“You need a hug?” asks Tabitha Brown at the start of one of her most popular TikTok videos. Her voice is warm, disarming, and unmistakably Southern. “Well, sometimes potato wedges make you feel like they hugging you, at least that's how I feel. Let's make some,” she says, her eyes sparkling with joy. In a matter of seconds — 60, to be exact — she details all the ingredients you’ll need to turn your day around by creating a delicious starchy snack with a dip to accompany it. “Life is always better with a potato, honey. See that dip? When I dip, you dip, we dip, oooh!” she says at the end, by which point I was mentally rummaging through the ingredients in my cabinets to see if I could concoct my own version of the dish.
Brown, 41, is an actor and self-described vegan influencer who joined TikTok in early March, and in that short time, she’s posted 116 videos and netted 2 million followers on a platform where the biggest stars — and most enthusiastic users — are usually teens. Her videos share quick vegan recipes and cooking tips, show playful moments between her and her children, and offer nuggets of wisdom: “You stop being so hard on yourself. Stop doing that. You're doing the very best that you can. You gotta take things one day at a time, day by day, step by step.” Brown’s bubbly, reassuring personality is definitely the key ingredient to her compulsively watchable content; one commenter on a BuzzFeed Tasty video she made in June 2019 described her voice as “calm and magical.” “She really makes you feel like everything is going to be okay,” reads one viral tweet. Even Keke Palmer is a stan.
But Brown’s newfound virality was a surprise, even to her. “I never wanted to do videos,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “That's the honest-to-god truth.”
Originally from Eden, North Carolina, Brown moved to Los Angeles in 2004 with her husband to act and perform stand-up comedy, hoping to land a role on a TV series. But her route to success didn’t turn out to be a traditional one, and she spent the first five years of her time in the city working at Macy’s. In 2017, while employed primarily as an Uber driver (which is how she assumed she would be discovered, by maybe picking up a notable director or producer) and auditioning for acting gigs on the side, Brown stopped for a break at Whole Foods and recorded a one-off Facebook video, in which she eats and raves about a vegan sandwich. (“What you’ve done in this sandwich....y’all gonna set souls on fire!”) The video inspired a viral internet challenge, where other people bought the sandwich and recorded their own reactions. And it changed Brown’s life.
Within a week, Whole Foods reached out to Brown, and she became a brand ambassador for the chain. This led to Brown traveling the country for speaking engagements, where she talked about her choice to adopt veganism. “I made more money in that year than I had made in 14 years of living in Los Angeles,” she told me.
Brown now works full-time as an actor and content creator. Before her TikTok fame, she primarily posted to Facebook, where she has more than 700K followers. Her videos weren’t too different from what she does now; she would share foods she enjoyed and post videos making her favorite dishes. On the acting front, she made an appearance in January on the final season of the Will & Grace revival, as a police officer.
Brown joined TikTok this spring thanks to the encouragement of her younger daughter, Choyce, 18. Initially, Brown said, she thought “Why would I get on TikTok? Ain’t that for the kids?” But a Whole Foods colleague also pushed her to try it, saying they thought the app’s mostly young audience would love Brown’s “light.” Brown said she really only wanted to test it out because of the “Renegade” dance. “After that I was just like, 'Okay, let me figure this thing out.’ And I just got on it."
The first few videos Brown posted to TikTok showcased random moments with her brothers and an introduction to the family dog before she began posting her signature content: creating quick meals and spreading messages of hope. Brown said the inspirational quality of her mostly food-focused videos is intentional; she comes from a place of positivity. “I'm just a firm believer in trying to bring people up, because I've been in a dark place and I know how uncomfortable that is.” And Choyce — who often appears in Brown’s TikTok videos and has her own account — was definitely onto something. Millions of people have tuned in to her mom’s videos. Brown said it still surprises her each day she wakes up — that “people love me for just being me.”
It’s ironic that Brown has found a way to people’s hearts by way of their stomachs. “I never cooked growing up. I hated cooking. I didn't want anything to do with cooking,” she said. “I was a tomboy playing outside and climbing trees. I didn’t have time to be in nobody’s kitchen.” Brown said she didn’t learn to cook until she moved in with her husband and would often call relatives to ask them out to prepare certain foods. “And then I just had to take it day by day and learn on my own,” she said.
