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Viral Vegan Influencer Makes Comforting TikTok Videos During The Pandemic

May 20, 2020
Originally published on May 20, 2020 8:35 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes you just need a hug. And if you're in lockdown by yourself, Tabitha Brown has an untraditional suggestion for how to get one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TABITHA BROWN: You need a hug? Well, sometimes potato wedges make you feel like they hugging you. At least that's how I feel. Let's make some.

SHAPIRO: That minute-long video about making potato wedges is one of the reasons Tabitha Brown has about 3 million followers on TikTok. She's not a chef. In fact, she was an actress moonlighting as an Uber driver when she had her breakthrough a few years ago. She bought a vegan sandwich from Whole Foods that she just had to tell someone about, so she posted this video in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T BROWN: Whoever thought of this - right now, we all together want to pray for you, honey, because what you've done in this sandwich (laughter) - y'all done set souls on fire.

SHAPIRO: She only joined TikTok in March, and something about her warmth, her humor and the affirmations she gives her followers make her a voice that people especially want to hear during this crazy time. And Tabitha Brown joins us now from her home in Los Angeles.

Welcome.

T BROWN: Well, honey, thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You know, my younger friends always told me that TikTok was not for anybody over the age of 30, so I stayed far away from it. And you and I are close to the same age. So how did you find your way onto this platform that is full of people in their teens and 20s?

T BROWN: Well, honey, the funny thing is I don't even know where you heard the age of 30, honey. I thought it was 20 and under.

(LAUGHTER)

T BROWN: My daughter, who is 18 - she kept telling me, Mom, you should get on TikTok. You should get on TikTok. I said, why in the world would I get on TikTok? It's for the kids, right? And she kept saying, 'cause I think you'll be, like, a good, like, comforting mom for the people on there. I think you just add some, like, really good energy. And I was like, I don't know about that, girl. I really just wanted to do the renegade dance everybody was doing. So I was trying to get her to show me and my brother how to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHOYCE BROWN: It's at the top right here. See how that's the...

T BROWN: Yeah, but everybody else be doing renegade, renegade, renegade.

Honey, that was the first video that went viral. I was like, whoa, God. Well, now let me try to do, you know, a recipe (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Clearly, your daughter was on to something. What do you think it is that makes these young people connect so much to the spirit, the energy, the message that you're giving them on this platform?

T BROWN: Well, you know, when I first got on and saw the response in all the young kids and what they were saying - they kept saying, oh, my God. Your voice - it sounds like a hug. It helps my anxiety. You know, I feel like, oh, you're the mom I never had.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T BROWN: Honey, Rome won't built in a day. Now, baby, everything that you want ain't gon' (ph) happen overnight, but it will happen. So take it easy on yourself. You're doing great. I love you.

It instantly to me became a responsibility.

SHAPIRO: It's so interesting that your personality and your voice are connecting so deeply with people because I understand that when you were trying to make it as an actor in LA, people were telling you to tone down your personality and change your voice.

T BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah. And you know what's crazy enough is that that started back when I was in North Carolina when I got my first agent. They told me, you know, nobody wants to hear your accent, so you got to make sure you cover that. And also, in, like, corporate America when I used to work, you know - cover your accent. You need to be a neutral person. And it just was this thing I developed trying to fit in. And when I got to LA, it was like, OK, let me make sure nobody can tell where I'm from. Let me try to be this and fit into this equation. But I'm so thankful to be free now.

SHAPIRO: What does that tell you? The thing that has made you connect with so many millions of people is the thing that people were trying to tell you to squelch and cover up.

T BROWN: Yeah, because, you know - it tells me that I was enough all along just being who I am.

SHAPIRO: So you've become known for these vegan cooking videos, but you're not a trained chef. You weren't always into cooking. How did food become your niche?

T BROWN: Well, that - it's so funny because I've always loved to cook, you know, since learning to cook. I had to learn how to cook over the phone jack (ph) 'cause when I was little, growing up in the South, you know, my mom and my granny and my aunts - they were all really great cooks. But I was a tomboy, and I wanted to be outside playing. I ain't care nothing about cooking and being in nobody kitchen.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So what do you mean you learned over the phone?

T BROWN: So when me and my husband first moved in together, I was like, oh, Lord - 'cause I am a Southern woman. So I was like, I got to cook for this man, got to feed him. And so I would call my mom, and I would call my granny. And I'd be like, I need to cook something. And they would tell me over the phone what to cook. Listen. The first time I tried to cook pinto beans in a crockpot, I ain't know what a crockpot was. I had a deep fryer, honey. It sound like somebody was shooting my apartment up.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

T BROWN: Beans got the popping in the thing. I was like, oh, my God. Oh, this is definitely not a crockpot (laughter). But that's how I learned.

SHAPIRO: So you've come a long way.

T BROWN: I've come a long way. And then when I went vegan, I was like, OK, I got to make sure my food still tastes as good as it was.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

T BROWN: And so I tried to make all my favorite non-vegan things vegan, and I took people on that journey with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T BROWN: What'd you say? Oh, you want a little piece of fried fish. You miss that? OK. Well, let's scratch the itch, baby.

SHAPIRO: You've been doing this for a while now, but it seems like during the pandemic, it has really taken off. Why do you think that is?

T BROWN: You know, I think that I was just something that people needed. That was my prayer - is that when people watch my videos for whatever that minute is, it takes their mind off of what's going on in the world and it gives them a little bit of peace or a little bit of laughter or a little bit of joy. And I think it worked (laughter).

SHAPIRO: I think it did.

T BROWN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, Tabitha Brown, I've really enjoyed your videos. Thank you for sharing them with us and for talking with me today about them.

T BROWN: Oh, thank you. I appreciate you.

SHAPIRO: You can find her videos with the handle @iamtabithabrown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.