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On Monday morning, Axel Webber, a 22-year-old from Cumming, Georgia, a city outside of Atlanta, posted a TikTok informing his followers of an audition he’d done on Zoom the previous day for the Juilliard School’s undergraduate drama program. Last month, Mr. Webber had used the platform to share his dream of attending the prestigious, highly competitive drama school and the grand audition required for the admissions process.
When Juilliard’s verdict came in, Mr Webber pulled up the message on his computer and read it to his 2.4 million followers on TikTok. It was a rejection. “They will no longer be considered for approval for autumn 2022,” he read. Mr. Webber looked dejected. “Now we have to find another way to become an actor. Thank you for watching the trip, ”he said. A Juilliard spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Webber’s approval for this article.
Tens of thousands of Mr. Webber’s fans on Monday night flooded Juilliard’s Instagram account to express their anger.
“YOU DONE, SOOO DONE, THAT AXEL IS NOT RECEIVED”, it says in a top comment. It has over 21,000 likes. Users started the hashtag #JusticeForAxel and left over a thousand one-star reviews of Juilliard on Google, filling the school’s search results with negative reviews. Some fans spoke of planning a personal protest on the Juilliard campus to express their frustration.
“I appreciate all of the answers,” said Mr. Webber, “but people are absolutely tearing them to shreds. I’m grateful, but we don’t have to beat up Juilliard. I want to spread positivity. “
Mr. Webber was home schooled in Georgia with four siblings and completed his bachelor’s degree online. He then worked odd jobs around town before moving to Pontiac, Michigan early last year to become a real estate insurer and save money by living with his aunt and uncle. With his savings in his luggage, Mr. Webber arrived in New York City in late November 2021 to finally pursue his dreams. What he really wanted was acting.
He found a tiny 95-square-meter studio apartment in the East Village for just $ 1,200 a month on Facebook Marketplace. After living on his car – a 2000 Volvo – in a Walmart parking lot in New Jersey for weeks in November, he didn’t mind minor inconveniences like using a shared bathroom in the hallway and not storing most of his groceries.
He got a job as a bouncer at a pirate restaurant not far away for $ 18 an hour and joined thousands of other young people who moved into town to start their own business. “I bought and paid for everything in my apartment myself,” said Mr. Webber. “My parents just recently kicked me off their phone plan.”
From the beginning of December, Mr. Webber cataloged his experiences on TikTok. On December 15, a video he posted about life in “the smallest apartment in Manhattan” went viral. He guided through the tiny room and explained how he lived on a tight budget in the heart of the city. He posted more videos of buying cheap food from street vendors and waiting for the laundry to be hauled down the street. During the month he gained more and more attention on his way.
“I thought this place would give me the energy to do whatever I chose, and so far I’ve been right,” said Mr. Webber. “I can walk out the front door and feel the city hum around me.”
He also spoke seriously online about his career aspirations. He wanted to be an actor, so he applied to the BFA in the drama program at Juilliard. “Am I nervous? Yeah, but I’m excited too, ”he said in a video posted the day before his audition.
Fans cheered him on in the comments. By early January, he had over 2 million followers, including many influential content creators. “Good luck! You are strong, you are smart and you are funny,” wrote a TikTok inventor, Caitlin Doran, who has more than 4.1 million followers.
When he was rejected by the school, whose drama department typically accepts fewer than 20 students a year, his supporters were outraged.
While fans used TikTok to run their campaign, other celebrities and influencers also got involved.
Singer-songwriter Charlie Puth posted a response to Mr. Webber’s video telling his own story of how he was rejected by Juilliard. Diplo posted a comment telling Mr. Webber, “Great things are yet to come.”
TikTok influencers, including members of the content house collab Crib, also offered encouragement. “Everyone meets at the Juilliard at 7:00 p.m.,” wrote Marissa Meizz, a TikTok star whose massive summer meetups became a viral sensation. So far there have been no personal protests. Playwright, screenwriter and actor Jeremy O. Harris commented on asking for Mr Webber’s Venmo account information and offered to send him money.
But the more viral he went on Monday, the more skeptics began to question his meteoric rise, including Mr. Harris. Thomas Petrou, a co-founder of Hype House, had posted a response video with an encouraging message to Mr. Webbers, and online detectives saw that Mr. Webber had attended an NFT launch party in Los Angeles last week where he was with a Another hype pictured was Member of the House, Vinnie Hacker.
Mr. Harris has posted a series of videos outlining Mr. Webber’s alleged affiliation with the Hype House and asking if he’s a member. “It’s a scam and it’s a good one,” he said on one of his TikTok videos.
Thousands of internet dogs began researching Mr. Webber’s background, researching his family history, LinkedIn account, and home address and car model. People on the internet had reason to be skeptical. As TikTok has become a powerful marketing engine, members of the entertainment industry have increasingly tried to skew it for their own use by staging fake viral stunts to get attention. People started using the hashtag #AxelGate.
“All of this is theater,” Harris said in a TikTok video posted early Tuesday morning. He added, “I think it’s really fun and good for us to look at and play around with the way we take in narratives that are presented to us as true. Play around with the fact or fiction of them all. This is life, this is social media and one of the ways to bring theater into the contemporary world. “
Mr. Petrou confirmed that Mr. Webber is not part of the hype house and has never been affiliated with the group. However, he is already represented by Diomi Cordero, a Los Angeles talent manager who brought Mr. Webber to the NFT party and is also representing Angus Cloud, an actor on “Euphoria”. Mr. Harris is a co-producer on the show.
Mr. Webber laughed at the attention. “I had zero connections when I got here. I just started doing TikToks, ”he said.
After his dreams of drama school are shattered, he plans to expand his online presence in the hopes that it will help him find roles. Casting agent Regularly scour TikTok for new talent, and the app has already launched the acting careers of other creators, including Addison Easterling and Jack Martin. Mr. Webber already has gained more than 115,000 followers on his YouTube channel last week. “Although I’ve never been on stage, I have my own stage here in this 95 square meter apartment,” he said. “I can only imagine how great the real stage will feel.”
But being turned away by Juilliard may not hold him back.
“The Juilliard School’s rejection of a social media star is a micro-example of the macro-cultural change we’re experiencing today,” said Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, a creative agency. “The reality is that Axel doesn’t need traditional references. In today’s media landscape, Axel already has the upper hand. “
Mr. Webber says he has his lease until October and won’t be leaving New York City anytime soon. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Webber signed a contract with The Society, a modeling agency. He is now investing his savings in upgrading his gear from the iPhone 7, which he is currently filming content on, and hopes to partner with other creators in the future.
“I felt super alone when I got into town,” he said. “Now I’m walking down the street and sometimes people bump into me and say, ‘Hey! You’re the guy from TikTok ‘or’ You’re the guy with the tiny apartment! ‘ It feels like I have some friends in a huge city with millions of people. “