For more than a year, Zaida Pugh, known as “msmuffinpranks” on social media, has been fooling New Yorkers — including journalists and viewers all over the social web — with her prank YouTube videos that have featured her posing as a pregnant woman in labor near a Brooklyn beach, a ratchet costumer twerking inside of a McDonalds, a weird person urinating inside of a subway train car, and so many more wily characters who people swore were real.
Many of her videos have been picked up by popular news sites only to later learn that they were tricked by Pugh’s well-choreographed stunts. The Daily Dot, for example, ran an article on Pugh’s video in which she poses as a woman on the train screaming at her boyfriend after discovering he infected her with AIDS. The site ended up running a correction after learning the video was fake. Pugh caught a lot of flack over it, but she saw it as a success: the video was shared 25,000 times on her Facebook page because she believes it got people thinking about their behavior.
“I had a cousin who actually died from [AIDS], and it saddened me to hear stories like that,” she told NewsOne as we sat inside the busy Barnes and Noble on Union Square in downtown Manhattan last week. “And also, I see on commercials where they advertise about safe sex. People watch it but they don’t pay it no mind and they go back to doing the same thing without protecting themselves. So I came up with the idea as a wake-up call to really wake people up and scare them.”
Then there was the one of the Mother in a grocery store on 125 street, in Harlem, fighting with her unruly son after he pulls off her wig. That, too, was assumed to be real but was fake. Some of the comments on the threads of Pugh’s YouTube videos praise her acting, but many express disdain over her work. A commenter on one of her videos suggested that she was making Black people look like “wild animals” — something that does not jibe well with the young, aspiring actress.
“One thing that bothers me is when people say that I make Black people look bad,”she said. “I feel that we’re all equal. We’re not separated. I feel like if I do something, then it shouldn’t be looked upon as I’m making all Black people look bad.”
Without having a conversation with Pugh, 18, it is easy to assume that she’s just another Internet superstar wanna-be trying to get play on the next hot reality television series. But after spending a few days with her and talking to some of her friends, one realizes that she is a young woman whose motivations are as much about seeking personal healing as they are about providing entertainment.
Acting Is Her Therapy
Wearing a red hair wig, four-inch heel boots, tight-fitting jeans, and a gray tweed coat, Pugh weaved through the thick crowds of passers-by, street entertainers, and commuters in Union Square and made her way to the interview on a chilly Tuesday evening.
“You are not 18-years-old,” I said.
“Yes I am,” she replied shyly. I was still skeptical until she showed me her New York State ID that clearly shows she was born April 14, 1995.
“I have an old soul,” Pugh said. For an 18-year-old, she certainly does. At 16, she says she married a man who physically and verbally abused her. The two are no
longer together, and she is seeking a divorce. Like many women who are victims of domestic violence, Pugh has not sought help to deal with the trauma she experienced and is skeptical of traditional therapy.
“Honestly, I never believed in the whole counseling thing,” she said. “I never felt like my business would be kept just between me and the counselor. I never liked the whole thing where stuff is written down in the computer about the person you’re talking to. And I feel like it’s not really real because they’re getting paid to talk to me about my problems. I feel like if I’m going to let it out to someone, it will be one-on-one and it will be really real, like my friend or somebody who will hear me out and that’s it. I mainly just talk it out to God because I never wanted to tell people the things I’ve been through.”
But another way she dealt with the abuse was by going on the 4-train with several friends and a camera phone to act out some the pain she still feels from that abusive relationship.
In the video, Pugh plays a pregnant woman being verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend on a packed 4-train. Looking as if she was ready to give birth any day, she stood tensely against the doors of the packed train car as a man playing her boyfriend stood over her yelling obscenities. What began as a verbal conflict soon became violent as the woman slapped him and the man ended up choking her in response. Several passengers intervened and the altercation broke out into a small melee when one of the men who intervened got into a fight with the boyfriend before the 12-minute video faded to the credits.
Watch video of Pugh posing as pregnant woman being abused by her boyfriend here:
For all of the actors, however, the scene played out in reality during some point in their lives. Pugh, who has a 2-year-old son, Mathias, says she was never physically attacked while she was pregnant but claims her husband was very violent toward her during the rest of their relationship. The final straw, Pugh says, was when her husband, who is not the Father of her son, hit Mathias when he tried to stop him from attacking her.
“‘I have to leave,’” she told herself after the incident. “For that to affect my son, that’s when I really woke up. When I saw my son getting involved with it.”
(Pugh says the biological Father has never supported her or his son.)
Ezikel Baker, 27, who played the boyfriend and is Pugh’s friend, told me that he was very reluctant to play the abuser because he could not see himself putting his hands on a woman. He believes, though, that he helped to produce a very strong message about domestic violence that people needed to see online and experience in real time.
“It’s actually a waking-up experience because [domestic violence] doesn’t only happen in New York and in the United States,” Baker said. “It happens all over the world.”
And the tall man in the black hoodie who got in to the tussle with Baker is Tyrell Elton Johns Hamilton, Pugh’s boyfriend. He initially did not want to participate in the video either because the scene hit too close to home. “My father hit my mom a couple of times,” he said. “I didn’t like the topic. I didn’t feel comfortable. I only did it to make her happy. As we were doing it, [I felt] more anger than nervousness, because since the two of us are together, the thought of him putting his hands on her… .”
So far, that video has been shared more than 51,000 times on Pugh’s Facebook page and viewed tens of thousands of times on various YouTube channels. Though the video has been accepted as a fake since it went live March 8th, many people on social media still think it’s real.
When Being ‘In Character’ Becomes Too Real
When I met up with Pugh and Hamilton inside of the Toys “R” Us on Times Square Sunday evening, they were with her son, who was sitting inside his stroller. The couple stay together with his parents and siblings in the Bronx. Pugh dropped out of high school at 16, when she had her baby. She then enrolled in a GED class, but dropped out. Pugh says she will return eventually and finish the program. A year after having her baby, she started producing the videos.
“I wasn’t doing anything with myself,” she said. “My mother told me I wasn’t doing anything with myself and that I didn’t know where I was going. Growing up, I was always interested in videos and comedy and being silly, but I never really expressed that.”
Pugh says she and her mother are having challenges in their relationship but hopes the two can patch things up. I reached out to the Mother with a number Pugh gave me but was unable to reach her. Attempts to reach her father for comment were also unsuccessful.
Hamilton, 18, has one more year of high school left. Neither he nor Pugh works a job that produces any income. Pugh says she used to get money from her father in the form of occasional child support, but that has dried up. And while her videos have done very well on social media and YouTube, Pugh has yet to make a dime from any of them. She says plenty of “agents” have approached her promising big paydays, but she declined all of their offers when the deals seemed too good to be true. Pugh has no representation at the moment, but her hustle and skills are comparable to any CEO of an up-and-coming start-up company: Pugh manages herself and all of her productions, everything from social media to casting to writing to location set-up and to post-production is all done by her. Though
she has no social media strategy other than being herself, Pugh’s Facebook page has more than 22,000 followers, and her Twitter handle has some 700 followers as well. Self-taught, she edits her own videos using Final Cut.
Pugh’s cameramen are part of her volunteer crew who capture her scenes with their cellphones, a move done purposely to ensure that her videos look as real as possible.
All of these people — friends, friends of friends, and New York-based fans — form her dedicated group of supporters who hope their girl makes it big some day and won’t forget about them.
“I’ve always told myself whoever stays and sticks with me through it all, I would be able to repay them back,” Pugh said. “I’m not the type of person to just forget about everybody when I get big.”
The first video that really took off for Pugh was the one in which she pretended to urinate on a subway car in December of 2012. In the YouTube description of that video, she jokes, “Crazy me fake pees on the train and takes a shower…little do they know I have a small ziplock bag with water in it in my shorts holding [sic], I squeeze the bag so the water comes down.”
As a young teen, Pugh said she had issues holding her bladder until she eventually learned to do so years later. She did not explain exactly why she found it interesting enough to make a parody video out of it other than believing it would be a good idea.
Oddly enough, it was.
While it has only generated just under 7,700 views on her YouTube channel, it would go on to rack up 2.8 million views on World Star Hip Hop (WSHH). She says the exposure got her a lot of Facebook followers, but few of those viral hits traveled to her YouTube channel. She claims that the curators at WSHH edited out the credits that detailed her contact information that she hoped would refer viewers to her YouTube channel. Pugh says she contacted someone at the company who agreed to keep her credits in future videos they wanted to republish.
NewsOne reached out to WSHH for comment but did not get an immediate response.
Hamilton is a tall, lanky young man with brown skin, a patchy beard, mini-Afro, and stands around 6’2.” According to Hamilton, he and Pugh met back in November. While Pugh saw him as a romantic partner, she also spotted a perfect addition to her team of non-paid performers. One of the first videos he participated in almost got Pugh in trouble with the NYPD. Stereotypically dressed in Middle Eastern attire, Pugh entered a subway train pretending to be a terrorist.
