Zoe LaVerne likes to dance. She dances in her bedroom, in the snow, in parking garages after dark, her limbs liquid and sinewy, like she’s all muscle, no bones, booty dancing to Mickey Rose and Popp Hunna, songs with explicit lyrics and F-bombs. Most days, she wears sweatpants and cropped tops. Her belly ring sparkles with crystals. Sometimes friends dance backup, like a fun shadow, as if you’re seeing double, only Zoe is the one with flawless skin and impossibly blonde hair. She tapes her performances, most a fleeting 15 seconds, and uploads them on the social media app TikTok, where her followers, known as Zonuts, leave loving messages like “Ur so pretty” and “YOU KILLED THIS QUEEEEENNNNN.” Since she began posting at age 15, the Greenwood resident has amassed 17 million followers and last year earned $800,000.
Not bad for a 19-year-old.
But fame, like adolescence, hasn’t always been easy. LaVerne’s rise has been both plagued and propelled by controversy: breakups with her former boyfriend, accusations that 19-year-old fellow TikTok star Cody Orlove physically abused her, a contretemps with TikTok diva Charli D’Amelio, and an explosive scandal when LaVerne kissed a 13-year-old boy and was accused of “grooming,” a term for enticing a minor into having sex. The heat and hate got so bad that last fall, LaVerne announced she was taking a break from social media and checking into a hospital. She apologized in videos that swerved from tearful to defiant.
“I understand I’m the most hated person on the entire platform. Whatever. Like, I get it, but you guys are making me out to be such an awful, horrible person when I am genuinely trying my best to be happy and grow from the things that I’ve done and be a better person and I can’t do that when all you guys do is tear me down and make me out to be something I am not. Please just let me live. Please let me breathe.”
But a few days later, LaVerne was back and badder than ever—sexy, sardonic, middle fingers raised, TikToking in a black tutu and fishnets to The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love?”
For the past month, I have been obsessively following LaVerne’s TikTok feed the way other people check their stock portfolios or the weather—with a mixture of awe and horror. While most of us are all too happy to forget our angsty teenage years, LaVerne records and posts intimate moments—boyfriend kisses, little-girl meltdowns, jealous rants—enduring the growing pains of adolescence in real time in front of followers from Fort Wayne to Qatar. Her image, her brand, vacillates wildly. On the same night, she posted a sweet slumber party–style TikTok noshing veggie straws with a friend who held up a puppy, and LaVerne did a sultry, lip-licking lip-synch to the lyrics, “I don’t like good bitches, they just not it/I only f*** with whores, I’m toxic.” This is the precarious faultline where she teeters, between doe-eyed angel and “bad bitch,” child and adult. Propelled by beauty and ambition, hindered by immaturity and defiance, Zoe LaVerne is poised to either blast off or implode before she can legally order a drink. Either way, millions of fans—and critics—will be watching, because whether you worship Zoe LaVerne or disdain her, it’s hard to look away.
For someone who’s always on the phone, LaVerne is hard to reach. I called her father, Doug Wright, multiple times and her mother, Debbe Pemberton, so often I felt like a stalker. To be fair, it was the holidays and Zoe went to live with friends while Pemberton fought off COVID. Both parents promised to pass on my number—“I’ll have her call you”—but I spent four weeks staring at my phone. Oddly, thanks to TikTok, I can see exactly what LaVerne is doing when she’s not calling me back. Dancing. Shopping. Hanging out with friends. Kissing her cute local boyfriend, 20-year-old Dawson Day. Let’s face it. If I were 19 and had her life, I wouldn’t call me back either.
When I told my 16-year-old son, Lincoln, about my assignment, he shook his head sadly. “You? You don’t know anything about TikTok.” He was right. Other than chuckling at Trump impersonator Sarah Cooper, I hadn’t focused on TikTok much. If you haven’t either, here’s what you need to know.
Originally called Musical.ly, TikTok launched in China in 2016. Young people embraced the platform, especially during the pandemic, when 15-second videos provided a quick hit of humor and escapism. Anyone could post a video from their kitchen. Everyone had time to scroll. A few unfathomable numbers: TikTok has 50 million daily users, who spend, on average, 52 minutes daily on the app. More than 90 percent of users view TikTok every day, and 41 percent of users are between the ages of 16 and 24. In other words, for millions of teens and young adults, TikTok is a habit, a part of everyday life.
Enter LaVerne, performer, drama queen, makeup magician. “If we watched The Voice or American Idol,” her mother recalls, “she’d get in front of the TV and say, ‘You don’t need to watch that. I can do that.’”
In 2016, LaVerne started posting on Musical.ly several times a day. Within two years, she had 3 million fans and had earned about $30,000. After being bullied at Greenwood Community High School, LaVerne was homeschooled and teamed up with her Chicago-based boyfriend, Cody Orlove. The pair branded themselves “Zody” and made YouTube videos, the most famous being LaVerne’s campy prank where she pretended to text another boy. A hidden camera recorded Cody having a meltdown. When LaVerne revealed the gag, Orlove practically swooned. “You literally gave me a heart attack. I was going to start crying.” Was the skit scripted or a modern-day Candid Camera? Like so much on social media, there is no way to tell what’s real.
The couple broke up last March, reconciled, and broke up again in June, when Orlove donned a baseball cap to deliver a cliché-ridden testimonial that crescendoed with, “If you love something, let it go.”
“Last time this happened on social media, it was so toxic,” Cody said. “It felt like we were a TV show. This is reality for us. This is real life. We have emotions.”
Apparently, not all of them good. An audio tape went public of a confrontation between the couple in which Zoe whimpered, “Let me go.” Later, in a teary video, she claimed, “He hit me and grabbed me.” Orlove later wrote: “There were never any marks or physical damage between the two of us … As teens, we found ourselves in a toxic relationship where we both participated in unhealthy behavior that at times went too far on both of our parts.”
Zody wasn’t the only drama. In July, video leaked of LaVerne sobbing because TikTok superstar Charli D’Amelio was about to pass her in the arms race for followers. “I just want to prove to this b**ch that I am better than her, because I am Zoe f**king LaVerne, and I am literally the star of TikTok!”
But pass her D’Amelio did. In November, the 16-year-old dancer from Norwalk, Connecticut, was the first TikTok star to reach 100 million followers. She was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and achieved the pinnacle of teen chic—spending time in the Los Angeles mansion known as the Hype House, where influencers live together and generate “content,” including more than 100 TikTok posts a day. Next up: a D’Amelio family reality show on Hulu.
Meanwhile, LaVerne kept stepping in mine fields. A Change.org petition circulated to ban LaVerne after she was not sufficiently contrite for lip-synching the N-word, among other crimes. More than 54,000 people have signed. A counter-petition defended her. “Plzz DoNt ban Zoe she did do some bad things but she can CHANGE THAT I love Zoe she is my idol,” pleaded one devotee.
Then the bombshell: A video leaked of 19-year-old LaVerne kissing 13-year-old TikTok buddy Connor Joyce. LaVerne apologized: “We both were in a dark place when we first became friends and ended up just catching feelings for each other.”
In a seven-second video, her voice strained, Pemberton defended her daughter. “Anybody can reach over and kiss somebody. They’re best friends and this needs to stop, you guys. Why are you doing this?”
But it’s another “life-stream” video that I find myself watching over and over. Pemberton comforts Zoe. “Don’t cry. It’s OK.” Zoe wipes away tears and hugs her mother.
Her father, Doug Wright, can be heard in the background. “Shut it off.”
“She wants to say hi to her fans,” Pemberton calls back to her husband. “Say hi to them, Zoe.”
LaVerne leans into the camera, her voice wobbly. “Hi, guys.”
Pemberton scolds the camera. “And don’t believe everything you hear.”
Mother and daughter hold their pretty faces cheek-to-cheek until the video shuts off. Was this a candid, intimate moment? If so, who turned on the camera? Why was Wright’s plea ignored? Was this a clever way to drum up public sympathy? If every human interaction is a potential social media post, does real life become an endless performance? It reminds me of the movie The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey is the unwitting star on a reality TV show. When he learns his whole life has been a scripted lie—entertainment for adoring viewers—he is stunned. “Was nothing real?”
“You were real,” the show’s creator replies. “That’s what made you so good to watch.”
Though the drama may be as fake as her eyelashes, the cash LaVerne banks is certainly real. TikTok performers can earn money when fans tip during live broadcasts through a bitcoin-esque system run through PayPal. (TikTok keeps 50 percent.) If your tip is large enough, the star might give you a shoutout. You’re famous! You’re seen! You’re practically friends!
“If Zoe got on there for five minutes, she would probably make $5,000 to $10,000,” Pemberton says. “I am not exaggerating.”
