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Ryan Forlong, Oliver Mills  and Bryn Fredheim (image: John Rata / with treatment from Tina Tiller)
Ryan Forlong, Oliver Mills and Bryn Fredheim (image: John Rata / with treatment from Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureDecember 16, 2023

One house. Three TikTok creators. Hundreds of millions of views. What’s next?

Ryan Forlong, Oliver Mills  and Bryn Fredheim (image: John Rata / with treatment from Tina Tiller)
Ryan Forlong, Oliver Mills and Bryn Fredheim (image: John Rata / with treatment from Tina Tiller)

An unassuming house in Auckland’s eastern suburbs hosts three TikTok creators who represent the challenge of the creator economy: millions of fans, but a business model that remains a work in progress. Duncan Greive pays a visit.

Photography by John Rata

This story includes mention of depression and suicide. Please take care.

Marilyn Eales is nobody’s idea of the quintessential TikTok star. She’s 89 years old, lives in St Heliers and loves to garden. Lately, though, she’s received messages from her nieces and been recognised in the street – all thanks to a series of cameos in sketch comedy shorts made by her neighbours, Bryn Fredheim and Ryan Forlong. They are part of a duo called Kind of a Big Deal, and cajoled Marilyn into volunteering to appear in their TikToks. One, which captured the ridiculous energy around ‘Up the Wahs’, went extremely viral in late August, hitting more than a million views.

“It’s not often you reach fame at my age,” says Eales. Today, they’re trying to repeat the trick. It’s an overcast Tuesday morning in late October, and Fredheim (23) and Forlong (24), are wearing All Blacks jerseys. The team is days away from its ill-fated turn in the RWC final, and New Zealand is briefly filled with hope. The clip features Sky’s league commentator Steven McIvor, Th’ Dudes ‘Bliss’ as the soundtrack and pokes gentle fun at fair-weather sports fans. Marilyn plays herself, wearing a black jersey, with the boys saying, “I didn’t know you were an All Blacks supporter.” Eales turns to the camera, holds her trowel aloft and replies, “Up the Wahs!”

They run through the line maybe four times, frequently pausing as passing traffic ruins a shot. Everything is done for favours, shot rough and ready around the area, and all the gear is borrowed (it’s my All Blacks jersey on Fredheim; he returns it the following week smelling like Lynx). The clip goes well – 130,000 views on TikTok and 4,500 likes on Instagram – while not matching the heady highs of their “Up the Wahs” sketch, which ended up on The Project and Breakfast. Marilyn saw it on TV. “Did you boys get paid for that?” she asks Fredheim. “Unfortunately not,” he replies. “Just exposure.”

Marilyn Eales with her director, Bryn Fredheim

That’s the paradox at the heart of the emerging New Zealand TikTok creator scene: while the platform is growing explosively, meaningful revenue has yet to trickle down to many of its nascent stars. Kind of a Big Deal are part of a community making sketch comedy for the platform, alongside names like Uce Gang, Robinhood Regz and Torrell Tafa. They regularly draw audiences in the millions, and some have become stop-traffic celebrities to younger New Zealanders. 

Most impressively, this whole scene is extremely DIY. They frequently collaborate, diligently building audiences, and have learned writing, editing, performing and marketing skills. TikTok in particular has had an explosive rise – the Chinese platform launched just five years ago but is by some metrics the most popular platform on the internet. For many young people, TikTok has replaced television as the most powerful force in culture, and its creators have become stars in the same way Shortland Street’s actors might have been in years prior. They have the audience and own the zeitgeist – but as of now, they often remain out of sight and mind to a media ecosystem still mostly operating according to the rules of the previous paradigm. 

It’s given rise to a whole new job category, nestling under the name of the “creator economy”, which has evolved from the maligned “influencer” to better capture the variety of work being made. Some people sell a lifestyle, others a diet or fitness journey, some their looks; others create music, and some, like Kind of a Big Deal, do sketch comedy. The creator economy encompasses a vast array of business models and jobs – from Substack newsletter writers to interior designers on Pinterest – while being concentrated on just three platforms: Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. 

A sampling of the works of Kind of a Big Deal (Image: Tina Tiller)

One big issue: the gains mostly accrue to the platforms, while those who make the content have to figure out how to get paid for their work. This is the story of one house, where three such creators live, eating noodles and working minimum-wage day jobs, while they try to figure out how to make it in a digital economy that is both harshly capitalist and glowing with potential.

‘New Zealand’s only content house’

The concept of a content house has become well-established in the US. They took off during the pandemic, and were typically luxurious homes where multiple popular creators lived, sometimes financed by investors who took a cut of earnings. The idea is that by living together, there is a natural focus on making content, and built-in talent to make videos with. The LA content house scene was filled with impossibly attractive teenagers living in mansions, goofing in the sun while Covid-19 ripped.

In New Zealand in 2023, it looks somewhat different. In July, a TikTok creator named Oliver Mills posted a video purporting to show behind the scenes at “New Zealand’s only content house”. It featured the occupants silent on laptops, then laughing hysterically at something unseen on a screen. It’s basically a grungy flat, where the trio happen to live, along with three other flatmates, who are often roped in to fill roles in Kind of a Big Deal’s sketches. 

‘The content boys’. From left: Ryan Forlong, Oliver Mills and Bryn Fredheim

Forlong and Fredheim, as Kind of a Big Deal, have representation through creator agency BornBred, but Mills might be somehow more famous. He releases as many as five clips a day, typically him singing along to massive pop and hip hop hits. Some will vanish with barely a ripple, others will get millions of views. He’s a very handsome guy, with the tousled hair of an A-lister, but the appeal of his clips seems to be the catharsis – seeing someone really give it heaps, surrendering to the core emotions of the song, in this part-private, part-public, very universal setting.

The scene at their content house is like any other student-type flat. Big 90s furniture, a stray golf club in the backyard, lawn in need of a mow. The lounge contains a couple of clues as to their preoccupation – a popular portable podcasting microphone and a mini keyboard. For the most part though, there is a single tool of their trade, the same device that sits in the pocket of almost all New Zealanders.

By living together, they can pool resources. Mills is frequently part of Kind of a Big Deal’s videos, as is their flatmate Flynn, when he’s not at med school. Their differing focuses make for bizarre conversations over dinner. What did you do today? “I dressed up as a lady.” “I listened to the new Taylor Swift album three times.” “I peeled the scalp off a corpse.”

Forlong surveys the fairway

The creator economy encourages collaboration: by tagging other creators, you effectively share audiences. So you’ll see Kind of a Big Deal with Torrell Tafa, who’s often with Uce Gang, who makes videos with Jackie Cheng, who you’ll see in sketches made by Jimi Jackson. On some level this is a decentralised version of the type of community that once made Jono and Ben on linear TV – but where that show was funded by NZ On Air, this is the bleeding edge of the big tech gig economy.

All of this existed before TikTok – each of these creators has channels on all the main video platforms – but TikTok is where the potential feels hottest. “I fuckin’ love TikTok,” says Mills. “I think it’s the greatest app of all time. TikTok is the cocaine of social media apps. It’s so moreish.” He floods the zone with content, which is relatively easy because of his format. Fredheim and Forlong are more cautious. It’s just like a lottery,” says Forlong of what hits with TikTok. “What we’ve been trying to focus on more recently is posting something that we’re really happy with, instead of just feeling we need to post lots.” 

Kind of a small deal

Fredheim and Forlong have chemistry that comes naturally to those who’ve spent half their lives together. Fredheim has long hair, olive skin and an athlete’s frame, while Forlong is taller, blonder and more laconic. The pair met at high school and “just instantly, we’re mates”, says Fredheim. “I was convinced Ryan was the funniest person I’d ever met.” Neither was particularly academic, but they did find they had a talent for cracking each other up. “Whenever we would sit down with each other, we would come up with a hypothetical situation. And we’d always just add and take it so out of proportion. Purely for our entertainment. We never thought that could turn into something.”

Forlong (right) shows Fredheim a freshly shot scene

As they moved out of school and into university – Otago, naturally – they started to make videos, with a very limited intended audience: the flat group chat. (“Just to entertain our friends and post stupid Dunedin antics on there.”) Towards the end of uni, they were approached about making a video for a business. The Flatpack Company were selling beds in a box to students, and had a hunch that Fredheim and Forlong’s brand of humour would cut through with a wider audience.

They made a video to accompany a giveaway. It was an instant success – and a lightbulb moment. “We thought if we get enough clients, then we can just live off making funny videos,” says Forlong. It worked well as a side hustle through uni. They kept working with The Flatpack Company, then Harraways Oats became a client, and others followed. Still, at this point they were almost like a mini agency, selling their ideas and images in work that only existed to satisfy clients. 

The turning point came one summer day when Fredheim was hiking with his girlfriend near Cape Brett in Northlalnd. They were miles from anywhere, and walked past a group of young guys, the first humans they’d seen in hours. When they were 100 metres past them, one yelled out, “hey – are you the oat guy?” It was shocking to be recognised so far from home. It got Fredheim thinking. “Do we want to be the oat guys or the flatpack guys? Or do we want to be our own brand?”

