Tabitha Brown Is A Master Class In Living And Loving With Purpose
Tabitha Brown | Photographer Matt Sayles

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of ESSENCE magazine.

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 phenomenon. 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 debuted last 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.”

Brown and husband Chance pose with their kids, Choyce, Queston and “bonus” daughter Ty-Leah (left). | Photo: Marcus Owens

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 Outstanding Social Media Personality and several copies of her latest book, Feeding the Soul (Because It’s My Business): Finding 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 understanding, 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.”

Photography by Matt Sayles

In the book, she shares short stories from her journey, focusing 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 mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner. 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 birthday, 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.”

For years, Brown avoided the kinds of videos that would set her on a swift path to becoming a household name. She had always wanted to be an actress, and believed that Hollywood wouldn’t take her seriously if she was making content for social media. “When I was 5 or 6, I used to tell my mama I wanted to be friends with Rudy from The Cosby Show, and ring her doorbell,” Brown recalls. “She thought I meant I wanted to play with her. And I was like No, I wanna be on there, in the TV, and ring the doorbell. I want to come into their house, I wanna talk, then I want to come home.”

But then she had a dream. She saw herself on a tiny screen, and she was rocking a short Afro instead of the long, straight hair she wore at the time. And she was speaking in her natural dialect instead of code-switching. Brown suspected the dream was some sort of sign from God. She’d received many over the years that kept her going when she felt like giving up. In one of her dreams, back when she was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, and long before she was on a screen of any kind, she was at the drive-through, and the server asked, “Are you that lady from the TV show?” In the dream Brown responded, “Me? Honey, I work for UPS.” On later reflection, Brown took the encounter to mean that God was showing her how people saw her.

Photographer Matt Sayles

They say if you don’t listen to God’s tap on the shoulder, you’ll get a brick to the head. Or something like that. One morning, Brown was shaken awake from sleep. “It felt like a whole earthquake, and I heard a voice that sounded like thunder, saying, ‘This is not the life I planned for you,’ ” she recalls. “And it scared me. I thought either I’m going crazy and I’m fixing to go check myself in—or this is the Lord speaking. I got on my knees that morning, and I said God, if this is you, I need a sign, today.”

Wait—God sending a personal earthquake wasn’t a sign?!

“No,” Brown says. “If you say this ain’t the life I planned, then what is it I’m supposed to be doing? You ain’t giving me answers!” Later that day, she and Chance were driving to the Four Seasons Town Centre mall when a local DJ announced on the car radio that he had a new show coming up on The WB, and would be holding auditions to look for a female cohost. “Honey, I almost tore the windows off the car,” Brown remembers. “I went crazy, ’cause never in Greensboro had there ever been auditions announced. And I knew that was my sign.” She auditioned and landed the part.

* * *

So yeah, the Lord had already been working in Brown’s life in very mysterious ways. Still, she was skeptical when the dream about the small screen came about in 2017. By then she was living with her family in Los Angeles, working odd jobs—prepaid legal phone banker, nursing-home aide—in between going to auditions. But she decided to be obedient. She went into the kitchen, grabbed a coffee mug, stuffed a towel in it to fill it up, plopped her phone on top of the cloth to create a makeshift tripod and pushed record.

Her first viral video happened in 2017, when she was driving Uber to make a living. From behind the wheel of her car, she raved about a Whole Foods vegan sandwich she was eating. (Think what James Wright did for Patti LaBelle’s Patty Pies.) In her excitement, Brown accidentally mispronounced the name of the vegan sandwich, but with 5 million views on Facebook, the video was so popular, and so many people went to Whole Foods asking to have what the lady in the video was having, that the store changed the sandwich’s name to what Brown had called it. They also offered her a job as a brand ambassador.

Photography, Matt Sayles.

Brown’s most recent viral moment had nothing to do with food. On June 26, she excitedly posted a video announcing that she was retiring her husband from his job as an LAPD officer, a position he’d held for 15 years. This had been their plan ever since they moved to L.A. in 2004 with no jobs so that Tabitha could chase her Hollywood dream. Chance had joined the LAPD both because he thought he would like the job and to provide the family with a steady income and health insurance. The agreement was that he would work there for five years until Tabitha made it big. Five years turned into 15.

* * *

“I’m taking him out of a job that is life-threatening every day,” Brown says of their decision, “so that he can pursue his dreams, just like he allowed me to pursue mine. What would it look like, me making millions of dollars and my husband is still putting his life on the line every day?”

Williams didn’t see it that way. As part of her Hot Topics segment during a July episode of her show, she derided the Browns’ arrangement, speculating, “This marriage is gonna be on real rocky ground in a moment.” Tabitha’s phone immediately went crazy. At first, she was excited that Williams had mentioned her on her popular daytime program. “I was like, Ohmigod! Wendy Williams is talking about me? she remembers. “I started thinking, What could she be talking about? A recipe?” But then Brown saw the clip. “My first thought was, I feel so bad for this woman,” she says. “And then I thought, Maybe I should respond. And then I thought, I probably shouldn’t. And I sat right here at my desk, and I prayed. And God was like, “No, you need to give her grace. ’Cause no one gives her grace. That woman’s been through a lot in her life.”

“That was your first, first reaction?” I ask. “Yes, I felt so sorry for her,” Brown replies. “When you say things in anger or -frustration, or just plain ol’ pissed and mad, you have to think about it later. You don’t have to do that when you give grace.” Williams’s critique, and Brown’s gracious response, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Her social media following and popularity exploded. Suddenly, her name was everywhere—and just in time to coincide with her big acting debut on The Chi, too.

“Wendy let God use her, and she didn’t even know it,” Brown says. “There’s a saying: God can use anybody to bless you. And a lot of people who were not following me before Wendy talked about my marriage, found me through that. They sure did.” To this day, Brown finds the level of her newfound fame shocking. At events now, she has to hire security because people jump on stage trying to get to her. “It’s like they just lose theyself in the moment,” she says, laughing.

She also can’t go to the grocery store without being recognized, and getting through the airport on any given day is a doozy—people cry and scream and come running. Brown’s first reaction is still to look around, wondering, “Who are we getting ready to see?” Chance has to remind her: “It’s you.” 

“I’m just blown away by it,” Brown admits, her voice cracking. “It’s mind-blowing to me. My life is pretty amazing.”

Demetria L. Lucas (@demetriallucas) is an author and executive producer based in Los Angeles.

Photography, Matt Sayles. Stylists, Blake Newby and Vannieka Wood. Hair, Shaylin Jones/CrosbyCarter. Makeup, Brandie White. Manicure, Gynna Simmons. Production, Michele Brea. 

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