The winding tale of how two Smith alums came together to make a film about the college’s program for South African women of color during apartheid.
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Sabrina Rising: An Alum's Career on TikTok
Sabrina Brier ’17 parlays her passive-aggressive TikTok character into a lucrative career.
As a first-year theatre major, Sabrina Brier ’17 landed the title role in Iphigenia and Other Daughters, which was performed in Theatre 14, Smith’s main stage. But it wasn’t the highlight of her time at Smith. That would be joining SIKOS—Smith Improv Komedy Organization of Smith. Not exactly high Greek tragedy, but, in retrospect, it was a great first step to becoming a TikTok superstar.
“I would not have auditioned for comedy improv if I was not at a women’s college,” Brier says. “I think when it comes to comedy and pushing the limits of comedy, Smith was a safe but exciting space for that.”
Through SIKOS, Brier learned she could make an audience laugh. She also loved that improv was just one more way to create her own material—important for a showrunner in the making. “My big goal is to be like Quinta Brunson” (creator of Abbott Elementary), she says, “an actress on television in my own show where I’m coming up with the ideas.”
To that end, Brier did a Praxis internship in Los Angeles as a production intern on the ABC show Scandal. “I knew I wanted to act and be on the creative side, but I also knew how difficult that was going to be,” she says. “I decided to do the assistant route and learn from the inside of the business and make my own creative stuff on the side.”
After graduating from Smith, Brier moved to New York City and worked as an assistant to a talent manager for two years. Then, through Praxis connections, she was hired as a writer’s production assistant and promoted to a writer’s assistant for ABC’s legal drama For Life, which she worked on from September 2019 through the winter of 2021.
Along the way, she wrote, directed, and starred in Pre-Mature, a web series created by Brier and Marie Koury ’17 about the impact of female friendship. The series also features Isabella Tagliati ’19, Aisha Amin ’17, and Sidni Standard ’17, with original music by Grainne Buchanan ’17 and Sam Davis ’17.
Once COVID hit, Brier started playing around with Instagram sketches, mostly shot by her lifelong friend and roommate, Alice, a nurse, whose deadpan voice you can sometimes hear off camera. “I really wanted to stay in the digital space,” Brier says, “but I wasn’t sure how to get myself out there more.” She played with various aspects of a 20-something character living in New York City—the passive-aggressive roommate who is “not upset” you didn’t take out the garbage, or the “old friend” you run into on the street who has no intention of getting together.
When For Life ended, Brier looked for another job, but she was also getting more proficient at uploading videos on Instagram. She had been on that platform for a year and a half and had also been toying around with TikTok when, in August 2021, one of her TikTok videos went viral. (A video is considered viral on TikTok when it has over 250,000 views. Some of Brier’s videos have been viewed more than 1 million times, and she currently has more than 44 million likes and nearly 430,000 followers.)
Since then, Brier, who is represented by Creative Artists Agency, has been enjoying lucrative brand deals (with Google, Subway, eBay, Instacart, and Uno, to name a few), was prominently featured in March in the Style section of The New York Times, and is doing some stand-up comedy as she focuses on her professional goals by auditioning for parts and pitching scripts. Here, in her own words, she talks about going viral, who her TikTok character is really based on, and what’s next.
I would throw up the clips from Insta on TikTok. The quality wasn’t great when I put them on TikTok, and they weren’t resonating. I just wasn’t really getting it. In August 2021, some friends came to town to help me shoot a video, but I was sick, so I suggested we stop. I went home that night. I had these clips we had started in Instagram. I thought I might as well string the clips together, throw it up on TikTok—because no one cared about my TikTok—and it went viral. It’s super quick. I was in a blue shirt, out in the street, and I said, “This is SoHo. It stands for ‘South of Houston,’” and I pronounced it like the city in Texas instead of ‘HOW-stun.’ It’s very niche. It just hit a chord. Some people knew it was satire. But some people didn’t, and it was nerve-wracking to go viral for the first time and realize some people thought I was serious. But at the end of the day, I didn’t care what anyone thought because I wanted to go viral so badly. I knew that once I did, I was going to turn it into something.
