How I Make £100s A Day Doing Nothing

"If you had told me a year ago that I'd be making money by streaming globally, talking to people online, I would have laughed. I would have been like, 'Me? Absolutely no chance.'" Thirty-one-year-old Peggy Ahmadi Dehkiani is generally quite shy. Her Instagram profile is private and before last year she’d never considered broadcasting any part of her life online.
"I’ve lived in London for six years and had always worked in an office-based job," says Peggy. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. At the beginning of the first lockdown, she was made redundant. "Like a lot of people, I was looking for work when I saw a friend’s Instagram story saying, 'If you want to make some money from the comfort of your own home, get in touch now.' So I did." Peggy’s friend introduced her to a talent manager who was scouting for livestreamers to work on a Singaporean platform called BIGO Live
Livestreaming – where hosts go 'live' to chat, perform and interact with commenters who send tips and donations in real time – has long been popular in Asia, particularly China, where the audience for livestreams grew to almost 560 million in 2020. 
Most streamers have their niche – some are singers, others dance or do makeup, though arguably the beauty of the medium is that it gives viewers unfiltered access to a streamer’s life – and beyond showcasing any particular talent, the most popular streamers seem to share a knack for storytelling (it is no mean feat to fill hours with off-the-cuff anecdotes and small talk; to do it well enough to be tipped up to $250 by any one viewer is a true skill). Bloomberg recently reported on a growing trend of Chinese farmers livestreaming their bucolic routines. Journalist Selina Xu wrote: "More than 100,000 farmers streamed 2.52 million sessions on Alibaba Group’s Taobao Live [China’s biggest streaming platform] in the year ended in March ... livestreamers say the secret to success is ... the entertainment of watching unique rustic personalities." 
When I download the app to see for myself, I find that BIGO borders on overstimulating. Think of it as Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing in digital form – thousands of people talking at once, their faces overlaid with flashing cartoons and symbols, rolling feeds of text conversation and gifts pinging across the screen. You can slide into any livestream and follow the streamers that you like. Then, much like Instagram, the app sends you a notification whenever the streamer goes live. 

I now have around 35,000 fans from all over the world. Singing is my main focus so I try to do that most days, though sometimes I just laugh and joke, I dance or do handstands – they find it funny if I make a fool out of myself.