They started shooting and posting sketches across Instagram and TikTok and built up a loyal following, finding their way in the fast-evolving cultures of the platforms. Eventually they were signed to BornBred, the content creator equivalent of a major label deal for musicians a generation ago. The decision to sign was an easy one: their idols are people like the Inspired Unemployed, also represented by BornBred. They’re Australians who have built up an audience of millions, with massive brand deals, a Spotify deal and their own product lines, including a hit with Better Beer. They live the idealised life all wannabe creators dream of: seeming to travel endlessly while making content and having a lot of fun.

The Inspired Unemployed (Photo: Supplied)

That’s the goal for Kind of a Big Deal: to one day have a multi-layered, self-directed media career, with brand partnerships that are lucrative enough to allow them to focus on content creation full time. BornBred head Clare Winterbourn says she was first attracted to working with them because of their authenticity. The duo were “funny, funny, funny Kiwi blokes, really”. She appreciates that their work with brands is as good as what they do for their own account. “I was quite impressed at how they were playing both sides of the equation.”

Still, despite their success, and a steady flow of brand work, it’s not enough to quit their day jobs. When I first met the pair, they were shooting content part time, while selling olives in supermarkets. This is in part what bemuses their parents about this work. “Explaining to my dad that I’m going to do TikToks was so funny,” says Forlong. “He’s worked at a company called Powerco for 40 years. Managing power lines in the Bay of Plenty. And grew up on a farm. I’ve just gone and got my degree, and I’m gonna make TikToks.”

The only time their parents get excited is when they appear on legacy platforms. Mills was on ZM, while Forlong’s mum got calls from friends when their “Up the Wahs” sketch played on TVNZ’s Breakfast. It’s a little frustrating that their success is so hard to fathom for their parents, but they see it as inevitable. “They just consume a different media,” says Mills.

Singer turned podcaster

There’s a paradox in the content house, in that Mills is objectively the bigger star – more followers, more views – but Kind of Big Deal are much more established as a business. It’s in part because they were commercial before they were even creators, but it’s also because they have a geographical specificity to their work. The sketches have an identifiable New Zealand humour and cultural reference points, which the algorithm points at people from this part of the world. This means they can reliably work with marketers wanting to reach people around these islands. Mills, by contrast, is largely global in his appeal. As a result, he has fans everywhere – he’s huge in Mexico and Thailand – but hasn’t yet figured out what to do with that.

Oliver Mills in his office

It hasn’t stopped his commitment to creating. To get a sense of how he works, I went for a 15-minute drive through the leafy suburbs near his flat. During that time he recorded three songs, starting with singing and rapping along to Doja Cat’s ‘Show You Off’. His stereo isn’t working so he wedges a UE Boom against the window while emoting its deeply horny lyrics (“Baby, lemme lick on your tattoos… Suck a little dick in the bathroom”). He cruises through a little aimless loop in the hills above Mission Bay, other drivers oblivious that they’re passing a modern niche celebrity. “This is work,” he says near the end, laughing at the absurdity of it. “That’s the whole job.”

The clip tops out at 14,000 views, a relative failure for Mills. An earlier video, singing Doja’s ‘Paint the Town Red’, has more than 600,000. Collectively, the hundreds of clips he’s posted have gained him over 700,000 followers and more than 100 million views. Yet because of the way TikTok’s algorithm ruthlessly elevates and buries content, that’s perhaps a less instructive number than the 38 million likes he’s accrued since joining the platform. It was just six months ago, yet already a typical week will see him averaging around 10 million views. 

Along with singing, he’s diversified into other content forms. There’s a podcast stream on Spotify, semi-stalled at three episodes. A YouTube channel with six videos, all with views in the hundreds. An Instagram account with 80,000 followers. He has a self-shot standup comedy special out, but considers himself at his core a musician – which is to say that he’s the epitome of the modern shape-shifting content creator. 

For now, he exists on pasta and coffee, and TikTok remains an elevated hobby. “I’ve done a lot of dishes work, and a lot of kitchenhand work,” he says, explaining how he pays the bills. “I can do that two days a week. That pays the rent. I can spend the rest of my time making my little TikToks. That’s just what I want to do right now.”

