Inside her two-story home in Lawrenceville, Georgia, 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, 56-year-old Anita Redd has decorated the walls of her entryway with calendars, doctor’s instructions, and balance sheets scrawled on notebook paper. On a pantry door in the kitchen hangs a typed-up vision statement for her youngest son, Russell Horning: “For Russell to be internationally recognized talent in: acting, comedy, music, dance.”
Dance ranks last on Anita’s list of Russell’s future achievements because her 17-year-old son already has that part mostly figured out. Starting in first grade—or second, seventh, or ninth; he’s changed his story several times over the past few years—Russell created his now-signature move, originally called “The Russell,” in which he hypnotically swings his arms and hips back and forth. In summer 2014, Russell, then 12, posted a video of himself to Instagram trying out different dance moves in his bedroom—including his signature arm-and-hip swing. This is a kid who could just as easily have been trying out new moves in front of a mirror, as a past generation did with their favorite video stars, but instead, he made a video of himself to share on social media. After posting the video under his handle, @majesticcatlover, which had less than 400 followers at the time, Russell went to bed. The next day he woke up with at least 5,000 new followers. Over the next two years, Russell continued to post videos of himself and his friends flaunting their best moves, which sometimes included “The Russell.” His follower count grew—first in the thousands, and then in the tens of thousands.
On December 7, 2016, after the nominees for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, Rihanna celebrated her eight nominations on Instagram by reposting a video Russell had uploaded three days earlier; in it, he is standing in front of his bedroom closet, wearing Pikachu sweatpants pulled up to his rib cage and an expressionless face as he “pipes it up,” pumping one arm and opposite leg simultaneously. “When I found out about my 8 nods!!!” read Rihanna’s caption, linking her then-46 million followers to Russell’s latest Instagram handle, @i_got_barzz. (@majesticcatlover had been hacked a few months earlier.) That day, Russell’s Instagram account surpassed 100,000 followers, and the video received 4.7 million views overnight.
For the next few months, Russell’s internet fame grew slowly but steadily, as he continued to post videos of himself dancing alone (usually standing in the same spot: in front of his bedroom closet door), trying out moves with friends in his garage, or appearing in videos with other Atlanta-based viral dancers, such as @SheLovesMeechie (currently with 717,000 followers on Instagram) and @kingimprint (947,000 followers), and shouting out dance challenges by other viral celebrities. By January 2017, about a month after Rihanna’s repost, Russell boasted 283,000 followers and counting.
This is a kid who could just as easily have been trying out new moves in front of a mirror, as a past generation did with their favorite video stars, but instead, he made a video of himself to share on social media.
Then came his biggest break: on the May 20 season finale of Saturday Night Live, Russell performed his dance during musical guest Katy Perry’s performance of the song “Swish Swish.” He wore a gray shirt, black pants, and a brand-new Sprayground “Apache Wings” backpack. After his appearance, he and his signature dance were given new monikers: people started referring to him as “the backpack kid” and his dance, formerly known as “The Russell,” became known as “the floss.”
“People named it the floss after SNL—I think it was Twitter,” Russell tells me while seated at his mother’s kitchen table, a red beanie pulled over a shock of turquoise hair. Because of tweets like “I’m going as the backpack swish arms kid for Halloween,” which was quoted in articles about the performance in HuffPost, USA Today, and People, Russell began using the title “Backpack Kid” in all his branding, changing his Instagram username on May 23. (A YouTube tutorial by LokTer Shab, “HOW TO DO THE BACKPACK KID DANCE (THE FLOSS),” with 11.7 million views, likely also helped those names catch on.)
Flossing sounds simple: stand with your feet hip-distance apart; jut your hips and arms in the opposite direction, and then swing so that one arm moves behind you and the other moves across your torso. If you get the dance move right, you feel both accomplished and incredibly silly at the same time. For adults like 71-year-old Ted Danson, or 36-year-old actress Lupita Nyong’o—whose social media pages in March publicly broadcast a failed attempt at the floss alongside her more coordinated, younger costars from Us—it often requires more hip and arm coordination than one might expect. The floss, it appears, is often a young person’s game.
Still, this broadening, multigenerational appeal is how Russell’s dance began to bring in money. His SNL appearance paid $622.14, plus accommodations and a babysitter for his youngest sibling, Jill, and since then he’s made deals with New Balance, Under Armour, and, naturally, Sprayground, which offered him an endorsement deal for an undisclosed amount—all of which have been supervised by his mother, Anita.
Before Russell’s TV debut, Anita was already running a family business. In 2011, Anita began selling a family-tested remedy of beeswax and olive oil, based on a recipe she’d used to soothe her second oldest son’s eczema when he was little. By 2015, she was selling Anita’s Balm online and in 1,300 stores worldwide, some as far away as Australia. (Anita’s second husband, and Russell’s stepfather, Jason, works for the company full-time, designing the balm’s 3-D printed, biodegradable jars.) Today, Anita shifts between taking care of her four children (Ray, 25, is in the Marines; Kevin, 21, is a junior at Georgia State; and then there’s Russell, 17, and Jill, 6), overseeing Anita’s Balm, managing several rental properties in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta, and taking care of Russell’s career—for which she gets final say in all business decisions.
Anita keeps track of where her sons have traveled on a world map in the playroom. Red pushpins are for Ray, following his travels with the Marines, and blue pushpins are for Russell, who has twice as many as his brother. They mark the several dozen cities he’s traveled to for gigs, ranging from a prom in New Haven, Connecticut, to a Zumba convention in Orlando, to a meetup in Santiago, Chile, that drew more than 300 people.
If you think being a teen is tough enough, try being a teen who wants to parlay the fame of an internet dance craze into something more tangible: money. In a world where the next Ariana Grande might be found on Triller or TikTok, apps that allow users to star in and share their own music videos, influencers like Russell still have to pursue traditional avenues—i.e., “acting, comedy, music”—to make their 15 seconds of fame last. That is, unless Russell (or his mother, while he’s still a minor) figures out how to profit directly off his virality.
Viral dance crazes can start anywhere. But many of them originate in Atlanta, which has a legendary track record for creating social media celebrities under the age of 21: We Are Toonz is the hip-hop dance group behind the Nae Nae, a hip-swaying dance that first dropped on Vine in 2013, before spreading to YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. (Two years later, rapper Silentó made the Nae Nae the basis for his own dance hit, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”) Dancer and comedian Benny “King Imprint” Myumba’s million-plus YouTube subscribers are why his 2015 self-made dance video for iHeartMemphis’s “Hit the Quan” has millions more views than the rapper’s official video. In 2016, SheLovesMeechie parlayed his success promoting burgeoning rap hits with Vine dance videos to appearances on tours with Rae Sremmurd and Drake.
Russell started following these dancers on Instagram not long before his own first brush with fame. In the months after Rihanna’s shout-out but before his SNL appearance, Russell began filming videos with King Imprint and sibling duo Ayo and Teo of “Rolex” fame as a savvy form of cross-promotion. As Russell’s following grew, Anita would drive him as far as Nashville so that he could open for his friends’ concerts and grow his personal network. “We paid our dues,” Anita tells me. “We paid it on the road.”
Late one night in May 2017, a production designer emailed Anita asking if Russell would be able to appear “on a major television show” with “a major A-list musical artist.” That show was SNL. “Five minutes after the show was done, our life began,” Anita says. “My phone started blowing up because my number was on his Instagram.” Two days later, back in Lawrenceville, Anita arranged a press junket for Russell at her home and at a local park, booking 15-minute interview slots with ten local and national news outlets. Checkers, the restaurant chain, called asking if Russell could appear in a commercial for its dollar-menu fries.
“There would be papers all over the place for this trip, this trip, this trip, and I’d have them all around the counter,” Anita explains. “I’d have sticky notes everywhere for where he’s going next. Sometimes he would do two trips together. He’d start at one place, get a call, and fly cross-country on a red eye to go do another show.” Within two weeks of her son’s SNL appearance, Anita filed the paperwork to create a company for Russell, RH Performer, LLC. She also ironed out a contract with the Atlanta-based Winmore Agency to help manage her son’s career.
Though Winmore’s roster mostly consists of Gen Z artists such as BigChildSupport and Swaghollywood, it also features Dr. Dax, graffiti artist and member of the Dungeon Family, the formative Atlanta hip-hop collective behind OutKast and Goodie Mob. Winmore has built-in hip-hop cachet because it’s an affiliate of Motion Family, a production company launched in 2005 that makes music videos for songs such as Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 single “No Hands.”
Russell’s manager at Winmore is Russell Trotter, whose work uniform consists of a cap, a black T-shirt, camo pants, and white Stan Smiths. Trotter first met his client in the spring of 2017, at a concert hosted by Atlanta-based hip-hop station V-103. Neither of them remembers the names of the artists who performed that night. All Trotter remembers is the iPhone cameras held by adoring fans that trailed the teenager at all times. Russell didn’t need a manager to build his reputation from scratch; he needed one who could build off what he had already accomplished. “The strategy we saw is original content, because if you look at the floss, it’s really just original content,” Trotter says.
Influencers like Russell can command several different types of income streams, explains Trotter. “The residual income is based on music. But instead of doing a show for $5,000 to $10,000, you can just do a post or campaign,” he says. What makes Trotter’s job tricky, however, is that individual dance moves are hard to copyright; the US Copyright Office considers steps such as the waltz and the grapevine part of a common dance vocabulary. So Trotter has to find other ways to make Russell’s claim on the floss known and legitimized—to figure out a way to make a single bizarre moment in pop culture last for as long as Russell is game: “How can we brand this in the right way, and not make it a thing that disappears quick?”
At first, Backpack Kid’s brand was strong. Months after his SNL appearance, Katy Perry cast him in her celebrity-filled, basketball-themed video for “Swish Swish,” which features Russell doing a turbocharged version of his dance; Perry and the rest of the celebrities perform it together in the finale of the song. (The music video currently has more than 545 million views on YouTube.) In the fall of 2017, Russell starred in an ESPN segment featuring NFL players including Steelers linebacker T. J. Watts, Eagles wide receiver Mack Hollins, and Saints running back Mark Ingram, dancing the floss in the end zone. The 2018 Summer Olympics hired Russell to appear in a video, “The Olympic Day Dance,” in which Russell teaches viewers how to floss, alongside some of his other popular moves like the “swing,” the “skate,” and the “slide.” But by mid-2018, Russell and his mother began to notice that companies like Mentos, Legos, and Cheerios were featuring characters flossing in their television ads. The floss was growing bigger than Backpack Kid.
In December 2017, Epic Games released an update for its blockbuster technicolor battle royale video game Fortnite. This included a rare “emote,” a victory dance for characters that often costs a few bucks to unlock. Emotes often take inspiration from notable pop culture moments, such as Snoop Dogg’s finessed moves from the 2004 “Drop It Like It’s Hot” video (that emote is called “The Tidy”), or social media maven 2 Milly and his Milly Rock (“Swipe It”). But this emote’s inspiration was right in the name: “The Floss.”
Russell is an avid player of Fortnite: last year he was a top ten finalist in Fortnite’s Celebrity Pro-Am tournament. His bedroom features a Pro-Am poster in one corner and a Fortnite welcome mat outside his door. When he saw the new emote in the game shortly after it was released, he was stunned. “I was like whoa, my dance is actually in this game? That’s crazy.”
On December 12, 2017, Anita, through RH Performer, sued Epic in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for appropriating the floss. Russell wants to make clear that the lawsuit wasn’t his idea. “When it’s a company using it in a commercial, there’s definitely more exposure for the dance,” he says. “When somebody is just randomly doing it, yeah, a few people will see you. But in a whole ad, a lot more people are going to see that.”
Anita has a different opinion. “Russell’s job is to create content and entertain audiences,” she says. “My job is to ensure he gets credit and compensation for that work.” Redd v. Epic argues that Fortnite interfered with Russell’s own marketability: “The Floss is now inextricably linked to Backpack Kid and has continued to be a part of his celebrity persona,” reads the lawsuit.
