The Brief Death (and Short Rebirth) of Lil Tay

Just after her 16th birthday, the 2018-era social media phenomenon returned to the spotlight with a perplexing death hoax. In the aftermath, former associates see the handiwork of her brother, who developed the persona that first brought her fame.
Lil Tay poses for a portrait at in Los Angeles California on May 22 2018.
Lil Tay poses for a portrait at in Los Angeles, California on May 22, 2018.By Philip Cheung @philipcheungphoto.

Harry Tsang moved to Los Angeles about eight years ago. He was ready to make the switch from his previous base of Orlando to operate on a bigger stage. At 32 years old, he prides himself on his experience in the social media business—“I’m among the oldest, basically,” he said. Within a couple years of his move, he began managing Woah Vicky, a blonde 17-year-old social media personality who made sport of defending her claim that she was Black. The maneuver brought Vicky a short run of 2017-vintage celebrity, and it brought Tsang in touch with Lil Tay, a 10-year-old from Vancouver who called herself “the youngest flexer” and covered herself online in hundred-dollar bills and designer clothes.

Danielle Bregoli Brawls With Woah Vicky and Lil Tay!!!” a TMZ headline read in 2018. Vicky had been in a feud, she said, with Bregoli (another social media personality better known as Bhad Bhabie) and they met up outside the Americana mall in Glendale, California, to escalate the dispute. Lil Tay came along, and her star began to rise; she associated online with rappers Lil Pump, Chief Keef, and XXXTentacion, and met up with storied hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. In September 2018, Tsang said, he flew to Vancouver to work out an arrangement with Lil Tay’s father to become her manager, joining the gaggle of adults jousting for a hand in her future.

For a numbing, amusing, concerning few months, Lil Tay was a persistent social media phenomenon. She said she grew up broke in Atlanta and dropped out of Harvard. She recorded rap music and sent brash provocations at other online personalities to form absorbing, if obvious, contrasts of stature, age, and race. She was also the central figure in a series of battles among relatives, hangers-on, and manager types. “There’s a lot of, quote, unquote, former managers,” one of the latter recently told me, “but no one really represented her to the fullest, like I did.”

After Lil Tay and her half-brother Jason Tian moved to Los Angeles to build her career, Jason developed some notoriety of his own. In May 2018, a video circulated of him feeding his sister lines to recite for her persona, and New York reported in 2019 that he operated her Instagram account. Jason was at the time a 16-year old rapper and YouTuber, but appeared to find a new lane as Lil Tay’s Svengali as she became known for a series of staged stunts and controversies. In 2021, allegations that Lil Tay’s father, Chris Hope, abused her appeared on her Instagram. Hope denied the claims and sent Instagram a cease-and-desist letter; there’s no mention of abuse allegations in the available Vancouver court records for a long-running custody battle between Hope and Lil Tay’s mother, Angela Tian. Jason raised more than $17,000 on GoFundMe on the basis of his claim that Hope abused Lil Tay. (Jason and Lil Tay have different fathers. Angela and Hope’s relationship ended in 2008, according to court records, the year after Lil Tay was born.)

“Her brother was the creator behind the character,” the former manager told me. “I do believe that he has some narcissistic traits. I think he was very egotistical and obviously consumed by fame, popularity, and a position of power.”

All of this has largely been forgotten in the years since. Lil Tay’s particular strain of celebrity had been fleeting to begin with, and by now an uncountable number of other microfame eras have passed. Then, earlier this month, a post on Lil Tay’s Instagram account announced that she and Jason had both died. A frenzy ensued, harking back to the siblings’ heyday.

Lil Tay’s father sounded confused when asked by the New York Post whether someone could confirm his daughter’s death, telling the tabloid, “Um, no, not that I’m aware of.” Tsang muddled matters further when he told The Sun, “Given the complexities of the current circumstances, I am at a point where I cannot definitively confirm or dismiss the legitimacy of the statement issued by the family.”

“That Harry Tsang guy gave that dumbass statement,” the former manager told me, “which was a bunch of words saying nothing at all.” Tsang told me that soon after the purported death announcement, he called Duane Laventure, whom he described as the family’s “handler.” “When I was on the phone with him, he refused to comment,” Tsang said. “And then from that point on I knew something was up.” (Laventure didn’t return a request for comment.) Reports that a Lil Tay cryptocurrency was released shortly after the announcement compounded the sense that something had been staged.

“I pray its not real kid,” Alex “Loyalty” Gelbard, another former Lil Tay manager, wrote on Instagram alongside a picture of himself and her.

A full day passed before Lil Tay told TMZ that she and her brother were, in fact, alive and that she had merely been hacked. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, later told the outlet that she was being truthful about not being able to access her account and that the company helped her get it back. (Meta didn’t return a request for further comment.)

