A year ago, Chris Olsen was rising through TikTok, attracting thousands of followers with ultra-personal videos he started posting during the pandemic. His following became even larger when he began sharing updates with his ex-boyfriend Ian Paget, becoming popular in TikTok’s “couple niche.” Pretty soon, Olsen was such a ubiquitous figure on the platform that he had his first celebrity follower: Meghan Trainor.
“I remember sending a screenshot to all my friends being like ‘Meghan Trainor follows me, I’m done! I’ve made it,’” Olsen tells Rolling Stone.
Olsen and Trainor didn’t actually interact until this year, when some back-and-forth Instagram Story banter turned into exchanging numbers. Shortly after, Trainor invited Olsen to be on her podcast. When they met to record, Olsen brought along a few ideas for TikTok trend videos they could shoot at the same time, and before they knew it, those videos ended up going viral on both of their pages.
“It ended up just being this perfect match where we felt like we had known each other forever,” Olsen says. They even have an ongoing bit about being childhood best friends that many commenters thought was true. “Connecting with Meghan is one of my one of the best things that has happened.”
Since then, more artists have been entering Olsen’s orbit. He’s teamed up with High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale, singer/actress Reneé Rapp, and cover extraordinaire Sri Ramesh on all kinds of videos. A popular video series he started where he delivers coffee to celebrities has featured Sabrina Carpenter and Joshua Bassett. Through both his main account @chris and his “spam account” (the TikTok equivalent of a “finsta”) @notolsennchris, he has amassed nearly 12 million combined followers, becoming an almost inescapable presence on the app.
His videos with Trainor remain among his most popular. Over the past several months, and especially in the run-up to Trainor releasing her fifth album Takin’ It Back in October, the pair have been a sensation on TikTok. They frequently post silly clips highlighting their friendship and sometimes involving Trainor’s brother Ryan, husband Daryl Sabara, and son Riley. In the process, both her fans and naysayers have seen a new side of the pop star, getting a more unfiltered look at her life and humor than most millennial-era celebrities and older have let audiences see on social media.
“People ask me frequently ‘How do you make Meghan so funny?’ I’m not doing that. I’m just sharing us together, and people are realizing that she’s so funny,” Olsen explains. “A lot of artists just aren’t putting themselves on camera in that way or on social media in that way.”
Olsen began creating content in 2020, needing some sort of creative outlet while the world was stalled. At the time, he was a junior at Berklee College of Music studying musical theater. His TikTok account started to pick up steam a few months in, and later, his videos with Paget were particularly beloved — so much so that they made headlines when they broke up earlier this year.
Since then, Olsen has been finding his footing on his own and recalibrating his career with social media and beyond. Like so many other Gen Z creators, he instinctively knew that being authentically himself was the best way to connect with an audience. He has allowed his fans to see all the highs and lows of going through a public break-up while also expanding the reach he has.
“I think I learned to let the content reveal itself to me and also to let everything I do feed into itself,” he says. “It all comes back to being able to share myself authentically and trying to convey the feeling of taking someone along the journey with me. The main feedback I get from people when they see me in public is that they feel like they’re my friend already. That has always been the goal.”
Creators and influencers like Olsen often connect because they understand that Gen Z’s bullshit-detection skills are stronger than most. So many brands have tried and failed to keep up with new internet language that’s been created through visual media, but it usually comes down to simply hiring and listening to younger social media experts who speak that new language fluently, as was the case for the Duolingo and Empire State Building’s accounts.
Olsen’s voice has become so distinct that when the account for Harry Styles’ beauty brand Pleasing moved from a careful, highly curated aesthetic and started to become more fun and chaotic, many started to wonder if he had been hired to run it. (“Whoever’s doing the Pleasing account is doing an amazing job,” is all he says in response to the rumors.)
The trick to successfully building any sort of brand or success on TikTok, he says, is to see promotion as a side product to using the app. “What comes first is sharing yourself authentically,” he continues. “If people already feel connected to you, then they’re going to want to see what other things you’re doing and what other things you want to promote.” Olsen himself is a prime example of that: He has made his love of coffee a key part of his online presence. Next year, he’ll be launching his own coffee brand because of it.
Trainor has heeded that lesson spectacularly even without Olsen, sharing funny stories and peeks inside her home life with her family. In doing so, she didn’t have to push too hard to make her song “Made You Look” take off the way it has on the app and the charts. Olsen predicts we’ll see even more artists open up that way on TikTok in the coming year.
“I am excited to see some of these artists who we’ve all idolized and maybe sometimes don’t know that much about share themselves in a new way. There was a little bit of trepidation with TikTok when it first came out, but I think there’s no denying its power now.”