Samantha and Madeleine Caleon haven’t had formal lessons in singing or dancing, but that hasn’t stopped them from building a fanbase of millions who adore them for both.
The 22-year-old Toronto twins choreograph and post roughly 10-second clips of them grooving and lip syncing every week on TikTok – an app turning locals into stars as it becomes the talk of Generation Z and a challenge for parents just trying to keep up with whatever newfangled social media their kids are on.
Karaoke-style videos like the Caleons’ made the app famous in China just after it was founded by Beijing tech company ByteDance in 2016, but its August 2018 merger with similar social media platform Musical.ly catapulted it to success in North America and caught the eye of the GTA’s Gen Z (those born in the late 1990s).
“We decided to check it out and do it for fun, but we had no idea it would become what it is today,” Samantha told the Star of how her sister cajoled her into trying Musical.ly together in 2016.
“I noticed it was more younger, more elementary-age kids, but now I see anywhere from high school age to adults using the app. There has been a large growth over the last few months.”
The women were on YouTube first, but only reached 300,000 subscribers on the platform – a fraction of the 3.3 million they have on TikTok.
While the platform has grown so has its content. Now many are using it for mukbang videos – footage of people binge eating – and “cringe” clips, where people do embarrassing things on camera.
Also a TikTok hit: challenges. Some launched by late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon ask audiences to post videos of them rolling around on the floor like a tumbleweed or trying to flip and catch a Sharpie marker with the same hand, uncap it and draw a moustache on their face in as little time as possible.
Several Canadians have used such challenges to catch the eye of sponsors willing to pad their pocketbooks, while others including Kristen Hancher, a TikTok user previously based in Toronto, have TikTok to thank for film and television roles and fledgling music careers.
The Caleon twins say their dance videos – sometimes shot by their dad – generate so much attention that they’ve been able to launch an apparel business, score trips to the Philippines, Spain and Switzerland and rake in offers from music acts and fashion brands wanting a plug.
“We were regular teenagers doing our own thing, going to school. We never really expected to become this big,” said Samantha, who graduated with her sister from the University of Toronto’s commerce program last November.
“Our intention was to pursue a job in the finance industry, but because of everything that came up, currently we are pursuing social media full time.”
Neither she nor Madeleine see TikTok falling out of their routine anytime soon because they have racked up 130 million hearts (likes in TikTok speak) and think the app has much more room to grow.
“We have made friends through the app, but personally don’t know anyone in our lives using it,” Madeleine said.
ByteDance hasn’t revealed how many Canadians are on the app, but reportedly added 188 million users in this year’s first quarter and has racked up more than one billion downloads.
Richard Lachman, an associate radio and television arts professor at Ryerson University, said the app made it into his home via his teenage daughter, but is still “relatively new” and maintaining its popularity because parents haven’t overwhelmed the platform and reduced its cool factor yet.
He thinks much of TikTok’s appeal is being driven by its “silly” nature and because it has – so far – avoided the fake news and controversial content of its social media counterparts.
Rarely do TikTok videos get political, though some have recently used the platform to lip sync while holding up messages critical of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s education cuts that left teachers laid off and some classes slashed.
“TikTok feels creative,” said Lachman said. “It feels wholesome and innocent in a way.”
But it’s hard to know how long that will last, he said. Gen Z has already abandoned Facebook and Twitter. Those big platforms have swallowed up smaller companies youth adore and copied their most popular features including livestreaming, degrading the value of other apps.
“Youth culture moves fast. What is cool now, will not be cool in a short period of time,” said Lachman, who noted sometimes new generations grow into and adore social media platforms the previous generation has already left.
“It is a question of if (TikTok) can get big enough, good enough, fun enough and have enough awareness to last.”
Amanpreet Randhawa thinks it can.
The 24-year-old dental office manager in Toronto has been lip syncing to pop, rap and Punjabi hits on the app since a friend introduced her to it. She’s since amassed more than 181,500 followers, 761,000 hearts and a handful of modelling and sponsor opportunities, sometimes from as far away as India.
“People will comment on my videos and I will feel good,” she said. “It has changed my life. This is my passion.”
She doesn’t see the appeal or lucrative nature of the app slipping away anytime soon, but said she hasn’t considered giving up her job to invest all her time in TikTok.
“There are so many TikTok users and they are going to overcome you and beat you some day,” she said. “If you are popular right now, you just have to enjoy that time like I am.”
Tara Deschamps is a Toronto-based journalist and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tara_deschamps