Alyssa McKay Is a Shining TikTok Star — and So Is Her Glamorous Pup
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Alyssa McKay hit TikTok stardom when she was 18, as videos of her lip-syncing to scenes from Mean Girls and Pretty Little Liars first started to go viral. Since then, her following on the app has ballooned to over 10 million, with two million subscribers on Snapchat and more than one million on YouTube (not to mention another 20.8k on Instagram for her adorable Miniature Dachshund, Ayla Rae — more on her later).
Like many Gen Zers who have masterfully and impressively lip-synched their way to TikTok fame, McKay attributes her success in social media to her authenticity. But it is the scripted work she produces for the apps, particularly her rich-girl character and her raps, that really vaulted her into the social media stratosphere.
Alongside her TikTok success, McKay has long harbored dreams of a career beyond the phone screen. Before she found stardom on TikTok, she made her film debut in the 2018 critically acclaimed feature Leave No Trace, which shot in and around her hometown of Portland, Oregon. The film’s success led to more auditions for McKay, but bookings were hard to come by, especially close to home, where acting jobs are few and far between to begin with.
After college — McKay has a degree in communications from Portland State University — she decamped for the East Coast, buying a house in New Jersey, 90 minutes from New York City and 20 from her longtime manager, Brian Nelson. “He built my career up from nothing. When I met him, I was losing followers. I was just this 19-year-old posting on TikTok, and he helped me stand out,” she says of Nelson, who she says has been a “father figure” in her life.
Nelson was also instrumental in helping McKay pursue her dreams beyond TikTok. He set her up with Buchwald, one of the top agencies in the country, and he was on the call with her when she first met with the producers of the hit scripted podcast The Royals of Malibu. A member of Diversion Audio — the team behind Royals — knew McKay from TikTok and reached out about her auditioning for the role of the series’ host. The role in question was a minor part McKay describes as similar to the voice of Gossip Girl. Nelson pushed for McKay to be allowed to audition for the podcast’s lead, Ella Sinclair. Three days later, she found out she had booked the part.
“It’s a big deal,” she says. “And I firmly believe it is really different from all the other scripted podcast shows out there. It’s a mix of Euphoria and Gossip Girl. Perfect for the Gen Z audience.” (For those who are still entrenched in Serena van der Woodsen’s world, here’s your intel that HBO Max’s reboot features characters who would consider Blair and Chuck out-of-touch millennials).
Royals is based on The New York Times bestselling YA romance novel Paper Princess (2016) by Erin Watt and debuted at number one on Apple Podcasts on February 6. New episodes drop every Monday. McKay voices Ella Sinclair, a 17-year-old sex worker who is taken in by the wealthy Royal family in Malibu. “She and I are very similar,” says McKay, who spent her adolescence in the foster care system. “Like, always being on the defensive because you don’t know when you are going to eat next or who you can actually trust. And entering this new life she’s like, ‘What’s the catch?’”
McKay entered foster care at the age of nine, when she and her four younger siblings were removed from her mother and stepfather’s home. “They were drug addicts,” she says of the pair. “And my stepfather was very abusive to me and my sister. He’s in jail now. They just didn’t take care of us. There was never any food in the house. My childhood actually feels like a fever dream. I remember one time, I was in the living room, and my mom was like, ‘Kids, watch!’ And she pointed to this pizza that was rotting on the floor. There was this mouse dragging the pizza away, and she was like, ‘Isn’t that so cool, kids?!’ Like we were watching a deer from the side of the road or something.”
McKay bounced around foster homes for the next five years. She stayed with her grandparents for a little while but didn’t settle in a home until she was 14 and about to enter high school. “It was awful,” she says. “No one wants to be in foster care.”
School was the one constant in McKay’s life: “I always really liked school. And my caseworker, even if I switched homes, she would always try to keep me in the same school district.” She wasn’t always successful, but she did try. And McKay managed to stay in the same home throughout high school and college, the latter paid for by the state, provided she remained in the system.
“That was the one benefit of being in the system, I guess — that my tuition was free,” she adds. “I’m also the first person in my family to go to college, let alone graduate. That was really important to me and to my grandpa, who passed away from COVID a few months ago. He said seeing me go to college was one of the greatest joys of his life, so I made sure I stuck with it and graduated.”
