Quarantine Made Them Famous — Now What?
Certain creators are doing more than just surviving quarantine — they’re thriving in it
If you’re reading this, I can only assume it’s because you’re “bored in the house and you’re in the house bored.” The song, created by Curtis Roach, first debuted as a casual TikTok video on March 4, the audio from which has since been used over 4 million times in TikToks for people who are, well, bored in their houses, waiting out the coronavirus quarantine. Roach later released the catchy jingle with Tyga on Spotify on March 28; the song now has over 10 million streams. He also currently sits at 1.5 million followers on TikTok, and has more than tripled his Instagram following to over 61,000 followers, according to Social Blade. In other words: Yeah, he’s quarantine-famous.
Much of the world is currently quarantining to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has killed over 67,000 people so far in the U.S. alone, according to the Center for Disease Control, sickened hundreds of thousands of others, and working toward its containment has necessarily changed the way we go about our daily lives. This means individuals are sheltering in place, but it also means that countless industries have been severely disrupted — including entertainment. Virtually all TV and movie production has shut down. Some seasons of shows have had to end early, and soon even the stream of pre-filmed and produced content from networks and studios will trickle to a halt. But one rising sector of entertainment is still going strong. As soon as lockdown hit, digital creators began making relevant and relatable content in order to keep their viewers entertained. Now, over a month later, certain creators are doing more than just surviving quarantine — they’re thriving in it.
“I have huge, huge agencies and very important, cool people that are coming to me in my email,” 20-year-old Boman Martinez-Reid told Refinery29 over the phone. “And that's been absolutely life changing.”
You might recognize Martinez-Reid as the brave Torontonian who put on real clothes during quarantine, or the “reality star” who had a vision after his friend disrespectfully coughed in his house. Martinez-Reid is currently studying radio and television in college, and has been making fake reality show scenes inspired by Vanderpump Rules and Real Housewives with his friends since high school. He migrated to the increasingly popular video app TikTok in December, and while his reality show-style videos had already gotten him some popularity, it wasn’t until quarantine hit that they started routinely receiving millions of views.
He’s tried not to make the content too quarantine-specific, and still focuses on stories like his mom shaming him for wearing sweatpants too many days in a row or his sister stealing his chips. These mundane scenarios are layered with quick cuts, tense music, and emotional talking heads. They often escalate into the absurd, ending with Martinez-Reid’s character having a That’s So Raven-type vision or turning into a wizard.
“I think what's resonating with those videos in particular is they're so dramatic and so ridiculous,” he explained. “I think it's speaking to what everybody wants to be able to do: They want to storm out of their house right now and they want to become a wizard and they want to have a vision and see the future.”
His most popular video has over 11 million views, and he just hit one million followers on the app as well.
Newcomers to the platform have found similar success. Many people who had perhaps been holding out on joining the notoriously addictive app finally did once they were faced with the prospect of several months spent inside their houses.
“I joined pretty much as soon as we got sent home from school,” 19-year-old Tina Vlamis said on a recent phone call. She’s currently a theater major at Western Connecticut State University, and no, she won’t be in your Broadway musical. The character she plays on TikTok is a crying, stressed-out teenager whose normal life is continually bombarded with pleas from people like American Idol judge Randy Jackson to take her talents to the stage.
“I’m just like, Randy, that’s everything I’m fighting against,’ she says through tears in her most popular video with over a million views. “I’ve been so explicit about not wanting to be on Broadway, and still I’m plagued by requests every single day.”
The conceit is obviously a joke — “I'm Pigeon in a radio play of Animal Farm right now,” she said for context — and it started as a running gag with her friends. They had frequently pleaded with Vlamis to take the bit to the app, which quarantine finally gave her a chance to do. The long-awaited videos all take place within the confines of social distancing, like when Vlamis takes her one scheduled walk of the day or gets bombarded by the cast of Phantom Of The Opera during her Zoom class, earning her more than 18,000 followers in just one month.
“The TikTok algorithm is crazy; it's so much easier to go viral than it is on something like Twitter because anyone can see,” Vlamis said about her unexpected success. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, TikTok is like one unlimited “Instagram Explore” page. While you can choose to see videos from just people you follow, most people toggle to the “For You” page where they’re served a never ending stream of videos from people all over the world, regardless of the size of their following.
