“I gained a million new followers in a month”: How Toronto Saif Shawaf became a viral TikTok star
Channel: Saif Shawaf
Followers: 4.9 million on TikTok
The most popular video: Chicken wing Arabian Zaffe7.8 million likes
year started: 2020
Life before TikTok: YouTube, Vine
It all started with Beyoncé and a dare. In 2012, when I was 20 years old, my friends and I raised money to buy winter gear for children living in Syrian refugee camps. To raise additional money, we announced to our followers on Facebook and Instagram, who were mostly friends and family, that people could challenge us for a donation. A friend of a friend challenged me to sing “If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé and post the video on YouTube and said they would donate $300. sure, I did it, although I can’t sing. Most of my YouTube followers at the time were just friends and family, but to my surprise, the video got 1,000 views in just a few hours. Some people even commented that I should start making more of my own content. That’s when I realized I could do something creative on the platform.
But within a year of posting a few videos each month, I stopped. I had gained about 50,000 subscribers and had a few viral videos with a few hundred thousand views, but I lost motivation to keep going. I put that ambition on hold while I took a few odd jobs. I worked for my father’s company selling stationery and then in sales before getting a job at Life Time Fitness. Then Covid shut everything down. All along I was afraid in the back of my mind that if I didn’t give content creation another chance I would regret it.
Since I didn’t have a job, I decided to jump into TikTok, which was the burgeoning social media platform at the time. I was stuck at home in Toronto with my parents and siblings and figured I’d try and make some short videos. I’d made videos for YouTube and Vine in the past, so I felt like I had a little edge on TikTok. I knew I had to brace myself for negative comments, but I also knew the platform could change my life. It would give me the opportunity to do something I love every day and opportunities to meet new people and make new friends.
My early videos focused on my family and Arabic culture. I wanted to show my big Arab family so I made some videos with my siblings showing them my three brothers and I hunting for food and how protective we treat our only sister. I also made videos of myself and my siblings during Ramadan prepare traditional desserts with our mother and counting down the seconds until we could break our fasciat. Arabic culture isn’t that central in my videos now, but in the beginning I wanted people to know who I am. I am proud to be Canadian and Syrian.
It was this mix of Western and Arabic cultures that led to my first viral moment. I wanted to do something with friends who perform zaffe at Arab weddings, which is a kind of festival music with a lot of different instruments and singing. I thought it would be cool to recreate trending TikTok songs in Arabic Zaffe style. We have recreated a version of “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and it went viral, garnering almost two million views. Someone commented on the video and asked us to do “The Chicken Wing Song,” which was trending on TikTok at the time. It went super viral.
The video got millions of views and I gained a million new followers in a month. The coolest thing was that people started using the sound we made in their own videos and that started a trend on TikTok. In all, almost a million people used it, including celebrities like Liam Payne and Jason Derulo. It put me on the map. People started to know who I was and I gained more followers. With more followers, brands like Bang Energy and Takis started working with me. It was kind of an “Aha!” moment. It gave me confidence in my creativity and made me think, I have what it takes.
Shortly thereafter, I took a leap of faith. When the gyms reopened after the second lockdown in July 2021, I told my boss at Life Time Fitness that I wasn’t coming back so I could focus on TikTok and grow as a content creator. The brand partnerships I received would get me through the year. I wasn’t sure if my TikTok popularity would last long term, but I wanted to continue the journey. I knew if I wanted to make it big, I had to keep pushing and making an effort. And it’s paid off – I’ve continued to gain followers and new opportunities at places like Axe, Emirates Airlines, the Toronto Raptors and Nintendo.
In August 2021 I started my signature series Make Me, in which I take to the streets and ask people to make me laugh, cry or scare me for money. I had the idea of a similar video on TikTok, but it was just a one-time event and I wondered what would happen if I held up a sign that said, “Make me laugh, take $20.” I went to Yonge-Dundas Square, held up my sign and gave people $20 if they could make me laugh. The first video was a huge hit and I’ve continued to shoot them all over the world including LA, Lebanon and Dubai. I love that it allows me to get out and connect with people wherever I am. Since it’s harder to make me cry than it is to make me laugh, I’ll pay $50 to those who make it. Making me cry is the hardest part, so I pay $100. One woman who found success told me that she had been in an abusive relationship and gave up on her dream of having children because she didn’t want them to grow up with that abuse. She eventually left that relationship and eventually got back together with her high school sweetheart. Then she told me a secret she hadn’t shared with anyone –she was pregnant.
In January 2022, Emirates Airlines gave me the opportunity to take a sponsored trip to Dubai to create content, which is one of the biggest things that has happened to me because of my TikTok. I grew up flying economy on the airline and never thought that one day I would fly around the world in business class. On the way to Dubai I made a video showing my travel experiences with the airline. On the way back I did something even more fun: I shot one of my Make Me videos with the cabin crew who made me laugh at 40,000 feet. people loved it.
Similar to how I showcased my culture early on, I’ve always tried to be myself on TikTok and show my followers who I am. That said, I spoke a lot about my anxiety on the platform. I’m open about it – I want people to know that I’m not always happy and excited. When I speak about anxiety, my DMs are flooded with people sharing their stories of coping with anxiety and mental illness. They’re glad I share the realities of life and not the misrepresentation of perpetual happiness that we’re used to on social media. It feels good to show people that they are not alone.
I have also continued to raise funds for winter kits for Syrian refugees each year. Now I share my efforts on TikTok. Last April, I slept in a tent in my backyard for three nights and only ate what Syrian refugees living in camps would eat, meaning I would break my fast each day with just three dates and some water. I shared a Video of experience, and it helped me raise $40,000 for the cause. I realized that TikTok can be about more than just numbers and followers: I can really make a difference with my platform. In January I even had the opportunity to go to Lebanon help distribute supplies to Syrian families living in refugee camps and see first-hand what the conditions there are such. I started the initiative on my own, but my presence on TikTok has helped me raise more money and exposure than I would have on my own.
Social media can be all-encompassing and I had to find a sweet spot to avoid burnout and stay sane. I can’t always be online. The best balance for me is having set days of shooting and creating enough content for three or four days so I can have downtime on days when I’m not feeling well. I generally post one video a day which is a full time job. On shooting days, I typically spend nine or ten hours planning, filming, editing and posting. On my days off, I usually meet up with friends or go to the gym.
At first my parents were a bit skeptical and concerned that I was on TikTok, but that has completely changed. Now they want to know what I’m working on and what video I’ll post next. My mother likes to help me film and is in videos with me. Recently we made some TikTok videos of us making dessert and she got a lot of replies from her friends. She was even publicly acknowledged.
The world is changing so fast, especially on social media. Constantly having to adapt is the most stressful part of the job for me. Coming up with new ideas every day is difficult, but I always believe that I will come up with something even when I’m facing creative block. Most of my ideas come to me when my mind is idle, like when I’m in the shower or driving around. When an idea comes along, fraught with doubts about how to pull it off, I know I have to make this TikTok. If I had listened to all my doubts and given up when my videos didn’t come out as planned, I would have accomplished nothing.