The TikTok Star of Washington Square Park
It was a beatnik hub in the 1960s, a drug bazaar in the 1980s and, for much of the past two centuries, a rallying point for counterculture.
But these days Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village can feel more like a giant TikTok studio. If the weather is nice, you may stumble upon a 20-something TikToker named @itslinklauren (33,000 followers) taking off his blue polo shirt and frolicking in the park’s fountain. Or a young guitarist named @alexandra_starr (189,000 followers) who serenades parkgoers in a sequined camisole.
The most TikTok-famous is arguably Davis Burleson, a 20-year-old dropout of the New School whose person-on-the-street show, “What’s Poppin? With Davis!,” has more than 2.1 million followers. Fans include Camilla Cabello, Iggy Azaelia and Kate Hudson.
Over his show’s 18-month run, Mr. Burleson has swanned from a new-to-town college student to a social media celebrity who gets recognized by strangers, invited to fashion parties and has sponsorship deals with companies like Coach, Nike and Neutrogena.
His TikToks follow a well-trod formula: He ambushes someone in the park and asks deep-but-not-deep questions like: “How would you describe your personal brand?”; “What’s the most interesting thing on your Notes app?”; “Do you have any regrets?”
The tone is sparkling and high energy, with lots of vocal fry and up-talk. The answers are raw and often surprising, like the young man who had an X-rated reply when asked, “What are the top three photos on your phone?” The editing is rapid-fire. Many videos are about 20 seconds long.
“On my show, I want zero seconds of silence,” Mr. Burleson said.
In the best episodes, he draws out his subjects with sharp follow-up questions and witty repartee. It’s like overhearing two Gen Z besties who just met.
Like so many creative projects these days, Mr. Burleson’s TikTok journey began in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. He was a 17-year-old high school senior in Houston and posted a 15-second video of himself doing the latest viral dance. He was hooked and began posting every few days: a quick-change video of his graphic T-shirt collection; humorous riffs on red carpet looks; grumbling about his Postmates gig.
By the time he moved to New York City that fall, to study photography at the New School, he had about 100,000 followers.
The founders of Fallen Media, a short-form content studio in the Flatiron section of Manhattan, stumbled upon his videos and were impressed by his bubbly personality and fake-it-till-you-make-it determination.
“He was super-animated on camera — very funny,” said Sol Betesh, 25, the chief executive of Fallen Media. “He had a ton of confidence, which is No. 1 when you’re trying to make an on-the-street show.”
The studio paired him with a writer, a field coordinator, a videographer and an editor. Mr. Betesh is the producer.
The first video to pop off was Episode 55, in which Mr. Burleson approaches two 20-something women in sweatshirts and sneakers. “Were you unpopular or popular in high school?” he asks. One woman drolly replies, matching his sass: “Not popular.” The conversation pivots to her necklace, which spells out an expletive, and how a “creepy man” sniffed her on the subway last week.
“It was just a little quick sniff,” she added.
Viewers couldn’t get enough of the interaction. “I claim this swaggy energy,” one wrote. “I think we all just kinda fell in love with her,” another wrote. The video has more than 22 million views — and brought in more than 100,000 followers in the first week, according to Fallen Media.
The show, now approaching its 500th episode, has settled into a rhythm. Twice a week, Mr. Burleson meets his team at the hot-dog stand near the fountain and records a batch of episodes for two to three hours. Each interview takes about two minutes. Mr. Burleson works on the questions beforehand with his team, and often comes up with his own on-the-fly. The videographer records the exchange with a Nikon Z7 II mirrorless camera; the coordinator fields the area for interruptions.
Mr. Burleson, who declined to say how much money he makes from the show, now gets invited to the types of parties he used to riff about from his childhood bedroom. In April, he hosted a live TikTok show before the Grammys for CBS. In May, Instagram invited him to its Met Gala viewing and after party. In August, he was hired by the fashion brand Ganni to create content for its Instagram and TikTok accounts during Copenhagen Fashion Week.
As his extracurricular schedule begin to fill up, Mr. Burleson decided not to return to college this fall. “Why not take the opportunity to learn this way?” he said. “I feel like I turned 25 overnight.”