COVER STORY

How breakout TikTok star Esnyr became the nation’s classmate

Selling classroom nostalgia in digestible video skits, 20-year-old TikTok star Esnyr Ranollo has rebuilt the school years we lost during the pandemic.

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Through the eyes of Esnyr Ranollo, it feels like we all went to the same high school.

In one of his classroom skits on TikTok, Esnyr focuses on the jealousy that we used to feel whenever any of our classmates gets excused from class. It deftly covers all possible iterations: Nicole the student leader who says, “Sayang hindi ako makasali sa long quiz! Kaya niyo yan,” while their classmates roll their eyes; Margielyn the dance troupe member who tuts their way out of the classroom in a Jabawockeez mask; the sassy marching band member who flips their hair and walks away with a lyre in tow.

In another, a stern canteen lady aggressively mixing an imaginary jar with a plastic ladle is approached by a student trying to buy buko juice. (“May nakikita kang buko?” is the reply, so they settle for mango shake instead.) The exchange ends when the student hands over a ₱100 bill. The canteen lady raises a heavily lined brow and informs them that she doesn't have enough change. She tells them to try their luck with another canteen stall instead.

On Esnyr: Randolf tattoo barong, Nicolò bluemarble shorts, and stylist's own shirt. Photo by JL JAVIER

In all of Esnyr’s videos, the costumes are DIY, the background is wonky (often made with low res stock photos of classroom scenarios), and every character is played by one person — @esnyrrr himself. Yet millions see their old lives reflected in these skits. We are the classmates who had to endure the long quiz while student athletes get a free pass for the day. We are all the trembling voices attempting to buy cheap canteen food from a woman who has no concept of customer service when it comes to children. Esnyr is right: when you’re 14 years old, you have zero human rights so you better bring your ₱100 bill to someone who might care.

Esnyr is one of the most celebrated Filipino TikTok creators today, with almost four million followers and 117 million likes after less than a year of joining the platform. He not only plays every role in all his videos, he’s also the de facto costume designer, prop master, editor, and director. His classroom skits feature fully realized characters like brown noser Precious, strict teacher Ma’am Castro, and the universally beloved Andrei, the introvert who always covers his mouth with a handkerchief. Through these videos, Esnyr’s brand of comedy has managed to capture a nation’s sense of nostalgia: younger students who haven’t had face to face classes in two years, and older generations who are longing for simpler days sans a global pandemic.

Late in 2021, he was cast in the romantic comedy “Love is Color Blind” starring Donny Pangilinan and Belle Mariano, where he plays a version of Andrei the introvert. Without any acting workshops or an audition, he was flown out to Manila to begin shooting. He recalls how nervous he was on set: “Pag first day of shooting, napressure talaga ako nang bongga! Kasi hindi ko alam — hindi naman sa tinatakot, pero bine-briefing ako na if ever masigawan ka, wag kang ma-culture shock. Wag mo i-take personally. Natatakot pa rin ako na ganunin din nila ako. I’m thankful that I have the guidance of my co-artists, mga cast din na super bait."

On Esnyr: Nicolò notch collar shirt and Randolf borders rashguard. Photo by JL JAVIER

His role as Andrei was expanded after the director was pleased with his performance. “Supposed to be, I’m a cameo lang dapat. Tapos ginawa akong cast, kasi parang nasiyahan daw sila,” Esnyr says. “Hanggang sa wrap up, nandoon ako. Hanggang sa mga promotion, nandoon ako.”

He soon received what he says is his “plot twist” of the year — after his successful stab at acting, he was eventually signed under Rise Artist Studio, which is co-managed by Star Magic and ABS-CBN Film Production. As of publishing, he has a series that’s currently in production. “Dalawa po yung kumuha sa kin. May possible two projects ako, pero pipili ako ng isa,” he says.

The kind of fame that Esnyr is enjoying right now is extraordinary, even in a time when nearly anyone can get famous. TikTok may be full of budding stars, but the platform’s powerful algorithm will put any one-hit wonder to the test. What then does it take to become a legitimate TikTok star?

