When Ross Smith first captured a video with his grandma, Kana (aka “Gangster Granny”), and posted it to Vine ten years ago, neither he nor his beloved matriarch could have dreamed just how far their video collaborations would go. Especially not Granny, who thought Ross was taking photos of the two of them for several years as their social media fame steadily skyrocketed and they won over the hearts of millions of followers worldwide with their hilarious, heartwarming antics.
Now 96 years young, Granny is adjusting to life as an international social media celebrity who is frequently stopped at airports and public spaces by fans who want to tell her just how much she and her grandson have lit up their lives from afar. Having grown up during the Great Depression and having spent most of her life working back-breaking, blue-collar jobs (including building bombs in a factory during WWII), Granny lived a peaceful life as a family woman in rural Ohio for more than eight decades before unintentionally becoming the internet’s very first “Granfluencer.” Her journey highlights just how far technology can evolve during one person’s lifetime, and how drastically our personal expectations and cultural norms can shift alongside it. After accruing an impressive 90 million+ followers across platforms over the past decade, she and Ross are redefining what it means to be successful, sensational, and celebrated – at any age.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Ross and Granny to learn more about their unexpected journey, which currently includes Granny’s desire to learn how to drive, while she bravely battles cancer, and Ross’ attempts to keep up with her vibrant energy and inspiring impact.
When I look at you, Granny, I see perhaps the most outrageous human being on the planet in the best possible way. I tune into your and Ross’ YouTube channel and cannot stop laughing. I’m curious to learn where that outrageous energy comes from?
Granny: I’ve probably always been just a little bit outrageous (depending on the context) but working so closely with my Ross these past several years has certainly unlocked more of the outrageous in me.
Ross: She’s a natural. Even now, during this difficult time, we goof off together in the hospital as much as we can. I brought her a bottle of liquor the other day and joked about putting it in her IV.
Why don’t you just give her a shot? Sounds like she would like it.
Ross: As soon as she’s released, it’s on. She claims she wants wine and a cigarette. She hasn’t smoked a cigarette in probably 60 years, but I’m here to make sure that all of her dreams come true. If she can beat cancer, she can have anything her heart desires.
If anyone can beat this battle, it’s Granny. Tell us, what does it feel like to be one of the most well-known and beloved people on social media at 96 years old?
Granny: It is surreal, but it also feels amazing to know that this time I’ve spent with my grandson creating silly videos has served to inspire so many people and encourage them to be kind, to laugh, and to connect with their elders. It’s all new to me, and I credit Ross for our success. My generation didn’t have TV or the internet, only radio. To go from obscurity offline to this place where people seem to know my name has been a whirlwind in the very best way. I’m not interested in the fame, but I do love that I now have the opportunity to connect with so many new people all across the world and hear their stories while sharing our own. I could never have expected or even wished for this chapter of life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Ross: She’s being humble. She’s 96, and she’s one of the most famous people in the digital space. She’s proven that, even (and perhaps especially) when you come from humble beginnings, working hard is always worth it. She shows people that age is just a number, and you can really do anything you want to in this life. And that’s made an impact on the people who have been following our journey – and the age standards in the industry as a whole.
Tell us more about where you came from, and how you got to where you are today.
Ross: We’re from Youngstown, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. Granny worked and raised our family there, and I attended and played college football at the University of Dayton nearby. While in college, I started dipping my toes into content creation and saw some early success from the videos I’d post to Vine. People seemed to generally like my style, but the videos that featured Granny resonated on a whole different level. In those days, you wouldn’t see interactions like ours [grandmother/grandson] online much, so our content gave a first look into something very special: how heartfelt, meaningful, and cool a relationship with one’s grandparent/child can be. When our relatives age, they are so often relegated to the background of our lives – when it should, in fact, be the opposite. Granny has so much perspective and positivity to offer that I couldn’t help but make her a huge part of the content I create to make people laugh and smile.
What made you decide that Granny needed to be known by the world?
Ross: She’s had such an incredible life as a hardworking family woman, and I’ve always had a wonderful relationship with her – full of teasing, pranking, and laughter. I wanted to show people how cool our elders can be and help them understand that a person’s value does not diminish over time (quite the contrary). I also just wanted to share her story – the struggles she faced, the life she’s lived well, and how she overcame so much to inspire people in such an effortless way. One might say she’s been through the wringer, but her inherent joy and love of life is what shines through most and gives our content its real heartbeat. I love making people laugh but seeing how much Granny inspires people and makes their day when we meet them in person is what keeps me motivated to keep going – for myself, for our audience, but mostly, for her.
What’s each of your favorite part of having achieved such success?
Granny: It brings me happiness knowing that my friends and the fans are happy about watching our videos and following along on our journey. I also love meeting and connecting with people everywhere we go.
Ross: For me, it’s the same. Our goal together is just to make the world smile. Doing so gives us a kind of high, like we are making a positive impact on this place, which is addicting and inspiring to us both. Every time I see something negative online, I commit to doing the opposite. We want to be the positive outlet for people to turn to when they need a good laugh or some heartwarming Granny content.
You’ve certainly accomplished that goal. Granny’s Halloween video had me dying laughing. Who comes up with the content? Do you script the videos?
Ross: I write everything when the videos are scripted, and Granny’s the A-list star who brings those ideas to life. Sometimes we go off-the-cuff and improvise, because I know what buttons of her to push to elicit a hilarious reaction. I’m kind of a Steven Spielberg-type in that way, and she’s my Betty White.
What’s next for you both once Granny gets out of the hospital, aside from cigarettes and wine?
Granny: I want to go sailing again. Make some more videos. Travel. Keep moving. I’d also love to finally learn how to drive a car!
Ross: I have some big things planned for us that I can’t say out loud just yet.
Well, Granny, consider me a big fan of yours. Do you get a lot of fan mail and emails from followers?
Granny: Yes, I do! And a lot of people just come up to say hi to us in person.
Ross: I’d say she gets upward of 200,000 people reaching out to her in a 24-hour period. And that’s just in the comments. If we’re talking total interactions, it’s closer to 5 – 10 million a day. So many people sent her well wishes, and there’s probably about 15 vases of flowers in her hospital room right now, despite the fact that I haven’t shared her room number with anyone. She is beloved.
I can certainly see why. Final question for Ross: Do you think you would have been doing all these things without Granny?
Ross: No, I don’t think so. I have other cast members who have helped out over the years, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the work nearly as much. Without Granny, I probably wouldn’t even have thought of taking this path so seriously. I was a football player getting a Marketing degree when she first helped me go viral. The impact she has on people is what motivates and propels me forward. For example, we went to a bodybuilding expo recently. I know that if I’d planned to go up to a big, strong guy and tell him he looked small for a video, he might punch me. But when Granny does it, he just laughs. Heartily. She is the heart of what I do, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without her.
Watch Ross Smith and Gangster Granny on youtube here: