The Washington Post

Now they clock in on Tiktok

Video creators find followers, careers mining their lives in the nation’s capital

- BY KARINA ELWOOD

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

 ?? ?? TOP: Danny Kim, with more than 2 million Tiktok followers, records chef Dee Myrie for one of his foodie-focused videos. ABOVE: Lavondra Shinholste­r, 35, has 59,000 Tiktok followers for her lifestyle segments and restaurant reviews.
TOP: Danny Kim, with more than 2 million Tiktok followers, records chef Dee Myrie for one of his foodie-focused videos. ABOVE: Lavondra Shinholste­r, 35, has 59,000 Tiktok followers for her lifestyle segments and restaurant reviews.
 ?? PHOTOS BY SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Tiktoker Danny Kim, 26, left, and Dee Myrie, co-owner and chef at Jerk At Nite, record a segment on Jan. 6. Many of Kim’s videos feature challenges to chefs, such as turning Mcdonald’s into gourmet food.
SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST Tiktoker Danny Kim, 26, left, and Dee Myrie, co-owner and chef at Jerk At Nite, record a segment on Jan. 6. Many of Kim’s videos feature challenges to chefs, such as turning Mcdonald’s into gourmet food.

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