Influencers don’t solely rely on the kindness of strangers. Many sign promotional deals, become consultants, sell “merch”—a Zonut hoodie will set you back $50—or use the platform to springboard into acting, modeling, or just being famous for being famous. LaVerne is on her way. She released a single, “Lost it All,” has a makeup line, and there’s talk of a Disney movie and reality show starring Pemberton and LaVerne, though her mom isn’t sure she’s ready for that.
But LaVerne’s fame and fortune are still dwarfed by that of TikTok diva D’Amelio, who earns more than $25,000 a video and pocketed a cool million for her split-second appearance on a Super Bowl hummus ad. What did she do in her TV cameo?
None of the therapists and social media experts I spoke with wanted to comment directly on LaVerne, but all were emphatic about the deleterious effects of excessive social media on children, teens, families, society, and even the human brain. In her practice at Indy Child Therapist, Jessica Hood sees two key problems. First, social media lends itself to comparison, which she calls “the thief of joy.”
“Teens are often posting and seeing the edited, filtered, just-right version of everyone’s life,” she says. “It simply isn’t reality, and being submersed in nonreality all the time is not healthy.” Feeling inferior can lead to self-esteem issues, body image concerns, and ultimately depression.
Or, as one fan recently lamented in LaVerne’s comments: “It’s unfair how U look like that and I look like this.”
Second, according to Hood: “‘Dick pics or the female equivalent are commonplace in that it’s rare a teen hasn’t seen, been sent, asked to send, or has sent some form of nude or otherwise sexual pictures. It’s legally child pornography.” Even more troubling, sexual predators target teens.
The writer Nancy Jo Sales visited Indiana while researching her book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Sales interviewed more than 200 girls in 10 states. White, Black, rich, poor, urban, and rural, girls everywhere are on their phones day and night. Posting. Liking. Comparing. Coming up short. Sales refuses to shame or blame the girls for their obsession.
“Why can’t they stop? Well, why can’t I stop? Why can’t you stop? Because we are being programmed. These platforms are designed to capture our attention, our data, our time, and to manipulate us into behaving in certain ways. Social media is girls’ lives. It’s all our lives. While people are reading this, how many times did they check their Facebook account?”
One young woman in the book told Sales that social media was ruining her life. But when asked why she didn’t just quit, she said, “Because then I would have no life.”
Sales doesn’t buy that girls who post “sink shots”—propping your butt on a sink to accentuate its size—are empowered or particularly talented.
“It’s a Kardashian-esque talent for drawing attention to oneself,” Sales says. “It looks like a new version of the American Dream, but it’s insidious and pernicious. I see a lot of women posing as if they were influencers and trying to live that life and be that person. It’s very conformist. There are certain things one must do, a certain look all related to the male gaze and the influence of pornography.”
In some ways, TikTok is more toxic than pornography, says Bryant Paul, an associate professor in The Media School at Indiana University who studies sex in the media. Most viewers understand pornography is an over-the-top sexual fantasy. “With TikTok, everyone is keeping their clothes on, but there is a huge amount of sexual allure, sex suggestiveness, objectification of oneself and others, and it’s validated by the fact that it’s sanctioned,” he says. “Your parents aren’t going to have a problem with you being on TikTok.”
Some parents not only sanction TikTok, they perform. In one recent post, D’Amelio’s mother, Heidi, danced on a deck while Kevin Gates rapped, “She wanna f*** me ’cause I’m thuggin’, I say, ‘Me too’” The post received 16.2 million views. LaVerne taped a video dancing on the bed with Dawson’s mother who takes a vape hit and then bops to a hip-hop medley. Fans loved it.
“DAWSON’S MOM—SHE SEEMS SO COOL,” one Zonut gushed in the comments.
LaVerne wrote back: “Well duh.”
Pemberton is also on TikTok, albeit with a different vibe. LaVerne’s mother, who used to model and sing in an Indy rock band, goes by Mama LaVerne and has 305,000 followers, mostly young teens and tweens who seek her out for advice and comfort.
“Some of them are always saying they need to die and their parents fight and are on drugs,” she says. “I talk them out of it and they thank me so much. Last night, this girl goes: ‘Mama LaVerne, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you. I wish you were my mom.’”
Mama LaVerne also makes money. The other day, Pemberton says she made $175 in 10 minutes from teens tipping her on the app. “I say, ‘Honey, you don’t have to give me gifts.’ Well, they do anyway. They say, ‘We want to. My parents say we can.’”
Pemberton says even she feels the weight of being followed by so many needy fans. “Sometimes it makes me sad,” she says. “I get off the app and think about them and I can’t sleep.”
