples Center in Los Angeles to ice skate. Before they leave, though, Keanni sets up his phone to do a live-stream on Instagram for his followers, which rack up to more than 62,000. On TikTok, it’s almost twice that: 110,000. In his live video, he lets fans comment on how cute he and his friends are, and he occasionally lets a viewer join in on the live-stream (Instagram allows viewers of live stories to request to hop on from their phones).
He engages in conversation with the viewers who join. One says she just got off work from Walmart. Another says she plans to ditch dance practice, and he asks her to show him some moves. Another makes sure to say “I love you!” After the stream is over, he and his friends head out to the Staples Center, where they take a couple snapshots for their Instagram accounts. Once those pictures are posted, Keanni makes sure that he promotes them on his story.
Keanni isn’t just taking the attention for himself, though. He makes sure he promotes his friends’ posts on his story too.
You probably already know what Keanni’s job is by now — he’s a social media influencer.
Society loves pretty people. And no one loves them more than young girls. Girls fawning over conventionally handsome, boyish-looking men is nothing new. In the ’90s, NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys, and Leonardo DiCaprio had millions of young girls grab their magazine posters, and in the past decade, we’ve seen girls scream, squeal, and jump at concert tickets over the likes of Justin Bieber, One Direction, BTS, and Shawn Mendes (I myself am guilty of falling in love with the latter 3).
But the pretty people who get launched into fame aren’t always #1 hit singers and blockbuster movie stars. In the modern day, we’re getting more and more young social media users who use their platforms to gain fans and create a living. You know them — they’re called influencers. And while many of the influencers we know of and follow can be found on Instagram and Youtube, there’s a new platform on the rise creating many more: TikTok.
If you’re a boomer or millennial who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, here’s the gist. TikTok is a social media app owned by Chinese developer ByteDance, where people create short videos, kind of similar to the now-defunct Vine. It was originally known as Musical.ly and initially was meant to host videos of its users lip-syncing to popular songs. Now, as TikTok, its content varies. There are plenty who still lip-sync and dance, but plenty others also create comedic content and meme-worthy moments.
And even if you haven’t come within a five-mile radius of anyone with the app or wouldn’t touch it with a six-foot-pole, one thing is very, very clear: TikTok is big. It’s so big that A-list celebrities like Will Smith and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have hopped onto it. It’s so big that VidCon (you know, the annual video/tech conference that lets fans see their favorite Youtubers and attend panels of video professionals) hosted a party for popular TikTok users. And it’s so big that people waited in line for that party for hours because there were just so many of them.
In fact, TikTok is big enough to have created its own culture — one with good-looking boys, and crowds of fangirls.
So what is it that these boys do?
Generally, they do what the original Musical.ly users did. They lip-sync to songs, dance a little, and act cute or charismatic to the camera. Some also do videos that put the viewer in a point-of-view perspective, usually in a way that’s meant to make them swoon. They smirk, lick their lips, and let their eyes graze over the “person” in front of them.
(This isn’t to say all of their posts are like this. Some of them take a break from the bad boy/cocky image to go a little off-the-rail with their humor, kind of like this guy.)
Some others, with their millions of followers, also open up Youtube accounts to expand their platform reach.
16-year-old Payton Moormeier, who has 7.2 million TikTok followers and 2.4 million on Instagram, is one of these influencers. His Youtube channel has half a million subscribers as of this article, and you probably wouldn’t be surprised which video of his has the most views.
Yep, it’s a video of him telling his viewers what he wants in potential girlfriends. It has over a million views to date (pun unintended).
Several of these influencers also move out to Southern California for a chance to make it bigger, and this isn’t unique to just them. Many Youtubers relocate from other states and, in some cases, other countries to Los Angeles. It makes sense why. L.A. is the country’s entertainment hub. It’s where celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber, and Drake live. It’s where aspiring actors, singers, and models go in the hopes that they make it to the A-list. It’s where all of the agents who can make your dream come true are stationed. In a nutshell, L.A. is the place to make it. So it’s no wonder that many of the influencers, including Payton Moormeier, have made the move to Southern California by now (Keanni said he’d also like to relocate to an area like Santa Monica one day).
