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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The D'Amelio Show Paints a Grim Picture of TikTok Fame

As we learn more about the lives of two teens famous for doing very little, we begin to see that their stardom isn’t so glamorous

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Screenshot: Hulu

The first thing you need to know about Charli D’Amelio, the star of The D’Amelio Show on Hulu, is that she doesn’t consider herself to be famous—a curious statement from a teenager whose popularity is so immense that Dunkin’ Donuts named her go-to drink “the Charli” in September 2020. She views her celebrity as a mere example of being in the right place at the right time.

Technically, that’s true. Charli skyrocketed to fame via TikTok, after joining the app in 2019 and—like thousands of other homebound and bored people—sharing snippets of her life, posting funny videos, and dancing. It’s the last of these activities that arguably made her the most famous, though hers is a bloodless, toothless, and completely low-energy kind of dancing. She marks the steps rather than engaging in the choreography full out, and the routines are replete with a tame bump-and-grind sensibility— suggestive of sex without being sexy — that makes it easy to replicate by anyone.

TikTok dances, like most of the content that populates the app, are best viewed within the constraints of the iPhone’s tall, narrow screen. And so it stands to reason that the questionable talents and charisma of the D’Amelios— teenagers swept up in the whirlpool of unexpected fame—don’t translate on television or perhaps anywhere else.

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The D’Amelio Show seeks to disprove this theory by humanizing the D’Amelio sisters beyond what we see on our phone screens. As we learn more about the lives of two teens famous for doing very little, we begin to see that the nature of their stardom isn’t so glamorous. Charli and Dixie are paralyzed with crushing anxiety over how they’re perceived, and it is this sustained anxiety that keeps this entire enterprise together. For Gen Z, a disparate group of people well-versed in therapy-speak, the D’Amelios may serve as a cautionary tale about fame’s tangible effect on mental health. “I feel like I’ve had a constant anxiety attack for the past four years,” Charli says at one point during the show’s eight episodes. Perhaps the teens who aspire to her heights of celebrity will heed this as a warning.

The D’Amelio’s project is in conversation with the ur-text of personality-based reality television, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a show that established it was possible to get famous off of one’s name alone. But the light-hearted fare that comprised the earlier seasons of KUWTK is mostly missing in The D’Amelio Show—the first reality show following TikTok stars (for now)—which is largely the point. Social media is the driving force behind their success, which the show emphasizes by putting comments up on the screen as the D’Amelio sisters slump over their phones: Scores of faceless strangers shouting death threats and the occasional praise are superimposed over their intended targets, who consume the commentary like a drug.

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What helps the D’Amelio sisters out is that their parents, Heidi and Marc—both of whom quit their jobs and moved the family to Los Angeles so that their children might continue their careers—are extremely supportive. There’s no overt hint of stage parenting from the episodes that I watched, though as Tanya Chen at Buzzfeed pointed out, part of the reason the parents are so supportive is because their children are their main source of income. The anxiety that Charli and Dixie feel on the daily is inextricably tied to their finances—if they hopped off the content wheel to take a much-needed break, their output would immediately start to lose value. But as Chen notes, because the sisters’ stress is never explicitly pinned to their finances, the fact of their vast wealth looms in the corners instead like a silent wraith. For two teenagers trapped in the process of building and maintaining their personal brands, fame necessitates constantly projecting fame—and for these rising stars, that means never worrying about something as vulgar as money in public.

Perhaps that’s because unlike KUWTK, where both finances and the architecture of becoming a celebrity are on full display, the D’Amelio Show treats Charli and Dixie’s fame as a matter of course. They are less concerned with how they got there and more so with how it feels, which is by all accounts, quite bad. Though Charli and Dixie are the stars of the show, other influencers and friends populate the series, popping in and out of episodes to participate in what look like staged “events,” including a romantic date on the beach for Dixie and her very famous (to some) boyfriend, Noah Beck, and a hibachi dinner for both sisters and their friends. This sort of gag is by now standard on reality TV, but it in the D’Amelio Show it seems to validate the appeal of fame while the rest of the show is concerned with critiquing it. At the very least these scenes are a distraction from the show’s main focus, which is highlighting the overwhelming dread that stardom can bring.

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Of these friends, most of whom are influencers, Quen Blackwell provides the most salient commentary on the nature of being famous on TikTok. Blackwell got her start on Vine at the age of 12, and then moved her personal brand to TikTok, and acts as a sort of advisor to Charli (though at 20 years old, she’s just a few years older but decades wiser). She has evolved to the point where she does not read the comments— a fact she shares with Charli at one point, who is glued to her phone—because if she does, she will feel like “dying.”

The natural inclination is to feel sympathy for the D’Amelio sisters, even knowing full well that they’ve made their bed and now must lie in it. Their desire to keep up the work of being famous seems to be less about fame itself and more about a reluctance to return to a life less privileged—a crucial distinction.

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Fame in the age of influencing is really just that: gaming the system enough to easily circumvent the quotidian inconveniences of living life as a normie. Though Charlie and Dixie seem truly distressed at times about the expectations they labor under, to be famous and to continue working at the pace that they do seems to be their only mode of being. Technically, they are the agents of their own fate and could easily pull the plug on the entire operation if they wanted to— in an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy for the rest of their lives, and to fade quietly into the obscurity of living a normal life. The D’Amelio Show, however, introduces the possibility that they may not feel they have much of a choice.