International TikTok stars find fame — without the fortune


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“Have you heard of LSS? You know, last song syndrome?” asked Marc Daniel Bernardo, trying to explain how he created a global dance challenge on TikTok earlier this year. LSS, the feeling when the last song you heard is playing on an endless loop in your head, is the fuel that TikTok runs on. For Bernardo, an 18-year-old dancer from the Philippines, the tune in question was “Heartbreak Anniversary,” by American R&B artist Giveon. Over the last few months, the 30 seconds of original choreography Bernardo performed to the ballad’s hook has taken him on a rollercoaster ride to virality. 

Since February, TikTok users have uploaded over 8 million videos under the “Heartbreak Anniversary” sound, many featuring dancers from all over the globe imitating Bernardo’s slow-motion steps. Bernardo credits LSS for spreading his dance to millions of people’s For You Pages, helping launch him into the Philippines’ rapidly growing creator industry. 

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But few users outside the country have traced the “Heartbreak Anniversary” challenge back to his account, and unlike influencers from some Western countries, he and his dancer partner aren’t eligible to earn income from TikTok’s Creator Fund. Those realities raise questions about the economic opportunities available for TikTok creators getting their start in the Philippines, even for someone like Bernardo, who invented one of the most popular global dance trends of 2021.

Before the pandemic, Bernardo and his dance partner, 21-year-old Katkat Manimtim, were on the regional competitive dance circuit, traveling to Manila and even Australia with their hip-hop troupe. When strict lockdown orders hit the Central Luzon area where they live, they lost that creative outlet and found themselves stuck in their homes near the city of Cabanatuan. They started regularly uploading dance videos to TikTok, joining the surge of new users who flocked to the app over the last year. Everyone wants to up their followers. But for us, we were just posting to express ourselves, because we can’t dance in public or with a group,” Bernardo told Rest of World during a Facebook video call with Manimtim from his living room. 

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In February, both dancers were healing from their own heartbreaks, and Giveon’s slow jam had become the soundtrack of their recoveries. “We were both broke at the same time,” was how they put it, finishing each other’s sentences with a laugh. That month, they uploaded the video that made them famous, in which Bernardo dances for Manimtim in his bedroom, looking at her and smiling as he acts out the lyrics to the song, “The day I thought forever/Said that you love me/But that’ll last for never.”

Viewers swooned in the comments, melting over the duo’s eye contact and Bernardo’s go-to slow-motion body roll. “The way he looks at her!” many of them wrote. It was classic stuff of pop stars in the making. The clip instantly took off, gaining nearly 38 million views to date. Fans soon asked for more, giving the dancers the tabloid-style couple nickname “Katniel,” even though they call themselves “just best friends” offline. 

Four days after the original clip went viral, Niana Guerrero, a hip-hop dancer with the most-followed TikTok account in the Philippines, joined in on the trend. She included a shout out to Bernardo and Manimtim in the video caption for her 23 million followers, an important stamp of approval that helped start a cascade of other “Heartbreak Anniversary” dance covers and pushed Bernardo and Manimtim’s names to new corners of the app. The attention also scored “Heartbreak Anniversary” the number one spot on the Philippines’ Spotify streaming chart.

“I had only 8,000 followers when I posted the video,” said Bernardo. “Then it went … boom.” Just two months later, his follower count stands at more than seven million.

But as soon as the social media spotlight hit, so did the harassment. Users began mocking the sweet looks Bernardo gave Manimtim, and the sincere couple’s dance quickly spun off into a new trend of parody covers. ”We didn’t actually know what was wrong, we were only dancing for fun, and then they started bashing us because of it,” said Manimtim. Users began reporting her account to TikTok, which she said had over 150,000 followers at the time, until the platform finally banned her (she has since started a new one that now has more than 2 million followers). 

