clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A TikTok house divided

You’re 19 years old. You get famous overnight. You move to LA. Now what?

The Girls in the Valley was supposed to be a collective of Instagram baddie best friends. Then it self-destructed. From left: Alex Youmazzo, Dayna Marie, Tanisha Coetzee, Nupur Sharma, Emmy Combs, Tianna Singer, Bria Alana.
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The house is a violent purple, an unusually arresting shade somewhere between maroon and magenta, although that’s probably the least weird thing about it. Inside, there are virtually no objects not adorned with flowers, feathers, or glitter; I use the word “objects” because most of them are not standard household fixtures that you or I might have, but things like “giant blow-up dinosaur” and “popcorn machine” and “mannequin wearing a tutu.” Visitors to the house are greeted by a neon mural of magic mushrooms and UFOs flanking the foyer and its rainbow light-up staircase. To the left is what is ostensibly a dining room, where everything is hot pink and it feels like the world’s most chaotic bubble bath, or maybe a very fun womb.

It is February in Sherman Oaks, a suburban neighborhood in California’s San Fernando Valley now home to a thriving cottage industry of beautiful young people trying to get famous online. The houses in this enclave — adjacent to but far removed from the glamour and status of Beverly Hills — are filled with social media collectives, or “collab houses,” groups of friends or sometimes strangers who have come from all over the country to film themselves being young and beautiful together. Mostly the videos are just dancing, or short staged skits. But you see the same person’s face on your phone enough times and you start to care about them.

Before landing in the Valley, these teenagers built astronomically huge fan bases, sometimes literally overnight, on TikTok, an app known for its unparalleled ability to create celebrities out of regular people. In the wake of sudden notoriety, hundreds of them did what other hopefuls have done for more than a century: packed up and moved to Los Angeles with a dream of ever greater and more visible success.

That’s how Alex Youmazzo got here. As I walk up to the door, she’s filming herself dancing in front of a ring light, the halo-shaped fixture favored by TikTokers, YouTubers, and now-quarantined Zoom-using regular people that gives the effect of a professional lighting setup. Like many of her fellow TikTok stars, she built her following of more than 5 million by lip-syncing to catchy hip-hop songs and joking around with friends. Unlike many of her peers, though, Alex has alopecia, and she pairs her trendy streetwear with her naturally bald head.

Alex, 19, has moved into the purple house to be part of a new collab house called Girls in the Valley. Like the more well-known Hype House and the Sway House, which debuted a few weeks earlier, Girls in the Valley is not a spontaneous occurrence of a handful of college-age social media stars choosing to live together, but rather the calculated product of a talent management company that plucked influencers from across TikTok to form a collective. Call it the boy-band model but for Gen Z, where stars leverage each other’s burgeoning fame against the backdrop of multimillion-dollar homes.

This world is fickle. Barely a month earlier, Alex was part of a different house, one that no longer exists because its manager allegedly withheld money from and mistreated its members. That manager now works for another talent company, one backed by a fancy New York real estate investor and based in an enormous mansion in Beverly Hills. By May, Alex will have left for a different collab house run by her then-boyfriend, a creator-cum-entrepreneur known among LA TikTokers for throwing raunchy warehouse blowouts. By August she will have sworn off content houses altogether. There will be more than a dozen new TikTok houses by this point, even after a pandemic has seized the globe.

On TikTok, though, life will look mostly the same. While the rest of us quarantine at home, influencers will lounge on pool floats, host meet-and-greets with fans, party together. Business is booming, after all; the iron is hot. Everyone in this world knows it can all go away at any moment; there are up-and-comers ready to take their place and shrinking marketing budgets with money concentrated at the very top of the slowly solidifying TikTok hierarchy. By summer a new threat will arise, as President Donald Trump orders the end of the platform as we know it.

Stars move out; stars break up. Stars meet managers who claim they can help make them millions and end up losing thousands. But there is clout and money on the line, and not every influencer will succeed in spending their lives in this most aspirational of careers. No one stays 19 forever, after all. The clock is, well, tick-tocking.

The Girls in the Valley house was the brainchild of a woman named Ariadna Jacob. Ari spent her 20s in the nightclub industry until she moved into what was essentially a collab house before the concept was christened with a name: 1600 Vine, a notorious Hollywood apartment complex where YouTubers and Vine stars congregated to film content together in the mid-2010s. An affable and enthusiastic go-getter, Ari had always idolized charismatic entrepreneurs — hustle evangelist and ad industry boss Gary Vaynerchuk in particular — and developed connections in the entertainment world before launching her own management company, called Influences, in 2018.

