One of the more upsetting popular “challenges” on the short-form-video app TikTok goes like this: When the video starts, there’s no face visible, because the camera is pointed at the floor, or the back of a head, or a pair of hands with perfect square-tip acrylics, playing peekaboo. A clip from the 2008 Selena Gomez song “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” plays in the background, starting at the pre-chorus, which goes “I hear it every day … I hear it all the time …” At this point, text pops up: “You look like Ariana Grande,” for example. Or, “OMG you look like Camila Cabello.” Then, just as the song’s chorus hits (“Tell me, tell me, tell me something I don’t know!”) the face is revealed.
And the face is just like Ariana Grande’s! Or if it’s a different face—just like Camila Cabello’s! The uncanny resemblance is often heightened with the use of an in-app special effect called “Face Tracking,” which finds a face as soon as it’s present in a video and zooms in on it aggressively.
These clips are, for me, a horrible surprise every single time. I’m on TikTok to laugh at teens putting their feet in Slurpees or lip-synching to famous Kardashian fights, not to stare into the literal eyes of the surreal. I don’t even have the option of waiting for the trend to pass, because this particular meme is only the latest example of TikTok’s ongoing fascination with celebrity look-alikes.
TikTok did a rough tally of the views on celebrity look-alike videos for this story: 1.9 billion views across nine different celebrity look-alike trends that have broken through in the past year.
“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” started its reign this summer, but in the spring the hot challenge was called “Mix” and followed a different formula: Show an image of a celebrity, then show an image of a second celebrity, then show a spoon stirring air in a mixing bowl (or a water bottle shaking up and down, sometimes labeled with a sticky note that says “God”), while in the background a man burps out the word mix. Then, of course, surprise and terrify the viewer by presenting a face that looks like an exact amalgamation of the two famous faces: Shawn Mendes and Ariana Grande, Bella Thorne and Emma Watson, or, once the meme had gone on long enough to become self-referential, Slenderman and a character from the 2009 animated movie Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
The “Mix” challenge was preceded by “Who do I look like???????”—another Google Image–related look-alike challenge popular last fall—and succeeded by “My Mom Met My Dad,” which is the same thing as “Mix,” except less religious. Rather than “God” doing the “mixing” in his creation laboratory, these videos acknowledge simple genetics.
“Broooo this is so accurate,” “Yoooo this is trippy affff,” and “I’m shook” are some selected and representative comments on a video posted by @slippyjtoad69 earlier this year. When his mom (the singer Billie Eilish), met his dad (the rapper Lil Xan), they fell in love and “made” him, he explains, using a stock sound effect that involves lip-synching, “Hi, I’m Ryan, and my life? Is kinda crazy.” (He, specifically, is not “Ryan”; everyone who does the bit is Ryan. All the fake celebrity children go by Ryan.)
The songs and the joke structure vary, but the punch line is always the same: Aren’t you freaked out and impressed by how much my face looks like a very famous face? Or two very famous faces? Or three? And the answer, for me, is also always the same: Yes, very much!
“The idea of celebrity look-alikes has been around for a long time,” the celebrity and teen expert Nancy Jo Sales told me when I describe these nightmarish videos to her. “Ever since the rise of celebrity culture in the 20th century, there has been a fascination with people who resemble celebrities.”
Mainstream magazines regularly run articles with titles like “21 Celebrity Lookalikes You Have to See to Believe” and “16 Celebrity Look-Alikes That Will Blow Your Mind” and “Celeb Look-Alikes!” A cryobank in California infamously launched a “Donor Look-A-Likes” service in 2009 to assist people who would like to get pregnant, but only from sperm donated by a person who looks kind of like a famous person. (According to New York magazine: “Male and female employees of varying ages make up the assigning committee. They meet, put each donor’s picture up on a projector, and then argue about whom he looks like.”) How many times have you heard the one about Dolly Parton losing a Dolly Parton lookalike contest?
Celebrities do not always adore the existence of look-alikes, particularly when they’re made public in a way that seems to cheapen their image — Kim Kardashian sued Old Navy for using a model that looked too much like her in an ad campaign in 2012; Ariana Grande filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 for the same reason earlier this month.
“The look-alike trend is constant, there’s always a new song they’re putting to it. I hop on that pretty quick because my followers go up when I do it,” Alyssa Voelcker-Mckay, a 19-year-old TikTok user from Portland, told me. “The very first video I ever had blow up was a look-alike video.” (She looks like the Disney Channel star Dove Cameron.)
