The first ever gig by Abby Roberts – makeup artist, TikTok creator followed by 17.4 million, and lately, musician – is a stealth operation. It’s a Wednesday night at legendary St. Albans venue The Horn, and on tonight’s bill, Roberts is listed under a pseudonym (“Mia”), because she is in the admittedly odd position of having embarked on a music career, with no prior experience, while also already being quite famous.
The show is conceived by her team as one of a few practice runs for properly-billed live shows later in the year, and the gig she’s playing is described on the pub’s website as “a showcase featuring talented acts from the local regions”. Her debut set is sandwiched between a musician called Haz the Kid, whose teenage crowd disperses into the main bar as I arrive, and a singer who goes by Enjoyable Listens, purveying a winning blend of Orville Peck and The Beautiful South.
By the time it’s Roberts’s time to play her selection of hazy, Beabadoobee-esque indie-pop songs (the first of which, “Paramaniac,” came out in January; another, “Pink Champagne,” was released yesterday), however, she’s already been found out. At the bar – where screens tease upcoming acts like The Libertines’ Carl Barat and Mercury Prize-nominated Porridge Radio, alongside tribute bands called things like Antarctic Monkeys and The Rolling Clones – a guy walks past, talking about “TikTok stars”.
Her large entourage – made up of friends, her very proud family (including her parents and younger sister Charlotte, also a popular TikTok creator), and members of her management teams from the music company Locomotion and the social media creator agency Kyra – doesn’t exactly do much to dispel attention, either. Roberts’s cover is blown to such a degree that a day or so afterwards, a video from the gig emerges on TikTok, posted by someone who instantly recognised her.
People have comments and questions right away. While the online feedback is generally positive, there’s the full spectrum of support, surprise and a little dismissal. “Abby just going through her Hannah Montana era,” jokes one comment from a fan on the clip taken at the show. Another wonders: “Why are all TikTokers becoming singers?”
Even I, a wizened old millennial, was fascinated when I was first told in late 2021 that Roberts was planning to move into music. Even though US TikTokers like Dixie D’Amelio and Bella Poarch have already used their popularity on the platform to wrangle record deals, Roberts is one of the first UK stars making the transition from one industry – in this case makeup – to another, unrelated one.
I wanted to peek behind the curtain, so with the agreement of Roberts and her team, I shadowed her for a couple of her first major milestones as a musician – her first video shoot, her first single release, and, obviously, her first show – to see how you go from being a TikTok creator to a recording artist, and how this career path speaks to the changing face of celebrity. What does it say about the relationship between TikTok and the music industry? How well does online star power translate? And is it ever possible to successfully juggle music and social media?
At 20, Roberts is TikTok’s most followed beauty creator, and has been showcasing her complicated makeup artistry on the app for two years. A quick look at her page will show you clips where she transforms herself into Harry Styles, fellow TikTok personality Lil Huddy, and one of the vampires from Twilight. She collaborates with beauty brands, most recently false eyelash company Tatti Lashes; appears on TV (she was a guest judge on BBC Three’s Glow Up in 2021); and attends more prestigious events during my time shadowing her than I have coffees – the day of our first interview, I’m asked if I mind if we end a little early because “Abby’s got the House of Gucci premiere – sorry!”
Roberts is not yet household-name level famous, but the teenagers you know will probably be aware of her. Even this, as she tells me the first time we meet, back in November 2021 at a west London recording studio, is weird. She grew up on the outskirts of Leeds – “I live in a field, basically” – and by all accounts had a pretty normal time of things, though her TikTok fame was foreshadowed by a hint of virality aged 11, when she started creating makeup videos on YouTube. She was academic at school, so her teachers pushed her to go to university, but it wasn’t what she wanted.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse than like, sitting in an office job. I always just wanted to work for myself and off my own terms,” she says, dressed in a hoodie and black patent trousers, her makeup camera-perfect, and her demeanour unassuming but extremely focussed in the way you often find with Gen Z celebrities. “So I did anything I could do to achieve that. When I was first like, really grinding away at it. You have to stand out, and that takes a lot of effort, the type of stuff that I was doing. I would spend up to, sometimes, 14 hours on a makeup look, and my whole day is like, if I’m not working, I’m on TikTok looking for sounds and audios and trends that I can jump on in the future.”
