The video that changed Alaya High’s life is, by production standards, rather elementary.
Shot on a phone, handheld at a slightly off-kilter angle, it shows the tiny 11-year-old girl as she sits in the passenger seat of her father’s car. It looks, in fact, like the sort of video every parent has taken in the spur of the moment. Footage fired off to a spouse or a grandparent, meant for a space no more public than a group chat, destined for an emoji reaction or, if the recipient is feeling generous or a little bored, a follow-up question. The content, though, is pretty extraordinary.
Lay Lay, as she calls herself, is rapping with the talent and tenacity of someone twice her age. A speck of a thing, she’s checking herself out in the car’s visor mirror (“Hold on, Daddy, lemme make sure my edges on fleek and my lip gloss is drippin’ “) before she launches into the three-minute-long freestyle that introduced her to the world. “Little boys don’t play me/No Reeboks just J’s please … Tweety Bird, Bugs Bunny, can’t never be a dummy/Takis always hurt my tummy.” Her father’s simultaneous pride and bewilderment as she flows is palpable, and the comments on the clip that would go on to garner millions of views in a matter of weeks are those of disbelief.
Now, barely five years later, Lay Lay’s dad, Acie High, is the one in the passenger seat, this time in his daughter’s new G-Wagen as she drives them to Icon Studios in Atlanta’s West Midtown. The 16-year-old runs her own multiplatform empire, forging a path for a new kind of child star — one who is self-made, self-grown and only then turning to Hollywood to unlock another level of success. Lay Lay fronts her own self-titled Nickelodeon show and is the beacon for the studio’s renewed strategy to work with social media fame instead of in opposition to it. Why try to beat virality when you can co-opt it?
It’s easy to remember a time when Nickelodeon was churning out new child stars as quickly as the Oakwood Apartments could turn over its sublets: Jennette McCurdy, Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Melissa Joan Hart, Josh Peck, Nat and Alex Wolff, JoJo Siwa. The star-making factory found kids they could mold, and while it worked well, it required more of a leap of faith and relied entirely on the taste of the adult executives. “I grew up watching and loving Nickelodeon, but I didn’t see someone like me on TV, I didn’t see someone like me on Instagram,” says Lay Lay, hanging out in one of the mixing rooms at Icon Studios, surrounded by her father, her younger brother and her publicist. “So I decided to become it.”
Nick’s current execs are aware that they can no longer replicate a type, look or sensibility ad nauseam; the audience is too savvy not to notice. Hit live-action kids shows are more rare now, especially compared with the animated space (out of 27 currently airing shows across Nick and Nick Jr., 19 are fully or partially animated). “Now more than ever, there’s a level of sophistication and expectation that happens at earlier and earlier ages,” says Zack Olin, co-head of live-action series and films at Nickelodeon. “It’s because they can watch whatever they want, whenever they want.” According to Olin, the children watching these shows are most passionately looking for representation and authenticity as well as for programming — and stars — that reflect their culture, their point of view and the lives they have or hope to have.
The most surefire way to give them that is to build a franchise around talent’s real-life personas. Beyond That Girl Lay Lay, one of Nick’s highest-performing brands is Tyler Perry’s Young Dylan, a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-style show starring Dylan Gilmer, a 14-year-old rapper who first gained notoriety after his father posted him rapping on Instagram. Gilmer releases original music as part of a separate record deal, writes his own raps for the show and has hosted shows for Nick like NFL Slime Time Live. When Young Dylan — Tyler Perry’s first foray into producing kids’ content — premiered in 2020, it garnered Nick’s largest ratings for a series premiere in three years and now reaches 1 million viewers a month on linear and streaming.
“[Dylan and Lay Lay] not only had star quality and magnetism, but they already had a real relationship with their audience,” says Shauna Phelan, executive vp and co-head of live action at Nickelodeon. “And we realized immediately that we could grow a business around them.” Adds Olin: “They possessed a clarity of their own vision of where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do; that clarity is the perfect complement to [talent] you might call the ‘X factor.’ “
That Girl Lay Lay is part of Lay Lay’s overall deal with the studio that encompasses programming, music initiatives and a consumer product line of books, toys, clothing and even a doll, all promoting the outgoing personality that she broadcasts to 4 million followers across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Though the plot of That Girl Lay Lay is fictional (she plays an affirmation app avatar come to life), the character walks, talks, acts and dresses like its real-life inspiration.
For Nickelodeon, executives say, it’s all part of a live-action development strategy that’s less about manufacturing stars from scratch than expanding a brand that has already been built. In fact, a year before her 2018 freestyle video went viral, Lay Lay had met with the studio — unsuccessfully. She’d been performing to some degree for as long as she could walk and talk; her father had his own rap career, releasing two albums in 2014, giving her an early taste for the business. She spent her earliest childhood watching him work, putting on intra-family rap battles, reading scripts and taking acting classes. High noticed his daughter’s talent and growing obsession with personality-centric kids’ programming (That’s So Raven reruns were her favorite) and managed to get her into a room with studio executives. The group — which he describes with a tinge of irony as “everybody we know now” — turned her down, so he pivoted, dedicating himself to building his daughter into something undeniable.
