celebrity

Who Was Lil Tay?

The making, and marketing, of a 9-year-old meme machine.

Photo: Philip Cheung
Photo: Philip Cheung
Photo: Philip Cheung

The Lil Tay fairy tale begins not with “Once upon a time” but “YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT IT IS.”

If you were on Instagram or the internet at all last spring, you very well may. Her toilet, Lil Tay announced, costs more than your momma’s rent. So does her wardrobe, her bed, her jewelry — really anything in her vicinity. Her kitchen is bigger than your entire living room. She wears Gucci belts across her chest like sashes and Louis Vuitton belts draped around her waist. She’s almost exclusively seen holding a stack of cash. “And I’m only 9 years old!” Not only has the grammar-schooler driven a Rolls-Royce (granted, only for five feet in a parking lot), but she has kicked one so hard she left a dent. She is, as she likes to put it, the “youngest flexer of the century.”

There are, in the social-media universe, two kinds of influencers, meaning people who make money, one way or another, by amassing a following. There are those who pose thoughtfully for Instagram while reading a book of Rupi Kaur’s poetry by candlelight, a cup of tea by their side. These people hope to eventually get paid to post content for a wellness start-up. Their lives are, at least from a Gwyneth Paltrow–ish perspective, too perfect to believe.

But, in the manner of the Donald Trump of ’80s tabloid fame, the second group of influencers takes an almost opposite path. They tend to be younger and make their mark not on Instagram but YouTube. They look straight at the camera and make statements meant only to shock. They are fourth-graders, but they curse. They are white but speak in blaccent. They get face tattoos so people will stop and stare. They repeat catchphrases — like “youngest flexer of the century” — to give viewers a mnemonic by which to remember them. Their specialty is becoming living, breathing memes, blips of pop culture that live in ten-second clips or viral photos. The attention sticks if they can attach themselves to a song or TV show.

A whole separate Hollywood has sprouted in Los Angeles for those out to capitalize on this oft-fleeting kind of fame. In apartment buildings on Vine and, once they make some money, in the Hollywood Hills, meme stars team up, sometimes living together in McMansions, sharing their followings and clout, all angling toward a more lucrative hustle, most often in hip-hop.

Lil Tay. Photo: Philip Cheung

Last April, as if she’d walked right out of her Instagram feed and into the real world, Lil Tay appeared in L.A., a badass Dora the Explorer come to life. Two weeks after arriving, perhaps faster than any aspiring celebrity before her, she landed her big break. It was the afternoon of April 15, a Sunday, at the Americana mall in Glendale (the Grove isn’t for meme stars … yet), and Lil Tay had been hanging out with Woah Vicky, another meme sensation, famous for claiming she’s 25 percent black. They ran into Bhad Bhabie, who by then had converted her status from girl who frightened her mom on Dr. Phil (catchphrase: “Cashmeousside”) to respectable rapper. A meme dream, if you will.

Like most things in Hollywood, the meeting among the three principals had been prearranged. Its agenda: Woah Vicky and Bhad Bhabie were to squash their beef — which had recently involved Woah Vicky using a racial slur for one of Bhad Bhabie’s friends — while on-camera. It was to have been just another snippet in the drama creation that defines the meme life cycle. Memes fight, memes apologize, memes post it all online for clicks and ad money.

As usual, TMZ was there filming. Bhad Bhabie instigates, taunting Woah Vicky to “put your bag down, tough stuff.” In other words, free up your hands so we can get physical. Woah Vicky complies, but she’s smiling goofily. The truth is, she really isn’t tough enough even for this WWF style of faux fighting.

At 25 seconds, the camera pulls back to reveal Lil Tay. She’s wearing a delicate white lace shirt, hair dyed blonde, standing at least three heads shorter than anyone else in the frame. She’s got a cherubic face and rosy cheeks, but her delivery is stone cold: “You tryna fight?” Watching Lil Tay is like seeing a baby with a bouffant — incomprehensible and funny.

In the next scene, men surround Vicky, but Bhabie jumps in from camera right and throws an awkward punch over their shoulders. The girls are separated, and as Bhabie escapes up an escalator, Lil Tay stands a floor below, screaming into the void, “Bitch!”

There were three girls in the fight, but in the end, only one mattered. That morning, on her way to the mall, Lil Tay had around 300,000 Instagram followers. Three days later, she was up to 675,000 and officially verified. Over the next week, she hit 2.5 million followers and averaged about 15 million impressions per post. By the end of 2018, the eighth-most-Googled question beginning with the word who was “Who is Lil Tay?”

