The D’Amelios Are Coming for All of Your Screens
TikTok’s most famous family wants to reintroduce itself on TV. Whatever that means now.,
Peak screen was achieved this spring, beaming into a business meeting with Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, social media’s starriest sisters, and their parents, Marc and Heidi.
Three D’Amelios idly thumbed their devices as a masked cameraman swung in for a close-up, gathering footage for the family’s upcoming documentary series on Hulu. With my own phone, I snapped a photo of the scene on my laptop’s display. Four layers of looking-glass: Marshall McLuhan would have turned cartwheels.
Celebrity has changed radically since McLuhan declared “the medium is the message,” and Exhibits A and B are C and D, Charli and Dixie. The sisters’ names might elicit either eye rolls of over-familiarity — perhaps you followed along online as their wisdom teeth were removed? — or blank stares, depending on one’s proximity to TikTok.
In 2019, Charli and Dixie began posting short, playful videos from their bedrooms (bathrooms, too) and accumulating enormous, unexpected internet followings. This has led to deals selling iced coffee and hummus and social-distancing messages (Charli); several song releases, some quite raunchy (Dixie); dancing with J. Lo before the Super Bowl (Charli); hosting a talk show (Dixie) and sitting front row at Prada in Milan (Charli).
Together they have joined and left the Hype House, a content-making collective in Los Angeles; weathered periodic torrents of scorn from commenters; started a podcast; worked on a makeup collection that they daub on each other’s faces with Michelangelo-like care; and through it all frequently updated their fans. In the popular imagination, they are very much a unit, even if it was not always so.
On this video call, they were discussing marketing plans for a line of clothing called Social Tourist: crop tops and pleated miniskirts and items for the dog (the D’Amelios have four). The name refers not to ethical globe-trotting but to online interaction and identity exploration. “We thought about space travel, about digital versus organic and reflecting what life was like prior to having a cellphone in your hand all the time,” said Nathalie Kossek, the brand’s art director.
Remember life before cellphones, when everyone could hum the jingles for Cheerios and Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms learned from commercials? To conjure that nostalgia, one white crew neck sweatshirt priced at $60 would be delivered in a Social Tourist cereal-like box to the 100 fastest-clicking customers.
Marc was focused on practical matters. “How is this getting shipped?” he asked. “It should be packaged well — within the package — so it gets there looking good.” Besides being TikTok’s First Father, he has worked in the apparel business for 30 years. Now, he is packaging his family. Having seen hundreds of household names become yesterday’s news, “I want them both to appreciate the fact that nothing’s promised, and chances are it won’t last forever,” he told me later.
The D’Amelios were joining the call from Los Angeles, where they moved in the summer of 2020 from Norwalk, Conn., to pursue the many business opportunities that arose after their online fame mushroomed. I was languishing in New York. Downstairs, my 13-year-old was screaming at a video game.
“Ask her about the Dino nuggets,” he’d instructed, referring to how Charli, during a dinner catered by a private chef and filmed for the family’s YouTube channel, had suggested breaded chicken as a substitute for the escargot that had triggered Dixie’s gag reflex.
The gaffe, or the adolescent ingratitude and entitlement it seemed to punctuate, had cost Charli a million-odd followers on TikTok — a minor setback on the way to her current total of 123 million, the highest number on the platform. A freckled and shiny-haired trained competitive dancer, she is 17. In an earlier era she might have been a cover model for the magazine of that name, which at this time of year would be selling many copies of a 300-page back-to-school print issue filled with ads for concealer and tampons and Famolares.
Mothers then thought those magazines were trash. Now mothers are themselves on TikTok, performing herky-jerky duets and trios with their daughters, wearing loungewear and sheepish grins. That includes Heidi, 49, a former model and personal trainer whose own following is 9.5 million. Marc, 52, a onetime candidate for Connecticut’s State Senate, has a million more. Dixie, 20, has more than 54 million. Belle, Cali, Codi and Rebel, the dogs, are collectively lagging at 850,000.
The D’Amelios are not, to use the old showbiz cliche, bigger than the Beatles. But in their toggle between suburban rooms and gleaming event venues, on the moving sidewalk of Instagram and amid the rotten eggs of Twitter, they might well be surpassing the Partridges. The question is, can they sustain the attention of America for more than one-minute online chunks? Can anything?
‘A Living Social Experiment’
TV no longer really “airs,” the oxygen we all breathe, but “streams” in little rivulets onto computers, phones and other devices. Nor is there really a water-cooler conversation, but rather many little individually filled Hydro Flasks.
The electronic hearth of the middle 20th century is now a multitude of electronic hand and lap warmers.
But in a way “The D’Amelio Show,” which arrives in a gush of eight episodes on Sept. 3, is a throwback: the latest iteration of a now well-established genre exposing the fights and flaws and foibles of famous families in their habitats. There were the Osbournes; there were the Gottis; and most inescapably there have been the Kardashians, who ended their show after 14 years in June, creating an opening.
Sisters sell: the Olsens, the Hiltons, the Hadids and so on. Stabbing at a soup can with a knife in one episode as her boyfriend, Noah Beck, watches dismayed, the dimple-chinned, goofy Dixie conjures Jessica Simpson in “Newlyweds,” wondering if her Chicken of the Sea tuna was chicken. (Also when she wears a glittery cowboy hat and falls off a mechanical bull in the video for a song she released to some censure in May, “F***Boy.”)
