On the morning of Sept. 13, three new posts appeared on the Instagram page of a 9-year-old rapper known by various names—“Lil Gucci Taylor,” “Lil Tay Cosgrove,” “Lil Tay Jetski,” “Lil Tay Tervali”—but mostly just “Lil Tay.”
With over 2.5 million followers, Tay’s account was popular, verified, and otherwise blank. After skyrocketing to online fame in early 2018, the Chinese-Canadian preteen went dark in early June, scrubbing all her social media accounts save for a single, bewildering Instagram story: an all-black background captioned with the words “help me.”
The new posts broke a spell of relative silence from Tay, but they posed more questions than they answered. Unlike most of the YouTube star’s content, which had consisted primarily of what her manager calls “flex videos”—Tay posing with stacks of cash, nice cars, and fancy houses—the new photos were extremely graphic and racially charged. The first photo showed a pickup with “Boycott the NFL” taped across its rear and a tree trunk in the bed, a noose hanging from its branch and a football where a neck might be. The second post depicted a black man, dead, covered in blood, and splayed on the ground. The third consisted only of purple text on a black background, telling viewers to follow “@rukcah,” an account that no longer exists but which at the time featured just one image, a portrait of an overweight, bearded man brandishing a large gun.
The photos, which were deleted within hours and made no obvious mention of Tay, at first seemed to come from a hacker. But not long later, the account added a screenshot to its story of what appeared to be Tay’s passport, a typed document with a previously unpublished photo of the rapper, her full name, and her alleged date of birth. Significantly, as the image noted in a caption, Tay’s birthday was listed as July 29, 2002. If real, the passport would make the YouTube star—in contrast with all her previous public statements—16 years old, not 9.
The disturbing apparition sent Tay’s followers into a brief frenzy, prompting posts over the origins of the hack, the authenticity of the passport, and the possible identity of the man pictured on @rukcah’s page. What made the photos so upsetting wasn’t just their overt racism but the demeaning juxtaposition of brutal violence with celebrity gossip and the believable possibility that they came from the young star herself, who had more than once been called “racist” for her frequent use of slurs and who had built her brand on shock value and scandal.
“No one hacked her,” one YouTube commenter theorized. “It was just another ploy to get attention.” The comment and others like it articulated a sentiment that has trailed the child star since her online debut and well after her sudden disappearance in early June; namely, that everything about her—good, bad, or brutal—was entirely artificial, calculated by her management in some cruel scheme to get clicks.
The story of Lil Tay started like that of so many internet micro celebrities—with fabricated beef. In early 2018, Tay drew attention for a feud she started with the popular American YouTuber Bryan Le, or “RiceGum,” who made a 10-minute reaction video, mocking the 9-year-old and alleging she had bullied his sister. The tape got some traction, earning Tay several thousand followers. But the real breakthrough came in mid-April, when footage emerged online of two girls—white rapper Danielle “Bhad Bhabie” Bregoli and semi-famous internet star Victoria “Woah Vicky” Waldrip—fighting near the food court of a mall in Glendale, California.
In the two-minute tape, Bregoli slings light punches at Waldrip, while Tay watches from the sidelines, wearing a lace blouse and looking slightly confused. Her screen time is brief. She squeaks a soft “what’s up,” calls Bregoli a “bitch,” and asks weakly if she wants to fight. But Tay’s half-hearted threats were a hit. Before April, the 9-year-old had about 250,000 followers on Instagram. Just one week after the footage went live, Tay had over 1.2 million.
In the wake of her newfound fame, Tay quickly became a controversial character. Dubbing herself the “youngest flexer of the century,” the 9-year-old claimed to be black, to have grown up in Atlanta “broke as hell” and to have worked her way to stardom in Los Angeles. She bragged often about money, cars, a $2,000 phone, five houses, an expensive bed worth “more than a Lamborghini,” and drugs. In one video, lighting a breadstick like a joint, Tay screamed: “I be smoking dope, bitch!” She also dropped the N-word—a lot.
