Being an adolescent is inherently awful, but the best thing about it may be the complete lack of shame teenagers feel for the things they love. The breadth and depth of their fandom — say, for some online influencer with millions of underage fans — might be perplexing for those of us older than 18, but it makes perfect sense for teens who love whatever they love with their whole being. I’m not entirely sure what Lil Xan is, but I’m very worried about his digestive tract, and I remain hopeful a teenage girl will explain what he is and why teen girls love his tattooed face so.
For more on this story, watch the new BuzzFeed News series Follow This on Netflix.
Danielle Cohn is one of those teenage curiosities that most of us old enough to vote (have you registered yet?) don’t know much about despite her alarmingly potent online popularity. At the wee age of 14, she already has a startling 2.6 million Instagram followers and 11.2 million on an app called TikTok. (You might know TikTok better as Musical.ly, the app where the youth lip-synched and bopped around in front of their phones in 15-second video clips. It changed its name to TikTok in early August.) Cohn’s videos don’t exactly sound worthy of millions upon millions of followers: They’re largely just her, in full hair and makeup, lip-synching in front of her camera phone and a bright ring light, shaking her hips and smiling wide. And yet.
Cohn looms large online, but in person, she is teeny tiny. Her Instagram is, like a lot of young girls, seemingly curated to make her appear older, but in person she just looks like a pubescent girl with a remarkable amount of hair extensions. When I met her earlier this year, she was living in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles with her mom, her brother, and a gray puppy named Silverpom who was suffering from an eye infection. She and her family are from Florida, but moved to LA so Cohn’s career as an influencer could really take off, and eventually be parlayed into a Hollywood career, as attempted by so many internet celebrities before her.
Cohn’s burden is twofold: Not only does she have a hungry and demanding fanbase to appease, but she’s a significant part of her family’s financial backbone. There’s online popularity to maintain, but also new clothes to buy, agents to compensate, and of course, the family rent to pay through her live events and sponsored posts.
She’s also been embroiled in a few mini-vortexes of controversy in her short life as an online celebrity. She’s been criticized for her clothing, her appearance, the way she edits her photos, and most notably, for her former relationship with fellow (but less prominent) influencer Sebastian Topete. The two started dating when Topete was 17 and Cohn was just 13, which predictably riled up a lot of people. (They’ve since broken up and now she’s dating this mop of hair.)
Cohn is the focus of one of the episodes I filmed for Netflix’s Follow This, but off-camera we spent most of our time trying to get her and her mother to agree on a camera-appropriate outfit. Cohn tried on a variety of clothes that were backless or midriff-less or sleeveless, paired with cute sweatpants and white sneakers. Her mom objected, asking her to wear a full-length T-shirt or to at least put a jacket on over her shoulders.
It’s the most teenage girl argument you can have with your mom, and watching the two argue made me think of the thousand times I’d argued with my own mother. Cohn and her mom have this argument every morning, they tell me. But the difference, of course, is that Cohn can cite her millions of followers as evidence that her aesthetic is working for her — and her bottom line. “People always think of California as a sunny state and I want it to make it look like it’s a sunny state,” she said. “I mean, like, my 10 million followers want to see that.”
When that reasoning didn’t sway her mother, Cohn turned to me in her little linen tube top (THE ’90s ARE BACK, MY FRIENDS), her hands on her hips, and exclaimed, “Do you think this is inappropriate?” She and her mother looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. One that I absolutely did not and do not have.
At 14, Cohn’s question presents a complicated internal debate for anyone who considers themselves a feminist and believes women and girls should have autonomy over themselves and their bodies. Is her behavior and desire to dress as she wants an act of feminist defiance, as it would be for an adult woman? Or is it dangerous in a way that a teenage girl who is not yet attuned to the way the world works can’t quite yet understand? Does my personal distaste for sexist dress codes extend to this child, whom I think is entitled to wear whatever she wants? It’s hard to ignore that she’s also being battered online for wearing what she wants to wear — and that’s something I desperately want to shield her from, but ideally in a way that doesn’t shame her for wanting to wear the very clothes marketed to her and her age group.
There’s always been a public discomfort with watching a teenage girl figure out her sexuality in public. It’s similarly uncomfortable to be a boy in the public eye, but there’s far less anxiety about their bodies and how much skin they’re showing. Which, of course, poses its own question of why not? Boys are conditioned to learn (heterosexual) sexuality early and act it out; girls have to pretend like they’ve never even considered being looked at as a sexual being, while also having to perform their entrance into sexuality for the male gaze.
Ultimately, there’s nothing explicitly sexual about Cohn’s act online, nor is there when she shows me how she makes one of her videos in person. She mostly mugs for the camera and flips her hair and points and cocks a hip and acts out sassiness. It’s a reminder that our anxiety about a girl like Cohn being sexualized comes only because we, as adults, are sexualizing a child. I believe her when she says her work is chaste.
At one point in the day, we went to a nearby park to livestream a video on Instagram. One of her startling 32,000 livestream viewers asked her what kind of mascara she uses. She starts to rattle off the brand name — which is “Better Than Sex” — but stumbles on that last word, looking awkwardly at me. When she giggles it’s incredibly wholesome, making it even harder to equate this young girl with the dress-up adult she’s playing in public and online. I hesitate to argue that it’s wholly dangerous. Instead, it just seems like what most girls do, with the tragic addition of Cohn having to go through the motions of discovering herself and her sexuality in public.
Cohn’s mother eventually did get her daughter to put on a jacket over the crop top. She did it by using one of those mother routines that I suspect all girls with moms remember: She pulled Cohn aside and whispered something sharp in her daughter’s ear. Cohn rolled her eyes and conceded to putting a jacket over her tube top. But when her mother left us to do our interview and Cohn and I sat on her bed to talk, she shrugged the jacket off her shoulders, exposing her upper arms. She smiled at me because we both knew she won, that this was a clear workaround to her mother’s rules. But it is also, after all, what her millions of followers tune in to see and like. ●