Jahkara J Smith is ALMOST like your standard YouTube American Dream. Like many of her “makeup tutorial genre” peers, her incredible wit and charm showed online and got her a few million views. However, Jahkara’s viral makeup tutorials include 30% makeup and 70% funny in your face shots at the patriarchy, politics, and a little history lesson of why we even care about makeup (circling back to that patriarchy).
Jahkara spent only a year making these fun videos and quickly made the coveted jump to television after a casting director stumbled upon her videos. Initially known as “Sailor J” on YouTube, Jahkara has gone from makeup tutorials with a social commentary twist, to playing opposite Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek) in the new show, “NOS4A2” on AMC. I spoke with this incredible rising star about her journey from the US Air Force to youtuber to actress and she was every bit as interesting in her real life as she is playing her characters.
Q: Can you tell me about your journey from YouTube to film?
A: It all sort of happened in about a year. I started posting videos on Facebook. I originally made them for my little sister, but she asked me to put them on YouTube. My Facebook is private so her friends couldn’t see them. I told her I would, and they just blew up. I got an email in April from the casting director. She told me it was okay if I’ve never done anything like this before, but they just wanted me to send in a tape. I put myself on tape and sent it to them, and about a week and a half later, they flew me out to LA for the callback. They called me that night and told me if I wanted the job, I’d have the job. I got out of the military in July and on September 5th, my birthday, I had the cast dinner, and Zachary Quinto was sitting across the table from me.
Q: You mentioned you were in the military. Do you feel that any of the influences that you had there help shape the stories that you tell online?
A: For a really long time, I tried to keep my military life and the rest of my life separate, because I was just so miserable while I was there. I feel like any life experience you have is formative to any role. I think the more life you’ve lived, the more you’ve experienced, the easier it is to connect with other people and therefore characters. I definitely feel like I’ve harbored a lot of different strengths and weaknesses from my time in the military. I will say they’re easy to employ when necessary when I’m acting, but because it’s not a specifically physical role or typical tough girl role, I don’t think there’ll be too many obvious things. I think it will be way more in depth than that.
Q: What branch of the military were you in? What kind of work did you do?
A: I was a jet mechanic in the Air Force. It feels like a whole lifetime ago.
Q: What is the story of Sailor J? How did you get to that name?
A: We were super broke when I was little. We didn’t have any cable or anything like that. We had this busted VCR. My mom used to walk me down the street to Family Dollar all the time, and she’d let me pick out movies. Sailor Moon was on the shelf, and I didn’t know what it was. I grabbed it, and I watched that thing until it broke. I was obsessed with it so much, and I would ask the other kids if they wanted to play Sailor Moon. No one knew what I was talking about and my mom told me it was because it was a Japanese cartoon. I was so sad.
When I got to middle school, I was humming the theme song one day and this kid in my class asked me if that was Sailor Moon. I told him yes, and he said he loved that show. I asked him what he meant by show, because I had only seen the movie. That’s when I realized there was a whole show, so for that whole year, I would come home everyday and watch Sailor Moon on YouTube. I watched all 300 episodes. I had a really rocky childhood in general, but my love of Sailor Moon was one thing I always knew for sure. There were a lot of things that were always uncertain for me, but I always knew I love Sailor Moon. That’s why when I came up with a YouTube name or anything gimmicky it would always be something related to Sailor Moon somehow, so I decided to go with Sailor J.
Q: So you have a ton of followers online. How have they been receiving your transition to film?
A: Everyone has been so supportive. It’s hard for me to explain to people, because everyone is always saying that social media is not real. I understand that to an extent, but I feel like we have to appreciate the gift of connection it’s given us. It can be misused, of course, and it often times is like a lot of things are. But my ability to speak to you now over the phone or talk to someone on Twitter, to me, that’s a gift, because I didn’t grow up with a super strong support system. I didn’t grow up with people throwing sunshine at me and telling me I could do anything. I’ve never had that, and the support of people that have seen me all the way from Sailor J to here is irreplaceable. I don’t know how to explain the feeling I get when someone tells me they’ve seen me grow over the past year. It’s weird because they’ve really seen so much of it.