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The social networking service TikTok looks deceptively simple. From a user’s perspective, the app can seem like it’s only populated by teenagers doing dance challenges or aesthetic-focused outfit videos. It has made fame and popularity more ephemeral than ever — you can go viral one day, but become completely forgettable next. From 65 million users back in 2017, there are currently 1 billion users on the app, and creators are vying for eyeballs before users can swipe up to the next 60-second spectacle. There are ways to game the system, such as using trending audio to get pushed up on people’s feeds, though such methods don’t necessarily guarantee longevity.

On Esnyr: Nicolò translucent shirt and metallic shorts, Randolf crybaby schoolboy shirt. Photo by JL JAVIER

The fact that Tiktok is anyone’s game means that it takes a true contender to stay on top. 24-year-old Filipino-American creator Bella Poarch is the most followed Filipino on TikTok, with 85 million followers as of writing. Her video of dubbing and bopping to the song “Soph Aspin Send” (also known as "M to the B") by Millie B is still the most liked video on the platform. A few million followers down is dancer Niana Guerrero with 29 million, who primarily does dance covers with her older brother and younger sister.

It’s also one thing to be famous on TikTok; another to break out of the platform and be known by the public at large. Poarch is an extraordinary example in that she worked her way to a musical career from being known for dubbing (the music video for her single “Build a Bitch” has more than 350 million views on YouTube). Prior to TikTok, Guerrero has already gained popularity as a creator on YouTube and Facebook, thereby extending her reach far beyond the app. Another creator with a similar background to Esynr is Sassa Gurl with 4.5 million followers on the app. They were recently tapped to be the first openly queer White Castle calendar model for 2022. For everyone else, TikTok can feel like an insular community; while the app may have a billion inhabitants (and counting), there’s still a larger world out there who might simply have no idea you exist.

Esnyr’s following is comparably more modest than Poarch’s or even Guerrero’s, but his work is easily identifiable outside of the app. Even with a face mask on, the TikTok star can’t walk more than a few feet without being recognized. The afternoon we met we were stopped at least five times. The first was right in the middle of our interview in a chain cafe — two healthcare workers in scrubs approached us after picking their drink orders and asked, “Ikaw yung nasa TikTok, diba? Pwede bang mapa-picture?”

By some miracle, Esnyr has been able to grow a solid fan base and turn viewers into believers — all in less than a year. It’s a TikTok fairy tale come to life.

On Esnyr: Nicolò notch collar shirt, Randolf borders rashguard, and stylist's own shorts. Photo by JL JAVIER

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The first few times I watched Esnyr’s videos, I fully expected him to be close to my age, an older millennial armed with a few jokes, a cell phone, and a dream. He oscillates between the roles of teacher and student with ease, implying a fair amount of wisdom and introspection. (It bears noting how Esnyr portrays satire — while he copies the effectations of teachers to a T, the portrayal is never offensive.) Esnyr revealed that he’s still very much a student, and is in fact in his second year of studying Petroleum Engineering at Palawan State University. (Petroleum Engineering is a highly competitive program that only accepts around 100 passers per school year; according to Esnyr, he chose it because “hindi kailangan mag-bar exam.”) It would take him a year of doing virtual classes to finally give in and download TikTok.

“[I was] a basher of Tiktok,” Esnyr recalls. “Isa ako sa mga nagsasabi na I will never download that app. I will never install that app. Parang goal ko sa sarili ko [dati] na matapos tong pandemic na to, hindi pa rin ako nakakapag-TikTok. Kasi nacr-cringe ako dati sa TikTok. Yung mga sayaw-sayaw ganon.”

He knew what he wanted for himself — to find a place where he could show off his comedic skills — so he thought he’d try his luck uploading skits on his Facebook and Instagram stories. They proved to be popular, but it limited his reach. It would take participating in a dance relay video with friends for him to finally download TikTok, and have a taste of the app’s enticing virality.

“[Pagkatapos ng] one hour, 100k views. That time, na-shookt ako. Hala, ang fast pala ng TikTok. Akala ko pag wala kang followers, hindi ka makikita. Nagulat ako na pinakita yung video ko sa FYP,” Esnyr recalls. (FYP stands for “for you page,” a curated feed of videos by creators you might not follow, but the algorithm thinks that you might like them based on your interactions on the app.) “Ang daming people nag message, ‘Uy lumabas ka sa FYP ko.’ So from that one video, naka-garner ako ng 2k followers. Tapos sabi ng mga kasama ko na ‘Why won’t you utilize that 2k followers,’ parang business?”

