Avani Gregg’s influencer career started when she was in middle school, which rarely plays well with fellow 12-year-olds. The TikTok star started out posting on Musical.ly, the lip-sync app later acquired by TikTok. Gregg would upload videos herself, mostly filmed in poorly-lit areas of her house in Indianapolis, performing interpretive dances or just lip-syncing, all while decked out in intricate (often macabre) costume makeup.
“I never really had too much time for my friends,” says Gregg, who spent most of her time outside of school at gymnastics practice (she was level 10 by age 16) and running her Twenty One Pilots fan page. The audios she chose for her Musical.ly videos reflected her loner status. She often went with moody tracks about not fitting in, or cult classics like “This Is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Her early videos seemed quirky, earnest — what you’d expect from a creative teen exploring a new platform — but they were calculated. Unlike peers who exclusively used social media... socially, Gregg says, “My mindset was, ‘I am going to get at least one video to blow up.'” She was methodical in her approach, posting at least three times a day, mostly lip-sync videos showing off her newest elaborate makeup looks or more low-key commentary on life delivered while showing off her latest outfit choice. “I was like, ‘This is going to be one, this is going to be one.’ Then it just kind of happened.”
“It” was a seven-second video posted on June 1, 2019 of an inconspicuously-dressed Gregg saying “Clown check” into the camera, only to smash-cut transform into a Harley Quinn-esque clown maniacally lip-syncing the lyrics to “Hokus Pukus” by the Insane Clown Posse. The video went viral, raking in 43 million views. Soon after, Gregg saw posts that would have gotten 750,000 views before get upwards of 2 million. Just as she’d hoped, her steadily grown but still modest social media following went stratospheric.
[My classmates] made me feel like they actually liked my content, and liked me, and wanted to be my friend. Then they would post [the photo] on their private story and be like, ‘Ha, she really thought I wanted an actual picture with her.’
Roughly a year later, Gregg has 25 million followers on TikTok and a combined 40 million across her social profiles. As a mixed-race Indian, Mongolian, and Black woman, she’s one of the first non-white members of the Hype House, the most elite TikTok collab house in LA, and the internet’s hottest content collective since Jake Paul’s Team 10. But as her content has evolved, Gregg has also found herself caught up in an ongoing fight about what TikTok should be — if the president of the United States doesn’t succeed in banning the app altogether — that nearly pushed her to leave it. The question is: when you’re 17 with 40 million followers, where do you go?
Gregg’s first brush with TikTok haters happened in real life. Back in Indianapolis, when trips to Castleton Square mall turned into spontaneous fan meet-and-greets, the reaction from Gregg’s classmates was less than positive. People she was friends with before would come up to her at school and ask for a picture. “They made me feel like they actually liked my content, and liked me, and wanted to be my friend,” Gregg recalls. “Then they would post [the photo] on their private story and be like, ‘Ha, she really thought I wanted an actual picture with her.’”
In July 2019, while she was weathering this backlash, an injury officially ended her gymnastics career. So when Gregg’s TikTok popularity landed her an invite to join Hype House at the end of that year, she was ready to go. Gregg had already learned that the friends she made on Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and, ultimately, TikTok got her a little more than most of her real-life friends. “Once I started to have internet friends, it was crazy how much they can relate to you and help you in certain situations that they've already been through,” she says. She and her family moved to LA.
Instead of going — or Zooming — to a real school every day, Gregg reports to the Hype House, though she’s only been in person twice since the pandemic began. Founded by Thomas Petrou and Chase Hudson, the content collective brings together 20 influencers, including Addison Rae Easterling, Taylor Holder, and former member Daisy Keech, to collaborate on videos while they grow their own brands. All of the collab houses operate on the theory that a group of influencers can generate more content and get more lucrative sponsorships as a group than they would working independently. Unlike other content collectives, however, Hype House doesn’t require members to promise a portion of their income to the collective in order to join. Like most of the teenaged Hype House members, Gregg lives “off-campus” and is homeschooled; she hopes to graduate in May, a year early.
For the first time in her life, Gregg fits in easily, albeit in very specific company. One of her best friends is Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most-followed user, who was swept up in controversy when a follower dug up a supposed old "like" where she appeared to shade Gregg. The former Hype House member left the collective in May 2020, along with her sister Dixie, to focus on their solo endeavors, like a Morphe makeup line, being the new faces of Hollister, and filming their own reality show. Despite being worth about $7 million now, the sisters are still close friends with their former Hype House crew, including Gregg, who was at Dixie’s 19th birthday celebration in August — a testament to their real bond. “The people that I know, that I trust, and that I'm friends with, I know that they do genuinely care,” Gregg insists. “They are not fake whatsoever.”
Gregg has found her people, but she’s also found that the bullying she experienced in school for being a thing on TikTok was de minimis compared to what was coming. TikTok fans often paint the app as a haven from the fake news on Facebook, the pretension of Instagram, and the anonymous harassment on Twitter: a come-as-you-are utopia where just about anyone can go viral. Gregg used to think that, too, back when she was dressing up like Jack Skellington on the app. Then she changed. And so did TikTok.
I'm the kind of person that gets really defensive ... If all of a sudden everyone is tagging me, of course, I'm going to get hurt.
