Online, it's far harder to keep a secret than it is to quell any sort of internet rumor, let alone as a bonafide Twitter celebrity. Amidst all the stan infighting and receipt accruement, keeping your real life completely separate from the online personality you've crafted is a near-impossible task, and it's also something that Isaiah Hickland knows better than most.
At 23 years old, the man behind the well-loved @EmoBlackThot handle has already lived more lives via the microblogging platform than most. Unlike many of his peers though, Hickland's always managed to keep his real identity a complete secret, almost like a real life Gossip Girl. And while his enigmatic presence has contributed to his mystique and sparked an innumerable amount of rumors — including speculation that he's Rihanna or Normani — after four years of complete anonymity, Hickland's tired of hiding. More importantly though, he's tired of being afraid.
Speaking over the phone, I can hear the anxiety in Hickland's voice — an emotional intensity he says his corgi, who's supportively plopped underneath his chair, can feel.
"This is a big step for me," Hickland says with a slight quaver. "I'm so nervous, probably because this will be the first and last time I'll ever be this honest and open about myself to anybody."
After all, Hickland's online presence — one built upon positivity and self-care — has inspired intense loyalty from celebrities and stans alike. From the pay-it-forward #CashAppFriday posts to his popular "creatives, respond to this with examples of your work to be boosted" threads focused on amplifying people with under 10,000 followers, he's continually leveraged his huge platform for the greater good. On the creative side, a musical tastemaker, Hickland says he also helped popularize artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Rico Nasty, and Normani while she was still in Fifth Harmony among his ardent fanbase, all while working with BTS Army on streaming parties and collaborations when Love Yourself: Tear came out last year.
That said, much like anyone else with a high-level of online visibility, Hickland's also had to deal with his fair share of negativity. From all the stories and anecdotes he tells, it's evident that things haven't been easy for him, especially as someone seemingly so sensitive, so emotional, so self-aware. Because while he may be Twitter's go-to for everything from hydration reminders to the newest in rising creative talent, the one thing he's never been able to feel internally reconciled with is the feeling that his brand of "authenticity" is consistently undermined by the secrets he has.
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"I was just trying to be the kind of person I didn't have for myself, just virtually [for others]," he says, briefly mentioning his desire to continue bolstering his fans, whether it be through continued conversation surrounding the stigma about mental health within the Black community, bringing attention to under-the-radar social injustice issues, or what it's like to live as a bisexual Black male. Which is why — in what feels like another gesture toward his commitment to full transparency from this point forward — Hickland also wants to publicly come out as bisexual, something he says only a few close personal friends of his know.
"I'm already very untrustworthy of people — they make me anxious — so the idea of people knowing who I am," he trails off, taking a second to breathe, "Everything about me, just makes me sick to my stomach. After this article, people are going to look me up —they'll delve through my personal accounts, look through all my old pictures, all of that. They'll create their own narratives. That type of shit makes me anxious." For a moment, he pauses again to reflect upon what he's said before putting the onus upon himself. "But it's also my fault. I could've [handled this whole thing] better. I had good intentions, but I still hid behind an anonymous identity and hid who I was — I feel like I fucked up majorly."
When asked what exactly he means by that, Hickland explains that his biggest mistake was not being more transparent with his followers from the get-go.
"I lied to people. I could've been honest," he sighs, a hint of frustration evident in his voice. "But the account got so big at some point, it almost turned into a nightmare." Explaining that, at times, it seemed hard to feel completely in control, Hickland returns to the idea that @EmoBlackThot hinges upon an open, accessible brand of communication and support.
"People were relying on me for self-care and advice, and they'd DM me whenever they were going through it. Paragraphs of people in need of advice, financial help, someone to talk to. I couldn't just disappear," he says. "At the same time, I fucking hated it. I wanted to disappear."
While we talk briefly about the idea that not even an anonymous online personality owes anything to their fans, especially when it begins to take a toll on their own mental health, it's obvious that Hickland sees his upwards of 177,000 followers as more than just numbers on the screen. For him, it's proven even more difficult to feel like he isn't at least a little bit responsible to the fans checking in on him or like he's ignoring those who genuinely need his help — even if it's nothing more than just tweeting out a small affirmation or a daily reminder to do your skincare.
"I actually struggle with self-care a lot. I take on so much from others that I forget about myself," he agrees. "But that's the thing. There are days that I'll take off for myself and not tweet, but then people are like, 'What happened, are you ok?'"
That said, Hickland never set out with the intention to become extremely visible online. For him, the 2015 creation of his first burner account, @MadBlackThot, stemmed from necessity. Created during a series of "really fucking bad years," Hickland started tweeting under the now-infamous moniker as a way of "venting" his frustration while attending Texas State.
