On July 8, 2020, a YouTube video about fried rice titled ‘Uncle Roger DISGUSTED by this Egg Fried Rice Video (BBC Food)’ catapulted one ‘Uncle Roger’ to overnight stardom. A character created by Malaysian standup comic Nigel Ng, the orange polo-wearing, ‘hiyah’-yelling Uncle Roger soon became the Internet’s favourite Uncle and resident fried rice expert.
In the video that began it all, Uncle Roger critiques multiple aspects of how the presenter in the BBC video made her egg fried rice. “Drain the rice – oh my god, you KILLING me woman,” he yells, aghast at the colander in her hand. Other than the criminal draining, he also plays annoyed at how she was not using a wok, and why there was no MSG in her “too healthy” fried rice. The video currently stands at 20 million views, and became a commonly shared meme on social media. Uncle Roger then moved on to lending his expert criticism to other egg fried rice videos, and the BBC Egg Fried Rice Lady faded into the background, a distant memory.
Then, almost exactly a month later, another video popped up on Ng’s channel, titled ‘Uncle Roger meet Egg Fried Rice Lady @HershaPatel’. It showed Uncle Roger actually turning up at Hersha’s house, tasting her egg fried rice, and pronouncing it quite palatable! The comment section – which had hitherto roasted Hersha mercilessly – did a complete about-turn and began praising this unlikely friendship. Some even began shipping Uncle Roger and ‘Auntie’ Hersha together. The two went on to post several more videos featuring each other, with each video racking up millions of views.
This is the story of Hersha Patel, and how she single-handedly managed to turn the cancel mob to work in her favor.
Born into the only Indian family in a village in the UK, Hersha had been inclined towards performing from a young age, but did not explore it as a career until much later. “When you’re in a working class immigrant family, there’s this feeling that you don’t want to let your parents down, because they work so hard to let you have the opportunities you get,” she said about her initial career decisions. After working behind the camera in the television industry for about a decade, she took the plunge and started her own YouTube channel, posting cooking and comedy videos.
Around eight months after she started her channel, however, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “I started getting tired, I couldn’t do anything, I got to a point where I had to crawl up the stairs. I couldn’t digest anything or handle any stress at all,” she recounts. The condition lasted for over three years, and took a toll on her mental and physical health. “Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” reflects Hersha. During this period, several different methods helped her heal, including therapy, ayurveda, and learning about the power of one’s mind. By the time that she had recovered, her goals had changed, and she decided to pursue her dream of being an actor.
And then lockdown happened.
Around June, Hersha noticed that she was getting tagged on Instagram comments saying ‘you don’t know how to cook’, or ‘you’re a disgrace to Asian culture’. The comments soon grew into the thousands, mostly disparaging her culinary abilities. “I watched the video, and I thought, this is clearly comedy, this guy is quite funny! Why are people getting so upset with me?” She got in touch with Nigel, who immediately apologized for the unexpected backlash she was facing, and agreed to meet in person. They then filmed their first video together, and the rest is Internet history.
The trolling did have adverse effects on Patel’s mental health. When the comments first started pouring in, she suffered from severe stress and anxiety. “I had just decided to start a career in acting, and now if anyone Googled my name, all they would see is ‘Racist egg fried rice lady!’ Are you serious?” she laughs. However, because of all she had learned over the past few years, she was able to take the high road instead of lashing out against the haters. “I remember saying to myself, I’m going to deal with this in the most positive way possible.”
Hersha recalls being very nervous before Nigel came over for their first collaboration, and worried that she would not be ‘funny enough’. As soon as the video premiered, however, the tide turned almost immediately. “I got a message from someone saying that they were talking about me in their university lecture about dealing with shaming, and I thought – if the biggest thing to come out of #Ricegate is that my story helps people with their own experiences on social media, then that would be brilliant.”
Patel has now started putting out comedy videos on her channel, which has gained thousands of followers in the wake of Uncle Roger’s video and subsequent collaborations. So, can we expect to see more of Uncle Roger and Auntie Hersha soon? They do want to do another one, she explains, but “Nigel is huge right now, and he’s headed for bigger goals, so he may not have the time. But Auntie Hersha has definitely not been put to rest, don’t worry. For now, I’d love to keep tracking my journey on YouTube, and keep working towards performing.”
I was interested in Hersha Patel’s story because of the brilliant way she managed to change the narrative. Too often, netizens display a rather unpleasant pack mentality and ravage everything in their path, moving on to the next trend without much care for the effects of our comments on those they were directed against. Here is someone who decided not to let the hate affect her, and move on with positivity and humor. For that, and for going after her dreams no matter what, Hersha Patel has my utmost respect.
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