Are you rich and ridiculous? TikTok comedian Shabaz Ali has you in his sights

<span>‘Bringing the “social” back to social media is important to me’: Shabaz Ali.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer</span>
‘Bringing the “social” back to social media is important to me’: Shabaz Ali.Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Shabaz Ali is a 30-year-old chemistry teacher from Blackburn. He adores his job. After only five minutes in his company, you get a sense of how he might be in front of a classroom – funny, playful, engaged. But after he’s turned off the Bunsen burners, Ali goes home and steps into his other “office”: his bed. Here, with the hood of his onesie pulled up, he clocks in for his other vocation as a social media personality. His TikTok channel, Shabaz Says, has an audience of millions.

Ali is known for his scathing reaction videos to pretentious displays of wealth and bizarre social media trends. They proliferate fast in this world. When influencers post about going to “gourmet water bars”, making “designer ice”, or step-by-step guides to “fridge curation” (organising your fridge to be as minimalistic as possible), Ali has something withering to say.

All of Ali’s videos are made in bed. His roasting method is simple: he chooses a viral video that one of his followers has tagged him in; sets up TikTok’s “duet” function; says his tagline (“In today’s episode of I’m rich, you’re poor… ”), then ad-libs a pithy piss-take and watches the cry-laughing emojis roll in. He started posting during the first lockdown. Like many of us, Ali spent a lot of time lying on his side, scrolling. “It was around that time that the 60-second video became popular. I guess they knew people were sitting at home and not going out, so they didn’t want to watch long videos. We were incentivised to just scroll, scroll and scroll.”

We were incentivised to just scroll, scroll and scroll

But the idea of his pupils doing the same thing weighed heavily on his mind. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis that was affecting so many of them, he felt queasy about the content that was flooding TikTok timelines: cartoonishly flashy trips to Dubai; private jet lounges; £615 Balenciaga silver lunchboxes. The endless veneration of stuff. He worried about his pupils seeing the same things. So he decided to wield his quick humour and offer an antidote. He positioned himself as the “povvo” who could offer a reality check; a little tap on the shoulder while people were scrolling, to say, “Hey, you know this is nuts, don’t you?”

Many people who grew up in financial difficulty will have muscle memory of the impact of the word “povvo” (myself included). His reappropriation of it struck a chord. Very quickly, his community began using it to describe themselves. His online moniker is now King of the #Povvogang. Today, it’s less of a gang than a movement, with his 1.9m followers on TikTok and 1.6m on Instagram.

I’m meeting Ali at a hotel in London’s Soho to talk about his new book, I’m Rich, You’re Poor: How to Give Social Media a Reality Check. It’s packaged as a deep dive into social media’s ridiculously rich and promises to help the reader love their own “extraordinarily ordinary” life. It’s clear he feels a little out of place in our lunchtime habitat. He travelled to London by train from Blackburn this morning and tells me he will be heading back after our interview. His publishers offered him a night in a hotel, but: “It isn’t for me,” he says. He surveys the room, full of people with heavy-framed glasses having intense conversations over their laptops. “Like, this is not me,” he says, smirking.

But here we are. Ali is fizzing with excitement about his book. To write tens of thousands of words must be tricky for someone used to creating 60-second video clips, I suggest. I’m wrong. “Nooooo,” he says, in his warm Blackburn lilt. “I worked with a co-writer, who helped me structure my ideas and say what I wanted to say. But once I started, it all just came out.” His favourite thing about university was the written assignments, he says. Pardon? “Yeah, I had the best time ever writing my dissertation. It was 20,000 words long. People never believe that, but it’s true.” I believe him. Ali needs little prompting to talk (and talk). But it’s not overbearing: he’s gentle, attentive and holds eye contact as strongly as he does his convictions.

Each chapter of I’m Rich, You’re Poor takes on a different concept (food, beauty, health and cleanliness) with clear socio-political underpinnings. For each, he juxtaposes the online fantasy world with his own sarcastic, surreal commentary, as well as real “hacks” that have been shared within his “pound-shop hive mind” community – such as turning an Aldi candle backwards to look like one from Jo Malone.

The book is defiantly left wing and very funny in places, with some crystalline nuggets of wisdom about our modern lives. “In reality, we are all ill from a loss of community, a loss of social safety nets and the general psychological erosion that comes from spending too much time online,” he writes in one passage. Overall, however, I couldn’t help feeling that an already-successful online formula had lost its way in the medium of the printed page. It’s very possible this says more about me – my biases – than anything else. Ali hopes that the book might get “the TikTok generation” reading more. If his humour can draw people in, the important political messages might be digested with more concentration than scrolling through short clips requires.

Ali is adamant that social media can still be a force for good. Particularly for connecting people who find it hard to connect offscreen. He was on Facebook from university onwards, but he also used social platforms, such as MSN and Bebo. “Good for a kid who had a difficult time growing up,” he says. “My parents are working class. My mum was a housewife, Dad was a taxi driver. He worked his back off for us. We had a nice lifestyle for a while, but then, at some point, they lost it all. We went through a real financial struggle. I missed out on a lot of things other kids had. I was bullied. Yeah…” He pauses. “It was definitely tough. But I started working at McDonald’s when I was 17. I absolutely loved it. I was proud as punch to have some of my own money.”

I started working at McDonald’s when I was 17. I absolutely loved it. I was proud as punch to have some of my own money

Ali remembers being obsessed with buying things from service stations. “My parents never got us anything when we drove places because it was just too expensive. So, when I had my own money, well… you can imagine,” he laughs. “I still stop at pretty much every service station to get myself something.” It feels “weirdly liberating” for him to now have thousands of people commenting under his videos about how they’re proud to be povvo. “I’ve had people shouting, ‘All right, povvo?’ at me in the supermarket and I’m, like, ‘Oh, hiya!’ It’s like a badge of honour now.”

