The Washington Post
Now they clock in on Tiktok
Video creators find followers, careers mining their lives in the nation’s capital
Scrolling through Tiktok, you might come across a Georgetown student playing the cello on a rooftop overlooking the Washington region. Or a 16-year-old reviewing D.C.’S most overrated spots. Or a WMATA worker sharing the best eats in Southeast. While many of the short-form video app’s biggest U.S. creators are concentrated in such cities as Los Angeles and New York, there’s a collection of users based in the nation’s capital who’ve attracted their own significant followings.
They have different styles, but all share a similar story about how they stumbled into Tiktok fame: When the coronavirus pandemic sent much of the world into isolation, they suddenly had a lot of free time. Tiktok offered an outlet.
“I was so bored that I just started making little dinky videos for me and
my friends that followed me,” said Mary Skinner, a Tiktok influencer who lives in Arlington, Va. “You know, like my four friends who followed me.”
About a year and half later, Skinner has 1.3 million followers watching her do things such as choosing outfits, talking about her mental health and sharing other tidbits of her life.
This new social media venture became such a large part of her life, she thought it had the potential to be more lucrative than her job at the Defense Department. So Skinner signed with a management agency, then in November took the leap: She quit her fulltime job as a writer and editor for the Pentagon and committed her life to being a Tiktok influencer.
“I realized this could not only be a source of fulfillment, a place to find community, but this could also become a career opportunity,” Skinner said.
Skinner’s typical day consists of meeting with representatives of such brands as Steve Madden and Lululemon, planning and brainstorming ideas for videos, filming content and editing. Because she’s essentially marketing her life, it’s a 24/7 job to capture anything she does that could be used later. She hates the misconception that being an influencer is not real work.
“If we called it ‘marketing work,’ people would treat it like the job that it is,” Skinner said. “I get comments all the time of people being like, ‘ That’s not a real job.’ Like, in what world?”
Content creators such as Skinner are a rapidly growing subset of workers in the United States. Experts say the influencer economy dates back about a decade, when users first learned how to profit off platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. As the world has moved increasingly online, and brands recognized the potential, influencer marketing exploded.
According to the venture capital firm Signalfire, there are about 50 million people around the world who consider themselves content creators, about 2 million of whom are considered professional, or full-time, creators.
Once they gain a large-enough following and commit full time, it’s common for influencers to pack up and move to Los Angeles, where creators are abundant. But for some smaller influencers, creating content relating to the city they call home is a large part of their appeal.
Lavondra Shinholster, a D.C. influencer who uses the name @typicalblaqueen and has about 59,000 followers, has been an influencer on Youtube and Instagram since 2017, creating videos about fashion and natural hair. When she started posting on TikTok during the pandemic, Shinholster found a niche for lifestyle content, especially restaurant reviews.
As a Ward 8 resident, Shinholster, 35, said she’s committed to showing more than just the “luxurious” side of D.C. she usually sees on Tiktok. Instead, she films videos for people like herself, a middle-class Black mother and Prince George’s County native.
“There are a few influencers in D.C., that they’re giving you the raw, the real D.C.,” Shinholster said. “Not just the Capitol Hill, Northwest, Ward 1, 2, maybe 3. It’s some folks down here who are actually showing D.C. in all aspects.”
While Shinholster loves her career as an influencer and makes money off brand deals, she still works a full-time job with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority at night to support herself and her three sons.
“I don’t want to call it a job, because that’s the thing, people end up hating their jobs,” Shinholster said. “It’s a career for me. It’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that I love, and I don’t ever want to get sick of it.”
Some creators, such as Danny Kim, had already been in the social media business before moving to Tiktok. Kim quit his engineering job and started his own business in social media marketing for restaurants in the D.C. region. Through those connections, he began his food blog, Eat the Capital, which has about 135,000 followers on Instagram.
When the pandemic hit, many of his chef clients who were facing closures could no longer afford his services or didn’t need them as restaurants shuttered their dining rooms. So Kim turned to TikTok to start posting about how people could help restaurants in D.C.
Once he saw there was an audience for that — there is a huge foodie presence on Tiktok — he leaned into it. He built upon his relationships with chefs at some of the city’s most popular restaurants. As things started to reopen, he shifted his content again and found a niche in food entertainment.
Now his page almost entirely consists of challenge videos that start with a voiced-over line, “Hey, chef . . .” followed by a task such as turning Mcdonald’s into something gourmet, or Chick-fil-a into a Chinese dish. Kim’s account, @dannygrubs, grew by nearly 2 million followers in six months, ending the year with 2.2 million followers and 33.4 million likes on his videos.
“Meeting the chefs is not just cool for the videos, it’s really cool for me. I get to watch them do their work firsthand. And sometimes it’s crazy,” Kim said. “People don’t understand and appreciate how much chefs work.”
Creators on the app note that Tiktok’s algorithm creates an environment for new and smaller creators to gain a following. The algorithm connects users with videos on their “For You” feed based on how users interact with content, rather than videos from those they follow.
“When you go to Tiktok, the first thing you see is not the people you follow. The first thing you see is the ‘For You’ page,” Kim said. “So now you’re getting in front of more creators, and it’s helped a lot of creators grow.”
The app has also been popular for artists displaying their talents, whether that’s participating in the latest dance trend or showcasing a home DIY project. Andrew Savoia rose to fame on the app by performing covers of pop songs on his cello.
In a recent video, Savoia, 25, surrounded by fall foliage, pulls out his cello and starts playing Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well.” The video has more than 138,000 views and 27,000 likes.
For Savoia, a master’s student at Georgetown, his surprise TikTok following has provided an opportunity to collaborate with other artists and start live performances, something he never thought he would get a chance to do.
“It’s kind of crazy for me how it transitioned from, everything’s online, I’m just posting videos, to now I’m starting to build a reputation in the D.C. area based off live performances and doing weddings and private events and things like that,” Savoia said.
And, it’s now a way to help offset the cost of his education: This Tiktoker is headed to medical school.
“It’s a career for me. It’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that I love, and I don’t ever want to get sick of it.” Lavondra Shinholster, a D.C. influencer