Pittsburgh’s Top Influencers: Who Are We Following?
Meet some of the most followed creators in the Pittsburgh area — and discover what makes them so successful.
The first thing to know about content creators is that the work never ends.
“It’s relentless. It’s exhausting,” says Christi Lukasiak of Mars. “I’m telling you, influencers probably work harder than anyone. All day every day. Everything is a photo op.”
With 2.4 million followers on Instagram, that means hundreds of thousands of people watch Lukasiak’s every (online) move. As one of the original cast members of Lifetime’s “Dance Moms,” a reality show about an eccentric and hard-driving Penn Hills dance instructor (“That’s a whole other story,” Lukasiak says), she’s used to an audience. She launched her social media accounts in 2011 when the show premiered but only decided to focus more heavily on building her brand about four years ago.
Lukasiak is just one example of a Pittsburgh-area creator who has used social media platforms to build their personal brand and grow their audiences to millions of followers since social media exploded with the launch of Facebook in 2004. After Facebook came a steady succession of various platforms, catapulting certain users into status-symbol talent, with Twitter blue checks, Instagram influencers, Vine stars and viral TikTokers raking in thousands of dollars each month for posting and sharing content.
The Queen Bee
Christi Lukasiak, 45, Mars
The Content: As one of the original cast members of Lifetime’s “Dance Moms,” Lukasiak, along with her daughter Chloe, has been in the spotlight since the show premiered in 2011. Today, her sprawling media output includes sharing lifestyle updates on the different platforms, a partnership deal with Amazon Live and two podcasts. A second brand, Adulting 101, aims to help young women better prepare for adulthood through online courses and public speaking (she’s spoken to more than 30,000 sorority sisters over Zoom since the beginning of the pandemic). Last year, Lukasiak released a line of day planners to help her followers “begin building a boss bitch.”
Most Popular Posts: “Anytime I share anything that is really personal with my family.” Popular posts in the last year included a video of her younger daughter Clara’s 12th birthday celebration in France and her posts about her family’s Christmas in Paris.
What’s Next: Plans are in place for long-term investments around the country. (“Stay tuned,” she says.)
She says: “I try to be very grateful for the opportunities [social media] has brought me. I grew up [on] the wrong side of the tracks. Social media has shown my family the world.”
Lukasiak says that she’s glad that she was able to start building an audience at the beginning of the social media wave. Beyond racking up millions of views on her TikTok, YouTube and Instagram channels, she’s partnered with major national brands, earning serious money — though sometimes, brand deals disappear as quickly as they arrive.
“I had a great brand deal come through, right before Covid hit, for Lysol,” Lukasiak says. “I was going to go out to an event in California for a mid-five-figure deal, a great deal for two hours of work.”
After the world shut down, the Lysol deal went away. “They came back to my manager and said, ‘We don’t need to spend any money on marketing.’ So, when you live like that, it’s very hard,” she says.
Influencers and content creators also are at the mercy of fluctuating social media algorithms that can have an impact on their bottom line.
Jessica Merchant, a North Huntingdon resident who launched her wildly popular blog “How Sweet Eats” in 2008 and has produced three cookbooks since then, says that her consistency (she posts every day), and the fact that she got in early in the space has made a huge difference. It’s fun work, she says, but it’s still work, and the common misconception that creators and influencers don’t have a “real job” can be grating.
“I’ve never taken a day off,” says Merchant. “I had my children in the hospital with my computer in my lap. It can be a toxic bad culture. But I also think it’s the reality of doing something that’s very personality based. Nobody can really do my job.”
Jessica Merchant, 39, North Huntingdon
The Content: Since launching her lifestyle blog, “How Sweet Eats” in 2008, Merchant has created hundreds of recipes, produced three cookbooks and built brand deals with national brands such as Aldi and McCormick & Co. Each month, Merchant’s website gets millions of page views from home chefs looking for recipes such as blackened chicken watermelon salad, Parmesan herb orzo and dark chocolate bundt cake with Irish cream glaze.
Most Popular Posts: Her most-viewed recipes change with the season, but standouts include her recipe for lobster mac & cheese (“My take on a Capital Grille version”), salted brown butter chocolate chip cookie bars, baked beans and stuffing. “But the most popular post on my blog is my lactation cookie recipe. Every day, it’s like the No. 1 post.”
What’s Next: Another cookbook is always a possibility, but Merchant is focusing her time right now on writing a contemporary fiction book.
She says: “Nobody thinks that this is a real job. There’s a misconception of people thinking that it’s easy. But I easily work 80 hours a week. Easily. Before I had kids, definitely over 100. It takes so much work. And, you just keep adding things on and adding things on.”
