• Chyna

    Angel “Chyna” Willis has almost a million Instagram followers, but at home in Georgia she’s still a big sister.

    “I became social media famous when I was real young, like in the 6th grade. I don’t live a normal teenage life.”

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Like most high school juniors, Angel “Chyna” Willis spends much of her day glued to her phone. But she’s not just talking to her friends--she’s talking to the nearly one million Instagram followers who watch the skits and dance videos she has churned out for fans since the 6th grade. They know her as @ChyTheGreatest.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • As a kid, Chyna followed all the trending dances --”the Whip, the Nae Nae, all that cool stuff,” she says. But she’d never taken a lesson. Her mother suggested she try dance classes. Chyna now attends classes in everything from ballet to African dance to hip hop several times a week at Jenae’s Dance Experience, a studio near her home. Those moves show up in the choreography in her social media videos. But she wants to go further. “I'm definitely striving to be a professional dancer,” says Chyna.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna got famous doing “Hit Them Folks,” a street dance born in Georgia that went viral. Some of her videos still center around this style, like the one that she filmed with a crew of male dancers in the parking lot behind the dance studio.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Between school, homework, dance, and keeping up with her social media, Chyna says she doesn’t have time for much else. “I dance, and then I come home and study and do my work,” says Chyna. “Then I do it all over.”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna films many of her videos in her bedroom “studio.” She recently expanded to YouTube. “I saved up, I bought a camera, bought a MacBook,” says Chyna. “I was like, ‘Okay cool. This is gonna be the new wave.’ I have a whole fan base on Instagram, I'm gonna promote my YouTube on my Instagram and it's just gonna go off from there.”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna moved to YouTube after fans started asking for longer videos. “You know, my fans made me, so I always try to show them love,” she says. “I'm always asking, ‘What video should I make for y'all? Or what would y'all like to see me do?’”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Being so visible on social media forces Chyna to think carefully about the image she projects. “It pushes me to be a good influencer, to always think before I post,” she says. “Okay, I'm 16. Should I wear this?” she often asks herself, “Will this make me look too grown? Will this be something that'll put out a wrong image, if I wear this to school? I'm real particular about what I say or what I do.”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna finds inspiration in scripture and regularly attends youth services at her church. One favorite passage from Corinthians, which she came across during teen church services, concludes, “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • After church on a Sunday in September, Chyna started to get ready for her 17th birthday party. She sat on her bed and circled her arms around her mother, Leslie, as she clipped out Chyna’s weave. “My mom, she's a really good support system,” says Chyna.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna left her house in the Atlanta suburbs on the way to her party at a downtown restaurant. She carried her high heels with her. She’d practiced walking in them all week.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • The drive into Atlanta was a chance for Chyna to catch up with her friends and answer direct messages, or DMs, from her followers. “My DMs are crazy-filled,” she says. She tries to answer between 50 and 100 messages a day. “I always try to talk to them as much as I can,” she says. “Sometimes when I'm bored at home, like on my free day or something, I’ll try to post, ‘Oh, y'all, let's try to have a conversation under this picture. Ask me anything and I'll answer.’”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Selfies are an essential part of Chyna’s day. She snapped a few in the parking lot on the way to her birthday party.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna stopped to pose for a selfie against the backdrop of the Atlanta skyline. Her best friend, Jayla, took a photo while their friend filmed.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna says she always tries to respond to followers who send her positive messages. “I'm gonna be like, ‘Okay, I love you too. Much love. Thank you for supporting me.’”
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • After dinner, guests gathered around to take videos and photos of Chyna blowing out the candle on her birthday cupcake. A number of people Chyna counts as friends are people she met on Instagram. Some, like @kpapasmurf, @mizzk.o, @bri_chief, @dread_hhead, @brandon, and @dennis247_, have tens of thousands of followers.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna says she thinks carefully about what she does, what she says, and where she goes, because she knows how quickly social media can turn on those as visible as she is. “I'm real particular about every single thing,” she says. “I don't live a normal teenage life."
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • The morning after her 17th birthday party was a Monday like any other. At 6 a.m., Chyna woke up her 8-year-old sister, Aaniyah, and helped her get dressed for school.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • Chyna’s mother works nights, so Chyna often takes care of Aaniyah when her mom is working, walking her to the bus stop before daybreak.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • After her sister gets on the bus, Chyna goes home to get herself ready for school. On the day after her birthday, she caught the school bus around 7:30 a.m., once again a high school junior on her way to class.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Natalie Keyssar
  • This year, Chyna plans to launch an online reality series, “Chyna in America”. She says she’s learned to embrace her social media status, and not to let the negative parts creep into her life. “There were some times where I felt bad, but it was like, okay, if you want to follow this dream you have to overcome negativity,” she says. “It took a lot of practice though. I had to stop reading comments. I had to find out who I was first and not please other people. You have to know who you are and what you stand for.”
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