Everything That Officially Made 2020 the Year of TikTok

From the dance challenges, cooking demos and touching moments to the antics of Sway House that turned its residents into pandemic pariahs, 2020 was unequivocally the year TikTok took over.

By Natalie Finn Dec 26, 2020 12:00 PMTags
TikTok Stars of 2020Instagram; TikTok; Getty Images/E! Illustration

TikTok didn't just spring into being this year. 

The bite-size-video sharing app launched as Douyin in China in September 2016. Parent company ByteDance brought it to other markets in 2017, but it wasn't until the company snatched up lip-sync video site Musical.ly did TikTok truly go global, starting in August 2018. And similar to Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, and all the social media platforms that you weren't on yet but kept hearing about until, finally, they took over your life too, TikTok needed a little time to catch on.

We saw it spreading its wings in 2019, largely making waves in the music world as snippets of original songs and performances were sent pinging around the planet, growing in visibility and creativity with every add-on. So the power of TikTok was obviously gaining steam, as Lil Nas X's two Grammy wins in January for "Old Town Road" can attest. But even as this promising year full of endless potential got underway, there were so many other things to think about.

Until, of course, the latest means of making content go viral met the coronavirus.

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Millions of people asked to stay home for weeks, which ultimately turned into months? What was a bored world to do?!

The answer was, make 15-second videos and get f--king famous.

Watch: Most Viral TikToks of 2020: VidBits

Seemingly within weeks this spring, TikTok took over, the instantly recognizable videos finding alternate online homes on YouTube, Instagram, your Twitter feed, etc. Meaning, even if you weren't using TikTok, it's likely you were watching its content.

According to Sensor Tower, the app was downloaded 315 million times in the first quarter of 2020. It couldn't say how many of those came in the last few weeks of March after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic and those-stay-at-home orders started rolling in, but it was a 58 percent increase over the last three months of 2019.

Of course Gen Z is always going to be on top of stuff like this, until they get bored or disillusioned and move onto something else, but the lure of the TikTok scroll proved stronger than your basic generational fad. 2020 was the year that kids, pets, comedy routines, concerts, dance parties, proposals, breakups, beauty tutorials, workouts, organizational hacks, recipes (food that looks like clouds and pillows for $1,000, please), your favorite celebrities, your least favorite celebrities, and every form of "challenge" under the sun ended up in this format.

And even if your parents didn't get on TikTok, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood did.

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We can't recreate the heady experience that is spending the average of 52 minutes at a time folks usually spend on TikTok for you right here, but we can break down who and what made the app an interesting place to hang out in 2020 as this new species of celebrity overflowed into the outside (though never offline) world.

So here's a scroll down "oh yeah, that was this year" lane:

The "Blinding Lights" Challenge

Music, both original and sampled, has been at the core of TikTok's appeal, few things more conducive to good ol' clean fun than singing, dancing and playing instruments. And that was in normal times! So by the end of March, when the heaviness of what "stay at home and see no one except the people you live with" actually meant started to really kick in...

Thank you, punchy '80s-meets-now infectious beat of The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" that resulted in an endlessly entertaining TikTok dance challenge for households of all sizes and celebrity status.

And while we tend to have one of two reactions to Grammy nominations—eye roll or appreciative little nod—the entire exclusion of The Weeknd for the 2021 show merited an actual hand slap of disbelief to the desk.

Addison Rae

Needless to say, there's a whole lot of money to be made in this arena, and Kourtney Kardashian's new favorite beauty influencer made the most of her spotlight. Rae, 20, landed at the top of Forbes' list of the highest-earning TikTok stars (between June 2019 and June 2020) with $5 million thanks to various fashion and beauty sponsorships attracted by her 72.2 million-and-growing follower count. She also started her own line, a collaboration with Madeby Collective called ITEM Beauty.

Talking to E! News in August, Rae admitted that maintaining such an inspirational, positive presence online can be exhausting. "It's something that takes lots of work, and just reminding yourself that you are the way you are for a reason," explained the former Louisiana State student who was studying sports broadcasting before leaving school to focus on her social media-fueled ventures. "It's definitely not easy at all times because there is negativity and there are hate comments and people that are just looking to bring you down. But at the end of the day, it's just really about positivity and being happy and loving who you are and embracing that. Your flaws make you who you are and that's what makes you unique."

Bryce Hall

The 21-year-old Maryland native planted his first social media seed on Vine in 2014 and now has more than 10 million TikTok followers.

"I got bullied so I went on livestream to kinda just make friends," Hall told Hollywire in January. "I remember I was getting 15 views talking to, like, 15 people. And then it just progressively got larger and larger." He also showed off one of his party tricks, a standing backflip. "Most people think I don't have talent, but I can do flips and stuff...I am the life of parties."

