It happened on prom night, as many monumental events often do.
He had thought about doing it for months at that point, but decided that prom would be the “special moment” he had been waiting for. That night, College senior Chaz Smith posted his first six–second video to Vine and didn't look back.
Until the next day, when he deleted it.
But Chaz kept trying out Vine, and a month and a half later when he uploaded the Vine “Watermelon inside Watermelon,” his social media career instantly took off. The Vine went viral and soon people started recognizing him on the street. Once during his sophomore year of college, Chaz recalls a freshman showing up at his dorm with a watermelon, asking Chaz to sign it for him.
For the most part, though, Chaz feels like a normal kid at Penn.
“I just go to school and go back to my room and make videos and there’s this whole other audience of people waiting for me to post them,” Chaz says. “But when I’m on campus, I feel like any other student.”
In contrast with the impression his over–the–top, exuberant videos might give off, Chaz prefers maintaining a low profile. Standing in line at Beefsteak, however, he seems to be doing the exact opposite.
“Chaz is getting something different today,” the Beefsteak manager shouts back to the kitchen.
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“They know me here,” Chaz says, almost apologizing for the attention he’s getting. “I don’t even have to say what I want anymore. They already know, like, “‘All right, Chaz wants the number three with extra potatoes.’”
Chaz is no stranger to the spotlight.
Growing up with a father who was in the NBA, Charles Smith, Chaz and his dad would constantly be recognized on the street. Strangers would approach them and tell his father that he was their favorite player and that they'd love to watch him play. Chaz’s father retired when Chaz was only three years old, but Chaz grew up feeling pressured to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I’d get pressure from other people like ‘Oh are you going to be tall like your dad? Are you going to play basketball like your dad?’ And I was always like, ‘I don’t know. I’m 11.’”
Though, at 6’3—he never did quite match his dad at 6’10—Chaz played basketball throughout high school.
“He didn’t want me to stop playing,” Chaz says. “Internally I didn’t want to [play basketball], but I didn’t realize that, so I got confused between wanting to please him and wanting to do what I wanted so I took that as, like, wanting to play basketball.”
Chaz knows his dad always wanted what was best for him. He just didn't realize it was possible to have a career online or in entertainment.
That changed one day when Chaz's father was walking down the street. People whispered and pointed at him, but not because they recognized him from his NBA career. They were saying, "Look, look, look! It’s Grandpa Watermelon!”
Everything Chaz has done has been to make people smile. In his silly videos, Chaz hopes to brighten people’s days. But he sometimes sees himself as portraying two different characters. Now predominantly on Youtube, his content ranges from more comical videos of him pronouncing things incorrectly to more serious videos on sexual assault.
Seventh grade was the year Chaz began to recognize that many of his peers faced challenges in their daily lives and the potential he had to make a difference.
“It was around that time that I decided that I want to make people smile,” Chaz says, “whether it’s through laughter or helping them with their problems. I see the different types of videos I make as doing both, separately and simultaneously.”
In his more recent videos, Chaz has been producing more content that has a greater message and he plans to continue to make videos on topics he really cares about. For Chaz, the topic of sexual violence is one that he feels is extremely important but also one that needs to be approached very carefully. As a Christian who does not drink, smoke or have sex, Chaz says this issue is a great “burden on my heart.”
At Penn, Chaz is able to practice his beliefs through a variety of groups on campus. He is involved in Men Against Rape & Sexual assault (MARS), Penn Anti–Violence Educators (PAVE) and Penn for Jesus.
Sophomore year, Chaz published a video for One Student—a nonprofit that aims to provide tools and resources to combat sexual assault on campus—and it received mixed feedback. Chaz says some people felt that he was attacking all men, which was certainly not his intention.
“I was trying to say that in our society, rape culture and all the different things that contribute to the desensitization of sexual assault—like the movies we watch, the language that we use, the music that we listen to—all these things make the experience and instances of sexual assault less important in the public eye.”
Chaz was hurt from the negative feedback, though he felt it was constructive. Whereas some might have felt annoyed or angered by being misunderstood, Chaz took a step back and reevaluated how he approached the video. “When you’re trying to speak to people and persuade them into believing something or share a lesson you’ve learned, you want to do it in a way that appeals to them while still keeping it true,” Chaz says.
Because of this, he sees the way people engage in racial or political discourse on social media to be completely unproductive. “I don’t know anybody that has ever been persuaded to agree with an opinion by being talked down upon,” he says. “And so yeah, looking back at the video, I can see that people might have felt that.”
But that hasn’t stopped Chaz. There are many serious topics about which Chaz cares very deeply, but he wasn’t exactly sure how to approach them after making the One Student video. This falls in line with his feeling that he wears two different hats for two different roles—one for the goofy side that prompted Chaz’s initial success online and one for the serious side that cares about issues of social justice.
His friend Kassandra Britt (C '17) has been helping Chaz realize he doesn’t have to pick one over the other in his videos—just as he doesn’t in real life. Chaz and Kassandra met on a Christian retreat freshman year and have remained close friends ever since.
One day last year, Kassandra remembers telling Chaz that she thought he needed to go deeper in what he was posting in his videos. Chaz was hesitant at first, Kassandra recalls, because he didn’t want to be put in a religious box. But Kassandra has helped him draft and ultimately publish material that strikes a balance between his goofy and serious sides and doesn’t force him to give up any part of himself—because that’s just who he is.
“And as we were having the conversation,” Kassandra laughs, “his eyes were going everywhere, he was just tapping his hands, and he’ll say random things.”
After Chaz graduates this year, finishing up his degree in Cinema and Media Studies in the College, he’s going to continue making films. But he wants his films to leave an impact on the audience.
To Chaz, there are two kinds of movies: movies like bubblegum and movies like tattoos. Bubblegum movies taste good, but like bubblegum, after you chew it, you spit it out and look for the next piece. Tattoo movies stay with you for the rest of your life. Those are the kinds of movies that Chaz wants to make.
But that certainly doesn’t mean he’s going to give up making silly movies.
Chaz has been reached out to on multiple occasions by fans. But one time in particular, Chaz remembers someone reached out to him saying that she had had suicidal thoughts but watching his videos really turned things around for her.
“I was like, ‘How?’ You know? Just being able to shine light in somebody’s life,” Chaz says, “if I’m able to do that, then yeah, I’m going to continue doing it.”
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