Taryn Delanie Smith, aka 2022’s Miss New York, said she was taking a shower one day when a ridiculous thought popped into her head.
“Why are ghosts always in a nightgown?” Smith recalled to HuffPost over the phone. “Why are they always in a top hat or the outfit they died in? And then I was like, ‘Do you get to choose your ghost outfit? Are you stuck in that outfit?’ And then I started thinking, ‘If you die in a chicken suit, are you stuck in a chicken suit?’ And I was just giggling to myself in the shower, like, why is my brain like this?”
Smith was so tickled by the idea that she decided to play around with it on TikTok after she got out of the shower.
In the eventual video, Smith plays a receptionist in heaven who is performing the seemingly humdrum clerical task of asking people who recently died what they’d like their “ghost outfits” to be ― the clothes they’d like to appear in when they take a visit “downstairs” to the living world. The receptionist then types their answers in their files.
But the receptionist’s performative politeness abruptly shifts when a demonic-looking person (who has become a recurring character named Tammy) tells her that she would like her “ghost outfit” to be “just a dirty nightgown, please.”
“That’s really scary,” the receptionist says sternly, calling out Tammy with oodles of sass underscored by a New York accent. “That’s a really scary choice.”
Tammy, played by Smith with a terrifying filter on her face, looks away guiltily and says: “I know... sorry.”
The receptionist chews her gum and begins to type Tammy’s request with indignation.
“OK, dirty nightgown. Enjoy your stay,” the receptionist says with an eye roll.
The TikTok video was an instant hit. But Smith — who originally started her TikTok account as an escape from a former office job she “f-ing hated” — said she was surprised that so many people “were so interested in the receptionist character.”
“I didn’t think that was who they were going to latch on to,” Smith admitted. But she decided to roll with it and began thinking, “What would her day be like?”
And thus Smith’s no-nonsense, gum-smacking and keyboard-clacking receptionist soon got a name: Denise.
Since her debut video in March, Denise’s look has evolved. Since Smith shot her first video of Denise fresh out of the shower, she wears a white bathrobe with a towel wrapped around her head, which she figured could easily stand in for celestial garb. But Denise is now also equipped with a pink razor as a headset. She loves pocketbooks and big earrings almost as much as she likes rattling her big iced coffees, which she drinks as she complains about not having the time to read Shakespeare’s eight-page emails. She handles all the banal logistics that any office worker would ― but in heaven.
She passes out heaven’s WiFi password, deals with dogs that are upset that the “treat machine” on the Rainbow Bridge is broken, checks people in and out from their visits “downstairs,” and greets new residents.
Between tasks, Denise likes to gossip with her coworker, named Miss Stacy, about Jackie O bumping into Marilyn Monroe at one of heaven’s nail salons and the “crazy” time when all of Henry VIII’s six wives began to show up in heaven.
But Smith’s satirical series began to take a more sincere turn toward the end of March, when she took a request from a follower.
“I just saw somebody say, ‘I really wish I could see you greet my mom,’” she explained. “And I thought, ‘Well, yeah, I could do that.’”
In this TikTok video, Denise is about to take her lunch break when someone special arrives at the pearly gates.
“Oh my gosh,” Denise says. “She’s here! Miss Stacy, she’s here!”
“How you doin’? No, it’s all right, come forward, I know who you are,” a smiling Denise continues as she takes off her headset. “You’re Gerry, right?”
What transpires is a touching monologue in which Denise tenderly orients Gerry to what her afterlife will be like.
“You are so loved,” Denise tells Gerry. “I’m already getting prayer mail for you. ... I got an inbox full of it for you to read!”
Denise proceeds to give Gerry her welcome package and reassures her that she can go “downstairs” at any time and visit her loved ones. At the end of the video, Denise decides to take her lunch with Gerry in tow.
“You’re going to love this place,” Denise says as she prepares to show Gerry the ropes. “They all know me.”
“The response was just so overwhelming,” Smith told HuffPost. “I mean, I cried for 24 hours just watching people’s messages come in and their reactions.”
Since then, Smith has published a few more videos requested by her followers. Each one, like the one below, is capable of making a viewer cry in equal parts from their tenderness and hilarity.
Smith told HuffPost that providing people with comfort during a difficult time is “all I’ve ever wanted to do in my life.”
She said that when she was asked as a child what she’d like her superpower to be, she always wanted the ability to instantly soothe people.
“I always thought that I would love if I could touch someone’s arm in the street and make them feel better,” Smith said. “I think you could literally save the world if you could just touch someone’s arm in the street and make them feel good about themselves, make them feel peaceful, make them feel comforted. And as weird as this is with this silly little series, even if it’s just for a moment, for a little while I actually have access to that superpower.”
Her followers’ general reactions to these kinds of TikToks could best be summed up by one video in which a tearful fan imagines “how comforted” her own mother would be by Denise’s greeting.
“I know it’s just TikTok but, thank you,” the fan said.
The follower added that the idea of her mom going to Smith’s version of heaven, rather than a more rigid and traditional version of it, is helpful during her grieving process.
“Even before [my mom] was sick,” the follower says through tears, “she used to joke, she’d be like, ‘I don’t even want to go to heaven. What am I going to do? Sit on a cloud? Play a harp?’”
Smith said that her idea of heaven is heavily influenced by what she describes as “righteous forgiveness,” which was an idea she encountered while a student at St. John’s University in New York.
“I went to a Catholic university. And one of my favorite professors I ever had was the most woke nun,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget her. She was so cool. And she gave us a talk once about the forgiveness of heaven.”
She recalled the nun saying that people “don’t know the bounds of forgiveness” and that “there might be some people that will be disappointed or surprised to find someone that they deem very bad in heaven.”
The idea stuck with her.
“I thought that was such a profound thing that she said. I thought about it for days afterwards,” Smith said.
The concept — and the idea that conservative ideas of “good” and “bad” aren’t as important as being kind — is woven into almost all of Smith’s videos.
In one, a resident calls Denise to make sure that her granddaughter won’t be getting into heaven.
Denise checks the file: “She’s a mother, she’s done a lot of good deeds. Things are looking good for her,” Denise says.
When the caller explains that her granddaughter had a child out of wedlock, Denise says, “So... I hope you’re sitting down. Well, we don’t care.”
Smith said that her series is meant to be satire, and she’s “not trying to preach to the masses.”
“But one thing I’m trying to suggest with this is: Who is without fault?” Smith said. “Who hasn’t made a mistake in their life? If you have to be perfect to get into heaven, well, then none of us are going to get there.”
She added that while “certain people” might achieve sainthood, “there’s space in the middle for the rest of us.” This could help explain why someone like the demonic Tammy got into heaven.
“There are some people who are devout or religious who really didn’t like the idea that there was something ghoulish in heaven,” Smith said. “I actually do believe almost all things and living beings are deserving of forgiveness. And so I figured, well, why not Tammy too? You don’t know what she’s been through! You don’t know what’s in her heart!”
And although Tammy continues to torment the living in the series with her “scary” ghost outfit, Smith said that she definitely wouldn’t choose a dirty nightgown for herself if she’s ever given the option.
Her choice? “An elaborate pirate outfit,” just to “confuse” people.
“Can you imagine my mom going to a psychic and they’re like, ‘She’s wearing a pirate outfit?’” Smith said with a laugh.
Smith added that she thinks her afterlife is “going to be so lit.” And thanks to her series, a lot of her fans think that theirs — and their loved ones’ — will be pretty bright as well.