In July, Charli D’Amelio took to Instagram to share a call for reason amid the utter chaos and division she’d been witnessing online. No, not that. This drama involved herself and her ex-boyfriend, her sister, and some other friends. It was normal teenage stuff—except that all the teens involved were famous on social media, their online and IRL lives converging in a sort of multi-platform unscripted reality show that no one under 25 could look away from all summer. Charli tearfully apologized for her role in it all—“I let my Twitter fingers get the best of me”—and begged her fans to “please stop sending people hate.”
News reports across multiple outlets (including this one), plus a slew of TikTok tea accounts, pieced together that Charli’s breakup with fellow TikTok star Chase Hudson, aka @lilhuddy, had turned sour when Charli seemed to confirm cheating rumors on Twitter, leading Chase to accuse several other prominent TikTokkers—including Griffin Johnson, then dating Charli’s older sister, Dixie—of cheating on their girlfriends.
It was left to Charli, 16, to be the adult in the room.
“All of the drama that has happened in the last few days was handled completely immaturely, myself included,” she said on Live, her eyes welling up. “The fact that so many people’s personal lives were put on the internet was not okay.” She appealed to fans to stop piling on Chase and Nessa Barrett, the girl he’d kissed (when they were both single, according to Chase), saying “you should never hate on anyone for their mistakes, because we all make mistakes.”
Charli speaks in a soothing loud whisper that some fans have suggested she use for ASMR. She favors long fingernails, the peace sign, and massive iced coffees (as of September 2, you can grab “The Charli”—her regular order of cold brew with whole milk and three pumps of caramel swirl—at Dunkin’ Donuts). She’s the most popular person on the most popular platform during the most online time in any of our lives, yet she’s known for keeping it extremely real (her first book, out in December, is called Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping it Real). Her fans and stan accounts were rapturous. “don’t cry please we love you,” they gushed, during her Live. “ur so mature. this is why i love u” and “don’t cry you are the best person that ik.”
“I love you all,” she told them back, her voice shaking. There were 400,000 people watching.
One of the realest things about Charli D’Amelio is her relationship with her sister. At 19, Dixie’s vibe is more bed-headed and world-weary than the bouncier Charli’s, but they both enjoy trolling each other (Dixie on Twitter: “charli just hit me :(”. Charli: “this is so insanely false i have so many witnesses.”). While some TikTok stars live in fratty “influencer houses,” the D’Amelios live with their parents, Marc and Heidi, who now have millions of followers of their own on the app. As the Kardashians prepare to sign off, they are America’s ascendant reality clan, with a new family YouTube channel and their own TV show in the works.
But if Kris Jenner and co. have always cranked up their drama to hold people’s interest, the D’Amelios tend to lean into their boringness, which has proved a winning strategy for 2020, a year in which no one really needed more people yelling at each other. Instead, the family does mildly stunty things like hang out with illusionist David Blaine. One or both sisters often seem like they had to be dragged out of bed to film this content, which is part of its charm. Recently, when Dixie slumped on a couch scrolling during a family aura reading, her dad turned to the camera and said, “So yeah, let us know how you feel in the comments about Dixie not being interested in our family videos!”
This spring, the sisters’ snowballing fame collided with the pandemic, and their audience became even more online and engaged… aka bored in the house doing dance challenges with mom. TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the world in May and June (after being briefly eclipsed by Zoom in April). The company now says it has 100 million active users in the U.S., or almost one third of the population. And since the end of March, Charli has more than doubled her following, to 87 million followers—roughly the same as Rihanna on Instagram—crushing the second-biggest account, Addison Rae’s, by more than 30 million. Dixie’s is the ninth-largest, at 38 million. The sisters were recently ranked the second and third highest-paid creators on the app by Forbes, with combined earnings of almost $7 million over the last year.
“I was just wondering, like, how did they know that?” says Charli incredulously, when I ask her about this on Zoom in late August. “But it was also just weird to see, like, oh, that’s me. Like how did this even happen? Like thinking back to a year ago, no one even knew my name.”
