Poolside at a rented Encino, California mansion, sisters Charli and Dixie D’Amelio—who, with more than 200 million TikTok followers, are arguably the most popular girls in the world—craft dresses out of mountains of toilet paper rolls, kitchen gloves and pipe cleaners. Two drag queens join Charli, 18, and Dixie, 21, to coach the slender brunette sisters as they transform the jumble of household supplies into haute couture gowns. “We know nothing lasts forever—there’s going to be ups and downs,” says Charli D’Amelio who, with 145.5 million followers, is TikTok’s second most popular person. “We’re just here to do as much as we can and enjoy this time.”
Guerin Blask for Forbes
In 2019, the D’Amelio sisters became overnight TikTok sensations by posting low-production, self-shot dance and lip sync videos from their messy bedrooms in Norwalk, Connecticut. In 2021, Charli earned $17.5 million in branding and endorsement deals, which based on Forbes estimates makes her the world’s highest paid TikTok star. Older sister Dixie made $10 million. Today, they’ll spend twelve hours building their dresses, palling around with their drag queen coaches and trading sibling jabs before a 100-person film crew. The painstaking, full-day shoot of nonstop takes will be sliced and squeezed into eight binge-worthy minutes for the second season of the D’Amelio’s Snapchat competition show Charli Versus Dixie. The D’Amelio sister who wins the most challenges over the season gets $50,000 for the charity of her choice. Each D’Amelio sister, by Forbes’ estimate, gets paid up to $100,000 per episode.
It’s a handsome haul for an eight-minute show—and a mere rounding error on the $70 million in earnings that Charli, Dixie and their parents Heidi and Marc D’Amelio, brought home over the past two years. The Connecticut family, with no prior showbiz experience, has attracted windfall endorsement deals with an eclectic group of brands rarely mentioned in the same sentence—Amazon, Hollister, Dunkin, Prada—which happily pay the D’Amelios around $250,000 per post. Following the playbook once reserved for A-lister stars, the sisters are exchanging influence for equity, grabbing ownership stakes in buzzy companies, including Lightricks, a $1.8 billion (valuation) content creation software firm. They star in, and produce, a reality series The D’Amelio Show, on Hulu. They also bet on new companies via their $25 million early-stage VC fund 444 Capital. And today, the family is launching D’Amelio Brands to hawk products and cash in on the image and likeness rights to anything Charli and Dixie. Backed by $6 million from Fanatics billionaire Michael Rubin and serial entrepreneur Richard Rosenblatt (Demand Media, Autograph) the pre-revenue, pre-product, pre-employee company has a post-money valuation of $100 million.
“It’s very different than Dunkin Donuts paying you a one-time transaction fee, as compared to having your own coffee,” says Rosenblatt. “If the marketing is free and you have authentic, high-quality products, the business should grow very quickly.”
The D’Amelios have become the social media’s version of the ideal American family (successful, attractive, wholesome)—the Leave It To Beaver of the smartphone age. Their colossal clout and power to influence teen trends earned them high spots on the inaugural Forbes Top Creator list spotlighting the 50 social media superstars revolutionizing entertainment and advertising in the smartphone age. Our first-ever Top Creators leveraged a combined 1.9 billion followers across Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube and OnlyFans to earn $570 million in 2021. Their average age is just 31. Unlike traditional celebs who’ve cashed in on famous roles, hit albums and athletic triumphs, the new breed of creators are blurring the lines between selling and existing—turning their lives into an endless digital commercials. Charli and Dixie (ranked #2 and #21 on the Top Creators list) epitomize a generation of entrepreneurs who have harnessed social media to become the platform, pitch people and the product.
“There are influencers that influence other influencers–Charli and the whole D’Amelio crew– they’re the top of the food chain,” says Vickie Segar, whose Village Marketing runs influencer marketing for big brands including Netflix and Equinox. “Whatever they’re doing trickles down through influencers, customers and then regular people. It’s an incredibly powerful position to be in. I would put Kim Kardashian in this bucket—it’s just a handful of people.”
The payoffs of being in that bucket are enormous—so are the tradeoffs. At a time of endless warnings on how social media harms teen psychology, the D’Amelios lived their awkward adolescent lives under the gaze of hundreds of millions of followers—many of who criticize their every move—from how they scramble eggs to how they dressed at the Video Music Awards.
“We are always looking at ourselves as if someone is looking at us. Are we walking right? Do I sound stupid?… Does my outfit look good?” Charli says during an episode of the D’Amelio Show. “Millions of people watch your every move, millions of people are ready to tear you apart every second—it’s a constant terror.”
It’s a terror that has robbed the D’Amelio’s of any notion of privacy and personal space—and one that reaches well beyond the cruel comments of social media trolls. “I get phone calls every day from random people. I answer and just listen. They’re like, “Answer me? Why aren’t you talking?” And then they cuss me out,” Dixie tells Forbes. “My house in Connecticut, during the beginning of Covid, people would show up every day and knock on my door.”
We know nothing lasts forever; there’s going to be ups and downs. And we’re just here to do as much as we can and enjoy this time and learn as much as we can and be a positive part of social media in the business world.
