am sitting in a ballet studio in a drab, labyrinthine office building in Los Angeles with Lil Tay, talking about what it feels like to die — or, at least, have everyone think you did.
That’s what happened to her on Aug. 9, 2023, when a short chunk of Times New Roman text appeared on the former child influencer’s Instagram account, informing her more than 5 million followers of the “devastating news” of her and her brother Jason’s “sudden and tragic passing.” “We kindly ask for privacy as we grieve this overwhelming loss,” the post reads.
People were shocked, and for good reason. In 2018, a prepubescent Lil Tay had gone massively viral for her videos flaunting designer watches, ranting about “broke-ass bitches,” and making outrageous claims about being a Harvard dropout who’d gotten wealthy “moving bricks” in Atlanta. But as quickly as Lil Tay had gone viral, she disappeared, essentially vanishing from social media in the spring of 2018 due to a bitter court battle between her parents, Angela Tian and Christopher Hope. By the time the post about her death went up, she hadn’t been heard from publicly in years.
The post prompted untrammeled chaos on social media for about 24 hours, with outlets writing obituaries and 2010s influencers penning emoji-laden tributes until Tay issued a statement to TMZ declaring her account had been hacked and she was, in fact, very much alive. This seems, to me at least, like a rather surreal position for a teenager to be put in. But to hear Lil Tay tell it, the death hoax was largely an inconvenience, in that it deterred her plans to launch her comeback single: a Daft Punk-groove-reminiscent bop called “Sucker 4 Green.”
“I really wanted to get things going,” she says softly, in a voice that is absolutely nothing like the brash affect she uses in her early videos. “And this was just something that came out of absolutely nowhere. And I had to clean up.” That cleanup involved an Instagram Live in late September, in which Tay responded to questions about the hoax and how her parents’ court battle led to her five-year absence from social media, in between showing off her prodigious musical gifts on piano and electric guitar, shredding on the latter with Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”
When I meet Lil Tay at the dance studio on a blustery October afternoon for a ballet lesson and an interview, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in talking about “Sucker 4 Green” or the death hoax, or much of anything else, for that matter. Really, there are only three things she wants to talk about: the importance of proper turnout, the Harry Potter franchise (she’s a Ravenclaw), and the fact that she was “contacted” for the role of Ashtray, the adolescent drug dealer in the hit series Euphoria, something she mentions twice during our conversation. (Her PR later clarifies that she was simply asked to read for the role, but wasn’t able to do so due to the ongoing court battle.)
Under the watchful eye of two publicists, Tay sits opposite me on the floor of the studio, wearing a floral leotard, her mom’s old Juicy Couture hoodie, and Christian Dior platform sandals. She tells me she’s excited to give her first in-depth interview in five years. “I really want to answer the questions that you have,” she says, “and also explain things that people have been wondering.”
But as I will quickly learn, Tay is either uninterested in doing this or unable to. She’s evasive when asked about her age, which court records confirm is 16, but when I inquire, she simply responds, “I’m timeless” (a phrase her mother will also repeat verbatim when I ask her the same question), her favorite movies or TV shows, her favorite songs or musicians (“I just love all types of music”), and who she hangs out with (“Is this a question about whether or not I socialize?”).
That is not to say Tay is rude or impolite: She’s far from it. Prior to meeting Tay, I’d been told by various people who’ve floated in and out of her circle over the years that she’s soft-spoken and sweet, completely unlike her bratty, profane persona. And this is true. “She seemed very obedient and interested in doing things correctly, and very well-disciplined,” her ballet instructor tells me before I meet Tay. “She didn’t seem like the bad girl with the $100 roll of bills or the red Ferrari.”
When Tay walks me through the lesson, she’s a patient and supportive teacher, gently correcting me on my form while praising my (nonexistent) flexibility. She seems to enjoy the structure required by ballet, the need to nail every movement and get everything perfectly right, and she moves with tremendous grace and precision. “It definitely requires a lot of strength,” she says. “When you see ballet dancers onstage, it looks like the easiest thing ever. You don’t see all the hard work that goes into it.”
