Lifestyle

‘Everyone thinks this little old lady is hysterical’: the older TikTok stars with millions of followers

‘Apparently I’m an influencer now. Who does that in their 90s?’: Lillian Droniak, 92 (grandma_droniak), 4.7m followers

TikTok? Why not? That is my motto. Making our channel was my grandson Kevin’s idea from the start. It’s his fault that I’ve got nearly 5m followers. We were just sitting in the kitchen one day and he filmed me chatting. I can barely remember what I said – I think something about clocks? That’s what I thought he was telling me to do: tick tock, a clock! It was meant to be a joke, but overnight that video got 1m views or something ridiculous.

He’d made YouTube videos with me for years already, that never bothered me. So, we just kept on going with this to see what could happen. Now I do all sorts of weird things: dancing on the porch, dishing out advice, saying stupid things. I just have fun and do whatever. Sometimes I think of things I’ll say or do in advance, but mostly I’m just being me. Apparently, everyone thinks this little old lady is hysterical.

It’s all quite a surprise to me. I was the quiet kid at school, and then worked in a factory and raised a family. I was never really the funny one – . Making people laugh wasn’t my area.

At first it was all just fun, a way for Kevin and I to keep ourselves busy. The pandemic had changed everything for me. Before, I’d go to senior events, play bingo, go on cruises and to church. Covid meant I stayed at home, pretty isolated. This was entertainment. But I realised making these videos makes me feel younger, too. I might be 92, but only feel 65 when we’re filming. I don’t know why I’m living so long to be honest with you.

And now, I’m also making money from what we do. I get sent all sorts of things… for free. Pocketbooks, sneakers, clothing, sunglasses, all sorts of stuff. Apparently, I’m an influencer now – I get paid to put stuff in my videos. I’m a walking advert. Who does that in their 90s?

These kids often get in touch wanting advice, usually about relationships. Now I respond in my videos. If they want to live a long and happy life like me, I tell them: don’t smoke cigarettes, dump your boyfriend, love yourself and don’t drink every day. It’s simple.

In some of my videos I talk about my husband, John. He died 22 years ago this November. Sometimes I wonder what the hell he’d think of all this. Maybe he’d have been quite jealous.

I still don’t know why it has all worked out so well. Some of my videos get tens of millions of views. Do these people have nothing better to do than watch me on their mobile phones? Still, everywhere I go people are excited to see me. Even I’m not sure why. In the store kids will ask to take a picture with me on their phones. My flip phone doesn’t take photos. It’s strange, but whatever.

When they ask if I have a boyfriend, that winds me up. I don’t need a man. And no, I don’t want you to find me one. Usually I ask them to talk to Kevin. I tell them he’s my manager.

‘I dedicated my life to teaching people about the atrocities of the Holocaust’: Lily Ebert.
‘I dedicated my life to teaching people about the atrocities of the Holocaust’: Lily Ebert. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

‘Now I hope my stories will never be forgotten. They’ll live on for ever’: Lily Ebert, 98 (@lilyebert), 1.9m followers

I’m told I have an email address, although I can’t say I’ve ever knowingly used it. Honestly? Before I started with TikTok I didn’t know what the internet was. I still don’t have a mobile phone, only the landline. When my great-grandson, Dov, suggested I join a few years back, I laughed and assumed he was joking. I’d seen some videos on the news: I’m a little old, I replied, for that sort of silly choreography.

But when he explained that we could make videos that didn’t need to involve any dancing, I was far more interested. He said we could go viral by sharing my message, which has been my lifetime’s mission. Dov did have to first explain to me what “viral” meant. From then, I knew we would do it. Because while at 98 I’m no spring chicken any more, I’ve never been afraid to learn something new; my spirit is as strong as ever. Adapting is what I’ve always done – I am a survivor and a fighter. If young kids could do TikTok, I would also.

This was an opportunity to spread my story far and wide. I grew up in a small village in Hungary surrounded by a large, loving family. And then when I was 20 years old, my life turned upside down. The Nazis invaded Hungary, my mother, brother, three sisters and I were crammed into a train destined for Auschwitz. I made a promise to myself when I was in the camp: if I survived when so many millions did not, then I would never stop speaking about how hate and prejudice must never again prevail. I moved to England and vowed to dedicate my life to teaching people about these atrocities, reminding them of what can happen if we sit back and watch.

Being one of the only remaining living Auschwitz survivors, over the years I’ve spoken at Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street; at schools, church halls and businesses all over with charities such as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. But with TikTok, I could speak to millions and millions of young people across the world directly. I could never speak in enough places to reach them all face to face; this was a way to present what I had to say in a format that’s digestible. I had no choice but to take the opportunity. Would it work? I was unsure. But I knew that if we didn’t try, it definitely wouldn’t. I could never have guessed our videos would go on to be viewed over 500m times, and in such a short space of time. If we’d only reached one person, it would have been worth the effort.

