Child stardom is by now an established archetype. The story of Lil Tay is one that both epitomizes the genre’s all-to-common themes — abuse, exploitation, public shaming — and stands out among its many examples because of its sheer absurdity, as well as its cosmic timing (the early days of the online influencer boom).
Tay’s journey to viral stardom began in 2018. Her polarizing, sometimes shocking persona — a fourth grader who drove luxury cars, posed with racks of cash, and cursed profusely — proved immensely popular, with five million Instagram followers, celebrity friends, high-profile meetings, a Good Morning America interview, and a three-episode reality TV series to show for it. Like many instantly famous people, her star rose rapidly and burned out just as fast. Before her five-year hiatus from social media (and public discourse), her time in the spotlight lasted less than a financial quarter.
Her name returned to the news this past August, when her apparent death led the internet to mourn the loss of a tragic cultural figure. But rumors of her passing were immediately contested and soon dispelled completely. In late September, she made an emphatic comeback — discussing her long silence, telling a remarkable tale of parental abuse, showing off exceptional piano and guitar skills, and sharing a fully formed, highly produced new track, along with an expensive-looking music video.
“Who is Lil Tay?” is a question that’s been on the minds of fans and cultural commentators since her emergence in 2018. The subject has been explored at length by Taylor Lorenz in The Atlantic and Lauren Levy in The Cut, as well as by YouTubers and gossip sites ad nauseam. Here, we break down what we know so far about Lil Tay’s rise, disappearance, faux death, and return.
Who was Lil Tay, the persona?
Back in 2018, Lil Tay was a meme. In Instagram videos, she proclaimed herself the “youngest flexer of the century,” a nine-year-old millionaire with a penchant for designer clothes, luxury vehicles, and toilets worth “more than your rent.” Her character lived in a highrise in Beverly Hills and consorted with some of the period’s most popular rappers — Chief Keef, Lil Pump, XXXTentacion, et al.
In early April of that year, she posted a video of herself and her 18-year-old friend — the similarly polarizing Instagram star Woah Vicky — confronting the 15-year-old Bhad Bhabie (the Dr. Phil guest turned platinum rapper) in an outdoor mall. In the clip, Vicky and Baby do most of the talking, but Tay gets in a few verbal jabs of her own. (The three girls are surrounded by comparatively hulking bodyguards throughout the ordeal and never get close to throwing actual blows.)
Tay’s popularity skyrocketed from there. In 10 days, her follower count had nearly quintupled, from 250,000 to 1.2 million. It would soon pass 2 million. She began popping up in the content of more established stars like Jake Paul, who interviewed her on his YouTube channel, and Chief Keef, who hung out with her backstage at a show. She met with Rick Rubin and allegedly ignored a request to appear on The Howard Stern Show. Later that spring, she and her mother sat with Nightline’s Juju Chang for a surreal interview that aired on Good Morning America.
As her status ballooned, she upped the ante on some of her most outlandish claims. Responding to allegations that she didn’t actually own a fleet of sports cars, she posted a video of her driving a white Rolls Royce (if only for a few feet in a parking garage), then stepping out and kicking it hard enough to (apparently) leave a dent. She rapped about smoking weed, pretended to smoke a carrot, and appeared to actually smoke out of a hookah in one video.
The caption for a Bhad Baby diss video alleged that Tay was posting from house arrest. On Good Morning America, she mentioned offhandedly that she’d dropped out of Harvard, but she was unable to name the school’s location when pressed by Chang. (Never mind the fact that she was probably just shouting out her role model, Lil Pump.) Less than two weeks later, all of Tay’s posts were deleted.
Who is Tay Tian, the person?
