In the opening scene of The D’Amelio Show, Heidi D'Amelio describes her now-famous daughters, Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, as “normal kids” and adds, “that doesn’t change with a following.” It would be a cute, and not entirely unbelievable, line if the rest of this eight-episode Hulu documentary series wasn’t committed to showing us all the ways growing a huge social media following profoundly changes “normal” teenagers’ lives.
The D’Amelio Show shadows sisters and TikTok influencers Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, whose accounts have 180 million followers combined, or about 35 million more people than the population of Russia. Their parents, Heidi and Marc, who each have a humble 10 million followers on TikTok, are now pursuing social media careers themselves. On the show, however, they’re mostly portrayed as caring but clueless guardians navigating the treachery of showbiz — and somehow doing it all quite masterfully considering the fact that this series exists at all.
Charli’s rise to fame has been described by the press as an accidental overnight success. In 2019, the then-15-year-old posted simple videos of herself dancing or lip-synching with her friends on TikTok. Her videos easily got boosted to the coveted For You page, and the fact that she was a pretty young white woman, of course, only helped. The rest of her family took a ride on her coattails, sealing a litany of brand deals and high-profile opportunities: a Super Bowl ad for Charli, a major label cosigning Dixie’s singing career, a joint makeup line between the two sisters, and their latest venture, a Hollister-fronted clothing collection that is heavily advertised throughout the show (you could argue the entire show, which follows from the apparel brand’s inception to launch, is one big ad for it).
Almost every episode features a mini plotline about how unforgiving and packed Charli and Dixie’s schedules are, and how harmful social media is on their psyches.
As other essays and reviews have already mentioned, the show feels despairing and sad. Almost every episode features a mini plotline about how unforgiving and packed Charli and Dixie’s schedules are, and how harmful social media is on their psyches. The famous sisters have many meltdowns; they’re despondent and disconnected in their talking heads, and even the time “off” they have hanging out with their other TikTok-famous friends is mostly spent commiserating about the tolls of their panopticon-like lives. In one scene, girls swap stories about compulsively checking the second they wake up for mean comments or if their microaggressions have made their way onto a “tea” channel, meaning they might be “canceled.”
One episode follows Charli as she has a panic attack over whether she can negotiate a single day off. (Charli feels guilty for taking any time off, noting that people are depending on her to get paid. Heidi then makes a literal call to their family’s management, to cancel/postpone her daughter’s priorities for at least a week.)
This approach to reality TV is thoughtful and tactful; it stays aware and a step ahead of cyberbullies, whose worst threats are called out (some of the meanest comments are literally plastered on the screen in certain episodes). The D’Amelios, the newest reality family picking up the trail of the Kardashians’ legacy, but in some ways in reverse order, will garner a lot of sympathy by being this vulnerable on TV. It’s hard not to feel the anxiety these young women live with on a daily basis as they have their every action and inaction scrutinized by the public. It’s tragic and unnatural. And it’s refreshing that, unlike the Kardashians, the D’Amelio parents don’t turn their children’s struggles into hijinks. They’re mostly attentive and take every opportunity to point to their kids’ emotional despondence to remind us that they’re human after all. They’re normal kids, remember?
But these painful, sensitive moments naturally lead to the following question: What’s keeping the teen stars and their parents captive to this career choice? If it’s all this bad, why keep doing it?
In one hard-to-watch scene, Dixie laments about being relentlessly criticized online and says, “What’s the point of doing anything? [I’m] guilty for being alive.” And in another she says, “I’ve always been very sad; I didn’t want to be happy.”
Charli, who has formal dance training and has competed from a young age, dejectedly says at one point, “Dance used to be the most fun thing in my life; it doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t feel fun [anymore].”
These are concerning hallmarks of burnout, depression, and the deteriorating effects of being way too online.
The answer feels obvious even though The D’Amelio Show carefully dances around it. They’re doing it for the money. We see their lavish lifestyle (an enormous modern home, where most of the show is set, which has its own dance studio for Charli), and the army of assistants and agents they’ve been able to quickly amass. They also did not miss a beat to pour gasoline on Charli’s so-called spontaneous rise to fame, accepting and negotiating plenty of deals on and off TikTok.