Our TikTok will be a permanent place for people to learn about what happened in the Holocaust, a reminder that it must never happen again. I’m passing this on to the next generation as one day soon people my age won’t be here. Now I hope my stories will never be forgotten: they’ll live on online for ever.

And all this has also taught me something, too. If you put your mind to it, there’s no limit to what you can achieve, no matter how old or young you might be. Do not be afraid of making mistakes, but learn from them and improve. Take it from me, a 98-year-old on TikTok.

‘We’ve had the same unexpected success with our TikTok’: Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina.
‘We’ve had the same unexpected success with our TikTok’: Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina. Photograph: Jun Michael Park/The Observer

‘Making these videos has been great for our marriage’: Chan Jae Lee, 80 (@grandpachan), 2.4m followers

Today, my wife and I live back in South Korea, on the outskirts of Seoul. I have two children and four grandchildren. For a long time we lived far from each other. My son was in the United States; my wife and I spent three decades in São Paulo. Then my daughter went back to Korea, while we stayed in Brazil. Our family was spread all over. There was a void, a silence.

I loved to create art when I was a kid. So my son suggested I start again. It might cheer me up, he said, and I could then put it online for the grandchildren to look at. Social media, therefore, was a way for us to stay in touch with the kids, who we missed deeply. We made our Instagram account back in 2015 – @drawings_for_my_grandchildren – and I posted drawings of our lives and experiences to connect with them. Now that account has hundreds of thousands of followers.

Recently, we have all returned to Korea. That is where the kids have found work, and we wanted to be close to them in our retirement. We’ve had the same unexpected success with our TikTok. It’s been two years since we started uploading videos there. My daughter encouraged us to start it. She showed us all these dance challenges that were spreading online; she reckoned it would help us pass the time during lockdowns, while keeping us fit and healthy. The first we did involved us dancing to a Christmas song with tinsel around our necks. As time went on, we started to look forward to the task of learning new moves and music. We were having fun, sure, but didn’t think too much about anyone except our grandchildren watching them.

When we hit 1m followers, it struck us how big things were getting. It was certainly a confidence boost to both of us to try more complex choreography. We’re more flexible and fitter than we were before, I’m in no doubt, even if it takes us a little longer than most TikTokers to remember everything.

Our daughter remains the mastermind behind what we do. She finds the routines that might work for us, reworking anything that might be too challenging. The three of us will do a video call to rehearse, with her teaching us the steps one by one, always very patiently.

The response has been amazing, far beyond what we could have hoped for. I reckon that’s for a few reasons. Sure, seeing older people dance like us is unexpected and fun; people like to imagine their grandparents doing it. But I’d like to think we’re also helping bridge the gap between generations, encouraging people to spend time engaging with those of different ages. That’s certainly how we feel about younger people now – we understand them far better. We appreciate how the internet works, and how connections can be made worldwide. My mind still boggles at how quickly ideas can spread all over.

Making these videos has also been great for our marriage. We laugh so much when practising, we’re having so much fun, even if from time to time we have “creative differences”. But this all started for our grandchildren – it’s about them. We know that they love our videos now, of course, but I hope one day when they’re much older, they’ll scroll through the page and think fondly of us. That we’ll still be there to get them smiling.

‘When I read the comments underneath our first post, however, I was overwhelmed by emotion’: Barbara Costello.
‘When I read the comments underneath our first post, however, I was overwhelmed by emotion’: Barbara Costello. Photograph: Heather Walsh/The Observer

‘Us older people have so much wisdom and experience to share’: Barbara Costello, 73 (@brunchwithbabs), 2m followers

Before all this started I’d retired. I’m a teacher by profession, but had given that up. I’ve got four grown kids, eight grandchildren, too. I did the usual things grandmas do: help the family and hang out with the little ones; get excited about cooking, holidays and traditions.

Then in March 2020, Covid hit. My pregnant daughter already had two toddlers to juggle when talk of a lockdown started. I offered to move in with her for a week or two to help keep things afloat.

One afternoon, I was sitting in the kitchen once the kids were asleep when my daughter suggested I join TikTok. She had some experience herself in the field, having run a motherhood blog and YouTube channel. I’d watched videos on TikTok before with my older grandkids. No, I replied, that’s not for me, thanks.

