The Untold Truth Of TikTok's Favorite Grandma Babs

Given TikTok's immense appeal with Gen Z, you would think creators on the video-sharing platform would feel pressure to retire at 30. TikTok's reputation as a space for young people is justified, but only to a point. While more than 47% of TikTok users were born between 1997 and 2012 (via Insider Intelligence), that still means that most TikTok creators are Millennials, Gen Xers, or (dare we say it?) Boomers.

Barbara Costello aka Grandma Babs, a full-on Boomer at 72, started posting simple recipe videos on TikTok in April 2020. Her daughter Liz Ariola, who already had a social media presence with her Mrs. Nipple blog, wanted to break into TikTok herself, but she was pregnant with her third child and experiencing a lot of morning sickness. Ariola recruited her mother to get the TikTok account rolling. "I actually agreed because my daughter wouldn't take no for an answer," Costello told Today. "I assumed that I was on the hook for a few videos and that would be that."

Costello's visions of a short and unremarkable TikTok career were blown up, however, because she blew up — which is to say, she went instantly viral. Her first video, demonstrating a one-sheet-pan chicken recipe, got more than 100,000 views. Her reach has only grown since and now is skyrocketing — from 276,000 followers in late June (via The Girlfriend) to 789,000 on July 29, according to TikTok. As Costello herself frequently says about becoming TikTok famous in her 70s (via Instagram), "Who would've thunk?"

Babs dispenses cooking and life advice on TikTok

Babs' TikTok account, @brunchwithbabs, started as a platform where she could upload one-minute (or even 15-second) video versions of the recipes she had collected over the decades from family, friends, magazines, and newspapers. Early on, Babs gave us tasty but easy recipes for Greek potatoes; one-pot pasta and broccoli; bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches; and monkey bread. Soon, she started expanding her repertoire. Her recipe box wasn't going to supply TikTok content forever, after all. Costello has posted a number of life-hack videos along with some pearls of grandmotherly wisdom. In one video, Costello advises us to "grow where you're planted" rather than waiting until life is perfect before being happy. And in one of her most-watched videos ever, with 6.5 million views, "Babs" shows how to check the propane level in your grill tank by pouring warm water over it.

To be sure, Costello isn't breaking new ground. The propane tank-check hack can be found in a lot of places, including the Ferrellgas blog. Paul Harvey wrote an essay published in 1987 titled, "Bloom where you're planted" (via Idiomation). Costello's TikTok showing her do-it-yourself insulated cup — wrap a napkin around the plastic cup holding your frozen daiquiri, and put that in another plastic cup — has not only been done before, it also upset Babs' environmentally conscious followers. Her appeal isn't in her message as much as it is in her delivery. The camera loves Babs' personality.

Why people relate to Babs' TikTok videos

Good timing contributed to the instant appeal of Babs' TikTok. She was a smash success from her very first video because she was showing people how to make easy meals at home at the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine. A lot of Babs' fanbase is in the 20-to-40-year-old range, according to The Washington Post, and some of these younger adults might not have been able to visit their own mother or grandmother in the pandemic's early days. "They found my presence and my recipes comforting in a time that they were missing their own extended family members," Costello told the AARP blog The Girlfriend. "I think people are hungry for connections, for the safety of home, safety of family — and maybe with me, they feel safe," she told The Washington Post.

Costello's appeal has endured much longer than America's brief lockdown fascination with sourdough starter. For one thing, busy parents appreciate Costello's anti-perfectionism and her embrace of pre-packaged ingredients, à la Sandra Lee. She also bursts with enthusiasm on camera, which she attributes to her previous lives teaching middle school (via Today) and running a preschool. "You have to be energetic and animated with preschool kids, or you will lose their attention," she told The Girlfriend.

Babs is on TV screens, not just phone screens

"TikTok famous" is legitimate fame nowadays. If you're familiar with Charli D'Amelio, then you already know this. But TikTok has also taken Babs to a level of celebrity people of her generation can better relate to: She's been on TV, thanks to Drew Barrymore. And that Barbara Costello charm translated well from the phone screen to the living room screen. On an April episode of "The Drew Barrymore Show" (via YouTube), Babs showed Barrymore how to make an egg and bread casserole from a recipe off a 45-year-old newspaper clipping — and from Costello's second-oldest recipe video on TikTok.

Few people in the world can claim the level of fame Drew Barrymore has, but the star of "E.T." and about 50 rom-coms simply gushed over Babs. "I can't believe I"m actually cooking in the kitchen with you," Barrymore said. At the end of the segment, they bonded intensely over corn pudding, and Barrymore appeared eager to have Babs on again. Sure enough, Babs was back, just a couple weeks later, for Mother's Day. In the YouTube video for this episode, Babs taught Barrymore and Laura Prepon of "That '70s Show" fame how to make a frittata. "My earliest memory of my mom in the kitchen, coming from a first-generation Italian family, was making potatoes and eggs on a Friday," Babs said.

Costello is making the rounds, having appeared recently on the infotainment shows "Good Morning America" and "Access Hollywood," too.

Babs and her daughter are part of a body-positive swimsuit campaign

Babs' media exposure isn't limited to social media and television. She's a billboard model, too, appearing larger-than-life along sidewalks and on buildings in New York. Barbara Costello and her daughter Liz Ariola both posed in Summersalt swimwear for a body-positive ad campaign (via Today). The swimsuit brand actually reached out to Ariola, who was three months postpartum, but Costello got roped in when Ariola gave Summersalt her mom's email address by mistake. It seems Babs is destined to follow in her daughter's footsteps, on her way to fame.

"I believe you're never too old to try new things and to continue to embrace life with joy and enthusiasm," Costello told Today in an interview about her role in the swimsuit campaign. She was also pleased to report that her willingness to show the world her body in a swimsuit inspired her social media followers. "One person in particular was like, 'You know what, I'm not waiting to buy my suit this year. I'm going out to buy my swimsuit now,'" Costello said.

Costello's courage also inspired her own daughter, who was self-conscious at the beginning of the photoshoot. "Being able to see her doing this at 72 was inspiring and kind of gave me that momentum to go out," Ariola said.

What's next for TikTok's favorite grandma?

Barbara Costello, aka Babs, may be 72 years old, but her trajectory on TikTok gives you the sense that her new career as a celebrity cook is just taking off. The TikTok account is growing so fast that whatever number we reported for her follower total will almost certainly be outdated by the time you read it. Costello told NYU's The Click that she is thinking about diversifying her TikTok content, but she also gave the website a much bigger tease: People have been contacting her about possibly hosting her own cooking show. She's in no rush, however, telling The Click she's allowing her career to evolve naturally. After all, she's still having fun on TikTok, and she told Today she wants to stay on that platform as long as her content is helping people.

Finally, it doesn't look like anyone has announced this formally, but the book publisher Penguin Random House has created a webpage for a new cookbook, with Costello as the author, to be called "Brunch with Babs: A Year of Menus From Her Recipe Box to Your Family Table." The book's so new it doesn't have a cover yet. Its scheduled release date is March 29, 2022.

Just call it another ironic twist in an unusual path to celebrity for Babs. A boxful of time-worn recipes gets a digital refresh on TikTok, only to return to print form in a new cookbook. What's new is old again.