“TikTok sucks,” says Sissy Sheridan. “Like, TikTok is the most toxic thing. But if you’re not on it, you’re not popular and you’re not relevant, and kids know this.”
Sheridan, 16, is a TikTok star—an influencer, with 5.3 million followers on the app and a million on Instagram. She’s just come back from L.A. after a few days of auditions for TV shows and visits to a content house in Beverly Hills. She also got hair extensions.
“A content house,” she explains for those unschooled in the influencer economy, “is a bunch of TikTokers who live in a mansion and film stuff together and do brand deals for the house”—meaning they do posts together promoting products such as clothes and shoes. “It’s kind of like the peak of TikTokerism,” she says with a shrug.
FaceTiming on a sunny afternoon, Sheridan—a fresh-faced, dark-haired girl with pink bow lips—is at home in a suburb of Washington, D.C. She’s wearing a brown hoodie and sweatpants with red hearts. She’s still “exhausted,” she says, after her trip to L.A. and the whirlwind of meeting new people and doing TikToks together.
And then there was the adult businessperson with whom she “did a collab” who tried to get more out of her, posting-wise, than Sheridan says she was obliged to deliver contractually. “I’m very well versed on the business side of all this stuff,” she says. “I know the value of two of my Instagram stories. So you’re getting all that for free and you still want me to do more?” Her expression says, “Not today, Satan.” (Generally, an influencer with five million followers can charge around $6,000 per Instagram story and $20,000 per feed post.)
“They wouldn’t have tried that with me if my mom had been there,” she says, “but my mom was talking to someone else.”
A Day in the Life
Sheridan lives with her mother, Lisa, an attorney, whom she calls her “momager” (like the Kardashians refer to their mom, Kris Jenner), and her father, who works in tech; her older brother is in college. Her dachshund, Brownie, has the hiccups.
“Brownie!” she calls. “Are you O.K.?”
She wanders into her kitchen. “Even though I’m running on no sleep, I gotta check the packages,” she says with a smile, peering into the brightly colored boxes and shopping bags piled up on the counter. “I come back from trips and it’s literally like Christmas,” she says. “If it’s a ‘gifting,’ they send it to me in the hopes that I’ll post something, but I don’t get paid for it.” She gets sent so much “it feels gluttonous,” she says. “I give it to my friends or my mom, or we donate it somewhere. Or I sell it on Depop,” a fashion-resale site.
“Oh, look,” she says, holding up a little white bottle, “here’s a ‘youth-promoting moisturizer.’ So I can look, what, 10 years old?”
Her cynicism about all this might come as a surprise. Being famous on the hottest app around, having millions of fans who shower her with millions of likes (over 363 million total), traveling and hanging out with the biggest influencers—not to mention the “avalanche” of swag—isn’t this what kids supposedly want?
But Sheridan never really wanted any of this, she says. And while she’s “grateful” for the opportunities social-media fame has offered her, she never intended to become a nonstop spokeswoman for retail brands—or even her own brand—which is what being a TikTok influencer has quickly morphed into, paving the way for the statistically small number of teens like Sheridan who make money off the site.
“Acting is my main thing,” she says. “That’s what I want to do. So I’m going to do whatever I can to get my name out there.”
“Oh, look, here’s a ‘youth-promoting moisturizer.’ So I can look, what, 10 years old?”
It all started back when she was six, she says, and her parents enrolled her in a musical-theater camp. There, she caught the acting bug, and after a few years of “privates” (private lessons) she was getting cast in regional productions of Annie and Billy Elliot: The Musical.
It wasn’t until she joined the cast of a Brat TV Web series called Chicken Girls, two years ago, that she even thought about trying to grow her social-media presence—because the other actor kids in L.A. who had lots of followers were so mean to her, she says.
“When I went to California for Chicken Girls,” she remembers, “I had, like, 500 followers on Instagram, and TikTok wasn’t even a thing. A lot of the kids made it apparent they wouldn’t hang out with me because I didn’t have followers, and so what could knowing me do to help them? It was, like, a really lonely experience. And it was literally a wake-up call.”
She started posting more on Instagram after that; she posted a lot of yellow when it was a trend. “Which is so cringey,” she says. “I hate yellow now.”
And then, largely due to her role on Chicken Girls, her Instagram following shot to more than 50,000. Which she was shocked to find caused resentment back home among the theater folk.
“On Billy Elliot”—in which she appeared at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in 2018—“the adults were so awful to me because I had a following. I didn’t ever brag about it—how would I brag about 50K followers?” she says.
“The adults would say super-rude things to me,” like the guy who told her it was obvious that she had bought her dress for the opening-night party at Forever 21, “but at the same time be like, Can you give me a shout-out on Instagram, Sissy? Why don’t you follow me back on Instagram?
“The kids were awful, too,” says Sheridan. “This girl wrote ‘ho’ on my dressing-room mirror. I don’t think I’d even posted a bikini shot on Instagram yet.”
“The adults would say super-rude things to me, but at the same time be like, Can you give me a shout-out on Instagram, Sissy?”
“TikTok has destroyed my body image,” she says. “If I do a post and I’m not looking, like, anorexic, they’ll be like, Oh, she’s fat, lose some weight.
“I was crying every day,” she says.
None of this prepared Sheridan for what was about to happen at Playlist Live—an annual industry convention for YouTubers, TikTokers, and other content creators—in Orlando, Florida, in February of last year. Sheridan was the subject of what passes for a scandal in TikTok land, with offensive commentary about her appearing on “tea” pages, or gossip accounts, such as TikTokRoom. “It was the talk of Playlist,” she says.
