At midnight on Friday, Aug. 14, loud EDM could be heard blaring down Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills. TikTok influencers Bryce Hall and Blake Gray, two members of the influencer collective Sway House, were throwing a gigantic birthday party — their second in two weeks — at their mansion. There were about 100 influencers there, including prominent TikTok stars like Mads Lewis and Avani Gregg, dancing practically on top of each other and not wearing masks. Almost as if the world weren’t in the midst of a raging pandemic.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is still taking people’s lives. Although California’s social distancing protocols have helped curb the statewide number of new cases and deaths, the number of daily new deaths has only recently fallen below the 100 mark. To date, over 14,000 people in California have died from the virus.
Cops finally shut down the party at 4 a.m., and Mayor Garcetti has since shut off their water and electricity. But this isn’t the first time TikTok celebrities have broken the rules in the name of entertaining content. From The Clubhouse’s Boohoo-sponsored party in May to massive parties thrown by Jake Paul and the Hype House in July, most influencers have attended at least one maskless, claustrophobic party in defiance of social distancing mandates and house party limits. Each person who attended an extravagant, overcrowded gathering made their own choice and must be held responsible for their actions.
Some influencers did sober up. Josh Richards left the Sway House in May. “I feel like we’ve lost our way in a sense,” he told Insider. “We got a little bit blinded by all the flashy lights and money in LA.” James Charles issued a public apology for attending the Hype House party. The Clubhouse and Hype House stopped hosting large gatherings.
But others, like the Sway House, haven’t slowed down. The crew has thrown two huge parties as recently as last month.
They’re young, so some might say recklessness is a given. And everyone knows that people under 25 who aren’t immunocompromised have great survival rates for COVID-19. But the virus doesn’t take good intentions and fun into account: Even if they have a lower risk of dying from COVID-19, they’re still recklessly running the risk of exposing the older adults they interact with to a potentially fatal disease.
So why go so far as to post about their illegal activities for millions of followers?
Shortly after the Sway House incident hit social media, many fans hopped on Twitter to express their indignance, criticizing the influencers for putting others at risk, being bad role models and not taking their power of influence seriously.
And they got Hall’s attention: A few days after all the censure, he posted an apology video, saying he understands it wasn’t the most responsible thing to do.
But observant followers were unsettled to notice that the apology was very similar to his last one. Yes, Hall has broken the law before. He and fellow Sway House boy Jaden Hossler were previously arrested and sent to jail in May for allegedly possessing drugs. He apologized publicly for that mistake, too. “I’m actually so happy that I got arrested because it kind of put me in check,” he claimed on a July episode of Logan Paul’s podcast. “Jaden and I — and even the people who didn’t get arrested — came to a huge realization, and we leveled out after that.”
Yet here we are, only four months later, in the same situation. Except now, he and fellow Sway House boy Blake Gray are being sued by LA’s lead prosecutor. They could face up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for violating local health orders.
The aim of this article isn’t to villainize Hall, though. Yes, I think his habitually insincere responses to the legal ramifications of his actions demonstrate a disturbing disregard for both the law and neighboring communities. No, I don’t think the Sway members are the best role models for high schoolers and college students.
But maybe their extreme actions can show us the pressures of the influencer lifestyle that extend beyond personal inclination.
I’d propose that COVID-19 is just highlighting the demanding and exorbitant lifestyle brand that these influencers have both invented and now feel accountable to. Their platforms on TikTok promote this lifestyle, giving them the independence and financial freedom to get arrested and bail themselves out repeatedly, as we’ve seen before. Social media fame doesn’t automatically force all influencers to grow up and be better role models — sometimes, the fame exacerbates the problem.
Part of Their Brand
Take their influencer brand, for instance. Some could say that a controversial tilt is hard-wired into the Sway House’s personality. The boys are known for turning out diss tracks, starting fights and giving their own hot takes on cultural trends. And Hall’s brand is literally called “Party Animal” — hit the link in his Instagram bio, and you can buy a $50 hoodie with “Party Animal University” emblazoned across the chest.
I don’t know if their audiences find them fascinating, aspirational or attractive, but the boys literally make money off of breaking the rules. They’ve created and branded their own defiant strain of e-boy — and they afford their $9,000 mansion by regularly posting content that embodies the untouchable bad boy who’s still charming enough to take home to Mom and Dad.
And while partying isn’t abnormal for college kids, when you build a following of 4.8 million fans eager to see you living that lifestyle, it gets a little harder to shift gears. The Sway House audience already has an idea of the members’ personalities and interests: Rebranding is a lot more complicated than suddenly picking up chess or the cello. Their appeal is based on a certain mix of relatability, audacity and it-factor that would be lost if they switched to a tamer approach. They’d undoubtedly lose some followers; and when you’re 19 years old and living on the high that comes with millions of adoring fans, that’s a tough thing to give up.
The much easier option: Just stay in the niche and crank up the intensity of your pranks.
It’s the perfect storm, in some ways. The bad-boy brand becomes most problematic when it rubs up against government regulations. If it’s a choice of obeying the law, for these TikTok stars, the answer is clear.
Obviously, it’s not like they’re hurting for money. According to StatSmash, Hall’s YouTube channel alone is worth $690,000. Back in March, CelebsFortune estimated the star’s net worth at around $750,000. Posting videos of his party, in other words, wasn’t necessary for Sway House to get food on the table.
But TikTok’s platform is a competitive one, and staying relevant to the algorithm requires consistency just like for any other social media giant. And from the looks of it, the influencers are planning to stay on the app and ride the TikTok wave of fame — at least as long as TikTok lasts. If they’re not branching off to sign record deals or switching over to gaming content, producing Sway House videos is their full-time job for the foreseeable future.
And until their careers end, their lucrative content rakes in plenty of extra cash to bail themselves out with, if they should find themselves in need of it. Unfortunately, wealth and privilege make it a little easier to escape the full extent of the law’s punishment.
Still Growing Up
Last but not least, we can’t forget that underneath all the social clout and styled hair, the guys are just young adults like us. They are still making mistakes, still learning about the real consequences of their actions, the value of protecting older generations and, apparently, the integrity of their governors. Some might say their — okay fine, our — frontal lobes are still developing.
“A lot of people are depressed,” TikTok celebrity Hootie Hurley told The New York Times. “You can’t raise somebody to be prepared to handle this. Every single person is living a completely different life than they did eight months ago and people handle changes and pressure differently. Some people crawl in a hole and isolate themselves, some people party.”
The bottom line is that’s exactly why we can’t look to all TikTok socialites to fill the place of role models. They’re our age and grappling with the tantalizing, glamorous grip of fame. At the end of the day, they’re young adults, just like us, who are trying to build a career and maybe amass enough money for an early retirement.
Some TikTok influencers both work really hard and have fun personalities, but we’d do well to remember to value their content because it’s entertaining — not to be confused with aspirational. Who knows? Maybe the Sway House boys will change it up and start to champion our authorities and respect our elders? But let’s try to secure other sources of moral guidance in the meantime.