Talking With Instagram’s (and Ariana Grande’s) Favorite, Thirst-Trapping Ballet Dancer

I had no idea who Conor McKenzie was before November. Chances are — sorry, Conor — you probably didn’t either. But in November, Ariana Grande released the title track “Thank U, Next” from her forthcoming album — and McKenzie released a video of himself, clad in a crop top emblazoned with “Queen” and a pair of heeled boots that make my arches hurt just looking at them, sashaying, high kicking, and doing the splits to the same tune.

That on its own, would probably not have been enough to turn McKenzie into a viral star. But in McKenzie’s video, in every shot his dance move correlates with a thing he’s over. Text appears on the screen — “bad skin,” “negativity,” “flats” — only to have McKenzie dance it away in the true spirit of “Thank U, Next.” This was enough to turn McKenzie into a viral star.

The video is McKenzie’s most-watched to date with nearly 800,000 views on his Instagram alone. (This doesn’t account for other platforms and uncredited reposts, bringing the view count well into the millions.) Ariana Grande herself, among a slew of other celebrities, shared it. I caught up with McKenzie earlier this month to find out a little bit more about his craft, life after going viral, and why he doesn’t consider himself an “influencer.”

Hi, Conor. Let’s start technical. How long have you been dancing?

I started dancing at the age of 14. It’s a funny story actually. Believe it or not, I auditioned … well … tried out for my middle-school football team when I was 13, but didn’t make it. It was a blessing that I didn’t because I had friends that were participating in the school musical who convinced me to do it too, and ultimately, that is where my love for dance sprouted … When it comes to training, it is pretty much an every day thing. I go to the gym 4 to 5 times a week, stretch almost daily to maintain flexibility, give myself a ballet class frequently, all while staying on top of my endurance training and body maintenance work. And let’s be honest, I still have my rest days because if not I would go crazy.

When did you join Instagram? Has how you’ve used Instagram changed over the years?

I joined Instagram right before I went off to college in 2012 and it still remains my favorite social-media platform. I’m a very visual person so I love seeing videos and photos compared to seeing written statuses or updates. When I first got Instagram, it definitely was for more of a fun purpose in the sense that I used it to socialize with friends and didn’t think twice about what I was posting. Now, it’s even more fun for me to use because I’m reaching such a large audience, but all of my content is curated and well-thought-out so it’s a little bit different. My following on Instagram and my other social-media platforms has really grown over the past two years after I started focusing on curating my content and really creating a brand for myself. It’s what has led me to book brand deals, dance gigs, and even start my own subscription service.

Would you call yourself an “influencer” then?

I typically don’t claim the title of being an influencer. I suppose I fall under that category in certain aspects, but I prefer to use the term content creator. Most of my content is aimed at entertaining people and inspiring people to be their best selves. Liza Koshy is one of my favorite social-media personalities and she says, “I create content to make people feel content,” and I love that because that’s exactly what I aim to do with my own content. A lot of influencers I see online try to paint a very perfect picture of their lives and I’m not really interested in that. I like to keep it as transparent and real as possible with my followers … that’s the type of influencing I’m into.

Let’s talk a little bit about the real reason we’re here. The “Thank U, Next” video.

The response to my “Thank U, Next“ video has honestly been mind-blowing. Out of all of my videos though, I am so happy it was that one because of the positivity it preaches. It just speaks to the fact that people thrive off of positive energy and need a pick-me-up sometimes. I’m just happy to be able to deliver something that has brought joy to so many people and that I could be that pick-me-up for someone. As for views, it’s most definitely my most popular video. It’s been watched over tens of millions of times, which to me is just crazy.

I think I’m at least ten [million] of those millions.

I’m a one-man show for the most part,a so anytime I post a video it’s been completely filmed and edited by myself (thank God for a tripod). The “Thank U, Next” video specifically was done all by me. I filmed a long video of me dancing and doing different poses where I then took it and plugged it into iMovie and cut it all together to match the music. For this video, I had words flying in as a special effect so I had to plug it into another app where I added the text and then that was it! Editing can be a pretty lengthy process, but the responses I get from my videos make it all worth it.

So what was it like seeing Ariana Grande share your work?

I honestly still don’t have words. Seeing my video on her Twitter and Instagram Story sent me over the edge in the best way possible. I love her as an artist and her music is some of my favorites, so it was a really big moment for me. Other people that I totally look up to like Ellen Pompeo, Julianne Hough, Brie Larson, and others reposted it too so I’ve definitely been on cloud nine for a while.

Obviously a lot of your content is, let’s say, hot as hell. Tell us a little about the state of your DMs? Is it slide city?

For the most part, my DMs are pretty tame. There are some crazy ones here and there, but I typically don’t check my DMs that frequently. It certainly is entertaining though when I do see people sliding in my DMs. It’s flattering and always gives me a good laugh.

Have you seen an uptick in harassment since your viral video?

There of course has been some pushback and nasty comments about my video, but to be honest, the majority of the responses have been nothing but positive and supportive. The negative comments are irrelevant, especially compared to when I receive messages from people saying they watch my video any time they’re having a bad day or are feeling down.

What is it like sharing so much of your life online with fans?

It took some getting used to once my popularity really grew because I found myself second-guessing certain things and some of my content, because I had so many people watching. But I realized that staying true to who I am and staying transparent makes it easy because people appreciate that and can relate to it more. I definitely still keep aspects of my life private to have some sort of separation, but I enjoy the conversations I get to have with people and to hear about other people’s experiences or how they have been inspired by what I do.

Thank u, Conor. Next video, please.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Talking to Instagram’s (and Ariana Grande’s) Favorite Dancer