Crash! Pungent pink alcohol spreads over the gleaming supermarket floor as customers jump back to stop it soaking their feet. It’s out of Hannah’s control now; all she can do is watch as six bottles of rosé flow. Moments before, she’d been about to stack them onto the shelves when two teenagers approached. They’d travelled across the city just to meet her. Taken aback, Hannah let the wine slip from her hands. It was not your average fan meet- and-greet, but then Tesco worker Hannah, 23, is not your average celebrity.
Each day, we pick up our phone, begin to scroll and watch (sometimes for hours) short videos of things that should be dull… but are actually oddly compelling. There’s the Irish guy rating hedges (“Look at that one, it’s a disgrace,” he says, pointing at one gigantic roadside shrub), an Amazon parcel packer (deftly packing ceiling projectors and Lumie alarm clocks at speed, all for the view of a bird’s-eye camera), and the postie out for her morning deliveries. This is what makes TikTok stand out. Often, those who are popular on the platform are not trained entertainers or glossy influencers – they are normal people, doing normal things. And we can’t stop watching them. In the five short years since TikTok was launched, it has grown exponentially, reaching one billion downloads in the first three years, and hitting its second billion just over a year later. That, even in the weird world of tech, is unprecedented. And while your regular celebrities and influencers are on the app, it’s these “unfluencers” who have become its USP, often overtaking those who excel on Instagram, or within the tabloids, in followers and likes. So who are these unlikely celebrities? And what happens when your day-to-day life leads you to worldwide fame?
Keeping it pool
“That’s exactly what you think it is,” Miles Laflin says, holding up a swimming- pool filter to the camera. It is covered in curly black hairs. We watch as he replaces the filter, pours pink chemicals into the water and hoovers (yes, hoovers) the pool floor. Flick to the next video and he’s tackling a slug-filled hot tub; in another he tracks down the source of an outdoor pool leak.
For 11 years, this has been 31-year-old Laflin’s everyday life as a pool cleaner in Bedfordshire. Today, 3.9 million people tune in to watch his work. In May last year, Laflin decided to post a video of a pool-cleaning job, simply out of curiosity. Later that day, he was on his way to another job when he realised his phone had been going off continuously throughout the journey. When he pulled over, he discovered the video he’d posted already had 50,000 views. In an instant, “The Pool Guy” had become a TikTok phenomenon.
Nowadays, fans come up to him in the street to tell him how satisfying and relaxing his TikToks are (they particularly like the hoovering). His slogan, “Holla ya boy for the pool work”, features on merchandise – hats, masks and T-shirts – and his following outnumbers Kourtney Kardashian’s. “I think most people want to be famous, don’t they? But I never thought it would be because of my job,” he tells me, over the phone from his home office.
After his first video, people left comments saying they wanted to see more. It quickly became obvious to Laflin that he was onto something. He had to carry on. “I always enjoyed what I do, but it’s made it a lot more exciting now: every day I’m thinking,‘What can I do now to put on my TikTok?’ I’d love to feature celebrities. Maybe a collab with a celebrity who’s big on TikTok.”
“Gordon Ramsay?” I suggest. Which turns out to be on the money.
“People call me ‘the Gordon Ramsay of pools’ because he does reaction videos to people cooking on TikTok and I do them to people pretending to be me, cleaning their pools. Everyone asks what I’m going to do now, but I’m known for being The Pool Guy. I can’t just stop being The Pool Guy.”
Hannah Lowther had always hoped she’d make a name for herself on stage. When the pandemic hit, she’d just been cast in a big production – the beginning of the musical theatre career the 23-year-old had been working towards for years. The play was put on hold and Lowther was left out of work. She got a job at Tesco in Reading, where she lives, stacking shelves and working on the tills. Like most of us in Lockdown One, she downloaded TikTok to watch others do viral dances and make jokes about dressing up to take the bins out, until one day she had an idea.
“I was on the doors a lot, making sure there weren’t too many people in the store,” she tells me after finishing a morning shift.“It was pretty boring, and I spent a lot of time just looking around. I would look at products on the shelves and think of songs related to them, and that’s where I got the inspiration for my first videos.”
Lowther began a series called “Things in my Tesco job that remind me of my musical theatre career”, which spanned 11 parts and garnered thousands of views, but it was her “Tesco 9-5” video – showing a day in the life of a Tesco worker set to her own version of the Dolly Parton song – that changed everything.
“It just blew up. Within a couple of days of posting it, my dad called me and said, ‘You’re a millionaire!’ I said, ‘Am I? Have I won the lottery?’ and he said, ‘No, you’ve got a million views on your TikTok.’ I mean, half of them were probably him, but I was so excited that I was making people smile. The thing is,” she says, “I don’t even work 9-5, I work 7-2, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
“You’re a millionaire!’ I said, ‘Am I? Have I won the lottery?”
When we speak, it’s six months since her breakout video, and Lowther has 100,600 followers and 2.2 million likes. These days, brands want to send her freebies, she’s featured in a Channel 4 documentary with Jo Brand, and fans travel to meet her (not all of them get wine dropped at their feet). It’s brought Lowther fame in the most unexpected way, but even more than that, it’s brought her hope. “When we first went into lockdown and all the theatres closed, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ and it went on like that. But now I have a platform to share my creativity and build a career for myself. I’m really thankful for my job at Tesco, but I’d love to get back on stage and I hope TikTok will act as a bit of a CV for me.” ›
Both Lowther and Laflin have made something special out of the everyday, but some of TikTok’s most prominent unfluencers have found fame in truly unusual places. In March last year, 17-year-old Hannah McSorley came across some frogspawn while on a walk in the countryside around her home in Omagh, Northern Ireland, and took it home in a glass jar so her nine-year-old brother could see it grow.