Some of these influencers have finished high school and then opted out of going to college. Others, like Payton and another named Chase Keith, moved before they turned 18. Those who choose to pursue their dreams in sunny L.A. before graduating opt for independent study in place of traditional schooling. This helps them dedicate most of their time to their content.
15-year-old Keanni Mendez, @keannimendez on TikTok, is one of these boys. He likes to listen to Trippie Redd, play Fortnite, and go BMX bike-riding. He’s currently learning to play the piano and guitar, and eventually, he’d like to try his hand in rapping and producing music. In an average day, he’ll wake up, freshen up, open TikTok to find new songs for his videos, and play Fortnite for about three to four hours. His 14-year-old friend, Gabe Ramirez, who’s @gabezofficial on Instagram and TikTok, will eventually come to visit. Together, they make videos and take some pictures for social media. Sometimes, they’ll go to L.A. He’ll also go live on social media to engage more with his followers and later think of what to do for the following day.
Keanni, posing effortlessly for the camera.
You might be thinking there’s something missing in his average day. Keanni currently doesn’t go to a traditional high school. Instead, he does independent studies, meaning he goes once a week for one hour and turns in a completed packet each time. Before Keanni was ever on the app, he said he was the “disliked nerd at school.” When he began to blow up on social media, things changed. According to Keanni, school was difficult for him because peers made fun of him for making videos on TikTok.
“Even some of the teachers actually…they would put it [his videos] up, like in the screen, where everybody could see, and everybody was just laughing,” Keanni said. “It just kind of made it hard, you know?”
Since then, Keanni has focused on his social media presence, and he has strategies to help him up his game. He makes sure that none of his content is inappropriate so he isn’t banned, considering his audience is on the younger side. And he also makes sure that his content helps him grow a fandom, different from other influencers who have followers, but not exactly fans. Keanni says he creates that fandom by interacting with followers, as I saw in his live-stream on Instagram.
“They’re like friends,” Keanni said. “Like supporters, basically.”
Keanni makes sure to update his platforms constantly. Every day on Instagram, he posts once, goes live for about 20 minutes, and puts up at least 15 posts on his story. For TikTok, he tries to make 3 videos a day and goes live 3 times a week.
This strategy seems to be working. In between the time that I found his profile and visited his home to interview him, his TikTok account grew a lot. When I first found his profile, he had more than 65,000 followers. A week later, I came to interview him, and he had about 79,000 by that time. Now, he has more than 100,000. He managed to get more than 10,000 followers in about a week.
Keanni’s most popular video on TikTok by the time I interviewed him was him doing a trending challenge. The challenge involves someone swiping a streak of lipstick in the center of their lips, and they have to smack their lips together to cover as much as possible within the time limit. Keanni did the same, but he kind of messed up one detail — instead of lipstick, he used foundation. When I interviewed Keanni, the video had been viewed close to 600,000 times.
The video appears to be down now, but it doesn’t change the fact that it raked in a lot of views.
So far, Keanni’s gotten a couple sponsorship deals from newer brands, like Sad Society, Urban Skin Rx, and Sauce Avenue. The thing is, he knows he can’t stick to TikTok and Instagram forever. That’s why he, like Payton, started up his own Youtube channel, which has close to 400 subscribers so far.
“I’m starting to focus on that as my main thing,” Keanni said. “I mean, Instagram’s not gonna last forever. Eventually, I’m not gonna be as relevant.”
What if social media doesn’t pan out, though? His backup plan is to become an electrician or construction worker. But for now, while he’s still young, he’s trying to grow his social media platforms and Youtube channel. Some videos he plans on doing for Youtube include social experiments, story times, and challenges. He’d like to model for brands like Fashion Nova one day too.
