On June 3, 2019, a star was born. Her name is Alessi Ren Luyendyk. If you are wondering why a random four-month-old baby is a star, young Ms. Luyendyk was born with the most reliable indicator of bonafide celebrity status as of 2019: a little blue checkmark bequeathed by Instagram, verifying that she is who she says she is.
Or, rather, who her parents say she is – since it is very unlikely that at less than 16 weeks of age, Alessi has any idea what her name is, and certainly can’t yet say anything to anyone. But Alessi’s prenatal fame – she was born with a few hundred thousand followers on an Instagram account that has been in existence longer than she has – is inherited. Her parents, Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Lauren Burnham, are famous after their roller-coaster romance was documented on national television on the TV show “The Bachelor” in 2018.
Theirs was a classic love story: Boy meets several girls, all of whom live together and compete for his affections in a series of staged encounters. Boy narrows down the field to two. Boy lets one down easily, proposes to the other and then changes his mind during the “After the Bachelor” special and dumps the girl he proposed to in favor of the girl he let down easily.
You know, basically Romeo and Juliet.
From there, the couple was married on a beach in Hawaii, and last November announced on Instagram that they were expecting. They then proceeded to do all the things first-time parents do: ordered a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” found a safe and sturdy crib – and created an Instagram account for their unborn child.
Alessi’s parents are in it for the game – but apparently not for the money. According to reports, despite the infant’s large and avid following, her account is not activated to make money. Instagram, like most social media platforms, does not allow users under a certain age, but usually will note somewhere in the terms of service that parents can run an account on their child’s behalf. Through the power of that loophole, fans all over the world can keep up with Alessi’s doings (spoiler alert: Like most babies, she lies around and looks cute in clothes) and other underage influencers can stay platformed.
Platformed – and, as it turns out, incredibly well-off, because some parents did in fact switch on those monetization features.
The Young and the Influential
In many ways, Ryan Kaji is a normal 8-year-old. He loves trains, karate, Legos and Duplos. But he also earned $22 million last year leveraging the incredibly commercial power of his YouTube channel: Ryan ToysReview. As the name indicates, the channel features videos of Ryan (and, in recent years, other children) playing with toys while offering their feedback.
Whether those videos will be around forever remains an open question. The watchdog group Truth in Advertising has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against the channel on the grounds that its videos are sponsored advertising content made to look like organic material created for entertainment. Per the complaint, as Ryan is under 13 years old, he should not be allowed to have his own YouTube channel – even if his parents actually run it.
The complaints have done little to damage the channel’s popularity. Ryan’s first video, which was posted in 2016, has to date received some 48 million views. Moreover, even if Ryan’s stardom is somehow curtailed on YouTube, he arguably no longer needs the platform as his home base. He now stars in his own Nick Jr. show on cable, “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” and has an international merchandise deal with the network, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
And though Ryan is an unusually successful example, he is by no means a complete outlier. There are a lot of kids out there who are rapidly getting Insta (and YouTube and TikTok) famous – and in profitable ways. Little Jayde Kamille made her first “Salon Talk” video with her mom when she was a year old. Today, she has hundreds of thousands of followers and a lucrative side hustle to her preschool career, making partnerships with online beauty brands. She is currently four years old.
Taytum and Oakley Fisher are adorable identical twins who, according to their parents, earn around $200,000 per month via brand deals and ad revenue – an amount that might seem excessive until one considers they have 3.1 million Instagram followers. And seeing double, as it turns out, really appeals to the Instacrowd – Ava and Alexis McClure (age eight) have 1.9 million followers and command $10,000 for each advertising partnership they sign.
Skills can also pay the bills – 10-year-old Londoner Ethan Gamer delights his audience of 2.4 million YouTubers by playing video games while speaking in a British accent. He reportedly brought in $3.6 million in income last year.
So, is it time to get yourself an adorable moppet, set up a social account and start counting the money that rolls in?
First, a few words of caution.
Is This Really a Good Idea?
The few, the proud and the viral can end up with millions of dedicated followers, lucrative advertising deals and even tens of millions of dollars’ worth of income a year. But the key word is “few.” There are far more “kid” accounts sprinkled across social media than there are incredibly profitable social media influencers being discovered in elementary school. Some kids are incredibly telegenic, some are very good at video games, some are good performers, some kids have parents that are already famous – and some are just plain lucky.
The rest will probably make a few videos, fail to go viral and go back to playing in the backyard instead of perfecting their internet snark. In that light, it’s probably a good idea to keep adding to that college fund.
Moreover, while pint-sized influencers are a phenomenon of the modern world, child celebrities are as old as the concept of celebrity. Shirley Temple, Annette Funicello, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Macaulay Culkin, Judy Garland and Britney Spears were all very famous long before they ever turned 18. They all signed multimillion-dollar endorsement deals and were set for life financially long before they could legally sign a contract on their own.
Some of them went on to have fine lives. Shirley Temple went on to work at the U.N., while Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and Annette Funicello had successful performing careers and relatively “normal” personal lives.
But then there are the cases of child stars who didn’t turn out quite so well, which tend to be more memorable. Michael Jackson, it is safe to say, will not be remembered entirely for the music he made; Judy Garland was an incredibly troubled adult, and no matter how long she lives, no one will ever forget the Britney Spears head-shaving incident. For every child star who grows up to be a fully formed, rational adult, it seems there are twice as many who end up fighting their parents in court over the money they made, going in and out of rehab or (in at least a few cases) getting accused of armed robbery.
Does that same fate await a generation of kids who are Instagram-famous before they can type or even say a few words? It’s hard to say – it’s a different type of fame. It is possible that the next generation of stage parents who sign on their kids to live in the public eye will do a better job of actually shepherding them to adulthood should they actually hit the viral fame lottery.
And if not – well, at least all that advertising revenue will pay for a top-notch therapist down the line.