This did not settle the matter for those who have been in Lil Tay’s orbit. “I believe the reported hacking incident may not have occurred,” Tsang told The Daily Beast, adding, “the actions of Lil Tay’s brother, renowned for his propensity for extreme measures, lead me to hypothesize an alternative motive behind this occurrence.” He guessed that it was a publicity stunt designed to “illicitly extract funds from devoted supporters and unwitting bystanders.”

“Based on my experience of working with her brother,” the former manager told me, “he will do anything and everything to gain attention. And that’s exactly what I believe he did.”

“Crazy 48 hours,” Gelbard wrote on Instagram. “I’ve seen a lot of things done irresponsibly to leverage things, but this went too far. A hustle is a hustle but EVERYONE has to have a limit.” (When reached for further comment, Gelbard said, “I’m just cautious because of everything happening right now. I lost my own IG during all this.”)

When I reached out to the email address associated with Lil Tay’s Instagram, I quickly received a note back from someone identifying himself as Ken Ross, a childhood family friend. “Lil Tay has never had a manager,” Ross said. “Anyone claiming to have formerly managed Lil Tay is a fraud.”

“Harry Tsang is definitely affiliated with the hacking,” he went on. “I invite you to be the first to write an article, exclusive of course, unraveling the truth behind Harry Tsang.” He said that Meta “has already confirmed the hacking” and that Tsang was trying to gin up interest in a Lil Tay cryptocurrency he was launching.

Tsang told me, “If they really are sure about it, they should go to court and prove that” and that he has “nothing to hide.” He figured they were pinning the blame on him “because I screwed their plan.”

“That’s why they hate me,” Tsang said.

“When Tay is back and available, she can provide exclusive commentary specifically for your publication,” Ross wrote. He stopped responding when I asked to speak with Lil Tay.

In June 2018, a month and a half after the fight outside the Americana, Lil Tay seemed to vanish. She soon turned 11 years old, even though the popular narrative at the time was that she was a budding nine-year-old rapper, and her parents were locked in their custody battle. Angela Tian supported her daughter’s career path, but Hope objected to what court records describe as his daughter’s “shocking, crude and vulgar language and actions.” He obtained a court order requiring her to return to Vancouver and her Instagram account went dormant.

Angela went on to claim that Lil Tay lost lucrative entertainment contracts because of Hope’s refusal to approve them. Lil Tay’s Instagram returned in October of that year with a series of claims that Hope neglected his daughter. They were accompanied by purported court documents that, as New York noted in 2019, used “Lil Tay” rather than a legal name.

Two years into Lil Tay’s silence, Angela made an application to a Vancouver judge to relocate with her to Los Angeles. One point of contention was that Hope disputed paying child support for Jason, who hadn’t attended school since 2018, the year of Lil Tay’s rise, and who, court records say, “was reported to be depressed.” Angela wanted sole decision-making powers for Lil Tay, and the sole right to approve contracts where a response was required within five business days.

Lil Tay turned 16 at the end of July this year—a couple of weeks before the announcement of her death and a reentry, however brief, into the spotlight. “I think they want to make sure that Lil Tay is old enough, so that if the father comes and asks for reversal of custody, he’s not gonna be successful,” Leena Yousefi, a Vancouver family lawyer, told me. “And when a kid reaches the age of 16, the chances of the father having any say in anything is basically none. So I think out of an abundance of caution, they waited until she was 16 before going back out.” The terms of Angela’s relocation application haven’t been made public. When I asked Hope if Lil Tay’s 16th birthday figured into her reappearance, he declined to comment on the record.

On August 18, Lil Tay returned to Instagram once again, now with a statement from a Vancouver family law firm representing Angela. MacLean Law, it said, had “obtained orders for our client that have enabled her daughter to advance her career,” including “sole day-to-day and final decision-making powers and responsibilities” and that “Ms. Tian is the person entitled to sign contracts.” (Angela’s lawyers didn’t return a request for further comment.)

Another person who worked with Lil Tay in the past figured that she and Jason are now back on the path to fame. “Jason’s a genius and he knows what he’s doing,” he told me. “He’s no different than Zuckerberg. You can hate him but it doesn’t matter. He’s going to win.”

A teenage version of Lil Tay’s fame would entail the resuscitation of her brief infamy, and this time without the shock value of her age. That’s one reason to be pessimistic about her prospects, but the former manager had another. He’s trying to model himself after Clive Davis, Tommy Mottola, and Sue Mengers, and doesn’t hold Jason in the same regard. “It’s a lazy strategy,” he said. “Yes, you get eyes on me. But to be honest, if you’re gonna go that low into orchestrating a fake death, not only for your sister, but for yourself—allegedly, if he did do this—you need the next thing. I would have dropped an album or documentary the next day.”