With more than three million followers between them and cash in their pockets, Chané Grobler, Witney Ramabulana and Kelly Ernstzen are making their mark on China’s breakout social-media platform. But how did they get here and WTF is TikTok all about, anyway? COSMO digital director Jaime Waddington finds out in our April 2020 Influencer issue.
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It’s Wednesday morning and we’re on set in a retro, ’70s-style Cape Town villa…
We’re on location for COSMO’s annual influencer cover shoot and I’m nervous as hell. Nervous that my title is ‘digital director’, that I’m turning 30 this year, and I’m about to do this cover interview about an app that’s infamous among Gen Zers, which I know not much about.
Imma level with you. I only downloaded TikTok a month ago and I’m still figuring it all out. As a Millennial and a digital nomad, I was confident about navigating the platform. When I first opened it up, videos just started playing. Weird, crazy, fun and strange videos of cool teens doing cool things – lip-syncing, dancing, playing tricks on each other, doing challenges … I didn’t know where to click or what to watch. I felt like my mom figuring out how to post an Insta Story. I felt old.
After doing some research and getting a crash course from an intern, I felt determined not to let my ignorance show. I was on a mission to figure out what this TikTok craze was all about, why it had become so popular, and how these women were ranked as South Africa’s most liked (and followed) TikTokers.
Meet the most popular girls on TikTok right now in our April Influencer Issue!
TikTok is described as the world’s leading destination for short-form videos. This year it surpassed 1,5 billion downloads, and its power among Gen Zers in South Africa (and the world) is undeniable. For those who need a 101, the app is centred on fun clips that are each under 60 seconds long. Sometimes they’re choreographed and scripted; other times they’re simple and spontaneous. Some popular video themes include tricks, skits, acting out South Africanisms, dancing or simply lip-syncing to songs. Creators attempt to beat their counterparts with more challenging, original and outrageous clips.
Chané Grobler (@chanegrobler), Witney Ramabulana (@witney8) and Kelly Ernstzen (@kelly_kiKx) are, legit, the most popular South African women on TikTok right now. Between them, they have three million followers and 84 million likes. What else do they have in common, besides crushing it on TikTok? Well, um, TikTok isn’t even their main gig. Witney is 28 years old, with eight million likes on TikTok, and she’s a senior financial administrator for an IT company. Kelly is 27 years old, with 14,5 million likes on the app, and she’s a dancer and actress. Nineteen-year-old Chané has the highest number of likes at 62,9 million, and she’s studying education. On the side, these women are producing and pumping out short-form videos almost daily. Witney specialises in comedic videos, Kelly focuses mostly on dance, and Chané describes her channel as ‘a bit of everything’. How did these seemingly ordinary girls get started?
Witney, born and raised in Limpopo, moved to Pretoria when she was in high school and first downloaded the app in 2018. A runway-walk impression was the first video that made Witney go viral (it garnered 8,9 million likes!). I asked what exactly this runway walk is, and she explained that it’s like doing a catwalk dance to music. ‘When it went viral, people started tagging and DMing me,’ she says. ‘The video got so many views, even Oprah’s Instagram reposted it.’
Cape Town-born Kelly has carved out a decent spot for herself in the entertainment industry as a dancer and actor, having been cast in Honey 3, Bring It On: Worldwide and House Party 5. She started off as a YouTuber and later joined Musical.ly (TikTok’s former name) in 2016 after a suggestion from a YouTube fan. She posted videos regularly but, one day, she just blew up. ‘I did a tutting dance challenge (a street-dance style) and I suddenly went from five views to one million views,’ she says. ‘That was the first time I was like, “Wow, people are seeing my stuff!”’
Chané, also born in Limpopo and raised in Pretoria (shout-out to the Limpopo homegirls), got Musical.ly in 2015 but didn’t create videos. She started out just watching other people’s uploads. But, in December 2017, she decided it was time to make her own content. ‘It was horrible,’ she says. ‘It was a lip-sync video, and everything was black and white. It was so bad.’ Her first big break was a transition video she created with one of her guy friends in which, on the beat, they swopped outfits. The video received 500 000 likes. Chané then started to produce more and more, with her top post sitting at 3,4 million likes. She is now the most popular female on TikTok in South Africa.
Chané is a busy woman. Her mom is now her momager (aka SA’s answer to Kris Jenner) who plans and organises her studies, meetings and event appearances. ‘She does everything for me,’ Chané says. ‘She takes me everywhere I need to go – she even records some of my videos for me. When I don’t have a content idea, she’ll scroll through TikTok, searching for ideas for me to try out. She’s super-invested in my career.’ Encouraged by her number-one supporter, Chané has made more than 2 800 videos on TikTok.
I’ll give it to them – all three women’s videos are side-splittingly funny, and flicking from one to the next is highly addictive. However, at this stage, I still don’t really understand why TikTok has exploded onto our screens like rapid fire. There are four conclusions I have drawn. Hear me out.
