This is an advanced excerpt from Guiding Light, an article that originally appears in the upcoming November/December 2021 holiday issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands soon.
When you think about it, Tabitha Brown’s mega-success doesn’t quite make sense. Or at least not if you apply the rules of what success is “supposed” to look like and who is supposed to have it—and when.
At 42, Brown has only recently become a social media phenome- non. In just four years, she has gone from “only 30 people watching” to 2.6 million followers on Facebook and nearly 4 million on Instagram. She counts another 5 million followers on TikTok—where most of the users are the age of her daughters or younger—and she has already accumulated a whopping 84 million likes for her content. Unlike many influencers before her, Brown’s online clout has translated to the real world. She’s done brand deals with Whole Foods, Target and McCormick, which released her Tabitha Brown–branded all-purpose seasoning earlier this year. It took just 39 minutes to sell out of all 100,000 units.
Brown has also secured book deals and TV shows, including a guest role last season on Showtime’s The Chi. And there is a hush-hush project coming that she developed and sold to a major network, and in which she will star as herself. Then there’s her new YouTube Originals show, Tab Time, which debuts this November. Brown, a Black woman from Eden, North Carolina, with a pronounced southern drawl and a big ol’ fro, will be the new Mister Rogers, teaching children to laugh, think and eat good snacks. “I love children—mostly because they become us, right?” Brown says. “And I feel like if we get to children and open their minds at an early age, help them see other children as other humans like themselves, then we have better adults later.”
Photography, Matt Sayles. Stylists, Blake Newby and Vannieka Wood. Hair, Shaylin Jones/CrosbyCarter. Makeup, Brandie White. Manicure, Gynna Simmons. Production, Michele Brea.
As a mother to Choyce, 20, and Queston, 9, both with her husband of 18 years, Chance, and to her “bonus” daughter, Ty-Leah, 26, Brown has filled her social media platforms with uncompromisingly wholesome videos. In equal parts and in no particular order, she is best-known for: preparing vegan meals and enthusiastically enjoying her creations; offering words of encouragement for people struggling with mental health and for those who become frustrated while chasing their dreams; sharing her personal style, a colorful array of caftans, dresses and jumpsuits, with big earrings and bigger sunglasses; and deploying her catchy one-liners, such as “That’s my business,” not to mention the time she announced that she had become successful enough to “retire” her husband. Wendy Williams caught wind of that one and commented about it derisively on-air. Spoiler alert: It was messy. For Wendy. More on that later.
I catch up with Brown, or “Tab,” as she calls herself—she likes to speak of herself in the third person, and it’s charming, not obnoxious—in August. We meet at her spacious home just north of Los Angeles, a compound surrounded by a gated fence that either a frenzied fan or a menacing foe tried to jump over last Christmas Eve.
Brown and her dog Blacky— the name her son Queston gave him because he is black— emerge from the double doors of their home. Brown is wearing a gigantic smile and a flowing, colorful caftan that reveals one well-moisturized shoulder. Her hair is cornrowed into a fro-hawk, and she is either sporting the most natural makeup ever applied or her skin is flawless. Maybe both.
She leads me through the foyer, past a large sunken living room with big, comfy furniture. As we head to her office, I can see a resort-worthy pool in her backyard.
On her desk are bottles of Donna’s Recipe, Brown’s vegan hair oil, which promises to make your mane as strong and luxurious as hers. Her bookshelf holds the NAACP Award she won in March for Out- standing Social Media Personality and several copies of her latest book, Feeding the Soul (Because It’s My Business): Find- ing Our Way to Joy, Love and Freedom. Surprisingly, it’s not a cookbook, though it does include a few recipes. “This one needed to come first, for inspiration, for motivation, for under- standing, to help people not feel alone in whatever journey they may be in,” Brown explains. “We just lived through a pandemic, and we’re still living through it. I thought, food is great, but the soul needs to be fed first.”
In the book, she shares short stories from her journey, focus- ing on the moments that shaped her. These include how she became an accidental vegan in 2017—after having a continuous headache for a year and seven months and being willing to do anything to stop it, even give up meat. At one point, she says, she was in so much pain that she started praying for God to either take the pain away or take her out.
At school, daughter Choyce heard about a then new and now controversial documentary, What the Health, on Netflix. Its premise was that everyone would be better off going vegan. Brown convinced her family to try it for 30 days. Her chronic headache went away on Day 10, and she’s been vegan ever since. She’s so vegan, in fact, that she doesn’t wear leather.
She’s so vegan that she serves tofurky—a “turkey” made from tofu—dairy-free mac ’n’ “cheese,” and “fried chicken” made of portobello mush- rooms for Thanksgiving din- ner. She insists that it’s just like the real thing.
Her book also tackles how she dealt with her mother’s diagnosis of ALS (not well) and managed the grief of her passing in 2007. And she reveals how she learned to mind her own business. Just before Queston’s eighth birth- day, Brown noticed he would blink rapidly or make jerking motions. His doctor diagnosed him with motor ticks, a condition that might look like it hurts but typically is pain-free.
Here’s the kicker: According to Brown’s doctor, talking about the ticks with the person experiencing them can cause insecurity and make the condition worse. Tabitha found the deeper lesson in that. “Sometimes people go through things and it’s uncomfortable for us to watch,” she reflects. “But it ain’t bothering them, and it ain’t our business to say anything about it.”
The book and the two-week tour that puts her in a new city every other day are just two of the many projects Brown has on her very full plate as we speak. I ask the obvious question: “How do you find time to do all the things you’re doing?” Brown says she talks to herself in the mirror. Say what now?
Every morning and every night, she goes in the bathroom, stares into her own eyes—windows to the soul, she reminds me—and has an entire solo conference call. “I get in the mirror, and I’m like, Honey, are you good?” she explains. “And I answer back truthfully, but it’s hard work. I do it because I need that. I need to fill myself up every day. I check in on me first, before anybody else.”…
Read the full story inside the November/December 2021 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newsstands soon!