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Friday, March 1, 2024

How an unfiltered tween became a social media sensation

Every morning before school, Evelyn, a seventh-grader in suburban Kansas City, props her iPhone up against the mirror of her vanity, applies a series of makeup and skin care products, and vents to the camera.

“Things that are embarrassing,” she said in one video that amassed over 11.1 million views. “When someone who’s really rude asks why they have no friends. Maybe you have no friends because you’re a b**** to everyone,” she continues. She goes on to lambaste people who use an outdated phrase or act differently when boys are around or when they’re being filmed.

Videos outlining things she hates, or things that make her mad, or things that disgust her, have made Evelyn an overnight sensation on the internet (The Washington Post agreed to use only her first name given her age). She’s amassed over 17 million views on Instagram Reels and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. After she began posting to TikTok regularly in September, she gained nearly 500,000 followers there in less than three months.

Cutting, sarcastic and opinionated, Evelyn never names names, and much of her commentary is about standing up to bullies, not encouraging bullying. And she does it all while expertly applying a slew of makeup and skin care items, subtly integrating the products into her videos. She’ll hold up the bottles with the label facing toward the camera but almost never acknowledges them or calls brands out by name. This makes her content feel more organic, according to digital marketing experts who work with content creators.

But beyond her success as a marketing phenomenon, Evelyn’s rise raises questions about the current push among state and federal lawmakers to impose age limits on social media. Evelyn is just a few months shy of 13, the age at which most platforms allow children to operate their own accounts, and a large percentage of her audience is made up of children from her age group.

Adding to the questions is Evelyn’s role in a growing market the beauty industry is targeting: tween girls. Eight-to-12-year-old girls are the largest growth market for the cosmetics industry, with tweens spending $40 million a month on beauty products, according to Pinkstinks, a nonprofit aimed at fighting gender bias in the beauty industry. And at least 80 percent of U.S. tweens use beauty products, a 2016 report by the trend-forecasting group Mintel found.

Marketers acknowledge that Evelyn represents a shift in the type of content that resonates online, offering a peek at the sorts of creators who appeal to Gen Alpha, the generation younger than Gen Z: Evelyn is outgoing and funny, her videos have strong hooks, a repeatable format and appear unfiltered. She’s not doing any growth hacks like camera shakes in the beginning or trying to trick viewers into watching.

Evelyn appears to follow all the rules — her mother is actually the account holder because Evelyn isn’t old enough to manage an account. Her manager said Evelyn’s mother reviews and edits her content and is present when it’s filmed. (Her hands are often featured in Evelyn’s videos.) She brainstorms video ideas with Evelyn and oversees her comment section and direct messages.

Evelyn’s parents even have set up a Coogan Account, which will hold any earnings from social media in trust until Evelyn turns 18. The name comes from Jackie Coogan, a child actor in the early 1900s whose parents spent all the money he earned rather than putting it aside for him.

Evelyn has been inundated with free products and sponsorship opportunities since gaining her audience. She wouldn’t disclose exactly how much money she’s made so far but did say she’s been saving up for a facial and eventually her college tuition.

Still, she’s run into trouble with vague, nonpublic rules, and TikTok recently suspended her account, despite the fact that her mother updated its bio to reiterate that it was parent-run. TikTok, which does not provide direct support to most creators, even the most high-profile ones, has a history of banning creators without explanation. Evelyn and her mother, Alex, have been offered no explanation or appeal.

“I take social media seriously, especially as it pertains to my daughter’s safety and privacy,” Alex said. “Not only did I create the TikTok account, submit my government ID as proof, I also am the sole individual that uploads content in addition to monitoring daily activity. To say we are incredibly disappointed to have our account taken away despite these precautions is an understatement.”

But Evelyn hasn’t missed a beat on Instagram and YouTube, and she’s confident that she’ll rebuild her fan base on TikTok.

TikTok is also completely unable to stymie her content. Dozens of fan accounts have re-uploaded all of Evelyn’s videos to the platform, amassing thousands of followers for those accounts. The only difference now is that those fan accounts are growing, instead of Evelyn’s.

