Meet Leia Jospé, Curator of Cringe

The mastermind behind the @favetiktoks420 page and How To With John Wilson videographer explains the dark humor behind TikTok’s cringiest videos.

by Greta Rainbow

selfie of Leia Jospé
Courtesy of Leia Jospé.

There's a strange thing that Succession star Nicholas Braun, the Grizzly Bear frontman, a New Yorker cartoon editor, and the creator of Tuca & Bertie all have in common: they are frequent commenters on the Instagram account @favetiktoks420, a collection of the cringiest Gen Z content ever made, reposted for millennials' pleasure and horror. These creatives agree, this is “the best unintentional art of this generation.”

The mastermind behind the account is Leia Jospé, a New York City photographer and a videographer for the HBO docuseries How To With John Wilson. Over the past year, the page has gained a cult following—“wake up babe, @favetiktoks420 posted”—creating an inside joke between 31,000 strangers who affably compete for the most-liked alternative caption. “It’s not about hating on these teenagers,” Jospé says. They’re literally “geniuses” making “Lynchian ass” work. Over tequila, she took W behind the scenes of mining her disturbing For You page for perverted e-boys’ thirst traps, out of sync lip-syncs, and improbable POV scenarios (if the videographers manage to get the concept of a POV right at all).

You started @favetiktoks420 in April, featuring a very particular kind of TikTok teen. Instead of Charli d’Amelio and Addison Rae, your account features the kids who saw what they were doing and made bootleg versions. How did you get into curating the best of the uncanny valley?

I was really into Vine back when it existed. As TikTok started coming up, friends would occasionally send me videos, though it took me a while to be down with them being longer than six seconds. The first thing I found on my own were these people who don’t have kids and are obsessed with baby dolls that look and act real. I got deep into that and realized, ‘There’s some fucking weird shit on here. Sick.’ Eventually on my For You page these e-boys showed up. I was mesmerized by teenage guys introducing themselves to “Gimme More” by Britney Spears. I’m 30—I could already listen to that song 50 times over, but the way they were moving was also hypnotizing. I spent the whole day on their profiles, saving stuff to send in my [How To With John Wilson] work group chat. This phenomenon was coming up in conversation a lot, and there was a really good article in Harper’s by Barrett Swanson. He talked to this kid Baron, one of the first people I watched, who was in “Clubhouse,” or whatever. Eventually my group chat was getting annoyed with me and suggested I put them all in one public place, which became the Instagram page. People deserve to see this freakishness.

I think it’s easy to write these boys off. Baron Scho gets paid to go to Disneyland and was quoted in Harper’s saying things like, “Yo, Hitler invented sex dolls. That’s why they all have blonde hair and blue eyes.” What about them intrigues you?

Young dudes are leaning into femininity in a way that I’ve never seen before. Gen Z is really into being queer or not-straight, I think because it’s now cool to have a reason to be oppressed, whether it’s mental illness or your gender identity. It has always been a very female trait to pose, to wear makeup, to care about likes and follows. They’re peacocking online in a specific way that feels like what girls were doing when I was younger. Sure, men were very online too, but they weren’t crying on camera.

What does that mean for the future of comedy?

It represents how Jokerfied young people’s attitudes about the world are. They’re making surface-level deep statements that mean absolutely nothing but that’s kind of all that’s left. It’s darkly hilarious.

There is only about a 10-year difference between your age and the average age of a Hype House resident, but they’re speaking a whole new language.

I find it fascinating what people put online. I was super online as a kid, but it was all anonymous and not attached to my face or my name. I used pseudonyms to post on message boards and lied to my real-life friends about having internet friends. Thank god no one can read my 5th grade LiveJournal. I wasn't cool; I wasn't sexy or hot; I was a fucking freak. But the internet was the only place I felt comfortable talking to anyone. I can relate to these kids spending an insane amount of hours [on the internet], but now what they do there is attached to their entire being and they’ll never get rid of that. The internet became real life, there is no split or an escape. It’s not even an extension because, if anything, more is happening online than off.

You have to be sympathetic to that. Especially in the pandemic, they weren’t seen if they weren’t making these little dances or talking to their ring light as if it’s an imaginary girlfriend. Do you feel attached to the cast of characters that you feature?

Oh, yeah. Tatum, Calvin, Terrell, Owen, Jaxin, Papa Wheelie. I like the “vibe guy,” the one who gives pep talks like, “‘Honestly, if I’m too much for you…’ as if he’s hopped up on Vyvanse at a drunk brunch and won’t stop talking to you. I love him because he’s mad sincere. He’s a golden retriever puppy who’s dumb but means no harm. There are so many characters and I’ll go hard on certain ones, watching every single video and saving a bunch as a little stockpile. Then I forget about them for a while, re-remember them… Sometimes I have to take a break from the cringe.

You can tell from the comments section that some people follow your account just to be mean. But you seem to see it differently.

