If TikTok didn't exist, Portlander Alyssa McKay says she'd be still working at Menchie's Frozen Yogurt in Clackamas.
She's happy now as a TikTok star. Every day, McKay wakes up at 10 am, puts on her makeup, starts jotting down hip-hop lyrics in her notebook, picks up her iPhone 11, and spends 40 minutes recording as many as 10 takes of skits where she plays "Lyss"—one of McKay's personal nicknames—who is her famed snotty rich-girl character.
McKay writes, shoots, and uploads two to three videos a day—each taking up to two hours to create—to TikTok, a phone app that allows users to post videos with a running time no longer than one minute.
McKay is one of the larger TikTok stars in America with over 5 million followers, and has more people watching her than pop star Dua Lipa and late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon. And while she hasn't yet reached the numbers of Charli D'Amelio—the world's most followed TikToker—Alyssa is among the sliver of app users who are making a real living. McKay projects she'll make more than $100,000 next year. McKay will be speaking Dec. 2 at virtual TechfestNW about how she built a successful brand on TikTok, and the future of the platform.
"I came from working at Target and frozen yogurt and being yelled at by customers to making videos and being creative," says McKay, 20, who like many other Gen Zers, has found a home on the "it" social media platform of the past two years that also became a target of the Trump administration.
McKay joined TikTok—known then as Musical.ly—in December 2017, when she was a senior in high school. At that time, Musical.ly was a platform that allowed users to post short lip-sync videos. For McKay, who has a background in acting and musical theater, the app seemed like an exciting, creative outlet.
McKay posted her first video in early 2018. Within just a few months, she hit 100,000 followers. And by summer of 2019, she was making more money as a content creator and she quit her yogurt gig.
Today, money from record labels and brands flow in at a steady pace. In return, McKay promotes those companies' products or songs in her TikTok videos and Instagram posts. McKay is a multiplatform creator, filming and editing videos on her YouTube channel and curating content for her Instagram page, but her largest and most rewarding audience is on TikTok.
In a world with arguably too much content, McKay has broken through with funny and relatable videos: short comedy skits and raps that are as well-crafted as origami, though seemingly spontaneous, and that comment on everything from body positivity to pandemic stupidity and, not surprisingly, President Trump.
In some videos, she assumes different personalities, but her followers love her rich-girl character the most, where she pokes fun at privilege and irresponsibility while rapping in a valley girl accent.
"Alyssa was one of the first to start with the TikTok raps," says Emanuel Jenner, a fellow TikTok influencer and close friend of Alyssa's. "The raps were trending elsewhere in the world, and she brought that trend to the U.S. just by seeing what other people were doing."
In an Oct. 5 video—which has more than 20 million views—McKay's rich-girl character satirized people who don't wear masks, rapping: "I don't really mind if I get people sick, since I'm so young, I'll recover quick. Every other day I'm on a yacht or plane—if you leave without a mask on, you're insane."
McKay says she is often asked by her followers if that is her real personality.
"Since the character I play is a rich, snobby brat, everyone's like, 'I bet she acts like that in real life,' but I am a foster kid," says McKay. "Everything I have I worked for."
Born and raised in Portland, McKay, says she has always been a creator. At 9, she received her first computer from her grandmother; almost immediately, she started posting her own music videos on YouTube.
McKay has made private many of her earlier TikTok videos, but the first video that's still visible on her TikTok account shows her lip-syncing a scene from the American teen drama Pretty Little Liars. It was videos like that one—where McKay acts out scenes from popular TV shows—that put her on the map as a TikTok personality and helped her grow her base.
These days, McKay's following is steadily increasing, and whenever she is out in public, she gets stopped by fans who ask for photographs.
Outside of TikTok, McKay is also a full-time student at Portland State University, majoring in communications. She has also had some work in a more established format: movies. She had a role in the 2018 Portland-shot film Leave No Trace and will appear in an upcoming short film, Wish You Well.
For now, McKay is grateful. Her next goal? Hit 10 million followers in 2021.
"My favorite moment of every day," she says, "is doing my makeup, uploading a rich girl rap, and watching the comments pour in."
(You can see McKay and other fantastic speakers at virtual TechfestNW. Get tickets here.)