TFW your grandma becomes a social media sensation
Senior social media stars are popping up on TikTok and Instagram and marketers are taking notice
In one of her recent posts, Joan MacDonald twirls on a beach and smiles radiantly into the camera. In another, the 77-year-old exhales heavily as she squats under a weighted bar in a gym.
Among the so-called "granfluencers" on social media, the Cobourg, Ont., native is something of a heavy weight who says she's still getting used to flexing her social media muscles and notes that "not in 1,000 years" did she see herself becoming an influencer in her 70s.
"It wasn't on the horizon for me at all," said MacDonald, whose journey began four years ago, when her daughter pushed her to get healthy and to share her transformation online. She was reluctant at first.
"Who's going to listen to an old lady?" she wondered.
Turns out, a lot of people.
Her journey from overweight and unhealthy to muscled and strong has earned MacDonald nearly two million followers on Instagram and tens of millions of views on TikTok.
She says she is still overwhelmed by how many of her followers — many of them decades younger — say she gives them hope to turn their own lives around.
"It's life changing," MacDonald said during a recent visit to Toronto. "A lot of people say 'I just love your smile. Like it just makes me feel happy when I look at any of your posts.' "
Among those followers is Thornhill, Ont., resident Jodi Echakowitz, who's also become a friend. Echakowitz, who is in her 50s, followed MacDonald's example and transformed her own physical health. She and MacDonald spent a recent weekend together that included working out.
Echakowitz says following MacDonald's journey taught her there are no limits to what's possible.
"What you can do, how you can live your life and how you can turn your life around," she said. "It's like, I want what she's got, you know? I want to do what she's done. And so, yeah, it's incredible."
TikTok's boomer boom
MacDonald's crossover appeal among demographics has not only inspired her followers, it's made her and other older influencers a marketer's dream.
She promotes a workout line, has a fitness app, co-authored a book with her daughter and has other deals in the works.
"It's new but it will be normal," said Sabaa Quao, the chief creative officer for Toronto-based Cossette marketing and communications agency.
As platforms like TikTok gain traction with older users, brands are following them there, and Quao says that's because boomers are a huge market.
"When we think about the size of that boomer population, when we think about their economic impact in terms of spending power or disposable income, the market can't ignore them."
Nor can it ignore their ageless clout, says Quao.
"It is an implicit trust factor," that he says comes with experience and wisdom.
'Life can get better'
Gym Tan, 63, is leveraging her own life experience to take on a new role as a style influencer.
The former fashion executive based in San Francisco has deals with dozens of big-name brands and says she's "floored" by her new accidental career.
"I feel that, wow, my 60s is my best era ever. Definitely as an older woman in this space. I think that I love the fact that, you know, we are actually showing that there's no expiration date."
Tan's daughter and regular online fashion twin was the one who convinced her to share her outfit of the day — O.O.T.D. in social media parlance — on TikTok.
In the last year and a half Tan's quick styling tips that usually end with a snap of her fingers, have gained her hundreds of thousands of followers. She now has a talent agent, is part of the latest Sephora squad, a yearlong, paid partnership designed to showcase content creators. She has also appeared in a global ad campaign for Clairol.
"In terms of partnerships, this is a very lucrative business," Tan said, noting that she's a content creator first who wants to help make fashion accessible to the everywoman.
"I'm older and I have all this experience, so why not show people just how easy it really is," she said. "I want to give people this message that you don't need to be afraid about getting older because life is still great. In fact, life can get better."
While older influencers do have older followers, their biggest number of followers are those in their 20s and 30s who make up the majority of social media users and who often identify with older influencers on a nostalgic level.
'A grandma for everybody'
Elda Sirizzotti — or Nonna Elda to her followers — seems like she could be everyone's Italian grandmother. The 83-year-old's posts sharing traditional family recipes and cooking tips get millions of views on TikTok.
Her granddaughter, Allessandra Requena, encouraged her to share her passion for cooking last year, but was surprised at how strongly it resonated among young people.
"We have a TikTok that went very viral," said Requena. "It has 14 million views. And it's just, 'This is how you open a box of pasta.' And she bangs it on the counter. Yeah. And it just, like, really took off."
Sirizzotti has a few collaborations, too, and has released her own cookbook. She says she's still getting used to being recognized at the grocery store in her Toronto neighbourhood.
One follower even called her at home telling her he cried when he watched her post because she made him miss his own late grandmother.
"I say, 'OK, I'm gonna be your grandma,' " Sirizzotti told him. "I'm a grandma for everybody now!"
MacDonald says her multi-generational influence didn't come easy, but it's proving to be about so much more than the followers she has.
She says she went from overweight, depressed and on several medications to drug free and happier than she's ever been in her own skin.
But she says her newfound fame isn't even about her as much as it's about not buying into the idea that "when you reach a certain age, life is over."
MacDonald says she understands that a lot of people don't love themselves. For a long time, she says she didn't either. But that's changed, and so has her motivation.
"It's a very good feeling to be able to help somebody else get through life on a happier note.
With files from Brenda Witmer