His first viral TikTok video featured a cameo by "Beautiful Girls" singer Sean Kingston—and yes, it was meticulously planned. "There was no dance to it," Hall admitted. "Me and the boys were singing it and then he hopped in and we were all like [looking surprised], 'Whoa, I didn't know that Sean Kingston was here!' But we did. It was planned out, big shocker."

King and Queen of the TikTok Prom

What's better than one TikTok star? Why, a couple made up of two of them, such as Rae and Hall. They first met in October 2019, when Rae came to visit Los Angeles, before she had officially moved there.

After going on a date at the beginning of this year, the pair closed out January insisting that they were just friends. "Me and Addison are talking, big shocker," Hall told Hollywire. "We only went on, like, one date, but it's like we're both super busy, but our first date was at like Katsuya" (a celeb-favorite sushi spot in Hollywood).

But at least all that super busyness put them on the same page, and a variety of photographic evidence proved they were still into each other. "Everything makes sense now," Rae said on a November episode of the podcast Zane and Heath: Unfiltered when discussing their relationship. "Like I'm not feeling confused, which I feel like that's the worst feeling to have about anything."

They finally admitted in December that they are a couple, and have been since at least Oct. 13.

The Listing of Sway House

What's better than a couple of TikTok stars? A whole house full of them!

At least that's what Hall and fellow social media phenoms including Blake GrayJaden Hossler and Josh Richards figured upon piling into a Bel Air mansion christened the Sway House in January. It wasn't long before they became the bane of their neighbors and the LAPD, especially in these fraught times, as they seemed to be partying often and noisily, and without much concern for social distancing or other pandemic protocol.

As they say, there's youthful stupidity—if also a lot of TikTok followers—in numbers.

"With the Sway LA account, what we've been doing a lot is trying to put as much promotion through all our main accounts as possible," Richards—a co-founder of TalentX Entertainment, which rented Sway House and let its inhabitants live there in exchange for a lot of online content and publicity generation—explained to Business Insider in January. "We're able to create this massive amount of hype really really quickly around our Sway account on TikTok and Instagram."

But after Hossler was arrested along with Bryce in Texas on drug possession charges in May while they were on a cross-country road trip, he ended up moving out to get his own place with Richards.

Taking to Medium in June to address his antics, Richards wrote, "I would like to apologize to everyone: my supporters, my Sway House family, my team, and my community. I let the fame get to me; I allowed the L.A. partying lifestyle to consume me; and I lost my way for a bit. I forgot why I was here."

He also told Insider of the Sway crew, "I don't want to speak on their behalf too much, but I feel like we've lost our way in a sense. We got a little bit blinded by all the flashy lights and money in L.A. And I think that happens to everyone that comes out here and starts becoming successful, to a certain degree. And then eventually they either take a step back and go, 'Well, OK, I need to find myself and be true to myself again,' or they don't."

But the party didn't stop, so much so that in August, following one too many complaints, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the power to be shut off at a Hollywood Hills home where Hall, Gray, Noah Beck and others had relocated. (Not to be confused with the Bel Air manse, or a rental in Encino where Hall threw his 21st birthday party, also shut down by LAPD.)

Charli & Dixie D'Amelio

The sisters from Connecticut became the boss ladies of TikTok, Charli as a dancer-choreographer, Dixie as a singer and together a force to be reckoned with. Charli—who's been known to acquire 1 million new followers in one night—became the most-followed person on the app in November, surpassing 100 million after only joining TikTok in July 2019. Dixie signed up on Oct. 30, 2019, and as 2020 draws to a close, has 47 million.

"I grew pretty fast, just because everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh, she has a sister, she has a sister!'" Dixie told The Face in January. ​"And I'm legal. Everyone was like, ​'Oh, she's 18. We can follow her.'"

Dixie, now 19, made her acting debut this year on Brat TV's Attaway General, released the song "Be Happy," and is interviewing her fellow TikTok stars and more on her eponymous YouTube talk show

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Charli, who danced in a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra Hummus and had a Dunkin' drink named after her (The Charli: cold brew with three pumps of caramel and whole milk), acknowledged that being so public has led to a crash course in learning how to handle the at times heinous negativity she comes across online.

"There's going to be people that are going to hate on you no matter what, because that's the type of people they are," she explained, ​"but there are so many more people that will support you just for being you...I do try and use the following that I've created for myself to talk about important things. And there's more stuff with that coming soon, which I'm very excited to share with everyone. Projects with charities, organizations on how to help with online negativity…"

She compiled her wisdom into her first book, Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping It Real, which came out in December. She and Dixie also host a podcast, Just 2 CHIX Podcasting, are the faces of Hollister's Jean Lab, and collaborated on the makeup line Morphe 2.

