The middle-class wannabes who will do anything for 15 seconds of fame: One is a boarding school girl, another studied politics. But three weeks after they moved into an Essex mansion, their TikTok mini-videos have been watched 200 million times
The camera pans round to a bathroom, where a masked figure pours milk into a bath filled with rosebuds. In said bath reclines a glamorous young woman in a sparkly dress, one glistening bare leg emerging from the milky surface. As the camera zooms in on her, she takes off her mask, blowing a kiss. The somewhat bizarre clip lasts a total of 15 seconds.
And yet, since it was posted three weeks ago, it has racked up an astonishing 46 million views — for comparison, the first episode of The Great British Bake Off attracted a total of 10.8 million views — and will have netted its young stars thousands of pounds.
Welcome to the very weird and wonderful world of the TikTok influencer.
Wondering what that title even means? Me too — which is how I find myself walking up the driveway of a £3.5 million country estate in Essex. The palatial home includes a swimming pool, cinema room and spa — and helicopter landing pad in the 13-acre back garden.
Looking around, you’d think this must be the home of some A-lister or CEO. Instead, the inhabitants are the stars of the aforementioned video — six British twentysomethings who no one over the age of 25 will have ever heard of.
Spencer Elmer, 20, Eloise Fouladgar, 22, Carmie Sellitto, 22, Millie Taylforth, 20, James Hall, 21, and Kate Shillitoe, 20, are part of a new breed of so-called ‘online influencers’
Kate, Eloise, Spencer, Jimbo, Millie and Carmie are part of a new — and to many of us mystifying — breed of so-called ‘online influencers’, who spend their days taking pictures and making videos to share on social media with their 5.5 million followers.
For the past month, in the first such enterprise in this country, they’ve been living together in a seven-bedroom, Grade II-listed property, courtesy of their management agency, which recruited them and is bankrolling their living expenses. Collectively known on TikTok as The Wave House, these youngsters must generate a never-ending stream of 15-second clips to post on the online video platform.
By putting these six young people under one roof, and encouraging them to collaborate, the agency hopes to grow their fan bases, propelling them to online superstardom — and lining everyone’s pockets. Because while some might call what they do vapid and pointless, it’s certainly not without financial reward.
A recent report described influencer-led marketing as the advertising of the future, valuing it at £7.5 billion worldwide by the end of this year.
Successful influencers, including this lot, can earn £100,000 a year through sponsorship and endorsement deals — four times as much as the average university graduate.
A single viral post can earn as much as £10,000; that’s £666 per second.
‘People are confused by what we do,’ admits Carmie Sellitto, 21, from Hampshire, who’s made videos since he was 12. ‘Even my mum doesn’t understand it. It’s definitely a generational thing. To me, it’s simple: I’m a creative person and doing this gives me a creative outlet online.’
As well as the six young stars in The Wave House, their entourage includes a house manager, private chef, PR, cleaner, handyman and personal trainer. Similar projects in the U.S. include one called The Hype House.
In the three weeks The Wave House has been ‘live’ on social media, after a series of dramatic teasers revealing their identities, they’ve racked up 200 million views.
Their videos to date comprise a succession of increasingly ostentatious stunts, including building an ice rink on the drive, constructing a full-size water park in the garden and posing with a python.
It might sound like the student halls of your teenager’s dreams, but they insist it’s anything but.
The first member of the Wave House was London-based influencer Eloise , 22, (pictured) who rose to fame making TikTok videos, and now boasts 2.4million followers and 62.7million likes on the platform
‘We’re constantly working,’ says Kate Shillitoe, 20, a former pupil at Hurtwood House boarding school in Surrey, who took a year out from her film production degree to join the house. ‘We have a 9.30am meeting every day, and some days we don’t finish until 9pm.
‘Forty per cent of our audience is American, so we have to post at 7pm or 8pm to get the timing right. We’re off at weekends, but, even then, we’re brainstorming ideas for new content.’
Eloise Fouladgar, 22, from London, who quit a politics degree to pursue her social media career full-time, explains: ‘The videos may be short but some take six or seven hours to film. We plan them weeks in advance and we put so much effort into every single one.’
Seven hours to film a 15-second clip?! I’m staggered. But sure enough, the atmosphere at the house is certainly far more professional than I had imagined. There’s a boardroom-style meeting room, a whiteboard filled with ideas for video stunts and top-of-the-range lighting, tripods and cameras.
The influencers can come and go as they please outside working hours, but parties, alcohol and guests are strictly off-limits.
‘We’re here to work; this isn’t a holiday,’ says Kate.
Each spends at least seven hours a day staring at a screen, whether filming on their phones, editing or uploading content to the web.
While the results are tangible, the rather intense set-up has drawn criticism. Online commenters have dubbed the project everything from a ‘TikTok factory farm’ to a ‘cult’. I confess that, having watched some of their quirky videos, I expected a bunch of self-obsessed, vacuous reality TV types. Yet, in the flesh, they’re eloquent, middle-class youngsters who are clearly ambitious and determined to make it in this surreal new world.
