Loren Gray has 40 million TikTok followers — more than any other account on the app — and she's only 17. But, in her words, she's been doing this a long time. Since middle school, in fact, when she got her start on Musical.ly. And as a result, her fame certainly isn't isolated to just her TikTok throne. The social media star turned card-carrying Gen Z icon has followings in the millions across YouTube and Instagram, a burgeoning singing career, and a loyal fanbase called the "Angel Squad." She's also fresh off a cameo in Taylor Swift's "The Man" music video, as well as a Betsey Johnson prom collection collab. Ahead, we spoke to the almost-18-year-old as part of her partnership with Betsey Johnson about her rise to fame on TikTok, how her approach to keeping up with the app's trends has evolved over time, and her favourite TikTokers to watch.
Refinery29: What was it like for you when Musical.ly transitioned to TikTok?
Loren Gray: I don't think anyone really knew what to expect. It took a while for the app to transition to what it is now, and I actually think that there was a period of maybe five or six months where everyone was just trying to figure it out. Then more meme and dancing content started coming out and that ended up being what the app turned into — but initially everyone was just really confused before getting the hang of it. I didn't post for like five or six months because I was like, What am I supposed to do on here?
What does making a living on TikTok entail? What's a part of your job that people don't know about?
I've been doing this since I was 13, and for so many years I was so regimented and had to post this many videos a day. I feel like I'm at the point now where — it's not that I don't care as much, because I do — but I do it more for fun and more for myself. And I feel like that's what TikTok is now anyways. It's more organic, and there's no template for what makes a good video. You never really know what's going to do well, and I try not to think about that anymore because I was wrapped up so much in it for so long. It can be really stressful if you let it, and I feel like people don't really realize that, because you have to come up with original content every day or learn a new dance or keep up with a new trend. But I've kind of gotten past that, which is great.
What kind of TikTok content are you into the most right now?
I like the dance trends — those are always fun. I dance all the time even outside of TikTok, so it fits in with stuff that I like to do. And anything funny — if I hear audio that I think is funny, I'll use it. The other day I posted one that's from Step Brothers. I randomly got the idea because my friend and I were sitting in two twin beds in a hotel room and I was like, "Oh my god this reminds me of that one scene from Step Brothers." I recorded it from YouTube and uploaded a video of us to TikTok. If something comes to me, then I'll do it. But if I'm not inspired one day, I just don't post, and that's kind of the way I live my life.
You have 40 million TikTok followers and counting. What do you attribute that to?
I think there's this weird line that you have to walk where you're conforming to what the trends are and also keeping a sense of self — so I think I kind of toe that line of, Okay, yes I'm going to participate in these trends but I'm going to make it my own and do it my own way. That's what has helped me a lot. I've always kind of kept up with what's happening and what's popular, but also maintained a sense of self throughout it.
I haven't had a typical childhood — I've been doing this since I was in middle school, so it's kind of all I know.
Have you ever shared something on TikTok or another social platform that you've regretted or wished you hadn't posted?
Oh, all the time. If you think about it, I haven't had a typical childhood — I've been doing this since I was in middle school, so it's kind of all I know, and I feel like I've made so many mistakes that have been publicized. I have had to grow and unfortunately learn by mistakes. But I don't know if I necessarily regret anything, because part of my story is that people have gotten to see me grow in such a public way. I'm almost 18 now, and I started when I was 13, so I feel like I've grown and changed so much and people have gotten to see that for themselves.
Who are some of your favourite TikTokers right now?
I mostly watch my friends or I watch Charli [D'Amelio] and Addison [Rae] and all the Hype House kids. I love watching my friend Brooke's videos. I like seeing what other people in my circle and my peers post, and then I mostly just watch the For You page.
Why do you think TikTok, in particular, is so resonant for Gen Z, and what makes it such a good platform for what you do?
There's a lot of Gen Z humour on the app, and the topics that end up trending are very Gen Z topics to talk about. It's a very similar humour that everyone has, and there's a big sense of community on there. It's really cool seeing so many people in my age range have so much in common, and it's a good platform for sharing those things.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by how many people follow you?
Not really — it's been so gradual that I don't really realize the magnitude of it. But it is crazy when I go to another country and there are people waiting at the airport for me to come out. That's when you kind of realize, Oh, there's a lot of people who know who I am and a lot of people who care. You don't really realize that when you're sitting in your house posting videos, but it becomes really real when you see it in person.
In the year 2020, what does the word “influencer" even mean? In our new series Ask An Influencer, we're talking to TikTok stars, YouTube creators, sponcon models, and more about the questions followers really want answers to — the ones that don't get answered in the comments section.