Much Ado About Hype House

More a state of mind than a bricks-and-mortar location at first, Hype House formed in December 2019, a precursor to Sway House, as far as TikTok stars and assorted online influencers moving in together to churn out content goes.

With Chase "Lil Huddy" Hudson and Thomas Petrou considered the co-founders, the household grew to 20 people, including Calvin Goldby, Kouvr Annon and Larray, with appearances from the D'Amelio sisters and Addison Rae. (Parents of the of-age-but-young people who live there keep tabs and communicate with each other via group chat, according to The Face.)

Just like any prototype first out of the gate, it ran into some problems, including a reported falling-out between Petrou and fitness influencer Daisy Keech, who moved on to start her own collective, Clubhouse, with bestie Abby Rao in Beverly Hills.

But Hype House remains intact and they celebrated their first anniversary on Dec. 19.

The Tangled Web They Weave

Aside from Addison Rae and Bryce Hall of rival houses Hype and Sway finding love, a number of these youngsters naturally gravitate toward one another.

Hype alum Dixie D'Amelio dated Sway House's Griffin Johnson, but is now with Noah Beck, who joined Sway over the summer. "I'm new here," Beck told Interview for its September issue. "I literally moved in today, but I've already built a bond with these guys that is just, like, I can tell it will last lifetimes."

Johnson, meanwhile, was spotted with Kelly Osbourne, but insisted they were just friends and he was taking a break from dating, telling People in December, "I'm chilling. I haven't even hardly talked to a girl or had a girl on a date or to hang out in at least a month or two. I'm completely out of that market at this moment." He admitted being "crushed" by his breakup with D'Amelio and it's been especially tough to get over because of all the public interest.

"My comment sections, interviews, paparazzi, when I'm walking out in public, it's still, to this day—it's been so many months," he said.

Josh Richards, formerly of Sway, used to date TikTok-borne singer Nessa Barrett—and claims he still does, though she may not be aware that they'd re-committed since parting ways this summer.

And Sway's Anthony Reeves had a thing with Avani Gregg of Hype House, while Sway's Quinton Griggs has found romance with Cynthia Parker, a member of Not a Content House, and they post adorable not-content videos together.

Michael Le

The multitalented entertainer has mastered every TikTok challenge in 2020, and when he's doing a dance routine with his little siblings... get out. We could watch that trio for hours. And probably have.

Hence the 20-year-old landing at No. 6 on Forbes' list with $1.2 million in earnings, in part from a lucrative deal with Bang energy drinks.

"I'm pushing to be the top influencer on TikTok," Le told the publication. "I know how to pull it all together. To make every video be a skit, be something that's more than just putting your phone down."

Loren Gray

Like Bryce Hall, Gray already had a presence (as Loren Beech) on Musical.ly, the platform whose purchase led TikTok to become a global force, before blossoming in this medium. The singer and YouTube beauty influencer at one point was the most followed person on TikTok before Charli D'Amelio overtook her this year, though she's no slouch with 50.2 million. Her 2020 began on a high note with an appearance in Taylor Swift's "The Man" video, and she had a fashion collab with Betsey Johnson.

Loren told E! News, "If you would have told me four years ago that I would be in a Taylor Swift music video, I probably would have been, like, you're lying. So I say anything is possible and I'm living proof of that."

Famous Couples Taking Challenges

Whether they were dancing, swapping outfits in the blink of an eye or answering Newlywed Game-style questions about each other, famous couples including Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner, Kevin and Eniko Hart and Justin and Hailey Bieber were the glam spread TikTok buttered its bread with in 2020.

And when kids got involved... all the better.

Comfort Food

Having to stay home certainly inspired more than a few people to study up on the science of sourdough and bake a few (dozen) banana breads to maintain their sanity. But one of the biggest culinary trends had to be food that was the equivalent of a hug, hence the popularity of tutorials for whipped coffee, cloud bread and anything-unicorn-colored or extra fluffy-looknig.

The Harry Styles Cardigan

Lusting after the colorful JW Anderson Patchwork Cardigan a certain immaculately dressed heartthrob wore on the Today show, but unable to afford the $1,890 price tag, makeup maven and crochet enthusiast Liv Huffman set out to make her own. Also inspired by the suggestion that she create an internationally sourced item utilizing material from all over the world, she entreated her TikTok followers to send her a 4x4-inch square of fabric of any color or pattern.

More than 500 people obliged and, two weeks later, documenting the process all the way, she had her own Harry Styles-style cardigan and a making-of video that had been viewed almost 4 million times.

"I got into crocheting at the beginning of the pandemic," Huffman told the Los Angeles Times. "It became the perfect quarantine activity. I spend hours a day crocheting in my free time."

