The Millennial’s Guide To Addison Rae

TikTok’s reigning queen is about to cross over into old-fashioned stardom.

Originally Published: 
TikTok star Addison Rae wears a yellow outfit as she appears on Bustle's cover.

Every morning, Addison Rae wakes up in her Los Angeles apartment and does something a teensy bit scandalous. The 20-year-old, who rose to fame on TikTok and is widely reported to be the platform’s highest-earning star, is the sort of bona fide viral phenomenon who seems as if she’s been sent to earth to make anyone born before 1995 feel alienated from popular culture. She’s synonymous with TikTok the way that Anthony Fauci is synonymous with COVID-19. But each day, Rae picks up her phone and opens her go-to app, which is not TikTok but Instagram, the stomping ground of fuddy-duddy millennials. She checks the app first, Rae assures me a little bit sheepishly, as if she has committed a betrayal, because Instagram offers her a quick, digestible preview of what she’ll be seeing later… on TikTok. “I’ll usually see a still photo of it first. Then it’s like, ‘All right, time to go see in more detail [on TikTok,]” she says.

After perusing TikTok, where she has over 79 million followers, Rae will hop over to Twitter (4.8 million followers), the platform she says is “getting its way back into everyone’s minds.” Twitter is where everyone can “say what they want to,” including Rae, who allows herself to be a little more vulnerable in tweets than, say, dance videos or YouTube recaps. (“Being sad is so annoying right now,” she posted on Twitter last month.) Once she’s caught up with Twitter, Rae will check YouTube, where she also has a robust following (4.8 million subscribers), and if she’s in the mood for “little news stuff,” she’ll take a quick peek at Snapchat.

Once she has run through this circuit of social media platforms, Rae gets to work on what is quickly becoming her most important job: making the transition from social media star to just plain star. Even the most popular 20-year-old on Earth is a bit of a Zoom drone lately, and Rae spends much of her day bouncing between virtual meetings about her various projects. Sometimes she’s reviewing decks for a new product within her clean beauty line, Item. Other times she’s doing a chemistry read or an audition for a film or television project. (She recently finished filming He’s All That, the Gen Z-oriented remake of the beloved 1999 teen rom-com She’s All That.) Maybe she’s planning the new season of the chatty, diaristic podcast she hosts with her mother, Mother Knows Best, exclusive to Spotify. Or she’s working on any number of the brand partnerships she’s inked. Later in the evening, Rae often heads to the recording studio, because, naturally, she’s pursuing a career in music, too — she just released her first single, “Obsessed,” a high-gloss pop track about self-love and self-lust. Sixteen million views and counting on YouTube. “The window of opportunity is not always open, and that’s what everyone on my team reminds me: These moments, you really have to take advantage of them,” she says.

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At this stage in the evolution of the influencer, social media is no longer necessarily a means to an end — for many of Rae’s peers, it’s the main event. I ask Rae if she thinks of social media as her profession, or if it is merely a stepping stone. She responds as if she’s afraid of offending the entire enterprise of social media: “I want to say it’s a launch pad, but I don’t want to say that,” she tells me over Zoom one afternoon, her freshly washed hair twisted up into a towel on her head. “Because I value social media just as much as I value anything else, because it does give you such a platform, and that’s kind of where people want to be.” But, she explains, pigeonholing her as a social media star would be underestimating her. “A lot of times people think that people only do social media, or that it’s their only interest,” she says. “But I think social media is a door that opens up so many opportunities for things in your life.”

Born Addison Rae Easterling in Lafayette, Louisiana, the social media phenom was talking before she turned 1, according to her mom, and singing and dancing to Barney skits as a toddler. She started dancing competitively at age 6, nurturing a serious performative streak throughout her youth. Later, she joined Louisiana’s prestigious Shreveport Dance Academy, and did cheerleading and gymnastics as well. She joined TikTok in July 2019, the summer after her senior year of high school, and by the time she enrolled at Louisiana State University in the fall to study broadcast journalism, she had a growing following online. (She’d been rejected from the university’s competitive dance squad, the Tiger Girls.) The videos she posted were not particularly noteworthy: In her early TikToks, she leveraged her dance background to hop on the viral-dance wagon, making videos that betrayed a bit more natural rhythm and pep than your average amateur clip.

