• Newsfeed
  • viral

Becoming a Meme Sensation Cost ‘Kombucha Girl’ Her Day Job. Her New Career Move Is More Exciting

8 minute read

The “kombucha girl” is worried the recorder won’t pick up our conversation in a crowded midtown Manhattan coffee shop. But TikTok content creator Brittany Tomlinson, 22, knows how to project her voice. “Come on, theater kid,” she urges herself.

A background in theater isn’t so surprising for the woman behind the Aug. 6 TikTok sip that launched a thousand memes. The clip of Tomlinson trying kombucha for the first time became one of the internet’s most ubiquitous videos of the year. In the video, Tomlinson sips the fermented tea for the first time. Her face seems to physically recoil at the taste. But as she considers it for a moment, her expression changes multiple times, rapidly. She shakes her head, then smiles. “Well,” she says, laughing. It all happens within 21 seconds.

Delicious or not, people lapped it up, as the post reached 11 million total engagements (collective likes, comments, views and shares), according to a representative for TikTok. It also landed among the company’s list of the top 10 viral videos of 2019.

Now she’s making the effort to extend her 21 seconds of fame—and her audience is definitely still watching. While she certainly could have been relegated to the one-hit-wonder meme-maker hall of fame, Tomlinson has proven that her talent for TikTok’s short video format goes beyond taste-testing beverages.

Since the summer, she’s continued to post viral videos that are more like Saturday Night Live sketches than social media posts, including one focusing on a dinner menu featuring hot dogs and pasta that you just have to see to believe. That video has nearly the same amount of likes as the kombucha post.

The meme star from Texas who goes by @Brittany_Broski online isn’t shocked that millions worldwide find her posts so hilarious. “In the most humble way, I’m not surprised that people enjoy my content,” Tomlinson says. “I’ve always been the entertainer of the group. I’ve always been the funny friend.”

Wearing what she calls a “Dolly Parton wig,” a fashionable winter coat and a thick layer of black eyeliner, Tomlinson looks different from the no-makeup woman in the omnipresent kombucha video. But her humor—theatrical, quick and boisterous—is exactly what you’d expect from the person responsible for that legendary sip-and-wince ambivalence.

Tomlinson decrees her official opinion on the matter: “It’s kind of nasty but in the best way, like pickle juice.”

Elsewhere on social media, her video has been reposted with captions like “when you try alcohol for the first time,” “me reading back my own writing” and “me trying to decide within 30 seconds of meeting a man if we’re going to get married.” A psychology professor who studies facial expressions analyzed the structure of the video and told the New York Times, “Her expressions are exceptional — easy to see and rich.”

Tomlinson created her account in July, after prodding from friends who had been obsessing over her private Snapchat videos since high school. She shared her most famous video just a month later.

Today, with more than 100 videos and two million followers on TikTok, she’s getting recognized in public, always recreating the kombucha reaction in bars for fans.

On her first visit to New York City since achieving nascent fame, she took more than a dozen selfies with audience members at Beetlejuice on Broadway and chatted with passersby in Times Square. “They yell ‘kombucha!’ and I answer to it,” she says, laughing her distinctive laugh.

Growing up in Dallas, Tomlinson was often cracking jokes as she acted in plays and musicals like The Addams Family, Bus Stop and Spamalot! The Musical. “I was always comedic relief, naturally,” she says of her roles. In addition to fame, Tomlinson’s new life comes with a newfound sense of pride in performing. “I make people laugh. It brings me joy,” she says. “But everything else is just an added plus.”

That “everything else” includes plane rides to New York and new friendships with other creators. But above all, it’s money. Monetizing her social media presence came in handy for Tomlinson, who told TIME that she recently lost her job as a result of going viral.

A 2018 Texas A&M University graduate, she earned a communications degree in the hopes of writing copy for Super Bowl commercials. But like many of her post-grad peers, she accepted whatever work she could find, rather than something she was passionate about. After a stint working in a call center that left her on the brink of depression—”Having people yell at you all day is really exciting and fun,” she jokes—Tomlinson found a new gig working in trust and investment services at a nearby bank.