I’m not being mean. Straight up I’m not. Even the villain of the account, that Russian guy @shelovee, people hate his guts and I originally did too. His incest videos are repulsive. But the more people were hating on him, I realized he’s actually so funny and weird that I’m obsessed with him. He’s endlessly entertaining me so I have to give him credit for that. I’m kind of jealous of TikTokers’ ability to not care about the things that I care about. They’re not self-conscious in the same way that I am. Not that they’re not concerned about how they’re perceived because I think they are; they wear tons of makeup, everything is filtered and earnest and purposeful. But I would be humiliated to act like that, even alone in my room to the camera. TikTok kids are kind of past self-awareness. They don’t need it, they don’t care about it, they never had it. I respect that. “Cringe” comes from feeling secondhand embarrassment about a lack of irony.

How did you develop a perspective that lets you see videos as more than cringe, which is kind of a write-off?

I consider myself somewhat of a generational cusp because of how online I was growing up, though the internet wasn’t as commercial and commodified, or owned by the same three companies in a way that squashes subcultures. I’m a little more empathetic to these kids than a lot of my peers. I think that’s why people gravitate toward my page because I’m good at picking up on the subtlety of what makes a certain failed lip-sync good and what connects all these things.

It’s literally outsider art. They’re geniuses. Removed from self-awareness but also removed from the culture beyond their orbit. They don’t know who David Lynch is but they’re making Lynchian ass videos. Tatum does these role-play sagas and everyone [on @favetiktoks420] is always like, ‘Oh, M. Night Tatum,’ ‘Quentin Tatumtino,’ ‘She’s basically Kubrick.’ When I interviewed her on Instagram Live, I asked her, ‘Do you know who any of these people are?’ And she was like, ‘No, who is that, my favorite director is Spielberg.’ They’re coming to these styles naturally and it’s sick, it’s really refreshing.

Art right now tends to be saturated with references and I’m exhausted by it.

And if you don’t get the references you’re deemed uneducated or you don’t know anything about film. ‘If you like that band, name three of their songs.’ Can’t I just enjoy something? It feels overwhelming to get into any type of art because everyone’s an asshole about it.

Your Live with Tatum was the first bridge between an original creator and the altered, irony-pilled state that a video enters when it’s posted to @favetiktoks420. Did she understand the project?

When she found it, I was really nervous that she was going to see mean comments and be upset. She was responding to people and was such a good sport, saying, ‘I would actually love to write screenplays someday, what have I done ‘wrong’?’ I messaged her, ‘Hey, I’m a big fan and most people on this page are. Don’t listen to those who don’t get it. You’re liked here.’ She totally got it.

The only time I’m being genuinely unkind is with the gross BDSM guys. I delete rude comments all the time, like anyone saying anything about Papa Wheelie’s neck. He obviously has a disability, he says it right in bio, but that’s not the point. He’s a brilliant cultural critic of himbos.

What’s the thread that connects your TikTok curation to your personal photography to your cinéma vérité work on How To With John Wilson?

It’s finding humor in everyday shit. In normalcy. I feel like I’m pretty observant. I don’t know if I’m necessarily the best photographer or videographer but I am good at noticing and paying attention. It’s fun to go on a walk and find something interesting, and it’s the same thing when I go looking around on TikTok. I like pointing out stuff. When all the TikToks that I save are in the same place, it’s easy to find what’s funny about them because of my tone. I think I’m pretty obvious.

Why do you think so many commenters ask whether the videos are ironic or sincere, as if they can’t believe people would post the things they do?

Millennials tend to still have a sense of privacy that they take somewhat seriously. Gen Z has a totally different relationship to being on camera or even being a person that other people are aware of. People are always saying, ‘The e-boys are becoming self-aware.’ Yeah, I think they are to some degree always a little self-aware. But I don't think they are in the way that you think that they are. Their work is funny and artistic in a way that they don't actually intend. Their intention is that this is an acting audition. They want to be cast in that Netflix show Outer Banks, but they're not realizing they're making these Lynchian pieces of art.

My favorite contemporary artist is Ryan Trecartin. He makes these sort of nightmares, exaggerations of reality TV. I feel like he’s predicted a lot of these young people’s vibe. And he’s not a hater. I don't think you can make interesting commentary as just a hater. You have to have some sense of respect, to like the women who plastic surgery their faces until they’re aliens to fully get it and make fun of it. Social media killed nuance, and now when you find it or find someone that can represent it, it feels really special. Everyone is so annoyed all the time. When you start giving things a little air and a chance to show themselves, you realize things are really complicated. No one knows what they're doing because culture is so sped up.

Has your internet experience changed since spending more time in this weird corner of it? Does it take a toll?

The internet is just an interest of mine. I’m addicted to it, but I love it and I’m getting something out of it. Everything has its place and I reserve days for being hungover and not wanting to talk to anyone for being on my phone all day.

I’ve made weird internet friendships through running the account, with people I’d probably never have met otherwise. Some regular commenters just hit every time. I talk a lot to a writer at Vogue, Liana [Satenstein]… But she thinks Mr. Gatsby—the one who wakes up in bed like, ‘How’d you sleep, baby?’—is hot. Like, so gross. But I like that, that people gravitate towards certain characters. There’s a whole canon, a universe. People reference Calvin on a Tatum video and everyone gets the joke. It's an inside joke with a bunch of people. That's all I've ever wanted from social media, is to laugh. I hate all the negative, evil shit that goes on, so it’s great to be able to cultivate this place that was only ever meant to be funny.