You might already know Abby Roberts as the ‘TikTok Make-up Girl’, perhaps from one of her countless transformation viral videos, via her A-list collaborators including Liam Payne, Zara Larsson and Yungblud, as a guest judge on BBC’s Glow Up or from her newfound place as a street style stalwart among London Fashion Week’s best-dressed round-ups.
All of these would be correct, as the 20-year-old can already count herself among TikTok’s most-followed creators with a staggering 18 million fans thanks to her masterful make-up tutorials. “I love a challenge,” she proclaims, and she isn’t bluffing. Over the past two years, the make-up mogul has continued growing her following, collaborating with brands and creating new global trends, all while quietly working on her next venture – music.
I ask her if she thinks she would have had the time if it wasn’t for the enforced lockdown. “I think it was really useful,” she says as she chats from the back of a cab taking her from vocal lessons to a studio recording session. “Before the pandemic, I felt caught up in my day-to-day routine, I was doing make-up for so many years before I ever thought about releasing music. I got really creatively burnt out with make-up and I couldn’t think of any more crazy looks. It was really time-consuming, I’d work on some of them for 14 hours. I was just trying to do so much and at one point I had to admit I couldn’t keep up.”
During the downtime, Abby started learning to play the guitar, teaching herself through online lessons before meeting with a tutor. “I just fell in love with it,” she says, “I found it to be such a creative challenge for me that I’d been lacking for so long. Make-up had become so second nature to me, I wanted something to really push me and throw me in the deep end. I love starting something completely new and building it from the beginning.”
Make-up had become so second nature to me, I wanted something to really push me and throw me in the deep end. I love starting something completely new and building it from the beginning.
While she admits her schedule is now too busy to keep up with her lessons, she’s adamant she won’t let the skill slip away. “I wanted to just know enough so I didn’t feel completely useless when we’re in the studio, but now I want to get to the point where I can play on stage,” she asserts.
In her recording sessions, she quickly found that having a small and trusted inner circle was key for her creative environment. “It didn’t feel like it was going to go anywhere when I was writing it, and so I felt quite content in the studio. It was just me and my producer, Noah Terefe, who worked on the majority of the EP with me, and I think that allowed us to be very open and honest with each other while working.”
These sessions have culminated into her debut musical release – six carefully considered tracks spanning heartbreak and betrayal to self-reflection, identity and navigating the realities of growing up online. It’s a coming-of-age soundtrack, fit with glistening synth beats, rugged guitar riffs, and Abby’s astonishingly versatile vocals – commanding on ‘bandaid’, haunting on ‘Sleepwalking’ and saturnine on ‘Video Girl’.
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At the time we speak, her second single, ‘Pink Champagne’, has been released for less than 12 hours and there are already more than 70,000 videos on TikTok created using the audio. But it was her debut single, ‘Paramaniac’, that initially caught both her online community and the music industry by such surprise.
“‘Paramaniac’ was actually mad,” she stresses in her thick Northern accent, “And I’m so grateful that it’s been received so well. I love all the videos that people have been making – one guy did a drums cover, there’s been loads of artwork and people painting their faces to it, it’s so fun to see.”
“I wish strangers liked me more / Social media’s a bore / Might be best if I just quit / Does that make me a hypocrite?” she croons on the indie-pop hit. While other social media-turned-XYZ stars have relied on vague lyrics laid atop catchy melodies (and if you’re lucky, a guest appearance from some other online personality) to appease their already-loyal followings, Abby says that her music has allowed her to share an even more honest version of herself with fans.
“Obviously, it’s amazing to see people recreating my make-up looks and being inspired by my work, that’s all I hope to do, but with the music I think people are really relating to the lyrics which I wasn’t expecting,” the Yorkshire-born talent explains. “On ‘Paramaniac’ I talk a lot about my mental health and growing up online, it’s just a lot more personal. Seeing people commenting made me quite emotional.”
When I ask if she has a favourite track on the record, she sighs. “It changes so much,” she says. “It used to be ‘Paramaniac’, I think because I sat with it for so long, but now working on the live shows there are different songs I prefer doing live – I love ‘Cigarette Burns’, and I love ‘Sleepwalking’ as well. I think because these songs are more emotional, it’s just amazing to do live and get into that headspace with the crowd.”
“There’s a lot of eyes on you, putting yourself out there like that,” she starts. “I’ve never done any live performances before so I was really cautious. I didn’t want to do a huge show as Abby Roberts for my first go.” To quell her nerves, she performed under the guise of ‘Mia’: “It became my secret name because my mum was going to name me Mia, so I thought it made the perfect alter ego.”
She attended open mics and played small gigs around London pubs to practice, but it wasn’t long before she was spotted. ‘I was trying to be low-key and hoped no one would notice me out of context, but I guess I am pretty recognisable with the pink hair,” she laughs. “At the very first show, somebody recognised me and filmed it, uploaded it to TikTok and it blew up, I think it got a couple of million views, and everyone was commenting about it. Initially, I was scared my cover was blown, but it became my push to just jump in.”
Somebody cried at the last show which was just mad, I can’t believe that my music is already having that effect on people. I didn’t expect that to happen so soon.
Having held her fourth live show a few days prior, she says her favourite thing about performing is getting to share intimate moments with her fans, many of whom have spent much of the past few years kept company by Abby’s online output. She says, “Somebody cried at the last show which was just mad, I can’t believe that my music is already having that effect on people. I didn’t expect that to happen so soon.”