She explains: “Before Playlist I did this trend where you sit on the counter and make your butt look bigger,” which she calls a “sink video.”
“It’s stupid,” she says. “It’s awful. It’s terrifying. I look like I’m on cocaine, and my back is so unbelievably arched.” She smiles and says, “My mom is laughing at me now.” Lisa is padding around in the background, shaking her head at the memory of her daughter’s provocative post.
After the sink video, Sheridan’s follower count climbed to nearly 800,000, and “I got invited to go to Playlist,” she says. Which was confirmation for her of what she already knew—that sexualized content is often what gets girls the most attention on TikTok, just like on other social-media sites. “You make little girls famous for dancing and for being pretty and having a ‘desirable’ body,” Sheridan says. Her first TikTok to get millions of views (6.3 million) was one of her and another girl dancing in crop tops in her bedroom.
When the sink video “went viral for me,” she says, “I thought, I’m gonna keep doing this—it’s my thing.” So, at Playlist Live, she made a sink video with then 18-year-old Canadian influencer Josh Richards (who has 24.4 million followers on TikTok). “And then they all came up to me”—meaning other young, male social-media stars—“like, Oh my God, we have to make a sink video.” Now they were chasing her clout.
“So I’m 15, and I’m getting a lot of attention from this,” Sheridan says. “I’m collaborating with all these popular creators, and they’re pretty much all dudes. None of it was super-inappropriate, it was just, like, flirty.
“At the time, all I’m thinking is it’s making my numbers grow. I have, like, a million followers now—I’ve grown 300K in a day. Fans are coming up and congratulating me. So I’m like, Holy crap, this is huge.
“And then these shade rooms start picking it up.”
Shades of Wrath
What “Page Six” once was to the entertainment industry—something to be feared and loathed—so are the tea pages and “shade rooms” that cover social media to influencers. But these accounts tend to make “Page Six” look kind. Many are run by other social-media operatives looking to attract controversy and grow their followers with divisiveness and hate in a culture that rewards aggression, even algorithmically.
“There were comments like, ‘Sissy gets passed around more than a blunt,’” Sheridan says. “‘She wants the whole crew.’”
“‘A train’s been run through her,’” says Lisa, who has joined us now. Lisa looks outraged.
“‘I hope you get raped,’” Sheridan says, repeating another one of the horrific comments.
“I have to say something about Gen Z,” Lisa says. “They’re a super-smart generation, but I’m worried about their level of sensitivity…. She’s only kissed a few boys!”
“I wasn’t interested in any of them,” says Sheridan, meaning the guys she did the videos with. “We all knew it was just something we were doing for TikTok. But if I come forward and say, ‘I’m a virgin,’ that’s like uhhhh … I don’t want to have to talk about that online.”
None of the young men who posted with Sheridan were similarly attacked. In fact, Max Dressler, an influencer with 4.4 million TikTok followers, reportedly posted videos mimicking Sheridan’s moves and was deemed the unofficial “King of Playlist” by fans. Dressler’s videos did well for him, while Sheridan deleted almost all of hers in an attempt to stop the abuse coming her way.
The double standard was not lost on her. “TikTok is the most misogynistic platform ever,” she says. “You post a video shaking your butt, and all the boys say, ‘She’s a slut,’ but there’s a trend now where boys shake their butts, and all the boys are like”—bro voice—“‘Ha ha, he’s so funny! King!’”
“Meanwhile,” says Lisa, “she was getting death threats.”
“I literally was so depressed for, like, four months,” Sheridan says. “I literally would not leave my bed. People were messaging my dad and coming up to my brother and saying, like, ‘Your sister’s a whore.’
“Their favorite phrase is, ‘We’re holding her accountable.’ No, guys, your ‘holding someone accountable’ is slut-shaming and cyberbullying,” she says. “They were just mad my TikTok was blowing up.”
“You make little girls famous for dancing and for being pretty and having a ‘desirable’ body.”
Talking with Sheridan made me think back to the interviews I did with girls between 2014 and 2016 for my book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. It seems like nothing much has changed for girls online in terms of harassment; in fact, with TikTok, the problem has only gotten worse—especially for “famous” girls like Sheridan.
She finds herself in a familiar bind: Sexualization gets fame. Sexualization gets slut-shaming. Empowerment is undercut by sexist haters. But haters also get you fame.
Which affects her opportunities in the wider world. Sheridan says that when she goes for acting auditions now, casting directors routinely ask about her follower count. “If they’re choosing between two girls,” she says, “Sissy, who has five million, and this other girl, who is equally good but doesn’t have a social-media following, I think they consider, Will we get extra exposure from Sissy because she has this number?
“It does suck, and I think it’s stupid because when it comes down to it, it should be about the craft and stuff.”
But then, she’s also reaped the benefits of being an influencer. There’s the money, of course, which she says is all going into her college fund. And there are boosts to her acting career; she was in a 2020 episode of the Disney Channel show Raven’s Home, and in the indie movie Odd Man Rush. And there’s her boyfriend, 19-year-old influencer Milessdespair, whom she met at that same disastrous Playlist Live of the sink videos. They often post together, kissing and lip-synching and dancing.
“TikTok is such a big part of my life now,” Sheridan says, “I can’t do without it.”
Nancy Jo Sales is a journalist whose 2010 article for Vanity Fair “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” inspired The Bling Ring. She is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and, publishing in May, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno