Reneé Rapp Took Over the Internet. Now She’s Coming for Pop Stardom

Reneé Rapp Took Over the Internet. Now She’s Coming for Pop Stardom

Reneé Rapp does not want you to look at her internet history. “It’s horrifying,” she says, half in jest, sitting in a booth at the bar of a Manhattan hotel. “You will find the most insane videos of me as a child—it’s a dangerous game.” It’s also one that most of her fans have played, as those videos are not very hard to find. There are the Vines in which a teenage Rapp sings and riffs, now captured for eternity on YouTube, along with videos of her famous-to-theater-lovers 2018 Jimmy Awards performance and TikTok videos she’s shared of her younger self lip-syncing to Camp Rock songs.

Rapp, 23, didn’t start out as an internet star, but as she’s gotten more famous in the past few years—after making her Broadway debut in Mean Girls in 2019 and starring in Mindy Kaling’s Max comedy Sex Lives of College Girls two years later—her internet history is finally working to her benefit. And now, Rapp has harnessed her years of being chronically online to bolster the work that matters most to her: her budding music career, beginning with the release of her first full-length album, Snow Angel, on Aug. 18.

Her fans might know her from TV or Broadway, but Rapp has always wanted to be a pop star. She is a powerhouse vocalist with the confidence to back it up, as evidenced by her stint on Broadway as the glamorously devilish Regina George (a role she’ll reprise in the upcoming movie version). As she grew a fan base through her acting career, she regularly connected with those fans through her savvy social media presence, giving her the kind of unfiltered relatability commonly associated with influencers.

More From TIME

Major labels have been pushing their artists to get on TikTok to try to create the kinds of viral moments that drive streams. But in a world where social media users can see right through a contrived advertising campaign, that kind of parasocial bond can’t be forced. Rapp says she hasn’t felt that pressure from her label—and that’s probably because her online presence is already a record executive’s dream, to the tune of 1.4 million TikTok followers, with her Instagram following pushing that number above 2 million.

Still, she’s not shy about her agenda on the internet. “Sometimes it is just me f-cking around or whatever, but at the end of the day, it’s to promote my motherf-cking songs,” Rapp tells me. “I’m absolutely doing everything to service the longevity of my career.”

Growing up online

I met Rapp on a particularly humid summer evening in New York City, though her hair was still perfectly done, fringe bangs in place, following a recording of a Vevo Performance in Queens. She was determined to go to bed early to wake up at 4 a.m. to start glam for The Today Show, but even keeping an eye on the clock can’t account for the pace at which she speaks—talking to her feels like watching a YouTube video at 2x speed. It is in this typically rapid manner that she tells me how she made her first foray into social media.

In middle school, Rapp convinced her mom to let her get a Facebook account to “stay connected with [her] grandma.” She promptly posted a status update about her first kiss with her middle school boyfriend, using the lyrics to the (in)famous 2010 staple, “My First Kiss” from the alt-pop band 3OH!3 featuring Kesha. “My mom saw it and was livid,” Rapp says. “She was like, ‘Are you kissing in my home?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I’m a free woman. You can’t tell me what to do with my body!’” She laughs, “I was a monster.”

She continued to irritate her mom by posting photos with her friends doing what adolescents do, holding up their middle fingers with vapes in their mouths, trying to hide the effort it took to look effortlessly cool. Rapp also maintained a “raunchy, erotic Tumblr” account and pinged boys on Kik Messenger, went through a Snapchat phase, and made some videos on Vine. A couple of those went viral and continue to live on the internet—one in which she’s quietly nailing a challenging riff in Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” and another in which she’s singing Taylor Swift’s “Back to December.” Her fans can thank her dad for putting her on TikTok, where she got in on the ground floor. He told her about its previous iteration, the lip-syncing app Musical.ly, and she started posting videos in November 2019. She recalls him telling her, “Reneé, you will regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t get on this app.”

Indeed, it has served her more than well: Rapp’s use of social media to ingratiate herself among her internet peers helped her build anticipation for her debut EP, released last fall, and her forthcoming album. Between the first and second seasons of Sex Lives in April 2022 (we didn’t discuss her acting career due to the ongoing SAG strike), she deployed a strategy used by many smaller artists on TikTok: repeatedly teasing the most compelling part of an unreleased song, a winning tactic on an app that favors hooks that immediately catch users before they can scroll away. For her debut single, “Tattoos,” Rapp played the song for her fans in multiple videos, showing her own palpable excitement. She shared clips of herself singing in front of a piano or recording the song. For the next two months until its release, each video she posted teasing the track racked up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views.

In between teasing songs, Rapp posted videos with her friends, participated in trends, and made videos with her Sex Lives castmates. She shared content, both humorous and sincere, about her relative privilege as a cisgender white bisexual woman. The week before the show’s second season dropped, in the fall of 2022, she dropped her debut EP, Everything to Everyone. Her ravenous fans ate up the release, which amassed over 200 million streams across platforms. The dates for her first-ever tour sold out quickly, prompting her to add more dates to meet demand—those sold out in a minute. This summer, she released the album’s first two singles, the titular “Snow Angel” and “Talk Too Much,” to similar enthusiasm: the former has over 6.5 million streams on Spotify, and the latter has amassed just shy of 3 million streams in its first month.

Creating Snow Angel

Snow Angel swiftly moves between honesty, anger, and quick quips about lovers who have pissed her off on songs like “So What Now” and “Poison Poison.” Anyone familiar with Rapp’s online presence will recognize her in these songs: funny, blunt, and direct, qualities which can turn some followers off as much as they appeal to her fans. She describes the creation process as “simultaneously the most emotionally taxing and also the most rewarding time in my life. Imagine walking into a room every day with some people you know and others you don’t, explaining all of your most intense experiences—I was going through that daily for at least six hours a day,” she says, for half a year.

This vulnerability, which Rapp compares to “bleeding out,” made it especially important to prioritize who she surrounded herself with. “I was working with a lot of guys who are amazing, well renowned in the business and do their thing well, but really could not care less to listen to what I had to say,” Rapp says of her time working on the EP. “Everybody you date, you don’t marry.”

Rapp has writing credits on every song with her main collaborator and close friend, Alexander 23 (real last name Glantz), who has production credits across Snow Angel. “He listens to me, respects me, and is actually interested in what I have to say musically,” she says. Throughout the project, the pair have a few notable collaborators who put their touches on different tracks. Rapp tells me how excited she was to work with Ian Fitchuk, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter who collaborated with Kacey Musgraves on her 2018 album Golden Hour. He has a songwriting credit on “I Hate Boston,” a sweeping piano ballad about hating the city where Rapp’s ex is from. For the reflective song “23,” they worked with Taylor Upsahl, whose writing credits include songs for Dua Lipa and Demi Lovato. “I feel like a more mature version of myself having written it,” she says.

As for whether we’ll see this new more mature side coming through in her TikToks, Rapp says she wants her focus online to stay on her music, because that’s when content creation comes most naturally to her. Her least favorite part of being online is when she feels like she’s trying too hard. Also, the negative comments. She admits she’s fostered a community that allows people to poke fun at her, and sometimes they’re “f-cking hilarious,” while other times, some people “take it too far, it does really hurt my feelings.”

But more than anything right now, Rapp says she is “trying to convince everyone that I am worthy of them liking me, and I am not secure in that yet.” She may like to worry about her internet history, but the future is rolled out before her—online and off.

Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *