In 2014, Désiré Mia started a YouTube channel that posted everything from skating videos to gaming tutorials to cooking 101s. Although he had a small following at the time, his main motivation was the joy of filming and editing as a creative medium. He embarked on a modeling career three years later when he turned 18 and made a name for himself working with brands such as Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein. As Mia’s talent for video production and performance became more intertwined with his career, he found a new way to express himself when he created a TikTok account in 2019. In less than a month, he had gained almost 200,000 followers. A fun hobby quickly became an invaluable tool for his job – the more people see him on TikTok, the greater the chance he’ll be booked for big modeling gigs. And it looked like something else too: Part of a career that he outside of modeling as an influencer, content creator or – why not? – started as an actor.
Mia is not the only one who finds a particular success on the platform. While the archetypal model has long been viewed as a passive receptacle for a designer’s vision, many turn to TikTok to showcase their personality and content – and fuel their careers.
“Our digital space is so full of words, images, videos and sound,” says casting director and artist manager Kevin Chung, who often works with models known for their social media presence. “There has to be depth beyond the surface, beyond the boring IG outfit of the daytime photo, whether it’s your captions or your stories.” Or of course on TikTok.
Through a mixture of comedy sketches, dance and insights into his personal life, Mia uses TikTok, where he now has over 750,000 followers, to brand himself as more than just a pretty face. He sees his job as a model different from his role as an influencer on social media: “Just like when someone is a high school teacher and a DJ on the side.” But he knows the two are symbiotic. Mia’s popularity on social media is a draw for casting directors looking to raise a client’s profile by hiring them as a model. The trips and lifestyles associated with modeling provide him with plenty of novel material for content creation. He likes to include the different places he visits in his videos, like one dancing to Doja Cat’s “Say So” on a CCTV screen in a crowded Tokyo subway station. In another case, he persuades an airline employee to dance next to him at a gate.
While having a large following can help grab a brand’s attention, originality and consistent engagement remain more valuable than mere numbers. Georgia Makely, director of the newly created Influencer and Digital Partnerships at Ford Models, says her most frequent customer requests are for “great storytellers who create impactful, thoughtful content, not someone with a large number of followers.” One of her clients, model and artist Tyler Omeed Mazaheri, has a kind of cult on TikTok. His heartfelt personality draws a particularly dedicated audience of fans eager to mimic his visual style, a mix of sluggish California haze and Gen Z e-boy. One of Mazaheri’s fans I spoke to said she liked the way “the way he presents himself feels soft and soft and pretty”. Mazaheri got his break on Instagram. “Without the offers I received on Instagram, I would never have thought of modeling at all,” he told me. “It’s practically the only way for kids like me to get into the industry these days.” With TikTok, he can show something else – this “gentle and soft and pretty” quality that catnip gives fans and fashion houses alike.