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.
"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.