TikTok turned Josh Richards from an ordinary small-town teen into a multimillionaire, CEO and venture capitalist. How to make a fortune via bedroom eyes, 10-second lip syncs and a signature ’do
By Katrina Onstad
photography by Michelle Groskopf
JOSH RICHARDS IS semi-sprinting down the stairs of his vast LA home. If you are under 30, this counts as a celebrity encounter. If you are over 30, the name Josh Richards is likely vague to meaningless—maybe that guy in IT? This Josh Richards has 40 million followers on social media, heads several start-ups and is 21 years old. When he extends a hand to the decidedly older legacy media reporter intruding on his crowded calendar, he is polite but wary, shaking a cloud of platinum-blond hair out of his eyes. This recent mane change is a big deal in the Josh Richards universe, prompting online comments like “Love the hair it’s giving Jack Frost” and “The hair is hairing.” He’s followed down the stairs by his bandana-wearing dog, Buddy, a Siberian husky he got off the internet. I nod, not admitting that I’ve already met her on TikTok. This happens a lot around Richards: because so much of his life exists online, and has ever since he first posted, at age 14, from his basement bedroom in Cobourg, there’s an uncanny feeling of familiarity in his presence—a kind of humming déjà vu, like hanging out with an avatar who has magically become a real boy.
Everyone in the house—and there are several people milling about, colleagues and friends and both at once—is there because of Richards. The house is a rental, for $21,675 a month, in the prosperous, sidewalk-scarce enclave of Sherman Oaks, with a pool out back, a synthetic hockey rink out front and the crisp, bland vibe of an upscale Airbnb inside. Personal touches include framed sports jerseys (Subban 76) and a retro video game console in the living room. Richards, who keeps his circle tight, shares the space with his childhood friend from Cobourg, Gavyn Stevenson, and fellow influencer Anthony Reeves, a Harry Styles lookalike from Kentucky who goes by the handle LuvAnthony. They met at 17, on a multi-city tour with fellow creators, fulfilling the selfie needs of paying teenage girls in convention centres and hotels. They hit it off instantly, even though, Reeves tells me, they’re total opposites. In what way? “I’m an f-boy, and Josh is family friendly.”
Well, yes. The Josh Richards brand, available in thousands of videos online, is affable bruh, Chalamet handsome and sexy but not threateningly so—a Gen Z archetype with what’s been called “generation–defining hair.” The constant is the smile: ear-to-ear and a little cocky, winking without literally winking. For those who’ve elected to sit out the cultural touchstone that is TikTok, it’s hard to overstate just how head-scratchingly slight his videos are. Richards lip-syncs (eight seconds). Richards lip-syncs shirtless, making a slightly lewd gesture (12 seconds). Richards and fellow TikTokers do a dance trend by a kitchen island (14 seconds). Richards…hand-jives? There are, of course, millions of attractive people hand-jiving online and following TikTok trends, and most of them make do with a couple hundred likes. Few achieve Richards’s 26 million followers on TikTok (plus millions more on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) and land a place on Rolling Stone’s list of 2023’s most influential creators. According to Forbes, Richards made $5 million in sponsorship deals alone in 2021. Today, he is estimated to be the fifth-highest earner on TikTok.
This outsized success can be attributed to a few things, including a sprinkling of good luck, starting with winning the genetic lottery. But reaching this tier of digital celebrity also requires labour—skill plus time. It takes a ton of work to make one’s life look like play. Though he sells bites of breezy, effortless Josh-ness, Richards gave over most of his adolescence and young adulthood to getting social media algorithms to work in his favour. And he is keenly aware that his followers, and his power to influence them, could slip away. So far, only a handful of young influencers have kept their grip for more than a few years, crossing over from TikTok and YouTube into the mainstream. Appetites shift fast in the digital age, but even in pre-internet times, a teen idol’s allure had the staying power of a popsicle in the sun.
At 21, Richards is busy hedging against obsolescence, getting in on start-ups like a mini mogul. Since the age of 19, he co-founded a VC fund, a dog food company with Snoop Dogg and an energy drink company called Ani. In 2021, he started CrossCheck Studios, a production company showcasing Gen Z talent. More than one person at CrossCheck described the company’s mission statement as the desire to “do dope shit.” On the day I visit, the staff of nine is gathered at the CrossCheck headquarters, which is Richards’s house, for a weekly check-in meeting. Richards, who has ADHD, plops down at the table but is constantly moving, even when sitting, flicking what appears to be Invisalign in and out of his mouth. (The company is a client.)