In November, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London announced it was adding Styles' cardigan to its fashion collection, and Huffman was asked if she would donate her original creation as well—in exchange for JW Anderson sending her an original as a replacement.

On a Roll

Roller-skating is fun for the whole family. Better yet, you can do it outside, at least six feet away from each other. But while skating has never gone out of style, it's especially hot and fashionable once again thanks to TikTok videos made by the likes of Ana Coto.

"They want what I seem to have," Coto, who has amassed 2.1 million followers since joining in February, a skate set to J.Lo's "Jenny From the Block" proving particularly popular, told Digital Trends in May. "I just started sharing it because it made me happy, and people want to be happy, as it turns out."

And she's found that, if you're passionate about something, chances are there may be others out there who will be into it, too.

"If you're too concerned about what is cool on the app," Coto observed, "then you can't make something that's actually cool."

Nathan Apodaca's "Cranberry Dreams"

Speaking of fun on wheels, how much did this video of this previously unknown gentleman, cruising along on his skateboard to the strains of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" while swigging Ocean Spray cranberry juice, take off?!

Enough to become a TV commercial for TikTok and launch countless imitators, including takes from Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood. Needless to say, Apodaca never has to purchase another bottle of cranberry juice for the rest of his life, and Ocean Spray also gifted him a brand new truck.

Fleetwood even popped up to surprise Apodaca when he was being interviewed by the BBC in October. (Alas, pandemic, this all happened remotely.) "It's such a celebration of everything," the British music legend said. "I've heard you talking about it, and it's so joyous and fun." 

Aside from the viral moment giving "Dreams" its biggest week on streaming services ever, Fleetwood added, "I just wanna say, outside of Fleetwood Mac, we owe you. It's such a great story, and it's so needed. In days that are really challenging… it makes people smile, and I'm so happy to be part of it. Congratulations on a wild, wild skateboard journey that has led us to talking today. I hope Stevie's watching. She's going to be overjoyed."

Doja Cat

Her music has proved particularly conducive to TikTok purposes, especially "Say So," which kept showing up in one video after another thanks to its signature dance created by Haley Sharpe, who in turn scored a quick cameo in the tune's official music video.

Doja Cat rode the buzz to the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, where she won Best New Artist and made her performance debut with a medley of "Like That" and "Say So," bringing Sharpe's moves to a new crowd via that old-fashioned platform known as cable television.

But as 16-year-old Madi Monroe told Pitchfork in May, "I've been making TikToks to some of her old music for a while now, and I didn't even know it was Doja Cat."

Quenlin Blackwell

The purveyor of often hilarious videos, many of which are poking fun at influencer and social media culture, raised a few eyebrows when she started uploading her Living With Diplo: The Series clips in October, with the internet immediately condemning the idea of the DJ-producer, who became a father of three in March, living with the 19-year-old.

Blackwell, who's been posting videos (first on Vine, like so many) since she was 14, defended herself, tweeting, "I'm an adult. I'm not being groomed. Platonic relationships exist. I've been living here for over a year...I'd rather break both of my legs and be forced to walk than pursue Diplo romantically and he'd rather choke."

She called him a mentor and her "LA dad," someone her parents trusted. Moreover, she also said, he's hardly ever there.

Diplo swiftly clarified that he was pals with and a creative supporter of the aspiring star and she was renting one of his properties, which has a studio on the premises that he uses.

Tabitha Brown

In 2021, may we be blessed with a quarter of the energy this indomitable vegan domestic goddess has. Not surprisingly, she won a Streamy Award this year for food content.

"I have always wanted to perform, ever since I was a little girl," Brown told Entertainment Tonight in July. She loved theater, dance and music, and her talent at sewing her own clothes prompted her to study fashion design in college.

But after just a few months, she called her dad to come pick her up. She needed to be out there, performing. At 19, she moved to Hollywood (well, Orange County at first) with no plan other than to make it.

Mission accomplished.

Sarah Cooper

Once the coronavirus pandemic set in, the veteran comedian had an epiphany: President Donald Trump is actually hilarious.

Not that Trump needed any help going viral, but Cooper became the breakout star of 2020 by making videos in which she basically lip-synced some of his choicest press conferences and exchanges with reporters and experts, bringing a certain clarity to the absurdity of it all with every eyebrow raise and lip curl.

And, of course, she was making people bust out laughing all over social media, starting with April 23's "How to Medical." What could have easily been a 15-minutes-of-fame gimmick turned Cooper into a sought-after guest on podcasts and talk shows, and her first Netflix special, the topical sketch show Everything's Fine, premiered in October.

"It's incredible. I have to pinch myself," she told Rolling Stone when her special debuted. "I just feel like I leapfrogged, like I skipped so many steps. People have to remind me, 'No, Sarah, you've actually been working at this a really long time.'"