nicolE, 22
Peggy generally does 'getting ready for the day' makeup streams ("I’m a trained makeup artist," she explains) and what she calls 'storytimes'. "I try to create a narrative in my streams so that people keep coming back – I want it to be entertaining and interesting for my viewers otherwise what’s the point?" she says. "Sometimes I cook in front of the camera or I go out with my friends and just have my phone streaming it all. It’s like Gogglebox, people like to watch other people." 
"I didn’t even know what livestreaming was, really," Peggy says. "But the agency were offering a flat fee of around £400 if I completed 30 hours of streaming and reached a certain threshold in tips each month... Any tips that I earned on top of that I would get to keep." 
In her first month Peggy made just over the minimum flat fee. "I think I got around £600," she explains. In her second month she made £1,500; in her third, £2,000. "I didn’t realise it would build up so quickly," she says.
For 22-year-old Nicole Carter, livestreaming has proven to be a lifeline after her music career was derailed by COVID. "I always wanted to be a pop star, as cliche as it sounds. I still do," she smiles. Like Peggy she was approached by an agent who was recruiting livestreamers for BIGO. "I’d quit my full-time job to join a girl band but then the band fell apart and I was completely devastated. When BIGO came along [in November last year], that became my new focus." Now livestreaming is her only job and she streams for up to four hours a day, six days a week. 
"I see it as virtual busking," she says. "I now have around 35,000 fans on the app, who are from all over the world. Singing is my main focus so I try to do that most days, though sometimes I just laugh and joke, I dance or do handstands – they find it funny if I make a fool out of myself." Like Peggy, Nicole can earn anything between £200 and £2,000 a month in tips. A successful stream leaves her on a high, she tells me. "You feel on top of the world, you feel accomplished and loved by everyone."
Before the pandemic, livestreaming had gained relatively little traction in Western markets. "I think that’s because, up until recently, there hasn’t been a platform where the sole focus is livestreaming," says Jessica Varia, an agent for AM Agency, a talent management company which represents broadcasters like Peggy and Nicole. 
Two years ago AM was contracted by BIGO to recruit and train UK-based livestreamers who would draw more Brits (and Westerners in general) to the platform. At the time BIGO had just been bought by the Chinese livestreaming giant YY in a deal reportedly worth more than $1.45 billion. YY’s chief executive Dong Rongjie said of their expansion plans at the time: "We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets."
"Platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where you can livestream if you want to, were mainly established for other purposes," Jessica adds. "There’s Twitch, but that’s very gaming-focused." Though BIGO also has a gaming section, Jessica argues, it promotes streamers from multiple disciplines whose content might focus on anything from what they ate today to dance routines or mental health. "So it’s quite different and much more diverse than just gaming." 
It is a testament to the growing popularity of the medium that it supports an ecosystem of agencies, like the one Jessica works for. "We scout the hosts," explains Jessica. "Sign them up, audition them, train them and basically guide them throughout. It's been really successful... We've signed up quite a lot of people."
Sign-ups skyrocketed during lockdown last year, Jessica adds, "because, of course, people were out of jobs and at home very bored. And this is an amazing opportunity. You get to work from home, to livestream and also get paid for it. It's a good app to kickstart a career in social media."
In his 2021 New York Times documentary short Love Factory, director David Borenstein follows popular Chinese livestreamer Jin He as she attempts – with the help of her agency – to break into the 'top tier' of streamers. "When Jin He first came to us, she was on our minimum salary of $120 a month," says her agent. "Now she receives $30,000 to $45,000 worth of donations each month." Alongside donations, in China top tier streamers can partner with brands to earn millions for a single livestream in which they might, say, model a fashion brand’s new line (and sell the clothes in real time). 
But as with anything in the wild world of social media, the gap between the top tier of creators and those scrambling to make it is wide and paved with financial and moral ambiguities. Most of the streamers in Borenstein’s documentary (all of whom are women) seem to work relentlessly for relatively little reward. 
The mechanics of livestreaming are simple enough to understand – viewers tip hosts when they feel they are being entertained – but the more time you spend on platforms like BIGO Live, the more you wonder what the streamers are actually selling. Because while Peggy and Nicole take their roles as entertainers seriously, many other streamers sit passively onscreen, saying little and waiting for viewers to tip them anyway. And the more time I spend scrolling through these types of streams, the more difficult it is to understand what is being exchanged. 

Modesty is a prerequisite. Nothing low-cut or even showing off my arms. It would be against my contract.