Even though it takes approximately three seconds with Tay to realize that her abrasive, street-tough character is just that — a character — she says it does represent aspects of her personality. “It’s all about context,” she says. “If you were talking shit to my face, I’d be talking shit to your face right now. You’re asking me about my music. And I have no reason to call you a broke-ass bitch … right now.” (For the record, if she did, she wouldn’t be wrong.)
There are flashes of the surliness one would expect from someone in Lil Tay’s age group. When I ask about the ludicrous claim that she was a Harvard dropout, for instance, she simply stares coldly at me. She’s similarly dismissive when I ask about her prior use of the n-word, saying, “I didn’t understand what that meant. And people that I considered my friends were telling me and pressuring me into using this word in my videos. This is something that I addressed in the past,” presumably referring to when she apologized for using the slur on her 2018 reality-TV miniseries, Life With Lil Tay. When I try to clarify, she curtly says, “Again, this is something I addressed.”
Really, Tay only wants to talk about the exact points her PR team provided in a one-sheet via email earlier that day, though I will later learn the details are somewhat disputed: that after enduring nearly half a decade of being silenced, a Canadian court has found in her favor and granted her mother sole guardianship, allowing her to “live her life [and] pursue her deepest dreams of which she had previously gotten a taste of.”
“I finally have my freedom back,” she says in the studio, her posture stick-straight, her wide brown eyes unblinking. “And I get to pursue what I want with it.”
When pressed about what, precisely, it is that Lil Tay wants, she pauses.
“Everything that I am doing currently,” she says finally. “And everything that you will see me do.”
THERE HAVE ALWAYS been kids in the entertainment industry who’ve been pushed into the spotlight early, often at the expense of their welfare or mental health. Shirley Temple wrote in her autobiography about being three years old while filming the Baby Burlesks series and being locked in a large black box by director Charles Lamont if she misbehaved; just a few days before I fly out to meet Lil Tay, Britney Spears published a memoir outlining how years of exploitation as a teenage pop star led to her having a breakdown. (It’s perhaps worth noting that on Halloween, Tay posted a photo of herself dressed as Spears during her 2001 “I’m a Slave 4 U” MTV VMAs performance.) The advent of the child-influencer economy, with its lack of regulation and thorny ethical questions about consent, is particularly fraught.
But even in the pantheon of stories about kids on social media, Lil Tay’s story stands out. For one, though her antics racked up millions of followers, they also prompted outrage, with many accusing whoever was behind her social media persona of exploitation and appropriating Black culture. Tay’s trajectory has also been marked by serious allegations, including physical and emotional abuse by her father, Hope (which he denies), and manipulation by her brother and mother (which they also deny).
But, according to Tay, pop stardom has always been part of the plan — and it is something she manifested into existence from a very young age. Her mother, Tian, who immigrated to Vancouver from Shanghai after graduating with a mathematics degree from Fudan University, is not particularly musical. But Jason, Tian’s son from a previous relationship, did play piano, prompting Tay to start taking lessons when she was four. At six or seven, she wanted to become a singer and move to L.A., changing her iPad background to a photo of Rodeo Drive. “I always had a vision of myself becoming famous. It was something I wanted to do,” she says. “And I just spoke it into reality.”
In early 2018, Tay blew up on Instagram, posting photos and videos of herself sitting behind the wheel of an expensive car and thumbing through stacks of cash, claiming she was a self-made millionaire and that she “fucked your mama because she a thot.” A real-estate broker at the time, Tian reportedly used her employer’s car and listings for Tay’s content, leading to her losing her job. Tian, however, says she resigned to help manage her daughter’s career: “I saw the bright future that Tay would have and I needed to support her.”
