Alex Collyard, Derry Queen, Elizabeth Gomez, and Iridessence are among the Chicago performers who turned to TikTok in 2020. Credit: TikTok

During a year when screen time has felt more like a punishment than a reward and the word “viral” has taken on a completely different meaning, one social media platform has stood out from the rest and in many ways defined 2020: TikTok. Its continuing popularity is likely due in part to the creatives who flocked to the app when traditional venues were shuttered in the midst of the pandemic.

“Ultimately being able to create something good out there and have people respond to it, big or small, has been really important to kind of replace live performance for me,” says comedian Alex Collyard (@alexcollyard). He first started experimenting with TikTok in the summer of 2019 as part of a challenge with some fellow comedians to see who could get to 100 followers. He won “handily,” he says, and has since become something of a TikTok star, especially in recent months when his videos started focusing on the laugh-worthy nuances of the election and U.S. politics in general.

“I would say my most successful videos were just me using that ability to just kind of improvise with myself,” Collyard says. “Not that they’re like, you know, super improv-y, but they have a natural conversational feel. I’m literally like recording and then, you know, a second later recording my response to what I just said. And in a way, I kind of actually like to emotionally respond to myself.”

@juannarumbel

Welcome to old lady tiktok. ##rollerskating ##80s

♬ Don’t Stop The Rock – Freestyle

“It’s basically an app for theater kids, where theater kids want to be,” says Elizabeth Gomez (@juannarumbel), a comedian and storyteller who initially discovered TikTok through her cosplaying teen. “What really kept me going was the diversity; there were people from all sorts of ages, people from all sorts of backgrounds, religious, ethnic, and I don’t have that kind of access with Instagram or Facebook.”

Gomez, also one of the founding members of the Windy City Rollers, put on her skates for the first time in years, and combined roller skating (an activity that was trending on TikTok early in the pandemic), comedy, and her extensive wig collection to bring joy to herself and her friends. Something struck a chord beyond that, and soon her videos were hitting thousands of views, her most-watched clip with more than 500,000. And along the way she’s discovered a new way to hone and present her craft.

“At this point, I feel like this is my performance,” Gomez says. “I have a lot of fun doing it, I can do it on my own time, I’m not at a bar getting drunk till two o’clock in the morning and eating way too many chicken wings. I’m 46 at this point so it fits my lifestyle, it fits my abilities.”

And it’s not just the flexibility to create where and when you want, something that was not always possible in the pro-hustling culture of in-person performances that permeated the before times. TikTok, it seems, has an audience for everyone. Instead of hoping someone in a small Chicago venue appreciates a performance, artists are able to reach people from anywhere who are often searching for a specific theme, ideal, or type of creator.

@iridessence_

Tis the season to be ##glamathome ##happyholidays##christmas##covidchristmas##christmastree##vintagestyle##vintageaesthetic##oldhollywood##1940shair##40s##1940s

♬ Sleigh Ride – Ella Fitzgerald

“I think TikTok and Instagram fill the void of just needing to be seen, seen on my own terms, and [I’m] able to curate that,” says burlesque performer Iridessence (@iridessence_) who has grown an audience with her cottage core posts and glamorous, sometimes very elaborate looks—in one video she dresses in full Marie Antoinette garb to take out the trash. “Unfortunately due to being a person of color and size, in person I can be very invisible unless I go out of my way to be over the top. The Internet can connect you to strangers across the world who understand what it means to be invisible even if you’re not fancy.”

Because TikTok has such a diverse audience, there’s no telling what will hit when. There’s no magic formula to follow—in fact, most folks I spoke with say that when they were creating just to try something new and entertain themselves, that’s when things really took off. Drag queen and comedian Derry Queen (@derryqueenhaha) discovered that with a video called “Questions At The Gates Of Hell,” which she has since turned into a popular series.

“I think it was my third or fourth video that went viral—it’s at 3.1 million views, which is just the stupidest thing that’s ever happened,” Derry Queen says. “It’s been a good outlet to challenge myself into not only coming up with drag looks and things like that, but to bring my comedy into this one-minute avenue.”

Once you’ve gone viral, though, it becomes impossible to not want to chase that high, something that TikTok hasn’t always made easy. For one, the trends and sounds used in videos are rapidly changing, burying older videos that don’t use the right hashtag or popular song of the moment. In December of last year, TikTok admitted that it was suppressing the outreach of queer, fat, and disabled creators because they were “vulnerable to cyberbullying.” And censorship is alive and well.

@derryqueenhaha

Guess Who! Will be going to Heck ! ##fyp ##duet ##dragqueen ##makeup

♬ original sound – Derry Queen

“I’ve only posted like 25 TikToks and like out of the 25 I probably had like eight of them taken down,” Derry Queen says. “One time I had a TikTok taken down for saying I had 17 butt cheeks, which makes no sense. They said it was a medical lie or something like that. I’ve had a lot of censorship, but there is safety for that reason where it’s like there are a bunch of tiny kids on the other side.”

Even with all TikTok’s problems, these artists aren’t planning on leaving the platform any time soon. Even as performance venues begin to open up, it remains as a place for experimenting and building an even larger audience. And not just an audience, but a community of fans who are more often than not supportive and refreshingly wholesome.

“It’s ultimately the Internet, so there are trolls,” Iridessence says. “But for the most part, like romantic compliments are still very tasteful, you know, like I get a lot of comments from people like, ‘Can we like, move into a cottage together, I want to walk with you and hold your hand,’ so precious. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to mostly carve out my own positive audience of people who really appreciate what I do.”   v