Give the People What They Want
It seemed like I was bringing in a very New York audience, where they are looking at me as this symbol of these annoying white girls who move to New York and take up space in the city. So, I thought, I’m going to run with it because it’s striking a chord. TikTok creator directions reference this strategy—it’s all about repetition. For the next few videos, I just kept coming up with things that were very New York–specific to keep bringing in that audience. I did the next video within 24 hours. I had this idea that I would do “cheugy,” which is a Gen Z word that doesn’t get used as much now, but it basically just means millennial and corny. So, I did “cheugy girl” giving a tour of New York, listing establishments that people make fun of. And that did even better. And then, a few days later, I visited my friends in Philadelphia and I did one that was Philadelphia versus New York. I was obsessive about it. I remember my mom calling me and saying, “Aren’t you so excited that you went viral? You’ve wanted this for so long.” And I said, “I’m excited, but I’ll be more excited when I’ve gone viral five times.” I didn’t just want five seconds of fame. I wanted to create a platform.
The TikTok Character
The character that I play is sometimes a caricatured version of myself, or people I’ve met, or friends, or the parts of me that I think are annoying. She is usually narcissistic, vapid, materialistic, and can’t read the room, but she is also very insecure and is still a good friend and has redeeming qualities. I would say that in most of my videos, I’m that girl. She is kind of my main character. When I perform stand-up, that’s who you will see.
There are definitely iterations and different kinds of things if you really look closely at what I’m doing; sometimes it’s a version of my character where she has the upper hand and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s nicer, shyer. Sometimes she’s mean and judgmental. Sometimes I’ll do the passive-aggressive roommate. I feel like the No. 1 thing people say about my TikTok characters is that they are all relatable.
I went viral in August 2021, and my first two brand deals happened in November—Sleepytime tea and Neon Zebra drinks. Typically, I’ll get a DM from a marketing agency person, someone working directly for a brand whose job it is to source out influencers.
Over the years I maintained a friendship with the talent manager I worked for initially (she’s also my mentor), and it was always my dream to be represented by her. When that first deal came in, I asked her opinion about it. Eventually I was signed by her and Creative Artists Agency (CAA). When I got my first deal, I was just like, “Whoa!” It was the first time I was getting paid to be creative and to perform, which was amazing. Since then, I have been working with my talent manager/mentor and CAA.
Tips for Going Viral
This sounds so TikTok-y, but it really is true: To start, find your niche, find your brand. I was putting videos up from Instagram, and they weren’t making sense; they didn’t transfer well. But when I did the video that went viral, I looked at the elements of that video: I was outside. There was a New York theme. I had a cute outfit on. I took the elements of that video, and I repeated it—just with a different concept—and then I did it again. You’re more likely to go to someone’s page if you know what to expect from their page. Find what’s specific to you, regardless of what it is. Find what’s really you and repeat it. That’s a good way to get started.
I recently had some pitch meetings for a TV show based on my character. That’s the dream. But in the meantime, I’m really looking for more on-screen acting experience and to break out into the industry in a bigger way. There are a million things I want to do. I want to write, direct, and act in films, TV, and on stage. I want to live a creative life, which of course is really hard because it’s a business.
At this moment, I see myself in a comedy. I would love to take the comedy skills I feel like I’ve been cultivating and put them on the screen in a bigger way. The things I audition for and everything I’m working on currently—whether it’s auditioning or trying to develop my own material—it’s definitely all in the comedy zone. But, in my mind, what I do always has an element of drama in it. That’s evident in Pre-Mature. That’s really what I’m most interested in—dramatic situations told in a funny way.
Cheryl Dellecese is a senior editor at Smith.
This story appears in the Summer 2023 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.