MILFORD — Five years ago, Lizzy Howell posted a video of herself performing a pirouette to her Instagram page.
That video has since garnered nearly half a million views, words of support from celebrities like model Tess Holliday and a budding career in dance.
“This is what I wanted to do my whole life,” Ms. Howell said. “I never thought I could until I went viral.”
Since going viral, Ms. Howell’s talent and dedication to dance has offered her opportunities like being asked to perform with Shawn Mendes and Khalid in a music video, being featured in clothing campaigns for Target and American Eagle and modeling with Ashley Graham.
She’s earned a following of more than 250,000 on Instagram and 460,000 on TikTok — as well as amassing 15.3 million likes on TikTok.
In 2019, she was a dancer with French singer Bilal Hassani during Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she was in good company as one of three Americans to perform — the other two Americans being Madonna and Quavo.
Despite her success, Ms. Howell, 20, never intended to go viral on social media, nor did she have aspirations to become a social media star.
“It was overwhelming and shocking because I didn’t understand why people kept sharing it,” Ms. Howell said of her initial video. “I was just being myself — I didn’t see anything special with it. It also happened fast.”
She is still lukewarm about the concept of being famous on social media, saying in an interview Friday, she’s set her sights on being a professional dancer in Los Angeles, California, over being a social media star.
With the fleeting nature of social media in mind, Ms. Howell created a GoFundMe page to help support her journey of moving across the country to Los Angeles. With an initial goal of raising $25,000, Ms. Howell’s GoFundMe was at nearly $31,000 as of press time.
The donations will be put toward an apartment and possibly a car, according to the GoFundMe description.
Ms. Howell has a rare brain condition called pseudotumor cerebri, which occurs when high pressure inside the skull increases due to the buildup or poor absorption of fluids. The donations also will help pay for medications used to manage the disease until she has a job with good insurance.
Dancing too, Ms. Howell said, has a longer shelf life than social media.
“Dance is everywhere. It’s on TV, it’s in movies, it’s at award shows,” Ms. Howell said. “I don’t think dance is going anywhere. I’ll ride the social media while I can, but it’s not necessarily what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Ms. Howell was 16 years old when she originally uploaded the video of herself dancing that went viral. That video’s target audience was friends and family rather than a global one.
“I had no idea what social media would turn out to be,” Ms. Howell said. “At the time, you would follow your friends and they follow you. I didn’t see how people had careers through social media. Five years later and that’s what a lot of people are doing now.”
There are pros and cons that go with becoming an overnight internet sensation. Ms. Howell said people often feel compelled to comment on her videos without knowing the full story behind each post.
“It gives me a lot of opportunities,” she said of going viral and being famous. “It’s also opened me up to a lot of criticism that I was not used to. I got bullied all the time when I was in school, but this was another level of like hundreds of thousands of people telling me I’m not good enough. It just elevated that self doubt in me to the max.”
Ms. Howell has been dancing since she was young. She took up the hobby after her mother was killed in a car crash. To help her through her grief, her aunt enrolled her in every extracurricular activity she could think of — dance was the one that stuck.
“For some reason, it stuck with me,” she said. “As I get older, I realize it’s kind of like my safe space.”
Ms. Howell said through dance, she is able to communicate and process her feelings where words fail her.
Through her internet success, Ms. Howell has taken an active role in social justice issues. During the 2020 presidential election, she was part of a group called “TikToks for Biden” that worked directly with President Joe Biden’s campaign office.
After President Biden was elected to office, the group changed to #genz4change, which Ms. Howell said now aims to hold the president accountable for following through on promises he made while campaigning.
“I was not really into politics until I was 15 and my social media blew up,” she said. “I saw what people were going through and how much privilege I have.”
Topics of interest for her are civil rights, voter suppression and climate change.
“It’s a big thing for me — using my voice as a white person to uplift voices of minorities,” she said.