TikTok: From a Teletubby to a ‘professional toaster’, inside the app’s weird, wonderful and lucrative world (The i)

From Venetian masks to a Tellytubby: Abby Roberts’s videos have won her more than six million followers (Photo: @abbyrartistry on TikTok)

Teenagers have always spent hours locked away in their bedrooms working on their talents – from experimenting with outlandish make-up only to be seen in the mirror, to writing confessional poetry that they are half terrified (and half desperate) for the world to see.

Now, though, YouTube, Instagram and most recently TikTok offer opportunities to broadcast your work. TikTok, the social network based on sharing 15-second videos set to music licensed on the app, was downloaded more than two million times a day worldwide last year, mostly by teenagers. Part of its charm is that most videos, filmed on smartphones, are slap-dash, whimsical, weird and self-deprecating.

Most people are just posting videos for friends. But if they are funny and capture people’s imagination they can go viral, which is giving rise to a new generation of social media celebrities who have millions of followers but are mostly only recognisable to those who use the app. And it can mean big business.

Abby Roberts, or @abbyrartistry on TikTok, is an 18-year-old from Leeds who works full-time as an “online make-up artist”. On her TikTok channel she films fun, speeded-up make-up videos, transforming herself into a Teletubby one day and a glamorous beauty queen the next. In one of her videos, she paints her face as a multi-coloured rainbow cake with sprinkles, while confusingly eating a slice of rainbow cake, all the while languidly lip-syncing to music. She only set up her account in January 2019, but she already has 6.4 million followers – rising by the hour.

Abby Roberts transforms herself into Edward Scissorhands in one of her most popular TikTok videos (Photo: @abbyrartistry on TikTok)

While TikTok’s core demographic remains teenagers staying up past their bedtimes, it is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Some news outlets are jumping on the trend, including the Evening Standard, BBC Radio 1, Guardian Australia and Teen Vogue. And a small selection of celebrities including Ariana Grande, Britney Spears and Cardi B have accounts.

In one video, Roberts transforms herself into Edward Scissorhands. The speeded-up frames of the video show beige scars cutting across her skin and lips; then we see dark, gothic shadows under her eyes, and then her final metamorphosis into Tim Burton’s fantasy character – complete with a black wig and silver scissors for hands. “I like the whole transformational aspect. I can be whoever I want to be that day,” she tells me over the phone from LA.

She travels there often, to film “collabs” – collaborations with different brands and other influencers on social media. She has an account manager, goes to movie premieres and her work has been sponsored by make-up brands including Fenty Beauty, Colourpop and Makeup Revolution, although she declines to discuss how much she is paid.

In one of her most popular videos, she creates a masquerade look. She starts off casually dabbing on white face paint, before smoothing in deep purple shadows, painting in wine-colored squares – and then we are shown the full effect – a chequered face, Venetian mask and frilled neck-ruffle made of cards.Read MoreThe Chair Challenge explained: how the TikTok craze works, and why women can do it but men can’t

When she paints on the Venetian mask, Roberts lip-syncs to Lalala by Canadian rapper bbno$ (pronounced baby no money) and producer Y2K. It’s a strangely catchy electro-pop song that went viral, partly thanks to a TikTok marketing campaign. People with large follower counts on TikTok often make money through being paid to set their videos to certain songs – Roberts says she has worked with music artists including bbno$, The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey.

The app has become so integral to musicians that major artists are deliberately writing music to be catchy and digestible to soundtrack its videos – Justin Bieber’s single “Yummy” was ridiculed last month for being so obviously manufactured to go viral.

Roberts is self-taught, but has been experimenting with make-up since she was 11. She sketches a lot of her make-up designs before doing them, but she just films her videos on her iPhone. “It’s quite quick – part of the appeal of TikTok is that it’s so personal and it’s not all polished and professional. I think that helps you engage with your audience.”

She left school last summer and describes TikTok as the “biggest game-changer” in her career. “It just took off instantly because no one else was doing make-up at that time,” she says. She would recommend anyone who wants to launch themselves on TikTok to be as original as possible and try to find a niche.

Lulu McGregor, or @tootymcnooty on TikTok, is another stand-out star, creating quirky, witty animations on the app to 3.5 million followers. In one video, a pastoral swan plays the harmonica. In another, more serious video to illustrate climate change, a contented, smiling world spins around happily, until suddenly it is surrounded by flames.

McGregor is a 21-year-old animation student at Arts University Bournemouth, and is struggling to balance her studies with spending about 20 hours a week creating content for TikTok – each video takes her about 10 hours. She’s only been on TikTok for a year, but her tutors are supportive because it offers the possibility for brilliant commercial opportunities. She has worked with brands including Pictionary, PrettyLittleThing, Converse and Adobe.

“I’m still baffled as to how I got so much attention over the year,” she says. “It was very exciting, but also scary and overwhelming. I had to learn a lot of things, business-wise, such as negotiating contracts. At the moment, I’m riding with the flow.

“Being a content creator or an influencer is a very loose-ended job. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. It could go downhill, or stop. From my perspective, I just want to graduate without letting TikTok get too much in the way.”

For freelance film-maker Duncan Evans, @curlykidlife, who has 618,000 followers, TikTok has been a big part of his business strategy. He studied creative product design at university, but initially went into a “mediocre” job after he graduated. He eventually decided to concentrate on making videos full-time a few years ago, moving back to Wales. He has worked with brands including EA Sports, Sketchers and Myprotein and charges £1,000-£2,000 for a sponsored post.

The 29-year-old makes playful videos with optical illusions. In one video, captioned “a life of a professional toaster”, a woman puts a slice of bread into a toaster. A miniature chef – played by Evans himself – who is living in the toaster gets to work immediately, blowtorching the bread before sending it back up, proud of his artisan handiwork. The woman scowls at the burnt toast and chucks it in the bin. Evans used a green screen to create the illusion he was in a toaster before editing the video to make himself appear thumb-sized. He avoids using social media himself too much, though. “I find that if I spend too much time on there and watch other people, then I start to put their style into my work,” he says.

Lettering artist James Lewis from Cardiff, @jamesllewis1, studied graphic design at Cardiff University before becoming a freelance lettering artist. The 24-year-old has mainly used TikTok to showcase the process of bringing logos to life for his 842,000 followers.

TikTok lettering artist Jamie Lewis has 842,000 followers on the app (Photo: @jamesllewis1)

TikTok lettering artist Jamie Lewis has 842,000 followers on the app (Photo: @jamesllewis1)

It is strangely mesmerising to watch. In one video, Lewis paints an Andy Warhol-inspired tin of Campbell’s soup and in another, his paintbrush follows the swirls in Disney’s logo. Brands approach him to paint their artwork on TikTok. He has worked with Mercedes and Amazon Studios as well as Converse, customising a pair of Pro Leather shoes and documenting it on the app. Lewis tends to charge between £4,000 and £7,000 for painting, creating the video and sharing the artwork.

He can spend as long as 20 hours on one video – before condensing it into 15 seconds. It means that his viewers see hours of painting concentrated into a few brushstrokes, but he thinks this is still more interesting than only seeing the final piece. “People can engage with the process,” he says.

For these artists, a good TikTok video is a balance between shining a light on their creative process, and condensing it into a very short clip to distract people endlessly scrolling down through the app – whether it’s sing-alongs in bedrooms, or artwork from savvy and commercially aware make-up artists, illustrators, film-makers and lettering artists.

“I love painting – it is a genuinely meditative and relaxing process,” Lewis says. “But then the final result has to be this 15-second dopamine hit of intense brushstrokes and vibrant colours.”

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