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A predominantly white institution, Hickland says there was a huge, racially charged political division on campus, which was perpetuated by things like a string of white supremacist guest speakers and an openly racist student body president. However, as the face of Texas State's Greek community and student judicial board, he "couldn't take stances on political stuff" or "be myself, because I had to be worried about public image at all times as a representative of the school and my organizations."
Combined with his previous experiences and intense aversion to negative attention, Hickland opted to continue keeping his identity a secret amidst the account's increasing popularity, including his close Twitter friends, Jovan Hill and Lil Nas X. In fact, he says he didn't start telling people who he really was until this past spring and, even then, he preferred to communicate through more detached mediums like email.
"I'd rather just help people and not have my face or name behind it, because then it just comes off as being an opportunist. That's the opposite of what I want. I wasn't doing it to gain anything for myself," Hickland says, explaining that if he had the option, he'd much rather keep anonymously "boosting people and creatives." After all, "if I wanted something from it, I would've revealed who I was in 2016."
However, spurred by extenuating circumstances, which includes an extended period of unemployment and a desire to help his family and friends financially, Hickland has finally decided to take off the mask. Because while he does have the odd Postmates job here and there, he's found that it still doesn't pay the bills, let alone allow him to afford the oft-overlooked necessities of job hunting, which include things like dressy clothes and transportation costs.
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Hickland also feels as if "being honest with myself" is "the last step in healing from everything that's happened."
"I fucked up and I lied, and I'm extremely sorry for it, but I want to take accountability for it and, hopefully, people will forgive me for that," he stops again for a moment. "But, if not, I get it. All the good, all the creatives I've helped, the GoFundMes I've boosted, to me, it means nothing [to me] because I lied. All that good is outweighed by the fact I'm hiding behind a facade."
Given his past, it's understandable why Hickland is only now beginning to feel more empowered within his brand. As many a burgeoning online creative has experienced, visibility can be a double-edged sword — one that couples the joy of community and interacting with others with things like intense negativity, the threat of having your life ruined by doxxers, or the constant paranoia of potentially being haunted by an absentminded post. And as Hickland says, he doesn't have to look any further than the suspension of his first account, @MadBlackThot, as proof.
In 2017, Hickland was in the throes of his Normani standom and, like many other fans, began tweeting out videos and photos of her. After tweeting some admittedly "stupid shit," another stanbase began antagonizing Hickland. From doxxing attempts to seeding a rumor that he was white, the constant DMs, incessant negativity, and questioning from all sides eventually caused Hickland to break. He dealt with the situation by addressing speculation surrounding his true identity. The only problem for him, in retrospect, was that he used a fake name: "Nicole."
Given the furor even this small of a revelation caused (people began speculating that "Nicole" was a white woman who worked at a law firm in Dallas*), Hickland says he felt trapped and took a brief hiatus from Twitter in the aftermath.
"I had an anxiety attack, for sure," Hickland recalls. "But [then I rationalized], if you had any idea who I was, you would've said it by now." Despite all this, by the time he returned, the same stans had ended up getting his account suspended by allegedly posing as a paparazzi agency and claiming copyright violations.
This wasn't the only large-scale online aggression Hickland had to deal with that year. In his real life, he also found himself at the center of a campus-wide scandal involving a racist fraternity brother and an anonymous Twitter account that circulated a disturbing image of Hickland's face superimposed onto someone being lynched.
A fraternity brother himself, Hickland — whose legal first name is David — was involved in Texas State's student judicial board, the Greek life programming board, and the Interfraternity Council's Executive Board. But in fall 2016, a young woman ended up dying at a Halloween party thrown by four on-campus fraternities, and their chapters were promptly kicked off campus.
Both the president and vice president of the Interfraternity Council at the time were members of the fraternities-in-question, Hickland was forced to take on the role of president and was the first to hear about the disciplinary actions being taken. So, after receiving an email confirming the decision, Hickland posted a screenshot of the message to his fraternity's private Facebook page as an FYI of sorts.
"It wasn't me trying to be an asshole or, like, pointing and laughing, because I didn't care," he says, explaining that a new brother screenshotted his post — leaving Hickland's name visible — before leaking it to a sorority sister, who ended up sending it to members of the fraternities being kicked off campus. Yet, despite only acting as the bearer of bad news, Hickland was personally targeted by anonymous troll accounts, dogged by threats, and sent a particularly vile message filled with racist and homophobic slurs from a fellow fraternity brother and student government member.
"That whole night, my phone was blowing up, because someone gave my phone number out," Hickland recalls, mentioning that they also got his original Instagram — alongside all the photos he had of his late grandmother — deleted. "I had to do a police deposition about it, because they didn't know who was behind the account. And then that dude messaged me, and I had to go to the police to talk about that too."
And that would've been one thing if he wasn't a public figure on-campus, "but I basically had to do this all as president, so I couldn't step down or even say anything about it."