An existential conundrum—how to stay relevant—lurks beneath every item on the agenda. What’s the update on the new LoveLine-style call-in show featuring Richards, a sex therapist and superstar creator Dixie D’Amelio? (Shooting to start soon.) Can Richards please try this nutritional supplement to see if he wants to endorse it? (He double checks that it doesn’t have soy, because ugh, soy.) Where are we on ideating a pitch for the car-share company that wants to reach Gen Z? (Maybe Richards can get in the back of a car and date or not date whichever woman gets in next?)
The only person over 30 at the table is CEO and co-founder Chris Sawtelle, who is 35. He previously ran the digital department at global talent agency ICM, acting as agent to many young TikTokers, including Richards. Sawtelle’s fiancée jokingly said he was crazy to leave a 13-year career as a Hollywood agent and throw in his lot with a teenage Canadian. But he saw what was happening in entertainment—a massive market of young people who lived on their phones and were abandoning old media. “Celebrity is totally done,” he tells me. “Most people Josh’s age don’t know who Brad Pitt is.”
At 21, Richards is now angling to turn his TikTok fame into mainstream relevance
Yesteryear’s celebrity was often boosted by inaccessibility; mystery had currency. But the scarcity model of fame doesn’t fly with a generation that has grown up broadcasting its breakfasts and heartbreaks, carrying ostensible film studios in its pockets. Gen Z expects access and authenticity. Reclusive movie stars are no longer objects of infatuation. At best, they’re suspect; at worst, forgotten. And an influencer who embraces constant exposure, like Richards, offers a point of access for a huge market: Gen Z makes up 40 per cent of the global consumer population, a powerful cohort worth more than $475 billion.
Sawtelle is running the meeting, but heads turn to Richards over and over. He is sometimes quiet, but he’s in charge by design. On those early tours, Richards saw promoters making bank while creators earned as little as $2,600 for an entire summer of events. He realized that he and his friends could make more money, and have more control, if they cut out the intermediaries and worked for themselves.
Richards belongs to a generation that grew up being told they won’t own homes or be allowed to retire. Oh, and also, the planet is on fire. To many born into a world of such extreme inequality and precarity, traditional, medium-pay work—the old nine-to-five—feels archaic, if not pointless. In another time, this might have led to an uprising, or at least to a rejection of late-stage capitalist mores. But Gen Z also grew up in the era of the founder fetish, alert to the fantasy of college-dropout wealth and the CEO worship heaped upon Silicon Valley bros like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. The concept of “selling out,” a Gen X obsession, is obsolete. Why not just…sell? No wonder a 2022 survey of young Americans found that one in four planned to have a career as an influencer. Still, it isn’t always as glamorous as teens may imagine. In the second hour of the CrossCheck meeting, while everyone else is still ideating, Stevenson begins to put on an extra set of clothes: black pants, suspenders and giant puffy white gloves, like Mickey Mouse hands. As he slides a big yellow tube over his head, resembling a dollar-store Minion, somebody explains: “Oh, that’s Herbie the Hot Pocket.”
As part of a consulting gig, Richards and his team are trying to influence his vast audience to buy more Nestlé products, and Herbie is a Nestlé creation. Each Herbie video series takes the Hot Pocket on a new adventure. But what to do with Herbie next? The question, and it’s always the question, is: What would go viral? The narrative for the current campaign is that Herbie is trying to become an influencer. In today’s instalment, there’s a knock at the door in Sherman Oaks, and Richards opens it to find an empty stoop. Herbie—a microwave food with a mischievous streak, I guess—is hiding in the bushes. It takes only a few minutes and, presumably, earns CrossCheck thousands.
Video shot, Richards is off to work on scripts for his favourite new project: a sketch comedy show premiering on YouTube this summer. His career reflects the pace and tone of TikTok itself—frenetic motion, constant change—and, so far, it’s been an overwhelming success. Over the past seven years, he’s grown up with his fans, connected with tens of millions and built an intimacy that’s been handsomely rewarded. But 21 is approaching the Methuselah stage of the teen heart-throb life cycle, and he’s scrambling to crack a new code: longevity.