Born Claire Hope on July 29, 2007 in Atlanta to a Canadian attorney (Chris Hope) and a Chinese-born real estate agent (Angela Tian), Tay and her family moved to Vancouver shortly thereafter. Her parents were never married, and they broke up when she was just a year old, according to her mother’s timeline. At first, she stayed with her mother and older half-brother, Jason Tian. When Tay was two, however, Hope was awarded final decision-making authority over her, as well as a restraining order against Tian, who’d been sending him and his employer “obscene emails, texts, and voicemail messages,” court documents show.
She began splitting time between her parents’ places when she was five. She’d later claim that she’d been abused — in ways both blatant and insidious — while staying with her father during her pre-fame years. Hope has repeatedly denied these claims.
The homes in Lil Tay’s earliest hit videos — the ones posted while she was still living in Vancouver — were not her own. Her mother was sneaking Tay and Jason into some of her company’s luxurious listings for the shoots. And the red Mercedes AMG shown in one of her most-watched videos was not hers or her mother’s. It belonged to her mother’s boss, who told the press he’d fired her when he became aware of the footage. (Addressing this chain of events more recently, Tay insisted that her mother resigned the job of her own accord.)
That post went up on March 25, 2018. By April 1, Tay had moved with her mom and brother to Los Angeles, where the mythology surrounding her took on a life of its own.
Even during those early weeks of exponential virality, the world was not entirely in Tay’s thrall. As concerned adults voiced their worries that Tay’s behavior was indicative of poor parental guidance, savvier internet sleuths began to look past the mythos to find the smoking gun that would prove a 10-year-old girl was not, in fact, a self-made millionaire entirely in charge of her own image.
While Angela Tian was initially suspected of being her daughter’s chief manipulator, a video surfaced on May 21, 2018 showing Jason coaching Tay on her persona, pushing her to redo lines when she didn’t deliver them to his liking. The same day, footage circulated of Tay shouting the n-word on camera.
Speaking to Lorenz for her Atlantic story, an anonymous source close to Tay backed up the rumors that she was under her brother’s control. “I’ve seen Lil Tay cry,” the source said. “I’ve seen her brother shout at her… She was crying hard.” While several managers took partial credit for Tay’s success in those early months, the field had already begun to clear when the controversies started rolling in, partly due to Jason’s insistence on remaining solely in charge of his sister’s career.
On June 3, 2018, Tay returned to Canada on a court order from her father, Chris Hope. (He’d agreed on her trip to L.A. with her mother two months earlier thinking it would last a few days and help her find a use for her talent beyond “flexing on the internet,” he told The Cut.) A day later, her Instagram profile was wiped.
In September, there was renewed activity on the account. The tone of the new posts was sinister: a photo of a football with a noose around it, a Black man covered in blood. More personal content came the following month: videos of Tay crying, detailed allegations of abuse aimed at Hope (he denied them at the time and did so again when they resurfaced this fall), a doctored passport that listed her birth year as 2002. Again, Jason was accused of puppeteering the scam, but he denied the claim, insisting the account had been hacked (a story Tay and her mother later upheld).
Those posts were removed from Instagram after Hope threatened legal action against the platform, and Tay’s account went silent for the next five years, one month, and 22 days. The next post to appear on her grid was an in memoriam for her and Jason. The August 9, 2023 post was deleted a day later, and Tay broke her silence. Along with the news that she and her brother were alive and well, she shared another revelation: “My legal name is Tay Tian, not ‘Claire Hope.’”
Where did Lil Tay go for five years?
Tay Tian gave the world one final piece of content before disappearing for half a decade: a December 13, 2018 interview with the Daily Beast’s Tarpley Hitt — who’d just a few months earlier called her a con artist and headlined a claim from her alleged ex-manager Harry Tsang that her allegations against her father were “fake and part of [a] twisted plot.”
As in the Good Morning America interview, Tay fielded questions in the presence of her mother — this time, over the phone. While Angela Tian did most of the talking, Tay’s limited responses were enlightening. “Right now I’m in a bad situation and I don’t want to talk about these things,” she told Hitt when pressed to detail the creation of her Instagram persona and her brother’s role therein. “With Chris Hope,” she added, when asked to clarify.
