By Jordan Houston
On the outside, Jaala James (@uhitsjaala) appears to be an average teenager.
The Tempe resident—marked by an infectious smile and radiant brown eyes—balances online classes, a part-time job and a blossoming social life, as well as quality time with her family.
James is gearing up for her freshman year at Howard University, a private, federally chartered historically Black university in Washington, D.C., where she will play Division 1 lacrosse and pursue a career in law.
Like many of her peers, the teen enjoys passing time on TikTok, a video-sharing platform. Most days, she even uploads videos of herself.
But unlike her peers, James’ clips are viewed by more than a million people worldwide.
“I still don’t think it has really set in, like how many followers I have. It honestly doesn’t really phase me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” she says with a laugh. “Like obviously, I’m super grateful for it and I love it and I love the people who support me.
“But at the same time, I don’t ever really feel obligated to post. It’s always just what I want to do, and it’s fun for me.”
James, boasting 1.4 million TikTok followers, is a product of the app’s unprecedented celebrity-manufacturing machine, which operates faster and more powerfully than other platforms like Instagram or YouTube.
TikTok is taking the entertainment industry by storm through its ability to catapult everyday users—mainly 15- to 20-year-olds—into international stardom overnight.
Because its algorithm serves trending content to a wide audience, even the smallest of accounts have a chance at going viral.
One of the most popular TikTok “stars” is 15-year-old Charli D’Amelio. The trained dancer amassed more than 50 million followers and blank likes in less than a year.
The short-form video app is not only sparking a new generation of influencers and memes, but it is also captivating brands, tech leaders and aspiring microcelebrities across the globe—and it’s only just the beginning.
“It’s a new career and people are just getting used to it,” James says. “But you look at David Dobrick, Liza Koshy, people who started on Vine—which was like the old-school TikTok and they’re making multimillions now.”
SO, WHAT MAKES TIKTOK TICK?
TikTok users can record themselves lip-synching, dancing, acting or memeing to pre-recorded audio clips or songs. There’s also the option to upload personal sounds. The app offers a host of editing features to choose from, including filters and effects.
The 60-second-or-less video platform acts as a social network by circulating content on its “For You Page,” featuring a mixed bag of trending clips and local videos with little engagement. Lip syncing, comedic skits and viral challenges currently dominate the feed.
Although dubbed a staple among tweens and teens, with 60% of its monthly users aged 16 to 24 according to influencer marketing agency MediaKix, TikTok is still worth getting to know.
Since its launch in 2016—and after ByteDance bought Musical.ly and merged the two the app has garnered more than 1.5 billion downloads in over 150 countries.
It even outstripped Instagram’s downloads in 2019 by roughly 238 million.
James remembers sitting in her house one evening last fall when she decided to download TikTok. A few of her friends had already joined.
Moments later, she stumbled upon an audio clip she resonated with—playful banter between what could be perceived as two siblings.
Being the third oldest of nine, James says she felt compelled to act out the comedic skit.
She quickly propped up her phone against a laundry basket and pressed record.
“I came across this sound, and it was like two siblings having a ‘moment,’” James recounts. “I literally just set my phone up and I didn’t even get ready.
“I looked super busted,” she jokes. “I recorded this little sound and then went to bed. It was super late at night, too, and I just posted it.”
That next morning, James awoke to the shock of a lifetime.
Her spur-of-the-moment video reached 300,000 likes overnight.
“It just kept climbing and climbing,” James discloses. “I hit like a million followers within the first three months of me being on the app—just from that video alone.”
She adds, “I really think I was just kind of a fluke. I was like, ‘What the heck am I even doing here? I’m literally just screwing around.’”
Around that same time, a certain kind of TikToker began to emerge. Users were seeing more dance challenges and lip-syncing on their “For You” pages.
Enter Phoenix resident Kareem Jassam (@justbeingkareem).
Sharing a similar discovery story, the teenaged Iraq native has 1.5 million TikTok followers and is best known for his lip-synching videos.
The former professional soccer player recalls his first bout with fame when he posted a side-by-side comparison of himself and several Disney princes.
His numbers skyrocketed from there.
“I was like, ‘Why am I blowing up out of nowhere?’ But it felt good,” Jassam gleams. “I felt famous for like 5 seconds, and I was like, ‘Nobody talk to me.’”
Because of TikTok’s fickle nature and ever-changing algorithm, fame and clout are always fluctuating.
This unpredictability can be frustrating at times, explains TikToker Kailey Amora (@kaileyamora) of Gilbert, especially for creators looking to find their footing.
“I think I speak for a lot of other TikTokers in that what sucks about TikTok is their algorithm, and they change it like every week,” laments the 19-year-old, who bears more than 800,000 followers.
“Before, if you actually had good content you would do really well,” Amora adds. “Now, it’s about your looks. You can put out content, but if you’re good-looking you’ll do well anyways.”
A University of Arizona student, Amora was discovered through lip-synching to an audio clip of YouTube celebrity Shane Dawson.
Despite the app’s mysterious operations, the verified TikToker is still thriving.
“I try to make different content just to see what people like to see from me,” Amora says. “I make dance ones, comedy ones—those are the ones that do best for me.”
A FUTURE CAREER PATH?
James, Jassam and Amora are only just beginning to reap the benefits of their newfound fame.
According to research by the Morning Consult, more than half of 13- to 38-year-olds in the United States aspire to become social media influencers.
Marketeers reckon that the most popular TikTokers, which have upward of 30 million followers, can charge close to $200,000 per post through brand deals.
Some might even up the ante to nearly $1 million by next year, researchers at the UK games company Online Casinos argue.
Jassam is taking time off from Paradise Valley Community College to explore the realm of brand deals and a possible full-time career in the industry.
“It feels great, honestly—going out and people asking for pictures,” says the social media star. “It’s just a good feeling when you come from nothing to something.”
He recently launched a YouTube channel with his roommate, Dawson Barrett, where the two film themselves completing varying online challenges. The joint account already has more than 10,000 subscribers.
Amora is also open to opportunities within the industry but is taking a slightly different approach.
The UA student says she doesn’t want to put all of her eggs in one basket.
“Being an influencer is such a new career. It’s unpredictable,” Amora explains. “I don’t think I could ever feel secure enough to rely on it, but it’s obviously still another priority for me and something that I really want to keep rolling with.”
The Gilbert resident is working to switch her major while collaborating with brands on the side.
“I would like to stay in the entertainment industry,” she says. “It’s something that I really enjoy. I actually like making content. I like entertaining people, and I like making people laugh.”
In a cool and nonchalant manner, James echoes Amora’s sentiments.
For now, she says she is setting her sights on raising tuition money through brand promotions.
“I think that (being an influencer) would be the perfect career choice for me—and I’m working on it,” James says. “But, if I’m supposed to go to Howard, go to law school and become a lawyer, that’s super cool, too.
“I just feel like there are so many opportunities in the world, I don’t want to close all my doors,” she adds.
The athlete also hinted at the idea of securing a Valley “creator house” in the near future.
These houses are commonplace among the TikTok world, most notably the Hype House in Los Angeles, where well-known creators join forces to collaborate and build upon their brands.
“(We’re) wanting to make a TikTok creator house this summer so that a bunch of creators can work together and make a bunch of content,” says James. “Even do meet-and-greets for our followers in Arizona, which would be super cool.” CT