“It’s rare, what she’s doing,” said Evan Britton, CEO of Famous Birthdays, a website that charts the rise of online stars. Evelyn was added to Famous Birthdays in September and is already among the top 5,009 stars on the platform. “If you look at her engagement, she’s consistently mid-six figures,” Britton said, adding that skyrocketing engagement in her comment sections shows “she’s building a community … very quickly.”

“She almost seems removed from the fact that she’s doing a video,” said Coco Mocoe, an online culture analyst. “Like almost, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ but of course she does want to be here, because she’s making the videos.”

Evelyn has been working with Digital Futures, a Gen Z-focused media company. “We saw her coming when she had 2,000 followers,” said Veronica Zelle, Evelyn’s manager and co-founder of Digital Futures, who is working with Evelyn to accelerate her growth. “I’ve been spotting talent my entire career, and I know that Evelyn can inspire other Gen Z individuals with her honesty and authenticity.”

Evelyn cycles through dozens of products in her videos, from skin creams to concealers to eye shadows and more. While her videos resonate most heavily with other tweens and teenagers, she has a strong following among millennial women (ages 27 to 42). These women say that Evelyn’s videos provide nostalgia, reminding them of the snarky girl in middle school they were often scared of but admired from afar. She’s often compared to a Regina George, the main character in the 2004 movie Mean Girls.

Offline, Evelyn is well spoken and self-effacing. She’s aware that she has a specific online persona but said that she’s not a bully of any kind and that her videos are all in fun. “I think a lot of people who are older wish they were as assertive and outspoken as me when they were younger,” she said. She said she got her assertiveness from her mother. “I stand up for what I believe in, and I am very opinionated.”

Though her videos can seem like she’s referencing specific people or situations, she said that they’re all anonymized or about things that happened years ago. “If [anyone] ever asked me to take a video down, of course I would,” she said. “Because nobody wants to be talked about on the internet.”

Evelyn said she got into beauty, like many young people her age, through YouTube tutorials and vloggers. She received her first cellphone when she was in third grade and would consume hours of YouTube videos.

Evelyn also obsesses over reading and writing, and several of her videos include books she’s picked up. She recently read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and started George Orwell’s “1984.” She wants to be an author one day.

Evelyn likes makeup and skin care because, like writing, it’s a way to express herself and be creative. “I feel like times have evolved, and a lot of young girls are getting interested in makeup, and that is okay,” she said. “Other people will play with slime when they’re younger. I feel like loving makeup and doing crazy looks is a canon event” — internet slang for a formative moment.

One thing she doesn’t appreciate is the way the beauty industry can make girls feel bad about themselves. “I think it’s fine for [young girls] to enjoy makeup,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s okay for brands to create insecurity for girls. I feel like makeup should just be a fun thing that we all enjoy.”

Like many popular content creators, Evelyn is divisive. Her videos have become a meme on the app, and adult creators have mocked her and critiqued her appearance.

But because Evelyn doesn’t run her own accounts, her mother sees most of the hatred. Things can be especially bad on Instagram, where her mother has had to shut off comments on certain videos because they’ve gone viral outside of Evelyn’s core audience of young women.

Industry analysts said part of why people clamor to buy the products Evelyn uses is specifically because she’s not overtly selling them.

“Every marketer could take a lesson from her content,” said Sarah Wilson, a digital strategist in Los Angeles.

Evelyn’s ambitions include one day having a talk show and interviewing her idols, who include Taylor Swift and Mean Girls star Rachel McAdams. She’s making plans to grow her online empire, too. “I really want to expand my content,” she said. “I understand that I am beauty and entertainment right now. But I would love to get into makeup tutorials and vlogs.”

She acknowledges that her aspirations and beliefs may evolve as she grows up or becomes more famous. “I probably will change some of my opinions later as I get older,” she said. “But there are many opinions of mine that I am dead set on, and I think are just morals. … I feel like you should just stay true to yourself. You don’t need to change in front of other people or act differently for approval.”

Besides, “I always have wanted to be an influencer,” she said.

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