Tyler Gaca’s apartment feels like something a sorcerer conjured onto an Angeleno Heights hilltop. It’s a blazingly hot day in August, but inside, every wall is a stacked series of mossy terrariums, one of which holds a frog named Sweetpea, or else feathered with the leaves of potted plants. A Chihuahua mix named Penny noses at a velvet skull on the coffee table; Salem, a black cat, is reportedly hiding under the bed. Gaca offers me seltzer — Beach Plum LaCroix, to be more specific.
“One of my proudest accomplishments is that I’m on the PR list for LaCroix,” he says, laughing. “That’s what I told my mom, like, ‘You’re not gonna believe this!’”
Such are the spoils of modern fame. Gaca, 26, has earned his free sparkling water (and much more) as a TikTok creator posting under the name @ghosthoney; since he joined the app in March of 2019, he’s amassed some 2.7 million followers. (The reason for the name? “I’m sweet and fascinated by death,” Gaca once joked.)
It’s a number that pales in comparison to, say, the Charlis and Addisons of the platform, whose follower counts can range from tens of millions to over 100 million, but Gaca is now well known enough to get recognized while grocery shopping or, as happened recently, celebrating the opening of Pumpkin Spice Latte season with some friends at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The number is certainly higher than Gaca expected when he started the account as a lark during lunch breaks from his job as an administrator and teacher at Columbus College of Art & Design, where he had studied painting as an undergraduate.
Gaca’s online presence is hard to summarize except as a vibe. “Gentle chaos” is the theme that unites his videos, which invoke topics as varied as Victorian dandies, cannibalistic mermaids, Twilight, and the nonsense talk of art school critiques. On a platform best known for elevating conventionally beautiful young white women through dance challenges and #BamaRushTok, Gaca has staked out a niche for himself as a charmingly offbeat weirdo (albeit, it must be said, a beautiful one). And on an app that favors the bite-size, he somehow manages to make work that defies easy categorization: It’s as if a regular TikToker, making front-facing comedy videos and cute skits, fell into a fever dream that turned everything sideways. The result is equal parts delightful and disorienting.
One of his most recent videos provides a perfect example. It features Gaca playing two characters, one bare-chested, the other wearing a shirt. They’re in bed having a conversation about the famous optical illusion Rubin’s vase: The black and white shapes depict either two faces about to kiss or a vase, depending on how you look at them.
“I don’t wanna play,” shirt-wearing Gaca says. “I’m really bad at these games.”
“It’s not a game,” shirtless Gaca responds. “Just look at this, tell me what you see.”
“I see two men leaning over their mimosas at brunch,” shirt Gaca says, still dubious. Then he picks up steam. “And the sexual tension between them is palpable, and delicious, but they don’t have time to dwell on it because they’re talking shit about their friend Michael, and they only have moments until he gets back from the bathroom.” He imitates Michael, who apparently holds his mimosa cup in both hands “like a baby” and smacks his lips after drinking. The description gets more involved — the men are in a restaurant, there’s a child crying in another booth, a server texting behind a fern. Then: “Oh my god,” he says, “Michael’s coming back.”
And there’s Michael (Gaca, wearing a shirt and a jacket) sipping and smacking. What started as a simple picture has morphed into a story — and then reality.
That’s the Ghosthoney viewing experience. You think you’re looking at something straightforward on the phone’s glossy screen. But Gaca pulls you in further, making the world feel full of detail, movement, and, most of all, possibility. At his best, he creates a vertiginous sensation of seesawing between real and unreal, unease and awe.
“Tyler takes you on a journey in every video,” says Celina Myers aka @CelinaSpookyBoo, a fellow TikTok creator and friend of Gaca’s. “You don't know if you watched for five seconds or five hours, but you come out of it and you're like, Where am I? It's as if somebody from the 1800s discovered TikTok.” Among his fans, Gaca inspires a wholesome kind of devotion: His comments are a shockingly pleasant place to hang out, full of praise for his creativity, gentle riffs on his jokes, and compliments about his hair, which does always seem to be shampoo-commercial shiny.
