Stylist Tabitha Sanchez has, by all accounts, a pretty standard TikTok origin story. 

It all started back in March, when the 23-year-old was riding out the early days of the pandemic from New York City, the virus' latest epicenter. "It was really traumatizing and scary," says Sanchez, who, at the time, was working with up to 15 different stylists on a variety of projects. "One of my younger sisters was like, 'Why don't you just download TikTok?' I didn't have the attention span for TV at the time, so I downloaded it and was like, 'Oh, wait — no one is dressing these people."

This is where Sanchez's TikTok journey diverges from yours. While you (present company included) likely continued down this rabbithole, doom-scrolling through 60-second clips of ABBA dance choreography and Rube Goldberg machines, Sanchez saw a massive professional opportunity — and jumped on it.

"I drafted an email that basically said I could arrange clothing gifting for TikTok stars from relatively cool designers," she says. "I probably sent 50 emails, and only one person responded, Olivia Ponton's agent. And then Olivia just introduced me to everyone."

By summertime, Sanchez had relocated to Los Angeles to work with the 18-year-old TikTok star — and whomever said star connected her with — full-time. Among those in her new network was Chase Hudson, a.k.a. "Lil Huddy," a floppy-haired "e-boy" whose own follower count teeters well into the 30 millions across TikTok, Instagram and YouTube combined. But Hudson, for one, has somewhat eclipsed the cloudy bubble of TikTok fame, having inked a blue-chip talent contract with mega-agency WME for modeling, music, film and more.

Since the viral Chinese video-sharing service first began gaining steam in the U.S. two years ago, more and more of its top-tier creators (Hudson, yes, but also Charli and Dixie D'Amelio, Addison Rae, Avani Gregg, Noah Beck…) have forged similar paths forward: Join the app, get famous on the app, land sponsorships and record deals and movie roles — until one day, maybe, you won't need the app anymore. 

Wouldn't a stylist enable them to do all those things?

"There's so much money in TikTok, and now TikTok stars' careers are going to look a lot more like traditional entertainment careers," says Rebecca Jennings, a reporter covering internet culture at The Goods by Vox. "And obviously, that's where the need for a stylist comes in."

Jennings has been writing about TikTok in all its AI-powered glory since the platform's infancy, when the popular teen-karaoke app, Musical.ly, rebranded as TikTok in the early fall of 2018. "I was so aware of how the algorithm was learning what I liked and how to keep me on there," she remembers. "It was fascinating in a dark way. The landscape has changed so much since then, and now it's known as this place where beautiful teenagers dance."

Like the lion's share of social-media platforms, TikTok was built on a certain pixelation of authenticity. True, the app is home to glossily-edited videos, but it's become even more beloved for, as Jennings says, the funny kids who are just being themselves in their bedrooms. "Kids" is actually accurate terminology: 60% of U.S.'s 26.5 million active TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24, according to Reuters.

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"I think the reason people really were drawn to [Addison Rae and Charli D'Amelio] in the beginning was because they were girl-next-door pretty," says Jennings. "They wore jeans and tank tops, and they didn't really do anything that interesting, stylistically." After all, in the sticky web of TikTok superstardom, fashion doesn't exactly get top billing. "People don't follow Addison or Charli for their clothes," she continues. "They follow them because they're cute, and they dance, and they're friends with each other, and you get to see them hangout."

The difference now, though, is money, and lots of it. 

Until earlier this year, the vast majority of companies would never have sunk advertising dollars into a TikTok campaign. (Charli, the app's most-followed user, didn't even join TikTok until June 2019.) That all changed when it became clear just how engaged — i.e., financially lucrative — the app's audience was. "TikTok is this very, very powerful space where it's possible to go viral very, very fast," Jennings explains. "It wasn't the wild-west of yet another basic social-media platform." And TikTok Fame™ is starting to look a lot more like Traditional Fame™ because of it.

"If you go to a lot of these TikTokers' pages, and you scroll all the way back, you'll notice they wear normal outfits, and then you'll notice, suddenly, their nails are really nice, and then they'll get eyelash extensions, and then they'll put a little bit more effort into their clothes, and some cases, they'll get lip fillers or nose jobs," says Jennings. "You can tell when they bring on a stylist and level up into being 'mainstream famous,' which means they now need to look presentable in the way that we expect actual celebrities to look presentable."