As a teenager, Ari hoped to be a professional creator — internet fame was far less of a viable career path back then — but now, at 36, she felt perfectly suited to act as something between a mother and a mentor to aspiring social media stars, a Kris Jenner-like figure to be the de facto adult in the room.

Girls in the Valley would be Influences’ marquee project, located in a home owned by Ari’s famous friend and client, former Disney Channel actress turned tabloid staple Bella Thorne. Every collab house operates under a slightly different ownership model: Most are rented, though some are bought outright by management companies, and each one has a distinct vibe. If the Hype House was for the clean-cut popular kids for whom life had always seemed easy, and the Sway House was for the edgy e-boys whose public misdeeds were forgiven due to their dimples and six-packs, Girls in the Valley was a sisterhood of Instagram baddies.

There was Alex and her close friend Emmy Combs, a sweet-tempered 19-year-old makeup artist originally from Maryland; the two had bonded over both having alopecia. There was also Nupur Sharma, a 20-year-old with supermodel hair and a face that matched; a peppy 21-year-old with a South African accent named Tanisha Coetzee; and Tianna Singer, the 19-year-old underdog of the crew. Tianna had only around 270,000 followers on TikTok at the time, compared to the other girls’ 1 million or so, which she said often made her feel unwelcome when hanging out at other collab houses. Dayna Marie, a petite, gravel-voiced 20-year-old with an ever-changing inventory of neon hair, would follow a few weeks later.

Emmy Combs was the sweet-tempered makeup artist who’d bonded with Alex over having alopecia.

It was by design that the Girls in the Valley came from backgrounds that were not exclusively upper middle class and white, most of them without the kinds of wealthy families who knew how to negotiate the business contracts that could help transform their child into a celebrity. No matter the platform, kids are better poised to go viral when they live in fancy houses and wear expensive clothes, but this is a key difference between kids who get famous on YouTube and kids who get famous on TikTok: One requires equipment, time, and a degree of production know-how, while the other requires only your phone.

Tianna, for instance, got into the industry with the express purpose of supporting her parents, who live in Calabasas and were experiencing a period of financial precarity. Alex, who grew up 20 minutes outside LA, dropped out of college to find fame on social media against her parents’ wishes, and was forced to choose between sticking it out in LA or going home and giving up her career. “I was either homeless or Ari answered her phone that day,” she says.

From the beginning, Alex struck a deal where if Ari wasn’t able to secure enough work to cover the rent, she wouldn’t have to pay it. Emmy and Dayna both paid $1,500 per month, while the others technically lived in other LA apartments but were still part of the collective, a common arrangement for content houses.

Ari had planned for the Girls in the Valley to feature TikTok’s highest-tier talent, the girls who’d been written about in Seventeen and Us Weekly. She’d been close to signing the two unofficial queens of the platform, Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae Easterling, whose dancing videos had gone stratospheric months earlier. Ari discovered they wouldn’t be joining Influences, though, when she read in the press that both had joined Hype House. Yet Emmy Combs, who’d built a huge following with skilled makeup transformations, was also high on her list, and it was Emmy who ultimately helped bring on the rest of the friends she met through TikTok.

Ari, the girls, and I are sitting at a wooden table that’s been hand-painted neon pink, in chairs wrapped in bubblegum marabou feathers. A translucent plastic chair hangs from the ceiling, which is also pink and feathered. In all its camp and kookiness, the house has not yet been sanitized for media consumption: Remnants of its celebrity owner remain in boxes and piles of clothes, some of the girls are still visibly in the process of moving in, and others don’t even know whether they’ve made the cut to join the collective at all. (Months later, photos of the house will show a far less cluttered space.)

There are obvious symmetries between this new world of Los Angeles content mansions and the old Hollywood studio system — in which stars who were signed to companies lived and worked together in years-long overall talent deals — or even the pop-star factories of the 1990s. Ari, however, likens her clients to a different entertainment juggernaut. “They’re not like boy bands,” she says. “They’re the Avengers.”

It is clear within minutes of being at the house that Ari loves the Girls in the Valley, and that they love her. Although some of them have never been managed before, others have never known a manager to truly care about them, having recently escaped what they describe as a harrowing situation.

They are hesitant to speak about him — a handful have signed nondisclosure agreements — but their relief at leaving his company is palpable. “Basically, it all started with this one manager. Well, he claimed to be a manager,” Tianna says, before stopping herself. “I don’t know if I should say.”

“I’m gonna do it,” Alex jumps in. “I have to do it. I’ve been waiting to tell this story.”

If you have ever watched videos of a famous TikToker, you may be confused as to why they’re famous at all. In November 2019, an otherwise regular 15-year-old dancer named Charli D’Amelio suddenly started appearing on the phone screens of millions of teenagers. Within a few months, she’d become the No. 1 TikTok celebrity in the world (current follower count: 89 million). To this day, when asked how she got so famous, she says she has no idea.