Twenty-year-old Millie Taylforth, from Manchester, started trying to become an influencer aged just 12, making gymnastics videos and putting them on YouTube for her friends. Today, her channel — where she posts lifestyle clips covering everything from dating to weight loss — has 1.4 million subscribers. ‘I was in Year 11 and I asked my mum if it would be OK if I didn’t go to sixth form but gave this a go instead,’ she tells me.
‘She’s a teacher so she was unsure, but we agreed to see how it went. I love the idea of sharing my life with people online. This is my dream job.’
Like her, Spencer Elmer, 20, from Devon, also started young, filming videos of himself playing games on his Xbox when he was 12. Now he vlogs — that’s video blog, to the uninitiated — about everything from mental health to fast food.
‘I dropped out of college in my first year to pursue it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know what was going to happen, so my followers have been on that journey with me.’
Millie and Spencer are the singletons of the house; Carmie and Kate have been dating for two years, while Eloise is in a relationship with James Hall, 21, from Surrey, who is known as ‘Jimbo’.
The couple, who previously worked in e-commerce, have only been using TikTok for a year.
‘We were all friends before this,’ says Jimbo. ‘Carmie was round my house one day and he encouraged me to join TikTok.
‘Eloise had wanted to do it for ages but she was too scared. We started making videos together and it grew from there.’
Today, Eloise — the glamorous young woman in the milk-filled tub — has the biggest following of the lot: 2.4 million. Her new-found stardom still hasn’t quite sunk in.
‘It’s easy to forget what that means,’ she admits.
‘Especially living here, you’re quite detached from it all. It’s only when you’re out and about you realise that people know who you are.’ She adds that the reaction to the bath video, her first in the house, was ‘pretty intense’.
While you and I may not have heard of them, to their fans — impressionable youngsters aged 13 to 24 — these six are as famous, and their lives as covetable, as Hollywood megastars.
‘No one knew who David Beckham was at the beginning of his career,’ says Jidé Maduako, the brains behind The Wave House and CEO of its management agency, Yoke. ‘These guys are the faces of the future. Our role is to help their stars grow and get them on to the world stage.’
Aged 26, Jidé is perfectly placed to understand TikTok and the power it wields in today’s internet-obsessed age.
As I leave, Kate (pictured) prepares to jump in the pool in a glittery top and skirt, as the boys discuss getting kayaks to paddle across the lake
The Chinese-owned video-sharing platform was launched in 2016, but only became popular in 2018. The 15-second videos, which appear in a never-ending ‘stream’, typically comprise dancing and attention-grabbing stunts.
Yet while it’s beloved by millions of youngsters, it’s certainly not free from controversy.
Fears it is being mined for personal data by Chinese intelligence services — something TikTok denies — has led to it being banned in several countries, while in July the app’s parent company suspended plans to open a headquarters in the UK.
But Jidé predicts the platform is set to grow. ‘This is only the beginning,’ he says. ‘I see myself as helping to build the new economy, which will eventually replace traditional media. I want this house to become an institute for TikTok-ers, like a Mecca for creators.’
Listening to him talk, you can see why the project might face accusations of zealotry.
He admits the project is ‘not cheap’ but maintains it’s ‘an investment’. The house is rented through a friend’s estate agency, and although the initial plan was a three-month stay, it’s been such a success he plans to extend it indefinitely.
While The Wave House residents aren’t being paid a salary, their rent, food and living expenses are covered by Yoke, which also manages existing sponsorship deals and brokers new ones during their stay — in return for a cut of the profits.
Jidé says TikTok stars can make up to £2,000 a week per million followers from big brands that pay them to promote and use their products in their videos, thus ‘influencing’ their fans.
As such, it’s no wonder a recent survey of British children found that 75 per cent want to be vloggers, YouTubers or social media stars when they grow up.
So how do you make a viral video? I think of myself as relatively internet-savvy, but, at 33, I’m positively ancient in this world.
‘It’s all about being creative — doing something that’s never been done before,’ says Spencer.
‘The shock factor is important. The first few seconds are the ones people watch. It’s like a TV ad or a film trailer — it’s short but it has to have a massive impact.’
Eloise adds: ‘The caption is really important. You’ve got to get the music right, and you’ve got to post it at a good time — 6pm is about right. We’re learning as we go.’
With so many people poring over their every move, do they feel the pressure to perform? ‘People can be very judgmental,’ says Millie. ‘You’re putting yourself out there.’
Kate agrees. ‘Some comments are brutal. And after we post a video, we all get nervous, waiting to see what people think and constantly checking the numbers.’
Her family, she admits, is ‘quite traditional’, although they’ve come round to her new-age career choice. ‘They wanted me to go to university and then get a proper job. But if I wasn’t doing this, I would still be doing something around film production or media.’
If they stop being able to make money online — or, worse, get too old for TikTok — Eloise would train as a teacher, while both Carmie and Jimbo want to work in property.
‘We don’t know how long this will last, so we’re making the most of it,’ says Carmie. ‘It could be a route into TV or fashion.’
For now, there are videos to plan — the more outrageous, the better. So secretive are the upcoming stunts that, before I go, I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
As I leave, Kate prepares to jump in the pool in a glittery top and skirt, as the boys discuss getting kayaks to paddle across the lake.
As a lifestyle, it’s bonkers — but you can bet your teenager will be lapping it up.