Shortly after President Trump threatened to ban TikTok last weekend, 19-year-old Addison Rae Easterling did what she does best. She posted a short-form video imagining her life without the wildly popular social media app: She’d return to LSU, where she started out as a freshman last year studying broadcast journalism.
But Easterling isn’t just one of the millions of TikTok teens who post goofy dance videos on the Chinese-owned platform for fun. She is its top-earning star, bringing in an estimated $5 million last year, thanks to her 54.1 million followers, her new makeup line (Item Beauty) and deals with American Eagle and Spotify. “TikTok is what got me to where I am,” Easterling says.
While the fate of TikTok’s ownership is still unclear, one thing is certain: Few people have gotten more out of the video-sharing app than Addison Rae and the six other young celebrities on Forbes’ first-ever list of TikTok’s highest-paid stars. These viral video creators—all of whom earned at least $1 million in the 12 months through June—have only just begun to monetize their fame, primarily through sales of personally branded merchandise and sponsored content for brands such as Sony, Chipotle and Revlon.
A year ago, Easterling was just settling into life at LSU and making choreographed TikToks that drew on a childhood as a competitive dancer. She hit a million fans by the fall—she remembers the day exactly: October 27—and was getting recognized around campus: “My name would be called out when I was walking to class, which was pretty mind-blowing,” Easterling recalls. Younger teens at LSU football games would ask to get their picture taken with her.
That fall she posted her first sponsored content posts, for Fashion Nova, an online women’s clothing store, and in December, she left school for Los Angeles to pursue celebrityhood full-time. There, she became friends with a group of TikTok stars and helped form Hype House, a content creator collective, which elevated her profile further. Business opportunities followed. At first, she got the typical deals to do her own branded merchandise and sponsored content from brands like Reebok and watch company Daniel Wellington. Altogether, these two revenue streams accounted for two thirds of her estimated earnings.
In July, she became the main global spokesperson for American Eagle, a role that will splash her image across both digital and traditional TV and print ads for the teen clothing company. That same month she started hosting a weekly Spotify podcast with her mom, Sheri Nicole, called Mama Knows Best. (“We want to break the barrier and get into conversations that most kids would feel uncomfortable asking their parents about.”) Her makeup line, Item Beauty, a joint venture with beauty startup Madeby, drops its first products online next week including a bronzer, eyeshadow, brightening powder—and the pièce de résistance, the $14 Lash Snack. “Mascara,” Easterling explains. “It has castor oil in it, so it’s a treat for your eyelashes.”
After posting on TikTok for the first time in June 2019, she had a series of dance videos go viral last summer and fall. Shortly afterwards, singer Bebe Rexha invited Charli to join her in opening for the Jonas Brothers at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
Things happened fast from there. She left her hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut, and moved to LA. She was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She chronicled her time at Paris Fashion Week for Prada on TikTok. She struck sponsorship deals with companies like EOS cosmetics and appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus. She and her sister Dixie (No. 3) made frequent videos with Hype House, and the sisters have also announced an agreement to be the new faces of Hollister. And in May, Charli turned 16. She celebrated the moment as any young influencer might: adding to her line of Charli-branded merchandise a new, limited-edition $60 hoodie, emblazoned with a drawing of her in glasses and a birthday party hat.
As the older sister of Charli D’Amelio (No. 2), Dixie finds her fame fully intertwined with her sister’s. They both left home to live in LA. They appear in many of each other’s videos on TikTok, where Dixie has 32 million followers. And in the last few months, the D’Amelios signed joint deals with clothing company Hollister and with Morphe, a cosmetics company. Dixie, meanwhile, is striking out on her own with her music career, releasing her first single, “Be Happy,” in June. It has accumulated 58 million streams, and at launch, became the No. 1 trending video on YouTube, ahead of a Kayne West-Travis Scott music video also released that same day.
When Loren Gray first started out, she went through a string of bad talent managers, she says, who misguided her and botched some early sponsorship deals. It left her determined to follow her own mind. “The only person who knows how to brand Loren Gray and be Loren Gray is Loren Gray,” she says in an interview that, true to her sentiment, includes no agent, manager or PR flack.