For all my friends, their lives have taken a brief halt. And it's weird, because my life has kicked off.
Cameron Rogers had no plans to be famous on the app either.
“I downloaded TikTok as a total joke, to be honest,” she said. By day, the 28-year-old New Yorker runs Freckled Foodie, a brand that spans Instagram, YouTube, and a podcast to provide followers with inspiration, meal planning, and recipes in hopes of making healthy living more approachable. On those platforms, Rogers remains pretty food-focused, but once she ended up stuck at her family home to quarantine, she needed a place to share all the antics happening with her mom — who Rogers casually called her new “executive assistant.”
“My mom is someone who gives 200%, and she takes everything to the next level. The next day she took my joke very seriously and was bringing us lattes and joking about inner office gossip,” Rogers explained.
Rogers had been attempting to find her groove on TikTok since December, but it wasn’t until quarantine hit and her mom came into the picture that her videos started taking off. One video of her mom passing out tequila shots has over 1 million views. Rogers herself has now racked up over 61,000 followers.
There are also creators who have cracked the code to the point of going routinely viral, like 28-year-old Nabela Noor. The beauty and lifestyle guru has been making YouTube videos since 2013 for her 825,000 subscribers and began posting on TikTok back in October. Once a day, starting on March 14, she’s posted a video of accumulated “moments of peace” from her daily routine, which often include pouring big mason jars of iced coffee, slathering on Lush products, making a hearty dinner, and indulging in cozy nighttime activities. The videos received millions of views from the very first post, with her most popular being “Day 27,” when she put on a matching face mask with her husband, read a book, and made dinner. That video has reached 15.1 million sets of eyeballs, and Noor now has 1.8 million followers.
“I started this series as a way to calm my own anxiety during this quarantine. With my parents stuck in Bangladesh and the overall uncertainty surrounding us, I felt extremely anxious and decided to pick up my camera and capture my moments of peace from each day,” she told Refinery29 over email. “I’ve received comments saying that my videos have been the ‘calm in the chaos’ and are the highlight of their nights. It's gotten to the point where we all say goodnight to each other in the comments before going to bed.”
For those who had already reached prominence on the app, like 19-year-old Mitchell Crawford, quarantine forced them to entirely rework their strategies. The creator already had a few million TikTok followers when he received a sharp uptick in attention on his social media after he posted a video impersonating moms during coronavirus on March 27, according to Social Blade. The video was so popular he even made a follow-up, with both receiving around 10 million views. Since then, he’s done a video impersonating siblings during coronavirus, and most recently uploaded a TikTok about private school kids during coronavirus, each receiving 5 and 4 million views, respectively.
“I had such a good setup in L.A. where I went to school before everything, and I had this great guy who helps film me,” Crawford explained to Refinery29 over the phone from Atlanta, Georgia. “Then I came home and I've got mom and dad… I knew I needed to pivot towards what was relatable and in the now, which was corona.”
Which is, weirdly, the next challenge for creators. As much as it may not feel like it, the country won’t always be on lockdown, and coronavirus won’t always be part of daily life. People like Vlamis and Rogers have already tried to spread their wings beyond the initial content that people got to know them for, and haven’t exactly been welcomed with open arms.
“People do not like it,” Vlamis said of her attempt to make a video that didn’t involve crying and Broadway. “Even though it wasn't the bit at all, people were commenting things like, ‘You have to be on Broadway.’”
“Even now I haven't posted a video of [my mom] in a while and I'm getting comments like, where's your EA?” Rogers similarly shared.
Insular success on TikTok is one thing, but branching beyond the app in a post-quarantine world is about as uncertain as every other job market. While she’s found her typical content — food — doesn’t get much attention on TikTok, Rogers says the experience with her mom has inspired her to keep the app as a place to show off her more humorous side, which will hopefully funnel followers to her business.
For a select few creators, however, this period of time will serve as the launching pad for a career that may not have panned out so successfully had it not been for the pandemic — something Martinez-Reid is conflicted about. He’s grateful for his success while still acutely aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding it.
“All the opportunities that I dreamt of are suddenly like at my fingertips,” he said of things like getting an agent and landing auditions. “For all my friends, their lives have taken a brief halt. And it's weird, because my life has kicked off.”