Two years ago, in the lonely days of lockdown, I made some new friends who made me smile, chuckle, and feel hopeful. Every few days 60-something spouses Joan and Jimmy O’Shaughnessy invited me into their home to watch their latest dance. I got to know their sleek kitchen, their pine dresser, botanical wallpaper and sunny garden. I admired their outfits and loved their moves, performed to the music of everyone from Chuck Berry to Britney Spears. Most of all, I loved how they behaved around one another: how unselfconscious they seemed, how they looked at one another, and most of all, how much fun they were having.
My encounter with the O’Shaughnessys was entirely legal, despite the restrictions: it came via TikTok, the social media site that’s taken the world by storm since it’s launch in 2017. Unlike Instagram’s focus on still pictures and Twitter on sharing opinions, TikTok majors on funny, short videos that overwhelmingly emphasise the optimistic side of life – although, like all major social media sites, it has its detractors.
we’re not ashamed of being old. I use the hashtag “old people dancing”’
Content creators, as they’re called in TikTok speak, share films of themselves dancing, joking, demonstrating recipes. And while most of its users are teens and 20-somethings, the past two years has seen a growing trend of older users, of whom the O’Shaughnessys are a stunning example. Posting under @twojays2, they have more than one million followers – quite a surprise for this Southport pair who’ve been married for 48 years, and have two sons in their thirties and a two-year-old grandson.
‘We couldn’t have imagined how it would take off,’ Jimmy tells me over Zoom. ‘It’s given us a second career, and quite a lucrative one.’ It was in April 2020 that the couple first shared a video of themselves dancing on TikTok. ‘I sawa dance someone put on TikTok then shared on Facebook,’ says Joan. ‘And I thought, we could do that!’
She and Jimmy had been ballroom and sequence dancers for more than 20 years, but opportunities for social dancing in person had evaporated in the first pandemic lockdown. With the nation confined to quarters, and TikTok providing a digital stage, the couple took to their garden on a blowy day and hot-footed it across their lawn, adding the tagline: ‘Grandparents social dancing while social distancing’.
And people liked it (to date, more than 170,000 have seen that video). Later dances, such as one to the rap hit Cupid Shuffle, garnered an astonishing 1.5 million-plus views. And others went viral too, including a dance to the African beat of Maleek Berry.
The main requirement to make money on TikTok is having a sizeable following. Once you do, you’re invited to be part of the TikTok Creator Fund, and you’re given a small amount each day to reflect however many views your content has had. The O’Shaughnessys generally make between £75 and £120 a month. But that’s small fry compared with media appearances on the back of a successful TikTok career. One of the O’Shaughnessys’ dances featured on an advert in the USA. As Jimmy points out, £1,500 for two seconds’ worth of content they’d already recorded isn’t bad going.
So why have the O’Shaughnessys made it to stardom simply by dancing around their house and garden? The answer, it seems, is that they’re delightfully authentic. It might go against everything you thought about social media, but Jimmy and Joan aren’t trying to be younger, cooler, or even better dancers than they are. ‘We’re certainly not ashamed of being old – I use the hashtag [to identify a keyword in a digital conversation] “old people dancing” on TikTok,’ says Joan.
James Stafford, head of partnerships and community at UK TikTok, agrees. He says the platform brings people from diverse backgrounds and across the age spectrum together to share stories. ‘What I’ve loved seeing is how this has been happening between generations,’ he says. ‘From grandparents creating videos with their grandchildren to older users sharing advice and even hosting live singalongs, there’s a wholesome intergenerational conversation thriving on TikTok in a way we have just not seen before.’
'Even if you’ve not met someone, TikTok makes you feel as though you have’
TikTok creatives often inspire others. From the start, says Jimmy, who worked as a senior manager at British Aerospace until his retirement, his and Joan’s relationship has attracted a lot of attention. ‘People often ask about our relationship,’ says Jimmy. ‘They say things like, you must have a lot in common. But Joan isn’t interested in my passions, football and golf. What binds us together is our faith [they’re Catholics], our love for one another, and our shared enjoyment of dancing.’
Sharing something you love is the secret to being successful on TikTok, and like the O’Shaughnessys, Nigel Thompson has built his following organically. ‘After I retired in December 2019 [he’d been a production supervisor at Nissan], my former colleagues, who were fans of the curries I’ve always made, wanted me to keep sharing my recipes,’ he says. My 20-year-old daughter Jasmine said, “Why not do a TikTok?” I said, “What’s a TikTok?” So she showed me, we made a film, tagged people we thought would like to see it and it went from there.’