Right now, Keanni has a 6-minute vlog up on his channel.
Keanni generally follows the same trends that other influencers use to their advantage. After all, there’s a reason he got a perm (which I didn’t know was a perm. When I let him know, he chuckled and said, “You thought it was natural?”). Curly hair and dangly earrings have been more popular with the girls these days, especially on TikTok. Eventually, Keanni plans to straighten his hair again because he said the perm trend is starting to die.
Despite his trendiness, though, he thinks something does set him apart from other influencers.
“Other influencers are like, dicks.”
He explains a little further.
“Some of them, they’re like very greedy.” According to Keanni, several other influencers won’t offer help unless you present some type of gain or benefit for them.
So he gives an example of how he helps for the sake of helping. “Let’s just say, like him.” He points to Gabe, who’s sitting next to him at the kitchen island. “When I first met him, he was like nobody.”
Gabe is often featured in Keanni’s TikTok videos and Instagram posts, and he’s an influencer in his own right. Gabe has more than 27,000 Instagram followers and 16,000 on TikTok. And according to Gabe, Keanni helps him a lot by being a source of motivation for him. It’s clear that Keanni’s the type to lend a helping hand — he puts up his friends’ posts on his own Instagram story, after all.
Overall, Keanni’s a really nice kid — one with big hopes and aspirations.
Of course, being an influencer means going to meet-and-greets to engage with fans. On Keanni’s Instagram profile, you can find a group of story highlights labeled “Supporters,” and the first story post you’ll see is a group of fans with him in a meet-and-greet.
His most memorable meet-and-greet experience was his first.
“The first meet-and-greet, I wasn’t sure if people were gonna know me,” he said. “I was on stage, right? And when it was time for us to come off the stage, I just opened my arms up, and then I just got tackled by a whole bunch of girls.”
That was one, but meet-and-greets aren’t always just individual events. Sometimes they’re full-on tours.
Lights Out was a meet-and-greet tour that happened this past summer across the country. The tour’s lineup featured some female influencers, but the majority of the ones that came were boys.
Lights Out’s lineup for its first phase on the West Coast.
Okay, so what happened on the tour?
Generally, fans paid tickets for the chance to meet, hug, and interact with their favorite influencers. The influencers also performed on stage for fans to watch, and as for what those performances involved, you can look at vlogs like this, this, and this to get a hint as to what was happening. It seems that the guys generally hopped, danced, and sang along to popular songs like “Baby” by Justin Bieber with their fans.
But wait, it doesn’t stop there! Fans also had the opportunity to hang out afterwards with the boy of their choosing for a “dinner date” — of course, for a little more money. Despite its moniker, this didn’t mean that fans had one-on-one dates with the boys. It just meant that they could spend time with a specific influencer for dinner, along with other girls who paid for the same experience.
Keanni said that he was actually set to be on the Lights Out tour. Unfortunately, he ran into some complications with the manager he had at the time, which we’ll go more in depth about later.
A similar event that featured TikTok influencers was the Boys of Summer tour.
It featured some of the same influencers as Lights Out, such as Chase Keith and Sam Hurley. And eventually, Keanni wants to grow enough to the point where he joins other influencers on this tour.
Some have been comparing these tours to MAGCON, which literally stands for Meet and Greet Convention. One year, MAGCON featured good-looking male influencers who skyrocketed in popularity on Vine when it still, well, existed. Its most famous lineup included the names of Vine stars like Nash Grier, Cameron Dallas, Jack Johnson, Jack Gilinsky, and — get ready for this — Shawn Mendes. Later, it went on to feature other influencers like Jacob Sartorius, who got famous from the Musical.ly days and became notorious for his single “Sweatshirt.”
MAGCON’s most popular lineup included these guys. You can find a little Shawn Mendes in there!