Tomlinson has always been one for performing—and "Dolly Parton" hair.Courtesy of Brittany Tomlinson

When the kombucha video went viral, Tomlinson knew that her boss wouldn’t approve of the many “non-Christian captions,” as she puts it, that often came along with re-shares online. “[The work environment] is very conservative, very professional — I mean, it’s a southern bank in North Texas,” she says. Later in August, after Tomlinson posted more lauded clips (including one where she is literally sitting on the toilet), she says management feared her online presence could be a “liability” for the bank’s reputation.

She says she got let go on Sept. 4.

Soon after, she flew to California for meetings with companies like GT’s Living Foods, a kombucha brand. “Literally nine days later I was in L.A., and it’s been nonstop since then,” she says. Now, she frequently partners with the brand — its founder and CEO GT Dave told TIME over email that he feels “honored to call Brittany a member of the GT’s family.”

Beyond fermented tea, she’s also earned sponsorships with Chipotle, Crocs, KIND and HelloFresh. (Each brand either declined to comment on how much it pays per post or did not return TIME’s request for comment.) With her management team and talent agency, she has successfully become her own brand. Though she and her team declined to tell TIME how much she makes from her sponsorships, Alessandro Bogliari, co-founder and CEO of social media marketing agency the Influencer Marketing Factory, estimates she could make anywhere between $1,000 and $3,500 per sponsored post.

Still, focusing on her own two million TikTok fans, she says she only posts content she knows her viewers will enjoy. Think: satirical explanations of the show Love Island and impressions of Southern mothers. “You’ve gotta listen,” she says. “You’re making content for these people. If they don’t like it, don’t make that kind of content.”

This month, she officially moved from Dallas to Los Angeles, a hub for social media stars like David Dobrik, Tana Mongeau, Rickey Thompson, Emma Chamberlain and dozens of others around Tomlinson’s age. Together in Los Angeles, creators use proximity to their advantage, collaborating across platforms to increase follower counts. In the few weeks she’s lived there, she’s already posted videos featuring Chase Keith (@chaser) and Emmy Hartman (@emmwee), who have more than 4.1 million and 768,000 followers, respectively.

In a cab en route to Hudson Yards where Tomlinson has a meeting with Vayner Media, she jokes that she “used to” have a job, referencing her firing from the bank. “Girl, you have a job now,” her manager reminds her from the front seat.

Though social media may be lucrative, she hopes to eventually “bring her fans with [her]” as she seeks success onstage, outside of the internet. “The first goal would be stand-up, which scares the sh-t out of me. It’s an art form, and it’s a craft. Even a three-minute set takes hours of prep, and you’re going to bomb obviously. But that’s a route I’m excited about,” she says.

With the powerful boost from TikTok, she’s already dreaming of doing work like Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “I never asked for any of this, and that’s been the whole thing,” she says. “I’m so blessed. It doesn’t feel real.” Tomlinson hopes to move into TV eventually, too, starring in a series similar to the one that Waller-Bridge created, Fleabag. Her desired romantic lead? “I’d like to hold hands with Post Malone,” she says.

As she endeavors to get more into comedy, Tomlinson hopes she can take after one of her favorite comics, Whitney Cummings, who is known for unfiltered humor. Inspired by the way entertainers like Cummings and Amy Schumer broke into the male-dominated field, Tomlinson says “the space is very masculine. It needs to change.”

Only time will tell whether or not Tomlinson will be a part of that change. But as she tries to make a name for herself, she knows she’ll have to shed the kombucha from her act.

Asked whether she prefers “kombucha lady” or “kombucha girl” as a nickname, she has a quick answer. In a rare and sudden moment of seriousness, her voice is stern, her gaze steady. “I prefer Brittany,” she says.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Rachel E. Greenspan at rachel.greenspan@time.com