Along with the singing clips, and some attractive shirtless photos, Mills also talks about his experience of depression. He says he attempted suicide in his teens, and partly blames social media for the hole he found himself in. “I deleted it all when I was 16. Because I was so unwell. And I thought it was feeding into badness.” He’s conscious of the burnout notorious within the creator economy, and takes steps to avoid it. “I take time off when I need to.” He has dozens of unreleased clips, which he spools out on days he’s not feeling up to it. 

Sometimes Mills parlays these struggles into yet more content. “I started talking about depression and mental health because I figured I should do that. And that’s going really well.” One clip featuring Mills explaining how depression affects him has 200,000 views. They don’t typically go as epically viral as his other material, but they nourish him in different ways. So far, the platform brings him up, but another creator cautions that a segment of its audience is always waiting to pull you down. “I live in this permanent fear that your entire career can just go,” says Jazz Thornton, a mental health advocate with a huge TikTok following. “There is a whole dark side to it.” Mills is conscious of that, but hasn’t felt it yet.

Mills is Māori, through his father. “I grew up in Taranaki for four years – I barely grew up in Taranaki, but I whakapapa Taranaki, that’s where home is.” He spent most of his adolescence around Tauranga and Papamoa, where he first met Fredheim and Forlong. “I heard stories of their exploits from the other schools,” he says. “These kids were notoriously fun.” They met at a party, and wound up living together in Auckland a few years later.

In between, their paths split. He moved to Wellington to study psychology and philosophy, finishing the former and still grinding away intermittently on the latter. He worked managing a surf shop and as a truck driver. His journey into content creation started in a similar way to that of Fredheim and Forlong. “I’ve got a phone mount in the car. And I would sing whatever came on the radio. I started filming it and sending it to my boys group chat,” he says. “I did that for a year, just when, like, Tracy Chapman would come on the radio. I think I was exclusively listening to The Sound.” 

A friend suggested he try uploading one to TikTok. “I figured like one of two things happens: either it goes mental or no one sees it, and both are equally funny.” Within a few days his take on a Harry Styles song had “gone ballistic”, and it never really stopped. “I had back-to-back three million view videos, day after day, and that has not stopped. Because I post five to 10 times a day, and one of them will go viral.”

It has changed his life in some respects. “I average 10 to 15 million views a week. I can’t fathom how many fucking people that is. I get stopped every time I walk in the street, every time I leave the house now.” Still, it hasn’t yet translated into anything he can spend. “Weekly I’m getting more viewers than Celebrity Treasure Island. Weekly,” he says. “And I haven’t made a dollar.”

Where is all this going?

The primary attribute that separates platforms like TikTok from prior media forms like television or radio is the sheer volume of content made, and the level of control exerted by the audience, by contrast to traditional media’s gatekeepers. Anyone can quickly create a TikTok account and start uploading content, and the combination of its powerful algorithm, its always-on user experience and ultra-short content form has made it the most influential platform in the world over the past five years. All the major social platforms have copied aspects of its approach, but none has succeeded in whittling away at its power. That’s particularly true for young audiences, for many of whom it is the primary form of entertainment.

This is highly confronting for those expecting young audiences to eventually graduate to watching TVNZ+ or listening to albums on Spotify. TikTok has in some ways become a cultural medium unto itself, like a TV comedy, a painting or a pop song. Its extreme accessibility means that quality varies wildly, and no one can claim to have their head around its scope. Still, it’s actively encouraging the creation of stars with Australia’s TikTok Awards. These have been running for three years, a huge, glamorous ceremony in Sydney – think flames and confetti cannons – but this year they deliberately expanded their reach, inaugurating a New Zealand Creator of the Year category.

Paaka Davis wins live creator of the year at the TikTok Awards (Photo: Supplied)

This is part of how a platform demystifies itself, and gives a public sense of how it would like to be understood. TikTok flew New Zealand’s most powerful TikTok creator, mental health advocate Thornton, across to present. Te reo advocate Paaka Davis won live creator of the year across Australia and New Zealand. Uce Gang was up for New Zealand creator of the year, losing out to Judah Metu-Teaukura, a Cook Island New Zealander who makes slice-of-life videos and sketches. As with many awards, fans weren’t happy – Metu-Teaukura’s comments are now full of Uce Gang fans lamenting his loss. 

For Mills, the nomination is just codifying something already self-evident. “Uce and Torrell [Tafa] are massive in New Zealand, Australia and the islands,” he says. “You walk down the street with [Uce Gang] in South Auckland. He’s culture. Uce Gang is the culture of South Auckland. For the youth especially. He’s the most well-known guy in that entire fucking area. And it’s not close.” I spoke to Simeon Fiapule, aka Uce Gang, upon his return. He seemed unfazed by missing out: “I’m always trying to be better than I was yesterday. I’m going to stay grinding.”

