Some kids dream of being rock stars; others dream of flying into outer space. Chris Udalla always wanted a cult following.
At 21, he seems like any other University of Minnesota student — until a classmate turns to him and whispers, “Wait, I think I’ve seen your face before.” Or a stranger pulls up in a car to say hi as he walks across campus.
With more than 930,000 followers, a number growing by the thousands daily, Udalla is a star on the popular video sharing app TikTok. He hopes to hit 1 million soon.
He collected 2.1 million likes for a video in which he filmed himself creating a “Mii” — a personalized avatar inside the Wii video game. The program grabs a photo of his face and creates an avatar — one with pale skin, red hair and blue eyes.
Udalla has brown skin, black hair and brown eyes.
“Yo, what the [expletive],” he says just before the video cuts off.
The video is simple and short, but that’s part of the allure of TikTok. Udalla specializes in comedy: sometimes crass, usually featuring unfiltered commentary about the world around him.
“I think Chris is very likable in a weird way. He’s super genuine but his content is so funny and weird,” said Nic Crego, a friend since high school. “I think that he knows what he’s doing … somehow he just knows how to make people laugh.”
Udalla, 21, grew up in Elk River, Minn. From about age 12, he was interested in making videos. Influenced by comedians on TikTok’s predecessor, Vine, and the humor on former Nickelodeon show “iCarly,” he and his siblings would film themselves making short comedy sketches.
“He has always, and I mean always, had the ability to make me laugh,” said his mother, Janee. “He’s just so witty and so clever. It comes out of nowhere and all of a sudden he’ll say something and it’ll make you laugh.
“That’s always been him.”
Defining his style
A junior who’s studying film production, theater and art, Udalla has dreams of creating films in the vein of Jordan Peele, known for his comedy horror flicks like “Get Out” and “Us.”
He wanted to be a YouTuber, but became attracted to the snappy format TikTok offers.
“It was always a goal to go somewhere with videos eventually,” he said. “I didn’t really expect TikTok to be the outlet.”
TikTok has taken the place of the now-defunct app Vine, which was also widely popular with teens, but allowed users only six seconds to deliver their punchlines. TikTok was born when a Chinese startup called ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, a popular lip-syncing app, in 2017 and transitioned it into TikTok. Anyone with the app can make videos up to 60 seconds long.
As with YouTube, many genres live on TikTok, from makeup tutorials to singing duets to dance routines set to catchy songs. Udalla takes a different approach.
“With dancing TikToks, you can only go so far,” he said. “People aren’t necessarily going to remember that as much as someone who tells jokes or makes you think about things a certain way. I want to keep my fan base rather than be someone kind of forgettable.”
Since July, he’s posted at least one video a day, sometimes as many as eight. There’s no special formula to them. He often films in his room and records whatever pops into his head. Or he shows off his freestyle rapping skills.
“Sometimes I’ll record a video and then 30 minutes after it’s posted, I’ll watch it again and be like, ‘What was that one about? What was going on in my head?’ ” he said.
He does take notice when a video resonates with followers, and he’ll sometimes repeat the format. In one series of TikToks, he pokes fun at popular musicians and their fan bases: “Next up we got the homegirl, Lizzo. She makes the black equivalent of ‘horse girl’ music.”
Udalla’s videos reach phones around the world, but he says TikTok analytics break down his followers like this: 85% live in the United States; 60% are between the ages of 18 and 24; 65% are female.
“Girls like my nose ring,” he said with a shrug.
Realities of internet fame
If you’re wondering whether Udalla gets any money out of TikTok, the answer is yes, but not necessarily how you would expect. Unlike YouTube, Udalla’s videos are not littered with advertisements — TikTok content is simply too short.
Udalla’s main revenue stream comes from copyright infringements. When people take his videos and put them in compilations that appear on other corners of the internet, he can receive money. Udalla is signed with Gas Media, a digital rights management group that monetizes his videos.
He’s also been approached to create “sponsored content” — promoting a product or individual in his videos. Udalla manages this aspect of his job on his own. He’s collaborated with the rapper Convolk and is in deals with a sunglasses company and a clothing brand. As his follower count increases, so do the moneymaking opportunities.
Sometimes Udalla does worry about the volatility of the internet, especially after abrupt shutdowns of apps like Vine and Musical.ly. He had a scare after posting his “Mii” video. TikTok deleted his account. Udalla was able to get it back, but the experience gave him a lesson in the unpredictability of TikTok.
He’s also had to come to terms with the fact that some videos will get deleted or censored by content moderators. “My content is not for young kids,” he said. He’s also concerned about how TikTok’s Chinese parent company has possession of all of his content.
But adoration from fans helps to quiet these thoughts. Udalla says there is a difference between followers and a fan base, and he has the latter. His TikTok profile icon is an illustration of his smiling face — one of many drawings he receives from fans.
TikTok recently invited him to be part of an elite group of “Popular Creators.” There is now a little blue check by Udalla’s account handle, signifying his status.
Some might be overwhelmed by a quick rise to fame, but he welcomes the attention and everything that comes with it — even if that means taking a selfie with a follower on his way to class.
“Getting to be a bigger creator was always a goal of mine, but I wouldn’t say that was the only reason I was on the app,” he said. “I went into it with the intention of having fun.”
Liv Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.