“Supposed to be, I’m a cameo lang dapat. Tapos ginawa akong cast, kasi parang nasiyahan daw sila. Hanggang sa wrap up, nandoon ako. Hanggang sa mga promotion, nandoon ako.”

Gaining new followers so quickly was a phenomenon that Esnyr could not believe at first. TikTok was not his first foray into fame, or at least some version of it. He’s previously made attempts at making a name for himself online, owing to his personability in his school in Davao. “Known ako to be entertaining sa school. I [had been] a student leader from Grade 7 up until senior high school. Feeling ko doon ako magkakaroon ng clout. Noong una, ginawa ko siya pang clout,” Esnyr reveals. “Kada campaign, natutuwa sila sa akin, jino-joke time ko yung campaign. Tapos nananalo ako, kahit sinong maganda or famous na itatapat sa kin.”

Esnyr even tried vlogging on YouTube, without much success. “Yung support system ko lang at the time was yung barkada ko,” he says. “To the point na kahit gagala kami sa isang cafe, pine-play nila yung video ko sa TV. Tapos nahihiya ako. (Laughs) After that, narealize ko na super baba ng views ko. Dati 300 views, pero feeling ko famous na ko at the time. (Laughs)”

YouTube wasn’t enough. Esnyr reveals that at one point, he had been a prolific author on Wattpad. He would not only write original stories, but he also edited covers for each one of them. (These Wattpad stories actually inspired his first few videos on TikTok — romantic POVs that end with a comedic twist. “Kunwari mag-isa ka sa cafe, tapos tatabihan ka ng pogi… pero sa i-invite ka [pala] sa networking.”)

On Esnyr: Stylist's own white shirt. Photo by JL JAVIER

The first of his classroom videos came about after his Wattpad followers kept pressuring him via DM to post more videos. It was about two warring sections during a school-wide competition, and was only meant to be filler content. He went back to his Wattpad-inspired POVs, but soon realized that his engagement shot up in his school seryes. From two thousand followers in March 2021, he gained his first million just six months after.

Despite his writing background, Esnyr’s TikTok videos aren’t scripted. In the morning or during class, he brainstorms over a concept and starts filming at around four in the afternoon. It takes him three to four hours to film and an hour to edit — any lines or side comments from all the characters are purely spontaneous. (His only requirement per video is to make sure each of his personas gets a second or two to shine.) Esnyr doesn’t hesitate to completely scrap a fully done video if it goes beyond 60 seconds, or if the video, in his words, “ay hindi havey at all.”

His approach to his craft suggests that Esnyr is purely working on instinct, a confidence in his own abilities to make something; anything. But despite his steady climb to fame and success, Esnyr clearly sees showbiz as a viable career — a way to be a breadwinner for his family. While he’s serious about his studies, he’s also willing to shelve it in favor of work.

“Kung hindi ko na mai-balance both, I think uunahin ko yung fastest way to help my family, which is [mag-artista,]” he says. “Kasi isa po ako sa yun nga, parang breadwinner. I need to be stable first.”

It also bears asking if Esnyr has considered the wealth of content he still has remaining. But Esnyr isn’t worried; he owes the universality of his videos for having experienced both public and private education throughout high school.

“Siguro pag babalik na yung face to face, sa online class naman yung gagawin ko. (Laughs) Ako, gusto ko maging universal student talaga. Pero yung hindi ko alam kung ano yung plano,” he muses. “Go lang ako sa flow, living in the moment. Siyempre, iniisip ko yung future ko, pero when it comes to my content, hindi pa naman. Feeling ko meron at meron pa akong magagawa, sa dami ng experience ko sa high school.”

On Esnyr: Randolf split jacket and stylist's own white shirt. Photo by JL JAVIER

As for the rest of us, Esnyr’s high school skits perfectly document the Filipino classroom experience — the moments of triumph and defeat, the fear and disappointment, and the innocence of affection. The sheer weirdness of it all. What his body of work has managed to say is that we are united by more than we realize, across space and time.

High school isn’t forever, but talent like his is the kind that endures beyond the limits of a 60-second video. Esnyr Ranollo may only be 20 years old, but he seems to have lived a hundred lives before, and will probably live a hundred more.

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Styling by RJ SANTOS
Assisted by NICOLO PEREZ
Produced by GABY GLORIA
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA