Editor’s Letter: Inside the it-boy empire of Josh Richards

Editor’s Letter: Inside the it-boy empire of Josh Richards

In an era when a single post can earn an influencer with a large enough following thousands of dollars, the nature of celebrity has changed

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

During a recent chat with some fellow geriatric millennials—as my age cohort is so heartlessly called—one colleague seemed distressed: “Who isn’t a social media influencer these days?” she asked. The question was rhetorical, or at least I think it was. In any event, she was on to something. The list of Gen Zers seeking careers as TikTok professionals is growing by the day. Frankly, who can blame them?

What sane young person wants to slog it out in the gig economy when they can monetize their daily lives with a bit of choreography, some slick editing and trending audio? It’s not just teens tuning in: a 2022 study by the Social Media Lab at TMU showed that 65 per cent of Canadian adults follow at least one influencer. The income of these creators may surprise you: an influencer with a million followers can make as much as $10,000 per post.

The gold standard in this regard is Josh Richards, who graces this month’s cover. A few years ago, Richards was an unknown teen from Cobourg posting goofy clips on social media and praying they’d go viral. Today, he’s Canada’s richest TikToker and the fifth richest one in the world. He’s also a venture capitalist, the co-founder of a production company and the co-host of a successful podcast.

Right now, thousands of young Torontonians are abandoning their studies or fledgling careers to follow Richards’s trajectory. (A recent American survey found that one in four Gen Zers—a little over 27 per cent—plan to become social media stars.) It’s not without risk. Do they have the smarts, charisma, timing and daring to make it all work? How, in other words, does one pull a Josh?

TikTok influencer Josh Richards inside his LA home

That’s a question we handed to Katrina Onstad, one of our best profile writers. She’s a keen observer of human behaviour, devastatingly smart and very funny. Onstad hung out with Richards and his posse of strategists in LA. Their home is like an idea incubator meets content studio meets frat house. Richards spends his days there filming videos, thumbs-upping or ­-downing brand pitches and “ideating.”

To criminally understate matters, it’s working. Richards has nearly 40 million followers across various platforms who are obsessed with his every sound bite and gesticulation. It’s easy to dismiss his schtick as shallow or banal, but that would be a mistake. Richards is this generation’s Cary Grant or George Clooney, an international icon with hordes of swooning fans. But there’s one major difference: access. As Onstad writes, the celebrities of yesteryear were intentionally aloof, walled up in their LA compounds or Lake Como estates. They’d dole out the emotion on set but keep it all hidden in public. We went crazy for whatever scraps of their personal lives they’d throw our way—which helps explain the rise of paparazzi journalism. Celebrities like Richards, by contrast, are all about throwing open the doors to their followers. Authentic and vulnerable are the new manufactured and detached.

In that respect, Richards, exposing every foible and failing to his ravenous fanbase, is a canary in the generational coal mine. His brand is all about confidence and cool, yet the young man Onstad encountered was in the midst of an existential reckoning, grappling with the insatiable fame monster he’d created. The piece presents as a glossy celebrity profile, but it’s really a meditation on the state of idolatry in the social media age. Depending on how you read it—and how the many young people embarking on social media careers do—it’s either a celebration of ambition or a cautionary tale.

Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be reached via email at editor@torontolife.com.