This spring, Marcus Olin moved into a sprawling mansion in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles with seven other TikTok creators. His bedroom overlooked downtown Los Angeles, and waking up to the view every morning felt like a dream.
“I was like, ‘Man, that’s my city,’” Olin, 21, said. “I felt like I owned it.”
The Kids Next Door, as Olin and his housemates are known, is one of many influencer collab houses that have formed in Los Angeles over the last year. Several of them have leases that are signed or co-signed by talent management companies.
In the case of the Kids Next Door house, that leaseholder was Ariadna Jacob, the founder and chief executive of a talent management firm called Influences.
The deal was this: Jacob agreed to pay about half of their monthly rent of $18,500. In exchange, the tenants would produce content and fulfill a certain number of brand deals obtained by the company.
“We went into this thinking we’d have brand deals weekly or monthly,” Olin said. “We were expecting a quota where we could pay our half of rent through brand deals. But we weren’t getting enough deals to cover our half of rent.”
That wasn’t all. “We didn’t have working Wi-Fi for a month,” said Jesse Underhill, 22, another member of the house. “We couldn’t go live because our livestreams would cut out.”
He struggled financially after moving into the house. “I used to get three to five brand deals a week,” Underhill said. “Since I moved in, it’s one every two weeks, and they’re lowballing.”
At the end of July, the influencers were told that they would have to cover a larger share of rent. They all felt the crunch, and the dream of living and working in a mansion with friends turned into “a living nightmare,” Underhill said. By early August, half of the residents had moved out. The house itself has been re-listed for sale on Zillow.
‘Have You Made Any Money?’
For decades, young and creative people have come to Los Angeles with visions of fame, fortune and fulfillment. Some have found it; many more have learned that getting discovered isn’t so easy.
Over the past year, dozens of TikTok stars have had the rare experience of becoming household names — at least in some rooms of the household — overnight. Multinational companies now enlist them for campaigns, major Hollywood talent agencies have signed them, and managers are looking to cultivate them.
There are several established management companies that work with influencers across the social media landscape. Many formed in step with the influencer economy in the 2010s, signing talent from YouTube and Instagram. More recently, a class of boutique firms has emerged to guide the careers of TikTok’s young stars.
Ariadna Jacob founded Influences in 2018, the same year TikTok merged with Musical.ly. The company’s website names brands like Disney, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson among its clients. By January of this year, Business Insider had named Influences and Jacob one of the top creator managers, and the company was working with some of the most notable influencers on TikTok, including Addison Easterling and Charli and Dixie D’Amelio.
Also among Jacob’s clients at the time: Brittany Tomlinson, whom Jacob had approached after a video of her reaction to a taste of kombucha went viral.
“Ari DMed me on Twitter and was like, ‘I’m seeing this image of you going around a lot, have you made any money?’” Tomlinson, 22, said. She said that Jacob told her she owned an ad agency and could get her a deal with a kombucha brand. All Tomlinson needed to do was a sign a contract.
Tomlinson signed a nonexclusive agreement with Jacob in August 2019. A month later, she signed a new contract, making the arrangement exclusive.
Tomlinson flew to Los Angeles in September and stayed at Jacob’s apartment. “She’s buying me lunch and dinner. She claims she’s mentored by Gary Vee,” said Tomlinson, referring to entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. “I met all these people who she said will help my career.” (Vaynerchuk said he has no affiliation with Influences.)
In December, Tomlinson moved to Los Angeles. She had started doing brand deals for companies like FabFitFun and GT’s Kombucha and even filmed a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus with Charli D’Amelio.
“By January, I realized I hadn’t been paid since Halloween,” she said.
Tomlinson reached out to the brands she’d worked with and discovered that she was owed tens of thousands of dollars. In April, she filed a complaint with the California Labor Commission, on the grounds that Jacob had violated California law by operating as a talent agency without a license.
In it, she claims Jacob is withholding $23,683.82 in fees; that Jacob “demanded unconscionable fees” of up to 20% commission; and that Jacob bought and is squatting on the domain name brittanybroski.com.
“She tries to lock creators into contracts,” said Tomlinson, who is now managed by Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Her case remains pending.
“Ms. Jacob has conducted herself with the utmost professionalism and courage in the face of individuals who attack her both personally and professionally,” said Ben Walter, a lawyer for Jacob. “These individuals attacking her don’t want to play by the rules of decent individuals in society, but want to attack Ms. Jacob publicly from the shadows, talking to any individual who is willing to listen to them.”
“In an ethical management talent relationship you should be able to part ways at any time,” said Lisa Filipelli, a partner at Select Management Group, a digital talent management firm. “Any management contract with a creator should be at will. Less mature companies have manipulated what the word ‘signed’ means.”
Chas Stahl of Right Angle Management said that forcing a client to stay when their relationship with a manager has soured is unheard-of. “Trust in the relationship is so key,” he said. “Without that you can have all the paperwork between the talent and a manager, but if you don’t have the trust in place it’s not going to work.”
‘I Had to Make Tough Decisions’
Jacob got her start in social media and marketing. In a statement to The New York Times, she said that she entered the business to help young people with big ideas.
“Little did I know that I would be entering what would become one of the most competitive, cutthroat industries I’ve ever participated in,” she said in the statement. “I had to make tough decisions, often unpopular, such as shutting down houses due to parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, working with uncontrollable adolescents, and a multitude of potential liabilities that I did not want to undertake.”
Jacob also said she wanted to protect creators from mistakes in the industry — “the ugly part of Hollywood.”
