Social media stardom is a brutal Darwinistic competition, a craven and utterly shameless battle for space on our screens and in our brains carried out by a phalanx of influencers, thinkfluencers, beauty vloggers, charlatans, health quacks, spiritual phonies, and unhinged vegans. Recently, Lil Tay entered into this fray. Tay is—as far as we know—a 9-year-old girl, an ostensible recording artist, the self-described “youngest flexer in the game,” a possessor of some truly above-grade-level curse words, and the cause of my near-breakdown as I’ve tried to determine just who the hell put her up to this.
In the past few weeks, I embarked on a soul-pulverizing journey through Lil Tay’s social media channels, where I became convinced that she’s being put in front of the camera and in potentially dangerous situations by people who aren’t looking out for her best interests. After watching some of those videos, agape, several times, I set out to determine who exactly was shaping Lil Tay’s online persona and driving her dubious form of stardom, and, in the process, maybe learn something about the nature of social media fame. I also just desperately wanted to know where her fucking parents are.
In the end, I spoke briefly with Lil Tay’s mother, who ended the conversation when I declined to pay for an interview with her daughter. (I am not naming her mother in this piece, and being deliberately vague about a few aspects of her identity, in order not to expose the personal details of a 9-year-old child.)
I then embarked on a longer back-and-forth with 30-year-old Alex Goller Gelbard of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who first described himself to me as Lil Tay’s manager and then, in a later conversation, denied being her manager. We had a few brief conversations and I sent him a detailed list of questions, hoping to talk with him and Tay’s mother about the nature of fame, stardom, and exploitation online.
Gelbard never answered those questions (Update: Shortly after this story was published Gelbard finally answered a few of the questions we had for him. It was a wild ride). He told me that while he wanted to, he was waiting for approval from Tay’s family, which evidently never came. I was, apparently, not offering quite the kind of publicity they were looking for.
Tay is a self-proclaimed rapper, but the nature of her fame is premised more on notoriety than actual music. On her Instagram page, where she has over a million followers, and on YouTube, she waves stacks of cash, brags about “boolin’ in the trap house,” and engages in braggadocious monologues about her material success. A representative snippet:
I got the iPhone X. What y’all broke ass bitches have? Y’all have iPhone 5. And I be drinking your college tuition bitch. Lil Tay be drinking good. I got this Gucci lint roller, this shit cost me six thou. And I be using it to brush off all your raggedy ass, hoes. This iPhone cost me two thousand bucks, what y’all know about that life? Y’all ain’t going living like Lil Tay. Lil Tay money way bitch.
That last line is a reference to the sole piece of music that Lil Tay has actually released publicly, “Lil Tay Money Way”:
Lil Tay has claimed that she was “poor AF,” three years ago, when she was 6, writing in one Instagram caption, “USE BE LIVIN IN THE HOOD IN ATLANTA BROKE ASF 3 YEARS AGO AND IM GONNA TELL YALL RIGHT NOW YOU YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH YOUR DREAMS IF YOU WORK HARD!” In another video, she smokes a breadstick and tells her viewers that she’s “richer than all y’all brokeass haters” and has five houses.
“I’m a nine year old millionaire and I be smokin’ dope,” she concludes.
She also repeatedly uses the word “nigga” as an insult, as in a widely viewed video where she tells the viewer, “Bitch, I’m richer than all y’all brokeass” before yelling the word and banging a plastic watch against the camera.
Before her Twitter account was deleted, Tay (or, perhaps more likely, her handlers) used the word plenty there too:
If this hasn’t been made clear enough by now, the nature of Lil Tay’s viral fame is dependent on shock value—she’s a cherubic kid yelling profanities—and audience recognition of what she’s doing: a kind of third-generation Xerox imitation of a gangster rapper, backed by rants that sound like they were scripted by someone who isn’t black and wrote them based on stereotypes of black American speech.
I first became aware of Lil Tay through this invaluable explainer by my colleague Hazel Cills, who mercifully broke down an impenetrable beef taking place between YouTube-famous teens, egged on by adult men inexplicably hanging around with them. That beef became particularly heated during an IRL run-in outside a mall in L.A., which TMZ posted several stories about. (The people of TMZ, like the rest of the adults writing about these children—including me—have a dubious two-sided relationship with them. These adults cover these teens’ brawls assiduously with one hand, making them more famous than they’d ever be otherwise, while shaking their heads with the other, asking where the adults are.)
The most well-known player in all of this, to use that term very flexibly, is Bhad Bhabie, a.k.a. the “Cash Me Outside Girl,” a.k.a. Danielle Bregoli, a teenager who became famous for going on Dr. Phil and being vile toward her mother. She’s since gotten a record deal. She’s 15. Her antagonist was an even lesser-known social media star, Woah Vicky, who is 18.
Backing up Woah Vicky during the mall confrontation was Lil Tay: tiny, slight, with a choppily bleached blond bob falling to her shoulders. She was wearing a white blouse with lace sleeves, more suited to school picture day than appearing on the fringes of a Jerry Springer brawl for the Instagram set.