Similar lawsuits against Epic by 2 Milly and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actor Alfonso Ribeiro have since been dropped, most likely because their moves aren’t complex enough by current copyright standards. Redd v. Epic is still pending because, on July 30, 2018, Redd herself managed to register the “flossin dance” as choreography, which the US Copyright Office has recognized since 1976. “I wanted him to get credit and compensation for the work he’s done to spread it across the planet,” Anita says. “Any time it began to be used for monetization, it felt different than just a celebrity doing it for fun.”
Redd v. Epic argues that Fortnite interfered with Russell’s own marketability: “The Floss is now inextricably linked to Backpack Kid and has continued to be a part of his celebrity persona.”
News of the lawsuit prompted Russell’s followers to accuse him of opportunism. “Everybody started commenting on my page: ‘Backpack Kid’s dance is in the game, and he went to the Pro-Am, and now he is suing,’” he tells me. This sort of criticism might explain why Russell’s transition, from a deadpan amateur dancer to a well-rounded celebrity, hasn’t gone that smoothly. Even though his single “Flossin’” (which includes the lyrics “Flossin’ when I’m about to get paid / I'll be flossin’ every day,” as well as instructions on how to floss) arrived in November 2017 to 11 million plays on YouTube, Russell has disabled comments on his channel. (A video of him reading hateful Instagram comments, like “u was big for a week now it’s time to stop,” still has its comments disabled.)
Last month, Russell announced his first headlining concert, Backpack Kid and Friends, to be held on May 25 at the Midtown Atlanta venue the Loft, which has a max capacity of 650. Triller, a short-form video app that is similar to Vine and TikTok, would be sponsoring the evening. “He’s been booked all over the world for shows,” Trotter tells me three weeks prior to the show. “He’s come out, danced with people, had his own set. But we’ve never produced our own show. This is a big moment for him.”
Russell spent the entire first weekend of May promoting the concert. He crashed two proms, including a night at the Delta Museum for Trotter’s alma mater, Benjamin E. Mays High. A Saturday afternoon meetup on May 4, at the 1.8-million-square-foot Mall of Georgia, about 40 miles from downtown Atlanta, doubled as a ticket giveaway. Such a strategy makes sense: last year, 300 people showed up to meet Russell in Chile with just 24 hours’ notice. But at the Mall of Georgia, only about two dozen people—parents, their chubby-cheeked kids, a tween with his own pink faux-fur backpack—sheepishly approach Russell for photos. If Russell hadn’t been giving away concert tickets, he could have been on any other trip to the mall, hanging out with his friends, taking detours through Foot Locker, Champs, and Cinnabon.
The next day, Russell headed to Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium, where he threw the first pitch for a game between the home team, the Yellow Jackets, and the Western Carolina Catamounts. Before he made his way out to the mound to test his arm in front of the crowd, he posed by a hot dog and pretzel stand for photos with Georgia Tech’s mascot, Buzz Bee, and grade-school attendees. One boy, who stood about half Russell’s height, posed for a photo with him by a concession stand as friends gawked from the bleachers below.
“Do you know the floss? He created it,” one boy said.
Another, peering over a pair of red glasses, replied, “I thought Fortnite invented the floss.”
Back in 2016, when a journalist from BET asked Russell how it felt to get Rihanna’s attention, he said it felt “good.” Now Russell speaks candidly about how his one tried-and-true social media strategy—sparking dance challenges with other viral celebrities on Instagram—no longer seems like enough to get noticed. “2016, 2017 was when [viral dances] were really, really popping. Nowadays they’re not nearly as big,” he says at his mother’s kitchen table, before the Mall of Georgia meetup. He has ditched the Pokemon sweats for skinny black jeans with artful paint splatters all over, and swapped his preteen bowl cut for a partly shaved head with neon hair that he occasionally braids, making him nearly impossible to miss in a crowd.
