TerRio is exhausted. The 6-year-old internet star is slumped over on the hood of a limousine outside downtown Miami's Grand Central nightclub. It's only 9:47 p.m. on a Saturday, but filming on TerRio's first professional music video is scheduled to continue through 7 a.m. the next day.
Suddenly, the somnolent kid born TerRio Harshaw snaps awake and lifts his arms like a referee calling a touchdown. He then utters one of his only complete sentences of the night: "I'm hungry!"
TerRio's name may not sound familiar, but just about anyone who's used Vine — the ubiquitous six-second looping video app — has probably seen his "Oooh Kill 'Em" dance, a goofy freestyle that involves snapping his fingers and pawing at the ground. The original video has been seen millions of times since a neighbor posted the portly child dancing on Vine last July. After being discovered by Miami manager Herbert "Dooney" Battle, TerRio has now accumulated 1.1. million online followers, posed with dozens of celebrities, and begun charging thousands for personal appearances.
TerRio's Dance Blew Up the Internet, but What's It Doing to Him?
"I found him online before he got big and went and got him," Battle says. "He was buzzing a little, but after 'Oooh Kill 'Em,' it just went insane."
Amid the fervor, though, some critics have worried that TerRio is the latest in a line of internet-famous kids whose notoriety has become profitable. He's apparently been taken out of his E.W. Oliver Elementary School in Riverdale, Georgia, and sent to live part-time in Miami with Battle, a 25-year-old with a criminal record. Artists have ranted on Twitter about the fees Battle is charging for the youngster's performances, gossip blogs are alight with questions of where the money is going, and there's even a petition on change.org to get him "out of the clutches of social network fame."
Lil TerRio, some warn, might be in danger of becoming the first child-celebrity casualty of the Vine age. "It seems absurd, but in this era of insanity, it makes total sense," says Rusty Redenbacher, an independent musician in Indianapolis who has been an outspoken critic on Twitter. "People today are really into spectacles as much as anything else. What do these kids do besides be cute and chubby? He's the Honey Boo Boo of online."
Child stardom used to be a calculated move carefully plotted by families and studios; you can't accidentally appear in a Hollywood movie, after all. In the digital age, though, huge fame can happen unexpectedly to young children — and sometimes lead to disastrous results.
Remember Ghyslain Raza? He's better-known as "Star Wars Kid," the Canadian whose classmates in 2003 leaked a Jedi-wannabe video of him practicing sword-fighting moves; Raza later had to drop out of school to seek therapy over his viral fame. Although he recovered and ultimately graduated from McGill University with a law degree, others weren't so lucky. Like Aleksey Vayner, a Yale student who committed suicide in 2006 after his video résumé "Impossible Is Nothing" was heavily mocked on the web.
More recently, internet fame has inspired some families to profit from their kids' viral stunts. Miami is no stranger to TerRioesque performers. In 2012, a local 6-year-old rapper named Albert Roundtree Jr. drew criticism with a video that depicted the tyke suggestively squirting scantily clad, gyrating women with a water gun. The outrage was so extreme that one Vibe writer quipped: "I should call child protective services." (Apparently no one did, as Roundtree still has a regularly updated Facebook page dedicated to his celebrity career.)
Whatever unease lingered from Roundtree's troubling brush with fame didn't prevent Lil TerRio from bursting onto the scene last year.
Born just outside Atlanta, he was raised in Riverdale by a 33-year-old hairdresser named Nyia Paul. Riverdale, the hometown of rapper Waka Flocka Flame, has a population of about 15,000 and is thoroughly suburban. TerRio's dad apparently wasn't in the picture, and civil court records in Clayton County suggest the single mother struggled financially throughout his childhood. Paul has been served with four eviction notices in the past four years for the three-bedroom house she shared with her four children.
Everything changed for the family on June 28, 2013, when 17-year-old high school basketball player Maleek Taylor posted a short video online of his young neighbor dancing. "My cousin TerRio out here, still, he at it again," Taylor says as the human Magic 8 Ball begins snapping his hand and shaking his pelvis. The Vine quickly racked up almost 340,000 "likes" and went viral with nearly as many shares.
National sports stars helped spread his fame. In October, LeBron James dropped the "Oooh Kill 'Em" phrase in a Samsung commercial. On November 10, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin did a Lil TerRio impression after scoring his third touchdown of the game against the Indianapolis Colts. Later that afternoon, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker mimicked TerRio after scoring a 46-yard field goal in overtime. In January, TerRio danced at the Super Bowl's media day.