This mentality has worked out pretty well for her so far. In 2018, she got a deal with Virgin Records and has since released eight singles. Until this spring, Gray had the biggest fanbase of any TikToker, leading her to land sponcon deals with Skechers, Hyundai and Burger King. Her primary focus at the moment is her new Revlon deal, creating content for the company’s TikTok account and Revlon-sponsored posts for hers. “It’s more of a creator role than just doing what someone says for 60 seconds,” the maximum length of a TikTok, explains Gray, “They’re very flexible and give me a lot of creative freedom.”
To best capitalize on fame, “it’s about creating companies or getting equity in companies,” Josh Richards says. “Influencers need to learn how to properly monetize.”
To be sure, he’s done plenty of traditional TikTok moneymaking: sponsorship deals with Reebok and HouseParty, a merch line, YouTube ad revenue, a new song-making deal with Warner Records. But he’s also cofounded his own talent management company, TalentX, and his own drink business, Ani Energy—and joined the C-suite of Triller, a smaller TikTok rival, as its chief strategy officer, a deal that compensated him with an equity stake in the startup.
Positioning himself as a thoughtful media executive is a pretty sweeping change from what his image has been: TikTok’s resident heartthrob and bad boy. After getting on TikTok last year while living near Toronto, Canada, Richards achieved quick fame for his dance, singing and lip-synching videos—and for a persona he describes as “edgy teen.” He has played up feuds with other influencers on social media and cofounded Sway House, the TikTok collective that has developed a reputation for parties and hijinks. (Two members of Sway were arrested in Texas on drug charges in May after violating the Covid-19 lockdown in California.) “It was chaotic there” at Sway House, says Richards, who has recently moved out of the group’s LA home. “I was going down a path I hadn’t planned on.”
Michael Le is not a shy guy. “I’m pushing to be the top influencer on TikTok,” he says, sprawled shirtless on a bed in the LA mansion that he and four others are currently renting. Like several others on this list, he, too, has started a TikTok collective, and that 9,000-square-foot home is the HQ of his Shluv House—“Shluv” being a portmanteau of sorts for “self-love.” “I know how to pull it all together,” says Le, 20. “To make every video be a skit, be something that’s more than just putting your phone down” and recording willy-nilly.
Two of his videos from earlier this year that feature him dancing on a descending escalator—one with his 5-year-old brother, Jonathan, who is a Shluv cofounder—are among the most-shared content ever on the app, accumulating a total of 478 million views. Among Le’s sponcon deals is his years-long partnership with Bang energy drinks, on whose behalf he posts several times a week. YouTube is next, he says. Jonathan will be a costar there, too, where videos featuring kids are incredibly popular. The goal? “Pushing five—five-plus—series,” Le says. “Really becoming big.”
Spencer X longs to hear the magic words. “When Coachella is, like, ‘Hey, Spencer, you’re the guy—you’re headlining Coachella as a beatboxer.’” Or these words: “You’re also on Saturday Night Live next week, and you’re hosting.”
A little TikTok fame can inspire some wild-sounding dreams, and those come naturally to Spencer, 28. Spencer, who devoted his childhood to obsessively studying beatbox YouTube clips, wants to be the first big-time celebrity beatboxer. After dropping out of Purchase College, he spent his 20s taking any performing gig he could land, including ones with a bluegrass group, an a cappella quintet and a Russian rock band.
He got on TikTok in February 2019, and by the following fall, he’d moved to LA, where he was couch surfing, juggling a bank balance of a few hundred dollars—and trying to turn his 10 million or so fans on TikTok into a real career. Soon sponsorships with Uno, Oreo and Sony made that seem a lot more possible. He’s currently holed up in his own two-story Hollywood pad, working on what he hopes becomes his first singles. “I’m here to show people that a lot is possible in what we thought was impossible.”
We estimated pretax earnings that these stars took in from June 30, 2019, through June 30, 2020. To estimate what they made, we talked to the influencers themselves, agents, managers, marketers and investors. This list focuses on stars native to TikTok, and for that reason, it doesn’t include traditional celebs like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Derulo or YouTubers like Zach King and David Dobrik, all of who have large followings on TikTok.