The “fight” didn’t come to much—the girls yelled taunts at each other and then dispersed—but in a video shot in the car after the altercation and posted on TMZ, Tay taunted Bhad Bhabie.
“Fuck Bhad Bhabie,” she yelled into the camera, holding a stack of cash to her ear. “She a bitch. She trying to act cool with her bodyguard, but she can’t do shit, she can’t even punch right, bitch. She a pussy. Broke-ass bitch, you can’t fight for shit and you a bitch.”
Tay’s positioning (and perhaps whoever is writing her lines) alternately uses her status as a literal child to demonstrate what a badass she is, as well as to warn her enemies not to mess with her. It’s a dizzying mixture, on display in a response video she made about the non-fight with Bhad Bhabie.
“She pulled up with two grown-ass body guards that were trying to assault a 9-year-old,” Tays says, in part. “Like, why? Is it because I have more clout than you? Is it because I’m a richer than you? Why do you fight a 9-year-old girl?” (She also denounces Bhad Bhabie as “the biggest snitch ever” for calling the cops during the fight, and claims that Bhad Bhabie and her crew used the n-word during the incident.)
In the same video, Lil Tay celebrates her new friendship with Lil Pump, who was arrested earlier this year for firing a gun in his house. In another, she’s seen hanging out with Chief Keef, a young rapper has been arrested a few times for alleged drug possession and gun charges, including pointing one at the cops, and who was convicted of heroin manufacturing before he turned 18.
Tay is eye-catching in that any normal adult’s eyes train on her and immediately demand to know who the hell is responsible for this. To see her bobbing anxiously at the edge of a threatened physical altercation, weaving around people a foot taller than her, and meekly asking Bregoli “What’s up?” is a genuinely unsettling experience. To see her yelling into a camera, surrounded by people at minimum twice her age, is the psychological equivalent of a screaming tea kettle: Someone needs to do something about this right now. Who put that there?
When I set out to find whoever was putting Tay in front of a camera, I had one thing to go on: a photo in which she’s standing next to a car with a Canadian license plate. I reached out to a source to see if they could trace the plate, which they couldn’t, but this person unexpectedly told me that they knew Tay’s mother from the “clubbing world.”
“I personally don’t know her parents enough to speculate, but like I said, the culture in [Canadian city] leads me to believe that she at least is flossing her parent’s cash and making a move to be the next RiceGum,” the person told me.
RiceGum is a YouTube star, and one of Tay’s earliest brushes with fame was during a supposed feud with him. RiceGum claimed that Tay had bullied his little sister, leading him to make an entire video “roasting” her, a 9-year-old child.
The entire “beef” looks, as does most of this, highly staged, but it apparently led RiceGum’s fans to mass-report Tay’s social media accounts. In response to the pushback, Tay seemingly broke character, breaking down in what look like very real tears on camera.
“Just stop reporting my videos,” she says, tearfully, looking very much her age. “I have a dream. I’m trying to make my mom proud. Like, y’all are here hating on me. You have a family. Go enjoy that. Why are you wasting your time reporting my videos and taking them down? ... I’m trying to spread positivity and y’all are just here hating on me.”
“I didn’t do anything to you,” she concludes, her lower lip wobbling.
Lil Tay has been made into the Instagram version of a WWE heel, a pint-sized villain who invites and feeds on her audience’s scorn. And scorn she’s gotten, in mountains: every Instagram and Facebook post of hers inspires racist taunts, insults about her appearance, outraged parents or would-be parents calling her spoiled, and a few wishes that she be physically harmed.
“I can’t wait till she grows up and gets fucking raped,” one person recently commented, punctuated with a laugh-crying emoji.
I’m not the first person to explore Tay’s murky family situation: A couple of fame-hungry fellow YouTubers have posted videos promising that they’ve finally “EXPOSED!” her, and at least one would-be harassment-enabler posted a document with what they claim is her real name and phone number and other personal information.
The danger this entire situation presents to a child is so obvious it hardly needs saying, and even if nobody means her any physical harm, the psychological effects of seeing thousands of comments every day calling you (at the mildest) a brat are probably not positive.
I hoped to discuss that with Tay’s family and management team: Is there some balance between trying to make her a public figure and protecting her from what that entails? How do they explain these comments to her, given that she evidently reads at least some of them?
If this was the big mystery, there were also smaller ones to puzzle through—like an iPhone game titled “Lil Tay - Money Way,” put on the App Store by a developer calling himself “Terrence Williams” from a company called Cookie Jaw. Cookie Jaw has virtually no footprint online, and “Lil Tay - Money Way” is Williams’ only game.
The game itself is as barebones as it can possibly be and still function: Playing as a little girl, the user runs through a cityscape, trying to grab cash, gold, and diamonds. You die if you fall off a cliff or into a buzzsaw. It’s unclear if the game developer has any relationship with the people who currently manage Tay.
