Back in 2021, Serena Shahidi, a 23-year-old TikTok star, comedienne, podcaster and fashion marketing student, was featured in the New York Times. For a girl who grew up and found fame online, getting press in the traditional sense proposed an amusingly ironic puzzle. Like, people still buy those things?
“I don't even read newspapers. I was like, I want to find this newspaper with me in it. I didn't know where to find it,” she recalled, wide-eyed. “I walked around, just looking for the word ‘news’.”
“Eventually I got to, like, a deli that had newspapers,” she admitted, taking a prim sip of her pink fizzy wine.
We were seated at a natural wine bar in Brooklyn. Inside, the air conditioning was on full. Outside, the sooty sky preserved an ominous heat dome across the city: oppressive humidity had been the theme of the week. Shahidi was dressed surprisingly mature for her age and jejune disposition, in a little black dress, cropped jacket, and – most alarmingly in Brooklyn where Birkenstocks and sneakers abounded – heels.
Whether Shahidi’s being serious or not, it’s part of the charm. Her candour suffuses conversation in a meta-ironic playfulness, her cadence dripping with old-timey words and flippant, who-gives-a-damn charisma. It’s impossible to know whether she’s doing a bit or not, and the suspicion is that half the time she doesn’t even know herself. Most importantly, she doesn’t care.
“I have no idea what I'm saying until it comes out,” she said. “I was making stuff up, and I wanted attention. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I get bored.”
“People read or watch stuff I say, and they're like, Oh, my God, this girl is insane. Bananas. Out of her mind. And I'm like, well, I was lying. I was making stuff up. I was trying to play up a little bit of a character.”
Sitting somewhere on the dim line between internet personality and icon, Shahidi’s archly entertaining opinions on dating, pop culture and “being just a girl” in New York City have launched her onto an idiosyncratic new wave of fame dominated by Gen Z – the kind of niche internet recognition that comes with half a million TikTok followers.
Posting under the moniker Glamdemon2004, Shahidi rapidly crafted a cult of personality, streamlined into a fandom of “Glamdemonators”, with the release of her podcast, Let Me Ruin Your Life. On Let Me Ruin Your Life Shahidi plays the savvy, smart, wittily quirked-up-culture-critic role of the Carrie Bradshaw of the 2020s, only less annoying, and far, far sillier.
Internet fame has brought Shahidi to some fun places. In 2021, she was iconically “soft cancelled” for a TikTok video in which she criticised the surge of women encouraging other women that hotness could be a substitute for personality. On Twitter, where there is no room for nuance, the video took off, provoking a waterfall of criticism, outrage, and allegations of “ableism”, the latter triggered by two of Shahidi’s most scathing words: “Spell ‘Pharaoh’.”
“I was making fun of people who try to inspire young women by telling them to tell themselves that they're hot. And I was like, this is ridiculous. Spell ‘Pharaoh’. Come up with some real shit. Develop something within yourself, because that's how you develop confidence. But they didn't want to hear it. They wanted to say their affirmations about being hot. Whatever. I'll let them. I maintain that that was insane.”
At the time, new-wave bimboism was having a moment, and so were motivational videos, “if he wanted to, he would” content, “villain era” trends, and a general identity crisis spread across algorithms of anyone embroiled in the misfortunes of dating, being attracted to, or having their hearts broken by men.
As Shahidi told it, the “insane” culmination of the Spell Pharaoh fiasco was discovering Fox News had written an article defending her.
“I was drunk on a beach when I found out and I think I just screamed. I think it was called, like, ‘Gen Z mocks vapid internet culture’.”
Ultimately, Shahidi’s audience go to her for advice. And, on that gloomy, suffocatingly hot Brooklyn afternoon, that was what I was there for, too.
VICE: What are your ultimate, greatest, best, DOS and DON’TS for life?
Serena Shahidi: DO develop obsessions. I'm a big fan of going down rabbit holes. Getting very into some niche, weird shit. Reading books that have been out of print for the past 30 years. Just getting into stuff. I love old Hollywood. And I just started a book called A Way of Life Like Any Other. It's about a guy who grew up with parents in the silent film era.
My first don't. DON’T be an overthinker about relationships or be crazy about what people are thinking of you. Because a lot of people like to say “nobody thinks of you”. They do think of you, but also who cares? Like, maybe you were acting weird at that party. Maybe that guy isn't texting you back because he doesn't like you. And what? People have their own stuff going on, maybe they don't like you because you remind them of their mom. I don't know, it's random.
