For her 16th birthday, Addison Rae was gifted a trip to Los Angeles. This wasn't as extravagant as it sounds. Money was tight, with the family subsisting off of her father's salary as a trailer home salesman in Louisiana. So when the teenager's mother agreed to the L.A. trip, she did it on the cheap, booking a room for the two of them in Bakersfield - 111 miles from the city.
Each morning, mother and daughter would awake at 4 a.m. to get ready, then make the two-hour drive. They had no specific plans. Rae - who was born Addison Rae Easterling - had Googled "where can I see celebrities in L.A.?" Per the Internet's guidance, she and her mom went to the Grove, Melrose Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Rodeo Drive and a couple of movie studios, which were only viewable from the street. They thought they saw Snoop Dogg, but it wasn't actually him; they did spot Justin Bieber.
Rae wasn't discovered on that trip, but it nonetheless confirmed everything she'd always believed about Los Angeles: She needed to move there as soon as possible and become a star.
"When I left," she said, "I thought: 'No worries for me. I'm gonna be back.'"
Four years later, Rae has made good on that vow in such a big way that she could lead workshops on "The Secret." She has 82.8 million followers on TikTok, the platform where she became famous for dancing to music clips. Forbes estimated that she made $5 million in 2019. That same year she graduated high school, joined TikTok and dropped out of Louisiana State University after three months - to move to L.A.
She now considers Kourtney Kardashian, 42, one of her best friends and frequently appeared in the final season of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." In March, she released her first single, "Obsessed," which was lambasted by critics but still amassed 19.4 million listens on Spotify. The streaming company is actually one of her brand partners - she co-hosts a Spotify podcast with her mom - along with American Eagle. There's her beauty and skin care line, Item, which just started selling in Sephora this month. And this weekend, she's trying her hand at movie stardom with her first acting role in Netflix's "He's All That," a gender-swapped reimagining of the beloved 1999 teen rom-com "She's All That."
If it seems like Rae is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, it's because, well, she is. Growing up, she worshipped triple-threat stars like Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. She took modeling and acting and dance lessons, idolizing one teacher from her dance studio who moved across the country to pursue a professional career. So when TikTok started opening doors for Rae, she jumped at every opportunity.
"A big thing I've learned through experience is that saying 'no' is so much more powerful than saying 'yes,'" says Rae, now 20. "That's been a struggle for me, because I'm a big 'yes' girl. Going forward, I want to learn how to prioritize things. Obviously I love to sing, I love to dance, but there's a time for each of those in its respective place. Right now, I do want to focus on acting."
Rae has propped her blue metallic boots up on a bench at Go Get Em Tiger's Los Feliz outpost, where not one tattooed hipster appears to recognize her. She lives in a high-rise building near the Century City mall but asked to meet here, where she's been dropped off in her Tesla by her security guard. She's been working with the bulky man for roughly seven months, and still isn't entirely comfortable with him watching over her.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'Can you just go?'" she says with a laugh. "It was definitely a safety thing. There are times that I dismiss the fact that there are evil people in the world. I would say I'm fairly naive, and I also am very inviting. I will talk to absolutely anyone who talks to me, which can be concerning in some situations, because you just never know."
It's this element of her personality that Rae surmises attracted her fan base on TikTok, where she's usually seen lip-syncing to popular songs while doing basic dance moves. She's a good dancer, but certainly not such a skilled one that her routines were the draw.
"I'm a very positive person. Some say too positive. Most say too positive," she says. "I feel like that's just what drew people in - seeing how happy I was all the time. I think people just love to see people having fun and being passionate and inspired and excited about what they do, and that's what I always reflected."
Just how optimistic is Rae? In late 2019, when her TikTok follower count was around 300,000, she received a message from someone at FamousBirthdays.com. The website is, no surprise, a data hub that lists the ages and birth dates of celebrities. t A site representative told Rae that they were interested in interviewing her, and asked if she could come to L.A. in just a few days to sit for a video chat.
Even though she was still a student at LSU and had no idea who was behind FamousBirthdays.com, she obliged and immediately booked a weekend trip to the West Coast. It was the first time she'd been back since she was 16, and the visit only reaffirmed her desire to leave Louisiana. After doing the online interview at a random building in Santa Monica, she spent the rest of her time meeting up with fellow influencers she'd DMed.
A couple of months later, one of her online friends became her roommate when she finally decamped for L.A. But she felt unmoored without her familyand begged her parents to come to California.
"I was like, 'I really need to live with you guys, but I know this is really hard,'" she recalls. "My dad was the only one who worked, and he worked at a trailer company, so it wasn't like he was making unbelievable amounts of money to drop his job and move out here. But they put a lot of faith in me. I was like, 'I promise you guys, I'm gonna make the money back. I'm gonna be able to make it out here.'"
So in early 2020, Rae's parents and her two younger brothers relocated to Tarzana. She lived with her family and filled her days with as many industry meetings as she could. At first, they didn't go well. Though executives were impressed with her follower count, most balked at her lack of experience. She was encouraged to submit self-taped auditions and continue her relationships with her brand partners to prove her work ethic.
But one producer, Jennifer Gibgot, was charmed enough by Rae's personality that she decided to take a chance. The two had been set up for a general meeting to discuss the possibility of a dance movie because Gibgot was the producer behind the "Step Up" franchise.
"I've had really good luck in my career identifying young talent," says Gibgot, pointing to her casting of Channing Tatum in "Step Up," Zac Efron in "Hairspray" and Liam Hemsworth in "The Last Song." "I've done it enough times that when you know, you know. Of course, on Twitter there are haters who say 'Why hire a TikTok star when there are so many people acting and trying?' And I feel for those people, I really do. But you can't manufacture a star quality."