Another mystery was on Tay’s now-deleted Twitter account. Before it was nuked—probably for being supposedly run by an underage person—the account sent a number of angry tweets about Tay’s Instagram being suspended. Some of those tweets seemed to be claiming they were being written by an agent at Paradigm, a large talent agency with offices in 10 cities.
Another tweet sent from the account seemed to be written to an agent at Paradigm.
When I called Paradigm, they couldn’t find any evidence that Tay is currently represented by them.
“She might have been on our roster, years ago,” a staffer there told me.
“She’s 9,” I replied.
“Oh,” the Paradigm employee responded. “Probably not, then?”
Another mystery was a Facebook page featuring photos of Tay. A 9-year-old shouldn’t have a Facebook account at all—the minimum age is supposed to be 13—but even beyond that, there were some oddities. The account had two different names on it: one on the profile itself, and another, entirely different name in the URL. Photos on the Facebook account matched those on a page called “Lil Gucci Taylor,” which seems to be the first name that Tay’s handlers picked out for her and quickly discarded. What I was finding were, essentially, loose threads left on the cutting room floor by whoever created the Lil Tay persona. It’s still unclear to me who set that Facebook account up, but when I received an email back from Lil Tay’s management team, the name of the account holder was the same as one of the names on the Facebook page.
“We are interested in taking an interview with Gizmodo. We’d like to speak further about the style and approach,” the email read. It was signed “Lil Tay Management.”
Separately, someone else responding from the same email address also wrote me back, confirming they were available for an interview and providing a different cell number. A search of that phone number showed that it belongs to a woman who has previously been a real estate agent in a large Canadian city.
I called the cell number and asked for the woman by name, then confirmed she was Tay’s mother. Our conversation didn’t get very far beyond that.
I explained that I hoped to talk to her about Tay’s controversial brand of fame.
“Okay,” she responded. “What’s your budget?”
I told her that Jezebel doesn’t pay for interviews, and she handed the phone to Alex Goller Gelbard, who identified himself as Tay’s manager.
Gelbard goes by Alex “Loyalty G.” Gelbard on most platforms, and seems to represent a few little-known, mostly Instagram-famous musicians. All that’s under a barebones company called Loyalty Creative Enterprise.
When Gelbard got on the phone, he explained to me that Tay does sometimes accept payment for interviews.
“We have all different kind of people contacting us for interviews,” he said. “We mostly don’t have enough time slots to fulfill bookings and other things coming in. Depending on the outlet, if it’s a smaller outlet where’s she’s going to do more work for them than the outlet is going to do for her, we will ask for payment.”
Gelbard also told me he’d be happy to have Tay sit for an interview, but only if it were a video interview, on camera, rather than for a print story. “She’s a video personality, so it comes through a lot better than if she were interviewed that way,” he explained to me. “We have a way she wants to be presented.”
After some back-and-forth, Gelbard agreed to answer a few questions via email. I never got those responses, and over the next few days some odd things happened, which perhaps indicated a behind-the-scenes scuffle. Tay’s Instagram account announced that she was on “house arrest” and didn’t have her phone, urging fans to tweet #FreeLilTay to spring her. Later the same night, Tay posted a message on her Instagram Stories, which read: “Lil Tay is not managed anyone [sic]. I am independent. For any business inquiries, email [redacted.]”
I went to bed firmly wondering what the hell was going on, only to be awoken by a 3 a.m. phone call from the cell number associated with Tay’s mother.
I was unable to answer at the time, because I was half-asleep and wildly confused. The next day, when I tried calling back, there was no answer.
And then, as I was considering the ethical implications of writing about any of this, the site Babe.net published a story featuring a wealth of personal information about Tay’s mother, meaning that Tay herself will be findable and identifiable long after she might want this chapter of her life to be behind her. (Babe previously published a piece about a woman accusing Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct, the reporting of which was widely criticized, including by my colleague Julianne Escobedo Shepherd on Jezebel. Babe.net also published a story that falsely claimed an alt-right student was expelled for having an undocumented classmate deported, a story debunked by Newsweek. The Babe piece led to the school receiving harassing phone calls and emails.)
When I spoke to Gelbard again, a day or so later, after the mysterious late-night call, he denied being Tay’s manager, despite having previously described himself that way.
“I’m providing consultation for them,” he told me. “Technically I’d be a consultant. I was one of their main interests for management, but I’ve pushed them to remain independent. I feel like they’re too independently creative to be under anybody who could direct their creativity.”
Gelbard was aware that someone had published a story naming Tay’s mother, he said. “Someone did some reverse lookup stuff,” he said grimly. He added, mysteriously, that it had “something to do with Woah Vicky.” He declined to elaborate.
I’m not sure whether I’ve solved the mystery of Lil Tay. I’m not sure what answer there could have possibly been, besides the one that exists: She has a stage mom who wants to make money from her fame. There’s obviously a great deal of care and thought being put into Lil Tay’s persona. The question that matters is who exactly is taking care of her.
Update: Shortly after this story was published, Alex Goller Gelbard, who works with Tay in some kind of management capacity, answered a few questions we had for him. It was a wild ride.