About 60% of the world’s population is engaged with social media. Young people spend hours every day scrolling through 60-second videos. The content is designed to be quickly liked and shared, inspiring more videos to be made and fed into the never-ending algorithm. In the space of less than a decade, the phenomenon has galloped into our lives and wreaked havoc with our attention spans.

I’ve never been pulled into the TikTok world, the reaction video trend and the people who become internet famous for, well, reacting, slightlybypassed me. What I am keenly aware of, as a psychotherapist, is the disparity between most people’s realities and what they absorb through their phone screens – and the distress this can cause. In the therapy room, I hear how upsetting all those me-and-them comparisons can become. I hear about how the romanticising of a different life – informed by cosmetic portrayals showing a minuscule slice of someone’s reality – can contribute to a shrinking self-esteem. We can be aware that social media is a highlight reel of people’s material lives, or a sea of manufactured bids for praise, and still feel low when we finally put our phones down. As Ali writes, when consumerism and social media met, they created “a monster”.

The real-world impact of excessive social media use does worry him. At secondary school, he would escape the bullies by sitting on his own in a nearby woodland area to read glossy magazines. “I loved them. The glamour and beauty was so exciting to me, but I knew everything had been retouched and edited. I didn’t compare myself to anything, because I knew the images were manufactured. It was pure escapism,” he says. “But the way kids now are using social media is very different. I’m not sure how much they know what is manufactured and what isn’t.”

He talks about the tiny attention span of his pupils. “Since the lockdowns, I’ve found that I can only engage a classroom on one thing for 15 minutes max, before needing to change the activity. They can’t actually listen for longer than five minutes.” His own ability to focus has changed, too.

Since the lockdowns, I’ve found that I can only engage a classroom on one thing for 15 minutes max

“I watch everything at double speed, because I just don’t have the patience. Anything tense I’ll watch at two-and-a-half speed, so I can get through the emotional discomfort more quickly. When I was in the cinema recently, I kept doing the hand motion to skip the screen five seconds along like I do with Netflix.”

Imagining how many young bodies are now loaded with the physical impulse to speed up the passing of time makes me shudder slightly. It is a curious position to be in, I say, making a living from pointing out where social media has gone cuckoo, through social media itself. He laughs. “Yeah, it is. I totally get why people might think it’s ironic. But social media isn’t going away, is it? Not a chance. And I’m not trying to cure it,” he says. “I don’t feel a pressure to change anything. I just feel like it’s important to keep injecting some awareness and humour for ordinary people.”

He does feel a pressure to maintain the strong sense of community that people have found on his channel. “When I post a video about someone’s ridiculous Dubai lifestyle and loads of people in the comments are saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even pay my rent this month,’ and they find connection with one another, that feels important,” he says. “They don’t feel as alone. Bringing the ‘social’ back to social media is important to me. It makes people feel like they’re still involved with the world. There were times when I didn’t feel like that and having an online platform helped.”

Now, Ali has diversified his content. He posts fashion critiques (“My only qualification is that I have eyes”); makes behind-the-scenes content of film premieres he’s invited to; is asked to interview people like Dune 2’s director Denis Villeneuve. Talking about these things makes him palpably excited. “But I always want to bring the povvogang along with me. My perspective is always: ‘How ridiculous is this?’”

But has his own success changed his perspective? “The book, and my content, is a commentary on how people behave online and how it makes others feel. It’s not just about money; you could be posting about your weight loss, your beauty, your holidays, your parenting. Having money and being rich isn’t a problem, but it’s what you do with that wealth and how it impacts others that I want readers to consider. The opportunities I’ve had do not change who I am – my upbringing, my community, the fact I am a teacher. You can always stand up for the disadvantaged.”

Being rich isn’t a problem, but it’s what you do with that wealth that I want readers to consider.

There is something very genuine about him. He says he’s “not morally corruptible” and it’s hard not to believe it. “As a person of colour, we’re always told that success – whatever that looks like – could be taken away from us at any moment, so that is quite ingrained,” he says. “There’s always a voice in your head that says, ‘You could go right back into poverty,’ but I try not to let it come to the forefront.”

He doesn’t want to give up teaching yet (“It honestly brings me so much joy, teaching kids about science, getting them excited about learning, the banter”), but does have bigger, more overtly political ambitions for using his platform. “I’m working with Save the Children to campaign for kids of parents on universal credit being entitled to free school meals,” he says. “Right now they’re not. Which means so many go hungry.”

This subject pushes him into a higher gear. “When I first started making videos, it was because I was seeing a few kids not being able to have lunch. Then I’d go home and see celebrities on private jets, or people dancing around with £25,000 handbags and just feel ill,” he says. Ali would often pay for children’s lunches himself. “But I got told off for it,” he says. Told off? “Yeah, it can look like favouritism for particular kids, or shame the parents.” It must be extremely hard to not intervene, though. “It is. The problem has got worse and worse. It went from two or three kids to 100.”

Ali remembers one boy in particular. “He would come to my registration on Monday mornings looking so pale he was almost blue. I had campaigned to get a breakfast club in the school, which he started coming to. After he’d had breakfast, the colour would come back to his cheeks. We learned it was because the last proper meal he’d had was on Friday lunchtime in school.” We both take a sharp breath. “So yeah,” he says. “That’s what keeps me committed.”

I’m Rich, You’re Poor: How to Give Social Media a Reality Check by Shabaz Ali is published by DK at £14.99. Buy a copy for £13.19 at