Who is Taryn Smith? TikTok star. Miss New York. And now, receptionist heaven: NPR

TikTok creator Taryn Delanie Smith plays Denise, a character who helps the internet deal with grief and abstract questions about the afterlife.

Screenshot by NPR/TikTok @taryntino21

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Screenshot by NPR/TikTok @taryntino21

TikTok creator Taryn Delanie Smith plays Denise, a character who helps the internet deal with grief and abstract questions about the afterlife.

Screenshot by NPR/TikTok @taryntino21

If you ask anyone on TikTok what happens when you die, there’s a good chance they’ll put it this way: You show up in the waiting room. You are wearing a bathrobe. And you are not greeted by Saint Peter or Mother Mary, but by the sound of gum, and the crackling of a keyboard A New Yorker named Dennis.

As Heaven’s Receptionist, Denise will hand you a welcome pack and ask you what you’d like to be a ghost costume. She’ll fill you with the comforts of heaven (there’s a free margarita bar), likely leave you with a bit of gossip, lower her voice to whine about Paul Revere’s latest email (all caps, subject line: urgent) or about that time at the nail salon when Jackie Kennedy met Marilyn Monroe (“Like Two Cats on a Hot Tin Roof”).

But despite all her office work, Denise is a popular person. When someone appears in the waiting room with fear or confusion – presence He died very young or very soon – It’s Dennis who picks them up in a hug and shows them all the silver linings in the sky.

And for the TikTokers who watch them all the time, it’s become a tool for thinking about the afterlife — and for mourning those who’ve already made their way there.

The real Denise is a 26-year-old pageant queen

Although it can be said as touching as The good place or field of dreamsHeaven’s Reception World is a low-key, short-form experience. And like most TikTok series, it’s the fantasies of one person alone: ​​Taryn Delanie Smith.

Taryn Delaney Smith, pictured here at the opening of David Geffen Ballroom in New York, entered the Miss New York pageant after successfully building a strong following on TikTok.

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Lincoln Center

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Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Lincoln Center

Taryn Delaney Smith, pictured here at the opening of David Geffen Ballroom in New York, entered the Miss New York pageant after successfully building a strong following on TikTok.

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Lincoln Center

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He is 26 years old, known as Hahahahahahaha, considers herself first and foremost a content creator — she’s gained 1.2 million followers on TikTok within two years of posting. But she’s also an offline celebrity in her own right, having been crowned Miss New York 2022 and runner-up in the Miss America pageant.

But before Smith had any kind of platform, she was a receptionist herself, working long hours toward her master’s degree in international communication. It is that experience from which Denise’s personal information is drawn.

“I got promoted to call center eventually, and that definitely wasn’t the promotion I thought it would be,” Smith said in an interview with NPR.

Even a receptionist in heaven has to go through the same mundane daily dramas as any land office employee.

There are a ton of eligible folks out there who think they deserve the Angel Premium Plus package but fall short on the cost: 7,899 good deeds. But then there’s the creepy, red-eyed resident who keeps abusing a basement hallway to terrorize a suburban family.

“Why can’t we just let women do everything?”

It’s these kinds of creative and world-building details that keep Smith’s audience hooked. But like all great ideas, Denise’s character was born with less greatness — as a stray thought in the shower.

“I was standing there thinking, ‘If I die in a chicken suit, then I have to wear the chicken suit forever.'” “Can you imagine a ghost coming at you in a chicken suit?” Smith said. “And I couldn’t stop laughing.”

I hopped out of the shower, put on a robe and a towel, found the first stock image of the sky that popped up on Google and made what I thought would be the dumbest video on the internet.

Today, Receptionist Heaven’s videos have been viewed more than 37 million times on Smith’s TikTok page, and at least 22 million times on other platforms. Smith is more recognized on the street as Denise than as Miss New York.

Holding on to these dual identities might be paradoxical on some minds, but for Smith, it just works.

“Why don’t we just let the women do it all? Just let them be their beautiful, silly, authentic selves,” she said. “I really didn’t think I would push things so far just by being myself and being a beauty queen.”

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The same originality that plays so well with today’s Generation Z audience helped her stand out on stage. cheering Old black beauty standardsSmith competed in the Miss New York pageant with her natural hair, a move that ultimately won her More praise than criticism.

She said that if anything, she has faced criticism more for her comedy than her looks.

“For people who are fans of the festival, they don’t get my TikTok personalities. Some of them might be like, ‘I didn’t get it.'” Why is it so strange? And I’m not weird. I’m having fun. I’m silly.”

“I’d like more adults to be able to get rid of this inhibition, even if it’s in private,” she said. “I think humans were supposed to make things. We just get in the way.”

When Denise gets personal, the feedback gets real

And the more Smith appears as her uninhibited self, the more the audience will adopt the same mindset. If you’re not careful, the humor can fray into the hard edges of sadness, revealing something soft and rough underneath.

1 user “I don’t want to kill the vibe” Wrote in the comments section early“But it makes me so happy because I imagine someone as nice as you took my mom in.”

Without warning, Smith broke a sense of humor in her sixth Dennis video. While low in the background, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” affectionately welcomed another commentator’s mother to Heaven by name.

“No, it’s all right. Come on. I know who you are. You’re Jerry, right?” Denise says, looking up from her laptopHer face was filled with sheer kindness. “You are so loved. I am already getting mail praying for you.”

For such a personal message, it resonated widely. The video garnered more than 10,000 comments, many filled with heart emojis and stories about more lost loved ones — people who also lost mothers, coincidentally, named Jerry, but also lost children, aunts, uncles, older brothers, and younger ones. Sisters, grandparents, celebrity idols, and cuddly pets.

Smith said she receives many, sometimes “hundreds” of emails and comments each week asking her to include specific people in her videos. The stories are so touching that she can’t read them all because of the amount of crying. But some days she still tries.

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“I’m actually very spiritual. I believe in these things. I’ve lost the people I talk to all the time,” she said. “Because love doesn’t…can’t go away. It’s too big. When you love someone the way my mother loves me, the way I love my friends, it can’t be contained in this boring earthly body.”

Grief arises on TikTok just as it does in the real world: at random

In the real world, we have a constant expectation that our grief will pass. Funerals come and go. Bereavement leave ends. Friends stop asking how you are for fear of saying the wrong thing.

But on TikTok, in an endless sea of ​​noise and distraction, images of grief can randomly pop up in the algorithm as easily as uninvited reminders of your loved ones as you move through the day.

The difference with the platform is that often, by default, you are not alone in the experience. The video could be confessional, theatrical, or educational, but there’s a good chance it will feature a human being that you can see and connect with.

said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist who studies grief and author of It’s okay that you’re not well.

“On TikTok, you get rewarded immediately, which feeds into the sense of, ‘We should talk about this more,’” Devine said. “It makes overwhelmingly big issues understandable… It’s safer to explore the limits of what we can tell the truth about. “

The hashtag #Grief is among TikTok’s most popular, with over 9 billion individual posts. And even in that huge conversation, Smith’s videos of Denise manage to stand out.

What it does intuitively well is combine wistfulness with a dose of playfulness, as well as with the secular, the spiritual, the authentic, the vulnerability, the personal and the general – all coming together in a powerful blend of catharsis.

But above all, “it speaks to what humans need most: the need for connection,” Devine said.

Fortunately for Dennis fans, Smith is also in for human connection.

“The only reason I do this is because of the collaborative nature of it,” she said, adding that she found the most inspiration for the videos in the comments section. “As long as we can still do it together as a team, I’m here for it.”

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