In mid-February, a mysterious 9-year-old by the name of Lil Tay began blowing up on Instagram.
“This is a message to all y’all broke-ass haters, y’all ain't doing it like Lil Tay,” she shouts as she hops into a red Mercedes, hands full of wads of cash. “This is why all y’all fucking haters hate me, bitch. This shit cost me $200,000. I’m only 9 years old. I don’t got no license, but I still drive this sports car, bitch. Your favorite rapper ain’t even doing it like Lil Tay.”
Referring to herself as “the youngest flexer of the century,” Lil Tay quickly garnered a fan base of millions, including big name YouTubers who saw an opportunity to capitalize on her wild persona. In late January, RiceGum, an extremely influential YouTube personality dedicated an entire roast video to Lil Tay.
In the months that followed, it seemed like Lil Tay was on a fast track to viral fame. She began to take all the obligatory steps of a rising child star. She left her suburban town in Canada, began homeschool, and moved with her mom and 16-year-old brother, into the house of Josiah Jenkins, a Los Angeles “miracle worker” who has launched the careers of a slew of other young internet influencers. “He knows everyone in the industry and knows how to blow someone up,” said Harry Tsang, who manages Woah Vicky, an 18-year-old rapper and social-media star.
But while social-media stars come and go, Lil Tay managed to break through to mainstream culture so swiftly and aggressively that even those in the tightly knit YouTube community were shocked. The current generation of YouTube stars, like Jake and Logan Paul, have established a well-worn playbook for going viral: Join up with the right squad, be as outrageous as possible, generate controversy, and cash in. Thousands of teens across the country have watched this scenario play out repeatedly, and now many are seeking to follow in their footsteps.
It didn’t take Lil Tay long to recognize the importance of starting drama with people more famous than you. Starting (often fake) beef with the right YouTuber is a known way to grow an audience quickly and gain clout within the broader ecosystem. Lil Tay’s first altercation was with Danielle Bregoli a.k.a Bhad Bhabie, a 14-year-old rapper who became famous in 2016 for her catchphrase, “cash me ousside, how bout dah,” uttered during an appearance on the Dr. Phil show.
Woah Vicky, a close friend of Lil Tay, already had a long-running feud with Bregoli, and when Vicky and Bregoli decided to meet up in an outdoor shopping mall in April to potentially settle things, Lil Tay came along. The encounter went south almost immediately, and the two began trading insults. Lil Tay interjected, was caught on camera, and the clip went viral.
“That exposure made Tay grow,” says Alex Goller Gelbard a.k.a “Loyalty G.,” a consultant who works closely, often in a management capacity, with Lil Tay. Over the course of a week and a half, she grew from 250,000 followers to 1.2 million on Instagram.
Soon, Lil Tay and her family were living the high life. She began posting Instagram stories from luxurious Los Angeles balconies and fancy restaurants. Her abrasive style and outlandish videos caught the eye of marketers and big names like YouTuber Jake Paul and rapper Chief Keef. She was swarmed with offers to collaborate and her Instagram following continued to grow to over 2 million followers. She launched a YouTube channel and Twitter account to expand her reach. Tay’s family decided to stick around Los Angeles so that she could better capitalize on opportunities.
But even before Lil Tay’s first branded Instagram—a key opportunity to monetize—went live on Monday, cracks in her facade began to show.
She claimed to be worth millions, but her mother, Angela Tian, was a real-estate agent outside Vancouver. Some of the clothes she wore in her videos still had tags on them. And those luxurious houses she shot her first videos in, it turned out, were just her mother’s listings. Even the red sports car Lil Tay brags about in her most famous Instagram video isn’t actually hers. It belongs to her mother’s former boss at the real-estate agency, who forced her to resign when he found out Tian had used his car without permission.
But faking it until you make it isn’t exactly a deal breaker in the entertainment industry. Even most of Lil Tay’s most ardent supporters didn’t believe that the 9-year-old was a millionaire, and YouTubers are known to rent out cars, houses, and luxury goods to use as props in their videos. One manager who works with social-media stars compared YouTube and Instagram content like Lil Tay’s to rap videos. People know not everything in music videos is real, but they still appreciate the content for its entertainment value.
Producing that content, however, is grueling. It’s one thing to have a handful of videos reach viral success, but maintaining that success and putting out new, interesting, and creative content every day requires an incredible work ethic, especially for a 9-year-old.
All of this led many to speculate about who was really “behind” Lil Tay.
On Monday, Drama Alert obtained footage that purported to show Lil Tay’s 16-year-old brother Jason coaching her on specific lines. In the video, Jason bullies her saying, “No, no, no. Redo,” when she doesn’t perform her lines to his liking. On Wednesday, Lil Tay and her mother conducted a bizarre interview with Good Morning America where she seemed to struggle several times with her story. Meanwhile, footage of Lil Tay shouting the N-word and making explicit comments, after being prompted by her brother, simultaneously surfaced online.
“I’ve seen Lil Tay cry,” said one person who has worked closely with Lil Tay in the past but asked not to be identified by name for fear of jeopardizing their business relationship with the star. “I’ve seen her brother shout at her. Once Jason was yelling at her, saying, ‘You’re no good, it’s no good.’ She was crying hard.”
Lil Tay being coached what to say by her brother... SAD! pic.twitter.com/lJi7o2AXnp— KEEM 🍿 (@KEEMSTAR) May 21, 2018
“If you really want to know who’s in charge, it’s the brother,” they said. “The mother has lost control of the son and he is the head of the household.”
When reached by phone in mid-April, Jason confirmed that he was the one in charge. He said that he was Lil Tay’s manager as far as the press was concerned, and claimed that he was the sole decision maker in regards to all of Lil Tay’s press requests and business opportunities. This loose hierarchy has since been confirmed by several people who have worked with Lil Tay.
“Lil Tay’s big brother who is like 16 years old is the one that is controlling her and telling her what to say,” Keemstar, host of Drama Alert, the leading YouTube news channel, said on a broadcast Tuesday evening.
But in a call on Wednesday, Gelbard pushed back. “Lil Tay’s brother is just another young person working to help them succeed as a family,” Gelbard said. “These are two young people who have come up with an incredible concept and are taking on the entertainment industry on their own. They are two kids working hard to make something successful happen, and they have.”
Gelbard said that ultimately, Angela Tian, her mother, is Lil Tay’s legal guardian, but that it’s natural for her to rely on her son in some capacity since he’s an expert in the area of social media.
Navigating a child’s career after they become famous online is jarring for many parents, especially when their children are very young and success happens seemingly overnight. Unless a parent is particularly adept at contract negotiation, business development, talent management, or has experience in the entertainment industry, most parents will seek outside help.
Lil Tay has undoubtedly had outside help, but when it comes to key family decisions her mother has come to rely most on Jason, her son. However, allowing a 16-year-old to essentially manage a 9-year-old is not sustainable. “Jason doesn’t know what he’s doing and they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities,” said a person who has worked with Lil Tay.
sorry I haven’t had time to respond to all the haters, counting all this money takes up all my time.— lil tay (@iamtheliltay) May 16, 2018
Jason himself ignores this criticism. “A lot of people are going to say this and that, we just keep going,” he told ABC on Wednesday.
Where Lil Tay goes from here is truly anyone’s guess. Some social-media stars attempt to pivot into mainstream Hollywood, others use their fame to launch side business ventures, and still more crash and burn out.
Lil Tay’s brother is clearly obsessed and immersed in the world of YouTubers and Instagram stars, and according to a person who previously worked with Lil Tay, Jason realizes that Lil Tay is his winning ticket, he’s just so nervous about it that he has allowed opportunities to pass them by. “When they’re out of Josiah’s hands they aren’t going to last very long on their own,” the person said.
However, Gelbard, who continues to work with the family, says he sees a brighter future for Lil Tay, particularly as a motivational speaker.
“She wants to get into motivation,” he said. “She wants to speak in motivational videos. Kids out there see stuff like this and want to work harder because they want to achieve what Tay has. She has the perspective that her videos are motivational videos. Their purpose is to motivate people ... People have no idea what the youth is capable of.”
Either way, before she gets there, the 9-year-old will likely cycle through several more scandals and redemption cycles before she’s able to make a lasting impact, provided she doesn’t simply pack up and go home to Canada. And if she really wants to motivate young people, as Gelbard claims, she’ll have to prove that she can generate more than just internet buzz and backlash.