UAlbany senior finds fame and breaks down barriers on viral video platform, TikTok
One evening about a year ago, while dishing up burritos and bowls at her part-time job at Chipotle, Zahra Hashimee realized that her life was about to change.
“A complete stranger came up to me and said, ‘I saw you on TikTok,’” Hashimee recounted. Though her videos had been viewed on the social-media platform by thousands of people at the time, the encounter made her virtual fame suddenly feel more real.
These days, the 21-year-old computer-science major is no longer surprised by fan encounters. She said she gets recognized pretty much every time she goes out in public, whether walking across the UAlbany campus or during a pre-pandemic visit to Dave & Buster’s, where a tipsy 26-year-old woman followed her into the bathroom to tell her, “I just love you!”
Hashimee is a TikTok star. She is a verified TikTok “popular creator,” essentially giving her elite status and a dedicated account representative, with more than 2.6 million followers (and growing). Most of her videos have been played more than a hundred thousand times, and her posts have been liked and shared by pop-culture icons Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. She has even been invited, all expenses paid, to high-profile events, such as the Grammy Awards and
Milan Fashion Week.
In other words, she’s come a long way since Chipotle. “It feels surreal,” she said. “To think that so many people want to hear what I have to say blows my mind.”
TikTok you don’t stop: Hashimee checks her TikTok page; Rocks the red carpet at the Grammy Awards; Shares The front row at Milan Fashion Week with other top TikTokers; And Makes her way to class at UAlbany.
For the uninitiated, TikTok is the world’s fastest-growing social-media platform with 800 million active users. Whereas Twitter primarily involves short, written posts or Instagram is mostly photos, TikTok users share short videos, often featuring humor, dancing, lip-synching, or quirky editing tricks. The platform is extremely popular with young consumers, ages 13-24, but its appeal has recently expanded to a broader range of demographics during the COVID-19 crisis, as activity-starved people have sought new ways to engage the world.
More than just a content creator on TikTok, Hashimee is also a fan. “TikTok encourages people to be creative,” she noted. “It’s much more positive than some social-media channels, much more of a community: We celebrate each other versus tearing each other down.”
Hashimee admitted that she joined the platform “as a joke” in early 2019 during a sleepover with a friend. She made a few short, silly videos, including one featuring an angry note from a fish that had been mistaken for dead and prematurely flushed down the toilet. She woke the next day to see that her posts had been viewed hundreds of times.
Clearly, she was onto something. Her quick wit, self-effacing humor, and bright, engaging smile seemed a perfect fit for the video platform. As she continued to post new content, her base of followers steadily grew. Once she reached 200,000 followers, she suddenly had an “unexpected problem.”
“I had to tell my parents!” said Hashimee. Coming from what she terms “a fairly traditional Muslim family,” she was nervous about how they would react to her social-media stardom. They were, of course, surprised.
“My father said, ‘200,000 people watch your videos? You’re not that funny,’” Hashimee recounted with a laugh. Both of her parents were understandably concerned, but they were ultimately supportive. She was also backed by her two brothers, including her younger brother, who is often featured in her videos.
From the very beginning, she decided to focus on what she terms “wholesome, cute content.” She has posted about topics such as wearing her hijab headscarf, her college major, and everyday things like fashion and makeup. She frequently shoots her videos on and around the UAlbany campus, and fellow students sometimes play a role. As a Muslim woman on social media, Hashimee provides a voice for an under-represented population. She always keeps her content light and positive, and she abides by her “don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your family to see” guideline.
While her fanbase has grown, so have Hashimee’s opportunities. In January 2020, she received an email from her TikTok rep, who asked her if she’d like to fly out to Los Angeles to attend the Grammy Awards as one oftheir special guests.
“I was so excited – ‘I’m going to the Grammys!’” Hashimee recalled. “And then my parents were like, ‘No, you’re not.’”
She was able to mollify their concerns by agreeing to have her older brother accompany her on the trip. Hashimee enjoyed the awards show and particularly loved meeting fellow top TikTok Creators, whom she previously knew only from their online videos.
Not long after, Hashimee received another incredible invitation. This time, the message was from luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana, and the event was a front-row seat at Milan Fashion Week – including the opportunity to pick out a dress and shoes. Once again, she made the trip with her brother.
She noted that “Milan was amazing,” and she still can’t believe that she has a pair of designer shoes sitting in her closet at her home in Clifton Park, N.Y.
Amidst all of this excitement, of course, Hashimee had to juggle a full-time schedule at UAlbany. “I’m going to the Grammys, and I still have homework!” said Hashimee, who noted that her professors have been “extremely accommodating” about her travels. She is grateful for the support of her UAlbany community and observed, “The faculty really is there for you.”
As she prepares for her senior year, Hashimee’s sphere of influence continues to grow. She was recently signed by Digital Brand Architects (DBA), a talent agency for the world’s leading digital influencers. She has pending inquiries regarding a social-media event in Abu Dhabi, a virtual women’s conference, and other exciting opportunities.
When asked about her proudest accomplishment from her social-media fame, Hashimee said it’s the positive reactions she receives from young women – particularly young Muslim women.
“I’ve heard from young Muslim girls who say that I’ve given them the confidence to wear their hijab,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling.”
While her content is purposely not political, Hashimee acknowledged that she is helping to break down barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims by simply putting herself out there and interacting with the world in an authentic way.
“If making silly videos helps start conversations and remove some stigmas, I’m proud to do it,” said Hashimee.
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