It sounds exhausting, and Roberts says she started to feel burnt out. “There was a period last year where I just thought, ‘I’ve done every possible makeup look I can think of,’” she remembers. “As much as I love makeup and I always want that to be a part of who I am, and that’s going to carry on into my music as well, I wanted something new to focus my creative energy into. I just didn’t feel like it was a challenge for me anymore.”
And so, offered the opportunity to go into the studio to try singing by a “friend of a friend” producer who contacted her in 2020, Roberts found her “something new”. While playing music was fairly unfamiliar to her – “I just didn’t grow up in the situation where I knew anyone from a musical background to teach me it,” she tells me – she had “always wanted to go into it”, inspired by artists like her “idol” Lana del Rey, and Arctic Monkeys, whose music would play at her friends’ house parties.
A while after she started writing songs, she crossed paths with Tommas Arnby, a former musician, and the co-owner of Locomotion Music, a management company whose great success in recent years is Yungblud (AKA former actor Dominic McGovern), and, according to its website “aims to provide the artist community with a modern and personal alternative to talent management, music publishing and record label”.
As Arnby tells me over Zoom, Locomotion signs artists at the beginning of their careers and develops them by helping them to “find an audience through their musical output”. In Roberts’s case, this meant pairing her with producers, such as Mattias Tellez, who has worked with Girl In Red, and Mati Schwartz, whose credits include Yungblud and Halsey; securing gigs, including pseudonymously billed shows like the one I attended, and releasing her singles and a music video. Why, I ask, did Arnby feel compelled to work with her?
“When we started talking about her music, it was never about fame or anything like that,” he says. “It was always about the talent and the creativity, and empowering that, and then the artist’s ambition to move the needle culturally through their creative output. I saw Abby doing that. I see how she’s done that successfully as a makeup artist, and then hearing her references – I’m a music person, so I’m like ‘I can help.’ We added on layers of people or resources that could empower her to do it better or more.”
Essentially, I take from this that Arnby, having been impressed by Roberts’ songwriting, also saw that she had a large and engaged online audience, and wanted to help her build on it with music. Olivia Yallop, the author of Break the Internet, a study of influencer culture, explains to me that internet personalities as well-known as Roberts often diversify their output, both because their interests naturally change, and to protect their livelihoods from the “precarities of creator economy work”, as she puts it.
“Top TikTok stars have become angel investors, authors, singers, actors, and comedians,” Yallop says. “The secondary career paths influencers choose tend to compliment the skill set they have already demonstrated – self-branding, presentability, ability to story tell – and social media and their new jobs tend to exist in a symbiotic relationship. It’s helpful in most creative career paths to have a ready-made ‘audience’ who will consume whatever they are producing.”
With this in mind, I’m reminded of a comment Arnby made about his roster of acts during our conversation: “I see them more as communicators,” he notes of signees like Roberts and Yungblud, “and music is the medium.”
If you’ve ever wondered what a soft play area modelled on the human brain might look like, then stepping into Abby Roberts’ “Paramaniac” video shoot might give you a fair idea. Inside a unit on an industrial estate in Tottenham, Doja Cat songs waft out of the speakers as set builders and designers staple bits of pastel-coloured foam – which look like miniature versions of the tubular floats you’d get at swimming lessons as a kid – to the ceiling of wooden scaffolding. It’s meant to represent the inside of Roberts’ mind, in the same way the lyrics of the song reflect on her insecurities and dissatisfaction with a life lived online (“I wish strangers liked me more / Social media's a bore”).
Arnby and Locomotion’s faith in Roberts as a “communicator” and artist is very apparent today, as about 20 people flit around the set for the purpose of making the music video. In one corner of the unit is the wardrobe rail, fit to bursting with everything from archive Vivienne Westwood to a t-shirt Roberts painted herself, plus an impossible-looking pair of £7,000 shoes with a huge flare of a heel, of which only two were ever made. Near the door is the hair station, where two stylists handle blow dryers and curling wands with enviable dexterity (there’s no makeup artist, of course, because Roberts has that covered), and to the left of that is a kitchen counter piled high with snacks for the crew.
“I just feel like I’m filming a big TikTok right now!” Roberts says when we chat between scenes, looking notably relaxed in fluffy animal slippers and a dark tracksuit. “There was a scene where I was like, looking in the mirror, and I’m lip syncing to myself, and I’m like, ‘This feels oddly familiar!’ I’ve had the experience already!”