And the job is constantly changing, too. What worked five years ago to grow an online audience would never work today, says Deanna Tomaselli, vice president of client services at The Motherhood, a social-media influencer marketing agency in Pittsburgh.
“A big change has been the spike in the increase in video that came in 2020,” she says. “It’s a new skill for influencers to learn. With video, it takes more time, but they can also charge more.”
The highly touted “pivot to video” shift in the industry began at the beginning of the pandemic, when the short-form video-sharing app TikTok (which launched in 2016) became incredibly popular. The platform’s unique algorithm, which shows users videos outside of creators they follow, and allows for huge viral moments, has spurned an entirely new industry — the TikTok creator.
Ryan Peters, a West Mifflin-based chef who had his own space in the former Smallman Galley in the Strip District and worked in the kitchen at Iron Born, started creating pasta-making videos for TikTok in 2019.
“I made my first post in September 2019, a random video of me rolling pasta,” he says. “That video got half a million views overnight, and I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”
The Pasta Creator
Ryan Peters, 29, West Mifflin
The Content: Peters left his position running the pasta program at Iron Born in 2021 to pursue a new career as a pasta-making content creator, primarily on TikTok. Now just shy of 3 million followers on the platform, his posts showcase the art of making pasta, emphasizing the slow pours of egg yolks spilling into mountains of flour, extruding pasta and forming balls of dough. Last year, Peters launched a travel series where he makes his pasta in destinations across the country, such as the Santa Monica Pier in California, Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina and Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Most Popular Posts: His short videos of slow pours of egg yolks into flour give Peters the most views, with various TikToks getting up to nearly 30 million views.
What’s Next: Eventually, Peters plans to launch a dried pasta line. For now, he’s expanding his content to include more in-depth recipe videos and cooking with celebrity guests.
He says: “I’ll post a video, and it will get 100,000 views, and I’ll get so pissed off. But then I think, ‘Why are you mad at 100,000 views? That’s 100,000 people.’ You can’t always be chasing those mega-viral, 20-million-views videos.”
Peters left his job in 2021 to become a full-time creator, earning an income through video views and sponsorship deals with brands. Last year, he launched a travel series, most often paid for by sports teams or city tourism boards.
He says that even though building his brand is a constant hustle, he has no plans to go back to kitchen life.
“It’s just more fun. I’m not this serious pasta maker on TikTok. I made a batch of pasta at a NASCAR race and poured Coca-Cola into it,” he says. “Like, it’s not that serious.”
Not everyone is lining up to turn in resignation letters and start influencing full time. Building a following can also be a massive boon to business for creators who are using social media to bolster their regular 9-5 jobs, such as South Hills chiropractor Brian Meenan.
Meenan, who had no initial interest in social media, began posting videos of stretches and short workouts to TikTok in 2019, after hearing social media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk tout it as “the next big thing.” His audience steadily grew to more than a million followers.
The Good Doctor
Brian Meenan, 31, South Fayette
The Content: In an effort to connect with more clients, Meenan started sharing stretches, health and body tips and back-cracking videos on TikTok in 2019. During the pandemic, he leaned into the platform in earnest, participating in TikTok challenges, with an eye toward growing his audience to more than a million followers. Since then, Meenan has struck influencer deals with chiropractor-adjacent brands such as Theragun, Hypervolt and KT Tape.
Most Popular Posts: Short videos (typically under 10 seconds) that use trending dance sounds and one easy stretch are his biggest performers. A mid-back stretch video, paired with Lohenhiem’s “Earth Invader,” earned him 47 million views.
What’s Next: He eventually wants to create an app with exercises and strengthening routines for a variety of specific issues, such as low-back mobility.
He says: “Pretty much around when I hit a million followers, we started to get a ton of people. And now, we get about two new patients a week just from TikTok. For us, it’s been the best marketing there is. And the best part is it’s free.”
TikTok isn’t the only way video creators make money, though, and many of them are still figuring out the intricacies of being financially successful in that space. The original video sharing platform, YouTube, is still alive and well, and a viable way to have a creator career.
From her home outside of Butler, fashion and lifestyle YouTuber Shea Whitney (who goes only by her first and middle name to protect her privacy) shares at least one video a week, highly produced and professionally edited, created in her (gorgeous) home studio. Whitney, who has the easy confidence of the nicest girl in your high school, has built a relationship with her 1.44 million followers, who tune in every week to hear her thoughts on everything from the best Amazon Prime Day deals to makeup mistakes every woman should avoid.
The Fashion Maven
Shea Whitney, 35, Butler
The Content: Sharing fashion, beauty and lifestyle content, Whitney left her HR job to pursue full-time influencing in 2020. Since then, she’s developed videos that share her thoughts on everything from summer fashion trends worth trying to cult beauty products that don’t live up to the hype. Whitney also posts regular product reviews, with hauls from Amazon, Nordstrom and Target.
