“You want a smoothie bowl? Well, let’s make one.” Tabitha Brown is in her kitchen, cellphone in hand, filming one of the short videos that have made her an unlikely social media sensation.
“Almond milk, banana, frozen blueberries, frozen strawberries, peaches and mango, oh my!” she says, running down the ingredients for a vegan smoothie in a gentle, lilting Southern accent. “Now blend.”
After adding a little shredded coconut (“like so, like that”) and flax seed (“’cause that’s our business”), fresh strawberries, chopped pecans and a dash of maple syrup, she takes the finished smoothie outside to savor in her yard in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles.
“The most important part is where you eat it at, honey,” Ms. Brown says between spoonfuls. “Go outside if you can, or at least the cutest place in your house to make you feel like you somewhere, even though you ain’t.”
Ms. Brown is 41. In the last month, her warm smile, calm demeanor and signature Afro (which she has nicknamed Donna), as well as the kindness she shows herself and others, have earned her a huge following on TikTok, a social medium whose most popular and most engaged users are in their teens and 20s. An aspiring actress, she is striking a tone that is resonating widely at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has many of us on edge, looking for assurance that things are going to be OK.
She posted her first video on TikTok on March 8. Since then, she has amassed more than two million followers there, and more than a million on Instagram. In 60-second increments, she gently walks them through the steps of assembling vegan comfort dishes (crabless crab cakes, sweet potato avocado toast, a late-night salad with pickles). She also offers affirmations, delivered as if in intimate conversation, urging her followers to go a little easier on themselves and to stop worrying so much about pleasing others.
“Don’t you give up, don’t you quit, don’t give up,” she says in one video. “Baby, you ain’t done came this far just to get this far; you still got a ways to go. And I know right now it almost feels impossible, but don’t you give up.”
Ms. Brown said the videos — which occasionally feature her daughter, Choyce, 18; her son, Quest, 8; and her husband, Chance — are her way of spreading joy and spending a moment with her followers.
“If somebody has one minute per day, and they get to have a little bit of joy for one minute, I want to be there,” she said in an interview. “It’s part of the reason why, when I do my video, I hold my phone so close to my face. I want somebody to feel like it’s me and you in this moment.”
For many, Ms. Brown’s videos are moments of stillness and inspiration, a few seconds in which they can focus on themselves rather than the all-consuming anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What people are craving in this day and time is how to self-soothe,” said Dr. Judith Orloff, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and the author of “Thriving as an Empath.” “People are under so much more stress, so much uncertainty in so many areas that we are navigating that we don’t know the answers to. There is more of a need than ever.” Tabitha Brown had dreamed of being an actress for as long as she can remember. This year, she found a path to fame through the vegan recipe videos she posts on TikTok.
Eva Hughes, 74, a retired associate minister at a church in Roanoke, Va., looks forward to Ms. Brown’s videos and delights in her euphonious Southern accent.
“She inspires me to be a better me and not look for people to validate who I am,” Ms. Hughes said. “She does it with such an assuredness.”
Ms. Brown’s path to fame, or some version of it, was not the one she originally pictured for herself. She grew up in Eden, N.C., a small city about 32 miles north of Greensboro, obsessed with “The Cosby Show” and dreaming of becoming an actress. She joined the drama club and performed in plays at school and with a community theater.
At her mother’s urging, she enrolled in the International Fine Arts College in Miami to study fashion design. But “all I could think,” she said, “was, I’m wasting time; I’m supposed to be acting.” She dropped out at 19 and moved to Southern California.
But Ms. Brown was not in Los Angeles; she was living with a friend of her mother’s in Laguna Niguel, two hours south of Hollywood by car, working two jobs with no time to audition. Chance, who was her boyfriend at the time, suggested they move back to North Carolina for a year to save money.
“That one year turned into five years, turned into a baby, a marriage, car, job, house and a forgotten dream,” Ms. Brown said.
In 2002, however, she successfully auditioned for a job as the co-host of a late-night show on the local WB affiliate, interviewing celebrities who came to town to perform at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. “That taught me how to dream again,” she said.
Two years later, she and her family returned to Los Angeles. They had been there barely six months when Ms. Brown’s mother learned she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. For the next three years, Ms. Brown split her time between California and North Carolina to help care for her.
After her mother died in 2007, Ms. Brown threw herself into acting, picking up roles in independent and straight-to-DVD films — “little small victories, but never nothing really big,” she said. Then came another series of setbacks. After she gave birth to Quest, she developed chronic pain and fatigue and ended up on disability.
After being unemployed for over a year, Ms. Brown took a job as an Uber driver, daydreaming that she might pick up a casting director or someone who could get her out from behind the wheel and in front of a camera.
One day in December 2017, Ms. Brown walked into a Whole Foods after dropping off a client and bought a vegan breakfast wrap. Ms. Brown had tried eating vegan a few months earlier at her daughter’s suggestion and had quickly embraced it, crediting it with clearing up the chronic pain that had sidelined her.
On a whim, Ms. Brown filmed herself as she raved about the wrap in her car, and posted the video on Facebook. By the time her shift was over, she said, it had been viewed about 50,000 times. Within days, Whole Foods reached out and asked her to be a brand ambassador.
Even so, when Choyce suggested to her mother earlier this year that she post videos on TikTok, Ms. Brown was hesitant. TikTok? Wasn’t that for teenagers?
Choyce explained that she could reach a new audience, and she taught her mother to shoot and edit videos and post them to the platform.
“She picked it up pretty quick,” Choyce said. “I just thought she would be a good fit because she’s really comforting.”
Ms. Brown found an audience almost instantly. On March 9, the day after she first joined TikTok, Ms. Brown posted videos of herself making a simple vegan wrap and a vegan pasta dish. Each quickly racked up more than a million views.
The kitchen was a natural setting. Ms. Brown’s mother, grandmother and aunt had taught her to cook over the telephone after she and Chance first moved in together in 1998. “When I went vegan,” she said, “I just tried to make all my favorite nonvegan food vegan, and it worked!”
“I became the auntie everybody loves, and it just kept growing,” Ms. Brown said. Her viral fame led to representation by the Creative Artists Agency, the powerhouse Los Angeles talent agency. Ms. Brown also landed a guest role as a police officer on an episode of “Will and Grace” that aired earlier this year, and she said she was developing a docuseries featuring her family.
“My dream is to perform,” she said. “I want to be there for people. I want people to feel, in that moment, loved, seen and heard.”
She attributes the joy and warmth that she transmits on her videos to the difficult moments from her own life — her struggle with pain, the false starts that hampered her acting career, her mother’s illness and death. She draws from those episodes, and her triumph over them, as a way of offering hope at a time when most of us could use some.
“I’m thankful that God gave me light again, and to be light for other people’s darkness is a responsibility that I take very seriously. That’s why I do it.” -The New York Times