Gen Z influencers are settling into life in a shuttered Los Angeles.
When Gianluca Conte, 20, a TikTok star with more than 2.4 million followers, left his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 1 to move into a Los Angeles mansion with seven influencers, he didn't expect to be largely confined to the property for months. Sure, California was under statewide stay-at-home orders, but home was where he would be working anyway — making videos with his new housemates — and the precautions had to be lifting soon.
The way most young creators see it, to make it big on the internet you need to be in Los Angeles, even if you're stuck indoors in the midst of a pandemic. "You're just surrounded by influence," Conte said. "In LA, if you talk to four people, one is probably going to have over 100,000 followers on Instagram. Even people that don't prioritise social media have 20,000 followers from just being here in LA."
That feeling has driven the rise of dozens of TikTok influencer collab houses: palatial dorms where the platform's young stars live, work and hustle to expand their social media empires.
Influencer collab houses are nothing new — several generations of YouTubers, Vine stars and streamers have lived and worked together since 2009 — but Gen Z TikTok stars have embraced them to an extent that their predecessors did not.
Collab houses make it easy for new arrivals to Los Angeles: They have a nice place to live, a built-in friend group and constant access to collaborators. And, if a management company or brand is sponsoring the house, the tenants may only have to produce a few TikToks and a YouTube video every week as a form of in-kind rent.
Several new houses put down roots in Los Angeles just before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Others had signed leases, set move-in dates and planned opening parties that are now indefinitely on hold. And many more are announcing their formation despite the pandemic's persistent toll.
Though parts of the state are slowly reopening, Los Angeles County is likely to be among the last to do so. Still, TikTok's rising influencers continue to flock there. And in the midst of widespread stay-at-home orders, their audience is bigger than ever: TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads in March, after breaking the record for the most app installs in a quarter, according to research firm Sensor Tower.
"This is the golden opportunity for whatever I want to do with my life," Conte said. "I could continue to make videos at home from Charlotte and do brand deals, but I want to take this to the highest level I can. I feel like I'm already making progress since the second I landed here."
'I can't let the clout slip away'
Since early December and as recently as last week, TikTok stars hailing from all around the country have snatched up houses in Los Angeles County's premier ZIP codes, hoping to capitalize on proximity to other talent.
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Now, they are sequestered in their plush residences for the foreseeable future. The all-male Sway House is holed up in a Bel Air mansion. Members of the Clubhouse, founded in part by Hype House defector Daisy Keech, are isolating in a sprawling modern abode in Beverly Hills. FaZe Clan, a group of internet-savvy gamers, recently moved into Justin Bieber's former home in Burbank, complete with a massive yard, a pond and swimming pool. And 10 influencers are isolating at the Hype House, the original TikTok collab house.
While riding out the pandemic with your friends in a multimillion-dollar mansion — or compound, in some cases — may sound fun, collab house members described the same disruptions of daily life felt by millions of people around the world.
"It's kind of surreal," said Abby Rao, 21, who started the Clubhouse with Keech. "I'm wondering when it's going to end. I realize now how much we took for granted before: just being able to go to our favorite beaches, take pictures and have picnics, or go see a movie."
For Rao, who moved into the Clubhouse in March, social media has become her world to a greater extent than ever before. Sometimes the day is broken up by Zoom meetings with brands or her manager, but she often continues producing content into the night.
Though people are spending more time than ever with their screens these days, creators have had to think outside the box to keep their audiences engaged. "Last night we filmed a video where we pitched a tent and camped on top of the roof on top of our house," Rao said.
The work helps pass the time, but there have been downsides to the exposure. In April, Rao faced online harassment from fans of her ex-boyfriend, a famous YouTuber, which has taken a toll on her mental health. Her mother moved into the collab house to support her, but she desperately misses her extended family in Louisiana, where she is from. "I'm trying to stay busy and grateful," she said. "We're very blessed."
Across town, members of the Sway House have been adjusting to a quieter life in isolation. "To start off, there's a lot less parties," said Josh Richards, 18, a TikTok star with 17.5 million followers. "The Sway Boys, we kind of live that lifestyle, we like to go out." (Judging by their Instagram Stories, the house members appear to be having friends over. In a video posted Wednesday night, their houseguests danced to TikTok hits, played games of beer pong and shotgunned White Claw.)
