LOS ANGELES — Delaney Rowe is in a letterman jacket, leaning over a supermarket cart. She’s not mad, she tells the camera. “The way I see it, people are like” — the actor’s hands drum the cart as she looks around — “chips.”
“Spicy” — Rowe tosses a green bag of jalapeño-flavored ones into the cart — “orrrr acidic” — salt and vinegar, chucked in with a twirl — or “would it kill you to be sweet?” As in, honey-dijon chips. Earnestness pools in her voice. “Open them,” Rowe says, holding the bag out to the camera. “I dare you. Just be the kind of guy who opens a bag of chips in the middle of a grocery store.”
If that monologue feels a bit embarrassing, well, it should. The video’s title, after all, is “absolutely insufferable female lead of an indie movie uses a metaphor that makes no sense.”
Rowe, 28, has been a TikTok star for the better part of the past three years, gaining online traction from writing and performing sketches such as “wellness influencer who is clearly unwell,” “girl who just discovered ‘moscow mules’” and “people who think hating small talk is a personality.”
But Rowe, who lives in Los Angeles, reached a new level of popularity this year from satirizing popular film tropes, a task she takes on with impeccable timing, precision and a straight face: “the character in every action movie that still makes jokes even in dire circumstances,” “villain eating an apple with a pocket knife” and “the female bartender in every movie written by a man.”
Her parodies of Hollywood and L.A. life are so spot-on they are as likely to inspire mild revulsion — or “cringe” — as they are laughs. A typical comment on a Delaney Rowe video: “excruciating as ever, bravo.”
In some of these videos, nostalgia collides with modern sensibilities. “The shy yet brilliant girl who corrects the teacher during class” harks back to teen heroines of yore while underscoring their ridiculousness. Others skewer the way we function in a digital world, where our tastes, opinions and delusions are perpetually on display.
When I sit down with Rowe for dinner in late October at Speranza, an Italian restaurant in Silver Lake she chooses partly for the food, partly because it feels like dining “in a rich person’s backyard,” she has already been approached multiple times by fans. The first a well-meaning but intrusive mansplainer at a nearby wine shop, followed by two young women who gush over Rowe’s videos. We are not at our table long before a young waitperson swings by, not to take our order, but to tell Rowe how much they enjoy watching her TikToks.
Rowe says that for the past six months, she has been stopped fairly routinely in public. But the phenomenon is still new enough that she feels sheepish about it: “I paid them to say that,” she jokes after each instance.
Rowe’s TikTok videos are so successful that she can make a living off them. But in a moment when content creators can experience more stability, control and freedom through social media platforms than more traditional entertainment routes — when we meet, the SAG-AFTRA strike is still in full swing — the University of Southern California theater graduate wants something that most social media entrepreneurs have eschewed: success on the silver screen.
In the past two years, Rowe signed with United Talent Agency, one of Hollywood’s top agencies. She landed a bit role in her first feature film, 2023’s “The List” (it went direct to digital in August). Directors, producers and actors she admires haven’t just been reaching out to her on social media, they’ve been setting up meetings. She’s auditioning for roles that are more aligned with the work she’d like to do. She’s been in talks to publish a book of personal essays. She’s built characters and an audience through her TikTok and Instagram accounts.
“I have a portfolio,” she says. “I’m not an influencer. I’m an entertainer.”
Content creation is a multibillion dollar business — $250 billion to be exact — and many industries have tapped social media entrepreneurs for their influence and their audiences. They sit front row at fashion weeks across the globe (Rowe hit New York Fashion Week shows for Altuzarra, Staud and Prabal Gurung). They publish best-selling books (see the aforementioned essays). Rowe, alongside a handful of other content creators, even made Variety’s 2023 Young Hollywood Report, which also featured Ice Spice, Ariana Greenblatt and Jenna Ortega.
And yet, Hollywood’s relationship to social media stars remains somewhat amorphous.
There are still not many examples of content creators who successfully made the jump — and the ones who have slid their foot in the door with additional bona fides. Quinta Brunson, the star and creator of the hit ABC series “Abbott Elementary,” had the backing of BuzzFeed when she was making her viral videos. Jordan Firstman had been a TV writer for years before his “impressions” went viral on Instagram. Comedian Megan Stalter is known for her deluded characters, but she also became a star on New York’s alt-comedy circuit.
“Hollywood has learned painfully, in very expensive ways, that you can’t just expect that someone with a large following on social media is going to be able to bring people to the theater, or is more likely to get people to subscribe to a streaming platform,” says David Craig, a University of Southern California professor who’s researched “creator culture.” When Hollywood taps content creators, it’s typically for marketing partnerships or for unscripted TV, such as reality shows and hosting gigs, he says.
Unlike her “insufferable” and narcissistic online personas, Rowe is attentive and generous in real life: the kind of person who sets their phone down at the table and doesn’t look at it for the entire night. She wants to know how I met my husband (Instagram) and whether I have a morning routine (no, but we both feel pressure to have one because … Instagram). She shares her lifelong insecurity about being perceived as smart, and jokes about what it means to be famous on the internet: a direct message from “Jerry246988” calling her “a genius,” followed by a d— pic.
