How one TikTok star went from living in his car to building a comedy career
Two years ago Leo González (@leogonzall) was working a couple of part-time jobs and trying to squeeze in college TV news production classes while living with his mother in Hanford, Calif. In quick succession, his mother was placed in a full-time care facility after having a stroke, and then his friend was brutally murdered. Despondent and unable to make rent, González, 26, moved into his car. Then one day while he was at church, the school camera equipment he’d left inside was stolen. “That’s when I moved to Reno,” he says. “And that’s where everything changed.”
In January 2020, he landed a production assistant position at the local CBS affiliate and began supplementing his income by delivering groceries for Instacart and Postmates. He downloaded TikTok after seeing some videos cross-posted on Twitter and lurked for several weeks before creating a video that went largely unnoticed. A few months later, he posted a send-up of the type of awkward exchange he’d seen countless times: a news anchor teeing up a field reporter only to encounter an awkward transmission delay. It earned him 5,000 followers overnight. “And from there, I was like, ‘Okay, I have a few more ideas about stuff that happens behind the scenes,’” he says.
González has keen powers of observation, which proved useful in writing and producing TV news stories. But for TikTok, he also harnesses his dry wit. He began creating scenes that TikTokers could immediately relate to. He mimicked a McDonald’s worker placing an order at a different restaurant and followed it with versions for Taco Bell and Starbucks. The series racked up more than 6 million views and earned 600,000 followers. By October, he’d begun reliably hitting millions of views by parodying Walmart shoppers, exasperated teachers, Target employees, and the comedian George Lopez.
By year’s end, a few L.A.-based creator friends convinced him it was time to move again. He packed his car, figuring he’d deliver groceries to pay his share of the rent. “I just told myself, I’ll do whatever I got to do to get through the next month, and then hopefully I can get a $500 brand deal or something,” he says. “And hopefully someone will send me a PR box with some food.”
González hit a creative groove, creating hilarious duets with his pals. But navigating the ad landscape proved tricky. “A lot of influencers don’t like to share their secrets,” he says. “My first deal was for a little ramen cooker. I got 40 bucks, and I thought it was a good deal because they also sent me three cookers. That’s like a $70 value!”
González created a series of videos for a restaurant chain in which the management team haggled him down from $120 each to $300 for three. Later he learned that the client had paid $7,000 for a similar series to someone with fewer followers. “I started realizing that these companies were very aware of what they were doing, and I felt so humiliated,” he says. It happens a lot to creators, especially those without representation. “One friend who just hit a million followers still gets really excited over sketchy emails that are full of misspellings from companies offering 80 bucks. Maybe it’s just because of our ages that we get treated that way. But it’s still kind of early, and there are still a lot of unknowns.”
González is now represented, as many creators are, by an influencer agency and has created campaigns for Jack in the Box, Paramount, Hulu, La Michoacana. His starting point for branded campaigns is now four figures. He was recently named one of TikTok’s 2021 Latinx Trailblazers, and the platform has unleashed his creativity. González is writing a memoir and two TV series—a talk show hosted by his primary character, Junior, and a mockumentary.
They may be long shots, but González believes in himself. So much so that he recently made a dramatic step. “I deleted Instacart about three weeks ago. I was really kind of emotional because it was a way of saying, this is a next step, showing trust in yourself,” he says. “Then I deleted Postmates, too.”
A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Fortune.
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This story is part of Fortune‘s Creator Economy package.