Almost immediately, people raised questions about who was behind Tay’s online persona. One source who has worked with Tay says Tian seemed to be the mastermind, “pushing all these things and being a stage mom in a way that maybe Tay was not always in agreement with.” Tian denies this: “Everyone knew she was multitalented,” Tian says. “[She chose] what she wanted.” Tay agrees, saying Tian “knew I had a very big vision for myself. And she helped me by putting me in lessons from a young age because I expressed my desire to be very musically involved.”
But multiple other sources tell me Tay’s half brother, Jason, who is six years her senior, is the engineer of Tay’s image and the driving force behind her career. As Harry Tsang, who claims to have represented Tay in late 2018, puts it: “Jason was the one calling the shots.”
This seemed to be confirmed when, in 2018, leaked footage showed Jason appearing to coach his sister off-camera. “Go back and say, ‘You broke-ass bitch, you still out here with your irrelevant ass,’” he can be heard saying while Tay alternates between scrolling through her phone and intently absorbing his instructions. She doesn’t appear frustrated or unhappy; she seems totally focused on getting it right, just as her ballet teacher tells me about her approach to dance.
The sources say Jason has a reputation for using mercenary tactics and is willing to go to virtually any lengths to ensure she remains in the public eye. Most of these sources asked not to be named, due to fear of reprisal.
“Remember [the 2009 Sacha Baron Cohen film] Brüno and he was doing the interviews with Hollywood parents and [asking if they would] be comfortable with your baby being crucified, and they’re like, ‘Sure’?” one person who previously worked with Tay asks me. “There are people in Hollywood willing to do anything for their kids’ careers. It’s shocking, but not special.” Tay’s team declined to make Jason available for an interview, but in 2018, he told The Atlantic that, at that point, he was his sister’s manager and that he was the sole decision-maker regarding Lil Tay’s career.
Tay and Tian strongly deny that Tay is coached or exploited by her brother, with Tay referring to their relationship as a “collab[oration]” rather than a Svengali-esque arrangement. “I am the one that’s always wanted to become famous. I was the one who had a vision for myself as an artist, and I made it happen,” Tay says. “And, of course, he helped me.” A source who has worked with the two confirmed Tay played a role in crafting her social media persona: “It seemed like they had both developed a character, and they worked as a team to push that character,” they say. “It was pretty symbiotic.”
To hear Tay tell it, the spring of 2018 was when her career was falling into place. After her mother brought her and Jason to Los Angeles, she was invited to Rick Rubin’s studio in Malibu, and he said he wanted to work with her. And she was name-dropped in Eminem’s song “Kill Shot” and invited to tour with him. (While PR provided a screen grab of what appeared to be an email invitation, a spokesperson for Eminem tells me the tour invite “never happened” and that the email is “bogus”; Rubin did not respond to requests for comment.) “People were seeing me and seeing my artistry,” she says. “And then, what do you know, here comes the deadbeat.”
BY “DEADBEAT,” TAY is referring to her estranged father, Christopher Hope, who in May 2018, obtained a court order requiring Tay be brought back to Vancouver from L.A. when she started missing too much school. This is when Tay essentially vanished from the public eye.
According to Hope and court documents, he sought the court order because Tay’s teacher had called a meeting with him expressing concerns about her online content. “She was onstage with a bunch of adults in adult situations at the age of 11, getting in these fights,” he says. “That was completely the opposite of what I wanted to happen. I wanted them to find some kind of manager who would give her advice about getting into acting and singing.”
When Tay was just two years old, Hope was awarded final decision-making authority for her. This decision, according to court documents, came following Tian bombarding Hope and his employer with “obscene emails, texts, and voicemail messages,” and making “false accusations” against him to restrict his access to Tay. This led to the court establishing a restraining order preventing Tian from contacting Hope. (Tian declined to answer any questions about the judicial process, referring me to her attorney, who did not respond to requests for comment.)