TikTok, with its 49 million daily users in the US, is impossibly diverse, a home for comedians and singers and witches and police officers and protesters. The TikTokers who make content together out in LA collab houses are notably less diverse, in both appearance and talent: They’re largely white, thin creators who are able to live in Los Angeles without a full-time job and whose videos mostly revolve around being conventionally attractive. In the bluntest possible terms — and with the utmost respect for the form — TikTok is teenagers making pouty faces and gyrating into a camera. But humans like staring at pretty people, as the all-powerful and secretive TikTok algorithm is well aware.

“TikTok famous” is an identifier that now applies to thousands of people (the website Famous Birthdays, which acts as an encyclopedia of celebrities, labels more than 10,000 people as TikTok stars), most of whom live otherwise normal lives. To be TikTok famous is to join an exclusive club of niche in-jokes and group chats, to feel special on the app that has become synonymous with a generation, to get rich while filming with your friends, — or at least people willing to act like your friends on camera.

Like YouTube and Instagram influencers before them, TikTok stars have been able to leverage their massive followings in the form of paid content sponsorships with brands. The highest echelon of TikTokers can charge up to $200,000 per post, but those who have follower counts in the range of 1 million to 5 million typically charge between $5,000 and $15,000. For a majority of mid-tier TikTokers, a brand deal every few months is not life-changing money, but it certainly beats the entry-level or part-time jobs typical for people their age.

This industry is still fledgling, unstandardized, and oversaturated. Behind its stars is a network of managers and newly formed talent companies ready to make money off them, and much like the TikTok celebrities they manage, the job duties are often nebulous.

“If I wanted to represent actresses and actors or I wanted to represent famous musicians, I’d have to have some type of a pedigree and knowledge in that space, or connections, which are obviously hard to attain,” explains Joe Gagliese, co-founder of the reputable influencer management company Viral Nation. “Whereas someone who’s sitting beside us right now could become an influencer agent, by just sending someone an email saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to answer your emails and make you money.’”

The typical series of events works like this: After a kid becomes suddenly micro-famous online, brands start asking them to promote their product. “That’s when the sharks come — the agencies,” Gagliese says. They’ll DM or email a prospective client, boasting their credentials and promising future sponsorship deals, which makes the influencer feel as though they’ve finally made it.

“Because they don’t usually have business acumen, the influencers will generally fall for the first person they talk to, assuming that they don’t have parents who are in business,” Gagliese says. “Then they end up signing these exclusive agreements with what could be a random dude in a house somewhere.” A manager, then, can sometimes act as a glorified robot, “negotiating” rates that have already been set, claiming they’ve scored their client a deal when they would have gotten it with or without a manager.

These contracts are often years-long and exclusive, meaning the influencer is stuck there regardless of whether the manager is doing their job. “They can either just not deliver on anything they said,” Gagliese says, “or they can start pushing [the influencer] to make as much money as fast as possible, so they start doing all these deals for small amounts of money, which actually damages the influencers’ followings. You can kill the careers of these people.”

There are whispers in the industry about which agencies are legitimate and which ones aren’t. The problem is, to an otherwise regular teenager who’s suddenly found herself with 2 million followers, they look exactly the same.

LA is the obvious choice for anyone considering a career in entertainment, even more so if you’re young and like to party. In the Before Times, TikTok meetups, where friends and strangers guest star in one another’s videos, were daily occurrences, organized in group chats or on Instagram Stories in public places like the Santa Monica Pier. Though the dream is to land somewhere like the Hills, with its lush green lawns and indecent wealthiness, cramped apartments or weird houses with hot-pink dining rooms in the Valley will do for now.

It was here, in the summer of 2019, when Alex and Emmy met a man who said his name was Chase. (Warning: As it centers on teenage TikTokers, this story will introduce several more people named Chase. I’ll do my best to differentiate them.) The pair had connected over TikTok before they landed in LA, Emmy for cosmetology school and Alex for a career in social media. Chase Zwernemann was in his early 20s and had promised them the influencer jackpot: He was building a new content collective called the Inspir3 House, where they’d enjoy lucrative deals with brands, business trips, and a paid-for LA haven to call their own.

Alex and Emmy never moved into the house, but when Nupur arrived from North Carolina in September, the Inspir3 crew, which included Alex, Emmy, Tianna, and a handful of male creators, immediately felt like family. They’d take her to beaches in Malibu, go hiking, and find cool spots around the city to film. “The first few months were really good,” Nupur says. “And then we realized we weren’t making any money and nothing that Chase was saying was happening.”

