OMAHA -- Caerhl Irey can’t exactly explain how a jolly, plus-sized woman with gray hair, a grandma-type who goes by the name "North Omaha Cat Lady," has 2.5 million followers on TikTok. Her videos have 89 million "likes."
“I’m sort of a buffet,” she suggests.
That description is somehow fitting for a woman who has taken food reaction videos to new heights on the hugely popular social media platform. Her running commentary on the posts of cooks from such obscure places as Mongolia — sometimes with real ingredients and sometimes not — are so popular that it has led to her own cooking channels on SnapChat and Facebook.
Weasel eggs, anyone?
Irey has decided it's time to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, and reveal the person behind North Omaha Cat Lady. With common sense and decency seemingly in short supply these days, Irey says it’s not an easy decision.
That’s because felines and cooking are just part of her repertoire.
It was her elaborate names for Donald Trump, whose moniker she refuses to say, that accelerated her steady rise on TikTok.
Now anything is fair game for commentary, as the label of one of her most popular videos, "Sparkly Jesus," might suggest. That one attracted the attention of comedians Steve Harvey and Leslie Jones.
Oh, and Rosie O’Donnell is also a fan.
Irey has a perfectly respectable full-time job here in Omaha. She moved home from Minneapolis in 2012 to care for her mom. In 2015, she bought a house in North Omaha, where she grew up.
“If you want to improve a community, invest in it,” she says.
The support she provided to the many feral cats on her block led to her TikTok label, bestowed on her by a young neighbor.
“She was under the impression that every single cat in the neighborhood was mine,” she said. “I always thought that was funny.”
She’s a liberal in a red state, she says, an activist who marches for women’s rights and for those of the LGBTQ+ community.
It was in June 2020, when she was in lockdown like everyone else because of the pandemic, that the now-56-year-old decided to join the fun on TikTok. It’s a platform that used to cater to a much younger audience, but Irey said that's no longer true.
She had no idea what she was doing and had to ask a friend’s 14-year-old daughter for technical help. Her first attempts were a little rough, but the wide-ranging posts of the self-described news junkie struck a chord.
She also sometimes shares personal news.
At a recent work event, someone mentioned how much she'd liked a video Irey had done after her sister’s death.
“It was raw and I was crying,” she said. “If I am happy, you are going to see I’m happy. If I’m a mess, you are going to see I’m a mess.”
Also, check out the muumus and pearls. She's a proud member of the #mumubrigade (according to Irey, the #mumubrigade is not a group, it is an "ideology"), and receives many in the mail from fans. She has been known to clutch her pearls over certain events, so she gets those, too. Of course, the thrift-store variety.
Her followers grew at a steady pace until she reached a million. The jump to 2 million happened quickly.
“It was sort of alarming,” Irey said. “I’m much happier with slow growth.”
Her 2.5 million viewers is a decent number in social media following terms, she says. She jokes that she’s famous like the weather girl in Minot, North Dakota. Some have 40 million followers and more.
Her numbers have come after posting about 8,000 videos, under @north_omaha_cat_lady and a secondary account called @flossie_mae_, a once one-dimensional Trump supporter who has grown into her own back story.
“I never know what’s going to come out of her mouth,” Irey said.
"Flossie Mae" has more than 75,000 followers and those videos have more than 1.4 million "likes". You need a second account or even more, Irey said, in case one is banned temporarily for content or because of protests by viewers.
That happens. Every night, she holds TikTok live sessions, where she comments on the day’s events. Her language isn't squeaky clean.
She doesn’t rehearse, either. Her love of talking and some drama classes she took at Omaha Central and in college probably help, she says. She credits Pegi Georgeson for teaching her about character acting and improv.
“I didn’t realize I have a very rubber face,” she said. “Quite a number of bosses didn’t like me because I don’t hide my emotions well. I do have a good poker face, but I really have to think about doing it.”
Ironically, considering the popularity of her videos, Irey doesn’t necessarily enjoy cooking.
She lived with a baker for 17 years who loved the Cooking Channel. She apparently paid attention, she says.
“I can cook. I’m more interested in the mechanics of cooking,” she said. “Cooking is about as interesting as vacuuming. Some people get very soothed or find their zen. I do not. I think it’s interesting. It’s like watching football.”
As her followers grow, Irey said she doesn’t feel more pressure to keep producing. She has resisted doing branded content, where she would represent a company and their products.
That sounds too much like work, and when posting becomes that, she’ll quit, she says. Financial rewards are not the object, although those could come through her cooking channels.
The plan is to keep going until she "croaks."
“I feel like I’m having fun,” she said. “I really enjoy it.”
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