“None of the creators who have left Influences were ever harmed,” she said in the statement. “Instead some received free rent, a spot on a Super Bowl commercial, trips on jets, private estates, professional publicists and mentoring from the best in the business. None of them have yet been sued and we have not hindered any of their careers in any way whatsoever.”
Tianna Singer, 19, moved into the Girls in the Valley house, also managed by Jacob, in late May. “She promised brand deals, money and opportunities,” Singer said. “Everyone was promised income, but that never happened.”
Members of the house said that Jacob asked them to create free branded content. “She said we needed to show brands that we deserve to work with them, and we needed to prove ourselves and it would help with industry connections,” Singer said.
Her housemates said that Jacob put a lot of pressure on them. “She would show up at all times of the night,” Singer said. “She’d come as late as 1 a.m., and she’d be texting us until 3 a.m. and show back up at 10 a.m. She’d bring guests with her without telling us.” There was a security camera in the kitchen of the house, which Singer said was installed “without our consent” and connected to Jacob’s phone. Jacob said that the cameras were installed by the property owner for security purposes.
The creators in the house said that on June 7, Jacob told them they would be thrown out if they didn’t post on social media at least eight times a day. They felt unable to push back. “We were often very intimidated by Ari because the conversations became explosive,” said Singer.
In mid-June, Singer and others left the house. They described a hectic move-out day that involved an escalating verbal fight with Jacob which resulted in several calls to local authorities to intervene. The group documented the day’s events on Instagram Stories; Jacob said she asked not to be filmed, but she recorded the events too. In an email from her lawyer, Jacob denied that a fight took place.
Justin McWashington, 24, the live-in house manager for the Girls in the Valley, said that the next day, he moved out. “These houses look like they’re all sunshine and rainbows and gumdrops,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it’s toxic.”
Dayna Marie, 20, said that her months in the Girls in the Valley house were some of the most stressful of her life. Her share of monthly rent, which she paid, was $1,500, but she realized immediately that some bills weren’t being paid.
“Ari told me all utilities are paid for,” Marie said. “But in April the water, Wi-Fi and electricity went off. We were using water from the pool to flush the toilets.” Jacob said that she had agreed to pay for utilities “up to a certain point,” and that she “was under no obligation to pay the bills.”
“This was during COVID, when we couldn’t go anywhere else without putting people at risk,” McWashington said. “We’re all from out of state, we had to tough it out and hope for the best.”
Jacob’s lawyer described Jacob as a roommate herself, not as a landlord, and therefore not responsible for the situation after she “moved out.” (In May, Jacob told The Times that she was the “sole lease holder” for the house.)
“The whole Girls in the Valley house crashed at Drip Crib during the whole Ari scenario,” said Devion Young, 25, the founder of the Drip Crib, which also had a relationship with Influences.
On June 9, Influences split from that group too, over disputes about rent. On its Instagram account, Influences said that members of the Drip Crib breached their contract and failed to pay their share of rent.
“She manipulates you, it’s a nightmare,” Young said. He said that she used nude photos of his to shame him.
“Right before we parted ways she leaked my nudes and sent them to business partners, people in my house and potential investors to slander my name, saying I was unprofessional,” Young said. “Ms. Jacob informed an internal consultant of the picture’s existence,” Jacob’s lawyer wrote, and clarified that she did not “publicly” leak the photos.
“We are focused on building talent who has their goals aligned with something much more meaningful than ‘clout’ and I think that’s what this is — a desperate and sinister chase for clout at my expense,” Jacob said in her statement. “Despite what’s being said, my integrity is intact and I don’t think anyone should condone, especially The New York Times, opportunistic bullying.”
Parenting in the Influencer Age
By the time Tianna Singer was unpacking her bags at the Girls in the Valley house, her mother, Salam Singer, was already nervous.
She wanted to give her daughter some autonomy, but worried about the contract Tianna had signed and the amount of oversight Jacob would be providing. “You need a lot of structure when you’re dealing with young people,” Singer said. “They’re basically forgoing college and going into this like a career. So they need guidance and they need to be told when to do what.”
Singer didn’t expect things to devolve as quickly as they did. She described Jacob’s behavior in the end as “shameful.”
“It’s a very predatory environment,” Singer said of the industry. “You have a situation where you have young vulnerable people with the potential to access a lot of money, then you have older people who are going to take advantage of the situation. Tianna’s not going to be the first or the last.”
Sarah Zeiler, 46, met Jacob in April when Jacob attempted to sign Zeiler’s 16-year-old daughter, Ellie, to a management contract. Zeiler declined but soon discovered that Jacob had already added Ellie to the talent portion of an Influences marketing deck.
Zeiler emailed Jacob and asked her to remove Ellie’s name and image from the deck and to stop referring to herself as Ellie’s manager. “Ellie had heard from a few different notable people to be careful because Ari will tell everyone she represents you, and that’s exactly what happened,” Zeiler said.
Last week, Zeiler discovered that Jacob was still telling people that she had a management relationship with Ellie. “For any parent to know that someone is out there saying that they’re close with your child and they represent them is uncomfortable and unsettling,” she said, adding: “I didn’t hire her for a reason.”
Many of Jacob’s former clients are still in the process of extricating themselves from Influences contracts and finding more permanent housing. Most are wary of joining another content house.
Olin said he and his fellow housemates still fear legal action from Jacob. “Anytime talent wants to leave, she goes straight to suing them,” Olin said. “I have asked her to release me from the contract.”
Tomlinson said she still has not reached a resolution with Jacob over her complaints. “If I could give any piece of advice to young creators,” she said, “it would be ‘don’t sign anything.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company