Peggy, 31
One broadcaster who looks to be in her early 20s mouths along to hip hop while telling her viewers – 490 and counting – that they can get her Instagram handle for free but for her Snap they’ll have to pay a fee. She leans forward and twerks briefly. "It’s half price at the moment," she drawls. The next video is a woman in her 40s. "It’s just me, no makeup today, just totally natural," she says. "Hello Elli, hey Mohammed," she greets the fans who enter the stream, their names and messages rolling up from the bottom of the screen then disappearing. "Thank you for the gift," she giggles. "I only follow back my gifters," she says. Next is a softly spoken woman in a body-con dress. There is a TV playing just out of shot; she half watches between answering her fans. One asks her to stand up so that he can see how tall she is. "You can gift if you want me to stand up, darling," she says, raising an HD brow and casting her eyes back to the TV.
"Ugh, I’ve done 31 minutes, I might jump off," the next streamer is saying as she drags on a vape. "Regulate" by Warren G plays in the background. "Gift me now if you want me to stay on," she says with little enthusiasm.
"Modesty is a prerequisite," says Peggy. Livestreaming is not OnlyFans or camming; there’s no nudity in any of the streams I see and Peggy explains that there are rules about what streamers can wear. "Nothing low-cut or even showing off my arms," she says. "It would be against my contract." She concedes that "the majority of streamers I know are women – often young women – and the majority of the viewers are men. That comes with all of the complexities you might imagine..." 
Both she and Nicole say that the most generous tippers are the regulars. "You build relationships with the people who come to your streams every day," says Nicole. "It’s as much about them, about our little community, as it is about me – so I make a point of asking them about themselves when I’m streaming." She has even met a music producer via BIGO with whom she is working on a new track.
Peggy is more blunt about these relationships. "For some of them it’s almost like a girlfriend experience," she says. "Obviously it isn't real and I never offer out my contact details to anyone but there are ways to build connections via the streams. For example, recently I had a really good conversation with this new guy who'd only been on the app for five days. I was like, 'Oh, welcome to my stream. How are you, what's your name?' There were another 600 people watching but I interacted with him only. Which obviously made him feel special. So even by simply ignoring other questions and giving someone my full attention it keeps them coming back." 
Just as doing this has helped her through a potentially fallow period, Peggy thinks her broadcasts have done the same for those who watch them. 
"I think people are lonely," Peggy tells me. "They don’t have anyone to share their lives with so they log into your streams and you feel like a friend to them, and they tip you." 
For her, this exchange – money for companionship – feels manageable. "I’m 31, I speak three languages and I have other work so this isn’t my sole income. To me, this has just been a fun way to make money." That doesn’t mean she hasn’t had some unpleasant experiences. "You get requests: 'Do X and I’ll send you X money.' For me it’s just not worth it but you do wonder about younger, less financially stable women." 
Though most livestreaming platforms – BIGO included – have age limits (you have to be 18 to use the app) and agencies like Jessica’s age-verify all potential streamers, Peggy tells me that she personally knows women who are 17 and livestreaming. "They're really young girls and they get sucked into this weird world so quick. I do think it can be dangerous. You get people all the time asking you if you have an OnlyFans account or 'Can you be my sugar baby? Can you send me some feet videos?' And you get people who’re obsessed with you. I had one American man saying he was going to book a flight and come to find me in London. That I was going to be his wife. Every time I started streaming he was the first one to join – he had an alert set and was living his life based around when I would be online." Eventually she blocked him. 
On another occasion, Peggy found that two of her livestreams had been screen-recorded and uploaded to YouTube. "They were videos of me interacting with guys, kind of socialising with them and entertaining them. It was such a shock to find them. I just thought, 'What am I actually doing here? Is this right?'"
Of course, any social media platform can be misused. Stories are rife of young people being lured into posting explicit videos on OnlyFans by the promise of quick cash; TikTok’s 'sugar baby school' trend trains teens and twentysomethings in the art of entertaining men for money. "And you get creepy comments wherever you go," Nicole points out. "Walking down a street, you'll get comments from someone. I think when you're a livestreamer you get a lot more because they can easily come into your stream and drop a comment, which disappears; it’s not even like leaving a comment under someone’s Instagram post, which stays there. I think that level of anonymity really emboldens people. But ultimately you just have to remain professional." 
Jessica says that AM has a robust policy to help deal with any problem viewers. "If any of our hosts experience abuse or are made to feel uncomfortable, we write a full report to BIGO," she explains. 
Peggy has been streaming less recently. "I have another job and it’s been nice outside so I haven’t wanted to sit and stream," she says. But she’ll keep her account – she now has 22,000 fans – live and ticking along. She argues that as long as a person doesn’t let their boundaries slip, in terms of what they are willing to do for money, then livestreaming is "fun and easy. You know, it’s been a tough 18 months, most people just want to connect." 
Refinery29 contacted BIGO for comment. They did not respond.

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