Lil Tay’s origin story, according to Lil Tay, and to the dictates of the theater of the absurd that is meme-dom: She grew up “broke as hell” in Atlanta but worked really hard “moving bricks.” Eventually she got into Harvard and then dropped out. At one point, like her friend Vicky, she claimed to be “partially black.” Now she lives in “the hills” (which ones? She hasn’t specified).

She began sharing this rags-to-riches tale on Instagram and YouTube late in 2017, and by January 2018 her antics had found an audience. There’s a whole genre of YouTubers who entertain by roasting fellow social-media stars, and Lil Tay followed in that tradition by taking aim at an Asian-American 21-year-old who goes by RiceGum and who leads the insult school with a remarkable 10 million subscribers. Lil Tay mocked him for being three times her age and still on YouTube with nowhere near her bank account. He took the bait and recorded two videos in response; collectively, they’ve been viewed over 13 million times.

In March, roughly four months after posting her first videos, Lil Tay connected with Dooney Battle, co-founder of the management group Tha Lights Global. Battle, who did not respond to interview requests, manages Lil Pump — the face-tatted, colorful-haired rapper who appeared in images across Instagram’s meme-focused accounts before releasing music and eventually collaborating with Kanye West. Tha Lights Global has emerged as the premier management group specializing in musicians and rappers who begin their careers with social-media fireworks.

Here’s the thing: When Battle and other aspiring managers sent Instagram messages to Lil Tay’s account, they say they didn’t hear back from a 9-year-old girl. According to Instagram’s rules, users must be 13 to open an account, anyway. Instead, a 16-year-old boy, Jason Tian, wrote back. Which is to say that one answer to the question “Who is Lil Tay?” is another question: Who is Jason Tian? Lil Tay is the face and the attitude, but if this is a case study in the creation of social-media fame, then Jason, Lil Tay’s half-brother, is the genius behind the curtain.

Jason had his own past on the internet. Going by Rycie on YouTube, he primarily posted diss raps in hopes of igniting online fights with YouTubers who had more followers. But his act was derivative and redundant and never gained much traction. So Jason, who’s reportedly obsessed with the internet and its star-making power, hatched a different plan. A little girl saying all of the things he thought — that was something new, much more outrageous, and clickable. And he had just the little girl.

Here, Jason introduces a whole new form of stage mom: the stage brother. According to many of the managers Lil Tay temporarily worked with in L.A., Jason wrote Lil Tay’s lines and coached her on how to say them; Tay was a natural actress and an eager participant. The word bitches exploding out of her miniature body, all zipped up in a pink Gap sweatshirt, was sensational enough to break through — and a meme star was born.

Before working with Battle, Lil Tay had recorded a song via FaceTime and GarageBand with another music executive, but Lil Pump was Jason’s idol. For him, Battle was the ultimate get. But because Jason was only 16 and Tay only 9, Battle needed more than Jason’s admiration. He needed parental consent. Jason connected him with Angela Tian, Jason and Lil Tay’s mom.

Lil Tay, of course, talked a big game about her hard-earned riches and Atlanta street cred, but in fact she is the daughter of a Vancouver real-estate broker. The toilets that cost more than your momma’s rent? Those were all in homes that Angela, who was an active participant in her children’s careers, had on the market. In addition to putting her job on the line by letting her progeny film inside her properties, Angela borrowed a co-worker’s Mercedes 550 SL (which led to her resignation from the company) for filming purposes.

Battle bought the trio plane tickets to come to L.A. and discuss his representing them, Angela says, and he offered to put them up in a hotel for ten days. When they arrived, in early April, he told them he wanted a five-year management deal, period. But Angela, whose sharp black bangs are nearly as fierce as her support for her children, wasn’t having it. “I was brand-new to this industry, and Tay was just a young child,” she says. “I didn’t want to make any mistakes by binding her to some long-term contract.”

Lil Tay on Good Morning America with her mother, Angela Tian.

With Battle in the past, the family moved in with Woah Vicky and Josiah Jenkins, who had made a name for himself on Vine and at one point ran the Instagram account @mom. Over a late lunch on Melrose, the family met Vicky’s manager, Harry Tsang. They got to know one another. Tsang spoke Mandarin, which is Angela’s first language. It went well enough that, a couple days later, Lil Tay joined Vicky at the Glendale mall for the fateful encounter with Bhabie. Overnight, Lil Tay became the hottest commodity in L.A.