Most Popular Posts: 8 Ways to Instantly Look Prettier (7.4 million views), 10 Ways to Always Look Expensive (6.3 million views), 10 Shoes Every Woman Should Own (3.3 million views), 8 Things Making You Ugly (3.2 million views)
What’s Next: Whitney recently signed a licensing deal with an agency with an eye on potentially putting her name on a line of beauty products.
She says: “I try to post at least one video a week. I don’t really take breaks. It’s like a TV show; the audience really does want to constantly be seeing your face.”
Whitney and her husband, Josh, both left their full-time jobs in 2020 (she in government HR, and he as a pilot) to devote themselves to growing the Shea Whitney brand. While sponsorship and brand deals do make up part of their income, YouTube video views and affiliate links are major money generators, too.
Testing out products is a huge part of her content output, which means packages arrive at their door near daily so Whitney can stay on top of fashion trends and share her favorites with her audience as soon as she can.
Another influencer who left a corporate gig for full-time content creating is Demi Schweers, who, along with her husband, Tom, creates videos on TikTok and YouTube under the brand “Demi & Tom.” For them, it’s a way to connect with audiences as they share their ongoing struggles through Demi’s recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis and their infertility journey.
Sharing such personal information can be challenging, Demi says, especially when people offer unwanted advice or criticisms of their choices. But the criticism, she says, is worth being able to reach across the digital divide and connect with people who have gone through the same thing.
The Couple In Love
Demi (28) & Tom Schweers (33), Pittsburgh area
The Content: Married couple Demi and Tom Schweers began sharing funny updates about their lives on TikTok in January 2021, after Demi’s cousins encouraged them to join the platform. “Originally, it was like, ‘No, we’re too old for that, that’s for like high schoolers,” says Demi. But, the pair began posting regularly, sharing lighthearted videos of pranks and dance challenges, along with more personal posts that discuss Demi’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis and the couple’s infertility challenges. “I found a community of other individuals who also had MS, so it was really cool to build that community around other things we were dealing with,” Demi says. She left her full-time job in October 2021 to run the couple’s brand, earning sponsorships and income from creator programs on TikTok and YouTube.
Most Popular Posts: A series of (safe for work) videos where Demi flashes Tom when he’s on video work calls is the duo’s most popular set of posts, earning up to 12.9 million views.
What’s Next: A line of their own branded products is on the way, though details are under wraps. “We’ve kind of done this backwards — most people have a product, and then they need a market base. But we’re doing the reverse of that,” Demi says.
They say: “If you want to be in this space, go for it. You don’t have to plan, you don’t have to do anything. Just post things that you are genuinely interested in. If you really care about something, it doesn’t matter what it is, just post about it,” says Tom.
“Having had a miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, you want to have that community around you to understand what’s going on,” she says. “Breaking the stigmas that society has put in place is so important, and people who are going through it do that.”
North Side couple Dee Michelle and Antonio Livingston say that for them, sharing their family’s journey online has been nothing but positive. The couple welcomed triplet daughters in 2021 and often hear from mothers of multiples who share their own stories and support.
Antonio Livingston (28) & Dee Michelle (42), North Side
Amber, Amani & Dream Livingston (19 months)
The Content: The couple began detailing their journey into parenthood after becoming pregnant with triplets in 2020. Since their daughters’ birth, the family has created dozens of videos, offering an inside look at raising multiples, from getting their ears pierced (1.1 million views) to the first time one of their daughters crawled (263K views).
Most Popular Posts: A video of Dee carrying all three girls in carriers has 13.8 million views on TikTok, and a video with Antonio getting the girls ready for a bath has 5.7 million views.
What’s Next: The family plans to continue to create content and build their fanbase and wants to do more sponsorship deals with kid-friendly brands.
They say: “The fact that we’re able to control what we put out there, it makes us more comfortable. The internet can be a harsh place, especially for children. I get how some parents don’t want to share their kids, but for us, it wasn’t a problem,” says Dee.
They say that while there are drawbacks of making their children such a big part of their content plan, they hope to create something financially sustainable for them in the future.
Lukasiak, whose daughter Chloe starred with her on “Dance Moms” and is now a senior at Pepperdine University in southern California, says that she’ll never regret giving both Chloe and her 12-year-old daughter, Clara, the opportunity to grow their brands online.
“Chloe is completely financially independent,” she says. “She knows that if she sustains what I built, she will never have to work a regular 9-5 job.”
Emily Catalano is the founder and editor of Good Food Pittsburgh.