Richards wants to be famous for something besides selling access to himself, and he’s still figuring out what that is. If he gets it wrong, the internet will come down hard; it’s impossible to fail quietly with an audience of 40 million. If he gets it right and survives the churn of the moment that made him, Josh Richards could exemplify a new brand of celebrity—but can he do that and still become a real boy?
THE RICHARDS FAMILY lives in the brick house that Josh grew up in, on a quiet suburban block on the edge of Cobourg, a pretty lakeside town a little over an hour east of Toronto. There’s a truck in the driveway and a basketball hoop out front. The stock-photo tranquility of the setting is mirrored in Josh’s parents—Patti, a speech language pathologist, and Graham, who teaches mathematics at the same Catholic high school that Josh attended. They sit side by side in their tidy living room, beaming beneath framed school photos of their three fresh-faced kids. In one, little Josh wears a plaid shirt, grinning his signature grin. Josh’s brother, William—who is 14 and can’t remember a time when Josh wasn’t internet famous—is perched on a loveseat, watching closely. Again, that tingle of familiarity sets in: I’ve already seen the entire Richards family in TikToks, dancing and pranking for a few seconds at a time. I’ve been in this exact kitchen during Christmas.
Young Josh was a high-energy, spring-loaded extrovert. He officially received his ADHD diagnosis, combined inattentive and hyperactive, in Grade 7. He remembers his mom sitting him down to discuss medication. He told her that he didn’t want it. He liked being who he was: energetic, loud, funny, the class clown. It was a fun life. Why would he want to change that? So, instead, Patti fed him vegetables and special soups in an effort to help keep him calm. His favourite teachers let him stand rather than sit in class. He played all the sports but also liked to ham it up, re-enacting movies and TV shows with neighbourhood kids in his backyard, imitating Austin & Ally, ordering everyone around. “I literally would pray every single night: The name Josh Richards will be known. The name Josh Richards will be known,” he tells me.
The energy that wasn’t going toward sports got channelled into business. In Grade 6, he and Stevenson started a clothing company called Berserk Hockey, using an app to design T-shirts covered in hockey slogans and chirps and selling them at school. Josh used his share of the profits to start the next idea: charging his lacrosse teammates five bucks to restring a stick. Soon he was also offering custom dyeing. Math fascinated him. When he was four, he had the 12 times table posted in his closet, and he and his father would go over it every night. “I was in love with numbers,” he says. “When I started growing companies, I would always think about them in numbers. If I’m paying this much, how much do I need to sell? What’s my profit margin? How many customers do I need on a weekly basis, times 52 weeks in a year?”
Racking up social media followers was about numbers too. His sister, Olivia, got an account first, on Musical.ly, an early video-sharing app that was bought by TikTok. The app was just videos of people lip-syncing, and Olivia did a pretty good Adele. She bugged Josh to post, and so, one day in the spring of 2017, he did: 11 seconds of a baby-faced Josh in a purple Aeropostale sweatshirt, lip-syncing to a sped-up version of a Sean Kingston song. The response: flame emoji, heart emoji, smile emoji. Soon, Josh was figuring out how to growth-hack his account. He visited the comment sections of similar but more successful creators, operating on the principle that those fans might like him if they knew he existed. Then he’d go to a commenter’s profile, follow them, like 15 of their videos, go to the next commenter and do it again. “And I’d just do that to 500 people a day.” Many would, in turn, follow him.
The kid who had always been running around outside was suddenly in his bedroom for hours. His parents were wary but encouraging, even when he plastic-wrapped Graham’s car for a prank video. Another time, Patti remembers pulling in to the driveway to see an old TV tumbling out of the living room window, followed by a teenage body. Josh set a goal: if he got to 10,000 live followers by the end of the summer before Grade 9, he’d keep going. If not, he’d stop. Two days before school, he had 8,000. As usual, he made a trending lip-sync video and went to bed. In the morning, he woke up and saw that it had, at last, been featured. The video had 2,000 likes.
At the time, only top creators were regularly featured. “I’m freaking out, and then I look again at the likes, and it was 200,000 likes; it wasn’t 2,000 likes. So now my heartbeat is sitting at like 190. I’m, like, running on the ceiling, screaming. My parents are thinking I’m having a heart attack!” When Josh tells me this, he literally jumps. He’d more than doubled his goal and reached 24,000 followers.
