Chris Olsen, a viral TikTok star and a People Magazine “Sexiest Guy” honoree, was nearly on the cover of the first holiday issue of Bethesda Magazine.
His mom, Maria, was a freelance writer for the magazine. In 2004, when he was 7 years old, he took part in a photoshoot at Caribou Coffee.
There’s some confusion over exactly how he messed up the pictures — his mom recalled his
smile looking too forced; he remembers being unable to stop fidgeting. Either way, only the photos of his sister made the cut.
Olsen is much more accustomed now to photos, videos and public appearance. He has built up a following of 4.8 million followers on TikTok — a website and app where people share short videos — largely for completing “couple’s challenges” with his boyfriend, Ian Paget.
In the videos, Olsen asks a question or acts oddly and records Paget’s response.
In one challenge, Olsen was holding Paget’s hand, then filmed Paget’s reaction when he threw his hand away without an explanation. Another time, Olsen asked Paget to make him breakfast before saying he wasn’t hungry.
Olsen grew up in Chevy Chase and got his start performing in Bethesda. He participated in plays at local venues, including Imagination Stage, Glen Echo Park and St. Albans School.
He now lives in Los Angeles while taking remote classes at the Boston Conservatory Berklee School of Music, where he’s a senior. He returns to Chevy Chase for holidays.
@olsennchrisFrom last night. What a wonderful talk we had! @ianpaget_♬ original sound – Chris Olsen
Olsen — who turns 23 on Tuesday — started making videos of himself dancing to popular songs in March 2020. He had heard that TikTok was popular among young people. Making videos helped him cope with the boredom of quarantine.
Additionally, Olsen and Paget are both artists who sought a creative outlet while stuck inside. The videos helped them perform, and they built up a following of about 200,000.
They first connected online, when Olsen saw Paget on a mutual friend’s Instagram account and tried to catch his attention by quickly liking his past photos. Paget largely ignored the effort, sending only one like back, so Olsen thought he wasn’t interested.
They saw each other in person in 2019 at a party at WorldPride, an international celebration of LGBT issues. Paget remembers seeing Olsen, who was with a mutual friend but too caught up in the music to say hello. The next day, he saw on Instagram that Olsen was awake and doing a photoshoot — all before 10 in the morning.
Paget messaged him with one word: “How?”
Olsen initially misinterpreted that as Paget asking how he looked so good. What Paget had really been asking was how he was awake so early after having been at a party until late the night before.
The message prompted them to start talking online. When Olsen later went on a vacation to New York, where Paget was living at the time, the two met up for a first date. Olsen remembered thinking he might be falling in love after one day, and they continued meeting up while Olsen was in New York.
@olsennchrisRSVP for the surprise cleaning party below ⬇️⬇️⬇️ @ianpaget_♬ Act 2: In the Hall of the Mountain King – Edvard Grieg
When Paget, a 33-year-old actor, moved to Los Angeles, Olsen figured it would be good to join him in the city in case their videos took off.
The videos did. After the first “couple’s challenges” video, in which Olsen asked Paget if he wanted to have kids, Olsen catapulted from 200,000 followers to a million. He watched as the video gained about 20,000 views each minute.
Seeing the popularity, he made a similar video the next day.
The second video, in which Olsen filmed Paget’s reaction to him throwing away his hand, also went viral. During the video, Paget told the flowers in the backyard to “focus on your blooming,” which became the couple’s catch phrase.
Maria Olsen said her son’s video content is a welcome distraction during the current challenges.
“I personally think it was because of the pandemic that people were looking for something light and uplifting,” she said. “And my son’s content is very much along those lines.”
Chris Olsen said his success might stem from the fact that he and Paget are a gay couple, but that is not the focus of their videos.
“We’re a gay couple, but we’re not really commenting on the fact that we’re gay,” Olsen said. “Maybe some gay child in Kansas who hasn’t come out yet and has never met a gay person is seeing two gay people interact, but not in a way that comments on their gayness, so you’re just seeing that it’s OK.”
That’s what he loves about the app, Olsen said — that he can reach such a broad audience. His videos have drawn comments from people who were previously against gay rights who said watching his channel altered their viewpoint.
“We’re gay rights advocates in the way of just showing ourselves,” Olsen said. “You are forced to see us and personalize us.”
@olsennchrisre-uploading with cc 😄 @ianpaget_ ##cc♬ original sound – lit laura
He uses the platform to advocate for other causes he cares about. Though most of his videos are lighthearted, others advance important issues.
The couple became more popular during the nationwide reckoning with racism and instances of police brutality this summer. When George Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, Olsen stopped making his usual videos. He began boosting BIPOC —Black, indigenous, and people of color — creators on his platform.
Now, he urges his followers to wear masks and stay safe from COVID-19.
Additionally, in a YouTube video on his account, he decided to share his experience with alcoholism. He initially questioned whether to post a video about his struggle with addiction, but decided sharing the experience might help others.
“There’s a point where it’s no longer about me,” Olsen said. “It’s about who I may affect.”
The video has amassed about 179,000 views in three months. The comments on the video, many from people struggling with addiction or who have overcome it, validate his decision to share the painful experience.
With his large following, brands have contacted him about advertising their products. He has worked with Amazon, Timberland, and Hello Fresh. But he has consistently declined to boost any alcohol brands.
Maria Olsen said this is part of what makes her proudest of her son — how he has handled the newfound responsibility. None of his success would have been possible if he were still drinking, she said, but he has stayed responsible and accountable, even as he starts to become famous.
@olsennchrisHe rly exposed me here huh @ianpaget_♬ original sound – Chris Olsen
Chris Olsen said he now feels independent. He’s financially stable for the first time, Olsen said, after spending much of college with about $5 in his bank account. His mother doesn’t have to worry about him preparing his own meals, as meal delivery services send him products.
To coordinate the deals, Chris and Ian got a manager as their popularity grew. With Olsen still a senior in college, the business side of TikTok was too much to handle themselves.
According to Olsen, the process of getting brand deals and endorsements is far more complicated than it might appear. It involves both parties agreeing on the concept of a video and the actual content, and requires that the creator send analytics to the company.
Maria Olsen said she’s surprised at how often her son gets recognized. She asked if he’d seen any celebrities when he recently went shopping on Rodeo Drive, the famous district in Hollywood. He said no, but a lot of people recognized him.
“Last year, I was working as a babysitter at Equinox and this year I’m on People’s sexiest list,” Chris Olsen said. “So, life changes quickly.”
He first found out he was a nominee for one of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Guy” readers’ choice awards when a follower messaged him. He saw that he was a nominee in the “Sexiest Guy on TikTok” category, but People had a screenshot of an unflattering picture from one of his videos.
He posted on Instagram about the funny situation, and ultimately was voted the winner in that category. Readers voted from a group of five TikTok creators. Paget was one of the other four finalists.
“I ended up winning, whether it was from pity or not,” Olsen said. “That’s not something I thought 2020 was going to bring me. It’s really crazy.”
Olsen hopes to use his TikTok platform as a jumping-off point for a career in musical theater — once Broadway plays reopen. He has long wanted to pursue a career as an artist, and was always a performer, Maria Olsen recalled.
“He was a showman from age 3 or 4,” she said. “We would put on plays in our house or outside and he was always wanting to be the star.”
When he was 4, he would ride on his grandmother’s lap while she traveled up and down the halls of her local nursing home in her wheelchair. He waved to all of the other residents and said, “Hi, ladies,” Maria Olsen said.
When he headed out, he would yell, “Elvis is leaving the building.”