After graduating in May 2022, McKay broke up with her boyfriend and a few days later packed up her bags and her pup, Ayla, and headed east. She initially wanted to move to NYC, but New Jersey meant she could get a house — and a yard for Ayla, a.k.a. @alyathedoxie, who is also a TikTok star. McKay grew up around dogs and almost all her foster families had dogs, but Ayla is the first dog who is really and truly hers. “When I lived with my birth mom, we had multiple dogs, but my mom would get us a dog and then sell it for drugs,” she says. “How sad is that? But I’ve always been around and loved dogs.”
McKay got Ayla after first encountering Miniature Dachshunds on, appropriately enough, TikTok. “Before that, I didn’t even know they were a thing and after, I was like ‘I need that!’” she says. “I showed my foster mom the video and asked if I could get one, and she agreed.” A quick search online led her to a local breeder with a litter of puppies for sale, one of whom became Ayla.
It wasn’t all kisses and cuddles at first, though. “Her whole first year, she was a menace,” McKay remembers. “I mean, absolutely awful. I would cry out of anger and frustration all the time. I really thought she hated me. I’d be laying in bed, and she would just attack the shit out of my arm or my hand for no reason. I have the scars to prove it! And every time I left the house, she would destroy something. She destroyed every pair of high heels I owned. I would get a new plant, and within 30 seconds it would be smashed on the floor.”
But giving up on Ayla was never an option. “When you get a dog, you become that dog’s mother,” she says, her voice more grave than at any other time in our hour-long conversation. “I would never [abandon my dog]. When I hear about someone getting rid of their dog, for any reason, especially when they then turn around and get another one, all I can think is, ‘Evil, evil, evil!’”
And now, of course, Ayla and McKay are the best of friends. “I don’t know how it happened, but one day she just turned into a complete angel,” she says. “And I know every owner says this, but she is just the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. She’s just the nicest angel. I can’t even! And I know I just sound like every other dog mom, but it’s true. She’s awesome.”
Indeed, Ayla has been by McKay’s side throughout our conversation, briefly napping in a patch of sun behind her chair before returning for additional cuddles. “She’s obsessed with me,” says McKay with a laugh. “And she’s very pampered. She has a BarkBox subscription and all the fancy things! She even has her own closet with all her toys and harnesses and all her clothes on little hangers.” Ayla hates wearing outfits, but she indulges her mom long enough for her to snap a few photos of her “little lovebug.”
Recently, McKay has been considering getting a second dog to keep Ayla company. “I feel like she needs a friend,” she says. “My best friend, Zoe, has a Mini Dachshund as well, but they live in Oregon so, since we moved, Ayla doesn’t have a friend anymore.”
New dogs, though, especially puppies, need a lot of time and attention, and McKay isn’t sure she has that much to give at the moment. “I definitely want another dog — and an elderly cat, and an aquarium with African dwarf frogs and guppies — but not right now. What if I get a job and have to leave for a month to film? I can’t get a new pet and then just abandon them like that.”
In this and many other ways, McKay displays a maturity that belies her 23 years and bodes well for her burgeoning acting career. Although she was unwilling to share specifics about any upcoming projects, she did say that she has multiple deals currently in the works.
“I’ve had conversations with different directors and stuff, but I hate to say exactly what I have coming up because I’ve booked things — like the lead in a movie — and the day before I am supposed to fly out, the investor pulls their money and I’m like, ‘Damn. I told everyone I was doing this.’ So, until I am on set, I don’t really consider a job booked,” she says. Given the runaway success of The Royals of Malibu, though, her schedule will probably start filling up soon. And if not, well, she will just keep moving forward.
“So many doors had to close to me for this podcast door to open,” she says. “All I can really do is try to stay positive. It sounds sort of cheesy, but I’ve actually started channeling my character in Royals, Ella, in my real life. She’s just so strong and resilient. I’m actually a very shy person, but now, whenever I find myself in a situation where I think I should speak up for myself or be brave, I tell myself, ‘OK! Time to channel your inner Ella Sinclair.’ Because whatever it is, Ella wouldn’t be afraid to do it.” And if McKay does get scared along the way, at least she’s got Ayla by her side.
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Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.