The people who follow boys like Keanni and Payton tend to be of high-school or middle-school age, and they tend to be devoted. A quick search I did of Keanni before I interviewed him showed several fan accounts dedicated to him and him alone. One of these accounts, which creates and edits videos of Keanni, has over 1,000 followers. It hasn’t been active since September, but the follower count itself already speaks volumes. And yes, Keanni knows these fanpages exist — he actually follows a few of them.
If you go back into his Instagram story highlight “Supporters,” you’ll tap right and see more of his fans who he stopped to take pictures with. But he won’t just see his fans at meet-and-greets. Keanni said that there have been times when fans have caught him in public, like in Hollywood, at the Plaza West Covina, and in one case, his local CVS. He’s glad to see them in public, but it can get a little…awkward.
“I mean, it’s pretty cool. Sometimes, it’s a little bit awkward,” he said. “They’ll come up to me, or they’ll just stare at me like the whole time.” In the CVS fan’s case, Keanni noticed them looking at him through the aisles, and eventually the fan’s mom told them to take a picture with him.
And of course, I have to bring up the fanfiction. You can find a lot of the stories for these guys on Wattpad, the premier site to find the fanfiction that places you in the shoes of the main character who the named guy falls in love with. Remember that Instagram post from Lights Out above? Type any of their names into your search bar with the word “fanfiction,” and you’ll find dozens and dozens of results from Wattpad. Maybe you’ll find one where you’re the sister of an influencer, and you’re just “one of the guys.” Maybe you see one where the guy just happens to notice you on social media and hits you up. Maybe he’s the fuckboy of your school, and you’re the nerd, but he finds you hot anyway. You know, it’s that “I’m not like other girls!” principle.
This culture isn’t just unique to TikTok. This type of creative community has appeared in the fandoms of K-pop, One Direction, MAGCON, and more. But still, there’s something to be said when a Chinese app produces a community like this.
Shawn Mendes is probably the prime example of someone who broke into the A-list from social media. He’s a household name who’s released three different number-one albums and has performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Not too long ago, people were drooling over his shirtless photos for a Calvin Klein underwear advertisement. He’s now dating Camila Cabello, who he collaborated with in “Señorita.” “Señorita” was part of Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 songs for 23 weeks. So yes, Shawn Mendes truly made it to the top, and it all started from singing in 6-second videos.
Shawn isn’t necessarily the only one who’s gotten a lot of clout coming out of Vine. Cameron Dallas previously signed with IMG Models, which houses supermodel giants Ashley Graham, Gigi Hadid, Paris Jackson, and Chrissy Teigen. He’s modeled for luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana. He also was the star of the Netflix film Chasing Cameron, which follows him on an international MAGCON tour. All pretty big for a guy who started out making a couple of short Vines (And Keanni did say he’d be the next Cameron Dallas).
So it’s no wonder that influencers are chasing that fame. Celebrities like Shawn Mendes and Cameron Dallas are living proof that you can make it big from social media.
…And The Ones That Don’t
But social media only has so much space. That’s why some influencers end up dropping out of the business.
The Hulu documentary Jawline follows teenager Austyn Tester as he tries to make it big in the influencer industry from Tennessee. Although the influencers in the film get their call to fame from the live broadcasting service YouNow, it’s similar to TikTok in the sense that the boys are cute and spread positivity, and the fans love them for it.
In the film, Austyn goes live on YouNow, interacts with his fans, and tries to grow his following.
Eventually, a manager approaches him, and he gets the opportunity to go on a tour. While on tour, he hugs, takes pictures, lets fans kiss him on the cheek, and more of the usual fanservice.
In one part, he’s sitting with his friend on a ledge, and he laments about the fact that his growth in followers is slowing down. Austyn blames this on himself since he’s not going live every day, but he reassures his friend (and maybe himself) that he’s not “going down the drain.” Progress is just a little slow.
At first, Austyn was a bit skeptical of the contract and his manager. And he had some reason to be.