Nupur Sharma’s first few weeks at the Inspir3 House were great — until they weren’t.

Chase had quirks more experienced influencers might consider to be red flags. There were bizarre lies: He allegedly claimed to have written the lyrics to the 2007 song “Bubbly” by Colbie Caillat, when he was in middle school (the song was written by Colbie Caillat). He also was not in his 20s; Nupur had seen his ID, which revealed the was actually just 19. He was American but told them he was from Canada, and he would call his mother “mum” over the phone.

Chase’s undoing would be his own, however, once he brought someone inside his orbit who could easily fact-check all these things. Justin McWashington had grown up with Chase in a 2.7-square-mile Texas town with a population of just over 1,000 called Cut and Shoot. A few months after Chase moved to LA, he called Justin and encouraged him to come out west because he was “doing something special.” Justin visited for a week and realized LA could be his ticket out of their hometown.

“Where I come from, if you’re born there, you live there, and you die there,” Justin says. “I’m the sixth of seven children, so I’m not going to be the one that stays there, too.”

The lifestyle Chase promised Justin wasn’t what he found when he returned to LA in the fall. He was told he’d be living in a paid-for apartment but arrived at a one-story, four-bedroom house in Woodland Hills, about 15 minutes west of Sherman Oaks, crammed with 12 of Chase’s other clients. He slept on the couch while Nupur was on an air mattress, and at the end of the month, they were told they needed to pay rent — not atypical for collab houses, but not what Chase had originally communicated to Justin.

By the end of October, the Inspir3 House started to turn on its founder. “I’ve known him forever, so when he started telling all these lies, I was sure to tell everybody to protect themselves,” Justin says. Nupur says they’d have meetings during which Chase would talk for hours about what was going to happen with their careers — he’d allegedly promised lucrative sponsorship deals and a potential reality show. A charity called U R the Future had reached out to hire the members to do activities, such as cleaning up beaches and handing out pizzas to homeless people, and then post the videos on their social channels, but Chase allegedly asked the house members to pay for things the charity was supposed to have covered (for instance, the pizza). U R the Future eventually pulled out.

Nupur also says all the money she earned during her stay with Inspir3 came from her own TikTok livestreams, where viewers would send her digital gifts that could be transferred to cash, without any help from Chase. That was, until CBS reached out for a brand promotion: Nupur was nervous to negotiate with such a large company, so she forwarded the email to Chase, who set the payment to $1,500 with a 15 percent fee. But Nupur never got the money, even as Chase badgered her for his 15 percent. She eventually found out he had CBS pay his PayPal account instead of hers, and when she confronted him, he claimed his PayPal account wasn’t working. She says she still hasn’t gotten the money.

The last straw came in January, when Chase took the gang to Las Vegas. He told them he had connections there, and that by the time they returned they’d have enough money to fund a bigger and better content house. This quickly proved to be another lie: One of the proposed ways for the group to get cash was to send two brothers in the collective, Ajani Huff-House and Davonte House, to dance on the street for tips, which they did. Nupur estimates they made about $50.

He told Nupur she’d make the most out of all of them. “He didn’t tell me what I was going to do until he said he wanted me to strip,” she says. “I think he just thought that I would have to go to a club and be like, ‘Hey, can I start tomorrow?’” she laughs darkly.

“I was like, ‘That’s not happening.’ And then he goes, ‘What? I thought you wanted to?’ I was like, ‘What? When did I say that I wanted to do that?’” Nupur recalls. “I am a video creator, I am a social media influencer. There is no way in hell I am stripping.”

The members of the Inspir3 House had packed for a two-week trip, but on the fifth day, they sat Chase down for a meeting in their hotel room, where all but one, a close friend of Chase’s, collectively fired him as their manager. “He started crying, not because all of us were leaving him,” Nupur says. “He was just hurt that the boys [Ajani and Davonte] left him, especially the ones he did make money off of.”

Justin and Chase, who once attended the same small-town church, didn’t speak for months. Chase moved on to a different content house, one associated with “the most lawyered-up people that I know,” Justin says ominously. As an up-and-coming TikToker, he is, understandably, hesitant to speak out against someone with powerful friends. “How do you take someone down that’s going to ruin your future?” he asks. “If you fuck him over, you’re done.”

To answer a glaring question: No, collab houses don’t really make any money. It is not a wise business decision, per se, for a management company to spend lavishly on rent solely because fans like seeing their favorite TikTokers hanging out together.

Collab houses, instead, are meant to be a gateway to something much more lucrative: reality TV stardom and, consequently, the elite brand sponsorships that come with it. The business plan is not unique to digital influencers; in fact, it’s a model perfected by the Kardashians, beautiful people who let reality cameras into their homes, overshare on social media, and make hundreds of millions of dollars selling lip gloss. From 2016 to 2019, the influencer economy jumped from $1.7 billion to $6.6 billion.