It’s this peak-viral moment that is the most pivotal for rising influencers. At this juncture, Lil Tay is no longer a person as much as a brand, a product, and a potential business. To get it right and hit lasting fame (or just something like a recording deal and an agent) requires the same level of strategy it takes to win a Super Bowl or to get the crowd out of Times Square after the ball drops. That means planning, organizing, networking. The right tags in the right places in the right time slots.

Jason, at 16, had created the character and the scripts, but now the family needed someone with experience. A Kris Jenner to Lil Tay’s Kim Kardashian. But Lil Tay became so big, so quickly, that everyone wanted to, and did, declare her their own. It only added to the confusion that her family bounced among managers, taking meetings and discussing deals without signing any contracts.

Lil Tay with her brother, Jason Tian (center), and the rapper Lil Pump. Photo: © rycie2k / Instagram

“At least six people told me they were her manager,” says Diablo, an L.A. music producer who spent some time in the studio recording music with Lil Tay. Even in this scammy milieu, multiple managers claiming responsibility for a single client is unusual. Tsang played a temporary management role but never signed any contracts. A man named Alex Gelbard is credited in early interviews as Lil Tay’s manager and consultant, but Angela will say only that, at one point, he answered emails for them.

In the meantime, Lil Tay quickly ran through the up-and-coming-meme-star rites of passage. There was a video appearance with the rapper Chief Keef. Jake Paul, one of the most famous YouTubers, interviewed her. She FaceTimed with Diplo, and he DM’ed her: “Your [sic] winning Tay.” She met with the superstar rap producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with Adele and Jay-Z, because that’s just how high up the ladder these things can go in mere days. Howard Stern reached out to schedule an interview with Lil Tay, but to Jason, Stern’s no Jake Paul. They ignored it.

The song Lil Tay recorded before connecting with Battle, called “Money Way,” was uploaded to YouTube by her very first contact in the scene, Ousala Aleem, a.k.a. Prestley Snipes, a.k.a. Pres. After he saw her video with Chief Keef, Pres says, he reached out to Angela to arrange a meeting with Warner/Chappell, Warner Music Group’s music-publishing arm. He estimates that he could’ve arranged a six-figure deal for Lil Tay at the time, but the family never got back to him. They had unfollowed him and say they never authorized the song’s release. They never collected its royalties either, Pres says, which add up to a few thousand dollars by now.

From left: Lil Tay and Swaggy Wolfdog. Lil Tay “lights up.”
From left: Lil Tay and Swaggy Wolfdog. Lil Tay “lights up.”

In late April, Jason, Tay, and Angela were at Mel’s Drive-In on Sunset Boulevard when they saw that the canine influencer Swaggy Wolfdog (@Swagrman) had a milkshake named after him. Lil Tay should collaborate with this flexing dog, Jason thought. So he sent Wolfdog an Instagram message. The dog’s owner, it turned out, also speaks Mandarin. “I saw that their life was all over the place, and they didn’t know what they were doing and people were taking advantage of them,” the owner says. So he connected the family with Diomi Cordero, a manager who had previously worked for Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment and Republic Records. They decided to give him a try. In an unusually common arrangement in the L.A. social-media world, Cordero moved out of his apartment and in with Swaggy’s owner, so that Angela, Jason, and Lil Tay could settle in at his place.

Cordero says he began working for the family without a contract to prove to them that they could trust him. His goal was to build an influencer team around Swaggy Wolfdog, Lil Tay, and Victor Garibay, a movie and TV producer who, as Cordero describes him, is “rich-rich, not brand-rich.” When influencers need a Lamborghini, they borrow Garibay’s. When Lil Tay needed a Rolls-Royce, she hit up Garibay.

Cordero also looked into homeschooling for Lil Tay and Jason and attempted to limit Lil Tay’s more controversial filming habits. In other words, he tried to make his reckless young influencer a little less so, to mold her into something more mainstream to appeal to a larger number of brands. Early on, his plan worked. He brokered a charity-focused video between Lil Tay and the influencer Amanda Cerny. He landed her first brand partnership, a $20,000 deal with Tunes headphones.

But internally, Cordero says, he had scant control. For instance, he’d persuaded a celebrity hairstylist to dye Lil Tay’s hair in return for an Instagram tag (an $800 barter), but he had to spend hours persuading Jason to actually post the tag. To Cordero, it seemed as if Jason was overprotective and stingy about sharing his hard-earned following. Yet he was the only person with access to the @LilTay account.

There was a bigger problem, too, Cordero says: “They were taking on these big meetings without my guidance, and they were getting screwed. I had to fight with Logan Paul’s manager, I had to fight with Jake Paul’s manager. I had to deal with Atlantic Records.” And, intentionally or not, the family was screwing people back, he says. “They’d lead everyone to believe they were going to work with them so that they would take us out to dinner, and then the last day before making it official, they would cancel.”

As a last-ditch effort to get them back on track, Cordero organized an interview for Lil Tay, her mother, and brother on Good Morning America. He told them that in this appearance, Lil Tay should confess that her character is an act, but Jason refused, fearing that followers would flee.

The GMA segment is a somewhat confusing balancing act. The family seems normal, for the most part. Jason appears on-camera filming Lil Tay and wearing his signature hoodie and face mask. Juju Chang, the anchor, calls Lil Tay “precocious” and “soft-spoken,” introducing a more subdued and age-appropriate version of the star. But when Lil Tay sits down next to Angela for an interview, she admits to nothing. “No one is forcing me to do this,” Lil Tay says.

“They weren’t ready for this business,” Cordero says now. Jason especially: “He’s a fame-obsessed teenager who was uneducated about the entertainment industry.”

Six weeks into the family’s stay in L.A., Cordero’s cleanup effort was falling apart. A video leaked of Lil Tay smoking a hookah; another showed her pretending to smoke a baby carrot as if it were a joint. As happens with anyone who finds attention on the internet, videos from months earlier resurfaced. In one of those first efforts aimed at RiceGum, Lil Tay said, “I wear a belt as a sash like I just won a beauty pageant, cuz I slaying all these niggas, bitch.”

On Sunday, June 3, two and a half months after she’d skyrocketed to fame, and the day before I was supposed to fly to L.A. to meet her, Lil Tay disappeared. Her Instagram account was taken down. All of the photos and videos were gone. And Angela forbade me from speaking directly with either Lil Tay or Jason.

YouTuber RiceGum and Lil Tay mix it up.

Chris Hope learned about Lil Tay from the principal of the elementary school in Vancouver that she’d attended as Claire Hope. This was pre-L.A., but when the kids in Claire’s class started gossiping about her act, her principal and teachers watched some of the videos and became concerned that their content might harm Claire’s future. So they called her dad.

Claire Eileen Qi Hope’s origin story: She was born to a Chinese mother and a Canadian father on July 29, 2007. (In case you’re doing the math, when Tay said she was 9 she was actually 10.) Her parents were never married and broke up before her 2nd birthday. She has taken ballet classes since she was 4 and participated in Royal Ballet Academy competitions. She has studied piano, singing, and Chinese, along with taking skating, swimming, and art lessons. She has an amazing capacity for memorization. She’s smart and witty. One of her favorite movies is La La Land. Claire Hope was always training to become a star. Lil Tay was the vehicle.

Although Chris Hope has joint custody of his daughter, his ex-girlfriend Angela was Claire’s primary caretaker, and he felt he couldn’t do much to stop the making of Lil Tay. Only days after he learned of the meme’s existence, Chris says, Angela told him she wanted to take Claire to L.A. to pursue her career and needed his permission to leave the country. They’d be gone for only “a few days,” Angela said, according to Chris, and he agreed. The trip might give Lil Tay the chance to transition toward something more professional, like music or acting, he thought, “not just flexing on the internet.”

Weeks later, he couldn’t get a straight answer on when they’d return home. His daughter was missing school and eventually racked up 72 absences for the year. Chris watched the videos of her at a concert with Chief Keef; hanging out with adults who appeared to be smoking weed; the Bhad Bhabie fight; the carrot joint. He lists them over the phone in a voice soft with the shock of it all, as if the more quietly he speaks, the less true it all becomes.

Chris, a lawyer, realized that L.A. wasn’t turning into an opportunity for Claire to broaden her pursuits. He got a court order requiring his daughter to return to Vancouver and close down the account. On the evening of June 3, Lil Tay and her entourage were back.

Lil Tay and the rapper Chief Keef. Photo: Lil Tay/Instagram

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Lil Tay wasn’t happy to be home, Angela says. Tay blamed her dad for keeping her from going after her dream and began to refuse to spend time with him. He was the bad guy.

