Ariel Martin, 15, tried a lot of extracurricular activities before settling on a career in social media. Soccer, dance, and gymnastics never piqued her interest quite like the fast rising app Musical.ly.
“I’ll usually be on the app about two to three hours a day,” says Martin, flashing her famous toothy grin on a recent Skype call with Tech Insider as she conducts back-to-back interviews in a Los Angeles hotel room.
Martin, who’s better known by her 10 million fans as Baby Ariel (pronounced ar-ee-
el), is the top user on Musical.ly. The music video-centric social network boasts over 90 million users, mostly teens, and has become home to the newest crop of social media stars.
If you’re old enough to see a R-rated movie, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Martin. But the Florida teen is paving a way to mainstream fame while most girls her age worry about zits and exams, rather than international stardom.
Roughly a year ago, a storm flooded her family’s apartment. They lived out of suitcases in Martin’s grandparents’ house for a time. She stumbled across a friend’s Musical.ly video shared to Instagram and escaped her circumstances by losing herself in the new app.
She began recording 15-second clips of her lip-syncing. Most of Martin’s videos show her bopping around a lilac-coloured bedroom, singing along to today’s top hits. Some days she’s made up for the red carpet, other times she’s bare-faced and slung across the couch with her mum.
“From the start, I was just being myself. I made videos that I enjoyed making,” Martin says. “Every time I make a video I do it to make someone happy or to make someone smile.”
Musical.ly began to feature more and more of her videos on the app’s home page, and her number of followers rocketed.
Martin remembers, over the course of a few days, sitting down with her computer and studying YouTube stars online.
“I saw these people do this for a living,” she says, wide-eyed. “If it’s something I love to do — I love to make people happy — why not continue and try to do Musical.lys every single day?”
Popularity hasn’t been the easiest adjustment. She travels frequently for awards shows, meet-ups with fans, and interviews. Two months ago, Martin switched to online classes so she could keep up with her studies while also spending so much time dedicated to Musical.ly.
The first time she realised the gravity of her newfound fame, she was shopping at Wal-Mart with her parents and noticed a girl taking her picture. She was wearing pajamas at the time. When she checked Instagram later, Martin saw the picture going viral. Just because.
In a few month’s span, Martin had gone from just another girl in school to a native Musical.ly celebrity whose fan following eclipsed that of mainstream stars Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande.
Now, most of Martin’s fans are other young social media celebrities. They talk over Skype and video chatting services daily.
“If there are days that, you know, I’m sad about [social media stardom], they’re the ones that understand,” she says. “We can talk about what editing software we use. It might be boring, but we talk about it.”
A typical day begins with a walk around the neighbourhood with her mum. (“Since I’m online-schooled, I don’t have PE or anything like that,” Martin says.) After a quick shower, she knocks out some schoolwork.
When it’s time for Musical.ly, she picks a song she likes that also suits her current mood. Martin learns the lyrics, practices some hand choreography to go along with it, and records the video.
“And then if I don’t like it, I’ll just do it again until I finally do one that I really like,” Martin says.
These days, the high-energy high schooler spends as much as seven hours a day editing videos for her YouTube channel, where the sponsorship dollars roll in. In March, she uploaded a video of her and her mum shopping for prom dresses at high-end fashion retailer Nordstrom, which has been viewed over 1.9 million times.
When I ask Martin if she planned to go to prom, she says, “Well, that’s always been something I’ve wanted to go to, so I’m hoping.”
It’s unclear how much money Martin makes between sponsored YouTube videos, pre-roll ads on her videos, interviews, and meet-and-greet events. The 10 top-earning YouTube stars rake in between $2.5 million and $12 million annually, but they have millions more subscribers than Martin.
Even Martin probably isn’t sure how much she makes: Her parents handle the business of being a social media star (and her finances), while Martin focuses on the fans.
This summer, she’s co-headlining DigiTour, a travelling social media festival that brings the biggest stars to 28 cities nationwide. In 2015, the production company behind the tour planned for 350,000 attendees. Tickets sell for just $25 for general admission and $109 for VIP passes, an enticing upsell that includes an exclusive pre-show meet-and-greet, early entrance, and a tour poster. When I ask her about it, Martin uses the word “excited” six times to describe her anticipation.
She will also be at VidCon, a YouTube-sponsored convention once described as “a boy-band concert on acid.” Last year, 20,000 shrieking teeny-boppers and their reluctant parents attended.
It’s just the beginning for the budding social media star. She says she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to be when she grows up, though she hopes her production experience leads to bona fide acting gigs.
In the meantime, she’s knocking out homework, making videos, and shaking her head at the haters who say she’s “famous for nothing.”
“When I first started Musical.ly and social media, it really, really did affect me because I’m just being myself on the internet,” Martin says. “After a while I realised, you know, if I’m making people happy and doing what I love to do, just like I tell all my supporters, I have to say it to myself: Be confident in who you are.”