By early March, the original trend and the parody version were crossing borders, as millions outside the Philippines began sharing their versions of the dance challenge, including two teenage girls on a class break in Thailand, an Afrobeats dancer based in Kenya, one of the most-followed influencers in Mexico, and even a Brazilian popstar. “I’m speechless,” said Bernardo. “We are just overwhelmed that our dance is worldwide right now.”

In the past month, the “Heartbreak Anniversary” challenge has found a second life in the U.S., where some of the platform’s biggest dance creators have imitated Bernardo’s choreography and turned “Heartbreak Anniversary” into a global chart-topping hit. Many songs have found mainstream popularity through the platform, and not by accident: TikTok reportedly curates and tests some audio clips in order to manufacture viral songs for music labels, including Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” according to Bloomberg. But even the songs that TikTok supports still rely to some degree on the creativity of dancers like Bernardo, who bring them to life in videos.

For both Bernardo and Manimtim, this moment is about more than just one viral video — it could be the start to careers as fully-fledged influencers. They were scouted by an artist management company in Manila, who is now helping them navigate a wave of business propositions. Already, they say they’re dreaming of TV and film roles and hope to model their “loveteam” content after celebrities like Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla — another couple nicknamed “KathNiel.”

But as “Heartbreak Anniversary” continues growing in popularity, few creators have tagged the original duo behind the dance, or seem to know that it originated in the Philippines at all. Like other creators of color, the duo isn’t reaping all the benefits of the viral trend they started. “We appreciate [the attention], but it’s sad and frustrating that they didn’t know who made that dance,” said Manimtim. Most of all, the pair are craving acknowledgement from the artist himself, Giveon.

“We appreciate [the attention], but it’s sad and frustrating that they didn’t know who made that dance.”

They reached out to him through their manager and requested permission to use the full copyrighted song for a dance cover on their YouTube page, but haven’t received a response or any acknowledgement for the role they played in making the track a success. “It would be a big deal to us,” said Bernardo.

Beyond getting the credit they deserve, there’s also the question of money. On average, Filipino social media users spend almost 10 hours a day on the internet, according to a global survey from last year, the highest in the world. But despite high engagement, the country is still building much of the digital infrastructure needed for TikTok creators to make a stable income. Some of the country’s major social media marketing agencies declined Rest of World’s requests for interviews, explaining that they are still learning how to fold the video platform into their existing businesses.

Unlike the U.S. and some countries in Western Europe, the Philippines isn’t part of the TikTok Creator Fund, a program the company created to distribute an initial $200 million to popular creators who enroll. Bernardo and Manimtim, as well as their management team, are eagerly waiting for the fund to open up to more places (TikTok did not immediately return a request for comment).

For now, except for small sums they receive from fans during livestreams, they earn almost no income directly from the content they publish on the video app. As a result, they are trying to convert their 7 million TikTok followers to subscribers on other social media platforms that have better business models for creators in the Philippines, like YouTube, which lets them earn advertising revenue.

The dancers’ newly launched YouTube channel, Katniel, racked up over 500,000 subscribers in roughly a month, and they have begun accepting product placements and endorsement deals for the vlogs they post there. Livestreaming apps are another way they are generating income, including Kumu, a rapidly growing homegrown platform that personally invited Bernardo and Manimtim to join. 

Most recently, the dancers have begun posting on the burgeoning platform LYKA, which was founded by American entrepreneur Ryan Baird. The app has targeted the Philippines as a launching pad for its GEM system that rewards all users for posting, sharing, or liking content. GEMs are equivalent to one philippine peso each, and can be used in place of cash at a number of major retailers. Overall, the two dancers said they earn roughly $1450 per month from social media (70,000 Philippine pesos), a fraction of what creators in the U.S. with a similar amount of followers might make.

Still, both Bernardo and Manimtim say the money has gone a long way to supporting their families. Both their mothers work in childcare and live abroad in Dubai, a common path for domestic workers in the Philippines. “They are so proud, and we’re happy that we made them happy,” said Bernardo. “It is hard now that they are far away from us. This is the way we hope we can help our mother and father.”

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