High posted that fateful homemade clip on his daughter’s social media profiles on May 15, and by early August she was touted as the youngest solo artist ever to sign a recording contract with a major record label; Empire, the brand credited with releasing albums by Migos, Anderson .Paak and Trinidad James, saw something that Nickelodeon hadn’t (yet). Music manager Cooper Wilson, who spent two years as a PA on the Nick action-comedy series Supah Ninjas and kept in close touch with his contacts there, then got Lay Lay an audience with Paramount and Nickelodeon president and CEO Brian Robbins.
Lay Lay’s newfound celebrity gave her an extra boost of confidence. “I’m not going to lie. I went in there and told that man I wanted my own TV show,” she says of her pitch to Nickelodeon execs. But she also offered the channel a ready-made path. She had a personal brand, and it had the infrastructure to take it further.
If there’s any sort of formula for child fame today, it’s rooted in social media. Instagram and TikTok are, in some sense, the great equalizers for young people hoping to become known: Anyone with a phone has a shot with the algorithm. See Addison Rae or Charli D’Amelio’s dancing, which made them two of the most-followed people on TikTok, with approximately 150 million for D’Amelio and 89 million for Rae. (This massive viewership has in turn morphed their socials to sponcon gold mines; their most recent videos are a Get Ready With Me sponsored by Skims and a lip-syncing one sponsored by Hanes, respectively.) But viral video dancing isn’t necessarily the same kind of talent that is going to translate in an audition room or a meeting with studio executives, so youth often lean into the spaces where virality is both highly democratic and highly inexplicable.
Sherry Kayne, a kids’ talent manager with clients like Quvenzhané Wallis, Fleishman Is in Trouble’s Meara Mahoney Gross and Young Dylan, believes that for those with a singing or acting craft, Hollywood is and always has been the endgame — and that being a digital creator is just a stop on the way there. “They recognize that social media brings instant gratification, celebrity status and sometimes good brand deals, but it’s a portion of their journey and not where they want to land,” she says, adding that true talent always wins in the end. “Casting will choose the best person for the role and not the one with the highest follower count,” says Kayne, noting the exception often indicates desperation. “If a production is looking to cast an influencer in their film, it means they need your followers more than you need their project.”
When High is asked to contrast the fame of larger social media stars to his daughter’s career, he uses the term “microwaved” to describe those moments in the spotlight, and it feels apt. It’s so microwaved, in fact, that young influencers, even with all their digital clout, are still striving to pivot to legacy media. Rae found her way onto season 20 of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and nabbed a starring role in the Netflix gender-flipped remake series He’s All That. D’Amelio has her own family-focused reality show on Hulu and reportedly will be making her acting debut in the still-undated horror flick Home School.
“There’s something really unique about being on a [TV] screen that still fuels a dream and aspiration for kids, and I don’t see that dwindling,” says Nickelodeon’s Phelan. “Even if people can create their own audience, content and fate through social media, there’s something rarefied in the world of being the star of a TV show or movie.” It’s in Nickelodeon’s interest for this to be true, but Kayne sees this same sentiment with her clients; they believe there’s better payoff in Hollywood but also more gratification in learning a craft and seeing that craft show up onscreen. “They love training hard, nailing an audition and getting to be part of a project that will be enjoyed across the world forever — and not just for 24 hours on an Instagram story,” she says. “[Pure] social media stardom is so much pressure; followers come and go and algorithms can change everything very quickly.”
With the shelf life of TikTok fame as yet undetermined, the prospects of a long career based on linear kids’ content still look promising — in some ways even more so than for previous child stars. Streaming platforms have introduced a greater re-discoverability — Nick reports that The Thundermans, its sitcom about sibling superheroes that originally aired from 2013 to 2018, became a top 10 show on Netflix in 2022 — and those ratings boosts combined with a still-vital reboot culture offer projects (and their stars) a strong staying power. They no longer have to worry about aging out of the system permanently. Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell are currently filming a sequel to the original 1997 Good Burger movie; Miranda Cosgrove’s iCarly reboot just dropped its third season on Paramount+ 11 years after the original series finale; and over at Disney, 37-year-old Raven-Symoné, of 2003’s That’s So Raven, is currently starring in the network’s longest-running spinoff series, Raven’s Home (it’s wrapping its sixth season).