“It’s quite an unusual thing to look at, frogspawn, and I started thinking it would be interesting to see what people thought of it. I had just downloaded TikTok, and I think I’d only ever posted a couple videos of baking, so I thought maybe this would be more interesting to people.”
She named her account Baby Frogs, and began chronicling the tadpoles’ journey, growing her following from a few thousand to 2.6 million followers and 54.1 million likes today. It’s hard to know what grows quicker, her frogs or her follower count.
Since the tadpoles graduated from the jar to a huge paddling pool, the comments asking McSorley about her jar of chia seeds have stopped. People became invested in the tadpoles getting their first legs. They commented regularly to check in on the progress of Riley, a tadpole with only half a tail, and voted to pick a name for an albino tadpole with a see-through body and prominent eyes. In the end they went with Nugget.
“It’s just happy tadpoles. There’s no negativity, nothing controversial, no politics.”
From the 37,927 tadpoles, the ones who become froglets are moved into McSorley’s frog tank, AKA The Phrög Log, before being released back into the wild when they’re fully grown. McSorley also keeps five mature white tree frogs as pets – in one video, they painted a masterpiece that wouldn’t look out of place on a gallery wall. (Note: the frogs haven’t mastered clutching paint brushes or working with gouache. McSorley put paint on a canvas and put it in a sealed ziplock bag for them to hop around on. Somehow, it just works.)
“It’s just simple and wholesome,” she tells me from her living room, while her mum, off camera, occasionally jumps in with specifics. “It’s just happy tadpoles. There’s no negativity, nothing controversial, no politics.” Aside from the frog town-hall election video, that is.
The new fame rules
“British man hoovering pool floors”, “37,927 tadpoles living in a paddling pool in Northern Ireland”,“Tesco worker musical Dolly Parton parody”. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’re unlikely to have ever searched YouTube for these things. And that’s precisely the key to TikTok’s success. In simple terms, it comes down to the fact that most people have never actually seen someone hoover a pool floor, or rear a population of frogs. We’re so used to seeking out specific content that when a platform starts putting something new right in front of you, it’s hard to ignore.
“TikTok simply offers us something different,” says Jidé Maduako, CEO of TikTok influencer marketing agency Yoke Network. “Traditionally, we’ve had to search for content on other platforms, but because TikTok feeds you content, you’re able to discover new types of entertainment. That’s why it’s unique – it sends you down new wormholes of content that you’d never have thought to search before.”
“Nobody calls me Laura any more, they call me the TikTok Postie.”
Whereas agencies like Maduako’s would once have been focusing almost entirely on traditional influencers – usually in fashion, fitness and beauty – now they’re looking out for the next Baby Frogs or another Pool Guy. Because once one account has success with their unique content, other accounts pop up everywhere trying to replicate it. Take 26-year-old Laura Orgill, better known as The TikTok Postie. She was one of the first postal workers to start documenting her deliveries – back in spring 2020, after three years on the job – and now there are TikTok posties everywhere.
“I think people were just shocked to see that kind of content on TikTok,” she says of her 702,000- strong community who regularly check in for her 7pm “Lives” and ask about life as a postal worker (along with many questions about the difference between first and second class).“Now there’s loads of us!”
Orgill started by simply documenting her job, showing herself out on deliveries, doing
viral dances in front of her van and making relatable and funny content about being at work. She gets a lot of questions, from “Can you post letters to your own address?” to “How do you organise the back of the van for deliveries?” (a genuine must-watch). Now that she has a reliable fanbase, Orgill posts a variety of videos, from comedy impressions with her girlfriend to lip syncs, but she always makes sure to chronicle her days as a postie, whether it’s delivering Christmas presents during lockdown or rescuing someone’s dog.
“When I go out on delivery now, people drive past beeping their horns and shouting ‘TikTok Postie’ at me. Last year I started getting recognised, and I was in Asda one day and people were following me round the aisles. Nobody calls me Laura any more, they call me The TikTok Postie.”
“Now, “fame” is an occupation in itself.”
That videos of a postie out on delivery are so popular, and Orgill’s fanbase so large, suggests there’s something about the normality of what Orgill does that has a truly abnormal reach. Perhaps, in such bizarre and difficult times, normality and a slice of the everyday is exactly what we needed.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say I’m famous,” Orgill laughs.“I’ve just made a lot of friends.” And yet, we’re joined on the call by her talent agent. This sentiment was echoed by all the creators when asked about their fame. Most laughed at the sheer idea that they might be considered famous. But sometime over the last year, The Pool Guy became a household name, Hannah Lowther appeared on TV and Hannah McSorley began planning a line of merchandise. If these aren’t all markers of fame, then what is? But perhaps it’s because that notion is sheer absurdity to them all that we as a nation have dedicated so much of our screen time to them. Twenty-one years ago, when the first Big Brother contestants left the house to screaming fans, they were shocked by the fame they’d found. Now, “fame” is an occupation in itself. It’s something people grow up aiming for, indifferent to how or why they get there, and for years we’ve played into that attitude: tuning into their reality TV appearances and following their accounts. But gradually, over the last year, as we adapted to lives made up of small joys and simple pleasures, what we expected from famous people changed. We replaced glamour with wholesomeness and jet-set lifestyles with stability; we craved normalcy and little feelgood moments. Perhaps that’s why we tuned in to see if Riley the tadpole’s tail developed, to ask Orgill what happens to mail with the wrong postcode on, and to see if Laflin ever found the source of that leak (he did). They’re unfluencers not just in content, but also in attitude, and that’s something we can’t help but be influenced by.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Cosmopolitan UK.
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The Pool Guy/Miles – Photographer Jude Edginton
The TikTok Postie/Laura – Photographer Francesca Jones
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