While adjusting my ring light, a box pops up on my laptop that says “Clown Girl.” Looking back at me is Avani Gregg. She waves her signature coffin nails hello, her hair in the messy-but-still-perfect bun you see the cool girls wear on TikTok.
“Sorry, my name is still Clown Girl,” she says referencing her username with a smirk. Over a Zoom call, with more than 2,790 miles between us, it quickly becomes clear that this 18-year-old — originally known as Clown Girl — is the poster child for a new class of social media influencers who are, well, actually pretty relatable.
Today, Avani has 30 million followers on TikTok, a Messenger’s Watch Together show, a makeup collaboration in the works, and a book set to be published this year. But up until two years ago, the Brownsburg, Indiana native had different plans.
At 16, Avani was competing as a level nine gymnast, the second highest in the sport. Now a recent high school graduate, she tells me that by this time she expected to be training for the Olympics, not being interviewed for a Seventeen cover story. But when a career-ending back injury changed her plans, Avani found a different (and less physically demanding) competitive space to enter: the world of TikTok.
Well before the rest of the country went virtual in early 2020, Avani switched from attending Brownsburg High School to taking online courses in order to train for gymnastics (on weekdays, she would travel five-hours for a four-hour practice). So when she was injured, Avani spent her newfound free time online, as any teen would. With the sport she dedicated much of her life to out of the picture, she was feeling a whole slew of new emotions and found a new way to express them — doing her makeup.
“I’m not the person to communicate to other people well and tell them how I’m feeling. I'm used to doing it through art, and now I can do it through my face,” she explains. Yes, you can add drawing to Avani’s long list of talents. “I started to throw my artwork from paper to my face and I was like, ‘If I can draw a straight line on paper, I can definitely do it on my face.’”
Committed to this new hobby, Avani would spend hours at a time, on most nights from 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM, doing her makeup and posting short videos of the looks to TikTok. "I just wanted to do makeup all the time just to see what I could do,” she tells me. And what she could do, was pretty epic.
By June of 2019, those efforts paid off. Hokus Pokus, a song by a hip hop duo called Insane Clown Posse, was trending on the app when Avani decided to create a video using it. In the TikTok, she’s wearing no makeup as she says “clown check.” In true TikTok fashion, she transitions into a clown with special effects makeup as the song plays. “I went to bed, woke up, and it had two million likes already,” she says. That day, Avani went out with her friends only to realize she was no longer an everyday 16-year-old from Indiana. “People were coming up to me and I was like, ‘This is crazy, what is happening,” she laughs. Avani wasn't new to social media and had originally been on Musical.ly — a lip syncing app that became TikTok in 2018 — since she was 14-years-old. But with one video, she joined the ranks of the social media elite. “No one knew my name, everyone called me Clown Girl. I was just like, ‘Okay, well, I guess that’s my new name now.’”
Soon, Avani garnered a following of millions. In addition to the clown makeup that made her popular, Avani began to try new looks, and in doing so, found meaning behind what she was creating. She started experimenting with different makeup styles based off of characters and even her own emotions. “That brought more people to [my page] because they were like, ‘Oh, she's trying to show something and say something through this look,’ and I really liked that.” That's when Avani realized she was attracting a larger audience. “It just blew up like crazy. It was a really big high point for me.”
Just one month after Clown Girl took off, Avani found herself frequently flying from Indiana to Los Angeles. At that point she already had a manager, who she would stay with during the trips. At any given moment Avani would be asked to be in LA to meet with brands and attend events with other TikTok stars. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, she would get on a six hour flight to be there. With her mom, dad, and two sisters in Indiana, traveling back and forth wasn’t sustainable. “Eventually my mom was like, ‘Okay, you cannot be in LA by yourself anymore. We don’t like this, you’re only 16. We don’t want to do this anymore.”
That’s when Avani’s mom, Anisha, found a way to work remotely and got a one-bedroom apartment for the two of them in Los Angeles, while her dad and sisters stayed in Indiana. “It started to get hard because [my mom] was separated from everyone else and I was always out filming and making content,” Avani recalls. “So then my dad and my little sister moved out here and we lived with the four of us, plus my two dogs, in a one-bedroom apartment.” For Avani, the only thing that’s as important as creating content for her followers is providing for her family. Though critics, and even fans, often assume she came from wealth, Avani says that was not the case. "We didn't start off with anything really nice," she tells me of her family of five. "But now, I'm making sure everyone in my family can live the life that they want to live. That's the goal." Last winter, Avani's family moved from their one-bedroom apartment into a four-bedroom home in Los Angeles.
It’s impressive enough when you think of all that Avani has accomplished since 2019. It’s even more inspiring to know that she is just getting started. Now that she’s graduated high school, Avani is pursuing and creating opportunities in this fast-moving industry. This is a step she’s been waiting to take, but her mom made sure she finished high school first. If doing homework wasn’t already a drag, imagine having to do it while your friends are out and about in Los Angeles posting TikToks. “I would be sitting on my laptop during school like, ‘Why can’t I be out with them right now? This is not fair,” she says. “But I always had my mom to be like, ‘If you do not get your education, you will not be on social media. You will not do anything,’” she says. Since moms know best, Avani graduated in December and put college on hold to go straight to work.