The events of the next five years are less clear. We can say with relative certainty that Angela Tian and Chris Hope were locked in a custody battle as Tay entered her adolescent years and neared adulthood. But Tay’s own activities during that period are shrouded in mystery. Too famous to go to school, according to her and her mother’s accounts, she’s been homeschooled in Vancouver, and she’s definitely had some music and dance lessons, but she’s remained tight-lipped about the details of her daily life.
Whatever she was up to all that time, her explanation for her disappearance, and her attitude toward her father, have stayed consistent. “Five years ago I became famous, and my abusive, absentee father, who had not been in my life for years up till that point, decided to come back into my life,” she said in the September 30, 2023 Instagram Live session announcing her return. “He started a court case to silence me so I could not speak on what was happening, and so he could take control over my money.”
Why did the world think Lil Tay had died?
On August 9, 2023, a grid post appeared on Lil Tay’s Instagram account for the first time since October 2018. In black text against a white background, the post read as follows:
It is with a heavy heart that we share the devastating news of our beloved Claire’s sudden and tragic passing. We have no words to express the unbearable loss and indescribable pain. This outcome was entirely unexpected, and has left us all in shock. Her brother’s passing adds an even more unimaginable depth to our grief. During this time of immense sorrow, we kindly ask for privacy as we grieve this overwhelming loss, as the circumstances surrounding Claire and her brother’s passing are still under investigation.
Claire will forever remain in our hearts, her absence leaving an indescribable void that will be felt by all who knew and loved her.
The news was reported as fact by a number of legitimate outlets — from CTV News Vancouver to E! and Us Weekly, as well as USA Today — though Chris Hope declined to comment. “This proves how much the press did not give a fuck about facts,” Tay would say shortly thereafter. “They cared about slandering my name. They did not do any fact-checking.”
What were the circumstances of Lil Tay’s return?
Within a day of the unsigned announcement of Lil Tay’s death appearing on her Instagram profile, the post had been deleted and TMZ was reporting that Tay was alive. In a statement published by the online tabloid, Tay asserted that the rumors of her death had been exaggerated.
“I want to make it clear that my brother and I are safe and alive, but I’m completely heartbroken, and struggling to even find the right words to say,” she said. “It’s been a very traumatizing 24 hours. All day yesterday, I was bombarded with endless heartbreaking and tearful phone calls from loved ones all while trying to sort out this mess.” Her account had once again been “compromised by a 3rd party and used to spread jarring misinformation and rumors,” she continued, highlighting that the hacker hadn’t even bothered to use her current name.
On August 18, an official statement from MacLean Law, the family law firm representing Tay and her mother, was posted to Tay’s IG grid (and reiterated on the firm’s website). The post lists five court orders the firm was able to obtain on behalf of the Tians:
a) retroactive child support owed by the father since 2014, amounting to approximately $275,000;
b) ongoing monthly child support from the father, plus additional expenses;
c) sole day-to-day and final decision-making powers and responsibilities in the best interests of Tay Tian for Ms. Tian as sole guardian of Tay Tian;
d) Tay Tian’s primary residence being with her mother, Ms. Tian; and
e) entitlement to relocate outside of Vancouver for Ms. Tian and Tay Tian.
On September 6, a photo of Hope was posted to Tay’s Instagram story, accompanied by the following text: “My abusive racist misogynistic woman beating father faked my death.” Again, Hope vehemently denied the allegations to TMZ, and threatened legal action against whoever was handling Tay’s account. “The person who is responsible for that Instagram post, as well as anyone repeating the completely false and libelous accusation within it, are virtually certain to become defendants in a defamation lawsuit,” he said.
