TikTok as a career: Long Islanders use social media to grow businesses
Turning a TikTok video into a financially profitable venture has changed the way these content creators view their careers and futures on, and off, Long Island.
You might recognize these faces from TikTok — they're all Long Island natives who have thousands or even millions of followers. They post comedy skits with their families, offer cooking advice or voice their opinions on everything from wearing a hijab to the taste of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.
“It was always a dream of mine to become a full-time content creator,” says Joe Mele, who lives on the East End and has more than 27 million followers. “I saw how much fun it looked like they were having.”
Here’s how six content creators use TikTok to build their careers.
Becca Bastos, 27, Mineola
Known for: Her cast of characters
Bastos wants to be a professional actress — and she's thrilled that her TikTok account gives her the opportunity to entertain millions with the kooky characters she has created. “It was very empowering in that way,” she says of the platform.
Bastos might impersonate a Long Island mom or an aunt, or an old woman. Unlike many other TikTok content creators, she doesn't focus on her actual real life. “I hate sharing my personal life. It's too much pressure for me. It takes a special kind of person to be vulnerable,” she says.
Bastos launched her TikTok career in 2020. And yes, it's her career now — she's been able to quit her job as a nanny and support herself through monetizing her social media presence, she says. She was able to move to Los Angeles so she can also take improv classes and go to auditions. She's started to be recognized in person, she says, even on a vacation to Europe this summer. “It shows you how far the reach is. If you think about it too long, it's weird — 2.4 million people. I have no idea what that looks like.”
Suha Syed, 24, Jericho
Known for: Following trends
Syed says she joined TikTok “begrudgingly” in 2020 because she had a lot of time to fill during the pandemic, when she was living at her childhood home in Jericho (where she still lives) and taking classes at SUNY Old Westbury. “It was a nice distraction and a nice way to connect with people in a way that didn’t require me to leave my house,” she says.
She films and edits her videos on her own; many are less than 10 seconds long and picture her face with her message in writing. She tries to post daily. “I do like to follow trends as much as a I can. A new movie, an album release, a concert or festival,” she says. For example, she posted about the “Barbie” movie and often invokes Taylor Swift.
She also likes to dispel stereotypes, she says. Being a visible Muslim wearing a hijab on social media gives her the chance to “reclaim the narrative” of how Muslims are perceived, she says. “If it is something that affects me or people who look like me, it’s definitely a responsibility and something I’m grateful to raise awareness about,” she says. “I’ve always been a loud, outspoken type of person.”
Joe Mele, 24, East End
Known for: Comedy skits with his dad
Mele dropped out of Binghamton University to focus on TikTok. He enlisted his father, Frank, 61, who is retired, to star with him in video skits.
“Everybody loves my dad. He’s a character. We’re always cracking jokes,” Mele says. Their first video together, posted in 2019, had 13,000 views within a few hours, he says. “That one video sparked the whole domino effect, the snowball effect,” he says.
Mele’s followers grew, and he started posting three to four comedy videos a day that he calls “family friendly and wholesome.” Some will feature his mom, Karen, 59, or his brother, Nick, 28. He’s now got more than 27 million followers and most of his videos meet his goal of at least 1 million views. It’s not unusual for his videos to hit 30 to 50 million views.
Danielle Sepsy, 33, Garden City
Known for: Playing a Long Island mother
Sepsy, whose Hungry Gnome baked goods company makes as many as 150,000 treats a month, did not set out to be a TikTok content creator known for comically imitating Long Island mothers.
In November 2022, Sepsy was tapped to be a contestant on a new HBO Max cooking competition series called “The Big Brunch” created and hosted by actor Dan Levy. “That experience took the business and my name to a whole new place,” says Sepsy, who lives in Garden City. She appeared in all eight episodes, was runner-up and got a cookbook deal.
After the show, she decided to go all in on social media to up her profile and to help grow her business, hoping an engaged audience would then want to buy what she is selling. She hired a social media management company to negotiate brand partnership deals — she’s done videos featuring Brisk Iced Tea and Nutella, for instance. The company also does her filming and editing.
To her surprise, the videos that do the best for her didn’t necessarily have to do with cooking. “Me making fun of my mom as my Long Island mother, that is what resonated with a larger audience,” she says. “I just had to sort of be myself and not be afraid to be goofy.”
Nicholas Russo, 18, Amityville
Known for: Testing local bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches
Russo says he gets recognized by employees at Long Island delis. “A decent amount of places, there’ll be a kid my age who says, ‘I’ve seen you on TikTok,’” Russo says.
His social media stint began in 2020 when he was a rising high school sophomore. He and a group of friends would meet at The Better Bagel in Amityville and post what they were eating for fun on Snapchat. One of Russo’s friends suggested they make a video of him to post on TikTok.
That video of Russo taste-testing a Long Island breakfast staple at The Better Bagel — the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich — “blew up” to 10,000 views, he says. Russo kept doing the same at shops suggested by his followers, reporting on “the pull” — how much cheese oozes out when he separates the sandwich in two — and the amount of bacon and type of roll. His favorite so far: 3 Sons Deli in Kings Park.
Russo worked at a deli during high school, so he says he has enough expertise to pass judgment. “The video that really sent me over the roof was Wally’s Bagels in North Babylon,” he says; it’s his most viewed video at 86,000-plus.
Russo is on a hiatus right now because he just started at Farmingdale State College and is adjusting to the demands of college life, he says.
Rohan Murphy, 39, East Islip
Known for: Youth inspirational speaking
Murphy uses his TikTok platform to help him gain exposure for his “dream job” — motivational speaking at colleges and elementary, middle and high school assemblies across the country.
Murphy was born with his legs facing backward — his kneecaps and feet were in the opposite direction, he says. At age 4, he had his legs amputated. The plan was for him to wear prosthetic legs, but his residual limbs weren’t able to bear the weight, so he stopped using them: “It’s like wearing shackles,” he says. “Why not just embrace who I am?”
Murphy goes to schools across the country talking about goal setting and overcoming adversity. He talks about how he has become successful as a wrestler in high school and at Penn State University. “They’re always surprised,” he says. “Once I go down to a wrestling practice and roll around on a mat with them, they get it.”
During visits to schools, he’ll take videos with the students and post them. “I’m always looking for different ways to promote myself, put myself out there,” he says.
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