MuslimThicc’s Zahra Is About to Graduate. Will She Stick With TikTok Stardom?
Zahra didn’t tell her parents about her TikTok until she hit 20,000 followers.
“They were like, ‘20,000 people are following you? 20,000 people have seen the inside of our house?’” she tells me over the phone.
The 21-year-old’s parents, who she has been living with at home while studying computer science and business at University at Albany, SUNY, told her to stop using the app. Instead, she continued to post in secret under the username @muslimthicc, never anticipating that her rapid-fire musings in her car and videos with her brothers would end up earning her 2.8 million followers and make laying low pretty impossible.
“At this point I was getting recognized,” she says. “I was like, What if I'm like out with my parents and someone comes up to me and is like, ‘Oh my God, you're MuslimThicc?’ That's going to be way harder to explain than if I just tell my parents.”
Zahra's parents are now proud that she grew her hobby into a career. She’s locked down brand deals with Amazon, and Walmart, and Chipotle—where she used to work behind the counter. Before the pandemic hit, she traveled to Italy with Dolce & Gabbana and attended the 2020 Grammys.
Zahra’s rise to fame has an Old Internet feel: Rather than dancing or performing elaborate stunts, she charmed followers by trolling her brother, joking about her hijab, and musing in her car about TikTok and weird things she notices throughout her day. She has a soft, ASMR-adjacent voice that makes her makeup routine videos and playful tutorials pleasant to watch. But mostly, she’s remained a normal 21-year-old girl despite her rising fame, and lives a life that followers have no trouble seeing themselves in.
ok but who’s with me on this i know i’m not alone #imabadboy (also people always tell me i look cross eyed when i eat LMFAO ugh)♬ Bad Boy - Yung Bae & bbno$ & Billy Marchiafava
i was a SCAMMER in high school (ps don’t do this it was a bad idea & i just got rly lucky)♬ original sound - zahra
It hasn’t all been great: One fan showed up at her family’s house. “It was terrifying,” Zahra says. “He was a 30-something-year-old guy from New Jersey. And we're like, This guy drove to New York in the middle of a pandemic to deliver a handwritten note to our house? That's so creepy.”
But that’s about as close as Zahra has come to typical TikTok fame. Unlike many of her peers, who have flocked to Los Angeles to join content houses and throw ill-advised parties, Zahra still treats TikTok like the small community she joined in January 2019. While she has enough followers to make it a full-time gig, she’s also just one semester away from graduating, leaving her with an impossible choice: Does she get a not-so-exciting job in computer science or pursue her not-so-stable internet fame full time?
Things were simpler when she first logged onto the internet as a child. One pre-TikTok profile in particular stands out. “You're not allowed to laugh,” she commands, as she begins to explain. “I had a One Direction fan page. I used to write One Direction fan fiction. And I don't remember the password to the account so it is just up there for eternity.”
Zahra’s first TikTok video was a joke about flushing a goldfish down the toilet, and she followed it up with a series of videos about socks, all of which now make her cringe with embarrassment.
“I remember I was working at Chipotle at the time, and someone came in and they're like, ‘Oh, you're the girl that does the sock videos on TikTok,’” she recalls. “And I was like, Oh my God. And I quit [making sock videos] the next week.”
heheh i couldn’t find a sound that fit so i made one myself but look at my cute croc socks!#foryou♬ my cute socks - zahra
TikTok fame has, inevitably, clashed with Zahra’s regular life, like the time she had to ask a professor if she could take a test early, because the date conflicted with her flight to Italy. Other internet stars like Addison Rae have solved these kinds of problems by opting out of school entirely, but that’s something that’s never crossed Zahra’s mind.
“I've got immigrant parents,” she says. “That whole story of, you know, my parents crossed oceans to give me more opportunity and a better life.” So instead she balances the two. Or, she tries. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t actually like computer science, and has no idea what her life will look like a semester from now, when she officially graduates.
“I don't think I want to work a desk job,” she says. “But at the same time, there's always that looming fear that [being a creator] isn't a stable career path. When TikTok was on the verge of being shut down … I don't use YouTube. If TikTok is gone, like … what do I have?”
Whatever the future holds—and whether or not she can leverage TikTok fame into stable work—the app has given Zahra one lasting gift: greater self esteem. She hid her face in her first videos, but now people ask her for eyeliner tutorials, hijab tutorials, and for her to show off her outfits on Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
Zahra has changed TikTok for the better, too, with the self-assured expression of her ethnic and religious identity: She has a video explaining Ramadan, gives mini lessons on Farsi, and wears a hijab in every video, which has resulted in followers repeatedly asking for a “hair reveal”—as well as more sinister comments, which the creator counters with humor (her TikTok bio used to read “follow me or ur racist”) and grace.
"If TikTok is gone, like … what do I have?"
“I went to a predominantly white high school in a very white, red county. I've been a hijabi since I was 10, so I've dealt with all of that [bias] in person,” she says. “I'm fully confident in my decision to wear a hijab and I'm confident and comfortable in my own skin.”
Discrimination isn’t the reason Zahra has been struggling with TikTok lately. Instead, it’s the fact that quarantine ushered in a wave of new creators, saturating the app and giving her yet another existential challenge, on top of planning her future—staying confident in the present. “There are so many more creators, which is amazing, but when you stop getting that same kind of attention, you're just trying to [get] back to that level you used to be at,” she says. “And you're trying to figure out where you went wrong or what you started doing different in your content.”
So lately, Zahra has been focusing on the place it all began: at home, with her family.
“My little brother and I, we've gotten so much closer in the last two years because of TikTok,” she says. “And I feel like we just have so much more to connect about.”
Her parents have even started joining her in videos, perhaps the biggest sign that they’ve come around to this whole TikTok thing.
Even if they don’t fully understand it.
“I pulled my dad aside and I was like, ‘Hey, started making TikToks again,’” she recalls finally admitting. “‘I have this many followers.’ I remember my dad laughed. He was like, ‘Why would that many people follow you?’”
For Zahra’s followers, that’s an easy question to answer. Her videos are filled with comments declaring her and her brother “sibling goals” and promising to protect her at all costs because she’s “the most wholesome queen in the universe.” Big creators like Charli D’Amelio and Mxmtoon are similarly enamored, and dropping praise in the comments under her videos. While graduation may feel like it represents the precipice of an unfathomably high cliff, Zahra has an almost three-million-strong community ready to catch her, and follow her to whatever dream—or desk—her life takes her.