Leo Reilly will not slander his father’s looks.
“I want to say my dad is a very handsome man, and there’s a lot of people out there who I think also agree with that,” Reilly tells me over Zoom in early June.
I’ve asked him about his father, the actor John C. Reilly. While the elder Reilly is known for his jubilant personality and curly hair (often contained within a fedora), his son cuts a classic Gen Z eBoy image with a twink build, ’90s heartthrob center part, thin black mustache and painted nails.
Reilly has a reason to defend his father’s honor. In February, the thirstier corners of the internet learned the 21-year-old model and digital creator — who looks a hell of a lot like Freddie Mercury (“I swear it’s just the mustache!”) — is the son of the Step Brothers actor. HuffPost writer Zeba Blay brought the lust to light on Twitter. Even I tweeted — I’m sorry, Leo! — “I want to date John C. Reilly’s son.”
Though Reilly admits he takes after his mother, film producer Alison Dickey, and her swarthy Italian features, he won’t say a bad word about his father. He actually won’t say another word about his family at all. “I really wasn’t too happy about it,” he says of the news stories about his cheekbones. “I’m very proud of my parents, but I feel like what’s best for me is to be my individual own person and make my own path.”
So Reilly would prefer I think and speak of him as the digital artist LoveLeo. He created the persona one night at 3:00 a.m. as a portmanteau for his signature, “Love, Leo.” It’s also a nod to his greatest love: cereal. “That sounds like a cereal brand to me, like Lovely-Os,” he says.
Leo Reilly is going back and forth between his parents’ California house (where he’s been bingeing The Twilight Zone), and his downtown Los Angeles apartment, where he’s been dancing with his girlfriend, model Julia Marie.
In L.A., Reilly’s embraced his identity as an online creator. He has over 244,000 Instagram and 960,000 TikTok followers. He edits portraits and graphics on Photoshop, sells dangly earrings (made out of household objects like an aux cord) on Depop and dresses up in flared pants and tight tank tops on TikTok.
The real barometer of online celebrity is a page on Famous Birthdays, the Wikipedia-esque website serving as an about-town for Gen Z. Reilly is on there, meaning he’s officially Extremely Important Online. Today, he’s the 17th-most-popular star born on September 3rd and ranks 44th for 21-year-old singers. (He’s also verified on Instagram and TikTok.)
That said, he doesn’t group himself alongside lo-fi, artsy influencers like Emma Chamberlain or Emmy Hartman. He emphatically shakes his head no when I ask if he considers himself an influencer. He doesn’t do sponsored content posts (though one could argue showing your Moschino runway look is itself brand promo).
“The world influencer now means somebody who doesn’t do anything but has a huge platform, and just influences people with their opinion,” he says. Instead, he considers himself a creator, and he’s lucky to have a large following interested in the work he puts out. His purpose is clear: “I have cool things I want to share with people.”
Having established his Photoshop and fashion creds, what Reilly now wants to share is his music. Over the weekend, he released his first EP, Look at This Mess I’ve Made. It’s a dichotomous mix of screamo and subdued tracks, which he recorded over six months. Think of it less as a debut and more a sampler of a young artist trying on different genres and settling on fuzzy, DIY bedroom pop. (It reminds me of the Neighbourhood singer Jesse Rutherford‘s solo work.) “I’m at a very comfortable spot where I feel like I have the freedom to go in whatever [musical] direction I want to,” Reilly says.
While he may not consider himself an influencer, Reilly joins a lineage of indie-pop artists who started as kids on the internet — like Troye Sivan, who successfully left YouTube for a full immersion into pop. Since then, artists like Clairo, Brockhampton, Conan Gray and Christian Leave all transitioned from online personas to established recording artists.
When Clairo made her leap in 2018, she was chastised as an “industry plant” for allegedly using her former marketing executive father’s connections to help secure a record contract. Reilly may have Hollywood contacts, but he’d like to be known as an independent artist entirely removed from his family name (even if that name gave him a leg up with modeling agents and public interest). “Family life in general should be a very private thing. That’s the way I look at it, and my dad does the same,” Reilly says. (Case in point: John C. Reilly did not return my request for comment on his son’s career.)
Leo Reilly says his softboi aesthetic and hazy sound is better suited for indie label Godmode, where he’s signed, instead of a major studio. “Not to get on, like, a soapbox, but it’s really easy to make a very polished radio-sounding song,” Reilly says. “So what’s more engaging to me as a listener is, like, something that has a little bit of an edge to it or a DIY kind of sound.”
Still, Reilly’s music career hinges on his online persona. He spent the past few years studying fashion design at FIDM, modeling for Moschino and appearing in a Kenzo short film. Last fall, he dropped his first single, “Boyfren,” which has a sleepy beat with an infectious whistle hook. He recorded it in 45 minutes and played it first for his mom. It became a sleeper hit on TikTok, and the app’s top stars Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae featured the tune in their videos. The surprise success convinced him to put fashion to the side. “I had a small platform, but it was enough to get at least a little bit of a snowball going” for his single, he says.
He’s wary of TikTok virality. After the breakout successes of Lil Nas X and Doja Cat led to Billboard No. 1 hits, record labels began sending notable stars with new albums to the app. Even the estate of Prince, who notoriously kept his music off streaming services for years during his lifetime, has now released his entire song catalog to TikTok.
Still, no marketing promotions can guarantee virality. Haim tried the #SummerGirlChallenge, which has a modest 107,000 views over a year. Dua Lipa’s accessible “Don’t Start Now” choreography was easy to recreate on the app but garnered a relatively low 5 million videos. Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” dance has 30 million videos featuring her hook. What’s more, creators don’t often get a say in how TikTok users utilize their work. “A lot of the time, the song is attached to a trend, and it’s not really communicated through the artist,” Reilly says.
For example, Jonathan Visger of Mason Proper, recording under the solo project Absofacto, released a statement after his song “Dissolve” turned into a creepy sexual POV meme of a daughter accidentally walking in on her father. Visger encouraged TikTok to update guidelines around child-sexual-abuse triggers after survivors contact him about the trend. “This is uncharted territory for me,” Visger told the Verge.
Because Reilly wants greater control over his music’s rollout, he is promoting his EP and its single “Head Over Heels” primarily on traditional digital sites like Instagram and Twitter. But when that happens, the John C. Reilly comparisons jump out. So Reilly is trying to find a balance between leveraging his social media persona without the inherent interest in his private life.
Recently, he’s turned to a weekly poker group for support. Before quarantine, he’d walk the two blocks to the home of his music video producers, YouTubers Motoki Maxted and Chris Cranston of CoProduce. They played poker with fellow online-star-turned-singer Christian Leave.
Reilly describes the squad like the Rat Pack, four up-and-coming dude artists living and creating in downtown L.A. For stars who met online, they have a serious interest in the old-school game of poker. “Once you start getting invited to weddings, poker is a vital skill to have,” Reilly says. “Someone’s uncle comes up to you and gets you to join in on the game. You don’t want to burn through $100.”
While Reilly admits he’s terrible at the card game (“It’s been like four games of Chris just, like, robbing us of our money,”) he’s been dealt a straight flush in his career. With an angular, brooding poker face, he’s not showing all his cards just yet.
“Having a presence on the internet makes it so you can change what you’re doing,” he says when I ask what’s next for his career. “Maybe not everyone will stick with you throughout a significant change, but there’s a lot more freedom to kind of do whatever you want. At least I hope.”