But, after the high, a low. On his first day of high school, in a small town where sports ruled and online stardom was new and weird, Josh took a slagging in the halls. The bullies were mostly older kids, and they pelted slight, pretty Josh with homophobic slurs. This was both morally repugnant and inaccurate: Josh’s fanbase has always been mainly straight, adoring girls in thrall to his het-boy energy. Still, lunchtime that year meant 40 minutes of bullying—real-world preparation for a nascent online life.
To this day, Richards says he never reads the comments and advises everyone to do the same. “People can call me whatever they want. Like, I don’t care,” he says, adding that the high school bullying gave him tougher skin. “I was getting it to my face for four years. You think a little comment on social media is gonna do me that way?”
The money may also have helped ease the pain. He started running regular live events, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., talking to his fans in real time and answering their on-screen questions. His parents would listen at his bedroom door, a bit nervous, wondering why anyone would ask Josh about his favourite potato chips. In return, fans would send him monetary gifts—usually a buck or two. He was strategic, enlisting Olivia to work the comments, screening for questions from the highest gifters and the ones who would generate more engagement. He paid her a commission. Soon, he was clearing $600 to $1,000 a week, using his dad’s PayPal because he was too young to have his own. When Patti suggested that he apply for a job at Tim Hortons—she thought it would be a good life skill—Josh showed her the math: it would take months to make at Tim Hortons what he could make in a week online.
Instead, at age 17, he joined a tour, a travelling circus of TikTok and YouTube stars. The creators were mostly teenagers, like their fans. They came from around the US and Canada and had Gen Z names like Conner, Jaden, Chase and the other Chase. In convention centres and hotels in Phoenix, Houston and Seattle, Josh realized that his success had crawled out of the screen and into the real world. Girls between 10 and 16 were everywhere—all-access passes around necks, braces on teeth, toaster-size runners on feet. Sometimes they’d form a near–mosh pit, angling for photos and hugs, calling out, Jawwwwwwwsh! Josh was always a little surprised by the size of the crowds, sometimes a few thousand people in one place. In Cobourg, he’d never seen crowds like this, let alone ones that had gathered for him. He loved it.
The biggest creators were either on their way to LA or already there. Josh determined that, to get to the next level, he needed to collaborate—his numbers mingling with other creators’ numbers and ticking ever upward—and that meant leaving Cobourg. At the start of Grade 12, he sat his parents down and presented a business case for dropping out of high school. Patti says he had a list of everything he was going to do in LA, including how many hours he’d spend working his YouTube and TikTok channels. He promised to keep his room clean. He promised to call at least once a week. Such presentations were not unusual. This was a kid who, in middle school, had sketched out a multi-year plan to earn his first million on a whiteboard in his bedroom. Reluctantly, his parents allowed him to go, on the condition that he finish his final credits online. He agreed but didn’t keep his promise. Chasing fame, that intoxicating vapour, was all consuming.
WHEN RICHARDS arrived in LA, in the fall of 2019, young influencers were leaving their bedrooms and moving into content–creator homes like the Hype House and Clubhouse Beverly Hills. In these rental mansions, creators would live together, recording themselves and each other, nabbing brand sponsorships and riding one another’s numbers. What made these houses irresistible to fans—and to the corporations that hopped on board—was the prurient summer-camp vibe. It was next-level Big Brother: the inmates would surveil themselves.
Richards co-formed a talent-management company called TalentX and organized a group of his friends from the tour circuit into their own collab: Sway House, a 7,800-square-foot mansion on a quiet street in Bel Air. Sawtelle likens Sway to the ’90s iteration of the Mickey Mouse Club, the Disney talent incubator that gave rise to Britney Spears and Ryan Gosling, among others. “Josh was definitely the Justin Timberlake,” he tells me.
Of course, no one could sing or dance at Timberlakean levels, but a positive facet of social media celebrity is that it can be democratically achieved. TikTok avoids the usual cultural gatekeepers, celebrating a different kind of talent. (Often, its stars display no discernible talent at all.) Regular people with charisma and grind are anointed by fans—and algorithms—rather than selected by media conglomerates. Sway House included influencers such as Griffin Johnson, then 21, who was a nursing student from Illinois, and Anthony Reeves, then 18, who grew up in the woods in Kentucky. This strain of TikTok skews white, straight and materialistic. Richards’s content is almost pointedly apolitical, peppered with occasional altruistic gestures, like donating merch proceeds to the NAACP and handing out blankets to homeless people—all on camera, of course. But, as Gen Z icons go, Richards is no Greta Thunburg.
