Hunkered down with nothing to do, Americans flocked to TikTok during COVID lockdowns. The video-sharing platform exploded in popularity during the pandemic, with a staggering 850 million downloads in 2020 alone. Before lockdowns, TikTok had less than 600 million monthly active users. Today, it’s nearing 1.4 billion.
That propelled many creators to newfound levels of fame. TikTokers of every background — from grandmothers to toddlers — have enjoyed influencer status and life-changing opportunities thanks to the app.
Here are five of their stories:
The ‘Golden’ Gays
Robert Reeves, Mick Peterson, Bill Lyons, and Jessay Martin of Cathedral City, Calif., have exploded into stardom in their golden years as @oldgays on TikTok. At 78, 65, 77, and 68-years-old, respectively, their following has reached a staggering 6.6 million.
Some of the guys have known each since the mid ’80s, and their friendship group gradually expanded to a fabulous foursome during the following decades. But they would never have thought to post videos to TikTok if not for a chance encounter with Ryan Yezak, whose partner was a rental tenant of Robert’s. Yezak works in entertainment, and he immediately realized their dynamic personalities and adorable friendships had serious social media potential.
Since January of 2021, they’ve made a wide variety of TikToks, from videos of them dancing to sharing photos from their younger years. “We try to bring humor and joy. We’re not afraid to make fools of ourselves,” Mick said. “And we try to throw in a few bits of wisdom, too,” added Robert.
Their sudden stardom has also brought brand partnership deals with Shake Shack, T-Mobile and VRBO, as well as opportunities to collaborate on content creation with celebrities like Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, and Lance Bass. They’ve even appeared on “The Drew Barrymore Show.” “On the way there, we stopped at six different airports, and we were recognized at every single one,” Bill told The Post. “We had whole lines waiting to take selfies with us. I was absolutely shocked!”
The Old Gays run into fawning fans constantly, and they adore the attention. “I’m always getting love and thanks and gratitude and just yummy loving,” Jessay said. “I’m a hugaholic, and I will hug you whether you want it or not!”
The group’s experience of exploding into “golden years” stardom thanks to TikTok is truly one in a million. “I’m absolutely flabbergasted by the whole thing,” said Mick. “It’s such a treat that, late in my own life, I can have this kind of effect.”
The Irish Toddler Charmer
At just 4 years old, Jacob Whelan is already an Internet sensation with 1.5 million followers as @keepupwithjacob on TikTok. He lives with his parents and little sister, Maisey, in Dublin, Ireland. His mom, Donna, is the mastermind behind his budding stardom.
“From a baby, I always recorded Jacob and shared his videos with close family and friends,” she told The Post. “I just wanted to see if these videos cheer other people up as much as they do for me.” Their videos mainly consist of casual conversations, and Jacob’s precocious humor and remarkable charm shine through. “He’s very funny and clever and witty and definitely has an answer to everything,” Whelan said.
Now, the family regularly hears from their million-plus fans in every corner of the globe, and have received an outpouring of love. When Jacob mentioned in a TikTok that his dream is to work in a toy shop, Smyth toy store (a sort of Irish version of Toys “R” Us) even made a tiny uniform for him and invited him to spend a day at their Dublinshop, much to his delight.
Jacob’s enjoying his newfound life in the spotlight. He and mom have been interviewed by local newspapers and on local broadcaster RTE’s The Today Show in Ireland. Plus, he gets stopped on the street, at the supermarket, and even at the playground by adoring fans, to whom he gives high-fives.
“Kids that age are just so funny, and I’ve been able to capture those moments,” Donna said. “His personality and his honesty and the way he expresses himself are what people love about him.”
The Accidental Podcaster
Just a few months ago, Cory Bradford was a political organizer based in Oxford, Ala. Now, thanks to his TikTok fame as @thisiscory, he’s moved across the country for a dream job as a podcast host in New York City.
While working in politics, Bradford, 30, dabbled in the world of standup comedy on the side. That’s when a comedian friend suggested he post his content on TikTok. “I didn’t know what would happen. I had no plans,” he recalled. “I just started making videos, and learned what people liked.” Cory has since amassed a staggering 728,000 followers making videos about history — but always with a dose of humor thrown in.