That, ultimately, is the goal for every creator house, where the line between “serious business” and “a group of friends renting a house together” can be quite thin: to build a brand that lasts longer than the whims of where a college-age kid wants to live at any given moment. The members themselves may change, but managers hope to create a rotating cast of influencers supporting a single cause, similar to the way contestants on The Bachelor circulate in and out, entering the mansion as regular people and leaving as professional influencers. Teenagers grow up, after all.

All the major content houses are somewhere in the process of producing a television show, and most have merchandise and monetizable YouTube channels. One collab house called the Clubhouse — which sets itself apart from others by the fact that it is in Beverly Hills — was designed to be the first of a series of content houses, each acting as a way to test the success of new brands. There would be a gaming house, a music house, and a house for up-and-coming influencers called Clubhouse Next, plus studio space and dozens of apparel and lifestyle labels that their creators would promote.

The Clubhouse, like a surprisingly high number of content houses, was born from a dispute between the founders of a different one — the Hype House, whose members enjoyed newfound notoriety in the mainstream media after the New York Times published a splashy article and photo shoot about them in January. Overnight, the collective was everywhere: in national newspapers and magazines, on the Today show and Entertainment Tonight. But a feud was brewing among its three co-founders over who actually owned the rights to the name. One of them, 20-year-old influencer Daisy Keech, posted a video on March 30 announcing she was launching the Clubhouse, a swanky haven for professionally taut Instagram models.

Backed by a New York real estate developer named Amir Ben-Yohanan, the company behind the Clubhouse ultimately wanted to be something akin to a Soho House but for influencers, where membership would rotate like artists in residence. By May it had invested $3 million into the brand, now among the most visibly flashy and professional-seeming creator collectives operating today.

It’s why I was surprised that, when I emailed Chase at his Inspir3 House email address, he responded to say he’s working at Clubhouse. Now the collective’s VP of talent and music, he denied asking Nupur to strip for money or suggesting the boys dance on the street. The problems, he claimed, were the result of a series of “investors” who either ghosted or scammed him; he also said he’d never had access to the PayPal account that CBS paid for Nupur’s sponsorship deal.

“The events which allegedly took place and transpired in the Inspir3 content house were out of my control,” he wrote. “You have to understand from the perspective of an independent manager, with no support structure in place.” He did not deny the other allegations, and he refused to share proof of his age.

Chase is a product of an industry that grants ill-equipped individuals access to aspiring stars and their money. Many people I spoke with expressed concerns about inexperienced, aspiring entrepreneurs portraying themselves as well-connected managers, then ending up in over their heads.

2019’s Lights Out Summer Tour, operated by a company called Vivid Management, is alleged to have underpaid its stars. Fifteen-year-old TikToker Cynthia Parker, who spent about a month and a half traveling around North America with the Lights Out tour, says that thousands of attendees at each stop paid upwards of $100 to meet their favorite influencers, mostly teenage boys with big TikTok followings. She doesn’t remember the exact amount, but she says she only made about $600 for the entire multi-week trip, although lodging and food were paid for. “I feel like I’m more in it for the experience rather than the money, but there was definitely something going on,” Cynthia says.

Justin McWashington was tapped as the de facto “house mom” of Girls in the Valley.

Low-budget influencer tours often take place at event spaces around the country, some of which essentially amount to stars posing with elementary- and middle school-age fans in front of a step-and-repeat inside a hotel ballroom. “There’s no care for the quality of the product, whether it’s touring or these houses,” said an industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging professional relationships. “The productions are very, very minimal: ‘What barebones thing do we need to do to call this a meet-and-greet?’” Vivid Management did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Chase Keith, a 17-year-old comedy creator who was also part of the Lights Out tour, says he, too, was surprised by how little he was paid for the long days spent meeting fans with very few breaks. But the tour was far from the worst experience he’s had with managers in the industry. When he was younger, as a burgeoning star on TikTok’s predecessor, he met a manager through a social media friend who he claims soon became emotionally abusive. He says the manager would text him incessantly, yell at him when he took two-minute breaks during long days at meet-and-greets, and often make inappropriate comments. “When we were at Playlist [Live, a creator convention], he was wanting to get me a stripper or something. It was stuff like that,” Chase says.

Chase said he later found out the manager was a registered sex offender (Vox was not able to independently confirm this). Since then, he’s never signed to another manager. “It was a very, very stressful point in my life,” he says.