Maybe that’s part of the appeal. His corner of TikTok is largely free of culture wars and the aforementioned alarm over our burning planet—the radioactive waters that those under 20 have been swimming in since, well, they learned to swim. For most, spring of 2020 was a fever nightmare of pandemic death tolls and protests over the police murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, Sway was feeding lockdown kids a steady stream of good times: fratty, attractive young men goofing around, their romantic entanglements with equally hot young women blooming into an ecosystem as complex as any telenovela. Richards and Sway-er Bryce Hall scored a YouTube hit (44 million views) with a nominally hip-hop diss track called “Still Softish,” about a rival creator’s dick pic. Perhaps all of this was palliative, an escape from reality built on a simulacrum of reality.
“It was the best time of my life,” says Reeves. Even the Sway hair became a phenomenon. Johnson, on the phone from Miami, explains its evolution: “When we all started on TikTok, it was all about the middle part. And once we started Sway House, all of us got this floofy kind of hair.” Yes, floofy—fluffy and multi-directional on top with short sides. It is, essentially, a Covid grow-out. There is a large corner of YouTube dedicated to achieving this look. “It really is like a generational thing now,” says Johnson, “and Sway definitely started it.”
As the hair was getting bigger, so were the shenanigans. The parties and trash piles so aggravated neighbours that the New York Times reported on them, citing complaints of overflowing stacks of Amazon boxes and late-night chants of “Chug! Chug! Chug!” (Josh’s mom visited, saw the squalor and called Josh’s dad to say, “This is bad.”) The mayor of LA publicly condemned the collective for breaking lockdown rules.
“It was this false feeling of invincibility,” Richards tells me, a touch sheepish. “We were having 200 to 400 people over pretty much every night. It’s gonna lead to bad behaviour inevitably. You got people drinking around you all day long, people smoking, whatever else people are popping or doing. I got sucked in.” He’s vague when it comes to his own bad behaviour, but he was in the car when the Sway boys took a road trip to Texas and two members of the collab were arrested for pot possession. Richards was 18 years old, screwing up as 18-year-olds do, but every misstep was broadcast and viewed thousands of times. (After the arrests, #freesway trended on Twitter.)
“I literally would pray every single night: The name Josh Richards will be known. The name Josh Richards will be known”
Over the next few months, Richards had a reckoning. “Do I want to take this seriously and seize the lightning in the bottle? Take a chance on this one-in-seven-billion opportunity? Or am I going to throw it away?” He wrote a public mea culpa on Medium: “I let the fame get to me; I allowed the LA partying lifestyle to consume me; and I lost my way for a bit.” He wrote of his good deeds, including a speech about climate change, then called himself out for it: “I would often justify my wrongdoings by looking at the good things I have done, but that was just a mirage of self-aggrandizement and faux altruism.” He wrote that he had checked in with the tattoo on his wrist, from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Richards left Sway House shortly after the arrests. Brand opportunities were dwindling anyway, and the creators had taken a financial hit. Within a few months, the Sway boys scattered and the house shut down. Richards also exited TalentX, the company he’d co-founded that was behind Sway. “I don’t work with any of those people anymore.” I mention that a photo of him with his Sway crew was still on the TalentX website (it has since been removed), and his eyes cloud over. “I’m very glad that that relationship has ended. It was like a weight off my shoulders.”
Adjacent to the Sway split was a romantic one. Richards and his then-girlfriend, singer and influencer Nessa Barrett, broke up. This tailed into a possible love triangle involving Richards’s then–good friend, Jaden Hossler, one of the Sway boys who was arrested. Richards’s team calls this “The Drama,” and it was as rabidly dissected and debated online as chemtrails.
Redemptive, post-Sway Richards turned back to business and started thinking long term. The sting of bad partners still fresh, he retreated to his DIY ethos, pouring residual sponsorship earnings into new ventures. “I heard once, your money is your army, right? Each dollar is a soldier, and how do you make those soldiers work for you?” (This is a quote from Kevin O’Leary, investor and Dragons’ Den star, that became a meme.)
In 2021, he launched a VC fund with two other Sway guys, Griffin Johnson and Noah Beck, called Animal Capital. The fund would seek out companies appealing to Gen Z, and investors would give over their cash to tap the founders’ combined followers, 100 million potential customers—a nice base for any start-up. Advisers include the Winklevoss twins and Anthony Scaramucci. According to CrossCheck, the first round raised $15 million (US), the second $35 million. So far, of the companies that Animal Capital has backed, the one that gets Richards most excited is Colossal, a start-up experimenting with Crispr technology to reanimate the woolly mammoth. (How is this a Gen Z proposition, exactly? “Dude, come on! The woolly mammoth!”)