Gregg’s out-of-the-box video concepts in her early TikTok days placed her on the “alt” side of TikTok, aka alternative TikTok — a space where, as Urban Dictionary so eloquently explains, “punks, people who love music, fashion, and all that other artsy stuff” thrive. Purists situate this TikTok subculture in opposition to straight TikTok, the hundreds of dance challenges and trending audios from “mainstream creators” that get posted every day. The TikTok algorithm widens this perceived divide by populating the app’s landing page, or For You Page, with videos similar to ones you’ve already liked. If you’re committed to creators who are still posting fashion-focused videos and slice-of-life comedy the way they did in 2018, that’s mostly what you see. But if you like endless dance challenges and lip-sync videos, you’re more likely to get a smattering of influencers, including those in Hype House, which is how the collective became practically synonymous with straight TikTok.
Gregg’s crime was that she crossed over. Fans balked when her songs got trendier, she started using more sophisticated lighting, and her makeup looks skewed more glam than grotesque, but she didn’t anticipate that joining Hype House — potentially the highest-earning set of Gen Z influencers working today — would unleash a wave of cyberbullying unlike anything she’d experienced before. Suddenly, fans said her content was boring — waaaay too many dance videos — and they called her a clout chaser. Some insinuate she’s faking her race. The armchair hating has “gotten 20 times worse” than when she first joined TikTok, she says.
This all came to a head in May 2020 when an anonymous alt TikToker masterminded a viral meme as a way of making fun of the, in their estimation, “mindless” content that epitomized straight TikTok. The nonsensical mashup of sounds was uploaded to prove straight TikTokers would dance to just about anything. Gregg fell for it. “I used the audio not knowing that,” she says. When it blew up, Gregg tried diffusing the criticism with detachment. “I understand ‘straight tiktok’ you know that right? I just don’t care,” she tweeted at the time. (Because her Instagram and TikTok profiles are so carefully curated, Gregg goes to Twitter when she needs to vent.) “I used it for fun... I felt like they were making jokes, so my first thought was to ... make a big joke out of it.” Joking about it was perceived as Gregg “coming for” alt TikTokers, which only made things worse. “I was never going against them or coming for them. I don't know why that turned into a huge, big deal.”
To those Gregg had offended, it was a big enough deal that they responded in the subtle way online bullies shielded by anonymity often do: with death threats.
Gregg considered quitting — TikTok, social media, all of it. “I'm the kind of person that gets really defensive ... If all of a sudden everyone is tagging me, of course, I'm going to get hurt,” she says. “I went into depression for two weeks. I didn't move from my bed.” Then she came up with a strategy for moving forward: she would focus only on likes, not comments. And she wouldn’t try to resolve any conflict via social media. “If someone wants to talk in person I am 100% down to do that,” she says. “I've received hate in person before, but I can stand up for myself in person.”
With the “straight TikTok” audio drama now behind her, she maintains her non-engagement strategy, even amid the online rumor mill that Hype House is all but designed to feed. Every friendship gets dissected, every gesture analyzed. Fans dig through old likes and comments to find any hint of discord among the Hype House crew. Then, it’s all etched in cyber-history on the TikTok Shaderoom Instagram. “Some of it is edited, some of it is fake, some of it is before [we] met,” she explains about the screenshots of the Hype House members’ “shady” likes and comments about other members fans often unearth. “All they see is what we put out.”
I have a big platform. We can use it for good.
The drama — and the receipts — make Gregg wary of engaging. Unlike many of her Hype House-mates, she rarely weighs in, even on rumors surrounding her own relationship with her Sway House boyfriend of five months, Anthony Reeves. When her followers were convinced he flirted with fellow influencer Cayla Wroth because she grazed his shoulder in a video (which, for the record, all involved deny), Gregg was silent. “[Anthony and I] have full trust with each other,” she says. “I hate when people try to bring me into [drama]. I'm not here for it.”
About events offline, however, she is not withholding. When George Floyd died at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25, Gregg used her Instagram story to share news developments, resources for how her fans could help, and protest locations. “I was like, ‘I have a big platform. We can use it for good.’” It’s not lost on Gregg that she is one of the only creators of color in the majority-white Hype House. “There is some diversity now with Larray, Nikita [Dragun], and myself,” she says. Still, she hopes the collective diversifies even more in the future.
Gregg keeps her eye on the world outside of TikTok, mindful that it is ultimately where she lives. At first she was upset by the news that TikTok could be banned in the U.S. “I started crying,” she admits. “My six years of growing that following. All the hate [and] death threats I went through. All of the videos and the memories. It'd be gone. What would be my motivation?” she wondered.
Then she realized that the drive she’s had since she posted her first video on Musical.ly is much bigger than a single platform. Gregg has 12 million followers on Instagram and nearly 2 million on Twitter. She’s acting in the hit Brat series Chicken Girls, working on a makeup line, and she’ll be a part of the upcoming Hype House reality series, The Hype Life. Whatever alt TikTok might say about it, Gregg is upfront about her goals, which are ultimately financial. “I want to be settled,” she says. “I want to know I'm going to be OK, and that I'm going to be able to help my family.”
In the meantime, Gregg will keep evolving, because she enjoys trying new things, and because she’s 17. “I'm not the 13-year-old, 4-foot-6-inch girl with short, black hair that I used to be. Everyone changes,” she says. She hopes her followers will come along for the ride. She really likes where she’s heading, and she would do the same for them. “We should be supporting other people,” Gregg says. “Everyone wants a chance to live a happy life.”
Top image credit: Daily Paper top and skirt; Fendi shoes
Photographer: Tawni Bannister
Hair Stylist: Josh Liu
Makeup Artist: Michael Anthony
Art Director: Shanelle Infante
Fashion Director: Tiffany Reid
Creative Director: Karen Hibbert