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Looking through her early videos — which are not much different from those she posts today — it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what magic sauce Rae possessed that reeled in so many millions of followers. Still, there was something captivating about her cheer captain energy. She seemed approachable and relentlessly upbeat, but she was also more polished than most high schoolers, her face often perfectly contoured, her hair blown out into long beachy waves, her barely-bared midriff adding a whiff of sexuality to her otherwise squeaky-clean look. Her mom — who is 41 and could be mistaken for an older sister — also gamely appeared in many of the dance videos, sporting a tank top that read, “Cool Mom.” The family element lent Rae’s content a wholesome quality. These were the platonic ideals of TikTok videos — good clean fun, glorified by the algorithm. “Addison is like a ball of energy,” says Benny Blanco, the blue-chip pop producer who worked on “Obsessed.” “The second you’re in front of her, it’s like watching a movie. I’ve never been in a room and been like, ‘Oh, where’s Addison?’ She was… way more confident than anyone I know her age.”

In the beginning, people would reach out and be like, ‘Oh, can you do a dance to this song for $20?’ I’d be like, ‘Absolutely!’

During her first and only semester at college, Rae started receiving recognition from her classmates on campus. Within a couple of months, she had so many followers on TikTok that she was getting attention from brands and making connections in Los Angeles. Musicians and labels had started reaching out to her, asking her to promote their songs. “It happened really fast,” Rae says. “I remember in the beginning, people would reach out and be like, ‘Oh, can you do a dance to this song for $20?’ I’d be like, ‘Absolutely!’”

By November, the writing was on the wall: Rae was ready to drop out of school and move to LA, and so was her entire family. Rae’s mom, Sheri Easterling, is refreshingly candid about allowing her daughter to drop out of college to make viral dance videos online. “My reaction was probably nothing of the norm (insert laughing) and probably not what most would consider as logical,” she explains to me, in a series of notes handwritten on loose-leaf paper, scanned and attached to an email. “I actually encouraged it... I was once a young girl myself with a dream and so I just wanted to [give her the opportunities] I wished I had growing up.” The Rae/Easterling/Lopez clan decamped for Hollywood. (Her mother and her father, Monty Lopez, were on and off for most of her childhood, and her two younger brothers share the last name Lopez.) Once she was in LA, Rae was roped into the whirlwind of the Hype House, the creator collective of rising social media teens who gathered at a Spanish-style mansion to make content together and host parties, generating a vortex of follower-maximization potential and Hollywood-adjacent shenanigans.

Even among the creator upper-crust of Hype House, Rae’s rise to fame was exceptional. If, before the pandemic, TikTok was an obsession relegated to Gen Z, last year it morphed into a more mainstream curiosity, eclipsing other platforms as the place where trends, joke formats, and songs bubbled up and took off. Bored and stuck at home, people were tuning into TikTok, which meant they were tuning into Addison Rae. Her follower count shot up by 10 million between March and April 2020, and she amassed her billionth like (she now has 5.1 billion). She won the adoration of Kourtney Kardashian’s oldest son, Mason, which in turn earned her a spot in the Kardashian-Jenner inner circle. (This season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians features a plotline about her friendship with Kourtney.) In August, she posted her most popular video of all time, a twerking split to “WAP” that has been viewed, according to one social media tracking service, 293 million times.

Rae also began taking auditions and working with professional songwriters and producers, planning for the next phase of her ascent. Her following was a double-edged sword: It had the effect of making the general public skeptical of where her actual talent lay, but it also titillated industry insiders who wondered what kind of value her tens of millions of followers might add to their project.