Do think, but think about fun stuff. Let me come up with another do and don't do. I'm gonna sound like I'm making a wedding toast. DO hang out with friends that make you laugh. Isn’t that, like, one of the main points of life? Sometimes I'm nearly on a ledge. And then I'll hang out with my friends. And we'll laugh and I'm like, I see the point of life.
DON’T become one of those people who's really into five year plans and shit like that. One step at a time. Like Jordin Sparks said, there’s no need to rush. It's like learning to fly or falling in love. I think people like that are batshit crazy insane. And I think it's useless because you have to leave room for serendipity.
The happiest people I know are people who just kind of fell into shit. They happen to meet the right person who gave them a job they didn't know existed. They ran into someone and ended up marrying them, stuff like that.
Have you ever been forced into making a five-year plan?
I once manifested a man. Because I'd just broken up with someone and me and my friends were like, who am I gonna date next? And we came up with this whole archetype of a man down to the school he went to and we called him Robert. And I was like, I'm gonna find me a Robert. And then one day, I was at a bar, and I found that exact Robert down to the last detail. But anyway, it turns out he yells at CNBC in the morning, so be careful what you wish for.
Do you believe there is a higher power?
I was raised very agnostic. I think my dad keeps the Bible on his desk, but it's only because he likes the stories.
A psychic told me I'd be in and out of school until I was 30. [laughs]. Oh, my God. And I was like, makes sense. I don't know. I was feeling vulnerable.
What else did she tell you?
She also told me I would have a tumultuous love life. I was like, yeah. Been there. She told me I had a very negative energy around me, which at the time I did, I still kind of do, but at the time… boy boy, dark aura. I, like, radiated menthols. That was my vibe.
My goal right now is to try to balance the chaos factor in my mind. Because, for a while, I was going hard on the partying, going hard on all the creative stuff. Sleeping from 4 to 12 and all that. My greatest respects to that, but I think at a certain point something tips and you actually become less creative and you have less fun. So I was like: let me do something a stable person would do and go back to school.
Would you consider yourself a single person?
I would consider myself an intentionally single person. I think a lot of people tend to get attached to people just because they're there. And I've never really been that way. I mean, I was when I was 17, 18, but as an adult, I've never really been that way. So I'm just seeing what happens. Whatever happens, happens.
Have you got any dating advice on hand?
Nobody wants to flirt anymore. Get up off your ass and flirt. Everyone is bad at it, I think, I don't know. I just feel like people have taken the flirtatiousness out of dating and it's more about the logistics, and all those sorts of things are not as important.
I'm so passionate about this: no trauma dumping on a date. No trauma dumping on a date. I feel like people do this. And they're like, I'm being real and being vulnerable, and actually being out of their mind. My theory is that a normal person is going to hear that, and be like, Oh my god, I bet this is the tip of the iceberg. Like, there must be so much more going on. If they're saying this on the first date, what else is happening below the surface? And then someone who's maybe a little sketchy is gonna be like, Oh, they're vulnerable. They're a little out of their minds. Perfect! Perfect prey.
Something like this happened to me recently on a date, I was talking about the star sign Cancer.
Oh God, did he say his mom had cancer?
God no. But he did say he was a cancer, then told me he had been to therapy, then asked me about my ex, and it was the first date.
That is such a bad first impression for him to make. Anyway, another one, don't be one of those freaks who's always sizing people up. Because here's the thing: Logistics matter. Sure, what do they do? How do they spend their time? Are you logistically compatible? But also, you don't want to be keeping a spreadsheet of everybody's height and income.
Or a SWOT analysis.
Opportunities and threats…Pros and cons… I feel like a lot of people do that. I think dating apps really facilitate that. And at a certain point, we gotta be like, Am I having fun with this person? Do they make my life better, or worse? Can you imagine finding a boyfriend's SWOT analysis of you? That is so dehumanising.
Finally, I'm curious to know what your thoughts are about… well… what… the fuck is going on?
I think the interesting thing right now is that everybody's getting their 15 minutes of fame, me included. And I feel almost like I'm a part of this mini generation of people who have had some attention and relevancy online. And I feel like the big question now is: what is next for people like me? Because I don't know what's next for me. And I don't know what's next for everybody else. And, I don't know, when you're a young, creative person on the internet, people look at you. And they're like, you have so much potential. And it's like, potential for what though? We have a whole generation of people who are good at marketing themselves and good at starting conversations and making things popular. And where are those people gonna go?