The TikTok Star Living in His Car
20 million page views doesn't pay the rent
Welcome to Issue #17 of CAFE ANNE!
So this week’s profile is a little darker than the usual CAFÉ ANNE fare. What can I say. This wonderful world is only 50% pizza and unicorns, but it’s always strange and often surprising. I hope you enjoy meeting Smithson Michael, a TikTok star who is living in his car.
In other news, if you want some BIZ ANNE along with your CAFÉ ANNE, please check out my new bi-weekly column, Chasing Giants, which launched last week in Crain’s New York Business. I’ll be profiling tiny NYC startups that are going up against industry Goliaths. So fun!
Finally, as always, I love to get your story ideas and suggestions. Please email me at email@example.com.
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE
• Weird Trash Photo #13
• Items of Interest
• Feature: The TikTok Star Living in His Car
Weird Trash Photo #13
Reader Tim C. on the Upper West Side emailed recently with the subject line, “Disney Photo?”
He’d spotted this compelling trash scene at the corner of West End Ave. and 105th Street:
“In some sense, the clock and the kitchen counter look like a down-on-their-luck couple,” he wrote. “In another sense, did this clock wander off from a Disney cartoon?”
Funny, I had the same reaction—that the clock and sink look like a couple. But maybe they are “just friends.” We probably shouldn’t embarrass them by speculating.
Please send your weird trash photo to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include it in a future issue.
Items of Interest
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The TikTok Star Living in His Car
I first met Smithson Michael last spring when I interviewed him for a story about people who were having trouble landing a job, even while companies like McDonald’s were offering $1000 signing bonuses. We met in the Bronx, and it wasn’t until halfway through our two-hour chat that Smithson revealed why he wanted to conduct the interview on what seemed like a random traffic island. He was keeping an eye on his little white Nissan to keep it safe from the repo man. He was living in his car.
“I’m not sure how this is going to turn out,” he said, “but I do know I can’t keep going like this.”
He asked me to keep his living situation out of the article, and I agreed. I’ve thought of him often since then, and was happy when he emailed out of the blue earlier this month to suggest a follow-up interview.
Since we last met, he wrote, he’d become a TikTok star. His viral videos had garnered 20 million views and he’d appeared in news stories around the world. Did I want to hear more?
We arranged to meet in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, but he texted the morning of our interview to say he couldn’t make it down. We agreed to meet on Zoom instead. He dialed in from the front seat of his Nissan.
“Meeting you was the precursor to madness!” he said.
“Everyone tells me that,” I said.
I hadn’t watched his TikTok videos yet—I thought it’d be more fun if we watched them together. We started with the video from last June that launched his TikTok journey.
The video, about a minute long, shows Smithson in his car, talking directly into the camera. A mask dangles from one ear. He looks spent.
“Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates. I just spent an hour driving around for a $1.19 tip and $2 from the app. What’s that? That’s not enough to cover gas,” he says in the video. “How am I supposed to survive on that? Homeless—I’m there. I just wish people knew what it was like, understood what it’s like to drive for these services.”
I know several people, including my nephew, who are plenty happy driving for companies like DoorDash. But Smithson’s video struck a chord, garnering 1.4 million views, 278,000 likes and 18,500 comments. A typical response: “I FEEL THIS!” Nearly 15,000 signed his Change.org petition demanding better conditions for delivery drivers.
Smithson remembers the delivery that inspired the video. He picked up five bags of groceries from the Garden Gourmet supermarket, got stuck in traffic and had to double park before lugging the sacks up four flights of stairs to a customer on Wadsworth Avenue.
It wasn’t specifically the $1.19 tip that set him off, he says—it was the small tip coming on top of all the $0 tips and $1 tips and $1.50 tips on big orders, especially in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, which includes some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
“Every day, it’s the same thing…I’ve got debt piled up, student loans piled up, I can’t pay for this car, I’ve got nowhere to go,” he said. “I felt like, ‘I’m never going to get out of this.’”
He was surprised when the video went viral. TikTok doesn’t pay creators much—a million views earns about $50. But some followers sent donations, and he was able to rent a room for a short spell. “I was so overwhelmed, I started to help people,” he said. “I started going around helping out homeless people.”
He also had the strange experience of getting recognized around the neighborhood: “Hey!” people called out. “I saw you on TikTok!”
But the notoriety had a downside. He got some flack from folks who were jealous of his success, he said, and assumed he was flush with cash. Which was hardly the case. “You can have 100,000 followers and be broke,” he said. By November, he was back to living in his car.
Then he produced an even bigger hit.
In this video, Smithson does not speak. It simply shows him doing getting ready for the day in the front seat of his Nissan—shaving, applying deodorant, mopping his face with a wipe, donning a clean white tee-shirt. A caption reads, “I am determined not to let this break me.”
Smithson watched me watch the video.
“Were you expecting that?” he said. “You okay? Yeah.”
I am not the first to feel moved by the video. It got 5.7 million views, 1.2 million likes and 11,700 comments, mostly words of encouragement: “Keep strong bro. You’ll have a better life soon.”
“Look how clean he is! Imagine how clean how his house will be!” wrote another.
