Daniel Phaitaisong and his son, Daniel, 9. Courtesy photo.

At this time last year, Daniel Phaitaisong was living in a halfway house, searching for stable income that could support him and his son.

When job after job brushed him off, it looked like his only lifeline was the beat up Cadillac CTS he’d bought for $2,500. The car would frequently overheat and break down in traffic, but maybe it would last long enough for him to pick up some shifts as a food delivery driver–just long enough to make ends meet.

“It just sticks with you, man,” said Phaitaisong, 36, of living with a criminal record. “If people already know, it’s like you’re wearing that on your sleeve. People think ‘Oh, he’s been locked up, you better be careful around him, he’s not good news.’ There are a lot of people that get out of jail and go right back to the same thing, but for those that have kids and families and want to change, there’s a way. It just takes the right mentality.”

Last December, Phaitaisong had spent the last of the money he had saved to give his then-8-year-old son a great Christmas, but he had no idea what the immediate future would hold. At the start of 2022 was when Daniel’s whole life changed, through the power of social media and his trusted iPhone 11.

Phaitaisong’s son, also named Daniel, had shown him videos on TikTok, and that gave him the idea to start making videos of his own. At first, it was a way for father and son to connect, but after a while it became something much larger.

Today, Daniel’s TikTok page (@Dpeezy209 ) has grown to 1.7 million followers. On YouTube, he’s rapidly approaching a million subscribers. His earnings were modest at first, but in January 2022, once he was given the opportunity to monetize his videos on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere, it gave him the financial freedom to provide for his family just by making content full time.

“I try to stay humble, you know, I’m not gonna go out and buy a big old chain or stuff like that,” Phaitaisong said of his rapid success. “I’m just trying to be able to take care of my family, take care of myself, do positive things and keep working on this future right here.”

It was a winding road to get Daniel to this place in his life, with a number of pitfalls along the way. Born at a US Naval hospital in Okinawa, Japan, he moved to Houston as a baby. His father was a Marine, and lived in New Jersey during Daniel’s childhood, leaving him without a father figure nearby.

“I grew up without my father around physically,” Phaitaisong explained. “He would call me on birthdays, but it was just on special occasions. It wasn’t having someone there telling me what not to do or teaching me life lessons … So the friends that I started hanging out with, they pretty much raised me in the streets. My mom and grandma were there to wake me up for school and give me food to eat, but as far as fatherhood, it was through the streets.”

That led to Phaitaisong getting into trouble, and eventually catching a felony charge. His family offered to bail him out, but only if he agreed to move to California and get away from the trouble he’d found in Texas.

Phaitaisong arrived in Long Beach in 2011, and was able to start a new life for himself. His son was born in 2013, and he was able to maintain a job as a dispatcher while keeping his nose clean and out of trouble.

Eventually, he was involved in an accident that left him with severe back pain. Phaitaisong said he was prescribed painkillers by his doctor, and eventually became addicted to the medication.

“When I was on the Xanax and the painkillers, I was working, but I was so tired of having to depend on it,” Phaitaisong recalled. “I’d wake up in pain unless I had my medication. I knew I needed to withdraw and get off the stuff, but I couldn’t just take a couple of weeks off work to get off it. It seemed like the only way was if I got locked up and didn’t have any responsibilities.”

It was then that Daniel had a lapse in judgment—one that would change the trajectory of his life forever.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Phaitaisong says he borrowed a gun from a military friend in order to protect his home. However, given his felony history, he was not legally allowed to possess a firearm and would ultimately be sent back to jail. What may have looked like a major setback in his life ended up being the best possible outcome.

“(Getting locked up) was like a blessing,” he said. “I got clean from everything and I wasn’t dependent on it anymore. I found myself again, found my real personality. It was a curse, but it was a blessing.”

While he was locked up, all he could think about was being reunited with his son so they could play video games together again. Based on Daniel’s experience growing up in Houston, he’d always hoped to be a more consistent presence in his son’s life.

“Ever since I was young, I would say to myself ‘When I have a kid, I’m gonna be the best father I can for him,’’ remembered Phaitaisong. “While I was in jail, I couldn’t wait to talk to my son. And getting out, I felt so bad. I didn’t want to leave his side anymore. We’re so close, man, we’re like best friends. He’s my motivation; to show him that even though life can be rough sometimes and bring you down, you just gotta stay strong and keep going and not give up.”

That’s when Phaitaisong turned his experiences of being incarcerated into an opportunity. He began making videos that showcased authentic jailhouse recipes, using whatever ingredients and supplies that were available to him and his bunk mates. His first recipe was one of his go-to meals in the jail cell: a wet burrito. The video took off instantly, racking up hundreds of thousands of views overnight.

That original video has been viewed over 4.3 million times (and counting) and it inspired Phaitaisong to keep posting content from an inmate’s perspective, humanizing the experience of being in jail while showing off his resourcefulness and creativity. He made sure to keep his videos real and authentic, with his bunk mates literally throwing down whatever ingredients they had onto the concrete floor.

Phaitaisong would then use whatever materials he had access to in order to whip up recipes resembling the comfort foods you could only get on the outside.

As his following grew, he received tons of messages from former inmates who’d drawn inspiration from his videos. It was never Daniel’s plan to go viral or make a living with his jailhouse recipes, but he said it’s been an inspirational journey over the past 20 months.

“It’s been turning a negative into a positive of what I went through,” he explained. “I have a lot of people that reach out to me like, ‘Bro, you’re such an inspiration with what you’re doing, keep doing it.’ People will tell me they’ve been in trouble themselves, and watching me they know they shouldn’t give up on life and stuff. So it’s actually a much bigger picture than what I thought. It feels fantastic to be able to help people in a similar situation as me.”

Now that he’s out of the halfway house, the @Dpeezy2099 page has evolved to include additional content, like food reviews at local restaurants, where Daniel will tell his viewers whether something is “Bussin’ or Disgustin’.”

He’s also documented what life is like on probation, and how he’s doing the right things to stay on track and out of jail.

He’s also made efforts to support those in need, particularly in the homeless community. Daniel said his mom moved out to California, where she’s homeless. That’s given him a connection to those enduring that challenge, and he’s found ways to give back in his own way. He recently purchased 100 meals at a local McDonald’s and handed out the food to people in the area.

Phaitaisong said he hopes to continue that work on a larger scale, while also giving his time to young people in the community in order to keep them out of trouble.

“I want to try and stop people from going through the revolving door of jail, if that’s the cycle that they’re in,” he said. “And I want to be able to do stuff here in Long Beach where I’m helping the kids. I just really want to do stuff out in the community.”

Phaitaisong has been out of the halfway house since August, and is currently living in North Long Beach. He’ll sometimes get recognized on the streets, and he’s more than happy to spend time with his fans, knowing just how different his life could be right now.

“I see them, and I tell them how much I appreciate them and ask if they want to take pictures with me,” Daniel said. “I’ll never forget where I came from, man.”