Writer and Photographer, The Paper
Published February 28, 2022
“Here’s what it’s like, living in the smallest apartment in New York” These are words you might have heard before if you are active on the content sharing app TikTok. Back in December of 2021, a video by a man named Axel Webber came across my for you page (the home page of tiktok). At the time, while not few, he only had a couple million followers, which is miniscule compared to his current audience. None of these people were aware of the massive impact that Axel was about to make on the way I and others think about how we interact with content on the internet.
Axel Webber, who is from Georgia, moved to New York to live out his dreams of going to Juilliard and becoming an actor. In the weeks leading up to his audition, he started posting videos on TikTok detailing the daily life of a man living in the “smallest apartment in New York.” He began posting videos about doing laundry in the smallest apartment in New York, cooking in the smallest apartment in New York, cleaning in the smallest apartment in New York etc., all while slowly gaining a large, dedicated following (4.2M at the moment). On January 10th, 2022 Axel posted a video that started a larger conversation and eventually became bigger than tiktok. He posted a video sharing that he was rejected from Juilliard. “Dear Axel… as you are already aware due to our callback process, you are no longer under consideration.” In response to this video that has been viewed by 12.7 million people, hundreds of fans and celebrities such as Charlie Puth and Jeremy O. Harris ran to his defense to console him. Puth commented “Hey friend….I also didn’t get into Juilliard….but things ended up being just fine for me.” among other words, and there are 3.3 thousand other comments of people consoling him after his rejection. Now where does this take a turn? What started as a sentimental story about a guy missing out on his dream, turned into a continuation of a very important conversation:; white mediocrity.
How does this tie into race? Axel Webber built his entire platform off of being “poor” and struggling in NYC. He posted tutorials on making ramen and quirky videos about eating street lettuce. He gained popularity for things black and brown, and low-income New York natives have done every day, and received no accommodation or pity for. Instantly receiving a modeling contract because he didn’t get into Juilliard is not directly his own fault, but it is indicative of a larger issue. Young attractive white people have the luxury of being mediocre and benefiting off of their own failures while others don’t get that same treatment. In the New York Times article about this whole situation that came out earlier this year, Brendan Gahan, a chief social officer at a creative agency said, “The reality is Axel does not need traditional credentials. In today’s media landscape, Axel already has the upper hand.” In other words, if you have certain attributes that make you appealing to strangers on the internet, you have advantages that people who are possibly more qualified but lack those attributes, don’t have. While Axel did not get into Juilliard’s drama program, which only accepts about 20 people per semester, he did receive a modeling contract with no prior modeling experience. By gaining a following on TikTok by making “relatable” New York content and being vulnerable about not getting into Juilliard, he was given access to resources and opportunities that many much more qualified and desperate New Yorkers will never be privy to.
Armani Jones, a black actress and model on TikTok said “When situations like Axel’s come up, it does seem to trigger a lot of dialogue… BIPOC, disabled, LGBT content creators, performers, actors, models etc. Are not given the same grace to not be as unprepared for situations that require tons of preparation… It serves as [a] reminder of how marginalized groups are often treated in the industry compared to their white contemporaries… “luck” seems to only grace the heads of particular people in the industry.”
A majority of the colloquial “negative attention” that Axel has received in the past few weeks does not come from a place of bitterness or resentment. It comes from a collective exhaustion with the double standards that exist in today’s society. Many are simply tired of seeing the same old story of a white man suffering a minor inconvenience, and not only being pitied, but being rewarded for his shortcomings.
Do we blame people like Axel and others like him for taking advantage of the upper hand that they were given? Some might argue that he was simply turning a bad situation into something he could profit off of by posting TikToks about his difficult living situation. And as far as I know, Axel Webber had nothing to do with the uproar that post dated his original post about his rejection. But because of the way he looks, he was able to build a relatable platform of living in poverty, and garner support from his audience when he failed to achieve his Juilliard dreams. While acknowledging that he is not directly responsible for the people of color in similar situations that were not handed these same opportunities, we can still recognize that had he not been young, white, and attractive, that many people would probably not know he exists. There are plenty of other examples of this on the same platform. When one thinks of the popular dance trend the “renegade” they probably point the credit towards Charlie D’amelio, the TikTok creator commonly associated with the dance. The person who originally choreographed the dance and often flies under the radar is Jalaiah Harmon, a black dancer who, like many others, is a part of an online community of dancers that create most of the viral dance trends on TikTok. While Charlie D’amelio danced the renegade on her account and became the face of the dance, and Addison Rae did the renegade on Jimmy Fallon, Jalaiah faded into obscurity. While not identical to the Axel Weber scenario, they point to a greater issue. People of color, specifically black people can work twice as hard, and receive half as much.