It has, however, taken Roberts a little while to get used to the big production around her, given the fact that her TikTok videos are pretty much entirely made by herself and her sister. “I’ve built like, sets and stuff for myself,” she explains. “I don’t just do the makeup, I make like a whole production, just me and my sister at home – we go out, buy all the props and everything.”
The shoot, however, is populated by people who have all that on lock for her. It’s a complicated affair, considering that this is all for an artist who has not yet released a single or played a live show. During our interview, she also talks about auditioning her band and practising with them (she didn’t take the choice lightly: “You need to be able to be friends with them! It’s a few years of your life!”), learning to use the in-ear monitors that help musicians hear themselves on stage, her upcoming secret gigs, and the fact that she’ll be going on a US tour with global star Halsey in June and July.
It’s a far cry from the story told by most new artists – but then, most new artists haven’t already amassed audiences of 17 million people. Roberts’ music career is, therefore, already a different beast, and suggests that, used in the right way, TikTok is as serious an entry point as any into the music industry.
The link between TikTok and the music business is already well-established. The app has propelled artists like Pinkpantheress and ArrDee from anonymity to international acclaim, and has given tracks by artists like Tion Wayne, Russ Millions and Gayle a level of exposure that has seen them reach number one in the charts. “The music industry has a vested interest in TikTok due to its impact on streaming stats and the Top 10,” Yallop explains. “Therefore a TikToker might find they have an automatic ‘foot in the door’ – they have already demonstrated an ability to identify and produce catchy audio, and have a prefabricated audience who pay attention to it. As TikTok is also a key music distribution platform, a track by a TikTok star is potentially more likely to gain greater exposure upon release. On paper, it’s a win-win for both label and influencer.”
Somewhat understandably, established TikTok stars releasing music could very much be read as a cynical business move, and Roberts is more than aware of the doubts people might have about her musical ambitions. “I think people think a TikToker going into music is like a cash grab or whatever,” she says. “They’ve got every right to think that. A lot of people have done it, especially even coming out of YouTube – a lot of YouTubers have made a song for a laugh and don’t actually have any artistic intent.”
Roberts has already used TikTok to promote “Paramaniac”, and some friends and fans have filmed videos using the song – at the time of writing, there are almost 7,000 videos on the app which use a particular clip from the track, plus more which feature different versions. A couple of weeks ago, she also teased “Pink Champagne” on the platform. She is adamant, however, that she doesn’t go into her songwriting process with TikTok in mind.
“I feel like that’s just so not genuine, and you would be able to hear it in the song,” she says, quietly but so decisively I get the sense it’s a perception she has been concerned about. “I didn’t want it to sound like it just came out of some algorithm. It has to be personal and come from me and show a different side to myself.”
Revealing yourself through lyrics can of course be scary when makeup – which, in Roberts’ case, often centres on a dramatic physical transformation – has previously been your major art form. “I’m a bit nervous because people don’t know a lot of the stuff that’s in the music,” Roberts tells me when I ask about the content of the songs, which touch on topics like self-perception, social media, and her mental health, in the vein of fellow Gen Z artist Olivia Rodrigo.
We don’t really get into the specifics of the experiences that have shaped her songs – Roberts is a consummate professional who seems keen to focus on the work side of things – but she does note that she’s found an emotional outlet through music (she reiterates this in a couple of TikToks posted a few weeks after this interview, when she introduced her followers to a snippet of “Paramaniac” and described the process of songwriting as “a form of therapy”.)
“I keep a Notes folder on my phone of everything that’s happening in my life,” she says. “It’s like a diary entry, basically. If something happens that I feel really impacted by, like relationships – it’s such a strong emotional feeling that you have to get out, so I would write a bit about that.”
“Pink Champagne”, for instance, sounds like the crash that comes after the sugar rush of romance, recalling the tastes, smells and feels of a former relationship. Another of the tracks, “Video Girl”, due out later this year, is a riff-led rock song with a catchy hook about the feeling of wishing to be like the people you see on social media. In the second verse, Roberts speaks from the other side, exploring the changes in her life since fame came her way. “I feel like I’m lying on a hospital bed / Everybody’s staring, is it something I said?” Then, a sad, telling question: “Won’t you tell me the truth like you used to do?”
“On TikTok, you see 15 seconds of someone’s life and you think you know them,” Roberts says. “But there’s a lot of fucked up stuff that goes on behind the scenes, and I’ve gone through a lot of shit over the past few years, because it was such a sudden change to my whole life. I was in sixth form doing my A Levels and then TikTok happens and then you’ve got all these eyeballs on you and it’s quite a lot to take on.”
Adding music to the equation has been challenging. When we first meet, Roberts tells me that she feels her social media output has been slipping, owing to the attention she’s been paying to music. “You don’t want to stretch yourself to a point where everything is getting done, but to a kind of shit level,” she reasons. “You need the hours and hours of practice and dedicating myself, coming in the studio like three, four days a week to get that in.”
A month later, at her “Paramaniac” shoot, the pressure to juggle music and TikTok has clearly started to rear its head more and more since our first meeting. Throughout our conversations, Roberts is genial and, as I say, extremely professional (almost alarmingly so for someone her age, as she mentions things like business meetings and “building her brand”), but the one moment where she seems genuinely downcast is when she admits that she’s probably going to have to hire someone to help with her social media.
“It’s been really difficult this week actually,” she says, pulling her sleeves over her hands. “I’m thinking of getting someone to come and help with the social media side of things, because I don’t know how I’m going to stay on top of that, especially like, going on tour and stuff.
“I’ve been conscious of it for a while” – here she sounds almost guilty – “and I know I’m not posting as much as I should have been, especially this week. I’ve probably managed to post about four times, and usually I’d post about four times a day. It’s hard to keep up with. It’s a headspace as well, social media content. Being on top of trends and stuff, you have to focus. And then when I come here I have to switch to the music headspace.”
Then Roberts quickly jumps back into cheery interviewee mode. “I think I’ll be excited when the music’s out as well because then I can do both. Like, make content around the music,” she smiles brightly. She’s pulled away by her team, then: It’s time for the next scene in her video. More content.
Roberts is very clearly all in on her new direction, but she’s also aware that there will always be people who’ll question her move into music, given her origins in a job seen by some as an unserious route into the public consciousness. Yallop, however, says that it shouldn’t be that surprising: “Many of the characteristics of a successful social media star overlap with those of a pop star – marketability, camera-friendly performance, overall brand package,” she argues.
Conversely, it’s also now common for pop stars themselves to have side hustles; extra streams of income and exposure that also speak to their passions. Some musicians, including Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Roberts’ tourmate, Halsey, now have their own beauty brands; others, like Yungblud, have podcasts. Fame, these days, is a candy store, where one opportunity can breed two more, and variation is par for the course.
Where Roberts is concerned, she also has other projects on her radar (she recently told Glamour that she’s developing a beauty brand), laughing at one point that she feels that she could have “lived like, 50 lives at this point. I think there’s an element of acting in the TikTok part of my career. I love doing cinematic stuff, video creation, directing, creative directing. I love so many things. And building my brand. I could talk for hours about the millions of different things I wanna do! But,” she reasons with herself, ever sensible, “you’ve got to focus on the right things at the right time.”
For now, the right thing is, firmly, music. The last time Roberts and I speak is the day after “Paramaniac” drops, along with its video, in late January. She calls me from the back of a car – our interview time is dictated by her schedule; today is best because she’s off to LA the following week – and tells me about the reaction so far, particularly focussing on how it differs to what she’s used to with social media.
“It’s been really positive, but with social media it is that instant gratification. Overnight, it’s like millions and millions of views, possibly. With the song, it’s quite different,” she says, blurrily beamed onto my laptop screen. “You never know, ‘When’s it gonna take off? Is it gonna blow up? What is going on?’ I’m on the edge of my seat refreshing the Spotify streams, all that stuff.” she says. At the time of writing, the track has over 326,000 Spotify plays, and the video has been watched on YouTube 115,000 times in the four or so weeks it’s been out. One of her makeup TikTok videos, as she says, might achieve this in a day. It’s a different metric, therefore, to get used to, but one Roberts seems to take in her stride.
She’s been pleased to see people making TikTok videos using the track, and plans to film more of her own during her trip to America. I’m struck in the moment by something she said to me when we first met a few months before, which speaks to the co-mingling nature of influencer culture, celebrity and pop stardom in the world Roberts occupies.
“I’m just a creative person and I wanted to do music as an extension of who I am as a creative,” she’d said at the time, matter-of-fact. “And not like, ‘I was a TikToker and now I’m a musician.’” She’d shrugged then, unbothered, the idea natural as rain: “It’s both.”