Such is the cost of turning your childhood bedroom into a stage to sell your Social Tourist clothing line, your signature Dunkin coffee and your Born Dreamer perfume. Dixie and Charli are very young and very public, a volatile combination that has ruined the careers, and sometimes lives, of many child stars. The D’Amelios face a cruel paradox where they are both the stars and props of a personal brand over which they have little agency or control. “It just gets more difficult every day. I am physically and mentally exhausted–it’s work, it’s my personal life, it’s negative comments, it’s school, it’s content I make for myself, it’s deliverables, it’s meetings, it’s interviews–it’s everything.” Charli D’Amelio says through sobs on the Hulu show she executive co-produces. “I am responsible for all of the people around me. Every person that works for my family puts pressure on me, and if I wanted to quit—well, now they don’t have a job. It’s a lot to put on one person.”
For the D’Amelios, the pay is worth the pressure, at least for now. In the volatile social media world, where popularity is at the mercy of mysterious social media algorithms and fickle audiences, careers can boom and bust in an instant. “We know this opportunity and everything that’s happened has happened to many other young people who have been in the public eye could go away tomorrow,” says dad Marc D’Amelio. “I struggle with the ‘Hey, let’s make sure that we do as much as we can to make sure that If this does end tomorrow if the girls don’t want to do it anymore, they’ll have a nice nest egg to do whatever they want going forward.”
The D’Amelio family found fame by accident. Marc and Heidi (née O’Brien) D’Amelio met in 1997 at a New York City gym. Marc was a salesman for the sportswear company Mitchell & Ness. Heidi was a personal trainer and model. When Heidi became pregnant with Dixie in late 2000, the family moved an hour north of New York into a four-bedroom house in Norwalk, Connecticut. It was a comfortable life in an old New England suburb. The D’Amelios enrolled Charli and Dixie at the King School in nearby Stamford, Connecticut, known for sending graduates to top 50 colleges and its $50,000 tuition. In 2018, Marc D’Amelio unsuccessfully ran for the Connecticut State Senate as a moderate Republican.
In 2019, Charli, started to post videos dancing to pop songs on a nascent TikTok. Followers came fast. That year, an indie music exec offered Charli her first deal—$75 to dance to his tune. First, she had to ask her mom Heidi. “I said, ‘Charli, nobody’s paying you money to do a dance to a song,'” Heidi D’Amelio says. “It ended up being the number one most-viewed TikTok on that audio.”
Guerin Blask for Forbes
The Covid lockdown added more momentum. With millions of TikTok glued to phones, Charli gained 400,000 to 500,000 followers daily. “We have seen this happen with a number of creators–maybe not to Charli’s extent,” says Stephanie Hind, TikTok’s North American head of lifestyle and education. “Charli came on a pivotal time in 2019, and she was doing something really interesting.”
Older sister Dixie, who had earlier been embarrassed by her younger sister dancing for a then-little-known-app, quickly converted her sister’s fanbase into her own. In January 2020, Morphe Cosmetics, known for its bold palettes and influencer collaborations, came knocking with a six-figure endorsement deal. By this point, Charli and Dixie lived between their Norwalk home and a Los Angeles content creator collective Hype House (with other Forbes Top Creators Avani Gregg and Addison Rae Easterling). “We weren’t always behind our kids being involved in social media. We weren’t the type of parents that gave our kids phones at an early age,” says Marc D’Amelio. “We try to protect them as much as possible, but we also give them the tools to do whatever they want.”
As Covid-19 cases spiked in November of 2020, Charli became the first-ever TikTok user to hit 100 million followers. “For young people, Charli and Dixie are folks that they want to hang out with; they’re like the popular kids in school,” says Trevor Buffone, a lecturer at the University of Houston and author of Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok. “When Charli and Dixie create something–whether it’s a song for Dixie or dance for Charli–they’re giving us identities to replicate, and people fashion their identities based on them.”
Big corporations have taken notice. Brands like Abercrombie and Morphe Cosmetics have hired the D’Amelios to hype new products to Generation TikTok. In 2021, Abercrombie & Fitch brand Hollister, a once-hot shopping mall mainstay that had long grown cold, formed a new clothing company with the D’Amelios dubbed Social Tourist. This June, Morphe released Charli’s perfume Born Dreamer, a vegan, jasmine-scented fragrance in a star-topped bottle that now serves as a prominent prop in many D’Amelio posts. The collaborations have proven lucrative test runs for the D’Amelios to launch their own products.
D’Amelio Brands—their newest venture—is out to hire some 20 consumer pros to develop products like skincare and shoes to sell to the hordes of D’Amelio fans across TikTok, Hulu and Snap. The goal is to spawn the TikTok version of Michael Jordan sneakers, George Foreman grills, Dr. Dre headphones and Trump, well, just about everything.
The startup, however, is an industry-first as it turns novice, young women—famous for being famous—into venture-backed humans. D’Amelio Brands will be a holding company for their endorsement deals, brands, shows and music albums—a company that can quickly rise and fall depending on the latest social media trends.
“That’s why we’re doing this now and doing it the way we want to do it,” says Charli. “We must take advantage of the moment.”
Dixie chimes in: “With our true passions, it’s not about money, but sharing what we love with the world.” And if their true passion is getting rich—what’s not to love?