Towards the end of the documentary, Austyn’s brother, Donovan, says that Austyn’s ex-manager unsigned him and didn’t pay him what was promised. Austyn’s mom later explains that his manager gave him “negative feedback,” and Austyn stopped posting as much as a result. His followers and engagement consequently dropped. As for what that feedback was, we don’t know. They never say.
Austyn also tells his friends that his former manager canceled his home-school credits, so he is suddenly left hanging. He’s found working in a clothing store where fans recognize him, and arguing with his mom about which high school he’s going to, even though his mom says it was hard to find one that would take him in with all of his missing credits.
I wouldn’t worry about Austyn now, though. He’s still keeping up his Instagram, has a girlfriend, and already started going to college.
Keanni knew someone who also stopped her involvement with the business. The person who introduced him to his first manager apparently “didn’t make it in time,” meaning that her follower growth stagnated at some point when she was 17 and was approaching the age that she needed to start making a living — so she didn’t have much time left before she turned 18.
“She was stuck at like 17k, and she wasn’t making money. She had to get a real job to provide, and she didn’t have time to do Instagram no more or like any of that social media stuff.”
Now, that friend is 21 and has a job.
What’s most interesting about Jawline is when it goes into the mind of Michael Weist, a social media manager and president of Juice Krate Media Group (but no, he’s not Austyn’s manager). At one point, he criticizes the ratio of likes versus followers on Austyn’s Instagram account, saying he needs at least 10% engagement. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even spare a glance at the account. He also talks about Austyn’s TikTok videos because Austyn doesn’t seem to know the words of what he’s lip-syncing to and tries to use his cats for clout. Michael watches 2 of his former influencers, Mikey and Bryce, throw just the teensiest bit of shade his way — except, it isn’t teensy. They hint at some allegations of sexual harassment on Michael’s part, which he strongly denies. Bryce also accused Michael of hacking his Instagram account.
Michael’s account of the drama involves violent threats to grandmothers, but that’s another story. He is then seen sitting in on a session with a new influencer, this time one who sings. It’s during this time that a voiceover of Michael explains that Mikey and Bryce were disposable.
“Because Mikey and Bryce do not have a specific talent, it makes them far more replaceable, because what are they following you for? Looks? Ok, that fades.”
Those words wouldn’t exactly inspire hope in an aspiring influencer.
Keanni had his share of manager drama. Remember how Keanni was going to be featured in Lights Out? This explains why he didn’t end up on it.
He claimed that his first manager knew the password to his Instagram account, and this would make Keanni a little uncomfortable. At times, his manager would ask him why he was messaging a certain person. When Keanni tried to change his password in an attempt to get his privacy back, his manager changed the password right back. Keanni thinks the ex-manager may have had access to his account through email.
“I didn’t have my account no more, and I was like, ‘I can’t log in, I can’t log in.’ I was uncomfortable with him having my account. So I just changed everything and just cut him off.”
It’s kind of hard to tell what happens after the tours end and the fans grow up. After all, the “pretty boy” influencer culture rooted in social media is a relatively new one. It only recently began to pop up this decade when Youtube vloggers, Vine stars, YouNow streamers, and now TikTok lip-syncers made their appearances. Now that Vine is dead, the MAGCON boys have gone different avenues. Nash Grier is a dad, Shawn Mendes is constantly hitting the top of the charts, and honestly, I have no idea what the rest of MAGCON’s formerly famous lineup is up to now. Jacob Sartorius is trying his hand at Youtube and music, and Keanni is trying to follow a similar path by learning piano and other instruments.
But who knows? Despite privacy-invading managers who seem to not care for the kids they make money off of, there have been plenty of influencers who successfully made the move from Vine to Youtube. Some others like Cameron Dallas became models out of it. Are these Youtubers and former Vine stars proof you can make it big out of a platform that makes short videos? Only time will tell.
But if the events that happened in Jawline (and even with Keanni’s 21-year-old friend who had to get a job by 18) are indicative of how the business is, that time may be limited. So for now, all we can say for the influencers who are slowly getting older is Tik Tok — time might be running out.