Nigel, 57, who also has an older daughter, Georgia, 22, with his wife Shelley, now has around 42,000 followers – and one video of him making a Camembert tear-and-share garlic bread, has had nearly a million views. ‘I had 100 followers, then suddenly I had 10,000, and it’s grown from there.’
His recipes are originals, and he aims to post two a week. The concept behind his dishes is that they’re suitable for a family supper – hence his ‘Tea with the Thompsons’ (@teawithmrt) TikTok handle.
For Nigel, income opportunities come partly from product placement – he’s paid a fee if his videos showcase certain brands of kitchenware, as well as watches and phones, and foodstuffs, such as sea salt. His TikTok success brought him to the attention of Tesco, and last year he recorded a recipe for crispy pork that was shown on the retailer’s YouTube channel, for which Nigel was paid £2,500. He also has an online book published by feastyrecipes.com, where he’s now a featured chef.
One thing leads to another with TikTok, and it’s come as a big, if pleasant, shock to Nigel. ‘Never in a hundred years would I have imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing now,’ he says. ‘I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I never thought it would be a second career. I love it though; I love being in touch with so many people.’ Like the O’Shaughnessys, it’s his authenticity that’s got him here. ‘People know when someone is faking it. This all grew from me wanting to show my friends how to make curries – it’s just snowballed.’
Most TikTok superstars are younger than Joan, Jimmy and Nigel, but for one teen dance sensation, the key to his success has been his 79-year-old grandmother. Lewis Leigh (@lewisleighh), 19, from Merthyr Tydfil, started posting dance videos on TikTok at the end of 2019. ‘I had about 150,000 followers,’ he says. ‘But one day in lockdown, when I was delivering shopping to my nan, I said why don’t we do a TikTok together?’
The resulting film, which shows Phyllis Leigh jiving on her doorstep in her dressing gown while Lewis does the same moves from a safe distance, has been viewed around 11 million times. ‘People loved her. From then on, if I posted a TikTok without her, the comments would be, “Where’s your nan?”’
Lewis says Phyllis was thrilled to help her grandson build his TikTok following, and enjoyed learning the dances and having time with him. But last August, everything changed. ‘Nan had a stroke. It was very scary,’ says Lewis. ‘For a while it wasn’t looking good.’ Gradually, though, Phyllis started to regain her strength. The goodwill generated by their TikTok followers has, Lewis believes, helped her through. ‘I think it’s played a big part in her recovery. She says it’s given her a new sense of life, something to really enjoy and look forward to.’ Leigh has been dancing alone since Phyllis’s illness, and his hope now is that she’ll soon be well enough to dance with him again. ‘Dancing without my nan just isn’t the same,’ he says.
If you fancy giving TikTok a whirl, by all means jump on it, but don’t assume you’ll hit the big time. ‘If you’re doing it to go viral, don’t bother,’ says Joan. ‘But if you think it will be fun and have something to share, go ahead and enjoy it.’ Lewis says it’s about being who you really are. ‘You just get your phone out and record, and it’s your real life. Even though you’ve not met someone in real life, TikTok makes you feel as though you have – it makes you feel you actually know them.’
All about TikTok
TikTok is a free social media app that allows you to watch, create, edit and share videos, often with music, from your phone.
You can share TikTok videos with everyone or just selected people (go to your profile page and tap ‘privacy’ on the settings).
TikTok allows you to express yourself through dancing, singing, comedy, recipe-sharing – and it’s for over-13s, though it initially appealed to under-30s and they continue to be the biggest users.
Most TikTok content creators aren’t famous, but the platform gives people a chance to be catapulted to huge fame.
Scottish singer Rod Stewart, 76, and his wife Penny Lancaster recently stunned fans with a TikTok clip of themselves dancing to Rod’s hit Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?
Dame Judi Dench became a TikTok sensation after dancing with her daughter Finty and grandson Sam on his account @samwilliams1
Joe Allington, 88, from Lichfield, AKA @grandadjoe1933, has 5.4 million followers. On TikTok, he makes light of tough situations like his health problems, and dances with his granddaughter.
Another later-life dancer, Irish-American @grandadfrankk, has 7.1 million followers. He describes himself as ‘just a grandad hopping on the trends’. He’s said to be worth over $1 million, thanks to his TikTok fame.
Subscribe today for just £29 for 12 issues...