Photos by Marisa Silva
Each week, thousands of people flood the direct messages and comment sections of Eli Rallo’s, ’20, social media platforms seeking her advice.
“I’ve been single for a year now and everyone else is coupled up. How do I exist in their circle as a single person?”
Rallo stops to ponder, then starts tapping away at her phone screen, offering sincere insight to her trusting follower on the other end of the Instagram direct message.
“I think it’s really important to surround yourself with (some, not all) friends who are in the same boat or experiencing the same things as you,” she advises. “I think it will allow you to stop feeling ‘othered’ in your friend group and enjoy your singlehood more.”
Next, someone looking for advice on “elevating your life.” She loves a fun question like this.
“I really think making every day festive is the easiest and most accessible way to do this,” Rallo shares. “Have a little fun thing or treat or event on each day of the week — even if it’s honoring your life in some simple and small way.”
She sorts through hundreds more, fielding deeply personal questions from her hoards of followers and thoughtfully penning her response to as many as she can.
Rallo, a School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (SMTD) alum and self-proclaimed theater kid, has turned her social media accounts into virtual advice columns where she shares her experience, tips, and tricks with undiluted honesty and authenticity. Her nearly 1 million followers between TikTok and Instagram tune in to her lifestyle content that includes everything from her morning routines to her favorite books as well as sprinkled-in snippets about her love for things such as astrology, cheese boards, theater, and pop culture.
But what has really taken off is her “Rules” videos, where she shares advice for everything from flirting and surviving a bad first date to being confident and getting out of a funk. Now, when Rallo prompts her followers to “ask her anything,” they fill her inbox with questions.
The 25-year-old has been crowned “the Carrie Bradshaw of Gen Z.” Reminiscent of an unfiltered, intrepid, drink-in-hand Dear Abby, Rallo is the big sister Gen Z didn’t know they needed.
Theater Kid at Heart
Rallo describes the content she creates as equal parts satirical comedy, lifestyle and relationship advice, and “silly TikTok trends” inspired by female stories and experiences. Content creators like Rallo make entertaining or educational materials, such as videos, photos, or written stories, usually for digital platforms like social media.
“[My content] kind of comes together as this amalgamation of different things to sort of create this theater kid meets journalist meets creative writer, and I think that that’s really reflective of Michigan’s affirmation in my identity as a creative,” she says.
Rallo graduated from U-M with a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts and minors in playwriting, creative writing, and political science, even throwing in a few Judaic studies classes to learn more about her heritage.
She describes the theater arts program as the “catch-all” of the theater profession, attracting students interested in theater education, playwriting, producing, arts management, and entertainment law. Her years at U-M were some of the earliest moments she recalls wanting to create content that spoke to and comforted “non-men”: women, people who identify as women, and nonbinary people.
“I just realized that there was sort of a gap in the world where women and people who identify as women had questions, or were going through things or having experiences that weren’t being spoken about on a large scale,” Rallo says.
During her junior and senior years, she worked on The Statement, The Michigan Daily’s longform magazine that intertwines news, opinion, and creative nonfiction, and pitched a column revolving around topics that spoke to female and non-male audiences.
Rallo published essays about some of the most private and transformative experiences of her adult female life, including losing her virginity, struggling with mental health, getting a breast reduction, and battling eating disorders.
“I just wanted to talk about it. I just wanted us to feel comfortable talking about those things. I feel like starting there and now, seeing where I am, even with all the twists and turns and how fast everything happened, I feel like it’s always been about the same thing,” she says. “And that has always been making people feel more normal and less alone in what they’re going through.”
Three months shy of commencement, the COVID-19 pandemic cut Rallo’s senior year at U-M short, sending her back to her family’s New Jersey home. Looking for ways to have fun with her family during lockdown, she recorded herself making “snack content” with funny voiceovers on social media.
In a matter of months, a few thousand followers turned into 100,000. Rallo brought them along on her journey when she moved to New York City in September 2020 to begin graduate school at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She shared videos surrounding her daily life as a graduate student living in the city, balancing school, dating, a social life, working as a nanny, and the transition into adulthood.
The more lifestyle content she posted, the more followers she gained — they rolled in by the hundreds of thousands over the next few years.
“Obviously, I had goals, and I had milestones I wanted to reach, but I wasn’t monetizing it yet. I think that partially just having fun and making content that I wanted to see and enjoy definitely helped bolster that success in the beginning,” she says. For content creators like Rallo, monetizing can include brand deals, sponsored posts, or joining TikTok’s Creativity Program, where creators with at least a certain number of followers can make money based on video views and engagement metrics.
“I was just continuing to put myself out there in the hopes that would lead to something else, something that I wanted,” she says.
Rallo began working as a full-time journalist but continued creating content and pouring into her podcast, “Miss Congeniality,” a leisure and lifestyle podcast reminiscent of her social media presence. In October 2021, she started workshopping her “Rules” video series, which quickly became her calling card on TikTok and “a bible for a global audience of women,” as she describes it.
Often inspired by followers’ questions, Rallo began advising her audience by sharing what she does (or would do) in a scenario, narrating each rule with personal anecdotes, inspiring sentiments, and humor.
