Like every prank or dance or physical feat on TikTok, the real challenge is to exert tremendous effort and overcome private uncertainty to create a piece of content that is effortlessly cool and confident and shareable. The worst crime is to make the viewer feel the cringe of secondhand embarrassment.
Fifteen-year-old Lily mostly posts niche memes about high-school swimming under the handle @420.gucci.gangg, but she’s also done some look-alike videos about the actor Leighton Meester, known for playing Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, which premiered when Lily was 4 years old.
“I got a comment that I looked like—I don’t even know how to pronounce her name—” (she pronounced it wrong, but it’s fine) “from Gossip Girl? I’ve never seen the show before,” she told me. “So I looked her up, and I don’t see [the comparison], but a lot of people do. So I ended up making the video, and a lot of people liked it.” She didn’t do anything special to make herself look more like Meester, but she did use TikTok’s “Beauty” filter, which she says “most, if not all” other celebrity look-alike videos use too.
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“It’s crazy to think you look like someone that you look up to so much,” she says, about a famous person she’d never heard of before. “In the simplest way, it’s very cool. It’s just cool to see common people who look like these stars.”
According to Sales, Lily’s age is relevant here. “This is the first generation that [has] never known the days when there appeared to be a boundary [between regular people and celebrities],” she said. “All they know is, That is me, I’m famous too; I have 600,000 followers on TikTok.”
The similarities don’t stop at numbers, she argued. Just about everyone who spends significant time on social-sharing platforms like TikTok has a persistent celebrity-like experience of thinking, What am I going to do to market myself next? What story am I going to tell to get people interested in me next? To her mind, these kids are celebrities. “A lot of them. In the new way celebrity exists in the world.”
But this isn’t the first time that the definition of celebrity has been muddled. In a 1984 column for The New York Times, Barbara Goldsmith argued that “the public appetite for celebrity” had grown so ravenous that the media were manufacturing famous people, just as the U.S. Mint might run off bills willy-nilly once the country left the gold standard. Magazines were more than keeping up with their readers’ demands — they were ready to “outrun them, creating new needs we never knew existed.” Of particular ire to her was People, which published stories about movie stars alongside macabre human interest stories about neo-Nazis, serial murderers, and people who would choose to kayak very long distances. “The ersatz and the real appear side by side, and the willingness to distinguish between them has been abdicated,” she lamented.