Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023

Call Kylan Darnell the “Diamond of the Season” from last year’s sorority rush at the University of Alabama.

The 19-year-old gained hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers last fall as she documented the process of going through sorority recruitment, a phenomenon that is particularly watched at the University of Alabama and followed closely online under #BamaRush. Potential new members (PNMs) can be plucked from obscurity to internet fame literally overnight, just from sharing their rush experiences.

“I woke up (the morning after posting my first rush TikTok) with my phone blowing up,” Darnell recalls to USA TODAY. “My mom was like, ‘have you checked your TikTok?’ I gained like 100,000 followers in a night. Brands started reaching out, I started getting brand deals and making a little bit of money. It was like an overnight thing. It was crazy.”

Mid-August marks the third year of Bama Rush being TikTok’s favorite back-to-school reality show. Here’s why viewers can’t get enough of these videos, and the problem with treating these young sorority hopefuls broadcasting their experiences online as if they’re famous celebrities.

Why we love watching Bama Rush TikToks

This year, Darnell will be on the other side of the recruitment process as a member of Alabama’s Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. She said she’s gotten permission to document what the rush experience is like for sorority members − could this be the juicy behind-the-scenes look viewers were hoping for from the recent “Bama Rush” documentary?

People love a behind-the-scenes moment, says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health and works as the CEO of the wellness community “Already Famous.” Allowing people at home to feel like they’re going through an exclusive sorority recruitment process gives them the same psychological feeling as actually being part of it themselves, she notes.

“(There’s a) vicarious experience,” Rockwell says. “Our neurology fires even though it’s not happening right now. … So we are also now becoming an influencer by watching that person becoming an influencer. We’re firing neurologically as though we’re her, so that feels awesome.”

It echoes the reason people follow influencers in the first place. But audiences appreciate when people share their lives authentically and develop relationships with viewers. Darnell, who volunteers for nonprofit Girl Power, hopes to use her platform of more than 600,000 TikTok followers to spread positive affirmations to young girls.

“Influencers have created a social community that’s clearly led by a person,” Brad Hoos, CEO of influencer marketing agency The Outloud Group, previously told USA TODAY. “There is back and forth, and people then want to know more about the individual and they trust and understand them to really be part of that community.”

More: Adam Levine, Ned Fulmer and the expectations in mainstream vs. internet celebrity culture

How newly famous TikTokers can cope with sudden stardom

Musicians and movie and TV stars often have a team of several professionals to help them navigate fame: a publicist, a manager, a lawyer, an agent and more. A social media star might have a similar number of fans, but often fewer resources: maybe a manager or agent, but likely not if they’re just starting out and especially during a process like Bama Rush, when college freshmen can become celebrities overnight.

For a while, it was just Darnell and her mom fielding sponsored content requests, invites and the influx of comments − both positive and negative.

“I had my own little Kris (Jenner),” Darnell jokes, referencing the Kardashians’ famous momager. “She was handling it all for me because I was so stressed out.”

She’s since gained a management team and learned that blocking accounts or limiting comments can be helpful in protecting her peace of mind. Handling this fame without a full team of experts can be an overwhelming experience, Rockwell notes. More overwhelming can be the psychological toll sudden fame can take on a person, especially for those whose brains are still developing.

“Young people’s brains get addicted to a particular level of incoming stimuli: a certain level of adulation, a certain level of attention, a certain level of adoration,” Rockwell says. “And then forevermore, as these neural networks get firmly embedded in the brain, that longing for that level of recognition continues. Like any drug, these young people’s minds are now set up neurologically to feel like life isn’t enough if they’re not getting X amount of recognition.”

The most important thing a person who has reached sudden fame on TikTok can do, Rockwell says, is to focus on building “neurological off-ramps” to help deal with the growing psychological desire for fame. Focusing on mindfulness, breathwork and staying in the present moment is vital in staying grounded and sane amid the rush of stardom.

Soon, a new class of Alabama Rush hopefuls will try their chance not only at getting into a sorority, but at becoming the next “It Girl” of #BamaRushTok. Darnell hopes the PNMs − and potential new TikTok stars − present authentic versions of themselves, on- and offline.

‘We can tell if you’re being genuine or not,” she says. “Be yourself, be authentic and don’t go in thinking you have to be perfect. We all have flaws, so just show off yourself because that’s what we want to learn about.”

More: Everybody wants to influence the world: Inside the fame, money and evolution of influencers

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