A little over a year ago was famously when Charli, a shy Connecticut high-schooler and competitive dancer, started posting dance clips on the then-“cringey” app, as Dixie recently put it. Her innocent routines and smiley persona found a viral audience on a platform just starting to explode. In October, Dixie, who is not a trained dancer, joined in the fun, posting clips of herself lip-synching or making self-deprecating attempts to copy Charli’s moves. By January the whole family had signed with talent agency UTA. Before the lockdowns, Charli went on Jimmy Fallon to answer questions including, “What is TikTok?” (Answer: “Fifteen to 60 second videos of really doing whatever you want. Sometimes I vlog. I mostly dance. A lot of people do comedy.”) By then she’d also starred in a SuperBowl commercial.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of a live tour the girls had planned with other influencers, but it has created other content opportunities. The family spent the summer ensconced in a vast L.A. rental, wearing sweatpants and churning out TikToks by the pool (not to mention Snaps, IG Lives, and the aforementioned YouTube videos), often with other local influencers. Leaving their childhood bedrooms in Connecticut for the soft lighting of California has definitely raised the “glam factor” on the sisters’ content. When Charli wanted to buy Dixie a pair of Jordan 1 Diors (price tag: $30,000) for her birthday, she had sneaker influencer Ben Kickz track them down and spun it into 9 million views on YouTube. Still, that same number of people watched a doctor stuff blunt instruments up her nostrils and extract bloody cartilage so she could breathe better during a recent nose surgery (“i know this is the worst thing i can ever say in my whole life, but he could sell the bloody tissues for millions,” one fan commented).
When I meet the D’Amelios on Zoom, they seem more like the unknown high-schoolers they so recently were than the teen media titans they are now, branching into music, book publishing, and reality TV. They even have a new podcast called “Charli and Dixie: 2 Chix” premiering in October and brand partnerships with Morphe2 Cosmetics and Hollister jeans. (Enough projects that they “don’t really worry” about whether President Trump will somehow shut down TikTok, a Chinese-owned company that is now having to sell off its US business to appease him. As Dixie puts it, “Our lives won’t be over. But it is a fun app that’s kept us very distracted during quarantine.”)
Today they’re wearing sweatshirts and vaguely tired expressions and accompanied by two publicists who lurk protectively on audio. Dixie has a green hoodie pulled way over her head and seems to lean into her screen, possibly staring at a different app than the one with a reporter’s face in it. Dixie’s approach in particular can be described as “doing the least.” A recent YouTube video found her scrambling to fill the time by calling to surprise a fan who had purchased her merch and then tasting a steak her dad made. But this only makes her more relatable in a social-media environment still backlashing against Instagram’s thirsty brand-building. (The girls tell me they have no interest in trying Reels, Instagram’s TikTok competitor, but they remain masters of Instagram Live. Back in Connecticut, a typical Live saw Dixie bursting in to Charli’s room to accuse her of tripping her with an iced coffee left in front of her door, then lying on the floor trolling her while she tried on hair extensions. Dixie: “They’re disgusting. They look like Charli in middle school.”).
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On Zoom, Charli is more earnest and talkative, but says the sisters’ online personas aren’t the whole story. When people meet them, “I’m definitely a lot more quiet than people expect,” she says. “Dixie’s a lot more outgoing than people think.”
In L.A., where they are now living full-time—Marc and Heidi are selling the Connecticut house—the spotlight has been intense. Charli and Chase have long since patched things up and are now back to appearing in each others’ TikToks (“I think we need to normalize exes being friends,” she replied, when a paparazzi asked her if they’re back together). But last month Dixie had to tell her fans to stop hating on Griffin after their messy break-up (“can y’all stop sending him hate, things happen it’s a part of life and growing up,” she Tweeted). They’re still teens, and it’s hard—“one hundred and ten percent,” says Charli emphatically—to have their personal relationships splashed all over the internet. Fans reliably take the D’Amelios’ side over the interchangeable young men of TikTok, with their chiseled jaws and inflated white-dude confidence. But “everyone thinks that they deserve to know every detail about us,” says Charli. “There are certain things we should definitely be able to keep to ourselves because input from millions of people can, like, hurt relationships.”
