PITTSBURGH — It all started with grilled cheese and a dream.
Brandon Max had been making content on TikTok via his @itsbrandonmax account since March 2019 but hadn’t gained much traction. His unique brand of food-focused comedy would garner about 12,000 views a week, which is nice but not in the same league as social media influencers who regularly attract millions of eyeballs.
Then, in September 2019, the 20-year-old broke through with a video featuring him and his father singing about their shared love of grilled cheese sandwiches. That video racked up about 2.5 million views in five days and earned Max more than 100,000 more followers. Suddenly, his page began averaging nearly 3 million views a week, and his individual videos were regularly going viral.
In February 2020, he topped it. Max’s TikTok video with his father issuing a challenge involving a cheese pizza is his most-watched video yet with 13.2 million views — and counting.
“It’s all about building a positive community,” Max said. “I was never expecting to even hit 1,000 followers. It just happened. I’m so grateful for all the people that support me and everything. It’s really sweet.”
The Pittsburgh native grew up in Fox Chapel and attended Kerr Elementary School, St. Edmund’s Academy and Fox Chapel High School. Most of his high school education was experienced virtually due to a condition called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. Max was 5 when he was diagnosed with PANDAS.
The disease weakened his immune system to the point that it was unsafe for him to be around other kids his age. Max said he suffered “some really scary symptoms” throughout his childhood and was the victim of some bullying as well. When he was first diagnosed, Max and his family traveled around the country from Missouri to Connecticut to find doctors who could treat him.
By last year, most of his symptoms had dissipated, and he’s been able to enjoy a more normal life. He still stays in touch with his local doctor and ones in Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri, but things are definitely looking up.
“I’m thankfully doing much better than I was,” Max said. “I’ve definitely made a lot of progress through my years with my health. I’m feeling a lot stronger.”
Being forced to isolate for so many years left Max feeling “very misplaced — invisible, pretty much.” He went through bouts of depression as he tried to cope with not being able to engage with his friends and classmates. But the success of his videos helped him get out of his funk, especially when his friends told him how much they were enjoying his content.
“I just became this hero after that in Fox Chapel,” he said. “I wasn’t invisible anymore. They knew who I was and that I was alive. It was the best feeling ever.”
Two recent videos involving Oreo cheesecake and his grandmother have more than a million views each. He’s realized it’s OK to be silly and different.
“There’s something about food that puts me in a fun mood,” he said. “I’m proud of who I am.”
BECOMING A BRAND
Max has become not just a popular TikTok account but also a brand. His father, who can be seen in the videos but asked to remain anonymous, handles the business side of the operation. That includes making sure his son gets what he’s owed from the TikTok Creator Fund and managing inquiries from companies who want him to be a brand ambassador or to use his videos in their marketing.
“This kid has been through so much,” Max’s dad said. “He’s worked so hard. He loves Pittsburgh. He loves being here.”
At this point, Max’s brand also includes YouTube and Instagram pages. He is now working with Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in the Strip District, which plans to introduce a Brandon Max sundae comprised of two brownies, four scoops of chocolate ice cream, Oreo toppings, M&Ms and hot fudge. It will come in three sizes, and 10% of the proceeds will be donated to the Neuroimmune Foundation.
As a social media influencer, Max is aware of the responsibilities he has to his followers.
“I think the right way of being an influencer is giving back to people,” he said. “There are a lot of people with a big following who only care about themselves. That’s the wrong way to be an influencer. ... Stay positive. Care about your followers and fans. Don’t just care about yourself.”
Max knows he wouldn’t have received all these opportunities if people didn’t enjoy his videos, and he’ll never lose sight of how they helped transform an “invisible” kid into a TikTok star.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all your support,” he said. “I want you to know that I truly love you. I’m so beyond grateful for you, and thank you for changing my life.”