I have an iPhone and do email, sure, but this was a totally alien concept. But she predicted its imminent explosion into something huge and thought I could be part of it. “Why not share recipes and teach others how to cook?” she asked. I protested a lot, but in the end agreed to shoot one video as a taster. We made a simple, short clip – cooking a chicken and potato dish – and hoped I’d scratched her itch for ever. She’d got what she wanted, the TikTok chat now over.

When I read the comments underneath our first post, however, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I never considered how we might be able to touch people. This was the height of the pandemic’s terrifying uncertainty and here were all these people – isolating away from their own parents and grandparents – grateful for this older lady temporarily filling that maternal role for them. They also liked the chicken.

Right away, I knew we had to make more: the nona in me couldn’t help herself. The next video was for an overnight breakfast casserole I’ve been making for 40 years, and we went from there. It was never anything elaborate, just helping people learn their kitchen basics. I have a recipe box that we started to work through. Now, two and a half years later, we have just hit 2m followers.

Having spent decades in classrooms, making videos feels familiar: the constant high energy needed to keep a group of young children engaged is the perfect training ground for being in front of a social-media camera.

The channel has expanded since then. Now, I don’t just do food but offer advice in our “Did your mum ever tell you?” series. “A slice of peace” is where I deliver more philosophical reflections.

It’s expanded my view of the world. I have a structure to my week; a sense of responsibility. Us older people have so much wisdom and experience to share, which often goes unheard. Now, once again, I have a vocation and a voice; I am making a contribution. I’ve even created a cookbook, making me a published author. The grandkids were wary at first, but now they’re my biggest supporters. Often one will call, excitedly, to say, “Nona! Your new garlic video is going viral!” My husband makes the odd appearance now, too. I’m not sure when we said our vows 52 years ago he imagined “Mr Babs” would be his public persona.

And my daughter, I think, is incredibly proud. Even if now I have a little less time to babysit than I used to.

‘My friends and family have always known I’m something of a showman’: Thomas ‘Frank’ Hackett.
‘My friends and family have always known I’m something of a showman’: Thomas ‘Frank’ Hackett. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

‘I’m not the most talented dancer. I think that’s part of the appeal’: Thomas ‘Frank’ Hackett, 77 (@grandadfrankk), 7.1m followers

It was in November 2019 when my granddaughter, Kiera, first suggested we make a video of me for the internet. I’d never heard of TikTok – most people my age hadn’t back then – but it sounded like a laugh to mess around. I didn’t need much convincing to get in front of the camera. My friends and family have always known I’m something of a showman: back in Galway where I grew up, I’d be the one in our house putting on a show for guests every Christmas. When I moved over to England in 1967, following my girlfriend, I became the resident entertainer, too. Singing and dancing – the desire to make people giggle – is in my DNA. So when Kiera came up with the idea of a TikTok, she didn’t have to ask me twice.

Still, I can’t say I knew exactly what we were doing when Kiera, who was 14 at the time, started to film me dancing stupidly in my sitting room to a remix of the Cardigans’ 1996 hit, Lovefool. Neither of us had a clue of what it would become. All this was before the pandemic started and TikTok was suddenly everywhere. We started making films once a week or so, and gave it little further thought.

Meanwhile, I was still working full-time as a school minibus driver. But when Covid came along, we went into lockdown, then I retired. Until then, our channel had been growing slowly, but then the numbers went off the chart. The reaction was magical. It was when people posted underneath to say they’d never met or couldn’t remember their own grandads, and what we were doing filled a hole for them, that I knew we had to carry on.

Suddenly we were getting all sorts of attention: everyone, myself included, had a lot more time on their hands. Ant and Dec put us on Saturday Night Takeaway, and we went up to Leeds to appear live on Channel 4 television; we had comments from Gary Barlow, Michael Bublé and a load of other famous faces as well.

I’m not the world’s most talented vocalist or dancer, but I think that’s part of the appeal. And as time has gone on, we do all kinds of things to keep up with the trends. It’s hit and miss, but has led to all sorts: my granddaughter putting me in various different makeups to turn me into an emoji; silly videos about me stealing biscuits from the cupboard and being chased by my wife. Really, it’s all Kiera’s vision. My only rule is I’ll try to never use a swear word in anything we make.

Keira and I have always been close. I took her to school as a little one; we live next door to each other. But now we’re a team, with so much common ground.

It feels like the possibilities of what we could do are endless: offers for work and projects keep coming in. But at my age, I’ve got to think carefully about what I can handle. I worry a lot about what my six grandchildren’s futures look like. It’s disconcerting, the way the world is going, with all these conflicts, global warming and the economy, too. At this point, it’s not going to be me who finds any solutions. Bringing some joy to them and their generation is the best I can do.

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