Hamilton played a frightened passenger jumping from car to car warning other commuters of the scary woman with a suitcase purportedly filled with explosives. Passengers dashed to the next car away from Pugh as she stalked them from behind before they hastily exited the car at the next stop.
Watch Pugh play a terrorist on a New York City train here:
The next day, Pugh says two officers from the NYPD’s intelligence unit visited her home in Brooklyn, where she was staying with her mother at the time. She was very lucky; the cops let her off with a warning, but Hamilton says he was sweating bullets.
“I was scared,” he said. “I was really scared. This was my first video, and I was just meeting her so I was scared as hell. I didn’t know if I could trust her again or if I could do another video with her. I thought I was going to get in trouble and never see my family again.”
That wasn’t the only time Hamilton believed he was going to jail. In November, the two staged a scene at a supermarket in Harlem, where a boy posing as her son began eating grapes from a fruit counter. One of her friends played a customer capturing the boy’s behavior with his camera phone. When the customer told the gold-wig-wearing Mother — played by Pugh — about her son’s behavior, she walked over to the boy and began berating him. The boy started screaming at his mother, pulled off her wig, and eventually started attacking her with it.
A portion of an aisle was trashed as the two wrestled around the store until another customer — who was played by Hamilton — carried her out kicking and screaming.
“Y’all took that too far,” she told Hamilton as they recalled that day — and the mess they left behind.
(Pugh didn’t acknowledge that most of the mess in the store was a result of her kicking, cussing, and screaming.)
Watch video of Pugh playing a terrible parent at a grocery story here:
Some of her videos may teeter between the line of being extraordinarily real and downright irresponsible, but they do reveal an unbridled drive — not to mention, huge balls — to produce the highest-quality product possible, and to achieve her dream of being a full-time actress, Pugh believes this is necessary.
And that she has not been arrested for her work is something she only credits to her faith.
“I pray to God every time before I do my videos,” she said. “God is always protecting me. It’s the only way I’m able to get through. A lot of people always say, ‘She could get in trouble.’ ‘She could get arrested.’ Yeah, but I prayed before I did every video and God always made my way out safe.”
God’s Calling to the Big Screen
For a young woman who has achieved so much online success, the realities of surviving in New York City with few resources have put a serious strain on her life. Her turbulent life has forced her to move around the city multiple times, and whatever money Pugh is able to get from her church family goes to her young son.
“I really don’t eat much,” she explained.
And because she never has much money to spare, her metro card is usually pennies away from a zero balance at times; therefore, Pugh essentially lives swipe to swipe, justifying each reason she has to take public transportation. The swipes she does prioritize take her to World For Christ Ministries in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Pugh makes the hour-and-a-half-long trip from Soundview, in the Bronx, four times a week: Wednesday for fasting and prayer service, Thursday for choir rehearsal, Saturday to volunteer at the food pantry and choir rehearsal again, and then Sunday for church service. Some of the people with whom she worships are her biggest fans.
Her pastor, Morgan Stephen, said that for her to manage the work she is producing at such a young age, Pugh is showing maturity beyond her years.
“What I like about Zaida is her perseverance, that’s number one,” he told NewsOne. “Number two, she’s only 18, but she acts like she is 35. She has has men working with her who are 40 years old, and they all listen to her. She makes up her own stories. It takes talent to do that. For an 18 year old, I see a lot of potential talent in this girl and she is not afraid to launch out.”
Some members, however, initially expressed concern over her work until she told them each production had a meaningful message and that she was “winning souls.” In fact, some of her New York fans ended up joining her church and other places of worship in the city.
Watch Pugh sing in her church choir here:
One of those fans is 19-year-old Kwan Miller of Brooklyn, N.Y. He met Pugh during one of her “scouting events,” where she says she likes to persuade people to attend church service — be it hers or someplace else. Miller told Pugh that he liked to dance but was too shy to pursue it much, but she pumped up his confidence to the point where he now helps with some of her videos. Miller also credits Pugh for strengthening his faith in God. “I was always a shy person,” he said. “I felt like I could never do nothing and be nothing but going to church and hearing the Word just took a lot of stress off my shoulders.”
Besides her videos, Pugh says church and her relationship with God help keep her focused on her dream of maturing into a professional actress. She would love to work with Tyler Perry someday. The director’s use of faith and humor in his films is something she tries to execute in her own work. Not to mention, Perry’s started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here trajectory also keeps her from not giving up on her own dreams of stardom.
“If it’s really what you want, no matter what comes in the way, you’re going to have to fight and make it through and just believe,” she said. “I’m the type of person who just imagines. I sit and I look around and say, for instance, I’m going to work with Tyler Perry someday, or I’m going to be in a movie one day, and I act on it.”