On to the Next Stage
Former YouTuber, now actress and host Ms Munah Bagharib (Arts and Social Sciences ‘10) on unapologetically owning her “social media influencer” status and what keeps her hustling.
Much has happened for one-half of comedic duo Ms Munah Bagharib since the MunahHirziOfficial YouTube channel closed more than a year ago. Launched in 2007 — when they were both polytechnic course-mates — the channel racked up some 32 million views and boasted more than 142,000 subscribers. The series of funny parodies concluded with fanfare in January last year at the Capitol Theatre, where the tight friends treated their fans to a live performance aptly titled Munah & Hirzi Live: Curtain Call.
Since then, Ms Bagharib — who majored in Communications and New Media and minored in Theatre Studies at NUS — has kept busy. She has been cast in several theatre productions, impressing one of Singapore’s established arts companies Teater Ekamatra enough to invite her on-board as one of its five resident associate artists. Ms Bagharib is also a familiar face on Mediacorp’s Malay-language channel Suria, and the vivacious 31-year-old recently hosted CNA’s travel show This Weekend, where she went on a race car adventure in Perth, Australia.
Like many up-and-coming stars of her generation, Ms Bagharib connects with her fans and keeps them updated on her shenanigans on Instagram, where she has more than 76,000 followers — enough in the Internet world to earn her the title of “influencer”. Naturally, brands from various industries — from beauty and wellness to food & beverage — have approached her for tie-ups and sponsored posts. These are opportunities that Ms Bagharib happily takes up as long as they give her creative freedom.
If the weight of her fast-moving career is tiring her out, Ms Bagharib does not show it. Coming straight from her full-day theatre rehearsal, the third of four siblings bounces into this interview with aplomb and many hearty laughs.
How has going solo been like?
It’s been interesting! I’ve been up to a lot; a lot of involvement in theatre especially, which is something I’ve been wanting to pursue properly. There’s something about being part of a theatre production — this “live” element that makes each show different — that gives me a surge of fulfilment like no other. There’s also the strong bond forged with the cast and crew during each production that makes me so sad every time a show wraps.
I’m also learning to be a theatre producer because as much as I love performing, I want to get a more holistic experience of the process. I’m currently being mentored by Ekamatra’s Company Director Shaza Isyak, who I really look up to. I’ve co-produced three shows with her so far, the first being Tiger of Malaya — a play by Alfian Sa’at. It was crazy! So much work and effort was involved, and there was no stopping the pace. But I’m passionate enough to want to do better in it. I’ve also been rehearsing a dramatised reading titled A Piece of Cake, in which I am starring alongside Karen Tan. At the same time, I’m working on TV dramas that I am not allowed to talk about just yet. So yes, I’ve been busy and I often need a reminder to rest and pace myself!
Sounds like you have no time to miss the MunahHirziOfficial YouTube channel!
I do miss it! Hirzi and I have a great working chemistry, so it was strange at first to not have my friend by my side at work. But I think ‘the end’ was necessary as we both needed to be able to pursue our individual passions.
Having been a YouTube content creator for a decade, do you think the app has evolved over time?
Definitely. When we first started on YouTube, it was just a tool for us to share videos with friends. As more videos got uploaded, it became another source of entertainment; another channel to watch stuff on. I remember we thought it was so bizarre when strangers started watching our content and encouraging us to post more videos. Over time, as we amassed more subscribers and views, brands and organisations started seeing it as a platform to advertise and promote through video content. And now, more and more people have jumped on YouTube as a viable business opportunity.
Don’t do it for the ‘likes’, the popularity and the free stuff. Find your purpose, because only then will you be willing to put in the time and work — and it is a lot of work!
Would you call yourself a social media influencer? Any tips on how to be an online star?
I know many people cringe at the word, but hey, I say, own it! My advice: Don’t do it for the ‘likes’, the popularity and the free stuff. Find your purpose, because only then will you be willing to put in the time and work — and it is a lot of work! With the YouTube channel, at first of course we had no purpose. A netizen commented that our content was slapstick and lacking in substance. And we took that feedback as a challenge. We started to use comedy to talk about issues that were relevant to the society or the community. For examples, we covered MRT breakdowns, the General Election, and advocated for the rights of foreign workers, which we felt very strongly for. Suddenly, there was meaning to what we were creating. We decided then that that was the direction we wanted our channel to take. I think the shift made us more visible, relevant and appealing, as we were creating content that mattered to people, but with humour. Another important advice: Be resilient, thick-skinned, humble and open to criticism and haters.
As a newcomer in the theatre scene, what do you make of the industry?
It is very nurturing — a safe space that enables me to learn. It’s a potentially scary prospect for a new person coming into a roomful of theatre veterans. But everyone has been so patient and generous. They are very giving and willing to teach, so the industry is great for new blood to get into and pick up the ropes.
Do you recall what it was like being a student at NUS?
The bidding process to get our preferred modules was very challenging! My fondest memory was joining Radio Pulze — the University’s internet radio station — as a core-curricular activity. It was so enjoyable because I like talking and presenting. I also met some of my best friends, whom I am still in touch with, there. When I first got into NUS, I told myself I was not going to make any friends; that I was there only for the paper. But my experience at Radio Pulze threw a spanner in the plan! It was also through Radio Pulze that I got into hosting as they had a hosting wing, which I auditioned for. I had a good time!
Has your time at NUS helped you in your career today?
Yes. I went into NUS laser-focused on pursuing journalism, but after taking some Theatre Studies modules, which were mostly taught by industry practitioners, I fell in love with theatre. It suddenly became something I wanted to pursue instead. The teachers also opened the doors for me into professional theatre. The Artistic Director of Cake Theatrical Productions, Natalie Hennedige, who was teaching a module I took, asked me to audition for a role in a production she was directing for the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival. So I did, and got the part! It was an experimental physical theatre piece called Dream Country, and nothing I was familiar with, so it was very exciting to be thrown into that. Lecturer and playwright Dr Robin Loon was the one who hooked me up with Teater Ekamatra. And although I had to turn down the first opportunity that came because it clashed with the examination period, they called me up again for another production down the road. So in a way — and I’m just realising this as I say it out loud — NUS had much to do with where I am now!
DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS
Teater Ekamatra prides itself in spotlighting artists of diverse ethnicities and staging works that address current socio-political issues. Their latest production, Mat Champion
, out in July and starring Ms Bagharib, centres on the overarching theme of putting aside differences to preserve a collective identity. For more information, go to ekamatra.org.sg
Text by Fairoza Mansor. Photo by Hong Chee Yan