“It gets frustrating because I notice myself wanting to speak up in times when it just might not be worth it,” she adds.
When I ask whether they’ll be sharing future romantic deets with their fans, Dixie says, “I guess we do want to share things. We just, um…”
“Sometimes you can put it out too early,” finishes Charli.
The pandemic has actually given the girls a minute to adjust to their new fame, and the increased scrutiny it brings. They have family time written into their schedules each week. “It’s been a time to kind of understand and figure out how to deal with everything that’s been going on recently,” Charli tells me. “I mean, we obviously missed out on awards shows and things that we would have been able to do if Corona hadn’t happened, but we’ve also gotten time to sit back and learn how to deal with our new lives.”
“It was honestly an easier adjustment,” says Dixie.
So what have they learned?
“How to keep ourselves happy when things might not be great all the time,” says Charli.
That’s the challenge for everyone this year. And in the D’Amelios, fans have found both distraction and guidepost. The unstated hook of the sisters’ current content is watching them deal with the fame and riches they’ve recently acquired, the kind of spotlight that has ruined many a child star before them. But like the rest of us, they’re also dealing with, well, 2020. In July they got heat for attending a non-socially-distanced party at the Hype House (an influencer mansion, for those of you just joining us.) When I bring this up, one of their publicists unmutes her black square to tell me we’re not going there. But Charli did recently tell fans that she’s been getting tested every week for COVID.
The movement for racial justice has played out with particular intensity on TikTok. In May, Charli posted an impassioned speech about the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and it was viewed 134 million times—twice as many views as her average dance videos get. It was a welcome gesture from the most-followed person on an app that has often been criticized for having, as Wired put it, “an unspoken partiality to Black cultural expression” while leaving actual Black creators behind. Earlier this year, Charli discovered that the ubiquitous “Renegade” dance that helped catapult her to viral fame had been created by a Black teenager in Atlanta named Jalaiah Harmon, who hadn’t been credited as her dance started exploding on TikTok. Charli performed the dance with Jalaiah and Addison Rae. Jalaiah posted the video on her own account, too, and racked up 11 million views. Now, when Charli doesn’t know who made a dance, she’ll ask her fans to tag them. (TikTok, for its part, posted a letter in June laying out steps it plans to take to elevate more Black creators.)
She’s has also reckoned with serious issues that affect her more personally. On Twitter, she regularly hits back at body shamers (“ITS NOT COOL ITS NOT FUNNY AND ITS NOT A JOKE. ITS DISGUSTING AND DISRESPECTFUL”) and RTs positive quotes and affirmations. She says she has dealt with people’s opinions on her body forever in the dance world, and it makes her visibly angry. “You can’t be too muscular, you can’t be too short,” she tells me. “But who made these guidelines of what you have to be? The fact that we’re still letting society tell us what you have to look like to be considered perfect is outrageous to me. We are the generation that, with social media and so many platforms, can make the change.”
Dixie has also faced down haters. After an anonymous person accused her of faking seizures in high school, she was forced to take to IG Live to explain that she’d had severe anxiety her sophomore year, which had led her to be hospitalized with non-epileptic seizures, or PNES. Later, she Tweeted, “imma use this opportunity to help spread awareness about some of the things ive been through.” (“I’m definitely working with people on how to talk about these things in a mature way,” Dixie tells me now.)
For now, she recently released her first single, “Be Happy,” a plaintive bop about generalized 2020 malaise and isolation, complete with a video of herself slouched on the couch of the family’s L.A. rental, singing about not wanting to go out. It’s an earworm anthem of ennui for a year when young people didn’t get to party or hit the dance floor, but their anxiety and depression did skyrocket. She didn’t write the song, “but once I heard it, I knew how much I related to the lyrics, and I just fell in love with it,” she says.