From the days she subjected her parents and their friends to her impromptu tap-dance performances (never mind that she didn’t know how to tap dance) growing up in Baltimore, Rowe wanted to be an entertainer. After graduating high school in Boise, Idaho, her sights were set on studying drama in New York, where she would be a “capital A artist.” Except no New York schools accepted her. So Rowe headed west, to USC’s theater school.
Without irony or shame — and despite not knowing how to drive — Rowe fell in love with Los Angeles.
After graduating, Rowe dove into the city’s nightlife — particularly its lively restaurant culture. She got into “weird wellness” things — going vegan for four years, attempting zero-waste living. She bluffed her way into becoming a private chef. (“I’ve never been so tired in my life.”) She applied for work as a personal assistant and nanny (turns out, a driver’s license is essential for those jobs.)
All the while, Rowe was going on auditions. Lots of them. Rowe estimates that she tried out for 60 shows over the course of five years, encountering a lot of scripts with “stereotypical, coming-of-age, edgy” side characters. Those depictions stuck with her: “A lot of my sketches” — particularly those featuring young adult protagonists — “are inspired by some of those [auditions].”
Then along came the pandemic. Hollywood had effectively ground to a halt, and that stillness provoked some reflection for Rowe. People had told her about the importance of making her own stuff — but Rowe always took that to mean a short film, an endeavor that requires money and time. As TikTok usage spiked during covid, Rowe realized it was an avenue to put her own work out there: “I could do this for free in my bed every day if I wanted to.”
So in June 2020, Rowe posted her first TikTok: “When someone says they’re ‘a really good sleeper.’” Two days later she posted another one. Then the next day. Then the next.
In her first year and a half, Rowe amassed just under half a million followers. As of December 2023, that number sits at around 2.3 million (with another 778,000 on Instagram). She hasn’t had a TikTok video garner less than a million views since February. Her skyrocketing popularity has allowed her to secure a number of deals with brands such as Fidelity Investments and Corona. Those partnerships, she said, were the first time she was able to make real money off performing.
“When I got my first really big brand deal, I remember seeing the money in the offer and just getting emotional, like, just starting to cry because I was like, ‘I might actually have a real life, a real adult life, one day,’” Rowe said — one entirely supported by her creations.
Despite these gains, her place in the world feels tenuous, Rowe says: “I truly wake up every day thinking everything’s going to elude me.”
When he first started studying the world of content creation 10 years ago, Craig, the USC professor, assumed that most people were kind of like Rowe — people whose ultimate ambitions ultimately lay in more traditional forms of media: aspiring actors, authors or comics. But that is rarely the case now, says Craig: Having a large and loyal following is an end goal in itself.
“We’re talking about, in aggregate, platforms that reach more than two-thirds of the planet, with monthly users in the multiple billions.”
The popularity of these platforms has shifted our notions of celebrity. The entertainment industry may churn out actors, singers and performers whose work and personas are supported and produced by publicists and marketing agencies, but there’s another type of celebrity that exists now, Craig says: “People who have the talent to harness [social-media] technologies to find online communities who share their interests and values.”
“Delaney is, however, part of a small, small, small subset of people who have brilliantly figured out how to play a character online that taps into something going on in the zeitgeist and in the world,” he says.
The tension that defines many of Rowe’s characters is a fundamental disconnect between who they think they are and how the rest of the world perceives them. Our digital age has only magnified this gap: We are constantly performing — and encountering performances of — sophistication and social awareness, humor and charm. If the function of satire is to hold a mirror up to our follies, is it any wonder that we recoil at Rowe’s videos?
The day after dinner, Rowe and I are sitting on an absurdly large hotel balcony in West Hollywood. The sun has peeked out for the first time in days, illuminating the neighborhood’s lush hills and shiny electric cars. Rowe is across from me in loose white pants and a striped half-zip sweater (recognizable from a number of her videos), her wavy hair falling down her shoulders. It’s easy to dismiss L.A.’s vapidness, but the city has provided an “endless” source of material for Rowe.
Our conversation is briefly interrupted by a howling scream — one we both recognize as someone loudly orgasming from some near or distant hotel room. Rowe takes it all in stride.
“Seriously, that’s amazing,” Rowe says, after the yelling subsides. “Let me say, hotel sex hits different.”
For now, Rowe is content to let the magic of “worst person on earth orders ahead of you at chipotle,” “people who claim that they’re ‘always cold’” and “character in every movie whose quirky trait is that they’ve ‘never seen snow before’” live on TikTok and Instagram. She’s also ready to perform new, more complex characters than the ones she’s created. A master of deconstructing genre stereotypes, the type of character — superhero, rom-com lead or villain — she would play matters less to her than the script: “I’m just interested in really good writing.”
The biggest obstacle in her path now, Rowe says, is “Getting that one grand yes.”