She explains that music had always been a dream of hers, but as a quiet child, she didn’t have the confidence to sing in front of new people. “I’d always sing in the house around my family and they were really encouraging, but I was too shy,” she says. “And growing up, I didn’t know anyone in the music space or who knew anything remotely about how to get into it, none of my friends were in bands. My dad was in a brass band, but that was about it, and he didn’t know either.”
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Family is important to Abby, who counts her sister as “the most creative person” she knows, and her Dad played an integral role in expanding her music taste while from an early age. “I remember really vividly when I was 10 or 11 years old, he played me Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die record and we listened to the whole album on a car journey,” she remembers. “I just fell in love with her and she’s been one of my favourite artists ever since. I really admire her, I love her lyrics and how she connects with you emotionally. Obviously as a kid, I’d never experienced any of the things she talks about in her music, but it was like I felt nostalgic for a time I’d never been in.”
Inspired, the budding songstress kept her lyrics restricted to late-night diary entries for the next two years. Meanwhile, as her beauty content continued blowing up on TikTok, online friends opened new avenues to try her hand at recording, but she remained cautious: “I didn’t want to just jump into it and release the first thing that I’d tried. Developing a style takes a long, long time.”
It would take another year of experimenting before she felt ready to think about releasing her music, but some wise words from another of her icons kept her motivated. “I remember watching a video of Amy Winehouse a few years ago and she said that you have to not be afraid to write and write a lot of shit stuff before you get to the good stuff, and it’s definitely true. It was the same with make-up, it’s not something that you’re born gifted at, it’s something you’ve got to work at. There’s a lot of dedication involved.”
While many of the online personalities from Abby’s youth took to uploading recordings of covers online in the hopes of being discovered – leading to the success of chart-topping artists including Justin Beiber, Halsey and Joji – she remained focused on her original music, although she does recall uploading a rendition of LaRoux’s ‘Bulletproof’ to Facebook as a kid: “LaRoux was literally my inspiration when I shaved my head when I was about nine,” she laughs.
It’s hard to imagine the digital starlet as anything other than glamorous – we’re chatting the day after the BRIT Awards, and Abby’s outfit, a sheer, black Natasha Zinko gown paired with a blush pink floor-length fur coat and Fabarge encrusted crucifix weighing on her neck, is filling up Best Dressed lists across the internet.
Having also shaved my head as a pre-teen (I’ve got Emma Watson’s post-Harry Potter hair transformation to thank), we laugh about our awkward adolescent years. “I remember being called a boy for most of my childhood because I would wear guy’s clothes, and I didn’t care back then,” she recalls. “But after I started getting bullied at school, I was adamant I needed to grow my hair and never cut it again. I grew it so long, it was down to my hips.” She bought the popular clothes and restrained her personal style to try to fit in, but it made her feel even more uncomfortable. “I got to a point where I thought ‘what is the point of doing this?’.” She smiles, “I feel like a bit of my childhood self has come back.”
This time around, and no longer held back by high school bullies or teenage self-consciousness, Abby knew from the start exactly who she was making music for – herself: “I didn’t even consider other people’s opinions on it because I think that can really get in your head, thinking about if people will like it.”
While her reputation online – and its millions of eager commentators – made the decision daunting, it also helped prepare her for the hyper-critical online scrutiny many budding artists are thrown into without warning. “I learned a lot about how to deal with comments so I’m lucky that I’d already gotten quite good at dealing with them,” she explains. “I’m not the best, I can still have off-days, but for the most part, I know that it will pass because people can change their opinions in seconds. The internet is so fickle, so that has helped me learn to brush it off.”
When it came to writing the EP, she knew she needed to distance herself from the online echo chamber. “I took a step back from social media while I was writing it, I wasn’t posting as much because I was spending so much time in the studio,” she says. “It really allowed me to get into the right headspace to write from a personal place. Some of the songs were quite difficult to actually write because they’re about hard experiences I’ve had to go through the past few years. In the end it was therapeutic, and I’m so glad that I wasn’t influenced by other people’s opinions.”
I feel like people only know me for one thing, which is make-up, but make-up is just one part of my life that people only see for 15 seconds on TikTok. There’s a lot more of myself that people react to, I think they feel like it can come out of the blue, but to me, I’ve been living that but just offline.
“It’s hard because I feel like people only know me for one thing, which is make-up, but make-up is just one part of my life that people only see for 15 seconds on TikTok,” she explains with a defiant maturity. “There’s a lot more of myself that people react to, I think they feel like it can come out of the blue, but to me, I’ve been living that but just offline. It can be hard merging those two worlds together, and I’ve struggled with my identity in the process of that.”
At the core of the EP is Abby’s exploration of her identity and the pressure to choose one version of herself. Whether a misunderstood, tomboyish teenager or an untouchable online persona, the young creative has been pushed to define herself by other people’s standards.
“I think, in general, as a public figure, people expect you to know exactly who you are and what your brand is,” she says. “Who you are, how you dress, and what you think, but I think these are not rigid, binary things. You can fit into multiple different boxes, you don’t have to be just one thing. I’m a creative person and I do lots of different things. You can take it or leave it, but here’s what I’ve got to offer.”
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