1. You can relate to them
‘I was tired,’ says Witney. ‘The first time I went on Instagram, I was so overwhelmed. I felt like I couldn’t keep up. Everything was so glamorous and I just couldn’t relate. It was all too expensive. I didn’t think people would accept me.’ We forget (or I do) that Gen Zers have grown up with social media. And although it is so much a part of their lives, they seem to have a love-hate relationship with the virtual network. So, what makes TikTok different?
‘TikTok feels authentic,’ says Witney. ‘You have 15 seconds and need to make every second count. You can be yourself. You don’t have to wear fancy clothes. You can go viral just by wearing your pyjamas.’
Self-confidence has been a pretty recent development for Witney, who says she spent the majority of her life hiding. She was reserved and described herself as an ‘extreme introvert’. As a kid, she lived with her aunt after her father left, and she struggled to feel accepted. ‘It broke me as a young girl when I saw other kids being dropped off at school by their parents,’ she says. ‘I didn’t socialise. I was just in my little corner.’ After completing her studies, Witney worked at McDonald’s for a year, after which she was accepted for an internship at the company she now works for. ‘When I found this app, it helped me a lot. Honestly, it saved my life,’ she says with a nervous laugh. ‘It really helped to boost my confidence. I thought to myself, “Wow, I can actually speak to people.” It brought out a side of me that I didn’t know existed.’
Although Kelly was already working in the entertainment industry and had professional training and experience, she still felt like a fraud. But after gaining popularity on the app, she became more confident and began dancing more and more on her channel. Kelly is a Christian and places a lot of emphasis on showing her love for God. She recalls a story of her going live on TikTok during a praise-and-worship session where she opened up about her depression and dealing with cyberbullying. ‘No-one knew I was going through hectic depression and that I was very close to taking my own life,’ says Kelly. ‘It felt good to share this and to show [my followers] that I am human.’
2. You can make $$$
Witney’s aunt doesn’t understand TikTok. ‘She thinks I’m crazy,’ Witney says. ‘My aunty was with me when I was doing a campaign for Spur, and I asked her to throw water on me until my wig fell off. She was like, “Okay, this is actually funny!” But mostly, she thinks I’m crazy.’
From advertising and brand partnerships to donations from their fans for LOL skits, influencers are able to make money on TikTok. One of the most lucrative ways to coin it is through live-streaming. In this way, your viewers can reward you with ‘gifts’. In order to get TikTok gifts, you have to purchase coins first. These coins are then added to your account where you can exchange them for a variety of unique virtual gifts, the lowest termed a ‘Panda’ (five coins = R8) and the highest called a ‘Drama Queen’ (5 000 coins = R800). Once gifted, the coins will then appear in the creator’s account in the form of ‘Diamonds’, which they can then exchange for cash via PayPal.
Chané talks about the night she made the biggest amount of money. ‘I went live late one Sunday evening, and it was a really long session,’ she says. ‘That night was crazy. One person sent me 17 Drama Queens and another sent 19. In total, I made R36 000. TikTok takes half the cash, but I came out with R18 000 from that one live video.’ Not bad for 200 minutes’ worth of work!
Chané also reveals there are other ways to make money besides going live. For example, if a new artist wants to get her song out there, they’ll ask you if you can feature it in one of your videos and they’ll gift you. ‘I give them what they want in exchange for coins – it can be a follow or a duet, but I never ask for it,’ she says.
Witney, Kelly and Chané are also currently working with brands that include PopSockets, Starbucks, L’Oréal, Apple and Netflix on endorsements and product features.
3. You can have fun
These girls are funny AF. Through their video content, they provide a constant stream of entertainment. ‘I’ve had people message me, saying they are struggling with depression,’ says Witney. ‘And they say my videos made them laugh. That’s when I started to see the importance of the app – it’s really therapeutic.’ Research says that Gen Z is the most depressed generation yet.
The American Psychological Association’s 2019 stress report found they had the ‘worst mental health’ of all the generations, with more than 90% reporting feeling the physical or emotional symptoms linked to depression and anxiety. ‘The majority of the comments are from kids, between the ages of 12 and 18,’ says Chané. ‘They often say that they’ve had a bad day and that my TikTok videos made them feel better. This is my aim now – to be a positivity influencer.’
4. You can be real
What does ‘cool’ look like in 2020? ‘To be unapologetically yourself,’ says Kelly. ‘Being real is the new cool.’ I started to realise that TikTok is a platform for users to watch (and partake in) content that is authentic, unfiltered and less curated – a break from the stress of everyday life. There are no perfect pictures or captions, as you’d see on Instagram. ‘I want to inspire young girls to be themselves,’ says Witney. ‘I’m here, just wearing my jeans and a top. That’s what I wanted to achieve on my TikTok profile – to be relatable. That I can be successful by being myself.’
So what’s next for our COSMO cover stars? Kelly has started her own dance workshop with ambitions to expand; Chané plans to move to LA (to take her TikTok career to the next level) after completing her degree; and Witney is building brand partnerships, one after the next. Who would’ve thought, that in 2020, having fun and being your own brand of awesome (oh, and obvs having some sick lip-syncing skills) could earn you a sh*t load of coins? Pretty dope, if you ask me.
To read more on Chané, Witney and Kelly, pick up our April 2020 issue, on newsstands on 23 March, or click here to subscribe.
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