Overall deals like the one Lay Lay is under put child stars in positions of greater creative power than ever before, but her path to the top was partially paved by her father’s foresight — something that is potentially more valuable than millions of followers. After she presented her unfiltered vision for television stardom, High stepped in to negotiate on her behalf. He was mostly concerned with keeping her image intact, both for her emotional protection and to ensure the life span of her brand. “I didn’t want her to play a role — I wanted the role to be her,” he says. “She was already on the internet talking about positivity, and as she’s growing older, being herself onscreen helps her keep her mind the way she needs it to.”
He knew from the jump that he had more leverage than the studio did because she was already selling out concert tours and had “crazy high” social media engagement; he says he felt comfortable asking for exactly what they wanted in terms of making the character look and sound like just like Lay Lay. Finding the right showrunner — in this case the late David A. Arnold, the longtime comedian and producer who was one of the few Black showrunners at the time of his death in 2022 — was integral in maintaining the vision. “David, may he rest in peace, studied her and then let her be her,” says High. “He’d say, ‘She can wear her hair like that, she can keep her nails, she can do positive affirmations on the show just like she does on the internet.’ “
Though she lives in Atlanta, Lay Lay shoots her show in Los Angeles for 30 to 40 weeks out of the year. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to report to set at CBS’ studios in Burbank. Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays are rehearsal days, filming happens on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a new script arrives Wednesday evenings for the next morning’s rehearsals. From the moment she arrives on set to the minute she leaves (typically at 5 p.m.), she is busy — whether it’s wardrobe, hair and makeup trials, recording music, approving music, watching an episode and giving notes, or doing a lesson with her homeschool tutor. “You’re needed in every area when you’re the star,” she says. “Sometimes I wish I was an extra because they look like they be having fun.”
Weekends are for concerts (performing, not attending). On Friday evenings, she flies to the designated city, and on Saturday before the show, she’ll do VIP meet-and-greets, for which concert attendees pay $175 per person to get a picture and an autograph. She has time built into her calendar for the professional shoots that provide content for her social channels (which her father and Nickelodeon’s social team manage). If she’s “feeling risky,” she’ll squeeze in a stop in Atlanta before reporting back to Los Angeles to start the week again. Lay Lay manages this organized chaos by requesting her family keep to a “no-talk” rule in the mornings — while she zones out to her current favorite album, Gumbo, by Young Nudy — and that her team keep to a one-thing-at-a-time rule when it comes to clueing her in to her obligations: “I don’t want to just sit there and ponder over stuff I have to do.”
While Lay Lay is in a lane all her own, her career has similar contours to her fellow (former) Nickelodeon star Keke Palmer, who first signed a record deal with Atlantic in 2005 at age 12 before fronting her own show True Jackson, VP in 2008. Palmer also has been vocal about what she sacrificed to serve her career, and those downsides continue to show up in Lay Lay’s era. In a January episode of the Las Culturistas podcast, the 29-year-old told hosts Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers that her childhood felt like working a corporate job: “There’s an element of ‘the man said so,’ and that fame felt a lot like trauma.” She added, “Everything in the family structure goes toward helping to support that child. Who told my parents how to raise a child entertainer making millions? No one.”
Brand-fronting stars of her caliber may have more leverage and power, but no one is immune from the mental over-demands of the business. Lay Lay and her father are quick to note that the mental toll of overworking remains an unspoken topic inside the rooms where, ironically, the conversations should be happening the most. “This job comes with fame and money, but they don’t talk about what it takes from you, especially as a kid,” says Lay Lay. “There’s a lot that I feel like I missed out on, and I feel like [the industry] should talk more about how it really is.” Lay Lay tries to push back on the constraints in small but meaningful ways — she’s taking her time going through (homeschool) high school because it requires the studios to give her breaks throughout the day. “[Social media] shows the money side, and the jewelry side, but it doesn’t show you being up until 5 in the morning, or flying home from shows and having to go right to set,” she notes.
Money has given them a better life — they’re building a house on acres of land outside of Atlanta — but Lay Lay still very much seems like the girl from the video. She’s graduated beyond “on fleek” but still loves lip gloss. She’s in a fancier car, but she’s given it a silly name (Rubi Rose, after the rapper). She’s as comfortable articulating her opinions to the renowned photographer at her cover shoot as she was instructing her father behind the camera years ago. She has her eye on even more expansion now: She’s started to direct music videos for her younger brother (an aspiring rapper), with visions for something behind the camera on a bigger scale, and she’s even written a script (though she isn’t ready to share more on that yet).
Asked when she first felt famous, she says, “I still don’t feel famous; I would say I’m known. I’m popular. But famous? I’m not quite there.” She believes that the reason she isn’t capital-F famous is that she’s taking the route of the slow burn, rebuffing opportunities for shortcuts (like keeping her rap lyrics clean, when explicit content is a formula for a quick hit) for the sake of doing things, as she sees it, the right way. “It takes a bit longer to get there this way, and that’s OK,” she says as she steps her Balenciaga sneakers into her Mercedes. Being just “known” still looks pretty good.
This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.