11 December, 2019
Zephan Clark: Belmont teen fosters lucrative global following
Pumping out content for social media has turned Zephan Clark into an online star, making on average $1000 a day. He tells Helen Vause about his recipe for social-influencing success.
Zephan Clark came home after another bad day at school and decided he’d had enough of being miserable. School sucked, he figured, so why not be a social-media star instead of a miserable teen.
Clark was 14 years old at the time. Four years later, he has 2.8 million followers on the latest hot social-media app, TikTok.
He’s also got 325,000 subscribers on YouTube and 779,000 following his Instagram account.
Now 18, Clark says his social-media story had already started in a modest way in the UK before his family moved to Whangarei four years ago, and he started going to high school there.
It was a huge culture shock for him and he says he was just too different from the local kids to fit in. Many miserable times followed. He remembers feeling bullied, depressed and desperate to find a happier path.
“Like every kid, I followed people on social media who made me feel happy. So I thought, why not do that myself ? I’d been depressed and I thought that was how I could turn negatives into positives. By making me and other kids happy.
“So I got home from school, sat down on the edge of my bed, logged in and just started talking into my phone. And I just kept going on and on doing it.”
Despite not gelling with his peers at a Kiwi high school, Clark had been able to hang onto a self-image of being reasonably smart, funny and creative. And although he doesn’t really recall what he’d been talking about in those early days out in cyber space, sometime after saying “Hello, I’m Zephan in New Zealand”, he started clicking with kids all over the world.
“Whatever I was doing they seemed to like it, so it just sort of evolved, with me making it up as I went along. I would have tipped a bucket of water over my head if that was what they wanted.”
Every day he posted on TikTok, often multiple times, and every day his number of followers grew.
TikTok, a video platform that was launched in 2017, together with its Chinese version had, by February this year, been downloaded a billion times. It is one of the most popular social-media apps for teens.
A bit like karaoke-gone-digital, it lets users make 15-second video clips of themselves lip-syncing to music, acting or showing off in whatever manner they choose. The kids who follow Clark are mostly in their mid-teens and many are based in America.
Doing TikTok before and after school began in Whangarei, and continued when the family moved to Tauranga and he went to school there.
“I really hoped the kids at school wouldn’t find out about it. But of course it got out, and I sort of got a bit of a backlash of unwelcome attention.”
Once again, Clark felt on the outer with Kiwi teens. But by the time the family left the Bay of Plenty and moved to settle in Belmont in January this year, he had more than one million followers.
He’s just turned 18, and this year flagged school to make social media – and being a social ‘influencer’ – his day job.
And while he prefers not to go into details, he says on an average day he earns about a thousand dollars.
“My dad is a teacher, so I had a hard time convincing him and my mother than I could quit school and get more serious about social media.”
Although previously, he had won the battle of persuading his parents to let him travel alone to the US, where his fan base is, and where the big social-media conventions are held.
At barely 16, he took up the challenge of proving to his parents that he could earn enough by maintaining and developing his social-media activity to take the whole family to the next convention in Los Angeles.
He achieved that goal, and is these days back and forth to the US alone at least half a dozen times a year, and successfully running his own business by himself.
“My parents understand what I’m doing and support me to live healthily. My mum makes me very healthy meals and I do work out,” says Clark who adds that maybe soccer could lure him back outdoors too.
For Clark, throwing out the school uniform, and getting serious about staying on top of his chosen medium and making a living, meant getting up in the morning and getting into social-influencer mode – though still from his room in the family home.
“I’m the same guy on camera – just way more energised. I make myself get straight down to doing at least a couple of short bits for TikTok.”
Sometimes he will then press the button to talk live to his followers, off and on for hours. Or he settles down to making and editing video for his YouTube followers.
Clark is proud of what he pumps out.
“There’s no social-media school for social influencers like me. You learn as you go. I’ve taught myself all aspects, from shooting and editing and how to work out which brands I want to promote.”
He quickly figured out what his recipe for success would be.
“I really engage with my followers all the time. I talk directly to them. All the time, I’m watching carefully for comments from them, and I will reply directly. So I’m talking to them, and with them, and responding to them and making them happy by being part of it.
“This approach is working to build my base. I am all about entertainment and making people happy. I like to make people smile, and I love it when people tell me I make their day.
“I’m trying to widen the age range of people who follow me. But hey, it doesn’t matter who watches me. If I helped them take their mind off something, brought them a few moments of happiness, then that’s all good.”
Clark says he keeps it light, but does talk about mental health.
He has built his following into the millions on TikTok, but he loves making short videos for YouTube, where he’s posted 56 of his productions to date. And his stories are finding their mark.
More than 127,000 watched, for example, when Clark’s sister did a home-colouring job on his hair, giving him green locks. In earlier shows, it was blue and pink. All the while, he keeps up an incredible patter direct to the camera and his fans beyond.
For one earlier story, he flew a friend to Paris for a weekend on the town. And recently, he went on camera for a painful soul-searching piece, about breaking up with his girlfriend. That pulled 270,000 views, and much ongoing online banter, before he decided to take a week’s break from being online.
“It’s a booming world online,” Clark says. “And it’s 100 per cent where I want to be. Kids these days don’t dream about being a policeman when they grow up. They want to be a YouTuber.”
Despite his international following, Clark goes largely unknown in New Zealand, where he says less than one per cent of his fan base lives, though he’s about to start developing his profile here.
“I like helping people. I want to tour New Zealand schools and talk about mental health and encourage kids to be resilient. I want to tell them they too can accomplish their goals and that the bad times can’t last forever. I feel I can do that for young people, so that’s where I want to go next.”
While he’s riding the wave, Clark wonders about where his current path will lead him.
“I know I’ve got a shelf life, and that one day it will all end. But from my childhood earnings, I hope I’ve earned enough to have choices in my future.”
Mistakes he’s made on the way? “Not working hard enough,” grins Clark, wandering off up Lake Rd under his big beanie.
This article originally appeared in the 13 December edition of the Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.