Since lockdown began in Los Angeles, Richards and his five housemates have seen their world shrink to the generous size of their 9,000-square-foot home. They've kept themselves occupied with paintball battles and games of Truth or Dare, all filmed for YouTube. As for food, "it's Postmates and Uber Eats all day," Richards said.
Brand deals and sponsored trips have evaporated, and collaborations between houses have all but disappeared. Diomi Cordero, a talent manager who oversees the Diomi House in North Hollywood, said his clients are only allowed out for very select opportunities, and only if their collaborator has been isolated for at least two weeks.
Two members of the Diomi House were recently invited to the Hype House to help redecorate Chase Hudson's bedroom; Cordero gave the influencers his blessing. "If they have the clout," he said, "I can't let the clout slip away."
Business as usual?
Many creators have pushed back their plans in light of the pandemic. The Girls in the Valley, a female-only TikTok house, was on track for a late-March move and even held an opening party March 12 at the Sugar Factory in Los Angeles featuring pop star Doja Cat. Now, with their move-in date to be determined, the house's members have turned to weekly Zoom calls to stay in touch.
Meanwhile, several new houses, including the Young Finesse Kids, the Alpha House and the Kids Next Door, have announced their formation over the past two months.
Adam Ian Cohen, 16, a founder of the Alpha House, said six of his nine teenage housemates are planning to move in next week. They all took multiple coronavirus tests before move-in and will quarantine for two weeks, passing the time by posting sponsored content for Postmates and Xbox. "We're working with a couple other brands to promote staying at home," Cohen said.
Influences, a talent management firm, has invested in TikTok houses that include the Girls in the Valley, the Drip Crib and the Kids Next Door. The company has taken a hit on expenses since the virus began, but Ariadna Jacob, its founder and CEO, sees the situation as temporary.
"We already had the concepts out to brands, and when coronavirus first happened there was a lull. But now more campaigns are launching," she said. "When the houses are presented as a media company, brands wrap their heads around it. The Drip Crib, for instance, is like GQ and Sports Illustrated. Girls in the Valley is like Seventeen magazine."
Lucas Castellani, 22, is recruiting TikTokers to live in the $5 million Beverly Hills mansion that his parents own, which he has renamed the Vibe House. He worked with a legal team to set up talent contracts and has found someone to act as a house manager. "We're going to follow CDC guidelines about gatherings," Castellani said. "I'm planning to launch the house at the end of this month if everything goes well."
Jacob said influencers looking to move into a collab house managed by her company must first quarantine for a number of weeks and get tested for the coronavirus. (No collab house has yet had a confirmed case of coronavirus.)
The Kids Next Door, seven Gen Z influencers who occupy a modern mansion perched on a hill in Los Feliz, announced their formation May 16 with a group Instagram account. Marcus Olin, 21, a TikTok star with 8.4 million followers and the house's founder, said it's been a longtime dream of his to start a collab house.
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Olin grew up watching a generation of YouTube stars move to Los Angeles and make it big. He followed Jake Paul's ill-fated Team 10 house closely and considered how he would do things differently when he formed his own. Other TikTok stars say they were inspired by YouTuber collab houses like the Vlog Squad house and the Clout House.
The digital talent studio that backed the Clubhouse and the Clubhouse Next (formerly the Click House), plans to open a third house this year focused on gaming influencers to compete with the FaZe House.
And TalentX Entertainment, the management company behind the Sway House, is hoping to start two more collab houses as soon as the stay-at-home order lifts in Los Angeles.
"At the end of the day we're not going to do something that puts our influencers at risk," said Michael Gruen, vice president of talent at TalentX Entertainment. "Safety has to be our first priority, and we want to make sure when we do it, we do it the right way."
TikTokers have begun plotting their content for when the county reopens. "The first video I'll make we'll probably go down to Melrose or Santa Monica and we'll just mess around in public," Richards said. "It's going to be really lively. I think the first day out of quarantine will be a video of its own."
Written by: Taylor Lorenz
Photographs by: Michelle Groskopf
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