Like Ms. Simpson’s younger sibling, Ashlee, Charli underwent nose surgery — but in public, for medical rather than cosmetic reasons. And while Ashlee was pilloried after being exposed for lip-syncing her own songs on “Saturday Night Live,” this generation lip-syncs on social media overtly, ironically, often before breaking into self-deprecating laughter and tumbling out of frame.
Charli, with her dancing, and Dixie, who studied violin and piano, were naturals at these casual pastiches. Issued MacBooks and smartphones early and sans much parental angst — “something told me this is going to be the future,” Marc said — they grew up watching and imitating YouTube personalities. (“I don’t know if I was a sucker, or what,” Heidi said of Charli’s insistence on doing homework with background entertainment flowing into her headphones.)
But broadcasting from the comfort of home has its peril. Where do you retreat when the calls for cancellation come — when the audience feedback is instant, constant, pinging in your palm?
Weirdly, TV, the erstwhile idiot box, has become not the place for further exposure, but a safe — or at least safer — space, where professionals set boundaries, supply context and order the chaos of online interaction. In the show, negative comments the sisters receive on social media pop up onscreen like the annotations of VH1’s music video heyday, taking the audience into the psychic cage of the phone; each episode is bracketed with public service announcements about mental health.
“Inside a phone, on an app, people can be dehumanized — not just us, everybody,” Marc said. The television show, he hopes, will give people “a fair assessment of who we really are.”
Belisa Balaban, the vice president of original documentaries at Hulu, said she hoped “the show inspires dialogue between parents and kids about social media. It’s evolving so fast. They are a tight-knit family, and we know a lot of kids aren’t lucky enough to have that.”
Sara Reddy, the showrunner and an executive producer who previously worked on “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” assembled a small crew that filmed from four to eight hours on weekdays and stayed out of the girls’ therapy sessions — though they were allowed in when Dixie broke down in convulsive tears over negative reactions to a video diary she did for Vogue. “Wanting to not be part of the problem, that was really important to me, because I could see that the girls were struggling with all the scrutiny,” Ms. Reddy said.
When first pitched the D’Amelios, Ms. Reddy “had no clue who they were, none,” she said. “I’m not a teenager. I really found it easy to roll my eyes at social media during Covid. Then I dug in, and what really struck me was I felt like the family was a living social experiment that they didn’t necessarily sign up for. I came into their life right as fame was changing for them. They had the fun rise up — and as we do to people we put on a pedestal, people were starting to take them down. And I thought this can be a much more complete, interesting story than just, ‘Hey, this family’s famous.'”
Charli and Dixie, IRL
When they aren’t dolled up for something like Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, where Charli in a strapless formal gown was doused in green slime like a latter-day Carrie, the sisters seem to recede into soft, blurry situations: dipping into ice cream, disappearing into hoodies and under blankets, hugging Squishmallows. Charli is scared to drive. “Curbs, curbs, curbs, curbs, curbs,” she mutters on the show, practicing. “Every time I’m free, I just want to be in bed on my phone, which is so bad,” Dixie says. The only sign that they might be ready to fight back is their manicures, which are incongruously sharp and pointy — talons, really.
These they waggled at me in person one morning after rainstorms flooded the subways of Manhattan, in an enormous penthouse apartment with views of the Hudson River — and, Dixie noted, dramatic lightning strikes. The obvious metaphor hung in the air.
Asked not about Dino nuggets but the moment when it all changed, Charli said, “I don’t know. It wasn’t like a snap that happened. More like, ‘This is happening, but I still feel the same.’ And now it’s happening on a much bigger scale, and I still feel the same, so I don’t know.”
Dixie would like eventually to settle in New York, where her parents courted a quarter-century ago, before cellphones became commonplace, rollerblading in Central Park. “I want to be here,” she said.
As for Charli: “I have no idea. I like everywhere. I kind of want to live in the middle of nowhere.” she said. “On a farm. Or like in the middle of L.A. Who knows. I go back and forth.”
Any anxious parent of quaran-teens, sequestered for so many months with their portals to heaven-knows-what — their temporary avatars out there for all eternity like so much space junk — could sympathize with this impulse to vanish into the pastoral. And also not hold her to it, on the eve of a Hollywood debut.
“I think people are going to be surprised about the maturity of the show,” Dixie said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, watch us do TikToks all day.’ It’s very deep, it’s very true, it shows our emotions, it’s caught us in real time having breakdowns and not wanting to do social media anymore. And the thing is, I don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh, they’re doing this for sympathy or attention.’ We just want you to take a look into our lives and take what you want from it.”
“I’ve heard that people like to come to our pages for a little bit of an escape,” Charli said dryly.
And should that escape feels like a trap, the most popular girl on TikTok offers the simplest of solutions. “I feel like it’s very important to take some time off whenever you feel like you need it,” she said. “You don’t even tell yourself, ‘Time to take a break.’ You kind of just let it go.” She waggled her fingers again, as if sprinkling magic dust. “Drop your phone for a little bit.”