Soon, Rallo began trending in her niche corner of the internet.
She recalls thinking, “Okay, you have this huge platform; what are you going to do with it now?”
“Anybody who doesn’t view it [as an opportunity] is doing themselves a disservice,” she says.
Decoding the Algorithm
Rallo’s interest in audience interaction is what initially drew her to U-M’s theatre arts program.
“How do we interact with audiences when we write something and publish it?” she says. “How do people who read it internalize that, and then go have dialogues about it? How can it change their mind, or bolster an opinion they already had, or give them something new to think about, whether that’s theatrically, or through writing, or whatever other outlet?”
Rallo finds it “fascinating” the way audience engagement influences the way that we tell stories and share experiences, specifically for the next generation of viewers.
“TikTok is a really special app and a really special place because it has provided us the ability to learn from, understand, and see diverse, interesting, unique stories that we wouldn’t get to experience and learn from otherwise,” she says.
However, Rallo is well aware of the internet’s perils, the responsibility in the hands of those who generate its content, and the impact on audiences. She acknowledges that the type of content that goes viral or gets consistent attention is partially influenced by what users interact with, but says she would be remiss not to acknowledge the “deeply problematic” algorithms.
“The voices that are always going to be lifted up and praised the most are those of the most privileged,” Rallo says, pointing out that these voices tend to be those of “white, straight, cisgender, thin, beautiful, and wealthy” people. “Despite the fact that TikTok has opened up this door for so many voices to be heard, the voices being heard at the loudest volume are still society’s idea of the beauty standard and what’s desirable.”
Recognizing algorithm bias has changed how she interacts with other’s content online.
“The special thing is knowing that we have the ability to make change and to help uplift those voices that need to be heard, and those stories that need to be told . . . when we come across somebody that is telling us something interesting, diverse, important that we haven’t heard before. We have the full ability to press follow, to comment, to share, and to spread the word about that person.”
Rallo discussed the problematic landscape of social media when she spoke at the 2021 TEDxUofM conference, detailing her own complicated relationship with social media in college. Today, she recognizes the role her personal privileges play in her own internet influence, avowing that it’s something she grapples with on a daily basis.
“Probably none of my success would have been possible had I not had family class privilege, white privilege, so many other privileges like the privileges that afforded me my education,” she says. “I think that it’s always going to be easier for someone like me to have space on the app and engage with an audience.”
Another thing TikTok teaches us, Rallo says, is that there’s no such thing as original content.
“I think we all perceive that we have all of these unique and incredible thoughts. And while we do have unique and incredible thoughts, it’s highly likely that somebody else has also had a similar thought,” she says, adding that creators have to be tuned into what’s popular in order to produce something unique. “You have to be watching content, keeping your finger on the pulse of what is trending . . . and then try to understand what new perspective you bring to that.”
‘I Didn’t Know I Needed This’
As Rallo’s follower count continued to boom through 2022, brands and managers took notice and started reaching out. It dawned on Rallo that her TikTok popularity could be more than a hobby or “side hustle” — it could be the stepping stone to her ultimate goal of being a writer.
“It could be something that allowed me to step from the world that I was thrust into, the internet, into the world that I’ve always been waiting with bated breath to be a part of, the publishing and the literary world,” she says.
Rallo had always known that she would write for television, film, or theater in her career, whether that would be an adaptation of her own original work, rewriting a play she wrote as an SMTD student, penning the book of a well-loved musical, joining a writer’s room and contributing to other creative works, or even a gig with a community theater.
“I was lucky that, at first, it was sort of just something I could do for fun, that was always a part of it, the love and the passion. And then it became like a little bit more strategic after that,” she says.
She began sharing more of her writing on an online newsletter platform, penning her once-a-month newsletter, an extension of her podcast and social media, including an advice segment.
Six months after beginning her first job as a journalist, Rallo quit and signed with a talent manager. A month later, after discovering her newsletter, literary agents from Park and Fine Literary Agency reached out about representation. Soon, Harper Collins/Harvest Books were offering her a book deal.
Her internet advice and stories made their way from phone screens to the pages of her debut book, “I Didn’t Know I Needed This: The New Rules for Flirting, Feeling, and Finding Yourself,” which hit shelves on Dec. 12.
In the collection of personal essays inspired by her “Rules” video series, Rallo shares her own stories of heartbreak, dating adventures and mishaps, and self-discovery through a series of survival guide-style rules that follow the lifecycle of dating. She brought her followers along on the writing, editing, and publishing process.
“My chief hope is that [my book] can teach people to elevate their lived experience in accessible and tangible ways as it relates to their relationships,” Rallo says.
Reflecting on the present moment and what she’s accomplished thus far, it all comes back to her community.
“The link that brings us all together is the content that I’ve created. And that’s something that’s really, really, really special to me,” Rallo says. “Because ultimately, I’m so well aware that without that community, I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’m doing, and there wouldn’t be a book, or there wouldn’t be TikTok videos or the TED Talk, or any of the things that I created that I’m proud of.”
KATIE FRANKHART is a senior writer for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.