WATERTOWN — It was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit that Joseph R. Fay became amazed when 3,000 people watched his video on TikTok.
Roughly a year later, the state trooper is moonlighting as a social media influencer with millions of followers, gathering millions of views on any given video — still unaware of how this all happened.
Mr. Fay is a 25-year-old trooper and father in Watertown with a side gig that many locally don’t know about, since he uses a pseudonym, but that 2.3 million followers globally do.
Mr. Fay has been a trooper for roughly two years now. His most recent exposure to the public was about a month ago when he and three other officers pulled a man from a burning hotel room at the Relax Inn on Route 11, just outside the city. The man they saved would go on to live and talk about his gratitude for those who were there when he was unconscious amid flames.
A few days after the save, Mr. Fay sat calmly alongside his colleagues in front of cameras and reporters. He was modest in explaining the rescue and all business, highlighting his effort to maintain a disconnect between his professional life and the one on social media.
It would have stunned the room if he had mentioned the 2.3 million followers he has on TikTok, the more than 100 million total views on YouTube, how fans sign up just to video chat with him or about the podcast studio he was renovating on Public Square. But he didn’t say it for the cameras and he wouldn’t unless someone had asked him directly, underscoring how he has flown somewhat under the radar as one of the north country’s largest social media powers.
He uses the name “jf.okay” across all platforms and is the “Tesla Tiktoker” who grew up in Watertown and has no plans of leaving.
Keeping incognito comes as no surprise to his father, John “Jay” Fay. The trooper grew up a good athlete in Watertown, but he was always laid back and somewhat quiet, his dad said.
“He was shy when he was a kid,” his dad said. “This surprised us all, and we’re so proud of him.”
A 2013 graduate from Immaculate Heart Central School, Mr. Fay went on to attend Jefferson Community College for two years before transferring to SUNY Canton for two more years to obtain his criminal justice degree.
It was January of last year when a friend told Mr. Fay about TikTok. It was explained to him as a time-wasting app and a way to continuously scroll through short, funny videos. They ended up making their own videos. They both had maybe 20 followers and it was mainly a silly competition of who could get more views.
Mr. Fay said his videos at first were random. He might see a video of someone talking about the shoes Crocs, laugh at it and make one of his own.
Mr. Fay’s year-long meteoric rise on TikTok, a social media app in which users create short videos of dances, cooking recipes and more, can’t be explained without the car he drives. Nearly every video he posts now has to do with his 2016 Tesla Model X, and there’s almost a sense that he pokes fun at the loyal community of electric car owners.
There’s no doubting he loves the car he’s wanted ever since it was first introduced to the world while Mr. Fay was in high school. He likes talking about its interesting features, like its autopilot mode or quickness, and he’s always appreciated the sustainability aspect of the cars.
He just can’t help but laugh and become self-aware when a video of him pouring a condiment on his leather seat and then wiping it off gets 5 million views and more than 100,000 likes.
“I get it,” Mr. Fay said, sweeping the table with his hand again in his newly renovated studio overlooking Public Square, surrounded by leather sofas, microphones and flat-screen TVs. “It’s stupid. I literally plug my car in to charge and there are millions of views.
He said, early on, his family seemed to not really believe his idea could be profitable, or just didn’t really seem to understand the intricacies of social media. Not that he, or maybe anyone else, really does.
“I still don’t know how any of it works,” Mr. Fay added. “I don’t know how the views come.”
The name he uses on his page, jf.okay, came about somewhat randomly. A friend suggested Joe Fay Okay, but he still didn’t want his name out there, so jf.okay would have to work. Now, it’s on T-shirts, links to his websites and on the back of his car.
Mr. Fay said he didn’t set out to focus his videos solely on his car, but an accidental blow-up pushed him into the lane. Near the end of January 2020, he posted a roughly 12-second video of him panicking about being low on charging power for his Tesla. He showed himself at a charging station with six miles remaining until he was out of power. He posted the video of him narrowly making it and then he went home.
“The video had around 50,000 views when I went to bed,” he said, “which was nuts.”
He woke up the next morning and the video had more than 500,000 views. He went from 20 followers to 3,000, and he would end up at 20,000 by the end of the day.
“Since then,” he said, “every video has done pretty well. It hasn’t stopped really.”
It was perfect timing, too. The pandemic was rumbling and so many were stuck at home on their phones. It was arguably the height of TikTok, and Mr. Fay jumped on it. He was hammering out videos on his off days, stockpiling them so he could post two to three times a day.
It wasn’t a high-level movie set — to this day he has a hard time finding the cost to make his videos. He’ll make a video of him washing his car, which is just $4 if he does it by hand, or $8 if he runs it through a car wash. His most-engaged-with videos are roughly 20 seconds long and take 30 seconds to film.
He tried at first to keep his face out of the videos, but in February 2020, he accidentally showed it in the reflection of his Tesla. That video alone has more than 40 million views and 2.3 million likes.
“I always tell people to post, post, post and never give up,” he said. “All it takes is one video to blow up and you’re set.”
That’s really it for Mr. Fay. He doesn’t act like a creative wonder of the world. There’s even a sense of frustration when he tries to do something different with his videos, but his audience only wants to engage with him pouring syrup or hot sauce on his front seat.
Above all, he saw that consistent posting would lead to more views, which can lead to brand deals with companies. He has a young son at home who really is the priority. He’s reached out to companies for advertisement deals, which has created enough revenue to live off of without being a state trooper, he said. But he likes his job, plus it has benefits whereas social media doesn’t and is less secure.
State police have taken notice of his popularity online and only asked that he doesn’t appear in uniform or post anything that might seem offensive, Mr. Fay said.
“I don’t post anything on duty,” he said. “Those hours are dedicated to work.”
That’s something his dad is proud of, too. Mr. Fay has managed to keep a PG-rated online footprint while also growing his follower count and extending his brand.
“I’m surprised at how articulate he is on these videos and I’m proud of him for that,” his dad said. “He comes across very well. He’s just being himself.”
Mr. Fay was rather shy growing up, his dad said, which added to the shock value. Mr. Fay telling his parents at a young age that he wanted to be a trooper surprised them as well, given his laid-back demeanor.
“That’s what shocked me,” his dad said. “We’re really, really proud of him there. Parents worry constantly because every day is different, but he seems to be enjoying that.”
Mr. Fay said he takes pride in being able to somewhat turn work-mode off when he goes home.
“I have a work mentality and I have a play mentality, I guess,” Mr. Fay said. “Everyone says, ‘I can’t believe you’re a cop.’”
But now here he sits in his studio, being fidgety with the table as he speaks. He has always liked to be moving and doing something different every day, which indicates why he’s a trooper.
He said he hasn’t been noticed while on duty. A family might notice him while he’s in street clothes and they’ll stop to take a photo. He was charging his Tesla in Binghamton and a fan found him for a photo. He remembers presenting his car like the fan would want to take a photo next to it, but instead she wanted a photo with him.
“That’s so strange to me that you want a photo with me because I feel like a normal person,” he said. “I feel like there’s nothing different about me than a few years ago.”
Mr. Fay is here in Watertown to stay, too. His family is here, work is here and he just bought a house here last year. He said he’s even meeting with a lawyer this week to talk about starting an actual business, and, who knows, his studio connects to several other abandoned office space. Perhaps there’s room for expansion.
“I think growing up in a smaller town has kept me humble,” he said. “I’m not a California snob who is around fame every day I guess.”
If you ask him if he feels famous, he’ll say no, so why not stick around?
“I think this area is headed in a great direction,” he said, “and will continue to grow like it has.”