Almost immediately, Tay joined Bhad Bhabie as a kind of poster child for an ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation—about white girls who dine out on hip-hop culture, grift Black Vernacular English and profit from it, often more so than their black peers would. But as she attracted criticism online, Tay’s follower count kept growing. A YouTube video she made just two weeks after the fight garnered 1.9 million views. By May, Tay was still dissing Bregoli and others on Instagram, and it earned her another 1.3 million followers.
The phenomenon of fighting someone successful to leech off their fame is much older than YouTube, and staged conflict has long been a staple of celebrity PR. But there was something about Tay’s particular approach that seemed more craven, more transparent than most. Her mannerisms were obviously affected, her history clearly fake, and her claims to wealth easily disproved—in RiceGum’s first video, for example, he notes a watch the rapper bragged cost $10,000 was actually worth $50. The seams of her celebrity were visible. It didn’t take long for the mall fight to become a kind of online shorthand for the very idea of the fake feud.
Lil Tay’s unofficial manager, a South Florida branding specialist named Alex “Loyalty G” Goller Gelbard, told the Daily Beast that the fight had not been staged.
But part of Gelbard’s role as Tay’s adviser lay in developing what he called “controversy concepts,” or marketing ploys which operate much like they sound: stirring up conflict to generate conversation, even if that conversation is critical. Gelbard wanted to model Tay’s character after “Hit Girl,” the young vigilante in the black comedy Kickass, whose affinity for gunslinging and knife-throwing was matched only by her comfort dropping the word “c*nt.”
Gelbard declined to identify any of the controversies he wrote (“That would be like a magician revealing their magic tricks,” he said). But it’s safe to say he staged several—it was Gelbard, for example, who first introduced Tay to Waldrip, taking the two influencers out for pizza just days before the fight. And in the following weeks, Tay wound up with more scandal: some of it clearly scripted, some of it likely accidental.
The rapper had claimed to come from Atlanta, but it soon became clear she was from Vancouver. She had boasted millions, citing closets of designer clothes, several sports cars, and five houses, whose toilets “cost more than your rent.” But several news sites pointed out that Tay’s garments had tags on them. In early May, the website babe reported that Tay’s mother, a real estate agent named Angela Tian, had used her clients’ cars and homes as sets for Tay’s tapes. Later, Tian’s employer Pacific West Realty confirmed with the Daily Hive that they had fired her for borrowing her boss’ red sports car without his permission.
But because the rapper had built her brand on calculated conflict, Tay-related controversy always arrived with a shred of uncertainty: Was it real? Was it staged? When DJ Akademiks posted clips of the rapper spewing racial slurs, had he actually discovered them? When footage surfaced of Tay smoking hookah, had it secretly been leaked?
The scandals got increasingly Truman Show. On May 20, Twitter user @Keemstar published leaked footage of Tay breaking from character and an older boy, identified as her brother, coaching her on how to talk. “No, no, no. Redo,” he tells Tay in the video. “You have to be more ignorant.” The next week, Tay appeared with her mother on Good Morning America, where she copped to playing a character and came out as a straight-A student who takes lessons in swimming, skating, and piano. Then, six days later, Tay went dark.
“Controversy market is more of a low-key marketing concept,” Gelbard told The Daily Beast. “Every video that happens, people talk about it more and more, and the fans talk about what’s real and what’s not real.” With controversy marketing, no rule can’t be broken, no taboo is off limits. “I’ve put together a ton of controversial marketing plans that you wouldn’t believe,” Gelbard said.
Over the summer, Tay briefly re-emerged with much fanfare, touting a “docuseries” called The Life of Tay. After a flurry of press excitement, when the series finally dropped in mid-July, it proved to be a single, seven-minute apology for the rapper’s use of the n-word. Tay then returned to silence. For the last two months, she’s broken it only once, posting an odd Instagram story in late August imploring viewers to call a phone number that leads to the voicemail of a man named Chris.
On the phone with The Daily Beast, Gelbard said he was working with the rapper on something major—a total makeover of the Lil Tay brand, to be announced any day now. He couldn’t say what it was. “It’s going to be obvious,” he promised. “When you see it, you will know.” But with the bizarre, grim case of Lil Tay—an offensive, six-month saga of fakeouts, scandals, scripts and slip-ups—it’s hard to say if you will.