The bleak and depressing story behind the Instagram meme
In a world where gangsta-rap pastiches are paraded around on reality TV shows and five-year-olds grace magazine covers, the spectacle of Lil Tay seemed a logical next-step for society – a grim summation of where our culture’s at right now. However, digging a bit deeper into the story behind the meme, it’s all a bit grimmer than that.
Attracting an audience of over 2.5 million followers to her verified Instagram account, the Chinese-Canadian youth (then just nine years old) went viral last spring after cultivating an online persona that consisted of dropping generic rap tracks, endlessly flexin’ for the ‘gram and ample amounts of cultural appropriation. Labelling herself as the “youngest flexer of the century,” Lil Tay (real name Claire) has been described as everything from “a larger-than-life caricature of today’s top vloggers and influencers” to “a badass Dora the Explorer come to life”.
Tay first broke into the internet’s collective consciousness with a series of purposely outlandish antics that were always bound to rile all those that we’re laughing about them: bragging about her toilet costing more than most people’s rent, driving a very expensive-looking Rolls Royce without a license (for about five seconds in a car park, but still). She eventually got to hang out with everyone from ‘Gucci Gang’ meme-hitmaker Lil Pump to controversial YouTuber Jake Paul, and even engaged in her own pseudo rap beef, specifically with Bhad Bhabie (the “Cash Me Outside girl”) and backed by her friend and fellow viral star, Woah Vicky.
At the height of her notoriety, Tay sparked her own online craze with the ‘Lil Tay Challenge’ seeing imitators emulating the youngster’s flexing ways. “The goal is to be more ostentatious, more outrageous and more obnoxious,” one publication wrote of the challenge at the time.
It would be easy to laugh along with the schtick. After all, it’s just a child having fun and not really understanding how some of her words uttered, and things that brought her more and more likes, could be seen as offensive. However, there was a dark side to the kind of stuff that Tay would often post: one video depicted the pre-teen smoking hookah, while she also wilfully uttered the n-word on occasions.
In one straight-to-camera address, Tay fires back at her haters: “All you jigglypuff-looking broke-ass n***as. I’ll fuck your momma because she a thot, then imma become your father. But I ain’t spending money on child support. Imma spend that money on foreign shit.” It’s thoroughly uncomfortable to watch and times like this where the joke instantly stops being funny with a thud.
In late May 2018, Lil Tay was profiled on Good Morning America, appearing with her mother, who was given the chance to defend herself against accusations that the treatment of the nine-year-old was “exploitation or borderline abuse”. Tay’s real-estate agent mother, Angela Tian, largely remains quiet during the interview, but her daughter – sat next to her throughout – argues that her actions were all her own doing and that only she alone had access to her Instagram account.
It came after a series of revelations began to raise serious alarm bells. After it was alleged that the cars and properties that featured in Tay’s videos all belonged to her mother’s boss and were used without permission, a video emerged of Tay’s half-brother, Jason Tian, appearing to coach her on her lines from behind the camera. “You need to be, like, more ignorant,” a person alleged to be Jason can be heard saying at one point. At another moment, Tay stops mid-sentence and asks: “Uh, what do I say?”
From there, things only got more strange – and a lot murkier – when, suddenly, Lil Tay’s social media accounts were wiped clean in June 2018, just days after the Good Morning America appearance. A mysterious Instagram Story then popped up with the words “help me” set against an all-black background. Confusion and concern ensued online, with fans questioning what had happened, some even launching the #FreeLilTay hashtag.
After months of silence, Lil Tay’s Instagram account (now deleted) was alive again in September and October 2018 with a flurry of activity. Tay and her mother have since claimed that her account was hack, following a series of racially-charged posts, leaks of personal documents and allegations made against Tay’s father, Christopher Hope. It soon became apparent that a custody battle was being waged between Hope and Tay’s mother, Tian.
The Daily Beast spoke to Tian, Hope and Lil Tay herself in January of this year, with details of Tay’s home life being revealed, as well as the individuals giving their different sides of the story. The feature detailed how Hope filed a court motion last June, requesting that his daughter returned to her native Vancouver, ultimately sparking her social media exile. It became quickly apparent that Lil Tay’s story was a well-trodden – but no more less depressing – tale of a child star stuck in between two warring adults.
For her part, Tay’s mother Angela Tian denies that she’s ever had anything to do with the idea for the Lil Tay character. “She had the idea with her brother. I was never involved,” Tian declares. She adds: “She always had a passion for music. Before Lil Tay blew up, she always had singing lessons and dance lessons.” Of her daughter uttering racial slurs in some of her videos, Tian says: “That is the very first time… She promised that she would never say that again.”
Tian goes on to paint a image of Hope as a somewhat absent dad, one who was only motivated to re-enter Tay’s life after she found online stardom. Tay backs up her mother by saying that she didn’t want to live with her father, but “had to” because of the court order. Tay adds: “I didn’t see him for multiple years. He never saw me for so long, it’s obvious he just came back because he wants money.”
Tay also makes abuse claims during the Daily Beast interview, alleging that the sister of her father’s wife once locked her in a closet. “I was literally locked in a closet,” she claims. “He was out partying. His wife, she has a sister, and her sister was babysitting me. She never liked me. She locked me in a closet.” Hope has denied these allegations, responding by saying: “She was never locked in a closet. If there is any abuse, it didn’t take place at my house or have anything to do with me.”
Offering his side of the story, Hope denounces his daughter’s online presence (“I was really unhappy that she had dropped out of school to participate in inappropriate activities that I thought could negatively affect her future and her present,” he told Daily Beast) and stresses that his motives have nothing to do with money. In a prior statement, his spokesperson said: “There are only three things [Hope] wants to see. First, no more crazy videos of cursing from Tay. Second, 25 percent of the gross earnings going to a trust fund dedicated to Tay. The third thing is, there has to be structure in her operation, in her public image.”
However, contradictions remain on both sides. Tian’s argument that Hope is driven by financial gain is seemingly undermined by her own statements. “He doesn’t care about Tay’s video[s],” she tells Daily Beast. “After Tay became famous and all the videos, he never went to L.A.” She also stresses how “Lil Tay has made no money,” adding: “We got a lot of chances, but we didn’t accept them… We could have made a lot of money if I wanted.”
Meanwhile, for all his criticism of his daughter’s viral stardom, Hope nonetheless lists the ways that he’s tried to help the Lil Tay business machine. “I applied for the [Lil Tay] trademark because it was obvious that her mom hadn’t taken any steps to do things in a business-like manner – reserve the names, get accounting set up, make sure tax obligations could be satisfied,” he says. “Filing a trademark was one of the things that needed to be done. I was concerned that people were also trying to use that name. Recording artists need to be incorporated, but none of those things had been done. I wanted at least to take the minimum steps so that Claire would be protected if her career did go somewhere.”
In the middle of all this, though, remains a 10-year-old, who has not only seen her life come under the telescope of the online world, but now her parents’ private dispute played out in public sphere too. There’s a moment in the Daily Beast interview where Tay details how she’s homeschooled because she’s “too famous” for public education. “[My dad] wants me to go to public school and he knows how many people know who I am, he knows that I’ll get mobbed,” Tay explains. “I’m too famous for that.” Free Lil Tay indeed – from all of this.