Because Hope had final decision-making authority for Tay, Tian alleges, he refused to sign any contracts related to her career. “She got great offers, but she wasn’t able to show the world because we needed to sign a contract,” Tian says. “And that’s why the absentee father insert[ed himself].” (Hope denies this. “I did not cost her valuable opportunities but tried to prevent her from ruining her life,” he says.) Tian also says that there was an order put in place to prevent Tay from posting on social media, though I couldn’t find documents confirming this and Hope refutes it.
It was also around that time that disturbing Instagram posts started to show up on Tay’s account. In July 2018, a two-word message — “help me” — was posted on her Instagram story. That September, her account was apparently hacked, flooded with gruesome, racist images like a graphic photo of a dead Black man and an image of a noose. Though the posts were quickly deleted, the following month there was once again bizarre activity on Tay’s account, this time with an unidentified author detailing allegations that Hope and his wife had locked Tay in a closet and had been sexually inappropriate around her. A 2021 GoFundMe petition echoing these allegations included images of a much younger-looking Tay with red marks on her face and arms.
TAY REPEATED THESE CLAIMS in a Sept. 30 Instagram Live, saying that Hope had been physically and emotionally abusive to her as a small child, as well as to her mother, something Tian also claims, though she won’t go into detail: “It was a very dark time,” she tells me. “Let’s not talk about the past.”
Hope strongly denies that he was physically or emotionally abusive to Tay or to Tian, or that he was sexually inappropriate around her, calling the allegations “totally and obviously extremely false.” “I never, never have, never would hit [Tay, or] do anything that caused her any harm,” he says, adding that the claims are “completely made up.”
According to Tay and Tian, Tay spent the past five years being home-schooled in Vancouver; Tay says she was too famous to go to school. When I speak with her at the ballet studio, she tells me she was “very unmotivated and depressed” due to her father’s control over her career, having recurring dreams of “escaping from some form of danger — different variations, where I would always be running from something. You know how in dreams you can’t really run properly and it feels like you’re being slowed down? I had a lot of those.” The thing that was chasing her, she says, was different every time: “All I know is that there was something that I had to run from.”
Tay says it was around then that she got into songwriting, using it as a form of “escapism.” Another respite was reading fantasy novels, particularly the Harry Potter franchise, which she says she’s reread four times. It’s when we talk about Harry Potter that she becomes truly animated. Her main source of comfort was the character of Harry, whose story does seem to have some eerie parallels to her own. “He had a troubled childhood and home life, and he was staying with his aunt and uncle who were very abusive,” she says. “And he was famous from when he was one, but he didn’t experience that fame until he was 11.”
She bears particular animosity toward the series’ Rita Skeeter, the unscrupulous tabloid journalist who smears Harry and his friends in the press. “The entire wizarding world was slandering him,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that hits really close to home.’ [Because] I’ve had to deal with that.”
When Tay tells me about this time in her life, her eyes well with tears. She grabs a tissue and dabs her eyes. “I had all of these things coming for me, I had my dreams within reach,” she says. “And then this person that I thought I escaped a very long time ago, comes in out of nowhere and takes it all down.”
In 2020, a judge approved Tian’s relocation and support application so Tay could move with her mother to L.A. Just a week after the Instagram post announcing Tay’s death went up earlier this year, Tay’s Instagram account published a post from MacLean Law, the firm representing Tian, stating that Tian had been granted full decision-making authority over Tay and that Hope had been ordered to pay approximately $275,000 in retroactive child support. (Hope says he has paid child support continuously since 2010. “I paid all the retroactive child support the court said I should, and continue to pay every month as the court said,” he tells me.) About a month later, the video for Tay’s new song “Sucker 4 Green” was released.
Tay’s comeback had officially swung into full gear.
The timing of it is more than a little bit suspect. But as with most details of Tay’s life, there are several conflicting versions of this part of the story.
TAY SAYS HER RETURN to the public eye had been planned for months prior: “I had some songs that I wanted to put out after winning my freedom. And thankfully, I did. So I was looking to get back on track as soon as I could. And then the death thing happens.”
