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On Monday morning, Axel Webber, a 22-year-old from Cumming, Georgia, a town outside of Atlanta, posted a TikTok telling his followers about an audition he had completed the day before on Zoom for the program. undergraduate drama from the Juilliard School. Over the past month, Mr. Webber had used the platform to talk about his dreams of attending the prestigious, highly competitive acting school and the big audition required for the admissions process.
When Juilliard’s verdict came in, Mr Webber extracted the post to his computer and read it aloud to his audience of 2.4 million followers on TikTok. It was a rejection. “You are no longer under consideration for admission in fall 2022,” it read. Mr. Webber looked discouraged. “Now we’re going to have to find another way to be an actor. Thanks for watching the trip,” he said. A Juilliard spokesperson declined to comment on Mr. Webber’s admission for this item.
On Monday night, tens of thousands of Mr. Webber fans flooded Juilliard’s Instagram account to express their anger.
“UR DONE, SOOO DONE NOT TO PUT AXEL IN 💀💀💀🤚🏽🤚🏽🤚🏽,” one comment read. It has over 21,000 likes. Users started the hashtag #JusticeForAxel and left more than a thousand one-star reviews of Juilliard on Google, filling the school’s search results with negative reviews. Some fans have spoken of planning an in-person protest on the Juilliard campus to vent their frustration.
“I appreciate all the responses,” Mr. Webber said, “But people are absolutely tearing them to shreds. I’m grateful, but we don’t have to hit Juilliard. I want to spread the positivity.
Mr. Webber was home-schooled in Georgia with four siblings and earned his undergraduate degree online. After that, he worked odd jobs around town before moving to Pontiac, Michigan, early last year to become a real estate underwriter and save money living with his aunt and uncle. With his savings in tow, Mr. Webber arrived in New York at the end of November 2021 to finally pursue his dreams. What he really wanted to do was act.
He found a small, 95-square-foot studio in the East Village through Facebook Marketplace for just $1,200 a month. After living out of his car – a Volvo 2000 – in a New Jersey Walmart parking lot for weeks in November, he didn’t mind minor inconveniences like having to use a shared bathroom down the hall and not having no place to store most of his groceries.
He landed a job as a bouncer at a nearby pirate-themed restaurant for $18 an hour and joined the ranks of thousands of other young people who moved to town to fend for themselves. “Everything in my apartment I bought and paid for myself,” Mr. Webber said. “My parents actually kicked me out of their phone plan the other day.”
Beginning in early December, Mr. Webber cataloged his experience on TikTok. On December 15, a video he posted about living in “Manhattan’s smallest apartment” went viral. He walked around the small space and explained how he lived in the heart of the city on a shoestring budget. He posted more videos of buying cheap food from street vendors and waiting for the laundry he carried on the street. Throughout the month, he’s garnered more and more attention along the way.
“I thought this place would give me the energy for whatever I decided to do, and so far I’ve been right,” Mr. Webber said. “I can walk out the front door and feel the city buzz around me.”
He also spoke in earnest online about his career aspirations. He wanted to be an actor so he applied for the BFA in Drama Program at Juilliard. “Am I nervous? Yeah, but I’m also excited,” he said in a video posted the day before his audition.
Fans rooted for him in the comments. By early January, he had amassed over 2 million followers, including many influential content creators. “Good luck! You’re strong, you’re smart and you’re funny,” wrote TikTok creator Caitlin Doran, who has more than 4.1 million followers.
When he was expelled from the school, whose drama division typically accepts fewer than 20 students a year, his supporters were outraged.
As fans have used TikTok to campaign, other celebrities and influencers have also gotten involved.
Singer-songwriter Charlie Puth posted a response to Mr Webber’s video, sharing his own story of being rejected by Juilliard. Diplo posted a comment telling Mr Webber: “great things to come”.
TikTok influencers, including members of content house Collab Crib, also offered encouragement. “Everyone meets at Juilliard at 7:00 p.m.,” posted Marissa Meizz, a TikTok star whose massive dating has become a viral sensation over the summer. So far, no in-person demonstrations have taken place. Playwright, screenwriter and actor Jeremy O. Harris asked for information about Mr. Webber’s Venmo account and offered to send him money.
But the more viral it went on Monday, the more skeptics began to question its meteoric rise, including Mr Harris. Thomas Petrou, co-founder of Hype House, had posted a response video to Mr. Webber with an encouraging message, and online sleuths saw that Mr. Webber had attended an NFT launch party in Los Angeles the week last where he was pictured with fellow Hype House Member, Vinnie Hacker.
Mr Harris posted a series of videos outlining Mr Webber’s alleged affiliation with the Hype House and asking if he was a member. “It’s a scam, and it’s a good scam,” he said in one of his TikTok videos.
Thousands of netizens began researching Mr. Webber’s background, digging into his family background, LinkedIn account, and looking up his home address and car model. Internet users had reason to be skeptical. As TikTok has become a powerful marketing engine, members of the entertainment industry have increasingly sought to twist it for their own use, staging viral fake stunts in order to gain attention. People started using the #AxelGate hashtag.
“It’s all theatre,” Mr. Harris said in a TikTok video posted early Tuesday morning, noting that Mr. Webber was doing, “very good theatre, it’s all theatre.” He added, “I think it’s really fun and good for us to start looking at how we ingest narratives that are presented to us as true and playing around with them. Play with everyone’s fact or fiction. It’s what life is, it’s what social media is, and it’s one of the ways we can bring theater into the contemporary world.
Mr. Petrou confirmed that Mr. Webber is not part of Hype House and has never been affiliated with the group. He is, however, already represented by Diomi Cordero, a talent manager in Los Angeles who brought Mr. Webber to the NFT party and also represents Angus Cloud, a “Euphoria” actor. Mr. Harris is the show’s co-producer.
Mr. Webber scoffed at the attention. “I had no connection when I arrived here. I just started doing TikToks,” he said.
With his acting school dreams dashed, he plans to continue to grow his online footprint in hopes it will help him land roles. Casting agents regularly scour TikTok for new talent, and the app has already launched the acting careers of other creators, including Addison Easterling and Jack Martin. Mr Webber has already gained more than 115,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel last week. “Although I’ve never been on stage, I can have my own stage right here in this 95 square foot apartment,” he said. “I can only imagine how great the real scene will be.”
But turning away from Juilliard may not hold him back.
“The Juilliard School’s rejection of a social media star is a micro-example of the macro cultural shifts we’re seeing today,” said Brendan Gahan, partner and social director at Mekanism, a creative agency. “The reality is that Axel doesn’t need traditional credentials. In today’s media landscape, Axel already has the upper hand.
Mr. Webber says he has his lease until October and he won’t be leaving New York anytime soon. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Webber signed a contract with The Society, a modeling agency. He is now spending his savings on upgrading his gear from the iPhone 7, which he currently films content on, and hopes to collaborate with other creators in the future.
“I felt super lonely when I came to town,” he said. “Now I can walk down the street and sometimes people bump into me and say, ‘Hey! You’re that guy from TikTok’ or ‘You’re the guy with the little apartment!’ I feel like, in a huge city with millions of people, I have friends.