Although the most famous TikTokers in LA are typically 18 or older, social media has complicated child labor laws that protect kid performers. There are regulations for how long minors are allowed to work at a time and requirements that a percentage of the money go into a trust for the child, but as of yet, there is no law in the US that directly addresses child influencers on social media.

“Where are their parents?” is a question one could understandably ask at many points while reading about the lives of professional TikTokers. Chase Keith explains that as soon as social media became his job, there grew a level of trust within his family that others might find surprising. “I make my own revenue sources, so my mom trusts me,” he says. “I’m different from all these other people. I don’t do bad things. I stay out of trouble.”

Chase did join a content house, albeit briefly. When it launched this spring, he was asked to be part of the Clubhouse but left by early summer. He says there are no hard feelings; the audience gap between the female members, mostly in their early 20s, and the male members, largely in their late teens, made it difficult for the collective to prioritize individual projects. He’s now focusing on his last year of high school in Orange County, away from the drama in the Valley. “I’ve seen so many people get cocky and just change completely,” he says. “I just hope that kids who moved to LA to be TikTokers, do your research.”

The plans for the Girls in the Valley house, like the plans for almost everything, were curtailed by the arrival of the coronavirus. The official launch party made it just under the wire: On March 12, Ari worked her connections to convince Doja Cat to headline a Boohoo-sponsored event hosted at the LA celebrity hot spot the Sugar Factory.

Already the house had evolved since my visit in February. Emmy was splitting her time between Girls in the Valley and Rihanna’s splashy new Fenty Beauty TikTok house. A handful of new members — including Justin, who was hired as an unofficial house manager — had also been added. But with sponsorship opportunities drying up amid shrinking advertising budgets, money was tight.

And there was a new house guest: Alex’s boyfriend, Ethan Grey, who’d made a name for himself throwing parties hosted by his fledgling company, Young Finesse Kids. Located at surprise locations in the Valley, Young Finesse Kids parties marketed themselves as rowdy, exclusive, and, as the name suggests, for young kids, 21 and under.

The Valentine’s Day-themed party I went to before the world changed proved as much. I arrived at the gravel lot next to a warehouse, located deep in an industrial neighborhood, around midnight on a Saturday, LA TikTokers having told me it was the place to be. The dress code was LA content creator: hoodies, slinky streetwear, Instagram makeup, all worn by people probably not old enough to drink. Multiple couples arrived in not only matching outfits but also with precisely the same shade of neon hair. (It’s a thing, I’d learned days earlier; a strategy to gain followers together. They’re referred to as “couple goals” accounts.)

Outside of the dizzyingly high follower counts, it wouldn’t have looked much different from an average frat party. A manager and his client, a bubbly woman in Terry Richardson eyeglasses and a red satin minidress who works in porn, waited in line for $5 cups of vodka mixed with something orange and sugary. Later, a boy was introduced as having “600K on TikTok — he’s getting there!” Shortly thereafter, a few TikTokers took the stage and ripped a cartoonishly fat blunt.

Ari had misgivings about Ethan. She recounted one instance during quarantine where he was smoking weed with two men she didn’t know in one of the bedrooms at the house, which led to her calling the police. Her frustration with the members themselves was also beginning to grow. In April, Bella and her mother Tamara, the house’s owners, had waived the rent for her tenants due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Ari suspected this meant that they felt they no longer needed her. “It was starting to get really toxic, and I just felt like the girls were not on my side as much anymore,” she told me in May. “It’s like when you tell your mom, ‘You’re not paying for me anymore, so I don’t give a shit, I’m moving out.’” One of them did: In May, Alex left with Ethan to launch the Young Finesse Kids house, which he created after the coronavirus put the party business on hold.

Drama among content creators is part of their appeal; there are entire industries devoted to influencer gossip, and both stars and managers know that with a certain amount of controversy can come a certain amount of clout. In March, Sway House members Josh Richards and Bryce Hall released a diss track called “Still Softish” about Hype House member Chase Hudson’s penis; they then claimed they’d made up four days later. (As of press time, they were back to feuding.)

There are inter-house relationships (Bryce was or maybe still is dating the Hype House’s Addison Rae), buzzy breakups (Chase Hudson and Charli D’Amelio’s April split was reported by every celebrity news outlet), and frequent scandals, like when some of the Sway House boys traveled to Texas during quarantine and were arrested on drug charges there, or when Josh’s now ex-girlfriend accidentally made a TikTok dance to the Quran.

Feuding is a given in an industry where the barrier to entry is relatively low and each week brings word of a new creator collective. From the time I started reporting to the time I finished, almost every house had lost or gained major members: The D’Amelio sisters left the Hype House to pursue their own projects, and two marquee members of Sway House announced they were taking a hiatus in May. The Fenty Beauty house was shut down due to the pandemic. Neighbors of other content houses are now publicly airing their grievances over disruptive, “frat-like behavior.”

