The strange case of Paul Zimmer, the disgraced video star who rebranded himself as a boy

Twenty-four-year-old Zimmer posted pictures and videos as Troy Becker, losing only his trademark frosted tips hairstyle and tell-tale adult stubble.

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Paul Zimmer, now 24, was one of the biggest stars on Musical.ly – an app for sharing lipsyncing videos that was in 2018 bought by TikTok, the fastest-growing social media platform in the world. If you aren’t a native user of either of these apps, Zimmer’s viral stardom may be confusing: most of his videos feature him doing jerky dance moves to pop tracks and taking his top off in time to the music. By the start of 2017, these videos were regularly receiving 500,000 views and he had over seven million followers on Musical.ly.

I came across Zimmer in May 2018, a year after the collapse of his reign over Musical.ly. Zimmer had been swept up in a controversy that hit many social media stars on Musical.ly’s sister app, Live.ly – where users could livestream to their followers. During these livestreams, users could receive “gifts”: paid-for stickers, sent by fans to their favourite stars, which transferred the cash value of that sticker to the streamer. In exchange for receiving these gifts, popular creators would offer some sort of fan interaction, such as a shout-out, a private message, or even a cameo in one of their videos. It turned out that Zimmer was one of many big names who was receiving the cash, but not honouring the promises made to get it.

Having been widely denounced (#BanPaulZimmer) Zimmer disappeared from all social media platforms, deleting the content from his fledgling YouTube channel and Instagram. I wrote about the Live.ly scam system in May 2018, in one of my first pieces for the New Statesman, for which I spent many hours watching videos from Zimmer.

For almost two years, his accounts remained quiet and I figured I’d never see him again. But in October 2019, Zimmer made his comeback – with the wildest celebrity rebrand I’ve ever witnessed. He was now claiming to be “Troy Becker”, an entirely new person with a different age, job and identity.

In his second Instagram post since returning to social media, Zimmer – a 24-year-old cancelled social media star – said that he would be handing over all his accounts to Becker, supposedly a 16-year-old up-and-coming actor, simply because they looked alike. Zimmer then proceeded to post pictures on Instagram and videos on TikTok as Becker, losing only his trademark frosted tips hairstyle and tell-tale adult stubble.

Of course, Zimmer’s followers didn’t take to the low-effort rebrand and let their voices be heard in more than 10,000 comments on his TikTok account: “Paul it’s really creepy you’re pretending to be 16”; “nobody is falling for it”; “even their voices are the same”; “you’re not fooling anyone”. Although he later turned off (and therefore deleted) all comments, many fans also pointed out that, in the clips where he was playing Becker, Zimmer was wearing the same pair of earrings he had worn in many previous videos. In some cases, he was even wearing the same clothes.

I wrote about this for Newstateman.com earlier this month and the piece, as they say, “popped off”. At the time of writing, my tweet sharing the article has had half a million views and the story has been picked up by several major publications. But less than 24 hours after my piece was published, Paul Zimmer repeated his 2017 magic trick and wiped all traces of Troy Becker from his social media pages. Zimmer’s Instagram account disappeared entirely – as did a short-lived account supposedly owned by Becker – and Zimmer changed his TikTok username and bio to remove any trace of Becker, or his alleged age.

Celebrities rebranding or reinventing themselves with new names and new careers isn’t unknown, of course. But for a disgraced social media star to try to regain favour with fans by claiming he’s suddenly ten years younger surely is.

Although its 1.5 billion users span across all ages, TikTok is especially popular with under-16s – and its requirement for users to be at least 13 years old can be circumvented simply by giving a fake birthdate.

While Paul Zimmer may have disappeared again (for now), I struggle to believe this is the last we have heard of him. I look forward to the next wild brand pivot. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing