What’s the key to a teenage girl’s heart? According to one Radnor High School student, the first step is paying attention to your scent.

“You can’t just not smell bad,” said 17-year-old Gabe Escobar, explaining this non-negotiable guideline from behind signature tortoise-shell glasses. “You have to actively smell good.”

Take notes, friends. That gem of romantic advice reached quite a few people — way more than the typical audience of a Philly-area high school senior. Nearly 500,000 people saw it, thanks to TikTok, a video-streaming platform that’s become hugely popular among American teenagers.

It’s a tale as old as time, or at least the internet. Almost every teen heartthrob in the last 20 years has gotten their start online. Even Justin Bieber found his voice — and his fame — on YouTube and MySpace.

But we’ve come a long way from the grainy videos that turned the swoopy-haired songwriter from a small town Canada boy to a worldwide heartthrob.

In 2020, the product is the same: teenage boys with pinchable dimples and fluffy hair, outright begging for some female attention. But now the videos are easier to make, and they’re higher quality. The medium is TikTok, and the audience potential on the mobile app is pretty much limitless.

TikTok was bought by Chinese tech behemoth ByteDance in 2017. Since then, there have been plenty of privacy concerns. The U.S. government even opened a national security review to investigate the acquisition. But that hasn’t made a dent in its base of users. In the past year, TikTok’s app has been downloaded more than 750 million times — more than Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat.

Philly takes up plenty of space in the so-called softboy genre.

Basically, that describes an arena of 15, 16, and 17 year olds with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or sometimes millions of followers. Their popularity is often fueled by dashing good looks. Most haven’t even used the app for a year — but they’ve grown their networks of supporters exponentially.

“It just sorta happened,” said Escobar, who garnered his 1.5 million TikTok followers in seven months.

“Over the summer it got huge. Now 90% of the people I know have the app on their phone, and people think it’s really cool.”

The ‘softboy’ aesthetic

Sources — by which we mean the bunch of Philly teens we spoke with for this story — say there’s no fast track to an abundance of followers. But one thing’s for sure: you’ll grow your fanbase more quickly if you develop a defined brand.

Among the most remunerative brands is the softboy.

What’s a softboy? Think fuckboy, if you know the term, but more sensitive. The goal is the same — to get girls — but the softboy wants to actually date you.

Their natural habitat is the internet, ’cause, y’know, they’re shy. They’re often found hiding behind the hugging emoji and a hoodie they’ve spritzed with Abercrombie & Fitch cologne before they ask you if you want to wear it.

“I sort of keep up with that aesthetic to my account,” said Escobar, whose dad happens to be Philadelphia Inquirer Editor in Chief Gabriel Escobar. “That seems to be what people follow me for, so I try to maintain it best as I can.”

But Philly’s Tiktok teens — even within the softboy brand — are not a monolith.

Some of them are charming and charismatic. Some are quiet and shy. Some of them post lip-syncing videos with lyrics that’ll make anyone uncomfortable, considering their age, while others post Eagles fan favorites or videos touting their hobbies.

Escobar’s most popular series is called Girl Code/Boy Code. Each video can rake in more than a million views as it doles out tips for teens on how to attract romantic pursuits.

“Some girls that I’m friends with will rant to me about their boy problems,” Escobar said. “I take notes and make videos that’s like, advice for guys. … Those are the videos that always do well, even if I’m in sort of a lull in my account,” he added. “I mean, a lull being gaining 5,000 followers a day as opposed to 10,000.”

Why is this kind of use of the app so popular? Maybe it’s an accessible outlet for hormonal teens. Maybe it’s a part to play, a form of creativity. Maybe it’s a warm community. Or D. All of the above.

Escobar keeps it up because, well, it’s honest — he really is seeking a girlfriend, he said — but also because the brand is effective. Those softboy-style videos get him the most likes, not even close.

Same thing with Evan Tran, a senior at Lower Merion High School. He’s built a network of 38,000+ followers with videos like this one, in which he plays the game Never Have I Ever and is forced to put down a finger for kissing more than five people, having a “body count” larger than three, and farting in class.

To what does Tran attribute success?

“Honestly people say it’s ’cause of my looks,” he said. “But I’m not sure.”

Stepping stone to a performance career?

Existing in Philly’s ranks of high-status softboys isn’t all fun and games, elite members say. The struggle to stay relevant is real, the pressure to earn consistent likes intense.

Though the teen heartthrob genre can skyrocket any regular 16-year-old into virtual fame, it can also be limiting. The softboy brand doesn’t leave a lot of room for personal interests, or hot takes beyond how to text your crush goodnight.

A high school senior, Escobar’s applying to college for musical theater. When he first started his TikTok in October 2018, he posted a video of himself singing “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper.

“But then my friends confronted me the next day and said it was stupid and I shouldn’t do it,” Escobar said. “So I deleted the app.”

Escobar didn’t resurrect his TikTok page for months. And now, even after achieving internet fame, his earnest musical videos never go viral quite like the heartthrob ones.

“My singing videos never do well,” he added. “My followers like them, they just don’t really go anywhere. It’s frustrating ’cause I see singing videos do well all the time. But I don’t take it to heart.”

Philly’s TikTok teens say they didn’t get into the game to get famous. It just sort of happened. But once you get there, you start to build goals. Both Tran and Escobar are working to build their networks — and hopefully earn some brand sponsorships.

“If you have a bigger following, you can try to use that as, like, a side thing,” Tran said.

After being inducted into a few high-profile TikTok influencer group chats, Escobar hopes he’ll keep moving up. In an ideal world, the app will help launch him into his aspiring musical theater career.

Meantime, they’re just hoping their parents don’t watch their videos.

“They’re like, from the old age,” Tran said. “They don’t care about technology or the internet.”

“We’ve come to an agreement that we don’t discuss it,” Escobar said. “Because I think that’s a little weird.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...