1.6 billion views and not a penny to her name
She’s homeless, vulnerable and suffers from alcoholism. She’s also a TikTok star
By Dan Hayes
Your mum has got no money, your dad is on the dole
They sent you down to Netto, to rob a sausage roll
Sung to the tune of the 90s Eurodance hit “Freed from Desire”, the lyrics are amusing — or, at the least, in the same postcode as humour. Funny-adjacent: like a schoolyard or football fan chant set to a one hit wonder from decades ago. But if you think of the person they’re most popularly associated with here, it’s harder to laugh.
I first came across Keeley on the social media app TikTok, scrolling through videos about Sheffield. I’d only just downloaded the app, so the algorithm didn’t know what I was interested in yet. As such, it seemed all the more bizarre that on typing “Sheffield” into the search bar, the same woman kept appearing.
In the first video I see her in, she’s severely inebriated, dressed in a black tracksuit bottoms and a grey anorak singing and dancing in Fitzalan Square in the city centre. While she’s performing for the camera, the people filming can be heard laughing at the spectacle. In another, two young girls film her on The Moor. The song is the same but this time Keeley is wearing a strappy top. She’s drunk again, and the girls filming her look like they’re probably still at school.
I keep scrolling. In all, there are dozens of videos of this same woman on the social media site. In some, the same people are filming her in different parts of the city centre. But others look like they have been shot by random others. As if people have travelled here, bought a ticket to Sheffield, specifically to film this woman who isn’t really in a condition where she can agree to being filmed. In one video, user @unfizzable says: “Everyone Like And Follow for More Keeley”. Some of the videos have been watched millions of times.
This is obviously a story about Keeley, but it’s also a story that’s bigger than one person. There are plenty of folk here with the same problems she has. But technology has added an extra layer to all of this — somebody who would have been known within a part of a city is now becoming well-known nationally or even internationally. But what does this mean for homeless people or for people suffering from mental illness or addictions? What happens if you become a meme when all you want is control over your day-to-day life?
I’ve thought long and hard about whether to do this story. It feels important to cover — but there’s an obvious issue, isn’t there? There’s the danger of replicating what the videos do: exploiting her situation for engagement, taking advantage of the fact that she seems to live in public — that she doesn’t seem to have a home to retire to, a door to shut in all our faces. Ultimately, I’ve attempted to learn about Keeley and write about her without being exploitative. I wanted to depict the real person behind the meme. Whether it’s worked or not? Only she can tell me that — and you, too.
In the videos she is only ever identified as “Sheffield Keeley”. But judging by the places she frequents, it shouldn’t be that hard to find her. Fitzalan Square, the Cathedral, High Street, West Street and The Moor all feature heavily in the videos. These are places we all know are haunts for some of Sheffield’s most vulnerable people.
A quick look around the city centre on a sunny Friday afternoon draws a blank. But the following Tuesday I find her walking past the Cathedral. At first I think it can’t be her as she’s got a bouquet of flowers in her hand. As we get talking, I assume she’s going to give the flowers to someone else, but it turns out they are for her. “Someone bought you flowers, that’s nice,” I say. “I don’t think they bought them,” she says.
We’re just outside Lloyds bank on High Street when we start chatting. Keeley is dressed a bit differently than in the videos. She has a long-sleeved black dress on and a crucifix around her neck. Leggings and chunky white trainers complete her fashionable look, but there are also a few tell-tale signs that something more is going on. She’s 33 but looks quite a bit older, and she has painful looking scars on her neck which she doesn't remember getting. And both her earlobes are torn into two from where someone has ripped her earrings out when she was 14. “Shit happens,” she tells me.
As we’re talking, four young lads come up and say hello. They act like they’re her friends, but the look on her face tells a different story. When I tell them why I’m there, they suddenly become much more coy. Have you been taking videos of her, I ask one of them. “No, not us,” he says. “We help her.” Keeley’s reaction to his words — a shy, awkward, confusion she displays when she doesn’t know quite what to say — makes me realise he’s not telling the truth. As we walk away she tells me the boy with the noserings was one of the first people to film her: the person who started the trend.
On Arundel Gate several people come up to say hello to her and Keeley even goes to the window of a bus to wave at a friend and her baby. Unlike the TikTok version of Keeley, she’s well spoken and articulate (she stops herself from saying the f-word numerous times as she “doesn’t want to be rude”). As we talk, she tells me more about the videos. “A lot of schoolchildren do it,” she says. “They say you're Keeley, you’re on TikTok, sing us a song. It makes me depressed.” While the song she sings is often “Freed from Desire”, she can do different ones as well, but none of this is because she wants to. “I feel like I’m obliged to do it,” she adds.
Those who watch the videos might question whether this is true. Keeley certainly doesn’t seem like she is taking part in the videos under duress — she is a willing participant. In some of them it almost seems as though she enjoys the attention. The people filming Keeley may be exploiting her, but some also seem to genuinely like her, and she enjoys being liked. Well, who doesn’t?
One person who has filmed her claims that she sometimes charges for the videos, and one post we’ve found clearly shows someone putting money in her hand before she performs her song, although we don’t know how often she has done that. But would it be that wrong if she did? If you type “Sheffield Keeley TikTok” into Google, the top result says videos of her have amassed an astonishing 1.6 billion views. Those are the kind of numbers that could make someone a social media star. In an era in which becoming a social media influencer is a career goal for many people, Keeley could turn a profit, if she knew how to exploit it. She’s clearly very watchable.
But if she isn’t making much beyond the odd quid off her content, who is? TikTok — the huge Chinese-owned social media company which last year generated $11 billion in revenue — clearly are. And theoretically, the people filming her could be earning smaller amounts of money as well. According to various sources, the TikTok Creator Fund pays between $20 and $40 for one million views on the social network. When I spend a few minutes browsing those who have posted videos of her, at least two seem to have enough followers (10,000) and enough “authentic video views” (100,000) to qualify for the Creator Fund.
One of these, @therealshanzz, has posted three videos of Keeley which have racked up more than 100,000 views, including one which has amassed 7.4 million (this is in contrast with her other videos — her latest three non-Keeley videos scored 14,300, 61,600 and 41,500 views respectively). However, even for those who are not monetising the videos of Keeley, for many of the mainly young people who use the platform, views, likes, shares and comments are their goal. Videos of a vulnerable woman are boosting their social media clout.
In the comments section, the ethics of filming someone in Keeley’s state are sometimes debated. But not always. “Universal Credit’s finest,” laughs one TikTok user. “Dirty crackhead,” says another. But there is support for her as well, as well as harsh words for those videoing her. “Filming a vulnerable person for views on TikTok…embarrassing,” says one user (to which @therealshanzz replied: “to all the people who wanna hate on my post all i have to say is i got her permission…you can stop commenting on my page now”). “I feel so sorry for this woman,” says another commenter. “She’s their entertainment.”
When she’s called a crackhead she finds it “really hurtful”, Keeley tells me. She admits to using cannabis occasionally but it’s clear her main problem is alcohol. She comes across as sober when we speak, although I do see a bottle of vodka in her handbag. How much does she drink on an average day, I ask. “Two of them,” she says, pointing to the half-litre bottle poking out the bag. Plus a big bottle of cider. She’s struggled with alcoholism all her adult life, but says she hasn’t been able to get the support she needs. “I’ve been begging to get into The Greens [a Nether Edge-based drug and alcohol rehab] since I was 19,” she says.
Things weren’t always like this for her. She grew up in Woodthorpe and went to The City School (now Outwood Academy City) in Stradbroke until Year 11. She then enrolled at Sheaf Training to learn how to be a carer. But as well as alcoholism, in her adult life mental health problems have dogged her for many years. These include depression and anxiety but also unstable personality disorder. She doesn’t want to go into the deep-seated reasons behind her problems other than to say they are linked to “trauma” she has experienced in the past.
She’s in town today for an appointment with the probation service. As well as the videos, Keeley’s alcohol problems have also got her in trouble with the law. Her most recent run-in was in the last few weeks when she assaulted a member of staff at the notorious Bankers Draft pub on Castle Square. She doesn’t remember what she did but she’s been told she was punching the member of staff. The police tried to show her the CCTV evidence but she couldn’t bear to watch it, she tells me. “It made me sick,” she says. “That’s not me naturally.” If she does get sent back to prison it will be for the second time in under two years. But she’s accepting of her guilt and as we chat she expresses her remorse. “I’ll plead guilty and do my time,” she says.