It’s hard to know how well any of these endeavours—all privately held—are doing, but certainly some have yet to bear fruit. Richards’s record deal with Warner Brothers hasn’t resulted in a record. A CrossCheck movie called Halloween Party, starring Richards, hasn’t been released. Richards was briefly the chief content officer of Triller, a TikTok rival, but his fans didn’t migrate, so he’s back on the Tok. The most measurably successful post-Sway move involves Dave Portnoy, the founder of the media outlet Barstool Sports. In 2020, Portnoy, who is 46, was on Twitter asking who the hell was this Charlie D’Amelio everyone was talking about? (She’s Dixie’s sister—duh.) TikTok was a foreign land to him. “I used to call them Wiggle Dickers—they just go in front of the mirror and dance with their shirt off and wiggle around,” he tells me. “And those are the cool kids now. It’s very strange.”
Richards had his people reach out and invite Portnoy for an IG Live where Richards would explain things. Those 10 minutes evolved into the podcast BFFs, which is self-financed and co-owned by the pair. Weekly on YouTube, fans tune in to watch Portnoy, Richards and influencer Brianna Chickenfry run down pop culture headlines together. The comedic engine is that Portnoy doesn’t get Gen Z references (one callback is his constant mispronunciation of famous influencers’ names) while Richards and Chickenfry are ignorant of Gen X touchstones (Vanessa Williams who now?). If one is not versed in influencer citizenry, it can be an impenetrable, dizzying listen—and sometimes quite funny. The episodes are over an hour, making this the most we’ve heard from Richards, who built his fame in 10-second increments, mostly mouthing other people’s words.
On air, Richards is a laid-back, generous co-host. In a recent episode, he asked thoughtful questions to drag queen Trixie Mattel while Portnoy muddled through—youthful comfort with difference won out over old-uncle bewilderment. The intergenerational pollination brings in good numbers: 514,000 subscribers and an audience that skews from 14 to 40. Portnoy knows that, when a teenage girl recognizes him, it’s because of Richards, whom he says is down to earth, funny, very self-aware and somebody who works extremely hard. The Wiggle Dickers are not to be taken lightly, he adds. “People drastically underestimate their star power. I see it. I feel it. I sometimes get frustrated by it. I worked 20 years, and then these people blow up overnight? So I can see some resentment. But they’re a force—there’s no doubt about it.”
And 10 years from now? “I think 95 per cent of them will disappear,” Portnoy says. “The top five will stay.”
Josh’s sister, Olivia, is 19 and studying kinesiology at Queen’s but spending the summer in LA working with her brother
THE ENGINE of influencer fame may be authenticity, but fans aren’t stupid—they recognize, on some level, that each post is an act of artifice. Anyone who’s ever shot a video (i.e., everyone) or watched reality TV knows that self-presentation is carefully posed and curated. Actual reality would be warty and uncomfortable and not a pleasant diversion. Consumers want real, but not too real. Which puts Richards in a strange position. He is famous for being himself, yet he can never totally reveal himself because real people aren’t always light-hearted, floofy-haired goofballs. The online image is cemented, but the person is changing. The lightness he’s built a career on is getting some shading, even some dark.
Reeves says that, while being roommates with Richards is a blast and usually involves a lot of dog-walking and anime in Richards’s room, there are also late-night talks when things get heavy. “He’s afraid to die. And he’s so young. He’s afraid to, like—I don’t know how to explain—almost grow old. He just doesn’t want it. He just wants to learn everything that he can and stay young as long as he can. But he is scared of death. We actually talk about it, like, once a week. He just brings it up.”
Last year, a friend of Richards’s died. Cooper Noriega was 19, a TikToker whose content skewed edgier: neck tattoos, dangling cigarette. Noriega spoke frankly about his struggles with drug addiction and mental illness. In June of 2022, he posted a TikTok with the words “who else b thinking they gon d!€ young af?” Soon afterward, he was found in a parking lot in Burbank, dead from an accidental drug overdose. Richards considered him a close friend; he’d appeared on BFFs a week earlier. When I ask Richards about this, he literally curls into his body and hangs his head. “It’s easier for me to put on a brave face and be the support system,” he says. “But I think it’s something that I probably haven’t really dealt with, that I probably have to.”
