When the Instagram account belonging to the child influencer Lil Tay announced her death at age 16 on Wednesday, August 9, it’s telling that the immediate reaction from many of her followers was, “This seems suspicious.”
For a three-month period in early 2018, the then-10-year-old Lil Tay took over the internet. She and her mother even went on Good Morning America to explain her popularity, which mostly centered around the fact that she was a cherubic-faced kid bragging about money, cars, and “haters” and starting drama with more famous influencers.
Then, that summer, her account went dark. It didn’t post until yesterday, when a statement saying that both she and her older half-brother Jason had passed away unexpectedly and that their deaths are “under investigation.” Many news outlets ran with the story, receiving confirmation from her “management” that it was true.
But for those who had an inkling of what was going on behind the scenes during that time, the news still seemed fishy. And a day later, Lil Tay herself told TMZ she was alive.
A New York Magazine feature from 2019 describes Lil Tay’s origin story according to Lil Tay thusly: “She grew up ‘broke as hell’ in Atlanta but worked really hard ‘moving bricks.’ Eventually she got into Harvard and then dropped out. At one point, like her friend [Woah] Vicky, she claimed to be ‘partially Black.’ Now she lives in ‘the hills’ (which ones? She hasn’t specified).” The real story, as the piece details, is different. She was born Claire Eileen Qi Hope on July 29, 2007; her parents never married and shared custody. (As of 2023, Tay tells TMZ that her legal name is Tay Tian, although this is otherwise unconfirmed.) She grew up in Canada with her half-brother Jason Tian and their mother, a Vancouver-area realtor named Angela, who allowed the kids to film inside the fancy properties she showed, as well as in a co-worker’s Mercedes 550 SL, and pretend they owned them.
There’s always been a lack of clarity around Lil Tay’s age. When she first hit the scene, she was 10, but her camp claimed she was 9; after her apparent passing, media reports widely cited her age as 14, but if her previously reported birthday is accurate, she would be 16. It’s all part of the dogged confusion around the young influencer, who never seemed to wield control over her image or identity.
This wasn’t quite the classic story of a stage mom, though; instead, Lil Tay had a stage brother. Jason, then 16, was the only one who had access to her Instagram account. He was the one who coached Lil Tay on what to say and how to say it, having studied famous YouTubers in previous attempts to get famous himself. According to reports, he was often harsh and cruel, and on at least one instance prompted her to say racial slurs. One person who worked closely with Lil Tay told the Atlantic in 2018, “I’ve seen her brother shout at her. Once Jason was yelling at her, saying, ‘You’re no good, it’s no good.’ She was crying hard.”
Lil Tay being coached what to say by her brother... SAD! pic.twitter.com/lJi7o2AXnp— KEEM (@KEEMSTAR) May 21, 2018
After Lil Tay had had minor viral moments mocking famous YouTubers, her mother and brother connected her with a handful of LA-based talent managers; at one point they moved in with the controversial then-18-year-old influencer Woah Vicky who spoke in a blaccent and claimed to be Black. In April 2018, Lil Tay and Vicky staged a fight with fellow teen meme star Bhad Bhabie at the Americana Mall in Glendale, and TMZ caught the footage. Overnight, Lil Tay became a sensation. Two months later, she appeared to be gone from the internet.
Her father, a Canadian lawyer named Chris Hope, had gotten a court order requiring Lil Tay to return to Vancouver and shut down her Instagram. According to the New York magazine story, he wanted to professionalize Lil Tay’s career: to trademark her name, to get a visa and an American work permit so that she could make money in the US, to put her earnings in a trust, to gain experience in an artistic field and attend school. But that October, Lil Tay’s Instagram account published a series of posts claiming that Hope and his wife were abusing her, posting suspicious screenshots of supposed legal documents and releasing the phone number for Hope’s law firm. Angela described this as a “hack;” Hope told Insider, “I know who planned and carried out the harassment” and that he was preparing a defamation suit.
When Lil Tay’s death was reported, Hope did not respond to Vox’s request for comment, but according to both Insider and the New York Post, he could not comment on the Instagram post claiming his daughter had died, and would not answer whether she had in fact passed away. Another former manager of Lil Tay’s said that he could not confirm or deny the news. Neither the Los Angeles nor the Vancouver police departments said they had any information on her death.
On August 10, in an interview with the celebrity news site TMZ, Lil Tay claimed that her account had been hacked. “I want to make it clear that my brother and I are safe and alive, but I’m completely heartbroken, and struggling to even find the right words to say. It’s been a very traumatizing 24 hours,” she said. “All day yesterday, I was bombarded with endless heartbreaking and tearful phone calls from loved ones all while trying to sort out this mess. My Instagram account was compromised by a 3rd party and used to spread jarring misinformation and rumors regarding me, to the point that even my name was wrong. My legal name is Tay Tian, not ‘Claire Hope.’”
On the evening of August 9, someone claiming to be Jason under the Instagram account @termanii_ posted a picture of Lil Tay and a caption that said, “To be clear I am not dead,” adding that he no longer had access to the Lil Tay account. “MY SISTER AND I WERE WINNING OUR CASE. IT WAS JUST A COUPLE OF DAYS BEFORE WE GOT IT ALL BACK, ALL HER SOCIAL MEDIA AND COME OUT ABOUT THE TRUTH,” it continued.
In a follow-up post, the account wrote, seemingly from Lil Tay’s perspective:
Since the end of 2021 me and my brother have been planning on coming back to social media and start streaming we didn’t tell anyone other then [sic] our parents and once we did they got mad and called us ignorant because we weren’t going to do the same thing that i was doing when i was 9-10 and they locked us out of every social media we had because they still wouldn’t let us have full access of it thag [sic] started a big argument then she got mad and for a few weeks we agreed to live with our grandparents and ever since then they basically cut contact with us so about 4 months ago i texted my mom for the first time in years and we were talking about getting our account back and she agreed at first and then switched up randomly and now this happens out of no where i haven’t talked to her since may.
The account also posted an Instagram story saying that they wanted to “go live as soon as we hit 25k followers” and asked people to follow their YouTube channel as well. Many saw this as a cynical grab for clout, though it’s still unclear whether either Lil Tay or Jason are actually behind it (many other copycat accounts are now posting the same things). As one Redditor wrote of the ongoing situation, “If this a hoax it’s extremely fucked up but I would it rather be that then [sic] her actually being deceased.”
Update, August 10, 2 pm ET: This piece has been updated to reflect that Lil Tay has been confirmed alive.