She blames the death hoax on Hope, who she claims orchestrated it “as a last resort to sabotage me.” She and her mother also point to Harry Tsang, the influencer who has been cited in the media as Tay’s former manager. They accuse Tsang of working with Hope to spread the death hoax, as a way to promote a cryptocurrency coin that “exploited [my] name.” Tay denies that Tsang or anyone else has ever formally represented her as a manager.
Hope says he had nothing to do with it: “Somebody has a strategy that a good way to get publicity is to make accusations against me. They’re all false.”
Tsang tells me he was behind the cryptocurrency, saying it was “part of a plan to bring [Tay] back” into the public eye, and that he had been in contact with people in Tay’s circle about this scheme. But Tsang, too, strongly denies having anything to do with the death hoax, speculating that it was Jason. “He is known to do something crazy,” Tsang says. “Ask anyone in the social media space.”
Jason, in a statement through Tay’s PR, shifted the blame for the death hoax back onto Tsang, saying, “He went to every publication possible to allege I hacked Tay’s page to fake her death whilst also peddling the fraudulent Lil Tay crypto coin.” Jason also reiterated the claim that anyone claiming to be Tay’s ex-manager is working with her “absentee father.” (Both Tsang and Hope say Tsang briefly worked with the family in 2018, though not in an official capacity, and that they’re not working together now.)
During our time together, Tay speaks infrequently about her brother, changing topics if the conversation lands on him. But Jason is credited as a producer on “Sucker 4 Green,” appearing in the music video with Tian. When I ask Tay about claims that Jason was involved with the death hoax, or that it was engineered to promote her song, she’s dismissive: “There’s always going to be conspiracy theories,” she says. “If you want to make conspiracy theories, I can’t stop you.”
WHEN “SUCKER 4 GREEN” debuted in late September, it was the first time the public had seen Lil Tay in five years. The single, an upbeat pop ditty in which Tay croons about her love for “Birkin bags and big diamonds” and “money, money, money,” has about 6.7 million views on YouTube. Though I interpret the lyrics as an ironic nod to Tay’s youthful “flexer of the century” persona, she says it’s not. “I like my money. I flex on bitches all the time. So the song is about money, but if you listen to it, it’s also essentially a love song,” she says. Regarding the lyric “You got me dripping off that look in your eyes/What you’re doing to me, I’m a sucker for green,” she says the person she’s singing about “could have green eyes.” (I don’t know how to respond to this, so I just say, “OK. That did not occur to me.”)
The music video, in which Tay swans around a Malibu mansion in a pastel two-piece, was more controversial. Many fans commented on what they viewed as Tay’s provocative dancing and clothing in the video, prompting her to go on Instagram Live and lambaste “pedophiles” in her comments. “There’s always going to be weirdos on the internet,” she tells me. “But the extent of it was just so shocking.” Tian brushes off critiques that Tay is overly sexualized in the video: “She just wants to express herself. And also, she loves to show her beauty,” she says. “I believe she has a very healthy figure.”
Now, Tay and her team are campaigning to make up for lost time and prove to the world that she’s more than just the youngest flexer of the century. In October, she briefly became a topic of Lana Del Rey stan appreciation after playing the intro for “Florida Kilos” on Instagram Live; on a different Live, she played an impeccable version of Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu” on piano. During our time together, she plays me the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” on acoustic guitar, as well as Chopin’s plaintive “Nocturne Opus No. 9” on the studio’s piano. I half expect her to bust out with an accordion and a kick drum, à la Dick Van Dyke’s one-man band in Mary Poppins.
For his part, Hope, who has seen the video for “Sucker 4 Green” and clips of Tay performing, says of her recent rebrand, “If that’s the kind of thing that she had been doing at the start in 2018, I would have been in support of that, as long as her education was taken care of. But that’s not what was happening back then.” He calls it “a shame” that it took so long for the world to see Tay’s talents, and this may be the one thing he and Tay agree on. When I ask her what upset her most about the past five years, she says it was the perception that she was “talentless.”