Gaca didn’t necessarily intend to become a full-time content creator. Originally, TikTok was supposed to be a way to get himself excited about making something during a postgrad creative lull. But as with so many people, the pandemic forced his hand. He and his husband, JiaHao Peng, a photographer and gallery assistant, were both laid off on the same day in 2020, and all of a sudden, what had been a side hustle became Gaca’s full-time job.
Like most content creators, Gaca now relies on a mix of income streams to make ends meet. He has a Patreon account, where fans can pay $3 to $6 per month to participate in events like an interactive book club (they’re currently reading Howl’s Moving Castle), and he regularly livestreams himself playing video games like Pokémon Sword and Shield on Twitch. TikTok’s Creator Fund also pays users like him according to a mysterious accounting of their views and likes. He’s recently started doing more sponsored content on his account, including his biggest get yet: a Lays ad, in which Gaca illustrates the idea that “two things are always better than one” by playing both a guy holding a séance and the ghost who appears — but only briefly, since he’s on his way to an RSVP-only lunch.
Gaca’s career is still young, and it is largely tied to a platform that is, even in the fast-burn world of social media, in its infancy. Like other content creators, his job didn’t exist a decade ago, and in a generally uncertain moment, his path is murky. What happens when you’re trying to make something good, but also popular enough to keep making you money? Should he aim to be the next Bo Burnham, parlaying viral fame into something like a streaming special and a job title that doesn’t include the word “TikTok”? He’s certainly talented enough.
But that kind of success is far from guaranteed, and fandoms can turn on creators quickly. Sure, Addison Rae transformed a mediocre performance in He’s All That into a big Netflix deal, but that’s hardly the norm. Just a few rungs down the influencer ladder we find Dixie D’Amelio, whose sister, Charli, is the most-followed person on TikTok. Dixie has 55 million followers of her own, but her singing career is, so far anyway, DOA. Bella Poarch’s “Build a Bitch” was a massive viral hit; her follow-up, “Inferno,” has posted more modest numbers.
There’s just no guarantee that an audience will follow you from one medium to another, or that their interest in watching you do one particular thing will translate into an interest in watching you do anything else. You can always sell merch, and Gaca has hinted that he has some coming, but finding success as a creator outside your native platform is much trickier.
Gaca has staked out a niche for himself as a charmingly offbeat weirdo.
TikTokers are the ultimate multi-hyphenates — they often write, shoot, direct, edit, and star in their own work — but that makes it harder, not easier, to slot them into a traditional Hollywood role. Gaca says people sometimes call him a comedian, but that’s not the word he’d use to describe himself; the thing is, he’s not quite an actor, either. A YouTube series can be long enough to provide proof of concept for a television show — think High Maintenance or Broad City — but few have turned a TikTok into primetime. The difference between self-funded and self-shot minutelong videos and even the cheapest independent film is several orders of magnitude in terms of time, money, equipment, and personnel. That’s not to say that Gaca or one of his peers can’t make the leap — only that, when they do, they’ll be swinging out over uncharted waters.
So it’s perhaps an understatement to say that the move to LA was something of a gamble. Now it’s up to Gaca to cement a career he’s excited about, and also make enough money to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country. He isn’t sure exactly how that works yet, but he knows he can’t build the future he wants for himself creatively just as a personality on a platform.
Gaca has only good things to say about his life as a content creator. “I feel like I'll always be on the internet, creating for people, as long as they want me to. I feel so honored that I have this audience, and they are so genuinely supportive and kind toward me,” he says.
But he’s also looking outward, trying to figure out how to turn smallest-screen success into a robust creative career. “How old am I gonna be on TikTok still trying to be...” Gaca trails off, and then resets. “I'm hoping my career will slowly shift into other creative endeavors that are more long-term sustainable,” he says, smiling firmly.
Gaca was born in Norman, Oklahoma, but spent his childhood moving around the East Coast. A row of small, blue-toned paintings of the houses his family lived in greets visitors to his apartment. In the kitchen, a piece of wood from a tree that got struck by lightning — from the yard of one of those houses — hangs over a shadowbox featuring the pinned bodies of butterflies. “My dead things collection,” Gaca calls it.