Voelcker-McKay has 1.2 million followers, as does her friend Catherine Rowley, who looks sort of like the actor who plays Cheryl Blossom on the massively popular teen melodrama Riverdale, and started playing up the similarity back when TikTok launched in late 2017. “When she started doing that, I was like, Oh, I should do that,” Voelcker-McKay said.
She speculated that part of the reason these videos do so well is the fact that many of the app’s users are younger—middle-school-age kids who are going to be “super excited” about “feeling closer to someone they idolize.” (TikTok recently paid the Federal Trade Commission a record $5.7 million fine for violating privacy laws that apply specifically to children under the age of 13.)
Taylor Baer, a 19-year-old college student from Pittsburgh, who’s studying music and plans to move to Los Angeles to become a songwriter, says she made her entry into the celebrity look-alike category because of popular demand. “I had probably at least thousands of comments on my videos saying, ‘Oh my God, you look like Meghan Trainor,’” she says. “I have a little fame on TikTok now. Eventually I want to move to YouTube.” Her biggest clip is actually a recycled Vine of her hitting the tricky notes in Katy Perry’s 2013 single “Dark Horse,” and she doesn’t credit her 84,000-person following specifically to the look-alike video. But she’s seen it work for other people.
“I know one girl actually got famous on TikTok because she looks like Ariana Grande, and when she sings she sounds a lot like Ariana Grande,” she says. “She’s one of the more famous people on TikTok, and that’s definitely why she’s famous. I think most of her content is based off of the fact that she looks like Ariana Grande.”
(She’s referring to Olivia Nicole Duffin, who has 1.7 million followers.)
Claiming to look like a celebrity is—in a world where likes are power and eye-roll comments are akin to town-square humiliation—high risk, high reward. Nadine Yani, who has 120,000 followers on TikTok, pissed off hundreds of defensive fans when she posted about looking vaguely like Billie Eilish. She has since changed her Instagram bio to “I KNOW I DONT LOOK LIKE BILLIE IT WAS A JOKE.”
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.
“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.
This type of argument assigns some mythic quality to celebrities, implying that they were set aside as a different class of person by divine ordinance, which we are now crassly ignoring. It elides the possibility that we might be better off ignoring it.
When I showed a few of the TikTok clips to Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco, he referred to the challenges as a “game,” and pointed to their playfulness. “In a way it’s very cynical about celebrity, not in a negative way, but a matter-of-fact way,” he said. “It’s about approximating a look. It’s irreverent. Whether it’s experienced as startling or meant to be that, it’s certainly not reverent—in the way that you put yourself below celebrities, revere them, want to be like them. It doesn’t seem like that’s what this is about at all.”
Lily enjoys the comparison to Leighton Meester—a beautiful actor—strictly because she perceives it to be a compliment and a funny coincidence, and not because she has any interest in Meester in particular. She hasn’t looked up anything Meester has done or attempted to become a fan; she doesn’t know how to say her most famous character’s name. She knows that posting a video highlighting their similarities was a move that would pay reasonably well: Like investing in cryptocurrency at the right moment, or letting a tiramisu set overnight.
To Gamson, the clips are surprising because they have nothing to do with a real fantasy of being just like a famous actor or singer, or even of knowing the person. “It’s about the people who are posting and the people who are looking. It’s not about some imagined relationship with the celebrity. People aren’t really talking about that. They’re just saying, ‘That’s amazing; you look so much like her’ or ‘You don’t look like him at all.’ It’s really about that: Did you pull it off or not?”
There’s another very obvious reason that celebrity mash-ups in particular are popular: There would be no reason for you to ever expect to see something like that in your life. It’s an oddity, a modern sideshow act, even odder than the genetic feat of “twins,” which has led to the rise of YouTube-famous twinfluencers. And it’s funny. Kids, who typically have no resources at all except time and boredom, are so funny! Most of the hours I spend watching TikTok involve shaking my head and muttering out loud—as if I am 104 years old—“How do they come up with this stuff?”
Though today’s teenagers are often accused of being the most superficial cohort ever born, obsessed with online validation and the way it approximates status and lies about affection, they may—as a consequence—become the first adults in a century to live without an irrational awe of classically famous people.
“It’s not about the individual celebrity; it’s about some game of approximating and imitating and inhabiting them for a minute. In view of others,” Gamson said. The celebrities themselves don’t matter. “They’re just kind of fodder for a game.”