This is, it must be said, far from true. Tay is an excellent pianist, a competent guitarist, and a lovely singer, with a honeyed, mellifluous alto that recalls a less ASMR-infused Billie Eilish. Her mother says that when Tay was 12 or 13, she reached a level 10 in the Royal Canadian Conservatory of Music certification program, a division of the music school that conducts music examinations in Canada and internationally. (The conservatory says it doesn’t have records of anyone with Tay’s birth name or current name.)
As elusive and finicky as pop stardom is, there’s very little I can pinpoint that would prevent her from achieving it, except for two things: the many controversies associated with her, and the distinct sense I get that she doesn’t enjoy a lot of it. It is not a perception that’s unique to me.
“She just seemed kind of numb,” says one person I spoke with who has worked with Tay and requested anonymity due to fear of professional reprisal or backlash from the Tian family. “Like, not there.”
Indeed, during my reporting I realize that the story of the real Lil Tay isn’t about who this teenager is or wants to be — our time together, while pleasant, made learning this pretty much impossible. It’s about the phalanx of adults who have coalesced in her sphere: the family members, the consultants, and the string of alleged managers who spotted the same quality in her that Charles Lamont had with three-year-old Shirley Temple and put Tay in their own black box. And her parents who tell me, in different ways, they tried to protect her from this happening.
“The first thing I want to make sure [of] is her safety,” Tian says. “I want to make sure she’s safe. I just do everything I can in my power to protect her, make sure she’s safe, and physically and mentally healthy. That’s my first priority. I’m a mom. That’s my job.”
Hope tells me something similar. “She’s a smart, creative, talented person. If that’s what she wants to do, I support her,” he says. “I wish I could see her every day. But that’s not gonna happen, I don’t think. For years, she was the most important person in my life. And I feel like she and I were both deprived of that relationship. I’m hopeful we can reconnect. But I’m not optimistic.”
OTHER THAN WHEN she talks about her love for Harry Potter, there is only one time when I feel I may be seeing some part of Lil Tay that only a very few have been privileged enough to see. It’s when she tells me about one of the first songs she wrote, when she was 13 years old. It’s about a pirate setting sail on murky shores, on the hunt for gold and silver. She calls it her “lost at sea” song.
It’s toward the end of our time together, and Tay sits cross-legged on the floor, acoustic guitar in hand. She mentions she may remember some of the lyrics, and then begins to play. It is sad and beautiful and sounds exactly like something a lonely 13-year-old girl would write in her bedroom, looking for a new language to describe the depths of all of her wanting. She belts the chorus assertively: “So just take the compass, you don’t need an atlas/To follow your heart, and at least you’re the captain.” She sings about being lost and disoriented in a strange place with strange people, but feeling none of the adult thrums of anxiety, only the thrill of being finally on your own: “These shores are so unfamiliar/But I want it to be like this forever.”
Then the vocals disintegrate into a more plaintive falsetto. I can’t make out all of the words, but I do hear the last ones she sings: “You find what you need the most is all gone, all gone, all gone, gone.” She looks up. “I might have fucked up some of the lyrics,” she says.
I ask her what the song is about. She pauses. “It’s kind of a song about being lost and wanting something specific but not being able to have it,” she says. I assume she wants me to think she is referring to her time out of the spotlight, and her parents’ court battle strangling her ability to become a successful artist. And maybe she is. Maybe that is what the song is about. I don’t know.
I can only tell you what I think about when I hear the song, because I have played back my recording of it many, many times since I flew out to meet her. I think about being 16 and the joy of being adrift without knowing where you are or what specifically it is you’re wanting, just that you’re the one responsible for getting yourself there. And I think about how I hope Lil Tay finds that, before it’s all gone, all gone, gone.