The D’Amelios were financially comfortable even before TikTok. Patriarch Marc D’Amelio was an executive for a sportswear company and funded his own run for a state senate seat in Connecticut a year before Charli began posting her videos.
And yet throughout the show, and in many interviews the family has done before it, the D’Amelios rarely discuss the actual business of what they do. Granted, money is something the industry at large struggles to openly discuss, but we don’t hear exactly how much Charli or Dixie charges in branded social media posts. We don’t know how much their makeup line brought in. We don’t know the family’s combined revenue stream.
I don’t think this avoidance is necessarily calculated or deceitful. Last year, Heidi prevented her daughter from participating in the “WAP” dance trend on TikTok, which is indicative of the family’s general public image as somewhat traditional and socially conservative. And given the rigidity of backlash culture online, divulging how much money Charli and the rest of the family rakes in could likely prompt vitriol. But if the D’Amelios are serious about using their newfound fame for positive impact, they’d consider addressing the $8 million elephant in the room (projected celebrity net worths are never accurate, but trust that Charli has made, and is worth, a lot of money).
Being transparent about money could help make their self-induced stress more understandable. There is a lot that people can talk themselves into putting up with if there is a fat enough paycheck at the end of it. It would also make clear to Charli and Dixie’s young fans the kind of tradeoff they make in this line of work: Acquiring more wealth and access to opportunities externally might mean continuously compromising your mental health. Against our better principles, we are all vulnerable to burnout in constant pursuit of more. More exposure, more comfort, more larger-than-life experiences. More money, because who’s going to say no to charging a rumored $100,000 per sponsored post?
In American hustle culture, we also imbue in young people the idea that their work gives them intrinsic value. How much we can produce, and keep producing, determines how secure we should feel about ourselves. That can all be fine and manageable if the scales weren’t tipped so astronomically for influencers. There is a set price, a very shiny, high price, that might make giving up the emotional and physical security of being a normal, nobody teen with freedoms worthwhile.
Being transparent about money could help make their self-induced stress more understandable.
Many influencers — perhaps not yet of Kardashian/D’Amelio stature — have been forthright about how much money they bring in. A recent Insider study interviewed a series of creators, who ranged from a few thousand followers to upwards of a million, who divulged their rates for affiliate links and static brand posts, and what they’re paid by major platforms like Instagram directly through creator programs. Microinfluencer Khadijah Lacey-Taylor, who had under 10,000 followers on Instagram in 2020, told Insider she locked in $10,000 in three brand deals in one month; she now has over 21,000 followers. Alexa Collins, a lifestyle guru who has 1.8 million Instagram followers and over 780,000 TikTok followers, shared her entire media kit with Insider late last year, complete with her rates and engagements.
I can understand how knowing these figures can be angering; there is so much money on the table for those who are cosmetically blessed. But the transparency can be refreshing and transformative. When the numbers are laid out so clearly, it’s hard to stay resentful of individual influencers for cashing in — it says so much more about the portfolios of corporate America and where copious investments are spent.
Divulging how much Charli and Dixie — and their parents — make per engagement, or per year, does not have to be steeped in shame or showoffiness. I yearn to watch people as rich and as influential as the D’Amelios or Kardashians speak openly to each other about their relationship to money. What does financial security mean for them? What does it compromise? Where is the line drawn between safety and greed? Where is the ceiling for success? Does being rich feel satisfying?
In one episode where the sisters and their other TikTok-famous friends carve out time to be “normal kids,” they decide to rent out a pool, go ax-throwing, and lie around giggling.
“Sometimes we just want to just hang out with our friends and not anyone else,” Charli says in her talking head. “And not have our head on a swivel, seeing if a camera is out videotaping us,” Dixie adds.
There’s a dissonance in watching this scene on Hulu, knowing that production cameras are all around them. And then there’s something like sorrow in knowing that this is their version of reprieve. ●