In order to sell her to studio heads, Gibgot oversaw Rae's audition process - filming the fledgling actor's submission tape at her house with agents looking on. The producer then put a package together for Miramax Chief Executive Bill Block - the company in charge of the "He's All That" remake - highlighting Rae's social media statistics.
"To his credit, he was like, 'I see what you see, and she clearly has a following,'" says Gibgot. "And then we did the press release and every outlet picked it up. He realized, 'OK, she definitely has a following.'"
Still, she understood the risk she was taking in giving a novice a leading role - even if the part wasn't far off from Rae's own reality. In "He's All That," she plays a high school social media influencer who is livestreaming to her fans when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her. The mortifying video goes viral, and in a bid to restore her popularity, she sets out to prove that she can make any dude as hot as her ex. That's when she befriends an artsy outcast ("Cobra Kai's" Tanner Buchanan), convincing him to cut off his long hair and spend less time in his darkroom developing photographs.
To get the best performance out of Rae, Gibgot decided to go with a director who has a track record with young performers: Mark Waters, who "got the performance out of Lindsay Lohan in 'Freaky Friday' and gave Rachel McAdams her first big role in 'Mean Girls.'"
After being offered the gig, Waters downloaded TikTok and began binge-watching Rae's videos. He thought she had charisma, but wanted to meet her in person. Over lunch, he was impressed: "We can make this work," the director recalls thinking. "We're gonna roll up our sleeves and train her. This is gonna be years of Meisner training in eight weeks."
To her credit, Waters says, Rae was willing to do the work, immersing herself in classes with acting coach Nanci Banks and learning how to be vulnerable on camera.
"When we first started shooting, I was like, 'I need you to go further. I need you to go deeper. I want you to go too far so I can tell you to pull back,'" says Waters. "By the time we got to the last couple of weeks of shooting, I didn't even have to push her anymore. ... She's good in the movie. Obviously, Netflix bought it in the room. I have no idea what the metrics will be, but it truly doesn't matter, because we wouldn't have made the big sale if it didn't work."
Rae's favorite moment during shooting came when she had to perform her longest monologue, a scene that takes place on stage in front of an auditorium full of classmates at prom. She didn't have trouble memorizing lines - that came naturally after a childhood spent memorizing Bible verses at religious school. But she was nervous about getting to an authentically emotional place.
"And there was a girl in the audience who was an extra who was crying after I did the first take," she says, smiling to herself. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe I just did that.' That wasn't even a scripted part, and the cameras weren't even on her. That was the moment when I really started to get it - that I could touch people emotionally through what I was saying and feel like it was coming from me."
Still, Rae doesn't expect audiences to respond kindly to her.
"People have a lot to say about 'Did she work for it, does she deserve it, does she even like to act?'" she says. "That was the most difficult part for me to comprehend, because I do love acting and I've done it my entire life, but people don't know that. In a way, I am trying to prove myself. Like, 'Hey, I do love this, this is a passion of mine.' And that's very hard."
Rachael Leigh Cook, who starred in the original "She's All That" opposite Freddie Prinze Jr., says she relates to the place Rae finds herself in. The actor, now 41, got to know Rae while playing her mother in "He's All That" - a small role that is not a continuation of her original character, social-pariah-turned-prom-queen Laney Boggs.
"I think this is the smartest possible first move for her," says Cook. "What are critics gonna say? That she's unbelievable as an influencer? You can't teach people to come across as likable, and she has that energy. I feel a lot of kinship with her, even though she had quite a running start coming from the incredible heights of fame she's been experiencing. But you can't change the fact that as of Friday, her identity does change. She's a movie star. And everybody sort of hears that starting gun go off."
Whatever the reaction, Rae is no stranger to criticism. At a UFC fight in July, cameras caught her tapping former President Trump on the shoulder and introducing herself to him. Many of her fans were displeased, assuming this meant she was a Trump supporter. When asked about the episode, at first, Rae demurs: "I don't feel comfortable talking about that," she says, shifting in her seat. She goes on to explain that she feels it is pointless to try to convince fans of her beliefs when "there's nothing I can do to change that opinion."
But after a few moments, she decides to clarify her stance. "I mean, I don't support Trump," she says. "And if someone does, that's their opinion and I respect everyone's opinion, for each their own. But it's very rare on occasion that you ever get to meet a former president, and I think most people could agree with me on that. It's very uncommon. And I consider myself a friendly person, and so introducing myself does not mean I stand behind anything that any respective person condones."
She's also been changing her approach to how she posts on TikTok. In March, she performed eight dances that originated on the platform on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" without crediting the creators of the moves. She says she was glad the original creators were also later asked to appear on Fallon's show, and says "we're all still figuring out how to handle things like that that we haven't handled before" because TikTok is still a relatively new app.
"If it is a little extra effort or a few more minutes to find someone that did the dance, you should do it. It doesn't take that much longer," she says. "It's an app and we're all on it all day anyways, so why can't you look for a name, you know what I mean?"
She says she doesn't feel as much pressure to post on TikTok constantly, especially now that she's busier with acting obligations. And her mentors, like Kardashian, have encouraged her to guard her privacy, sharing less about her personal life on the app as she branches out.
"A year ago, I was literally in my bedroom doing absolutely nothing, so I could make a thousand TikToks and have all the time in the world for it," says Rae. "Now, it's just time for me to take that extra step, go the extra mile to make sure people can see my passion for acting going forward. I really hope that people give [the movie] a chance - give me a chance to show myself as an actress and not go into it with a negative mindset."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.