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The D’Amelio kids are not all right

Their new show on Hulu shows the great American paradox of winning the fame lottery.

Charli D’Amelio on The D’Amelio Show.
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.

More than halfway through the first season of The D’Amelio Show, a new Hulu docuseries on the day-to-day lives of 17-year-old TikToker Charli D’Amelio and her family, Charli’s mother Heidi says something to the producer that sums up the entire premise of the show. “TikTok is great for introverts,” she says. “They get to just be.”

Because Charli, as viewers will learn quickly, is an introvert, and deeply uncomfortable with the gravity of her life. Nearly two years ago, the then-15-year-old hit the TikTok jackpot simply by posting videos of herself dancing alone in her bedroom, and since then, she’s become the most followed person on the app, filling the role of approachable, aspirational girl-next-door for millions of young fans. (Current follower count: 124 million; current estimated net worth: $8 million.) Her older, edgier sister Dixie is a famous influencer in her own right, as are their parents Marc and Heidi. As long as Charli D’Amelio has been a household name, questions about whether she “deserves it” have followed, despite the fact she never really asked for it in the first place.

Yet Charli also comes from a family with enough money, acumen, and industry smarts to take the opportunities that come with being the most popular girl on TikTok and turn them into a lucrative career. Therefore, within that same two years, Charli has written and released a book and a podcast, created a fashion line with Hollister, lent her name to makeup products and been the face of several different brand campaigns, launched a ring light business, invented her own Dunkin’ drink, and now, let a camera crew inside her life to document it all. Up close, it’s not pretty.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the things Charli says over the course of the eight-episode series:

  • “I feel like I’ve had a constant anxiety attack for the past four years.”
  • “I am physically and mentally exhausted.”
  • “I don’t know how long anyone expects me to keep going as if nothing is wrong.”
  • “My job is never over.”
  • “Dance used to be the most fun thing in my life and now I don’t like it. Social media has robbed me of that.”
  • “Twenty years from now, this is gonna be the happiest time of my life.”

It’s a startlingly dark show, and that’s on purpose. The concept is explicitly an exercise in “social media versus real life,” meant to create contrast between Charli’s sunny, confident image in her online dance videos and how she is in person: fidgety, anxious, and terrified, her voice only rarely rising above a whisper. As snippets of the D’Amelios’ lives play out — Dixie records new music, Charli trains for a dance competition — the screen floods with comments and tweets from the Greek chorus of anonymous internet users, sometimes sending praise but other times death threats. We hear Heidi and Marc’s concerns about what all this attention and pressure might be doing to their already very fragile children; in an especially meta and heartbreaking moment, we watch Dixie sob over hate comments while her parents assure viewers that she wanted the cameras to capture it.

The show amounts to a successful attempt at humanizing the recipients of accidental fortune, like an E! documentary about cursed lottery winners or musicians struggling with substance abuse, where the audience is meant to realize, “Damn, maybe money and fame won’t fix all my problems.” Though it follows a familiar reality show formula pioneered by the Kardashians — pretty people lounging around minimalist California mansions in tie-dyed sweat sets — that’s essentially where the similarities end. Kim and co., for example, had lived their entire lives adjacent to the Hollywood machine and savvily manufactured their status as America’s first family over the course of a decade, whereas The D’Amelio Show captures a teenager desperately trying to remain functional while a well-greased fame apparatus churns around her. According to the series, the only thing that would be worse than if it all went away tomorrow is if it all stayed the same.

The D’Amelio Show won’t fix the internet, of course — people have already spammed its IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes pages with 1-star reviews out of a knee-jerk need to hate — but the reception so far has been mostly refreshing. TikTok creators and commenters are reflecting on their own experiences with the tougher sides of social media and burnout, and how they appreciated the show despite never giving Charli D’Amelio too much thought. There’s still plenty of criticism directed at Marc and Heidi for uprooting their “normal” lives in Connecticut to pursue influencerhood full time, arguing that all the projects Charli works on are nothing but a “money grab” — which, well, yes, but the show mostly elides discussion of cash in favor of the girls’ mental health. “Don’t fall into their trap,” reads one comment on a TikTok reaction to the show. “They’re rich and problematic why feel bad?” reads another.

Why feel bad, indeed. I’m reminded of a frequent refrain from one of my favorite podcasters, Michael Hobbes of You’re Wrong About, which is that fame, at least as it operates in this country, is fundamentally immoral. Social media has fueled much of this realization: Now that we can (theoretically) hear directly from famous people themselves, it’s much easier to view them as human. Over the past few years, there’s been somewhat of a reckoning against predatory tabloid culture, particularly in the case of Britney Spears, who was the same age as Charli when she got famous and, currently, is still fighting a contentious legal battle against her father. Yet young celebrities today must continue to deal with many of the same problems while also receiving constant negative feedback from the digital crowd, often without the tools to cope.

Charli, thankfully, seems to have a large, solid support system: the D’Amelios clearly love one another fiercely, and the girls both have tight-knit friendships with other influencers. They will, it seems, be fine, as long as they have each other. What scares me most about The D’Amelio Show is all the other winners of the TikTok lottery, the ones who don’t come with a savvy and well-connected family, who don’t have parents who try to prioritize the girls’ well-being as much as professionally possible, the ones who definitely won’t be landing a reality show. It scares me, above all, that it took all that for a teenage girl to get some damn empathy.

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