Inside the sticky world of TikTok lip readers

Wondering what Kylie said to Timothée or Selena said to Taylor? These speech-studiers are being offered money to lip-read videos of celebrities, friends and ex-partners

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Wondering what Kylie said to Timothée or Selena said to Taylor? These speech-studiers are being offered money to lip-read videos of celebrities, friends and ex-partners

By Darshita Goyal11 Jan 2024
5 mins read time
5 mins read time

No more new year, new you chat – with the Golden Globes on Jan 7 and the Emmy’s billed for Jan 13, we’ve officially moved into the next phase of the month – awards season! You know, the time when celebrities leave their homes looking hot, get plied with champagne and leave us to gossip about who skipped the paparazzi line and who’s (potentially) shagging who.

But as awards ceremonies reign on, celebrity culture and fandoms continue to evolve. Today, no one is shocked or stunned by famous-people Oscars selfies. With Notes app apologies and drip-fed soft launches on the rise, we expect more than fit pics and red carpet rapid fires from glam events. Lucky for us, the Golden Globes fancams delivered.

What was Kylie Jenner saying to Timothée Chalamet? Was it “I love you”, “I only care about you” or “I’m not talking about you”? And what did Selena Gomez reveal to Taylor Swift? Stop squinting and let a host of online lip-readers guide you. At the time of writing, the hashtag “lip-reading” has over 1 billion views (!) on TikTok, and hundreds of videos of micro influencers lip-reading inaudible celebrity clips in an attempt to reveal the tea they’re spilling.

On a good day, these explainer posts rake in millions of views, making amateur lip-readers like Marika, Nina Dellinger and Bella Tanner overnight celebrities. And the Golden Globes moment isn’t in isolation. Remember that tense exchange between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck at last year’s Grammys? Or Swift dishing to Phoebe Bridgers at the iHeartRadio Music Awards? Well, the curious and the clueless wanted to know what the celebs were saying, and the lip readers delivered.

In the comments section, dozens of TikTokers agree, defend or deny the lip-readers' narratives. But in most cases, there’s no way to confirm how accurate the videos are and the lip-readers warn their followers of this. Case in point: Dellinger received endless requests to lip-read the Selena-Taylor video but subsequently announced that the angle and quality of the clip wasn’t good enough for her to understand it.

“Despite that, I got many messages asking me to slap a disclaimer and do the lip-reading anyway,” Dellinger tells woo. “This shows me that my content is really just entertainment and people want a reaction even when I say it’s not the truth.” She faces the same qualm with another relentless request. It’s been 10 years but Dellinger and Tanner still get asked to lip-read Jay Z and Solange’s elevator moment on the daily; in spite of the terrible video quality and minimal facetime. Clearly, people aren’t drawn to lip-reading videos for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Instead, these viral moments double up as a space for fans to connect with each other and chat about pop culture at large. As Gen Z says, it really is all about the discourse. In the midst of a growing loneliness epidemic, such impassioned online interactions can help build community over common ground. Gaby Serpa, senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8 tells woo that “celebrity lip-reading rides off of a TikTok culture that negates a need for distinguishing fact from fiction, and instead is focused on virality and excitement. In large part because young people want to bond more than they want to get to the grain of truth.”

Just look at the host of memes the Kylie-Timmy and Selena-Taylor clips have spawned as reference, they’re hilarious, a little bit delulu and oh so wishful. While some people think the couple are in love, others are convinced it's a PR relationship. Then there’s the anti-capitalists (or should we say anti-Kapitalists), still fighting the good fight by calling out Kylie’s endless consumerism. It gets better with Selena, the most popular theory is that she asked for a picture with Timmy and Kylie refused. The truth? No one knows and tbh no one cares.

By providing a glimpse into seemingly private and often mundane conversations, lip-reading videos can also humanise celebrities. Take the fashion week clip where Zendaya seems to say she “almost passed out” while trying to arrive on time. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? But like most things on the internet, the line with lip-reading videos can get blurred quickly: how private is too private? Or should celebs simply get better at covering their mouths when they speak?

For Marika, the distinction is simple: “People's business is 100 per cent their business. The line for me is something that's already out on social media and is being seen by millions over the world. I refuse to lip-read sneaky videos that people DM me, whether that’s of celebrities or their own friends, an ex-boyfriend, whatever.” The TikToker adds that followers have also offered to pay her for lip-reading personal videos. The other creators seem to follow a similar moral code: “I want my videos to make celebrities feel more real to fans but the intent is never to stir the pot or say problematic things,” Tanner says.

Despite the temptation of big bucks and clout, Dellinger, Tanner and Marika refuse to make celebrity lip-reading a formal profession. Occasionally, they bring out the party trick with friends and family but for the most part, the side gig remains just that: an entertaining, online persona. More salacious content for us! But here’s something to chew on until the next lip-read drops: what will the Emmys fancams deliver? We’re manifesting a tasty Succession x The White Lotus crossover.