The 17-year-old Singapore-based Filipina, Zoe Gabriel, who sparked a debate over the subjectiveness of ‘luxury’ and its shifting consumer perceptions, has not stopped making headlines since the cyberbullying incident, which made her an overnight TikTok star.
A micro-influencer with more than 256,400 followers on TikTok, Gabriel has amassed public sympathy, a wave of positive sentiment after being mocked for equating a Charles & Keith bag as a “luxury” item. What followed was a flurry of brand collaborations. Intrigued by her story, Charles & Keith invited her for lunch with her father and the brand founders before doing an International Women’s Day campaign with them. She has also done a tie-up with local fashion label The Tinsel Rack, dental start-up Zenyum – and the biggest scoop, creating content for low-cost carrier AirAsia.
From creating daily musings like any other college teen to becoming a full-blown influencer and an ambassador to prominent brands, Gabriel’s rise to TikTok fame is unconventional. Ahead of Campaign 360 where the social media sensation shares her unique perspective on the power of social media, Campaign caught up with her in a wide-ranging interview to explore her journey.
Your overnight rise to fame is in large parts down to forging an authentic connection online. It also highlights social media’s power in amplifying issues, both positive and negative. When you posted the first unboxing video, did you expect it to blow up?
I think my sudden rise to fame was pretty unconventional because it started with a debate. After posting a video about what I considered my first “luxury” bag, a worldwide conversation opened up about what it means for something to actually be a luxury.
I didn’t expect such a topic to be brought up from my video, much less that it would become a story of international interest and debate. But issues and lessons arising from social media rarely happen on purpose.
There is power in social media because the people finally have a voice. They have a platform to talk and amplify the issues they care about and believe in. They are the ones who choose what becomes popular, and what issues are brought to light - including my video.
Social media has power in amplifying the issues of the people, because it gives them a chance to take a stand. I’m so honoured and grateful to be given this platform and responsibility to do as much good as I can, and I think it’s incredibly and uniquely empowering.
Before the Charles and Keith incident, did you face cultural biases, and if so, how did it impact you?
I think that “bias” only started once my presence on social media grew, and at first, it was hard to come to terms with. Some comments were telling me to go back to where I came from, and because I am Filipino, they were saying how I was only fit to be a helper.
And at first it was really hard for me to understand because I couldn’t grasp why me being Filipino meant anything to them. I was a little angry too, especially about the “maid” comments because they were attacking people who work so, so hard. There isn’t any shame in hard work.
But from that I decided to be more vocal about my heritage, who I am, and what I believe in—despite all of those biases. I have this platform now to show how much good we have in us, how much talent and strength there is in the arms of a Filipina. Those cultural biases thrown at me have only cemented me in my identity, and have made me prouder to be who I am.
Authentic social media presence is critical for any content creator or influencer. People can smell bull***t from a mile. Does staying true to your values become a challenge when you’re working with multiple brands and how do you ensure these brands are aligned with your personal beliefs?
@airasiasuperapp Meet @zoe ♬ original sound -
I've been very lucky to work with brands that have been open and transparent in their business, so I haven’t had to worry too much about having clashing beliefs as of late. But even so, I always make sure to do my research. I like looking into the history of a brand, because that’s what is most likely going to influence the core of the institution, right? So you look at the roots, what they’re founded upon.
What influences me most, though and what cements my impression of a company is their representatives. They are the ones I liaise with and have a direct impact on me and my perception of the company. I can better read, understand, and relate to a person more so than words on a screen. I pay close attention to how they interact with their colleagues, how they carry themselves, and how they treat me.
I pay attention to those things because the practice of good values in the workplace will inevitably show itself through the character of the people they employ.
As someone who has faced public scrutiny, what advice would you give to others who are struggling with self-doubt or confidence?
Hold your head up high. Don’t let anyone take your happiness away from you because that’s fully yours.
Be kind to yourself because a lot of people forget that sometimes confidence takes time. I used to be a little shy when I was younger, and I had to practice putting myself out there. It isn’t easy, and it’ll take a lot of effort and strength and embarrassing mistakes - but it’ll be worth it.
Adding to that, you could try blocking the outside noise. I’ve found that when I struggle with self-doubt, the best remedy is to turn off my phone for a day or two and stay off social media. Focus on the here and how and all the wonderful things you are, instead of what others have.
You've had the opportunity to work with brands that have embraced you. How does it feel to be the poster child of diversity and inclusivity in such a positive way?
Oh, it’s such an honour! But I also know that it’s a big responsibility. Every day I try to make sure I do as much good I can with the content I create, and give my best for the job. I hope I’m doing okay [laughs].
In your opinion, how can brands do a better job at promoting inclusivity and diversity?
Keep being inclusive and diverse because you actually believe in it.
From what I’ve personally seen as a consumer, a lot of brands promote inclusivity because it’s “trendy” - and it shows in your products and marketing strategies.
If you as a brand, want to promote better inclusion, you must stick to your word and show that you care. Don’t make diversity a seasonal thing, but rather something that is timeless, and beautifully, uniquely human—and stick to it.
Advertising diversity is half of the promotion. The other half is acting on it and believing in the cause you set out to promote. Your customers can feel the passion behind a project. It’s up to you.
Top CMOs and marketing professionals from around the region are convening in Singapore on Tuesday and Wednesday (May 16-17) at the Ritz Carlton for a one of a kind high-level industry event that is focused on brand experience and the new expectations placed on CMOs to deliver.
Check out the full agenda. There is still time to sign up for the event. Register now.