But Tay’s silence continued until September 30, when she released a new song and went live on Instagram at the same time. The single, “Sucker 4 Green,” is a departure from her early raps, which never gained much traction. Far from the Lil Pump cosplay of an alleged nine-year-old, the track is an entirely listenable, decently catchy, proudly superficial pop song about loving money. It arrived with a carefully choreographed, immaculately produced music video that looks like it cost a lot of money to make.
At the start of the video above, which captures the first part of Tay’s IG Live session the same day, she runs a premiere-style countdown while “Sucker 4 Green” plays, then walks in without a word, sits down at a grand piano, and plays a passage each from Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 1 in B-Flat Minor” and his “Fantasie-Impromptu In C# Minor,” performing the songs with grace and emotion beyond her years. The next part of the session (continued below) starts with two more songs: a totally competent cover of “Hotel California,” for which she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, and some impressively accurate electric guitar shredding to the rhythm track of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”
She then gives us a glimpse of the Lil Tay we used to know, triumphantly shouting into her phone as if she’s spent the past half-decade living in a vacuum. “Y’already know what the fuck goin’ on, bitch,” she proclaims. “Lil Tay’s back. It’s been five years and y’all still broke.”
The next 18 minutes of the video are much less lighthearted. Tay spends the remainder of the clip recalling in vivid detail the alleged abuses she suffered from her father and his romantic partners, many of which overlap with the acts outlined in the October 2018 posts to her Instagram account.
The claims are unverified, and Hope has continued to deny them, but they include allegations of Hope having sex with “random women” in front of Tay, some of whom he’d picked up on Craigslist. She accuses Hope’s wife, Hanee — whom he married during the time Tay lived with him — of punching and pinching her regularly, and once putting her in a chokehold and forcing her to watch Bride of Chucky, then locking her in a closet, saying, “Go play with Chucky.” Tay also alleges in the video that her father and stepmother would send her to school with rotten lunches and in old and ill-fitting clothes, and that he owed her and her mother a quarter-million dollars in child support (money a court has now ordered him to pay).
What’s Lil Tay up to now?
In October, Tay went back to flexing on Instagram. She posted two new photos — posing on the hood of a blue sports car in one and showing off stacks of $100 bills next to her mom in the other — and a video that calls back to her old format of yelling at her audience about her success and our relative brokenness, but with the added touch of some gentle acoustic guitar playing at the end.
In the caption for that video and a subsequent IG Live, Tay alleges that her father swatted her in October and is continuing his threats to sue her and her mother “because I exposed his ass.” Despite the disruption this has caused in her promotion for “Sucker 4 Green,” she says, “It’s still fucking trending. Only I can do that shit, bitch.”
Tay posted photos of herself in costume on Halloween (Britney Spears at the 2021 VMAs, complete with a live snake), but she’s kept otherwise quiet for the past month. On Tuesday, November 14, however, Rolling Stone published a profile by Ej Dickson titled “Lil Tay Died. Now She Wants to Be a Pop Star.” It’s the first major interview Tay’s given since her return.
Tay’s desire for fame isn’t exactly news, and her intention to do so through music was evident from the way she reentered the virtual stratosphere. But while Tay is painted as reticent in the piece, she does give several glimpses into the activities that kept her busy during her silent years: diving into songwriting as a sort of “escapism”; becoming obsessed with Harry Potter, in whose miserable existence in the cupboard under the stairs she found parallels with her own life under her father’s control; having recurring nightmares in which she fled a constantly morphing pursuer.
Elsewhere in the article, Tay implies she’s got more songs recorded, though she doesn’t reveal if or when they’ll be coming out.
The new profile notes that Tay is surrounded by a “phalanx of adults who have coalesced in her sphere,” watching her every move. Like most long-form pieces on Tay, it concludes that there’s a deep sadness — or, at least, a thorough numbness — hiding behind her carefully curated exterior. Mostly, though, Dickson is forthright in admitting she’s as puzzled by what’s going on in Tay’s head as the rest of us are, despite Tay’s insistence that she’s living her best life after years of repression.