When I first got to Rhode Island when we were filming season 1, I had been living in Florida for four years, so it was my first winter. I get seasonal depression really bad, and those were some of the hardest couple months in my whole life. People kind of noticed that I dropped off the face of the earth. When I started posting again, I didn’t think anybody would’ve noticed or cared, but people were in my comments telling me it was nice to see me smiling again. I didn’t even realized that it was something people would pick up. It was really heartwarming, because you feel like you’re giving something to people. I get messages from people telling me they’ve been in a slump, and they go on YouTube and watch me be a dummy on camera for 10-20 minutes and it makes them feel better. That makes me feel good, because I feel like I’m being of service.
Q: So in your stories online, do you share your seasonal depression with your followers?
A: It’s definitely something I talk about frequently, because I feel like it needs to be talked about. We have to have these conversations, but I understand the huge reluctance people have to themselves out there. It’s dangerous to put out your deepest mental and emotional obstacles and how you overcome them and how you struggle with them. That can be weaponized, because the internet is not a nice place all of the time. My biggest hindrance with going too far into detail with my own diagnosis is that I want to know that when I talk about it in depth, my security with it, my security with myself, and my confidence in my journey for my mental health is strong enough to withstand the possibility that sharing what has happened won’t go the way I think. I just want to know that the information I’m giving people is good, clear, and can’t be used to hurt me further. I want people to be okay and know that it’s not just them. Yeah, I get terribly upset. I don’t want to leave my bed sometimes, but that’s why I feel it’s important to just say it. Be honest.
Q: Tell me a little about your character Maggie. Is there any inspiration you’re pulling from your life? How would Sailor J be different in these situations?
A: I think the weird thing about Sailor J is that people consider it its own persona, and I never thought of it like that. It is such an exaggeration of my goofy side, so people are always weirded out when they meet me. Maggie, first of all, has the greatest personal style I’ve ever seen. I’ve wanted to take like half of her clothes home. She’s all about marching to the beat of your own drum. She’s about individuality and encouraging that in other people. I feel that Maggie is one of those people you meet and you instantly feel like you know her, because she’s so laid back. She’s so herself that she gives other people the courage to be themselves. I really wanted to take a lot of Maggie’s confidence with me when it was over. She’s very smart and resourceful. I feel like those are some of the greatest things that anyone could be. You don’t have to be super strong, you don’t have to be super beautiful, and you don’t have to be super wealthy. If you are smart, you will make it, and she is really smart!
I really like her relationship with Vick. I’m similar to Maggie in the sense that I’ve always sort of been on my own. She kind of floats from social scene to social scene. She doesn’t really put roots down anywhere, because she’s not interested in intimacy. She’s interested in learning, getting what she can from the situation and moving on. I feel like we’re similar in that way, because throughout the season, her relationship with Vick teaches her about that intimacy, letting people in, letting people count on you, and counting on other people. That’s one of my favorite things about season 2, because it’s just such a pure friendship. There’s no competitiveness, no weird cattiness like when men write stuff for TV. Here it’s so heart driven. I think Maggie is like me in that she comes off super bubbly, and she comes off super eccentric. She’s kind of the joke and life of the party, but she’s got a lot of other things going on that we explore throughout this season. I feel that we are the same in that sense.
Q: Have you found that your background in YouTube has influenced your time on set? Do you see things in a different lense now?