“Listen,” said Smithson. “If you would have told me 10 years ago, ‘You're going to be filming yourself shaving and wiping yourself with baby wipes in the car on a social media app,’ I would have said, ‘Man, get the hell away from me! What's wrong with you, man? Why would you say something like that?’ But my response now would be that life can take an unexpected turn. So be grateful for the fact that you’re alive. Never give up. That’s what the point of the video was.”
Most TikTok stars make money from company and product endorsements. I asked Smithson if he was contacted by any potential sponsors after this second video went viral.
“No, not one,” he said. “And I got 20 million views from November until now. Not one freaking company has reached out to me.”
He blamed this largely on the fact that he had not yet been “verified” by TikTok with a blue check next to his handle, @itssmithsonmichael—an indication that someone is noteworthy enough to merit identity authentication.
“I need that blue check,” he said. “I need that life changer, man. I deserve it.”
We’d had been talking a long time. I suggested we continue the next morning.
“So the struggle continues,” he said. “Yeah, it does. So I guess tomorrow morning.”
That evening, I watched all 71 videos on Smithson’s TikTok channel. They range in length from a few seconds to roughly a minute. Some garnered just a few hundred views, but most have been seen by 50,000 to 500,000 people, and four broke the 1,000,000 views mark.
They’ve evolved since November as Smithson experimented with different strategies, ranging in tone from the miserable to the inspirational. Some are just fun. My favorite shows him dancing in a parking lot to Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and slipping on the ice.
I took notes as I watched: “Showing off a new hairstyle…looking sad in his car…he is always alone…more grooming in car—tweezing, plucking, brushing his teeth…playing guitar...faith in God…walking on beach with a guitar…dancing to Michael Jackson…dancing in parking lot in front of John Deere tractor…lip syncing in parking lot…more shaving…throwing snowball at camera in parking lot…more shaving…”
I considered the fact that he had 20 million views, 2.4 million likes and 124,400 followers. That’s not quite the major leagues in TikTokland, but really, it’s a quite lot of anything. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like to have that many people following your life. On the other hand, it’s also hard to imagine what it’s like to be living in a car.
We met on Zoom again the next morning—me in my home office, Smithson in his car. He was not in a good mood. “I’ve got a rough day ahead of me,” he said. “I got no gas and no hope right now except for the belief that things are going to get better.”
He brightened when he offered some fresh news: while he was still waiting to hear from TikTok, he’d just been officially verified on Spotify after uploading an original guitar tune he’d recorded on his phone. “Everyday Queen” is about an ordinary officer worker’s daily grind.
“So that’s one verification check down,” he said. “I know I'm gonna get verified on TikTok. It’s only a matter of time. I’ve just got to hang in there, keep my car.”
I asked him who he’d like to get as a sponsor.
“Honestly, you know what would be the dream company? It would be Martin Guitars or Fender Guitars,” he said. “Come on, man. That's every musician’s dream right there.”
I suggested that with all the grooming videos he’s made, he should try for a Norelco sponsorship. I also told him about my campaign to get CAFÉ ANNE sponsored by Café Bustelo.
He suggested a few lines I could use when endorsing my favorite coffee: “Without this coffee? Oh man, I don’t know HOW! Is there any other cup of coffee? Listen, that’s it, man! Bustelo!”
I laughed and laughed.
Smithson is smart, attractive and funny. I imagine there are complicated reasons explaining why he lives in a car. But he didn’t want to delve into his past. He doesn’t see any of the big TikTok superstars going on about their history, so why should he? “Nobody cares about that,” he says. “They only care about what’s going on now.”
I do know, from our interview last year, that he grew up in a small city north the Bronx, spent time in the Marines and attended some college. He’s worked as an ambulette driver, in a lumberyard and, of course, as a delivery driver.
So what’s next?
“Whether I had these followers or not,” he said, “I could still go viral again. It’s not the followers. It’s not TikTok. It’s not the internet. It’s me. I’m the one who made this happen. So if I keep going, everything I want is going to happen. Just like this all happened unexpectedly, it’s going to happen again. But this time, it’s going to be so glorious, it’s going to be so big. I’m going to have a million bucks in my pocket. I’ll pay for this car, I’ll get a nice place to stay, I’ll get a nice wardrobe and some musical equipment.”
“And I’ll be able to help the people on the street,” he continued. “See that guy sleeping on the street? ‘Hey buddy, hey, I’ve done this. Here’s $100. Don’t worry about it.’”
He encouraged me to keep going, too. “You deserve to have your sponsorships! You deserve to have money in the bank! Why? Because you’re putting the work in. Clearly, you deserve it.”
“Well I’ll be rooting for you,” I told him. “Hopefully, this won’t be our last interview.”
He nodded. “I have faith,” he said. “I believe that something is getting ready to happen to me.”
I was out at the museum the next evening when I got a text from Smithson. He had forwarded me an email he’d just received from TikTok. “Our team has reviewed your account @itssmithsonmichael,” the email said, “but it does not fit our verification requirements at this time.”
“So now, I don’t know what to do,” he added in his text. “Never felt so defeated before.”
I felt concerned after our exchange. But over the weekend, I checked up on Smithson’s TikTok account. He had added a new video, focusing on his Spotify verification and the new single. “It’s the precursor to my upcoming debut EP,” he posted. “It’s scary and exciting at the same time. What a time to be alive.”