Once capitalizing on the floss no longer makes sense, Russell says he might turn the sketch comedy that he has posted for the past two years on his YouTube channel into a career. (“IT on a low budget,” filmed entirely on his backyard patio, has nearly 10 million views.) Trotter says Russell turned down a film role over the past year because “the character was wrong—super serious.” He has since met with several acting agencies and comedy writers, though in Trotter’s estimation, “his platform”—the content he produces for his 2.2 million followers on Instagram and more than 400,000 followers on YouTube—“is the audition.”
Still, Russell doesn’t quite have the charisma of most successful teen actors. When a Mall of Georgia shopper approached him to ask if Russell was Backpack Kid, Russell said, “Yep,” paused, then walked away. Like a class clown, he’s mostly just looking to impress his high school peers; the same friends who danced with him in his basement before he ever went viral, who wrote raps with him to perform at their middle school talent show, danced with him to Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” on the roof of an abandoned bus, and have filmed him rapping “I may be a twig, but I still have a heart / When I run out of milk, I go to Walmart.”
“When I was making videos in my room, dancing and doing the floss and all that, I wasn’t sitting there thinking, I’m going to be famous one day,” he tells me. “I was just doing it for fun.”
Russell’s ultimate dream is to star in a horror-comedy film like Happy Death Day 2, only scarier. This is mostly because he can already envision the hangout to come. “I want to be in a big role in a big movie, go to the theater with my friends, and see that movie,” he says, sipping water back at his mother’s kitchen table. “Five or six months of filming, for an hour and a half with my friends in the theater. That will be the best hour and a half in my life. Will Backpack Kid be the first to die in the film?”
Backpack Kid and Friends starts an hour later than scheduled. The dozen-person crowd that assembled in the Loft after the doors opened at 7 p.m. has now ballooned to, at most, 50 people; they’re fans, but mostly family and managers of the talent. But Backpack Kid and Friends has to go on. Sixteen performers, not including himself, are on the bill. Some of them made their own songs to dance to on TikTok. Most, like Seth Vangeldren, are internet-famous for dancing to rap songs.
Even though he’s the headliner, Russell is barely onstage. He appears three times during the night for a few minutes each. To announce his presence, he wiggles his hips exactly as he did in the video Rihanna made viral—a live rendition of an Instagram meme.
After an hour of performances by his “Friends,” Russell transitions to the scant original material he has to offer: “Flossin’” and “Too Young,” a duet with artist Yung Baby Tate from his December 2018 EP SwagPack Kid. Russell invites two audience members come onstage to try the floss themselves. To close, he previews two unreleased songs, and even manages to get the six tween boys left in the crowd to mosh to one of them, a woozy banger called “Balenciagas.” Throughout, as he does for many of his gigs, he wears the same Sprayground backpack that he did on SNL.
A meme doesn’t always have to be a proof of concept. Sometimes a dance is just a dance: exuberant, fleeting.
As the night drags on, I realize I’m not sure what I want or expect out of the evening: the goofy spontaneity that 12-year-old Russell displayed practicing his moves with abandon in his bedroom, the kind of dance you do when no one’s watching; or an elevation of his showmanship, his undeniable creativity, proof that Backpack Kid has surely arrived. What I end up getting is some unsatisfying approximation of both.
Social media experts argue that there is a golden ratio between interactions and followers, a “good” social engagement rate, that can determine an influencer’s “true” reach. If Russell’s social media stature is any indication, Backpack Kid and Friends in Atlanta should have felt like a homecoming. Instead, at best, the night was an amusing talent show at a venue that was entirely too big for the turnout. (“I love all 30 of y’all!” one performer hollered as he left the stage.)
None of this is to downplay Russell’s past success, or his efforts to carve out a future as a performer. “Right now we’re in this music bubble that we’ve created, so we’re going to explore that a little bit further,” Trotter says. This could be a smart move. Russell’s new music has the same youthful appeal as, say, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”—a song that is compelling on its own, while also providing a soundtrack for a viral meme, the #MannequinChallenge.
But it’s clear that a social media follower count is hardly a perfect barometer of influence. A meme doesn’t always have to be a proof of concept. Sometimes a dance is just a dance: exuberant, fleeting. And then the music stops.