This 25-year-old TikTok star makes millions asking questions of L.A.’s luxury car drivers
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Dec. 2. I’m Ryan Fonseca.
Today’s edition will work best if, while reading it, you picture me as that Steve Buscemi “30 Rock” meme.
I understand TikTok in theory (I have an account but haven’t found the courage to post yet), though reading about how much money some young creators are making through the platform feels a bit otherworldly.
Take Daniel Macdonald, better known to his 20 million-plus social media followers (13.6 million of those on TikTok) as Daniel Mac. His videos have a simple concept: He approaches people driving expensive cars and asks them what they do for a living. (My job also is asking people questions. Guess I’m doing it wrong.)
Originally from Tucson, the 25-year-old started posting his videos while living in Dallas, but he soon moved to rich car-rich Los Angeles. He’s posted hundreds of videos featuring CEOs, celebrities and plenty of under-the-radar wealthy types (or sometimes their partners and kids).
There’s a TMZ-esque quality to the videos, though Macdonald’s paychecks would probably make the average celebrity-chasing videographer’s eyes bleed. The content creator is now making up to $100,000 a month through ad revenue and endorsement deals.
If you’re baffled that a young person could make millions by asking rich people what they do, filming it on their iPhone and posting it on social media, I get it — that was my first reaction, honestly. But then I started thinking about how wealth has basically always been a fixture in media and pop culture.
Is this just the newest form of our collective obsession with the financial success of others? I put that question to reporter Andrea Chang, who covers wealth for The Times and just published a feature on Macdonald.
“Part of the absurd genius of what Dan does is combining the eternal fascination with extreme wealth with a simple question that can be repeated over and over,” she told me. “The responses are eye-opening, wide-ranging and occasionally ludicrous — ladybug breeder and professional cuddler are a few of my favorites — and they’re packaged in entertaining bite-size videos perfect for social media.”
I chatted with Andrea about Macdonald, the influencer industry and our cultural fixation on wealth. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What surprised you after spending time with Mac on Rodeo Drive and seeing his approach to making videos?
That afternoon was honestly one of the most fun days of reporting I’ve ever had. It was hilarious watching Dan do his thing and witnessing the spectacle that unfolded on Rodeo. I couldn’t believe how many people recognized him — drivers and tourists were losing it, asking to take selfies, offering him freebies. A total scene, which I love.
I was also surprised at how many wealthy car owners were down to answer the question. I expected most to be cagey or maybe even hostile when they were approached, but nearly everyone was game.
He comes across fairly grounded for someone who’s had so much success. It seems like he’s prepared for the ride to end at some point. The content creator industry seems like a pop culture lottery that a small group of people win. But what happens when the ride is over?
That’s definitely something that Dan thinks about a lot. He said the pressure to keep the content flowing can be stressful, that there’s this fear of even going on a long vacation because it would mean coming home to a dead account.
He’s trying to maintain relevance by broadening his schtick — he’s asked yacht owners and first-class-airline passengers what they do for a living, for example, and is working on a new video series featuring wealthy homeowners in their mansions. There’s also a video podcast in the works, and he’s hosting a car rally next March — tickets to that event cost $3,750.
If the ride ends, he’s got other things he can fall back on. He’s a finance nerd who was training to become a consultant at Charles Schwab when his TikTok blew up, so he could always return to something like that. Although that sounds a lot less exciting than what he’s doing now.
I can’t help but wonder if a TikTok creator could achieve anywhere near Mac’s success if they filmed and talked to people riding bikes or taking public transit. What is it about fancy cars that draws so many people in?
It’s that peek into an ultra-exclusive world of big money that most people aren’t privy to. Dan’s videos tap into that curiosity and envy. I think there’s definitely an element of hate-watching that goes on, but viewers also love to see these incredible cars and their often over-the-top owners.
What is it like covering wealth? And what have you learned?
Covering wealth is definitely a dream beat. I’ve been fortunate to cover a wide range of topics during my time at the paper, but this one is by far my favorite: The ideas are endless, the personalities colorful and occasionally ridiculous, the reader interest huge. It also feels quintessential L.A.
I have a lot of takeaways from my time reporting on the wealthy. One of them is that the super-rich can be shockingly out of touch with what’s typical in terms of earning, spending and day-to-day life for most Californians. Like, to a much greater degree than what I would have guessed before I took on this beat. Many of them seem to exist in a completely different world from the rest of us.
And now, here’s a selection of more essential stories across California:
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In her latest column, Patt Morrison traces the history of Jewish migration to early Los Angeles and the impacts the community had on the burgeoning city. “They came here as so many millions came to California,” she writes, “intent on writing their own futures on what Americans regarded as a blank slate of a place.” Los Angeles Times
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These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
It’s Dec. 2: Do you know where your inflation relief money is? Millions of Californians are still waiting for their payments from the state. The Middle Class Tax Refund calls for $9.5 billion in the form of direct deposits and debit cards to eligible residents. State officials say all direct deposits have been issued, but many debit cards still need to be mailed out. The relief money will continue going out through January. Los Angeles Times
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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
’Tis the season (for wildfires), though California is coming off the peak firefighting period less scathed than in recent years. State fire officials estimate 362,455 acres have burned so far in 2022. Compare that with last year, when fires consumed 2.5 million acres statewide, and 2020, which broke state records with more than 4.3 million acres burned. What’s been different this year? Officials say we caught some lucky breaks with the weather, especially some summer rain. But as the drought continues, we’re not out of the (dry) woods yet. CalMatters
Did you know the California coast used to be home to a giant sea cow? That was until Europeans hunted them out of existence in the 1700s. But before that, Steller’s sea cow played a key role in the West Coast’s marine ecosystem, researchers say. They’re working to understand to what extent the sea cow’s extinction is tied to the decline of California’s kelp forest. San Francisco Chronicle
This is where I let slip that I skateboard and am obsessed with skate culture. The scene is rich in California, which makes sense, given the quasi-sport was born here. L.A. holds a special place as a sort of holy land for street skating in particular. Where most people just see a set of stairs and a handrail, skaters see the possibility for existential thrill and a chance to make a mark on the kinetic art form. I’ve been more excited seeing a famous skate spot in person than most of my celebrity sightings. So you can imagine how stoked I was to take in photographer and Times’ contributor Sam Muller’s photo-rich oral history of Hollywood High 16, skateboarding’s most iconic set of stairs. Los Angeles Times
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Los Angeles: slight chance of rain, 62. San Diego: chance of rain then partly sunny, 68. San Francisco: sunny, 54. San Jose: patchy fog then mostly sunny, 54. Fresno: partly sunny then chance of rain, 52. Sacramento: foggy then sunny, 52.
Today’s California memory comes from Maria Chaput:
I immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 and settled in California. I took many road trips, immediately falling in love with the windswept beauty of its landscape. I noticed the dichotomy — from cool to warm deserts to luxuriant vegetation and its crashing surf to snowy mountaintops. I retired in late 2020 and stayed in Hawaii, but quickly ached for the Golden State, where you can just go and be overwhelmed with its conifer forests, giant sequoias, redwoods, and so much more. “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas is simply a song about wishing you were in California. I’m no longer wishing because I’m here to stay.
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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