As the youngest of three kids, he spent a lot of his childhood playing by himself. “I used to tell people I wanted to be a cat tamer,” he says. “Not big cats — house cats.” After that came a magician phase, complete with a cape and a wand. By the time he was in the first grade, he’d settled on the slightly more realistic goal of being an artist.
Yet as his professional aspirations evolved, his interest in magic stayed steady. “I never outgrew it fully. It’s still a big part of my life,” he says. “Magic was a very big escape for me. My religion was those big books of the mythologies of dragons and fairies. Those big encyclopedia books, that was my entire world.”
Gaca ended up attending art school, majoring in fine arts with a concentration in painting. His senior show now seems prescient in terms of his future career: It focused on an alter ego, a glowing pink alien named Valentine, who falls to Earth and accidentally becomes a pop star. Valentine isn’t interested in staying in the spotlight, though. Instead, he turns gold and dissolves into sea foam.
The themes that make Gaca irresistible as a content creator were already present then: his mixture of neon-lit pop culture with an evocative, supernatural mythos, as well as a sense of his own otherworldliness, and his ability to turn it into something people want to look at, and perhaps even buy.
Two years after graduation, Gaca would describe those paintings in one of his early TikToks. He spends most of the video lying on the floor of his Ohio apartment, one of the paintings from the show propped up next to him.
“So I haven’t painted, or had an idea for another series, in two whole years,” he says. “Because I work a full-time office job to pay the bills.” He looks away from the camera, at the same time zooming in closer on his face, both inviting and denying intimacy with the viewer. “Which is still cool, I guess. Because when it’s someone’s birthday we get cake.”
There’s plenty of #relatable content out there about how numbing work can be and how tired, anxious, and depressed we are in our busy, boring lives. This isn’t that. It’s genuinely wistful; something in Gaca’s tone conveys both authentic childish excitement about the cake, and also how sad it is to have traded creative exploration for the promise of something as mundane as stability. If there’s a secret sauce to the Ghosthoney charm, it’s epitomized by this moment, which mixes performativity with deep feeling, and manages to be funny and weird and intimate and sad, all at the same time.
The videos got big fairly quickly, Gaca says. His definition of “big” has shifted as his follower count has grown, but at this point, almost all of his TikToks have over 25,000 views. The early successes were diverse: A video of Gaca getting ready to go out with his husband was his first to reach a million views. Jokes about JK Rowling’s scattershot, after-the-fact world-building did well (“I bet you didn’t know that Petunia Dursley was into haaaardcore BDSM”). The closest he comes to a traditional TikTok dance is in a video that features an original audio joke: Krypto9095 ft. D3Mstreet’s song “Woah,” except the titular word is replaced by the sound of Owen Wilson saying “Wow” in various movies.
The million-view video made Gaca think, “Oh my god, I've made it. I should call my mom,” he says. “But after that it wasn't hit after hit.” His following climbed steadily, but he didn’t instantly have the kind of numbers that sent brands running to his door. (You can start pitching yourself as a microinfluencer with as few as 1,000 followers, but most brands want 10,000 or more.) In retrospect, he’s glad that’s how it worked out. A slower burn gave him more time to build himself as a variegated presence, capable of surprising viewers in many ways, as opposed to being known for just one unrepeatable mega-hit.
Gaca tried to keep himself relatively anonymous for a while — well, as anonymous as he could with his face all over his videos. “I just pretended that it didn't exist, and it wasn't a thing,” he says. That lasted until he hit the 100,000-follower mark. Then TikTok invited him to apply to be an ambassador for the app.
At first, Gaca was unclear on what that would mean. Back then, he was working with a growth strategist provided by TikTok, who helped him develop his account’s following. “He was like, ‘You should do this!’” but “I thought I was signing up to keep having a growth strategist,” Gaca explains. “I was like, I don't want to lose that connection.”
He ended up being chosen for the program in January 2020. Brand ambassadorships are fairly common both among retail giants like Sephora as well as social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Their purpose is to foster a deeper connection between frequent users and the company itself. Ambassadors usually get to meet company staff and have access to perks like exclusive products, events, or app features; they promote their love of the company, and, in return, the company promotes them.
Being a TikTok ambassador changed how Gaca saw his work. It began with a trip to LA. “That was when it was like, This is a whole lot bigger than just posting silly videos on the internet. I was the smallest creator in that group, and I had never even met another person who had downloaded TikTok on their phone before, let alone people who were doing it for a living,” he says. In a session on best practices, for instance, he discovered that he was the only creator in the room who shot and edited in the TikTok app instead of using fancy cameras and FinalCut.
All of a sudden, what had been a side hustle became Gaca’s full-time job.
TikTok then sent Gaca and a handful of other ambassadors to New York Fashion Week in February, and he attended a conference for the app in Florida in early March. He was on his way to living the creator lifestyle, as YouTubers and Vine stars had before him.
But then, of course, came the pandemic. Gaca and his husband lost their jobs, and, stuck inside with nothing else to do and no clear source of income, Gaca started posting every day. It was a good time to be on the platform: TikTok would go on to become the most downloaded app of 2020, with 850 million new users globally. (For comparison, during the same period, Zoom picked up 477 million downloads.) Gaca’s content did well enough that after a few months, he and Peng decided to pursue their long-term goal of moving to LA, in part so that Gaca could be closer to the industry opportunities there.
He does have fellow creator friends now, he says: people like Myers, who are especially necessary when you’re in a field that’s still in the process of inventing itself. “At the end of the day, no one has this job,” Myers says. “It's kind of one in a million. It's really rare to blow up to a certain point, so having people around you that you can trust [is critical].”
So far, things seem to be going pretty well for Gaca. He has endorsement deals with companies like Orbitz and Lays. He’s working on a book proposal with a literary agent, and he’s done some voiceover work for video games. He’s even started painting again, though it’s not the “heavy, conceptual work” he favored in art school. Now Gaca’s canvases are small-scale, what he calls “silly art.” They’re portraits of Pokémon and donuts, or re-creations of landscapes like his childhood homes, or his husband’s grandfather’s backyard in China.
Gaca has become a creator and a moneymaker, an influencer, and an artist. He is, from the outside, at least, living the Gen Z dream.
But that dream depends on factors both within and outside of Gaca’s control. Apps like TikTok reconfigure their algorithms and change their rules, which could affect his viewership at any moment. As the recent OnlyFans debacle demonstrated, creators are ultimately at the mercy of their platforms; increasingly, what’s sold as “working for yourself” means relying on a company that has its own profits, not yours, in mind.
And it isn’t as simple as flipping your following to another app if something happens: Plenty of huge creators on one platform have fairly paltry audiences on others. For instance, Gaca has 2.7 million TikTok followers, 200,000 each on Instagram and Twitter, and a mere 25,000 on YouTube. (To be fair, he rarely posts there anymore.) Those stats aren’t nothing, but when you get paid by the number of views you can generate, the difference between hundreds of thousands and millions of followers can be stark.
Sometimes collaborating with another creator can help break you to new fans, but there’s no guarantee because, as Myers notes, each has their own highly tailored approach to the algorithm. “If a video doesn't reach a certain amount of views, I take it down. So I worry — a collab, will I have to take it down? Will that offend someone?”
That’s part of why, she says, she and Gaca haven’t done anything together yet, though she hopes they’ll be able to pull something off when she visits LA later this month. It would be a fun creative exercise, but also a big boost to his visibility, since Myers boasts over 20 million TikTok followers: more than seven times Gaca’s count.
Gaca’s chosen career also relies on his continued willingness to make himself, his friendships, and relationships public. Internet fame is funny, because you can cultivate it from your bedroom — and during the locked-down days of 2020, where else was there to be? But emerging into the world means watching as the metrics on your screen transform into actual people, each of whom feels some kind of connection to you, and probably wants to talk to you about it.
This is particularly difficult for Gaca, who finds what he does highly embarrassing, though, he notes, that doesn’t stop him from doing it. “It's like, Oh, now that it's public it's not as embarrassing anymore,” he says. Still, he creates his TikToks almost entirely in private. Usually, he comes up with ideas in the middle of the night, jots them down on his phone, then refines his notes into scripts during the day. He also shoots and edits during the day, while his husband is at work.