If the fans posting on LaVerne’s feed are to believed, Pemberton isn’t the only one upset. TikTok fandom is a hot mess of low esteem and mental health issues: “I dunno what to do, I feel like giving up.” And “Is today the day that Zoe notices me?” And “Can you say ‘Hi Kasey’? I’ve been struggling so much and the only thing keeping me going is Zoe LaVerne.”
Exaggeration? Maybe. But fans, like all social media users, must continually up their game to hold people’s attention. Paul, the IU prof, knows this firsthand. He used to draw 400 likes for a cute photo of his corgi, Captain Michael McDonald, who has his own Instagram account with more than 16,000 followers. But recently, “likes” have trailed off. For a fresh spike, the Captain would need to dress in a costume, Paul says, or be attacked by a pit bull. In other words, social media demands what Zoe LaVerne has in spades: drama.
In the short time I’ve been a Zonut, LaVerne has kept her soap opera spicy. Dawson gave her a diamond promise ring. Double hearts! LaVerne gave Dawson a puppy. So cute! LaVerne claimed D’Amelio called her an “insecure bitch.” OMG! Just days into the new year, on a video shared on Instagram, LaVerne confided, “I shouldn’t even say this, but I might be pregnant right now.” Is she?! She bought her first car. A red Ford Escape! “Dawson had to drive the interstate ’cause I’m terrified of it.”
At times, it’s hard to tell if LaVerne is taping her life or living it so she has something to tape.
“The problem with TikTok is it presents life as completely performative,” Paul says. “You are existing to be entertainment for others. From a cognitive psychological perspective, it’s all of us running around looking for the next dopamine hit. The ‘likes’ are like candy.”
And the hates? I tasted a bit of social media bile last summer when neighbors and I wrote a letter opposing a sudden increase in air traffic on a Maine island we visit. Critics lashed back on Facebook, calling us selfish and elitist. The pile-on got so bad, I couldn’t sleep. In a video last year, LaVerne claimed she used to cry about the hateful comments, but now no longer cares what anyone thinks.
“I am my own person,” she said. “None of you really know me as a person. You only know me behind a screen. I would never ever, ever, ever leave social media and I would never leave my fandom and put them through that pain. I love my fandom.”
This was back in February 2020. She also said she and Cody were looking for a house and planned to marry and have kids. Plans change. LaVerne keeps going. Maybe her thick skin—more than her flawless makeup or fashion sense, her dancing or drama—is LaVerne’s greatest superpower, the one that will protect her on her climb to the top.
While I waited for LaVerne to call me back, my daughter, Madeline, 20, and I took a walk. We talked about how hard it is for young women to navigate social media and the natural human longing to be liked. Watching TikTok videos was making me blue, I confided. It wasn’t the filters or Zoe kissing a 13-year-old or the desperate comments people leave that bothered me so much, but the song lyrics TikTokers embrace. Why do girls want to be bad bitches who hump the carpet to Cardi B’s song “WAP,” an acronym too crass to spell out here. It seems so sad and, well, unhealthy.
“Most stars aren’t healthy,” Madeline said. She looked at me, blue eyes serious. She knows her mom can be judgmental. “But don’t hurt her.”
Right. It’s easy to forget LaVerne is a teenager. Her prefrontal cortex is still developing, making her, like most adolescents, impulsive and emotional. Her mom says she and her dad plan to sit down soon and have a serious talk about her finances and future. LaVerne needs to finish high school online. She needs to meet with her agent to talk about Disney. Pemberton concedes her daughter is immature, but she’s also a great actor, has a big heart, and loves children. Sometimes, she wishes she still was one.
“She cries and says, ‘I want to be a little girl again,’” Pemberton says. “I said, ‘Honey, you’re going to grow and have to do all this on your own.’ She don’t like it. She wishes she was a kid again. We all do.”
Maybe this sadness explains why her videos vacillate between cute tween and sexy rebel. Adult pleasures are enticing—from cars to sex to living on your own—but none provide the sustaining comfort of a mother’s love. Or maybe this is me, a mother, wishful thinking.
Online, I find Zoe’s home address and debate driving an hour to see her house, but decide to check it out on Geomaps instead. The house is nothing special. Two stories. Tan bricks. Fenced backyard. Suburban America. Not the palace of a queen.
But who knows what magic is hatching inside? Maybe Zoe is pasting on eyelashes, finding the right song, getting ready to slay adoring fans. I’ll never know. I am stuck on the outside, staring into my screen like every other lonely Zonut, hungering for sugar, feeling the hole.