And, for anyone (ahem, Boomers), that don’t think being an online creator is a "real job," consider this: One video could take eight hours — a full work day — to create. “It’s a lot more than people think because they don’t really see the background of it all,” she says. Sure, sometimes she’ll post quick, on-the-spot videos that take five to ten minutes. But on most days, she could film one makeup look that takes hours to make. And unlike most of us who have one boss, Avani has nearly 30 million — at least, that’s what it feels like. “When my videos aren’t doing good I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing something wrong. Am I going to get fired? I get so freaked out,” she tells me.
Overnight fame at 16-years-old? Check. Moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in content creation? Check. As glamorous as Avani’s life seems — and we haven’t even gotten to her also-famous boyfriend yet — her rise to stardom hasn’t been entirely without bumps in the road.
Like other TikTok stars, Avani has had to deal with online bullying and haters. She receives death threats and cruel comments, some trolls going as far as to message her sisters, too. Beyond cyber harassment, commenters also make frustrating assumptions about her race. “I’m African-American, Mongolian, and Indian, but [people] just like to throw my race out as white,” she says. She usually corrects them, but even then, some will refuse to accept her answer — which feels like a refusal to accept her for who she is. And while this could have broken her — she took a one week hiatus in July 2020, unsure if she would return to social media — in true Avani fashion, she found strength to keep going. “I was like, ‘Okay, you got a lot of bad comments, but look at your following. There are many people that follow you, love you and support you and everything. So it’s okay. I’ll get back on and I’ll go on with my day.’”
Avani's mantra is simple: “I’m just doing me and I’m trying to be as happy as I can be.” Though her special-effects makeup videos first caught the eye of millions, it was her personality that built her a loyal following of fans that feel more like friends and come to her for advice and pep talks too. She offers plenty of that in her talk show Here For It With Avani Gregg, where she invites fellow internet-famous friends like Charli D’Amelio and James Charles on to discuss life as a Gen Z-er. In one particularly vulnerable episode, she spoke with TikToker Madi Monroe about confidence and unapologetically being yourself.
When I ask Avani about this clip, I can feel her passion through the screen. "People say 'I can't believe you're so confident,' and I'm like, 'What's that supposed to mean? I'm not supposed to be confident?'" The idea of young women not feeling able to assert confidence does not sit well with her. “I don’t like saying be yourself because everyone says that, but I can’t find another saying for it,” she says, adding, “I want people to dig deeper into their emotions and be able to post more about how they feel through different ways.”
If Avani wants her followers to take one message from her, it’s this: “Show your confidence, I know you have it.” Still, Avani will be the first to admit that she goes through ebbs and flows in her relationship with herself. “My confidence has gone up, gone down, gone back up, and gone back down all throughout my time on social media.”
A relationship that comes easy for the influencer is with her boyfriend, Anthony Reeves. Though a total social media power couple — the two have a combined 20 million followers on Instagram — the content creators pride themselves on not making their content exclusively about one another.
The two met on social media (fitting) when they started following one another on Instagram three years ago. “When we started talking, we just didn’t feel the need to post,” she tells me. While most celebrities, and especially TikTok stars, wear their relationship statuses like a badge of honor, Avani and Anthony don’t seek that kind of validation.
“It’s like, ‘No, we actually like each other guys. We don’t care if you care. We like each other and we’re going to deal with it our way,” she explains. “I’ve been watching social media relationships my entire life and I’m just seeing people getting together, then breaking up over Twitter, and then getting back together and breaking up in a YouTube video.” Avani, who rarely even discusses her relationship, will give her followers just about everything except full access to her life with Anthony.
“Putting your drama out on platforms isn’t necessary, because then that’s allowing them to give feedback on your relationship,” Avani explains. Yes, you’ll see photos of the two on Instagram like that of any teenage couple, but that’s all you’ll get. “Behind the screen we’re living a really, really good life. And we just don’t really care if other people are part of that life.”
While Avani continues to live her life, she has a lot to look forward to in this new year. There’s her book, which she says is very special to her. “I really want people to learn where I came from, how I got here and everything,” she says, teasing to me that her book will do just that. Then, there’s her makeup collaboration with a leading beauty brand that is majorly under wraps. “It’s going to be very nice and something that I’ve been putting a lot of effort into,” she says. And of course, there’s the continuation of makeup tutorials, which is how we got here in the first place.
Before we end our Zoom call, I ask Avani if she wants to tell me anything else. “Yeah,” she thinks for a moment. “That I am doing social media for my followers."
To her, it's not entirely about the number likes, or the comments calling her a queen. It's about who's behind the screen. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages saying, ‘You are the only reason that I’m here today,'" she continues. "But you guys are the only reason I am here today. You never would think social media would take over your life, but it did, and I’m glad it did.”
In less than two years, she's gone from trained gymnast to online student to Clown Girl to now, finally, the person she's ready to be. And that’s on becoming Avani.
Photographed by: Ture Lilligraven, Style Director: Cassie Anderson, Stylist: Katie Collins, Hair: Glen Coco/PRTNRS MGMT, Makeup: Patrick Ta/PRTNRS MGMT, Nails: Kimmie Kyees/The Wall Group, Executive Editor: Kristin Koch, Deputy Editor: Danielle Tullo, Chief Visual Content Director: Alix Campbell, Deputy Visuals Director: Brenda Armendariz, Visual Production Coordinator: Emilie Benyowitz, Supervising Video Producer: Rachel Lieberman, Camera Operators: Elias Locke, Russ Ferguson, Video Editor: Deanna Govea, Graphics: Kelsey Fink, Courtney Chavez, Francisco Serrano, Entertainment Director: Maxwell Losgar, Location: Quixote Studios
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