One word can change an entire sentence. And one “insignificant” moment can change the course of someone’s life. Zahra Hashimee knows this very, very well.
Last year, she was working at Chipotle in Clifton Park Centre mall. Her day-to-day tasks included setting up shop at 8 a.m., cleaning the restaurant and working the cash register until the end of her shift.
As for this year, she’s working with Chipotle. She isn’t throwing customers some extra queso or mopping the floors. Instead, she has a partnership with the food chain.
A lot can happen in 18 months and for 21-year-old Clifton Park resident Hashimee, “a lot” was earning 2.7 million followers on TikTok — the video-sharing social media app that has taken the world by storm, entertained the masses and plastered her face all over its homepage. The platform has since become a comparable force to that of Snapchat or Instagram, allowing users to create short comedy videos, compete in dance challenges and, ultimately, find joy — and in some cases, fame — within the creative process. Just a year-and-a-half ago, the UAlbany student and Shen grad wrapped up a burrito-building shift, had a sleepover with her friend Sue Misevis and posted the first of her mega-entertaining comedy sketches under the handle @muslimthicc.
Now, whether she likes the term or not, she’s an influencer. She gets excused from class to attend the Grammys, has fan accounts honor her with videos on a daily basis and aims to set an example for young Muslim girls on the app with informational, humorous and uplifiting clips. And even if the app doesn’t make it through the White House’s recent executive order banning it from the U.S., Hashimee has still earned a massive following and her messages of acceptance and finding meaning in life’s small moments remain the same.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
TikTok influencer Zahra Hashimee, of Clifton Park and Shenendehowa graduate, shows her TikTok page at UAlbany campus in Albany on Friday, August 7, 2020. Hashimee has over 2.7 million followers from her videos.
In short, Hashimee is dominating one of the biggest social media platforms on the planet with her spontaneous humor and quick-witted comedy clips.
While her following isn’t quite up there with the app’s most-followed star Charli D’Amelio (78 million followers) or someone like Will Smith — who sits at around 30 million followers — none of this was calculated for Hashimee. It kind of just happened.
‘Lucky on the internet’
It all had to start somewhere, though. In the viral video that sparked her social media surgence, in January 2019, Hasimee pretended she just flushed her fish down the toilet, later finds out it might’ve been alive and sees a napkin appear in the toilet bowl that reads, “u a lil b—h.”
The quirky clip was an instant hit, earning over 500,000 views.
“We had a lot of other videos of us lip syncing and throwing bananas at each other, but my first big one on TikTok was the fish video,” Hashimee said. “After that went viral, I said, ‘That wasn’t hard, let’s do it again.’ I think I just kept getting lucky. It kind of just snowballed from there… I live in the suburbs of Upstate New York, I go to a local state school, there’s nothing exceptional about me. I just got lucky on the internet.”
Her first stroke of genius may have seemed like luck, but everything that followed proved otherwise. Hashimee rapidly grew her own fanbase based on these quick-hit comedy clips, mini-vlogs and posts that showcased her relatability.
“I had just downloaded TikTok and it was kind of a new app at the time,” said Clifton Park resident Misevis of their December 2018 sleepover where they started making videos. “I made her download the app and when we were brainstorming usernames, I said “what about ‘muslimthicc?’ We thought nothing of it at first and made TikToks all night… A few weeks later, she had uploaded a video that got a few hundred likes at first, and then blew up. We were so excited and kept updating each other with the number of likes every hour. It was such a silly video but at that moment I knew that she really had potential on the platform.”
By the time Hashimee reached 20,000 followers last year, she figured she had to let her family know. But she was worried her parents, who immigrated to America from Afghanistan, wouldn’t be too keen on her venture, noting that social media stardom “was never part of their world.” And at first, she was right.
“My parents were like ‘Nope, you’re done, you’re not making anymore videos,’” Hashimee said. “My little brother and I kept making videos, then we hit 200,000 followers. And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I need to tell my parents.’ People were coming up to me in public, and I was like how am I going to explain this if it happens in front of them?”
So she told them separately. Her dad laughed, jokingly asking why that many people would follow her in the first place. Her mom, on the other hand, was worried about her safety, which she admits was a completely understandable concern.
“It is scary to think that millions of people have seen the inside of my house, know what my siblings look like, know what my parents look like,” Hashimee said. “It is a weird thing to think about. But my mom has totally come around. I’ll go visit her at work and her coworkers would be like, ‘You’re mom told us about this cool thing that you did.’”
“My parents have been really proud of me.”
Inside Zahra’s world
Hashimee’s content varies by day. From videos of her cat, to Chipotle-sponsored clips, to car-seat-style vlogs with members of her family, to explaining her faith as a Muslim woman to her followers, the college student has capitalized on her ability to connect with millions through her humor, wit and drive.
“I’m just being myself,” Hashimee said. “They’re just little snapshots and tidbits of what’s going on in my world.”
And, with the instant fame, you’d think it would be impossible to get around campus at UAlbany. Some TikTokkers have become the subject of paparazzi videos. Other recent stars, like Sarah Cooper, have used social media to find their way toward Netflix specials. But Hashimee says otherwise. A lot of students or passers-by tend to give her amused looks — as apparent by the college tour at UAlbany during our interview — but less actually approach her for pictures or conversation. The real challenge, she said, is really just figuring out how to respond to those who do.
“I never know what to say,” Hashimee said. “It’s crazy there’s so many people on the planet and out of all the people in the world, you know and recognize my face? It feels really good and it makes me super happy but I’m so awkward with it. My TikToks are childish sometimes, and it’s like, this person that I have class with has seen my videos or has probably seen me crying in my TikToks.”
Most of Hashimee’s time on campus is spent studying for her computer science degree as she enters her senior year. TikTok and computer science don’t necessarily have much of a crossover effect, she admits, but she doesn’t see herself going into social media full time, despite the deals and partnerships surrounding her.
“I’d prefer to have a job with health insurance and stability,” Hashimee said jokingly. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be fully dependent on making money or a career on social media. But it is a fun side thing.”
With TikTok entering her life at a rapid pace, and as she works with marketing teams on some of her partnerships, Hashimee said marketing is always an option for her. And eventually, she thinks voice acting could open some doors later on.
Basically, like many other students her age, the influencer is still figuring it all out, which shines through in her TikToks. It’s a sense of realness that not every social media star is able to exude. And not every social media star has a message like hers.
The responsibility of a creator
Hashimee said she considers her younger cousins when thinking of new ideas for content.
“All of my baby cousins watch my videos on TikTok,” Hashimee said. “I would never want to post anything that would negatively influence them or make them think it’s OK to do a certain thing or act a certain way.”
And in a way, as she hopes to continue to inspire young Muslim girls on the app, it’s led her to her biggest message: Anyone can take the things that — in hindisght — may not seem important in their life and make them important. You can use them to your advantage. And you can use them to become a social media star that cares about their following.
“I just want people to see that you can make little, tiny moments that seem insignificant — you can make stuff like that significant,” Hashimee said.
Misevis said her friend’s rise on the app has been incredible to watch, and her growth as a creator even more so.
“Her videos are wholesome, family-oriented, educational, interactive and overall very cute,” Misevis said. “I absolutely love how she incorporates her family into a lot of her content. Zahra really seems like a modern-day Disney princess with her ability to get along with any animal that crosses her path. [And] as a muslim creator, she educates people on her religion and culture in effective and friendly ways. Not only that, she instills confidence in her younger muslim followers who may not be as confident wearing the hijab.”
Hashimee knows TikTok may not last forever, too. With the White House seeking a path to rid the U.S. of the app after President Trump signed a recent executive order, everything is up-in-the-air for its biggest influencers. And on Friday, Trump ordered the app’s Chinese owner ByteDance to divest from U.S. operations within 90 days, citing “credible evidence” of a security threat. But with TikTok threatening legal action and Microsoft offering to buy the app in mid September, the situation isn’t too cut and dry.
Even if the app disappears, that doesn’t mean Hashimee’s impact should fizzle out. She still has over 400,000 Instagram and over 200,000 Twitter followers, and she definitely still has plenty more moments to make significant and plenty more kids to inspire.
“Seeing the impact I had on little Muslim girls — there were people who said, ‘You made me feel more confident wearing a hijab’ or ‘You made me feel more confident in myself as a Muslim girl.’ That’s such a good feeling. And that just makes me feel so much better in myself. Through my silly little videos, I can make a difference in someone’s life.”