Battle, a South Florida-based talent manager, is certainly banking on the press. Before this even started in June, he contacted Paul and soon set up a management deal through his company, Tha Lights Inc., which started selling a line of merch like $25 T-shirts and $46 hoodies. This year, TerRio started touring nightclubs and charging $8,000 for a three-hour appearance. Most recently, he hosted a party at Aria Entertainment Complex in Toronto on March 22.
There's no question Battle has turned the Vine fame into real cash for TerRio's family, but critics worry about the manager's personal history.
A Miramar native who attended Parkway Academy, Battle has been arrested twice on felony charges. On June 19, 2007, police say Battle hit his pregnant girlfriend on the back of the head with an open hand with enough force that she fell onto a bed. Then, according to an arrest report, he got on top of her and pinned her down by her arms and later jumped on her again. Prosecutors took no action, according to court records. On December 14, 2011, he was charged with armed robbery after police say he took an acquaintance's wallet at gunpoint. Prosecutors also took no action in that case.
It's also unclear how TerRio's education is coming along, with all of his obligations as a touring performer. Fans started asking questions last summer, using hashtags like #FreeTerRio and #JusticeForTerRio to push the family for information. By November, a Philadelphia resident who goes by Nova Giovanni had started the change.org petition.
"It started actually as kind of a joke, but then others started leaving me comments that brought up the real issues of child exploitation," says the 28-year-old, who declined to give his real name but says he became concerned because he teaches autistic kids.
TerRio's former teacher in Georgia did not return multiple requests for comment from New Times, and Michelle Caver, a guidance counselor at the school, said she was aware TerRio Harshaw had become famous but couldn't discuss whether he was currently enrolled at the school.
Battle also declined to speak with New Times about TerRio's education, though he said last month that he's in charge of the child star's tutoring.
Experts say there's nothing legally preventing TerRio's family from taking the kid on the road to show off his roly-poly dance for fans.
"On a national level, children in the entertainment business have been exempt from federal child labor laws since 1938," says Paul Petersen, a former Mouseketeer who now runs an advocacy group for young performers. "And Florida is a right-to-work state, which effectively has no child labor laws and no oversight." In 2012, California passed the only law requiring background checks for managers working with child stars.
How does TerRio himself feel about his new day job? He's done only one interview, with Complex magazine last August, and it doesn't provide much insight. Out of about 40 questions, TerRio answers 16 with "yes" or "yeah" and four with "Hanh?"
That's why New Times attended his music video shoot on March 1 to meet the child sensation in person. TerRio's mother was present, along with three older siblings. Seated in a director's chair was his manager Battle, who favors gold grills, hoodies, and flat-brimmed hats.
As cameras roll, TerRio perches on the hood of a limo that drives at molasses speeds up and down a Miami side street as his older brother Polo raps in front of the vehicle.
Battle had promised an interview with TerRio and hinted at a sympathetic, untold narrative. "When he was 2, he was a vegetable for 67 days," he said. "He had his tonsils removed, and it went bad. They were going to pull the plug in 48 hours, and then 24 hours into it, he came back."
And all the recent fame has just improved a struggling family's life, Battle says. "He's just a happy kid, man."
TerRio's 10-year-old sister, Mikayla, echoed that view. "Everyone used to make fun of TerRio for being big, but now people that never ran with us run with us," she says as she watches the video shoot. She says the family has also upgraded to a five-bedroom house thanks to profits from the tour.
Around 11:30 p.m., TerRio breaks away from the set to play tag with some other kids who happen to be hanging around. It doesn't last long, though — there are more sequences to shoot and more dancing to be done.
Ultimately, by the time the ten hours of shooting wraps at 5 a.m., TerRio is too tired to talk. Though Battle promised a follow-up interview the next morning, no one showed up; TerRio's mother soon stopped returning calls from New Times, as did Battle.
In the end, it's hard to say with any certainty whether the pros of the money TerRio's family has made from his unexpected fame will outweigh the problems that come with an untested new form of child stardom.
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But one other attendee at his video shoot has an educated opinion.
Lele Pons is a 17-year-old Miami Country Day School senior known for hilarious stunts she pulls on Vine. Although she's beautiful in a high-school cheerleader mold, she's amassed 1.5 million fans by throwing her body around like a stunt double for slapstick laughs.
Pons showed up at the shoot after Battle sent her a message asking if she wanted to be in the video. Alongside her architect dad, she waited for instruction. It never came. And after a few hours watching TerRio's antics, she went from excited to depressed.
"This is horrible. He has no idea what he's doing," Pons said as she and her father left the set. "I went over and tried to say 'hi,' and all he did was start doing the dance."