After the fight in the Bankers Draft she ended up being locked up and then was sent to hospital. She was having seizures and the puncture marks in her arms from the drip are still visible. Since she got out of hospital she has been at her mum’s in Woodhouse, where her 13-year-old son lives. Her seven year old lives over the road with her sister. It was while she’s been at her mum’s that her son showed her the videos on TikTok.
How does she feel when she sees the videos, I ask. “At the time I feel no pain but now I’ve got my own son showing me them,” she tells me. Other people walk up to her in town and say I watch you every night, she says. Does she not have friends who can help protect her? “I wouldn't ask for help even if I thought they could,” she tells me. “The people I hang around with are a bit sketchy.”
The day after speaking to Keeley, I speak to her mum, Sally Jones. She tells me Keeley was with her after she came out of hospital but she has now disappeared again. She thinks she was with her support worker who was trying to find her some accommodation, but if that doesn't work out she’ll be on the streets again. What does Sally think when she sees the videos of her daughter on TikTok? “I think it’s appalling,” she tells me. “She’s not in her right mind most of the time. Her son sees the videos and has the mick taken out of him at school.”
When I spoke to Keeley she told me she wanted to get better: that she has been asking for help for years but had been failed by services. Sally, however, is more cautious. “She has also got to try herself,” she tells me. “She has got to be 100% committed and stick to it.”
Two of the videos of Keeley on TikTok were shot by Sheffield man Travis Simpkins. In one video he films her singing outside the Cathedral while in the other he is trying to wake her up after she has passed out in a doorway. Travis was himself on Channel 5 show Benefits Britain: Life on the dole, and has also appeared on Judge Rinder. “I told her a million people had watched her video and she could be a TikTok star,” he tells me. “When I was on TV I charged people £5 to have a photo with me. Now she’s started charging people a pound to sing that song.”
Travis claims that she had followed his advice by setting up her own page now, although it is not clear that the TikTok account which claims to be hers is actually owned by her. He added that he has known Keeley for some time, and that she used to have a “reyt good life” in the past. “I know her from ages ago and she never used to be like that,” he tells me. “She is a lovely woman but we all go through tough times. I want her to become that star I see in her.”
Other people who had shot the videos didn’t want to speak but were happy to respond to direct messages on the social media platform. TikTok user @lou_lou_regardless said she had filmed her as “she is my friend and I have known her for years. And one day she saw me a song and I was new to TikTok and I asked her if I could record her and video her and put her on TikTok. She agreed and the next thing I know she turned viral 💯😘😊”. When asked why he had filmed her, @mikey1889 said that it was because she was “proper famous”. He didn't confirm whether he asked for her permission or not.
When we asked TikTok about the videos they told us that their community guidelines state bullying and harassment is not allowed on their platform. They said that they had reviewed the videos and removed those that had been found to violate their policies. While TikTok may have removed some videos, as of Friday morning there were still dozens available on the site. Having spent time with this story, I have to admit that, perhaps naively, I’d expected a more in-depth response than this — which looks like it was copied and pasted from an internal document.
After I bumped into Keeley at the Cathedral, I assumed finding her again would be easy. But over the last week and a half I’ve wandered around the streets of the city centre countless times and never seen her again. The occasional video of her does pop up on TikTok though. In one, filmed outside Tiger Works on West Street, she’s wearing the same clothes I saw her in. When we met she said she was going back to her mum’s house, but maybe she never did. In another, she’s standing outside the same venue with a drink that looks like it's been bought for her by someone at the bar.
In a third video, posted on Monday by a user called Lacey-Mae, Keeley appears sober. But in some ways it feels like one of the worst. It’s filmed from a car, and looks like the occupants have spotted her on the street and wound down their window to harass her. She’s smiling but looks tired of the constant requests to perform. Like she’s going through the motions. She also has a nasty looking graze on her head. When she’s sung her song, as people in the car cackle, they have one more request. “Say big up Lacey,” they tell her. She does.