This, of course, is where fashion stylists come in. Now a few months into her new Los Angeles life, Sanchez has developed a workflow that's so much more than just gifting her clients the "relatively cool" clothes she initially promised them back in March. (Though sometimes, with Hudson, she'll do just that, calling in a batch of weekly samples and dropping them off at the TikTok mansion he shares with nearly 20 people. He'll style them to his liking, FaceTiming Sanchez for guidance when needed.)

"If there's money involved, I usually go through managers," she explains. "But I don't really go through management if it's them just being like, 'Hey, do you want to come shoot for content today? And do you have clothes, or you can help me with my clothes?'" 

With the pandemic effectively putting a damper on normal events, like red carpets, press and editorials, content-minded styling has become Sanchez's bread and butter. 

"Everyone knows each other," Sanchez tells me. "It's like friends just hanging out. But that's been a weird thing some people don't realize — that styling is my full-time job, not just something I do for fun. Honestly, I've gotten so many amazing opportunities from TikTok, I don't mind doing a shoot for free occasionally because honestly, I'd probably still be assisting in New York if I wasn't working with everyone I'm working with now."

Nikki DeRoest, a makeup artist and men's groomer, has built a career alongside some of the internet's most pioneering influencers, like Chiara Ferragni. "I met her in the U.S. when she was just starting out and only had a couple hundred thousand followers on Instagram," says DeRoest. "I've learned throughout the years that you take them seriously because they're business people. They just have a talent for putting themselves out there."

While DeRoest's résumé is heavily influenced by more traditional mediums, she began working with star TikToker Rae — whose full name is Addison Easterling — earlier this year. As the highest-earning figure on the platform, she has laid out her own blueprint for life beyond TikTok. In January, Rae signed with WME just eight days after Hudson did, securing a deal that pledged to build out her repertoire across *clears throat* "modeling, fashion, music, dance, TV, film, digital, podcasting, touring, books, licensing and endorsements." Her parents even signed with WME, too. So far, Rae's grand plan, whatever it may be, seems to be working: She's since partnered with American Eagle, launched her own cosmetics line and landed a starring role in "He's All That," an upcoming remake of the 1999 teen comedy "She's All That."

"It's been fascinating working with Addison because what has happened to her in the last year is just insane," DeRoest notes. "She films while I'm doing her makeup, and it's always fun to watch the process because it looks like they're doing nothing, and then you only realize how cool it really is when you see it on TikTok later."

DeRoest touts a number of high-gloss celebrity clients, but with Rae, she finds herself doing things a little differently. "When you're working with content creators," she says, "they're the boss. They know what they want. When I work with Addison, I'm creating her as her. If there's certain little touches she likes with her makeup, I definitely let her drive that. You want them to feel like themselves, or whatever idea of themselves they've created in their head."

Meanwhile, on the fashion end of the equation, Rae works with Mimi Cuttrell, a New York City-based stylist whose clientele includes Ariana Grande, Normani and Gigi and Bella Hadid, the very definition of "mainstream famous." Now Rae is part of that, too — and so is fellow Cuttrell client Dixie D'Amelio, who signed a record deal with L.A. Reid's label HitCo Entertainment this past August. With Cuttrell's assistance, Dixie has been looking the part of a proper pop star in punchy high-fashion looks and brands like Chanel and Area. Dixie's own glam squad is rounded up with a couple more heavy-hitters, hair stylist Laura Polko and makeup artist Patrick Ta. "I don't think they work with just anyone," says Sanchez.

"These are 19-year-old girls," says Jennings. "They're probably so fun for stylists to play dress-up on. They're beautiful. People love them. It doesn't take much to make them look really, really good." 

And yet, the fashion industry apparently isn't as amenable to TikTok, the concept, as you might expect. "You'd be surprised how hard it is to get some brands on board," adds Sanchez. "It's like, dozens of phone calls."

Fashion is an infamously old-school operation, sure, but the numbers speak for themselves. Sanchez describes one of Hudson's recent content-filming looks that included a satin Dior bomber jacket. "He didn't even didn't even tag it," she says. "He just wore it. I checked online the next day — the jacket had sold out and that video had 5 million views." That's a small fry in comparison to some of Hudson's more viral TikToks, with views nearly 10 times that. It's the kind of exposure you really can't pay for.

Will fashion embrace TikTok stars — and the platform they helped build — more wholeheartedly one day? It's already happening: Take e-boy Noen Eubanks, whom Celine named its newest face all the way back in December 2019. In the meantime, TikTokers will just keep on building mini-universes all their own, with or without fashion's help. But that last part is what stylists are for.

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