Lately, he’s been thinking about therapy, but he’s wary of it too, and he says he can’t imagine exposing himself to a stranger that way. I find this curious considering how much of himself he exposes on a daily basis. But one of the downsides of the bro culture these young TikTokers live inside is that it doesn’t leave much space for emotion or weakness. I wonder if it gets tiring, this constant containment. Certainly there have been periods when Richards hasn’t posted for a couple of weeks at a time. When he gets overwhelmed, he shuts his door and cranks music or writes in his journal. His friends notice that, when he’s not working, he’s not on his phone that much.
“I don’t want people to be able to ever be like, ‘Oh, Josh is very different in person than online.’ I always thought about that. How can I be myself? But I think that, naturally, walls have been put up over time through either just being hurt or—not, like, trauma…” He pauses, thinks, goes back to it. “Whatever happens in life, walls have been put up where it’s like, I need to keep that version of Josh. It’s always that battle of trying to be authentic online. And then also, you want some of your life to be for your life and not necessarily for everyone else.”
These are the kinds of struggles everyone works through at 21—the losses, the bad decisions, the Who am I really? But Richards is part of the first generation to become themselves with an audience. “People always ask, like, Oh, what happens if TikTok wasn’t here? If TikTok wasn’t here, I’d probably have less anxiety, honestly. I’d probably be a happier person,” he tells me. He knows that, despite the myriad products and projects, he’s still identified first and foremost with the video-sharing app of his youth. But he’s determined to break out of the box. “In a couple years, I’ll prove everyone wrong.”
“I don’t want people to ever be able to say, ‘Oh, Josh is very different in person than online.’ It’s always that battle of trying to be authentic”
The first big shift is already happening. This summer, Richards is set to debut a sketch comedy show, which he describes as Key & Peele meets Saturday Night Live, starring Richards, with appearances from other big-name creators. It will be distributed only on YouTube and TikTok. This is an old-fashioned pursuit, really, but perhaps the only thing left if you’ve already accomplished most of what you wanted at 21.
In the living room of the Sherman Oaks house, there’s a giant whiteboard covered in sticky notes breaking down sketches and characters. Richards spends a lot of time there, trying on characters, crafting jokes with a team of writers. For one episode, he invited Whitney Cummings, an established 40-something comedian who’s become an LA friend, to do a guest appearance. Cummings tells me that Richards was good with the crew, rewriting on the fly. His fame, she says, gives him the opportunity to be self-effacing, to take himself down a notch. It may surprise his fans that the sketch she’s in is, according to Cummings, a pointed critique of the rich in America. But she sees Richards’s comedic appeal as something in line with the image he’s been cultivating for years: joy bringer. “Josh is like, let’s just have fun and laugh and make the best of this nightmare situation we’re in called being a human being.”
In an odd way, comedy may allow Richards to keep a little more of himself. Making art is different from making influence: you show yourself not by showing yourself but by being someone else. You perform to reveal some greater human truth, something expansive, something you can get to only by swapping out your reality for another. For someone who has built an empire off of the self, this prospect must be exhilarating.
There’s always the chance that the comedy show will fizzle—an internet boy out of his lane is sure to whip up some scorn. Richards’s 40 million followers may not want to see him as anyone but who he’s been playing since he was 14—i.e., Josh Richards. I ask him what things might look like in 20 years, when he’s all of 41.
“My dream of all time is me and five of my best friends go out and buy at least 100 acres of land together. And then we divvy up the land, and we build our own houses on there. And then we can just raise our kids together and dirt bike. We build our own little—What’s that called, our own little community?” A commune? “Yeah, exactly. That’s the goal. I want to do that. I want to just be chilling with my friends, hopefully still just being able to make whatever art I want to make, whatever it is.”
Whatever it is will be delivered on a platform that has yet to be invented, and the one that has made Richards famous will, in all likelihood, be obsolete. Some version of this has always been true: what defines most of us at 21 is forgotten by 41; our ambitions shift, the world changes. Richards’s imagined future reminds me that his generation’s coming of age is both historically unique and completely ordinary. There will be an online Richards upgrading and evolving, keeping up with the demands of the digital maw, and then there will be this other one on the horizon, riding a dirt bike, both of them open to all the possibilities.