A: Yes and no. I feel that creating stuff is creating stuff whether you have a $5 budget in your living room like I was or you’re on a set, so I feel like the energy, the desire, and the goal is still the same. It’s just on a much bigger scale, which is really cool, because there’s all of this equipment I can look at and touch. I have a million questions, and everyone is so willing to tell me about their job. They let me try stuff and see things, and I feel like a kid in a candy shop, to be honest. I do always feel weird when people call me a YouTuber, because that was never the goal. It just sort of happened. Like I said, when I was younger, YouTube to me was when kids would get their friends together and write their own script and film their own movies, so it doesn’t feel too different. It just feels like I’m not in charge anymore, and we have a lot more money.
Q: Since you’ve been having conversations with people in the crew, do you see yourself upping your Sailor J game?
A: I think it’s definitely crossed my mind. Until I can find a different platform to make Sailor J content on, I really don’t think I’m interested in making any other videos. I disagree with the platform in general. There’s a lot of mistreatment of trans people in particular and a lot of people of color aren’t treated equally. They let a white boy film a dead body in Japan, and they let him keep his YouTube channel. I don’t really have any interest in that platform as a whole anymore. If there was a different place to put everything, still make money, and still be able to get the messages across then I feel like, yeah. In the future I would, just not in the way that it’s been done before.
Q: Have you ever considered Twitch?
A: People have suggested it, but I don’t know if I like streaming enough to be consistent with it. That was the thing with YouTube too. That’s the same reason I didn’t call myself a YouTuber ever, because I didn’t have a schedule. I didn’t have thumbnails. Everything was done in a really round about way. That was the only way that it could be done, because as soon as I tell myself that this was an obligation or I have a schedule, I wouldn’t want to do it anymore. As long as I give myself room, the product comes out better and everyone seems happier. I just don’t know if I have the dedication for Twitch.
Q: I read something about Thanksgiving makeup being Native-inspired. That’s really offensive. Where did you see that? Do you have any plans to talk about more of that kind of stuff?
A: It was actually brought to my attention by one of my subscribers. She essentially said “hey, this kind of stuff is happening in the beauty community. You should make a video about it.” She basically told me it would make her feel better, so I looked it up. I was somewhat aware of the things going on in Coachella, so that’s sort of where that video came from. Even with that, I learned from a lot of people, that I can only speak on topics so much. After that, everyone wants you to speak about everything, and that’s understandable. You have the platform and the voice, but it’s so much better to uplift people in a better position to speak on it. I could rant about Native American misappropriation of culture all I want or I could say my piece, get attention, and then I’d say, Native American creators, hey, these are the people you need to be talking to, these are the people you need to be consulting. That’s better than speaking over people.
There are some topics that I have so much passion for, but I’ve been trying to teach myself to take a step back and let people fight their own battles. Sometimes people don’t want to be spoken for. They just want to be elevated so they can speak for themselves. Politics, feminism, and all of these harder topics to swallow, there will always be things that come out of my mouth, because the world is hinged on the way we deal with these topics and the way we talk about these things. That’s why people are so scared to talk about these things, but it’s always going to be something I feel like I talk about because I feel I manage to do it in a way that made it a little easier. When you introduce those things with comedy, it makes it easier to swallow and easier for people to talk about. That’s something that will continue, but I think my tactics will change.
Q: You mentioned finding Native American people on YouTube. So when you know you are talking about a topic, are you doing similar research to find others who can talk on the topic?
A: Yeah! When I did my exit video, I left a huge list of trans creators for people to get into, watch, and learn from. That was probably the biggest reason I left YouTube. There are trans creators that have a lot of valuable information to trans kids who are worried about their parents or friends finding out. It’s so vital to have that information accessible to those kids, but the content is getting deleted, demonetized, or shadowbanned. It’s disgusting, so hopefully people find new people to watch and learn from.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I just finished a project for Blumhouse a couple weeks ago that I can’t talk about yet. I’m just picking up projects I like and working on developing my own. I don’t know. I think after all of this happened, my biggest takeaway was that I have no idea what’s going to happen to me, so I just have to go with it.
Q: Are you still active on social media?
NOS4A2 Season 1 is currently playing on AMC.
NOS4A2 Trailer: https://www.youtube.