How Cringe Creators Make a Living on TikTok

As a concept, cringe is deceptively hard to describe. As a content category, cringe is vast, encompassing everything from dated cultural norms to a strategy that musical artists employ to reach real fans. Cringe is not any one thing, but you know it when you see it. On TikTok, you can make a career out of being intentionally cringeworthy in a niche area of the platform known as CringeTok (I know this because my brother, a former lawyer, has been making a living doing cringe videos since the spring of 2020).

Ms. Potenza has a theater degree and completed a six-week acting program at the William Esper Studio in New York, so she feels natural on camera. She ventured into posting cringe comedy videos during the pandemic as a way to continue working on her craft while venues were closed. An early TikTok video of her crying while applying clown makeup garnered hundreds of thousands of views and encouraged her to post more.

She now has more than 3.8 million followers on TikTok — a following large enough that it can translate into lucrative brand deals, bonuses and merchandise sales. Her videos, she said, have earned her more than $200,000 annually.

Popular creators on TikTok can make a living in all kinds of niches on the platform, including by doing makeup, dealing watches, being old — even drinking flavored water. But CringeTok is more like putting on a show.

To craft the perfect CringeTok video, creators mine the depths of the internet and their own experiences for traits they can exaggerate. Identifying behaviors that make us recoil, like self-absorption and obliviousness, requires an ironic amount of self-reflection. Cringe comedy creators often build time for dreaming up sketches into their schedules. Filming can take as little as an hour — often from the comfort of the creators’ bedrooms.

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