Using comedy and satire, Bradford teaches his viewers about politics and history, from the Bill of Rights to the Second World War. “I think that young people actually are interested in history, but they’re taught it in school in a really boring way,” Bradford told The Post. “I try to be more entertaining and lively with it.” He’s even heard from young people who say they’ve aced tests thanks to his content.
What began as a pastime for Bradford shifted into something far bigger when a producer at a Manhattan-based media startup, The Lost Debate, found his videos and recognized his talent in front of the camera. She reached out, and before long, Bradford secured an offer to move to New York and co-host “The Lost Debate,” a political podcast aimed at bringing different perspectives together in dialogue.
Now, thanks to TikTok fame, he’s still making videos while living his dream. “I was totally taken aback by the opportunity,” he recalled. “ The only reason I’m here in New York today is because of TikTok. It has profoundly changed my life in that regard.”
The Teen ‘Thrifting’ Sensation
Olivia “Liv” Cochrane, 17, was just your typical teen before she blew up on TikTok. Now, the high school junior and fashion lover is closing in on 300,000 followers. It all started in March 2020 when a friend told her to join TikTok because they’d seen creators with similar styles and thought she could also become a success on the platform. That’s when Cochrane joined under the handle @yrstup1d and began showing off her unique outfits.
Almost instantly, the New York City teen went viral after posting a video of her wearing an outfit inspired by the Monster High fashion doll line. Since then, she’s branched out into making a “dress-like-me” series and taking her followers on her thrifting hauls. “I show the process of how I put together my outfits, because that’s what people wanted to know,” the Brooklyn-based influencer told The Post.
Cochrane has officially gained Internet celeb status, and it has totally changed her life. “I never really aspired to be an influencer. It’s not why I joined TikTok, but once I started, it was very much something I was into.” To date, she’s been stopped on the street dozens of times by fanswho say they look up to her for style inspiration, especially in thrift stores. She has also been followed by some of her own favorite influencers, including Madeline Pendleton, who has over 1 million followers
Liv has been able to monetize her TikTok presence by joining the TikTok creator fund — a stipend TikTok provides for especially ambitious content creators — and selling “style bundles” to followers who want her to pick clothes for them. “Being a professional influencer is something I’m definitely capable of doing,” she said. “I think it’s a sustainable career path, and I have a lot of friends who make a living off it, which is crazy.”
In the coming years, Cochrane aspires to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and her ultimate dream is to open her own store where she sells consigned clothes as well as her own original designs.
The Connecticut “Grandfluencer”
92-year-old Lill Droniak is a mother of three, grandmother of five, and great grandmother of three. She also happens to be an Internet sensation, with 4.1 million followers as @grandma_droniak on TikTok.
The Shelton, Conn., resident began growing a social media presence after her grandson, Kevin Droniak, recognized her potential to go viral. “I always saw my grandma as someone the Internet would like, because she’s just so funny,” he told The Post. So, in 2012, they began making YouTube videos together.
When TikTok became the hottest new platform, Kevin knew Lill had to get on there. That’s where she got her big break as a true “grandfluencer.” Grandma Droniak’s big personality shines through in her videos. She posts everything from dancing videos to dating and life advice. Lill is delighted by the outpouring of love that’s come from her unlikely TikTok career: “I just started messing around with it, and they loved me! I never expected so many people to watch, but it feels good. I really can’t believe it.”
She and Kevin have branched out into creating merchandiselike Grandma Lill T-shirts and doing brand deals with companies like Amazon. They’ve even appeared on Steve Harvey’s show. Lill says the extra cash in her pocket from her influencer career has been much appreciated. “The food prices are going up, the gas prices are going up. I’m just lucky that I can do this.”
Now, Grandma Droniak gets stopped everywhere she goes by adoring fans, and she says the experience keeps her young: “A lot of people can’t believe I’m still doing it. It keeps me young. I might be 92, but I feel like I’m 65!”