Picture this: You’re mindlessly scrolling through TikTok. Suddenly, Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” blares through your tinny speakers. A dude dressed as Willy Wonka — not the good one, the Johnny Depp one — in a wine-colored suede jacket, wide-framed white sunglasses and a top hat but, crucially, no shirt, gyrates to the beat. “This isn’t anything like the movie,” you think (it is, after all, actually entertaining). The video’s caption: “when the chocolate business dies down.”
In the process, he became TikTok’s sexy Wonka.
While @willywonkatiktok has been around since May, that video, posted on July 26th, catapulted the account into a fervent stratosphere of online fame. Over 10 million followers later, there’s a particular kind of thirst associated with the character: ironic, but also, not ironic at all. As TikToker @megamind_official_ put it, “is gen z ok why do we all have a crush on a willy wonka cosplay”?
The man behind the meme is a 19-year-old from Salt Lake City, born Duke Charlesworth. Perhaps it’s the cheekbones or the stage names, but talking to him makes it clear that he was born for the strange vagaries of internet fame. Charlesworth chose the pseudonym Duke Depp for his chocolate factory endeavors because of its “flow” and as an homage to Depp’s performance in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a particular favorite of his.
After coronavirus made travel for Depp’s wedding photography business impossible, he started posting early iterations of the Wonka character. A few months later, several viral posts and some serious online thirst have made Duke-as-Willy a mainstay on the For You Pages of teens across America. And though he says he’s not sure why the Willy Wonka persona blew up, he’s determined to ride it out. As he teases, “There’s nothing that Willy Wonka might not do on TikTok.”
“Sexy Willy Wonka” isn’t the most obvious choice of character to portray. What made you do it?
Willy Wonka TikTok started because I happened to put on a wig one night that I used to use and that I gifted to my step-sister, because we both, at one point, learned the Sia “Chandelier” music video choreography. It was a blonde crusty wig at the start, and I had been watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on repeat for the couple months before. I already kind of sound like Willy Wonka, and I just filmed it for my Snapchat. But then I was getting good feedback from my Snapchat friends, [so] I decided to post it on TikTok.
My costume isn’t an exact cosplay of the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka — he has gloves and a red thing on his hat. I never tried to make it a really realistic cosplay, it was more like I’m taking the character that Johnny Depp made and transforming it into modern day. I did have the coat custom-made.
You point out some differences between the two costumes, but surely the most notable one is that you’re shirtless.
That just sprung out of the blue. When I started my TikTok page, I thought, wow, no other TikTok account ever grows where people don’t think that the person who’s playing the character is cute. At first, I didn’t have the “simps,” as people call them. But then eventually people started to somehow gain attraction to Willy Wonka.
They got permission to simp.
Yeah, exactly. Once that started happening, my TikTok persona shifted a little bit. It started out very wholesome, and then it shifted to thirst trap Willy Wonka dancing. There’s nothing that Willy Wonka might not do on TikTok.
Was it weird to become the object of a lot of TikTok thirst?
I definitely didn’t expect it in the slightest! When I first started making thirst-trap videos — and still today — it was a joke. It was like, ‘Oh, this is funny. What is Willy Wonka doing? These people have a crush on Willy Wonka.’ It was a joke, but I’m quickly learning that it’s not always a joke with these people online.
Have you had any online interactions that stick out in particular?
I mean, there’s probably too many to even think of. Every third video that I see on my For You Page is a video about me, about people who either love me or hate me. I cannot escape myself on the app, which is funny. The last three nights on Twitter, Willy Wonka has been in the top 30 on Trending. I scroll down the list of what’s being said about me on Twitter and half of it is people who love me and half of it is people who just despise me. It’s so interesting to see that this character has grown to be so big that, 15 years after the movie was released, it’s having this huge resurgence.
I wanted to get your thoughts on the original movie with Gene Wilder versus the Johnny Depp version. Do you have a preference?
My preference is obviously the Johnny Depp one. I love both movies, but what draws me to the Willy Wonka character that Johnny Depp does is how mysterious he is, how eccentric he is. This guy is crazy. You just would never expect him to be such a weirdo, and I love that about the character. So I definitely prefer the 2005 version. I also like that version because it has the squirrel room instead of the goose room, which I thought was a good change.
I’m exactly like Willy Wonka in real life. I never have people over to my house, but when I do, I put on a show, like Willy Wonka. I keep to myself a lot of the time. Of the kids from the movie, I would say I’m definitely most like Charlie. Or Veruca.
She’s also gone viral on Tiktok.
Yes, there have been a lot of Veruca people. Anything Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, right now, TikTok just gravitates toward.
Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
It must have something to do with the resurgence of Willy Wonka coming from me, but also, I think it’s just a classic movie that reminds people of their childhood and almost everyone has seen it. So I think that just seeing something familiar, where everyone knows the characters, everyone knows the storyline, people just gravitate toward the videos and they love to see it.
How do you feel about this very Gen Z, TikTok style of humor more broadly, and how you’re contributing to it?
I definitely relate to them because I love all the big TikTok names. And I do see videos online, like on TikTok, that say, “Only Gen Z people would think this is funny.” And it’s so true, because I see the videos, and I’m like, “This is perfect. This is the best meme I’ve ever seen. This is hilarious…” But people that are a little older would probably not understand. But actually, most of my audience is 18 to 24.
What’s next for @willywonkatiktok?
I’m obviously new to TikTok as a platform. I just started in May — what is that, like three, four months ago? I’m gonna continue doing this, try and push WillyWonkaTikTok as well as my personal page as far as I can. Then, at the end of the year, I’m going to decide whether or not I’m moving to L.A. for a year or two to try and really go at it and turn into something crazy and big and spectacular. Or I’ll stay in Utah and just keep doing it for fun. So I’m giving myself until the end of the year to see how far I can get.