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The Lil Tay Formula

We've seen this before, and it will happen again, unless the media figures out the right way to tackle this phenomenon.

by Allie Conti
May 23 2018, 7:41pm

Screencap via Good Morning America.

Unless you're completely soulless, watching the rise of Lil Tay has been deeply unsettling. For the unfamiliar, she's a nine-year-old child who's famous for pseudo rapping, but mostly for using shockingly age-inappropriate language on Instagram. She also gained notoriety for getting into fights with older social media personalities like Danielle "Cash Me Outside" Bregoli—the teen who went on Dr. Phil, stole a car, and somehow parlayed the experience into a deal with Atlantic Records.

For a long time, no one knew who Tay's parents were, and it was the mystery that made her project slightly intriguing. But when that question was answered, her stardom didn't exactly fade. After a Canadian real estate agent named Angela Tian was outed as Tay's mom, the act seemed to grow bigger than before. In fact, it's gotten to the point that her family decided to make a mainstream news appearance Wednesday on Good Morning America.

Although Nightline's Juju Chang seemingly tried to take Tay and her family to task, she seemed more concerned with disproving Tay's claim that she's making millions of dollars than her family's role in her stardom. When she asks "if a nine-year-old is capable of making this kind of decision"—to generate content that will follow her for the rest of her life—she directs the question at Tay, who's literally nine, and not the adult woman sitting next to her. The only thing she managed to get out of the woman who should actually be in the hot seat is that her daughter is "well-mannered" and a "great kid" who has a "passion" and a "dream." There's a brief moment when Chang asks Tay's 16-year-old brother what he thinks, and his response is a masterwork in the art of saying nothing: "A lot of people are gonna say this and that, we just keep going." There's no follow up question.

She would have done well to keep grilling Tay's brother, as Tian previously suggested in an interview with the National Post that he's the "creative force" behind the videos. Earlier this week, a clip posted to Instagram seemed to support that statement.

"Go back and say like, 'You a broke-ass bitch,'" an unpictured man coaches Tay in the video, which was posted by DJ Akademiks on Sunday. "'You out here with your irrelevant ass. You making a video on me? Bitch, I'm way more relevant than you.'" A beat or two later, a seemingly very upset Tay yells that her mom needs to stop interrupting her as she's filming.

It's not clear how Akademiks got the video or if it was doctored in some way, but assuming the footage is legitimate, she's far from the only adolescent viral star to be manipulated by an older person who should know better. Take for instance the story of a skater named Steven Fernandez, a.k.a. Baby Scumbag. His cousin, Jose Luis Barajas, turned the then 11-year-old into a viral sensation after he coached him into harassing women on the street and put it on YouTube. The first time I spoke to Fernandez on the phone, I made the mistake of letting him do our interview in character, and didn't ask his family the hard questions. When I caught up with him in person a few years later, he had long been out of school, and had recently been arrested for allegedly attempting to solicit several young minors for sex with his cousin.

Later, in the Vine era, it was Lil TerRio, a six-year-old from Georgia whose teenage neighbor posted a clip of him dancing on the video platform. Soon after, he was hanging out with star athletes and people trying to make him into a rapper. After visiting the set of his first music video, I uncovered that he was pulled out of elementary school, sent to Miami to live with a manager who had been arrested for hitting his pregnant girlfriend and armed robbery, and being paraded around at nightclubs for $8,000 an appearance.

In both of those cases, a savvy teen discovered that a child in their orbit had some sort of X-factor and no sense of inhibition. They presumably saw dollar signs, and the kids' mothers didn't put up much of a fight once the money started rolling in. Celebrities and the media helped these families along—intentionally or not—in their exploitation by either turning a blind eye or running puff pieces celebrating the kids' charisma or savvy—perhaps because a story about the teenagers and adults pulling the strings would have been less inspirational.

Tay's story might be uniquely sad even among the other youngsters with that dubious distinction because of the sheer volume of the gendered criticism she's receiving. And given what became of her predecessors, that bodes very, very poorly. But the fact that Lil Tay is a young girl instead of a little boy might be the difference that's getting outlets like Good Morning America to pay attention to the plight of an exploited young social media star. That could ultimately be a good thing if the journalists at those outlets can get their acts together.

Trying to grill a nine-year-old about anything is pointless. And it's laughable to watch George Stephanopoulos congratulate his co-host for how she "pressed" Lil Tay with her questions. If anything, the show's producers just let an abused child perform on-air for millions of people who probably wouldn't have come across her Instagram. But if journalists with access to Tay's family can start asking specific questions about the young girl's schooling and where the money she's making goes, as well as pressing them when they don't give satisfactory answers, then stories like these might stop popping up every few years. If not, this is almost certainly going to be a formula that we see repeated over, and over, and over again.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.