Managers and founders, too, are ditching houses they’d started only months before. Daisy Keech announced in August she would be leaving the Clubhouse and content collectives for good; a talent manager named Diomi Cordero who briefly worked at Ari’s company, Influences, started his own collab house that also fell apart within months. He says he no longer believes in the content house model.

Alex Youmazzo, after joining three such houses in one year, would eventually swear off content collectives altogether.

In June, Ari told me, this time over the phone with a publicist and in a manner markedly less candid than her typical effusiveness, that the Girls in the Valley were pivoting. Instead of a temporary stopping point for early-career TikTokers, she wanted the house to act as a set for a forthcoming reality show about local influencers. Casting was in progress, but the members were meant to be an all-new group of girls, ones who “we feel strongly about in terms of work ethic, morals, creativity, and integrity,” she said.

It is, however, unlikely that this show will ever come to fruition. Since we spoke, the Girls in the Valley house has all but disappeared. Multiple former clients — including Brittany Tomlinson, who skyrocketed to fame after a video of herself trying kombucha for the first time went viral — have accused Ari and her company of withholding money. Tomlinson told the New York Times and confirmed to Vox that she filed a complaint with the California Labor Commission alleging that Influences is withholding more than $23,000 in fees and operating as a talent agency without a license. Ari wrote to Vox that “ultimately the labor commission will have to decide whether I owe her anything — and I’m extremely confident that they will conclude that I do not.”

“Things spiraled,” Tianna Singer says when I finally reach her after months of silence from the former Girls in the Valley members. She told me that from the beginning, Ari had warned them not to talk to me without her present, but now they were willing to tell me directly what had happened.

Their story was a familiar one. Ari had promised her clients everything they’d wanted: They’d make tons of money, get lots of press, and secure the coveted “verified” badge on their social media platforms. There would be mentorships with entertainment industry veterans, brand sponsorships, and a Netflix show that would document it all.

But the money, as it so often does, never showed up. Ari had often advised the girls to do unpaid sponsorships for brands, explaining it was a business strategy she learned from Gary Vaynerchuk called “jab, jab, jab, right hook.” The idea was that you’d give away your services a few times before making one large ask, but to the young women she managed, it felt unfair.

“It’s not like we could say no, because conversations were almost always explosive with Ari if she wasn’t getting her way or someone stood up to her,” Tianna says.

“I was there for a good five months living in the house. We didn’t earn a dime,” Nupur adds.

Multiple former Girls in the Valley members, some of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal action, say Influences has been withholding from them between two and three thousand dollars apiece. Ari, meanwhile, wrote to The Goods that “the reality is that some of the creators did not create enough quality content when they agreed to deals, or they changed their rates once we locked in a deal.”

There were other issues, including the fact that Ari installed a Ring security camera in the kitchen; when it was unplugged, they say she would text the group asking why they did it. Justin says that in May, she shared his cellphone location with herself while he was asleep, and he only realized it weeks later. One former client, who ran a different content house that Ari was involved with, accused her of leaking his nude photos. “She would be texting us until as late as 4 in the morning, just ranting, and then she would show up at the house at night with guests,” Tianna says.

Dayna Marie, who lived in the Girls in the Valley house from March to May of this year, says that when the utilities at the house were shut off in April, Ari refused to deal with the problem. “Ari said that she wasn’t going to put her name on [the lease] and that it was up to us to figure out whose name to put on it,” Dayna adds.

Ari said she’d moved out in March, when she was sick with what she thinks was Covid-19, which is why she felt it wasn’t her responsibility to deal with the utilities. The camera, she says, was to keep an eye on underage drinking in the house, but she claims she was never able to use it because the wifi was too unstable.

“I thought she would change, and circumstances would change,” Nupur says of her decision to stay in the house after some of the others left in May. “That never ended up happening.” In June, she says, Ari gave her, Justin, and Tianna less than a day to get out, on the grounds they weren’t posting enough content.

The move-out process did not go smoothly. On June 16, two days after they were told to leave, Justin, Nupur, and Tianna were still hauling out their belongings when Ari arrived and threatened to call the police for trespassing. In response, Nupur started livestreaming the argument to her social media channels. Ari then recorded them in return.

“That’s when she got fired up,” Justin says. “I’ve never seen someone so pissed.” What followed was an hours-long argument resulting in multiple calls to the police from both sides. “I was like, ‘Who are you to tell us that we can’t go live? We can do whatever you want, it’s our phone, it’s our account,’” Nupur recalls. “Then she made a big scene and was like, ‘Whatever, I’m going to call the cops.’ And we were like, ‘No, Ari. Guess what? We’re gonna call the cops on you because you are harassing us.’”