He’s palpably anxious about being asked to perform as Ghosthoney for company. I had hoped to observe him working, but he doesn’t have any scripts that are ready. (As off the cuff as they can seem, Gaca says almost none of his TikToks are improvised.) It’s hard to describe the difference between Gaca as he appears on TikTok and as he is in the flesh. He’s still beautiful; he’s actually taller than you’d expect, taking up space in a room instead of on a phone screen. But when he’s not performing, he isn’t quite as arresting as when he’s on camera. He seems like who he is: a guy, not yet 30, who has somewhat stumbled into fame and is trying to figure out how to keep from stumbling out of it again.
Gaca is highly attuned to the irony of his desire for privacy and how it interacts with his chosen career. “I don't want to be seen,” he says. “But I want to be witnessed.”
For now, that means Gaca is entirely responsible for the Ghosthoney-verse: He writes, shoots, edits, and stars in every video he makes (though Peng and the animals make occasional cameos). “I feel like a lot of content creators are such big introverts,” Gaca says. “It's just naturally easier to curate your own story and scenario and skits and everything. I do it by myself because I'm partially too scared to ask anybody else to be a part of it.”
This is a starkly different reality than most other artists’ — even solitary writers have their editors, and actors and musicians are always working as part of a team. Moving out of that world will mean having to perform in front of others at some point, taking his hermetically sealed creative process into the realm of collaboration.
It will also require him to acknowledge, over and over again, that he wants this: to be seen and known, and maybe even recognized. Gaca knows that what he does is a dream for many. It feels wildly self-indulgent, he says, to admit that he’s pursuing something that looks so easy and cushy from the outside. “I remember teaching and being so exhausted, and hating my job, and hating my life at that point,” he says. “And TikTok was like, ‘Oh, this is so fun. It would be amazing if I could do this full-time. Just post funny videos and stay home with my dog.’”
But, of course, that isn’t what it’s like. “It never felt like work until I had to rely on it as work,” Gaca says. “That's when the pressure was added, and there were a lot of days when I woke up and I was like, The last thing I want to do is look at myself in a camera and then have to hear my voice back for two hours.”
“I don't want to be seen ... but I want to be witnessed.”
Viewing himself as his work has brought up unexpected questions. “Should I do this brand deal, would it be good? How does it affect how my audience perceives me?” Gaca says. “Any time I post anything now, there's a lot more factors. Way more people are gonna see this now than when [I was] just an art teacher in Ohio. It makes me feel like I have to be a lot more cautious and I have to present myself a certain way now, and hold myself to a higher standard than I did before.”
He’s also aware that, no matter how careful he is, the public can be skeptical of content creators who try to grow beyond people’s phone screens. Gaca has experienced some of that firsthand: “When we went to New York Fashion Week, we heard the paparazzi talking, like, ‘I can't believe they have TikTokers at this event. That's disgusting,’” he says. “You never know how someone's gonna react, so it's easier to put yourself down and be like, ‘Oh, I just make silly videos on the internet.’”
Transcending that stereotype matters to Gaca, but so does making something that will outlast a particular platform’s relevance. Recently, he met with a literary agent. “I was like, ‘Oh, I just post videos I made,’” he says. “He was like, ‘No, you don't. Don't say that … You make art. What you do is important.’ And I almost wanted to cry.”
For now, everything’s possible; everything’s in the works. The book and the voiceover auditions, more sponsored content opportunities, maybe that collaboration with Myers. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess what Gaca’s career will become.
He’s in the lucky position, though, of watching his strange, wild childhood dreams coming to fruition. In the book he’s writing, he hopes to convey how his identity and his obsessions led to this unlikely path: “I want it to reflect on the kind of ‘aha’ moments I've had in my life with both magic and queerness, and the moments where they've intersected,” Gaca says.
And ultimately, fame isn’t everything. LA might not be where he ends up, but the California coast feels like his true home, and he’d like to retire there someday — up north somewhere, maybe in Big Sur or Marin.
“I want to be in a tiny house on the sea overlooking everything, and I want to disappear from the world one day,” Gaca says. “Nobody's gonna know where I am. If I ever get a Wikipedia page, it'll be like, ‘We don't know what happened. He just kinda disappeared.’ I think my followers will accept that, and they'll support it. They're all of the same mindset.” ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of three young adult novels and a full-time freelance writer. Her nonfiction has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.