Mills is a long way from Uce Gang’s success, but says he too is determined to stay the course. He views the audience he’s building as “just leverage”, and is unconcerned about not knowing what he’ll use it for just yet. “It just unlocks the ability to do anything… I’ll probably end up doing an album. That seems to be where it’s going.”

That’s part of what makes this new media world so slippery and hard to define. The shiftlessness is antithetical to those who grew up in different eras, which prized focus and picking a lane. Aside from a few singers turned actors, the world wanted to understand you in a defined realm. Yet these platforms consistently birth stars who move outside of whatever route they came in on – typified by Australian YouTubers RackaRacka, who created Talk to Me, one of the year’s most acclaimed horror films. 

Forlong shoots Fredheim in the bush

Kind of a Big Deal are in a local lineage which feels connected to DIY television from Back of the Y or Leigh Hart’s Moon TV. They do wonder about how they would have gone in prior eras. “I’d be interested to see what we would have done if there wasn’t TikTok or Instagram,” says Fredheim. “What would our skills have converted to back when those platforms were unavailable? I think script writing.” Still, they give little thought to traditional channels, instead focusing on stars thriving in the current era, and how they might emulate them.

The oracle of Christchurch

The single person with the best view of this current moment might be Clare Winterbourn. She’s from Christchurch, but moved to Australia 15 years ago with a son she had while still a teenager. She founded BornBred Talent in 2017, and it has become the emblematic TikTok-era agency, signing up dozens of creators across different platforms and sectors. While she does sign creators from her homeland, and does business here, she’s frustrated by the pace of the shift from legacy media to digital platforms.

“I think New Zealand is really behind Australia,” she says. “With creators like Kind of a Big Deal we’re building sustainable businesses and revenue and income streams that really extend past traditional social media brand partnerships and TikTok-sponsored posts.” This means that rather than the somewhat forced #ad posts that once clogged Instagram feeds, the new era is creators going vertical, and launching their own products. Social media and podcast giants the Inspired Unemployed typify this, following their beer brand Better Beer with the recent launch of a fragrance. This also works in reverse: YouKnow clothing is wildly popular on social media, and earlier this year launched a podcast called The Morning Shift that has become an enormous hit, in part due to its savvy use of TikTok.

Winterbourn has Uce Gang on her books, and believes 2024 will be a breakout year for him. “He’s highly, highly recognised in the Australian market.” She says mixed martial arts behemoths the UFC identified him as among the five most important personalities across the Australia and New Zealand market and want him involved in all future events. Given what Winterbourn sees as the backward nature of our own market, she believes any ambitious creators will need to do what our musicians and actors have always done, and try to make it in Australia too. “Kiwi creators are going to be stunted unless they’ve got visibility outside of New Zealand,” she says.

I spoke to Thornton – the mental health advocate on TikTok – about this, and she concurs. “Creators in Australia are taken a lot more seriously.” She says the platform’s role and scale is much better understood overseas. “It’s no longer just a teenager app.” That message has been received loud and clear by Fredheim and Forlong – so much so that they’ve left the TikTok house they lived in the past couple of years. The pair have moved to Sydney, part of a record outbound migration in 2023, chasing opportunity in a city as big as our whole country. 

The picture Forlong and Fredheim left with Marilyn Eales when they flew to Sydney

They have settled at Bondi Beach, but are living apart for the first time in seven years. They say they’re “enjoying not being the only ones wearing budgie smugglers on the beach”, but more importantly, that the location is already helping their commercial ambitions. Their most recent video was for Better Beer – the Inspired Unemployed’s own product. It’s a relative of Prime, Logan Paul’s energy drink, often seen selling for exorbitant prices in dairies, and Mr Beast’s Deez Nutz chocolate. (This is where Leigh Hart’s prescience shows: he’s had Wakachangi beer and Snakachangi chips on the market for years.)

Back home in New Zealand, Fredheim and Forlong’s departure meant the end of the content house. Mills is living between Tauranga and Auckland, staying with relatives, and is still living the tension between his huge global fanbase and the lack of an income stream to support his work. “I’m not giving much to the economy,” he admits. “But one of these days a piece of art will stick and it will change the tide of history.” Mills is joking, but only halfway. The TikTok economy is already here, and already changing the world. 

It’s also changing his life too. Just before this story was filed, Mills found an agent. No Sad Cowboys have signed him up, and got him his first deal. $5,000 to create a pair of videos promoting KitKat. It’s not yet changing his life. But it beats washing dishes.

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