Ariel Martin was bored, crashing at her grandparents’ home after getting flooded out of her folks’ South Florida apartment in the summer of 2015, when she saw a friend post a Musical.ly video to Instagram. She signed up as Baby Ariel and lip-synced Nicki Minaj’s “I’m Legit.” Today, at 15, she’s the top Muser with 13.6 million “fans,” as followers are called in the app.
Martin wasn’t searching for fame. “Oh, gosh, that has never been on my mind,” she says through a loud chortle that belies the confidence she projects on camera. “I didn’t know that people did social media for a living. I didn’t have any of those ambitions.”
But Martin — or at least her family — wised up fast. Dad bought her a domain name. Mom built a website. She studied Internet stars like comic Colleen Ballinger, who created the character Miranda Sings, and started doing YouTube videos, like her Musical.ly tutorial that now has 9.6 million views. Brand deals followed, along with a Baby Ariel lipstick line, a Good Morning America appearance and a headlining slot on DigiTour, a 28-stop circuit where web personalities do meet-and-greets, play games onstage and perform (when applicable) to cheering crowds. (Musical.ly itself does not pay Musers for their videos.) Martin attends school online so she can keep up with her rigorous schedule and content-creation demands. A year-and-a-half ago, she couldn’t decide between soccer and gymnastics. Now, she says, “I guess this is a job, but if you can do something you love, then why not?”
It’s obvious watching her Musical.lys why Martin is the queen of the app. Her face is elastic and highly expressive, her interpretive hand motions are like a silly sign language, and she has a facility with camera angles to rival a cinematographer. And early on, the app positioned her as a star. It featured one of her first clips on its main page, plucked from a sea of content with the help of an algorithm as well as Musical.ly employees who, in keeping with a process favored earlier in the app’s history, singled her out.
With the rise of Martin, Sartorius and the likes of Loren Beech, who signed a major modeling contract at 13, Musical.ly has become, in a way, professionalized. Take The Perkins Sisters, who post three dance clips a day for their 1.3 million fans. Back in 2008, they launched a vlog reviewing restaurants, museums and theme parks. Dani, 16, discovered Musical.ly when Deven, 13, showed it to her when she was in a trailer on set, killing time between takes. Dani recently landed a big role on Nickelodeon’s Legendary Dudas, and Deven wants a career like Beyoncé’s.
“We just keep making Musical.lys. It’s like we’re addicted,” says Dani. And if they took a week off? “Ohhh,” says Deven, a bit horrified. “They’ll think we’re dead!”
Star Musers have their trademarks — Martin’s hand motions, The Perkins Sisters’ wild dances. But everyday Musers broadcasting to their friends often play to the camera like little celebrities — or flirtatious teens, at least — with winks, kissy faces, flattering angles and carefully applied makeup. (Musical.ly says that roughly 75 percent of Musers are girls, and 65 percent of users overall are between the ages of 13 and 20.)