The thing is, Chris wasn’t some prudish moralist standing in the way of his daughter’s career — he just wanted to help her have a different kind of career. Like Cordero. Chris set some basic requirements for Tay’s return to L.A. The first: She had to sign up for a visa and an American work permit. One reason Angela had never signed any contracts in L.A. may have been because she actually couldn’t. Given Chris’s joint custody, he also had to sign for any agreement to be enforceable. Without a visa, Angela and her children couldn’t legally collect money, either.

Chris wanted to trademark Lil Tay, buy a domain, and settle on management. And he stipulated that a percentage of her earnings be put in a trust for her future, as is required by Canadian and California law. Since his daughter might ruin her future by acting outrageous on the internet, she’d better at least have some money saved, he figured. In the meantime, he wanted to make sure she still attended school.

And last, if she was to continue as Lil Tay, he wanted her to add something of artistic value to her repertoire, whether it be singing, dancing, or acting. Again, he repeats, “not just flexing on the internet.”

While they were in Vancouver, removed from much of the meme scene, a family friend who describes himself as Lil Tay’s “secretary” got in touch with Chris Jones, a promoter who runs the record label Genre Bend and has signed music deals with tween social-media stars like Rocco Piazza and Lil Terrio. Angela and Jones struck yet another verbal agreement: He’d come to Vancouver and record music with Lil Tay. Her father okayed the plan, and in September, Lil Tay recorded behind closed doors, as her parents continued to try to work out something more permanent.

Things seemed to be looking up. Chris Hope even allowed Lil Tay to travel to L.A. for a week in September to film a cameo in Piazza’s video “The Ellen Dance,” a piece of viral bait named after Ellen DeGeneres, scheduled for release in February. While in L.A., Lil Tay also recorded a few of her own songs with Jones. He was just waiting for her parents to come to terms to release them — Lil Tay was almost back.

But this fairy tale doesn’t end with happily ever after and Lil Tay making brand-new music for the movie adaptation. Her parents have a difficult history: Numerous times since Claire was born, they’ve had to go to court to hash out their differences, and meanwhile, according to people who dealt with Jason in Hollywood, he was frustrated that, after all of his hard work with his sister, he was being pushed aside.

In fact, before Jason left L.A. in June, Cordero, Tsang, and a few other managers say he raised the possibility of a #FreeLilTay T-shirt campaign. He wanted to print merch with Lil Tay’s face in front of an American flag, positioning her as the American Dream in limbo, ripped from her rightful place by a father eager to cash in on her newfound fame.

In mid-October, the Lil Tay account returned, supposedly the result of a hack, with a series of stories that portrayed Chris as a neglectful absent father. There were screenshots of documents with claims that Chris refused to take Lil Tay to ballet lessons, that his new wife cursed at her and locked her in a closet, that he forced her to watch scary movies and was behind on his child-support payments. The documents were presented as court papers, but they referred to Claire Hope only as Lil Tay, which isn’t exactly standard legal form.

Whoever was behind the posts also released the phone number of Chris’s law firm and his email address with instructions to get in touch. That prompted tens of thousands of calls, FaceTimes, and WhatsApp messages, plus hundreds of emails. “I was bullied, cyberbullied, whatever phrase you want to use, by the millions of people that follow those posts,” Chris says. Still, he hasn’t changed his mind. He remains firm in his determination to shape his daughter’s career in the way he thinks best.

Lil Tay, a.k.a. Claire Eileen Qi Hope, with her father, Christopher John Hope. Photo: Courtesy of Christopher John Hope

Lil Tay is homeschooled now because, even though she had 2 million followers for only two months, she’s too famous. All the kids recognize her. She can barely leave the house.

Toward the end of the summer, Angela took her children on vacation. They went to a small town called Campbell River, about four hours northwest of Vancouver. She thought it was far enough away, in a quiet enough place, that Lil Tay wouldn’t attract attention. But one evening, out at a restaurant, the waitress recognized her. “I was so surprised,” Angela says. They have to strategize before they can go to the mall, too. Lil Tay gets mobbed before she even leaves the parking lot.

So it seems that Lil Tay will continue life as a celebrity without benefits until her parents can reach an agreement. Angela and Chris have a court date scheduled for April, and Lil Tay has the music with Jones waiting to be sent out into the world. This probably isn’t the end of her story. After all, she only turned 11 this summer.

*This article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Making and Marketing of a 9-Year-Old Meme Machine