“You know, people in the industry really do appreciate and admire people that take chances and break that boundary between social media and entertainment in general,” Rae explains. “But I will say that, from a public standpoint, I think people do tend to find it hard to take people like me seriously.” Case in point: When Netflix picked up He’s All That for “north of $20 million,” according to Deadline, it was reported that Rae’s involvement — and her following — had a lot to do with it. Still, fans of the original film groaned online when the reboot was announced, concerned that the inexperienced Rae would spoil their beloved storyline. It’s a dynamic that has given Rae a chip on her shoulder. “I’m willing to prove how seriously I do take things... It’s something I’m willing to keep working at and hopefully really proving myself to these people.” She even tried out a bit of Method acting while filming He’s All That, asking her friends and family to call her Padgett when she wasn’t on set.

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Rae wasn’t born yet when the original She’s All That was released in 1999. But because her mother was so young, and it was often just the two of them, she absorbed the influence of her mom’s tastes. “My mom made this movie list when I was little of every movie she wanted me to see that she loved. [She’s All That] was on it,” Rae says. On Rae’s podcast with her mother — who has a healthy social media following of her own and now uses the first-middle name configuration of Sheri Nicole, like her daughter — the pair discuss Rae’s upbringing. The sheer biographical details of her childhood instantly bring to mind another star, from an earlier generation.

Like Britney Spears, Rae is a Louisiana native with a serious dance background and an ineffable starpower. I ask Rae if she saw the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears, which chronicles Spears’ rise and tragic downfall at the hands of the tabloid machine. “I did,” Rae says. She pauses for what feels like an eternity. “I think that’s a really... interesting thing to think about.” Rae, too, is aware of the parallels. Along with all the opportunities flooding her universe over the last year, Rae is getting a taste of the damaging sides of notoriety, too. This winter, the internet intensified its gaze on her relationship with fellow influencer Bryce Hall, speculating that he cheated on her, and Rae was filmed in tears by the paparazzi, who’ve also taken a liking to her in recent months. (Hall recently confirmed their breakup in one of his YouTube vlogs.) “I definitely can see how that is an overwhelming life,” Rae says, discussing the Spears documentary. “People do come up with narratives around you that aren’t necessarily true. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot, people being involved in really personal aspects of your life.”

Still, Rae does not like breaking her overwhelmingly cheerful stance about her career and social media. She speculates that she has it much easier than Spears ever did, which may or may not be true. “In the early 2000s, the press controlled what people saw of you. Now we can have that chance to do it ourselves,” she says. She has not yet been burned in a way that would challenge her understanding of social media: “I did make a decision to put some of those things out there,” she admits, taking responsibility for any attention that comes her way. One way Rae shields herself from controversy is by staying aggressively neutral at all times, rarely acknowledging any of the social and political talking points of the moment. While so much of her generation is being lauded for their open-mindedness, their willingness to speak out and advocate for social justice, Rae can seem from an earlier era, when celebrities left politics alone.

When I ask her about this, Rae defends her right to stay quiet. “It’s really just about your comfortability when it comes to those things,” she tells me. “I don’t think people should ever feel like they need to speak on everything that happens... and that’s kind of where I’m at right now. If I know I’m fully educated on it, then I will allow myself to speak on it. I definitely think it’s a weird position to be in, when you don’t really know what you need to say.”

A couple of weeks after we talk, Rae finds herself in the position of having to respond to a social justice-tinged controversy. She hits a career milestone when she appears on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performing “Obsessed” and, in a bonus segment, demonstrating a handful of viral dances for the host. They’re dances Rae has performed plenty of times on her social media, but here, on this massive mainstream platform — where Rae is positioned as the expert on dances created by Black teenagers — they carry new weight. Shortly after the clip airs, publications and social media users point out the general ickiness of a white influencer receiving implicit credit for Black-originated dances.

Asked about the backlash by a TMZ cameraman on the street, she explains, “It’s kind of hard to credit during the show, but they all know that I love them so much and, I mean, I support all of them so much,” she says, her blown-out locks blowing in the wind as she trots down the sidewalk. It’s the kind of tepid response she may no longer be able to use as she migrates closer and closer to the center of prestige entertainment, but, for now, her peppy, optimistic neutrality appears intact. “Hopefully one day we can all meet up and dance together,” she tells the cameraman.

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Photographer: Diane Russo

Stylist: Ade Samuel 

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