On a recent morning, the social media star Drew Afualo stepped into Tompkins Square Bagels, a deli in the East Village of Manhattan. After glancing at the descriptions of the elaborate breakfast sandwiches on the chalkboard menu, she ordered something simple: an everything bagel, toasted, with butter.
“I’m such a plain girl,” she said.
Ms. Afualo, who has more than seven million followers on TikTok thanks to her no-holds-barred video commentary on gender politics, walked toward Tompkins Square and sat on a mossy bench, the bagel in a white paper bag on her lap.
“I didn’t think it was going to turn into this,” she said. “I just never saw it coming. But it makes me so emotional sometimes, seeing how much women are moved by the things that I’ve done.”
A typical short posted by Ms. Afualo on TikTok gets more than three million views, with some of her clips attracting over 16 million. It means that, at 26, she has a bigger audience than many far more established late night or daytime television hosts. Being on TikTok and other platforms is her full-time job; she earns money by posting ads on her profile and through collaborations with brands. During the stroll through the East Village, Ms. Afualo’s manager, Philip Battiato, of the agency Whalar, shadowed her.
In much of her work, Ms. Afualo presents a clip of a young male TikToker who has offered an opinion on women that would have seemed out of date even a century ago; and then she goes into a funny, often profane takedown.
The roasts have also attracted a significant number of detractors, most of them men, some of whom attack her in TikTok videos of their own. In a recent clip, she addressed them directly: “My content is not for you. It’s at your expense. My job is not to educate you. It’s to humiliate you.” She punctuated her remarks with a gleeful cackle, signaling a win for Team Afualo.
When her followers come across a video that strikes them as misogynistic, they often bring it to her attention by tagging her, as if sending out a bat signal to someone they have come to see as an online protector.
“I’ve had countless interactions with women in real life, telling me, ‘You know, I left my abusive boyfriend because I’ve been watching your videos,’ or, ‘I don’t think I’d be alive if it weren’t for your stuff,’” Ms. Afualo said.
Some of the videos aimed at her male detractors include one of her catchphrases: “Your dream girl follows me.” During her interview with The New York Times in the East Village, five women told her how much they loved her work. One woman called out a simple “Thank you!” from down the block.
Ms. Afualo was wearing a long leather coat draped over a brown dress and tights. Her long fingernails were painted the color of mint. The back of her left hand was partly decorated with a malu, a tattoo traditionally reserved for Samoan women of royal blood, a nod to her heritage.
After noting that many Polynesian cultures are matriarchal, Ms. Afualo said that her background has influenced her approach to life. “I’ve seen how my dad has treated my mom, and I’ve seen how the men in my family have treated women,” she said. “So, for me, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Ms. Afualo also described growing up in Southern California as a middle child. She said she is now a toned-down version of the headstrong person she was as a child, a version of herself she referred to as “Baby Drew.”
“My mom tells me that all the time,” she said. “I’ve always been so strong-willed. I’m a Virgo, so I was bossy. As a child, I was a know-it-all.”
In person, Ms. Afualo seemed a stark contrast from her energetic, sharp-tongued online persona. “I’m a lot more laid back than people think I am,” she said. “I’m only like that because that’s what I do — react to that terrible content.”
At Boris and Horton, a cafe for people and their dogs, a corgi started yapping after having lost a tussle with friends. A Labrador named Callie approached, and Ms. Afualo gave the dog a scratch.
“Right now, my mom has a little maltipoo, a little crusty white dog,” she said. “I love her. I’m obsessed with her. And then we have a pit bull.”
A man wearing a backward baseball cap suddenly loomed over the table.
“So, I’m going to jump in,” he announced. Then he asked Ms. Afualo to state her view of the Supreme Court’s potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. “It’s terrible,” she replied. “It’s horrifying.” Even offline, it seemed, she couldn’t avoid being called on to give her opinion on an issue pertaining to women.
Back outside, she talked about online vitriol, an all too common hazard for women in her line of work, especially women of color. “It’s a different level of hate that I get,” she said. “I’m not afforded the same courtesy that they give many men, and other women, too. If I was a small, white woman, would you feel this strongly about what I said? Would you laugh and be like, ‘Tough, but fair’?”
At Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé Ms. Afualo got a berry tart. Nearby, on a stoop on East 10th Street, she mentioned that she believes in daily affirmations, which have apparently helped her keep her cool amid the barrage of online criticism. “Sometimes I say them to myself in the mirror, which feels silly,” she said, “but I feel like it’s important.”
And what are the affirmations?
“I say that I’m worthy,” she said. “That I’m valid. That I’m a good person. That I’m going to be successful because I’m a good person. And that I’m worthy of all the success that I’m having.”