It's a Hollywood mansion where TikTok stars go to live, swap ideas and create new videos. Think cool model agency crossed with a sanitised frat house and you get the picture. Harriet Walker reports on the Gen Z A-list who no longer care about the big screen. It's the little one in their hands that counts.
If you thought curating an Instagram account full of avocados was enough to keep up with the kids, you're already lagging far behind. Forget millennials, with their basic bitches and their brunch pics. For the Gen Z cool crowd, the only social media login worth having is the Chinese platform TikTok, and the most exclusive place to hang out there is the Hype House.
Hollywood hopefuls used to arrive in Los Angeles to make their fortune on the big screen but these days they come to find fame on a much smaller one. That light – the crisp, bright, Beverly Hills sunlight and Laurel Canyon gleam that first encouraged film-makers to set up at Burbank in the early 20th century – is now inspiring a new generation of cameramen and women. Only now we call them "content creators" – stars not of the silver screen, but of an all-new phenomenon, the Hype House.
Charli D'Amelio is 15, has more than 40 million followers and is estimated to be worth almost NZ$732,000 from her work on TikTok – not bad for a Connecticut schoolgirl who is neither pop star nor reality TV celeb. She drops into Hype House as her schoolwork and schedule allow, while 17-year-old Chase Hudson, who has 17 million followers and an impossibly square jaw, lives there full-time. He founded the collective with YouTuber and fellow TikTok personality Alex Warren (age 19; 7.6 million followers).
Imagine, if you can bear to, the Big Brother house combined with a trendy ad agency, filled entirely with people so young they can't remember the war in Iraq; this is Hype House, one of LA's most successful social media collaboratives. A sort of sanitised frat house meets unthreatening model agency (wholesome looks reign on TikTok, not angular catwalk faces), collabs are collectives of Gen Z influencers who bunk together in Bel Air mansions, making the most of the natural light, outdoor pools and lavish marble bathrooms to produce 100 or so 15-second viral videos every day.
It might sound like a party – if Gen X were involved, it would probably turn into an orgy – but this is a serious job.
"You can't come and stay for a week and not make any videos," 21-year-old Hype Houser Thomas Petrou told the New York Times. "This house is designed for productivity – you can't do that if you're going out on the weekends."
Each of the 19 influencers who lives or keeps rooms at Hype House is between 15 and 21. They're towards the older end of the generation, just below millennials that takes in everyone between 23 and 8 years old. Depending on your own age, you were dancing either to D:Ream or Uptown Funk as this cohort took its first breath – Gen Z was born between 1995 and 2015.
Collab houses are the latest method that brands have found to market to this generation – too savvy for billboards, too digitally native for ad breaks and, it seems, not materialistic enough to be interested in traditional consumer baubles. The NYT dubbed the new phenomenon "the TikTok mansion gold rush", after the platform these influencers all broadcast to and the palatial West Coast properties where they upload from.
As well as Hype House, there's a Melanin Mansion for black influencers; the LGBT collective Cabin Six; and the Council House, an all-British gang. Earlier this month, Rihanna opened a TikTok house devoted to making content around her Fenty Beauty product range. Inside, there is a "Make-Up Pantry" and several beauty stations, so the tenants can combine the internet's two beauty obsessions: haul videos, in which shoppers show off their new cosmetic loot; and tutorials, in which they demonstrate how to get the perfect brow, say, or eyeliner flick.
"I just wanted to create a platform for the next wave of content creators," Rihanna said at its opening party. "I think our generation is the sickest, the illest, the most creative."
Born in 1988, the 32-year-old Barbadian singer is squarely millennial. I am too, although born slightly nearer the top of the bracket (millennial births range from 1981-1996), which means I am neither good with computers nor the owner of a giant house in London. What I do have in abundance, though, is the millennial capacity for social anxiety and a desperate need to fit in – these are what have brought us to minutely adjusting the light and shade on a photo of a sandwich.
This year marks a decade of Instagram and, with it, the apparent decline of a tribe wholly invented on that platform. In 2018, brands spent about $2.8b on courting Insta influencers to shoot and promote their wares. As engagement rates on these paid-for posts sink, however, the hunt is on for the next most efficient channel. One that is already host to not only the world's largest demographic but its most advert-averse: TikTok.
Gen Z wants to look at content that lives in the moment – that isn't staged and feels raw.
The reason for the Insta exodus? It stopped feeling Insta-nt enough: its original thumbnail diary format has become a contrivance of ideal backgrounds and delayed holiday pics uploaded when the people in them are sitting in an office as grey as yours but want to maintain a fiction of constant jet-setting. A third of influencer accounts now have more than 15,000 followers, and inflated numbers are counterproductive to the trust needed to make convincingly personal recommendations. Although the mainstream has been slow to realise this, Generation Z has known for some time. "Avocado toasts and posts on the beach are so generic and played out at this point," says 15-year-old Claire.
"[Gen Z] are tired of curated images where someone has spent hours in front of the mirror getting ready," says Emma Shuldham of the digital brand and talent agency ITB Worldwide. "They want to look at content that lives in the moment – that isn't as staged and feels more raw."
To put it another way, teenagers these days see photos as capturing a moment rather than preserving a memory – more like the disposable cameras that accompanied students on nights out in the 90s than the extravagantly posed selfies of recent years. There are other ways in which Gen Z is happily fogey-fied before its time too – the 25-year-old sitcom Friends is one of Netflix's most binge-watched series thanks to a newly obsessed tranche of viewers, although many of them reputedly thought it was a modern-made period piece when it debuted on the platform. The age bracket is also thought to account for a quarter of all gardening sales, such is its interest in pot plants and mindfully culturing offcuts.