"They were just like, 'Take it in silence and deal with it,'" he recalls. "The president of the university never even met with me about it — she made the one Black person on her staff meet with me about it. I don't think she even sent out an email. She had a chance to stand up for students of color in a time where it was most important, and she didn't. She didn't say a fucking thing. That's not something I'll ever forget."
This led to what Hickland refers to as one of the "darkest times" in his life — a moment when he didn't want to leave the house, drank heavily, and turned to drugs for solace.
"I was so sad and didn't wanna do shit, but I had to. I was the face of Greek life [on-campus], so I had to take the shit thrown my way in silence and keep smiling. The only way I dealt with stuff was through these destructive habits," he says."Like, it was nice to have people of color from my school defending me and holding that dude accountable, but I still felt sad about it all. I was like, 'Why are you angry with me? I'm just doing my fucking job.'"
And while the student who circulated those disturbing messages ended up being removed from his student government position and losing his internship, Hickland obviously still can't help but feel upset at the way this entire incident has affected his general outlook on things.
"I guess justice was served... for him but, for me, it wasn't. I'm still getting over it. I'm still healing. I guess that's why I'm so sensitive to the hate and stuff," he reflects. "Sometimes I'll tweet and just log off and read [the replies] later, because I can't deal with it. You never know with the internet."
In the wake of all this, Hickland began to rebuild via the @EmoBlackThot account — though it was no easy feat, especially as someone still reeling from two separate experiences that not only threatened his online persona, but his physical safety. Yet, Hickland still felt a need to support his followers and connect with the online community that had been with him from the beginning.
At this point, we begin talking about his deeper impact upon the Twitter landscape — namely, how his brand of self-care and positivity has continued to shine through all the personal darkness. After mentioning the warmth he felt from a massive, unexpectedly positive response to his tweet about how "the existence of this account has affected you... positively or negativity," Hickland launches into a few particularly poignant anecdotes, including a recent tweet from someone expressing their gratitude for the account.
"Someone said, 'I'll never forget when @EmoBlackThot talked me through an anxiety attack, and I can't believe they still follow my irrelevant ass. Hope you're having a good day and you're well moisturized,'" Hickland recalls, the tonal shift in his voice likely bolstered by what sounds like a small, hopeful smile on the other end of the line. "That's all I've ever wanted to do... help people."
Thankfully, @EmoBlackThot has experienced relatively smooth sailing since its inception, which has also helped Hickland feel a little more empowered within his online persona. This begs the question, following Hickland's reveal: what's next for him?
In the immediate future, Hickland plans to take some time off for himself to "detox." Once he comes back to the timeline, he hopes to begin expressing himself through different creative outlets, whether it be singing, acting, or expanding his reach into the beauty influencer sphere. After all, Hickland notably did competitive theater for seven years and had long dreamt of becoming a film actor, but felt like he had to give it up while in his fraternity.
In the vein of "getting back into all of the dreams I gave up and put to the side when I graduated high school," Hickland also says he "wants to get into music eventually, but I want to go through K-pop style training." And though he's half-joking about the latter, his musical ambitions are obvious, as he makes it clear that he'd also like to follow in the footsteps of every man in his family and DJ. "[I have]an entire playlist of songs I wanna sample and interpolate in my own music," he says."I don't want to half-ass it."
Given his skincare obsession (he spends a good 10 minutes walking me through his ever-evolving routine, which he keeps tabs on in his Notes app), Hickland says he'd love to work with some brands in the space, maybe even on a collaboration. His ideal career trajectory looks a little like Rihanna's — "someone who dabbles in everything, a jack-of-all-trades," he says. "I just want to continue off the foundation and brand I've built with that account and build on it as myself. As Isaiah. No more secrets."
But Hickland's inherent ability to truly, deeply connect with his audience (even if he only has 280 characters) makes it seem like he won't have a problem segueing into a more far-spanning career by leaning into his capabilities as a natural performer. Now, it's just a matter of doing it publicly.
"This makes me think that the universe is saying, 'People will love you if you're just open and honest,'" he says. "My tarot reader was like, 'You just need to be fucking honest. Everything you want requires — and this is not optional — you to reveal yourself, take accountability, and keep pushing.'"
Hickland's determined to take this advice to heart as he forges his path forward. But before all that can happen, he says that he wants to, once again, reiterate one point above all.
"This is me saying that I'm sorry to everyone I lied to — everyone I hurt and everyone angry with me for my actions," he concludes. "I fucked up, and I take full accountability for that. [But] now I want to move forward with my life, leave 'EmoBlackThot' in the past forever, and move on as myself. As Isaiah Hickland."
Welcome to "Internet Explorer," a column by Sandra Song about everything Internet. From meme histories to joke format explainers to collections of some of Twitter's finest roasts, "Internet Explorer" is here to keep you up-to-date with the web's current obsessions — no matter how nonsensical or nihilistic.
*Update (10/11): It was commonly understood by many of @EmoBlackThot's followers that Isaiah Hickland's alias Nicole was a Black woman.