Consistent with the meta theme that permeates their content, a video of Dixie showing friends and family her music video was genuinely touching, with Charli and Marc singing along, Griffin wondering aloud if the song was about him, and Heidi crying. The music video now has 70 million views.
These days, the D’Amelios have a “Director of Content and Merchandise” who helps with video production and brand partnerships, but the girls swear their process is still organic. “I scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll,” says Charli. “I like to see what everyone’s doing and what videos everyone’s making, what’s going on.”
“We don’t have a schedule for anything,” adds Dixie. “We post when we want to post.” On her YouTube channel, she recently interviewed Addison Rae, telling her, “As you know these shows are thoroughly planned out with hours of preparation” before blindfolding her and feeding her string cheese from the fridge. It’s a far cry from the aspirational reality content of yesteryear, when the “real girl” strivers of The Hills held down internships and shopped for designer clothes in perfect makeup, while the Kardashians took far-flung vacations via private planes. Before the world blew up in teens’ faces, re-shifting their priorities and aspirations and leaving them to pick up the pieces with short, cathartic, delightfully numbing dance videos—and also making it seem ridiculous to prepare for anything.
This year Dixie, like many high school seniors, missed her graduation and recently nixed plans to attend the University of Alabama, since it would be too unsafe to travel back and forth to L.A. (some of her friends who did go to college are already coming home on account of outbreaks, she says). Charli will be doing one-on-one high school online this fall, like she did last year.
Neither D’Amelio has much of an idea where they want to take all the wild opportunities knocking down their door. Dixie is currently focused on music (her dream collab is rapper Trippie Redd) and will soon release her first EP with L.A. Reid’s HITCO Entertainment. They’re both excited about their podcast, which they’ll use to talk about “literally anything that comes to our minds,” says Dixie. “I feel like it’s going to be really fun for people to see our thoughts and opinions on situations,” adds Charli.
Beyond that, “we just want to continue to speak on things we speak on and continue to spread positive messages,” says Charli. Until 2019, she wanted to be a professional dancer, and Dixie thought she might study business. Now, in 2020, who would even try to predict?
“I feel like I still don’t know why this happened,” says Charli. “I feel too normal for all of this.” She thinks of her fans, how they listen to her, how she loves and affirms them, and they her, and tries again. “Self-confidence is important,” she declares. “So yes, I understand.”
Fashion: First image, floral suits: On Charli, 8 Moncler Richard Quinn coat, tights, and heels. Roxanne Assoulin earrings. Ippolita ring. On Dixie: 8 Moncler Richard Quinn coat, tights, and heels. Lele Sadoughi earrings. Ippolita ring. First video loop: On Charli: Tory Burch dress and belt. Tod’s heels. Mounser earrings. Stone and Strand necklace. On Dixie: Tory Burch jacket. Hollister jeans. Tod’s heels. Mounser earrings. Black and gold image: On Charli: Dior dress. Retrouvaí ring. Jennifer Behr earrings. On Dixie: Miu Miu dress. Jennifer Behr earrings. Video loop with dresses: On Charli: Marco de Vincenzo dress. Retrouvaí ring. On Dixie: Marco de Vincenzo dress. Retrouvaí ring. Jennifer Behr earrings. Leather look: On Charli: Louis Vuitton dress and boots. Mounser earrings. On Dixie: Louis Vuitton top, skirt, and sneakers. Mounser earrings. Retrouvaí ring. Last image: On Charli: Marco de Vincenzo dress. Retrouvaí ring. On Dixie: Marco de Vincenzo dress. Retrouvaí ring. Jennifer Behr earrings.
Crew: Photographer: Jabari Jacobs; Fashion Director: Cassie Anderson; Senior Fashion Editor: Rachel Torgerson; Beauty Director: Julee Wilson; Entertainment Director: Maxwell Losgar; Hair: Laura Polko at The Wall Group; Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group; Props: Abraham Latham at Art Department. Location: Milk Studios; Production: Crawford & Co Productions.