Growing up with the boom of social media, Chyna Willis has mastered the business of internet fame. The Atlanta-born influencer has maintained her digital following (currently resting at 1.5 million on Instagram) for almost a decade—all before turning 21.
Born Angel Willis, the 20-year-old star says she got the name ‘Chyna’ from her middle school girlfriend group. “It all started in middle school when I had like maybe 20K on Instagram, back then that was a lot,” she said in a hushed, yet excited tone. “I had a group of friends that I used to kick it with and their names were states and countries—one girl’s name was Paris, another girl’s name was Dakota. I was like, I want a name. What’s up?” The preteens dubbed her “Chyna” and Willis ran with it, posting it in captions on Facebook and adding it to her Instagram bio.
Around the same time, Willis began posting videos of herself doing comedy skits on Facebook, adding to her growing popularity. Once she started uploading clips of her dancing to popular songs though, she that she saw how much potential she had as someone who could master social media. As she began to face constant comparisons to other dancers in Atlanta, she started taking hip-hop, African, and ballet classes and noticed “these other girls can’t do pirouettes [like me]” and says that’s how she separated herself.
Willis believes that her laser-like focus and supportive family have helped her reach the level of success that she has. Her immediate understanding of the digital landscape, like shoutout for shoutouts (an online exchange wherein two popular accounts mention one another, further expanding the scope of their reach,) and navigation of brand partnerships with companies like Fashion Nova, have also boosted her visibility.
Willis remarked that she treats her social media platforms like businesses, which is a path that fellow Black influencers, like Ari Fletcher and Jayda Cheaves, have followed. “Better content means more views, more views means more money,” she said directly. “I learned that early on.”
Though she moves through social media with the mindset of a burgeoning mogul, Willis makes sure to tend to her relationships with her fanbase. She revealed that at one point, she was responding to 50-100 Instagram messages a day, just to feel more connected to her audience.
“When I was in 9th grade, my account was deleted and it made me depressed,” she said. “[But] my followers sent me messages to keep going.” These types of positive interactions have given her the fuel to ignore the hate and helped her realize they her fans don’t just stick around because the love her work, but because they love her as well.
Beyond the realm of digital popularity, she is also interested in acting and is slated to have a role in a popular, unnamed project in 2021. When we spoke, Willis expressed excitement over her dive into a different form of expression and has bided her time in self-isolation by tirelessly working on auditions. It is evident that she has a firm grasp on the power of reinvention, frequently asking herself, “How can I make myself unforgettable?”
Keep up with Chyna by following her on Instagram.
Photo credit: Tim Caver