On Monday morning, Axel Webber, a 22-year-old from Cumming, Ga., a town outside Atlanta, posted a TikTok updating his followers on an audition he’d completed the day before on Zoom for The Juilliard School’s undergraduate drama program. For the past month, Mr. Webber had used the platform to talk about his dreams of attending the prestigious, highly-competitive drama school and the big audition that was required for the admissions process.
When the verdict from Juilliard came in, Mr. Webber pulled up the message on his computer and read it aloud for his audience of 2.4 million followers on TikTok. It was a rejection. “You are no longer under consideration for admission for Fall 2022,” he read. Mr. Webber looked crestfallen. “Now, we’re going to have to find a different way to be an actor. Thanks for watching the journey,” he said. A Juilliard spokesperson declined to comment about Mr. Webber’s admission for this article.
On Monday night, tens of thousands of Mr. Webber’s fans flooded Juilliard’s Instagram account to express their anger.
“U R DONE, SOOO DONE FOR NOT GETTING AXEL IN ????????????????????????????????????,” a top comment reads. It has over 21,000 likes. Users started the hashtag #JusticeForAxel and left more than a thousand one-star reviews of Juilliard on Google, tanking the school’s search results with negative reviews. Some fans spoke of planning an in-person protest at Juilliard’s campus to voice their frustration.
“I do appreciate all the responses,” Mr. Webber said, “But people are absolutely tearing them to shreds. I’m grateful, but we don’t have to bash Juilliard. I want to spread positivity.”
Mr. Webber was home-schooled in Georgia with four siblings and completed his undergraduate degree online. After that, he worked odd jobs in town before moving to Pontiac, Mich., earlier this year to become a real estate underwriter and saved money by living with his aunt and uncle. With his savings in tow, Mr. Webber arrived in New York City in late November 2021 to finally pursue his dreams. What he really wanted to do was act.
He found a tiny, 95-square-foot studio apartment in the East Village through Facebook Marketplace for just $1,200 a month. After living out of his car — a 2000 Volvo — in a Walmart parking lot in New Jersey for weeks throughout November, he didn’t mind minor inconveniences like having to use a shared bathroom in the hall and having no place to store most of his groceries.
He landed a job as a bouncer at a pirate-themed restaurant not far away for $18 an hour and joined the ranks of thousands of other young people who moved to the city to make it on their own. “Everything in my apartment, I bought and paid for myself,” Mr. Webber said. “My parents actually just kicked me off their phone plan the other day.”
Starting in early December, Mr. Webber cataloged his experience on TikTok. On Dec. 15, a video he posted about living in the “smallest apartment in Manhattan” went viral. He gave a tour of the tiny space and explained how he lived in the heart of the city on a shoestring budget. He posted more videos about buying cheap food from street vendors and waiting for the laundry he hauled down the street. Throughout the month he amassed 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 buzzing around me.”
He also spoke earnestly online about his career aspirations. He wanted to become an actor so he applied to the B.F.A. in drama program at Juilliard. “Am I nervous? Yes, but I’m also excited,” he said in a video posted the day before his audition.
Fans rooted him on in the comments. By early January, he had amassed more than 2 million followers including many influential content creators. “Good luck! You are strong, you are smart and you are funny,” wrote one TikTok creator, Caitlin Doran, who has more than 4.1 million followers.
When he was rejected from the school, whose drama division typically accepts less 20 students per year, his followers were outraged.
While fans leveraged TikTok to wage their campaign, other celebrities and influencers got involved as well.
The 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: “big things to come.”
TikTok influencers, including members of the Collab Crib content house, also offered encouragement. “Everyone meet at Juilliard at 7:00pm,” posted Marissa Meizz, a TikTok star whose massive meetups became a viral sensation over the summer. So far no in-person protests have taken place. The playwright, screenwriter and actor Jeremy O. Harris commented to ask for Mr. Webber’s Venmo account information and offered to send him money.
But the more viral he became on Monday, the more skeptics began to question his meteoric rise, Mr. Harris included. Thomas Petrou, a Hype House co-founder, had posted a response video to Mr. Webber’s with an encouraging message, and online sleuths saw that Mr. Webber had attended an NFT launch party in Los Angeles last week where he was pictured with another Hype House member, Vinnie Hacker.
Mr. Harris posted a series of videos outlining Mr. Webber’s supposed affiliation with the Hype House and questioning if he was a member. “It’s a scam, and it’s a good one,” he said in one of his TikTok videos.
Thousands of internet hounds began to research Mr. Webber’s background, digging into his family history, LinkedIn account and looking up his home address and car model. People online had some reason to be skeptical. As TikTok has become a powerful marketing engine, members of the entertainment industry have increasingly sought to warp it for their own use, staging fake viral stunts in order to garner attention. People began using the hashtag #AxelGate.
“All of this is theater,” Mr. Harris said in a TikTok video posted early Tuesday morning, noting that Mr. Webber was doing, “really good theater, all of this is theater.” He added, “I think it’s really fun and good for us to start looking at the ways we ingest narratives that are presented to us as true and play around with them. Play around with the fact or fiction of them all. It’s what life is, it’s what social media is, and it’s one of the ways we can bring theater to the contemporary world.”
Mr. Petrou confirmed that Mr. Webber is not part of the 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, an actor on “Euphoria.” Mr. Harris is a co-producer on the show.
Mr. Webber has laughed off the attention. “I had zero connections when I got here. I just started making TikToks,” he said.
With his acting school dreams dashed, he plans to continue to grow his online footprint in the hopes that it will help land him 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 followers on his YouTube channel in the past week. “Although I’ve never been on the stage, I get to have my own stage right here in this 95-square-foot apartment,” he said. “I can only imagine how great the real stage will feel.”
But getting turned 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, a partner, and the chief social officer at Mekanism, a creative agency. “The reality is Axel does not need traditional credentials. In today’s media landscape, Axel already has the upper hand.”
Mr. Webber says he has his lease until October and won’t be leaving New York City anytime soon. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Webber signed a contract with The Society, a modeling agency.He’s now putting his savings toward upgrading his equipment from the iPhone 7, which he currently films content on, and hopes to collaborate with other creators in the future.
“I felt super alone when I came to the city,” he said. “Now, I get to 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 tiny apartment!’ It feels like, in a massive city with millions of people, I have some friends.”