“When she realized the cameras were on, she tried to be like, ‘Guys, I’m here alone, I can’t do this,’ and tried to play the victim card,” Tianna says. “I was like, ‘No one is physically harming you. No one is attacking you. What is simply happening right now is everyone is listing off every wrong you have done business-wise.’”

The Girls in the Valley house was over. To hear Ari describe it, the reason was because its members had failed to do their jobs despite her efforts to guide their careers. To the members, Ari was an ill-equipped, irresponsible, and at times unstable manager.

It is possible that as the world of TikTok influencers grows, it will become better for the people on both sides. Legacy entertainment companies are quickly snatching up social media stars and their collectives: The Hype House, or what remains of it, is represented by WME, while the Sway House has a deal with ICM Partners. It could be the sign of a future in which influencer management firms either grow to the size where they’re able to compete with the big corporations or get bought by them. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; if anything, more professionalism could offer some standardization for content creators who are not protected by major Hollywood unions. It’s also possible it could make the LA TikTok scene a little less messy, even when the messiness is part of the draw.

Their TikTok feeds still look the way they used to: Alex, Emmy, Tianna, Nupur, Dayna, and Justin still post videos of the good life even though they no longer live together, lounging on swan pool floats and doing trendy dances for their millions of followers. Tianna is currently staying in an Airbnb with a handful of other creators but says she doesn’t want to sign to a manager or agency. Nupur is staying with her boyfriend Davonte, of the former Inspir3 House. Alex and Dayna have no interest in being a part of anything like Girls in the Valley again. “Content houses don’t work,” Alex says. She’s no longer with Ethan and lives by herself.

In August, Emmy announced she had joined the Clubhouse as a makeup artist in residence, where she’s free to bring in clients while working on the models who live there. “If I were just a content creator, I wouldn’t go to any other house,” she says. “I was so done with them.”

Being at the Clubhouse, however, means she is now the roommate of a familiar face: Chase, the founder of the defunct Inspir3 House. In fact, Emmy, Alex, and Dayna are friends with him again. “It was a misunderstanding,” Alex explains. “We talked it out. All of us are looking back and made friends with the people we were enemies with.”

As almost everyone in this story has become increasingly famous over the past six months, they, too, became more difficult to reach for the purposes of reporting this story. Alliances have shifted, lawyers consulted. With fame comes more to lose, less need for publicity outside of your control. Now, facing the threat of a US ban on the world’s most efficient celebrity machine, thousands of careers could be on the line. TikTokers are forging backup plans and YouTube channels, because for those outside the TikTok A-list, the possibility it could all go away is ever more real.

It’s worth considering, though, whether the potential fame is worth what it has taken to get there: living in cramped apartments with unstable living conditions, low and inconsistent pay, dealing with disappointing or even allegedly abusive mentors, and being swept up into toxic friendships that may or may not be based on anything real. This is how many college-age kids live, but most do not have millions of middle schoolers dissecting their personal lives from their bedrooms.

There is a creeping sense of burnout from many LA TikTokers I’ve spoken to, that their sense of identity is so tied up in the numbers on the screen that any drop in view counts or followers is tantamount to an existential catastrophe. They feel boxed in by the content that made them famous, and they’re too scared of alienating their followers to try anything new. Their sense of competition toward fellow creators is not dissimilar from what every young person beginning their life feels; it’s just multiplied by the millions.

“Influencer,” of course, remains high among the most coveted professions for teenagers today. From afar their lives look lush and full, surrounded by beautiful people in beautiful places, simply because the job demands it. They are people whose career is curating their image online, mini brand ambassadors selling themselves. Out of frame are the hungry managers and fellow creators willing to sell them out at a moment’s notice.

“I’m 19 and I’m going through this,” Tianna says. “I can’t imagine a 16-year-old that went to bed with 1,000 followers and woke up with a million and has Ari in their email, promising them a modeling contract from the biggest agency in New York. I don’t want them to go through what we did.”

I asked Tianna what kept her chasing the dream of social media stardom in Los Angeles, after all she and her friends had been through in just the past half a year. “No matter how many times someone tries to take something that I love from me, they’re never going to win,” she replied. “I saw this opportunity to go have fun online and make money that I would be able to give back to my family.” She hopes that one day, she’ll be able to buy them a house of their own.

ntribute today from as little as $3.

Donald Trump

Trump is suddenly in need of a lot of cash. That’s everyone’s problem.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will decide if the government can seize control of YouTube and Twitter


Why Lyft and Uber drivers did their largest strike ever

View all stories in Money

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.