Hardly surprising, then, that trend forecasters also refer to this bracket as the New Old-Fashioneds. In contrast to the parental fear that anyone born after 1995 is permanently glued to a screen, Gen Z members use tech to facilitate time spent connected to the physical world, or to buy tactile things they can appreciate offline – vinyl records, for example, and cross-stitch patterns.
"Unlike millennials, Generation Z are swapping self-promotion for self-awareness," claims foresight consultancy the Future Laboratory in its Paradox Personas report on this age group's tastes and habits. "[They're] using the digital world to enrich but not define their offline selves."
These kids seem rather more immune to the idea of cool than their forebears. This is the demographic that finally turned climate angst into climate activism and has forsworn drugs and alcohol – in 2014, 38 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds in England said they had tried alcohol, compared with a roughly consistent 60 per cent in years past. Instead, they spend 18 more minutes per day doing physical exercise than teenagers did 10 years ago; they make up 41 per cent of poetry sales according to Nielsen BookScan, and 45 per cent of them told Scala Radio they stream classical music.
"Outside school, I like to paint and write stories," says Grace, 18. "Cool is the art of not caring what other people think of you – and not taking yourself too seriously."
That's one of TikTok and the Hype House's great strengths. Unlike Instagram posts, a TikTok video is rated on its entertainment value rather than the popularity of its creator, so dance routines, comedy and useful tips or tricks play well, and the hours spent finely honing them in one's bedroom can pay off. That makes for a certain democratic re-prioritising of personality over pouts – although Gen Z is already known for its lip-filler habit.
"[You have to] have a lot of energy," Hype House's Chase Hudson told the New York Times. "Weird people get furthest on the internet – you either have to be talented… weird [and] funny, or extremely good-looking."
On TikTok, even the good-looking ones can dance; as ever, the aesthetic bar for funny and weird is inevitably higher for girls than boys.
"The new movements are led by people more than by a communal idea or trend," says Victoria Moss of the fashion gaming app Drest. "Gen Z's outlook comes from placing themselves at the centre of culture, rather than from the culture itself."
That is borne out in pink hair, cosplay, gender-blending and ever more fantastical face filters in apps. Where once being subcultural might have seen you teased at school, the internet now offers a ready-made crowd. If every generation revolts against the previous, this one is kicking back against the notion of cool girls and jock bros, aiming instead for a deliberate off-kilter quirkiness, one that revels in its own vulnerabilities.
Gen Z uses the internet to search for connection; Gen X takes cocaine at vegan dinner parties.
Just look at Billie Eilish, 18 and voice of a generation, who swathes herself in baggy clothes so that "nobody can have an opinion, because they haven't seen what's underneath". Gen Z fashion tends to be fairly downbeat: they wear Converse and Superga, and have sent Doc Martens sales figures soaring by 70 per cent with renewed interest in the classic bovver. The popularity of unisex brands, such as Asos's Gen Z offshoot Collusion, in this age range might not be so much to do with the rise of trans awareness as a wish not to be defined by deliberately sexy outfits. "We're conditioned to believe we have to fit in somewhere, when actually we don't," Grace says.
Perhaps, though, this sort of insouciance is also a coping strategy for the most photographed generation yet. By the time a Gen Z-er is 13, their parents will have posted 1300 images of them online, and they will themselves have added 70,000 to that number when they reach 18. For a generation that has grown up on the internet, 59 per cent of whom will have experienced cyberbullying and 50 per cent of whose parents regularly check their messages and browsing history, other people's opinions and being an object of surveillance are a constant rhythm of life.
So much so that they have turned it into a positive. While parents used to fear peer pressure, the peer-to-peer network offered by new, digital communities has become a social fabric for this generation. Sharing tips, links and recommendations for fashion, music and books is not only a way of life online; it is the best way for brands to reach this knowing and slightly cynical band of consumers.
"Before, it was brands saying, 'Have this, buy this,' and we said, 'Okay,' " says Emma Shuldham. "Now there's more balance in the conversation, because trends are much more about what your friends are reading, watching or wearing."
That's where the Hype Houses come in: constructed communities of friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, whose peer-to-peer antics provide the perfect soft sell to those who follow them. Don't think Gen Z doesn't know it, though; they are the savviest consumers yet. Witness Cindy Crawford's daughter, the 18-year-old model Kaia Gerber (5.4 million followers on Instagram) taking selfies with a "Social media seriously harms your mental health" warning sticker on her iPhone case (now available online for about $6).
The notion of Greta Thunberg's contemporaries still buying plastic tat on the internet or getting their lips injected might provoke a world-weary eye-roll among the elders, but every demographer knows that each generation has its own ironies baked in. For a generation that communicates mainly via screens, more than a quarter of teens say they also see their best friends every day.
"Gen Z uses the internet to search for connection in much the same way as Gen X takes cocaine at organic vegan dinner parties," says Victoria Moss.
Gen Z would never do anything like that, of course, and nightlife has responded to it: at the hip Brooklyn bar Public Records, wellness cocktails come with celery soda and no alcohol, while the rave scene in LA is swapping pills for free, legal weed. Whether you'd then want to dance all night is another question – and not one that any of the Hype Housers will have time to answer.
Written by: Harriet Walker
© The Times of London