Brown is a proud, vocal vegan now, but it’s a relatively new development in her life. Brown used to think veganism "was for white people and that it was for hippies and cults." She also thought everyone who adhered to a vegan diet would be perpetually thin or super strict about what they could eat. “That was a big misconception,” she said. “You can also be a junk food vegan, and I’m a thick vegan — listen, Tab got hips, okay!”
Brown first decided to try veganism back in 2016. She was experiencing chronic pain and fatigue, and would sometimes fall when she tried to walk. At one point, she said, she lost her vision for a day. Brown said she visited doctors often and went through a series of tests to figure out what the issue was, but the results always came back normal. “I really thought I was gonna die,” she said. She didn’t think she would make it to her 40th birthday.
The strain on Brown’s physical health began to affect her mental health, too. She had bouts of depression and severe panic attacks, and her illness made it feel impossible to do the work required to land the acting and comedy jobs she wanted. At her breaking point, Brown said, she had a literal come-to-Jesus moment. “I had this moment in the bathroom and I prayed. I said, ‘God, if you heal me, I'll do whatever you ask, please. Just heal me.’”
The answer to her prayers came in waves, first in the form of a dream, where she saw herself on television — one of Brown’s lifelong goals is to have her own show — with her hair much shorter than usual. Living in Los Angeles for more than a decade by this point, Brown had always done what agents told her would help her land gigs: subdue her Southern accent and keep her hair long. “I was suffocating the true me in real life,” she said. But in her dream, she was on a show and looked “so happy and free.”
“I’m a thick vegan — listen, Tab got hips, okay!”
Though Brown said her dreams have always meant something to her, she was confused by the messages she was getting. “I was in prayer and I heard a voice that said, ‘Start doing videos.’" she said. This threw her for a loop because, as an aspiring actor, Brown had been under the impression that someone who “did videos” — like vlogging or topical parodies of memes — wouldn’t be taken seriously as a performer, but she decided to roll with it. Brown began making videos for her Facebook page that were similar to her stand-up routines, telling jokes to the camera from the comfort of her home. Following the signs from the dream, she decided to shave her hair off, too.
Then one day after school, Choyce, then 16, told her mother about a documentary she had watched called What the Health. “It was mind-blowing for me,” Brown said. Brown was struck by connections the documentary made between diet, disease, and genetics, though the film has been criticized for grossly mischaracterizing some reports. “And for me that was kind of like the light bulb,” she said, when she thought about her family history and her own health problems. “For me in that moment, meat was the common denominator.”
This inspired Brown to begin a lifestyle change, starting with a 30-day vegan challenge she completed with her husband, Chance. On day 10 of the new diet, the persistent headache Brown had endured for more than a year disappeared. Slowly, as she continued the challenge, she said she began to regain energy and started feeling like her old self again. Toward the end of the 30 days, she told her husband, “I think this is my path. I'm going to go vegan” — to which he responded, “That's amazing, baby, but tomorrow I’m gonna need a piece of chicken.” Brown said, after two and a half years of being fully vegan, she never thinks twice about going back to her previous diet.
Besides homeschooling her 8-year-old son, Quest, because of the lockdown, Brown’s weekly schedule now doesn’t differ much from pre-coronavirus times. She posts weekly videos with Chance (Fridays With Tab and Chance) and Choyce (Very Good Mondays) on Facebook and YouTube. Lately, she’s also been spending time answering the growing number of emails from people asking to collaborate with her (Once lockdown ends, Brown said she will be looking to hire an assistant).
Her go-to quarantine snack is usually a sandwich or wrap. And she is adamant about always having certain ingredients on hand at home: garlic powder, spinach wraps, whole-wheat bread, vegan mayo, nuts, and mushrooms. “Nuts and mushrooms, those are meat substitutes for me,” she said. “I can make taco meat or spaghetti or lasagna with pecans — all the things I keep in my house.”
During our interview, I asked Brown why she feels like her presence has been able to resonate in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. Referencing her faith, she said she felt she was following in her purpose, set by God. “If you got somebody's heart, baby, you got their ear,” Brown told me. “And if you get their ear, honey, then they can get laughter, and that’s what I bring.” ●