Arts & Sciences

Babs knows best: How the Marquette alumna became the internet’s favorite mom

Babs knows best, brunch with babs
Babs knows best, brunch with babs

What prepared Barbara Costello to become a social media star? Everything in her seven-plus decades, including her years at Marquette.

“Hi everybody, it’s Babs.” Amid the hot takes, living room dances, Taylor Swift concert clips and adorable animals filling so many social media feeds, a smiling grandma sharing encouraging words might seem out of place.

But not Babs. Bursting with warmth, sparkle and an endless supply of handy, mom-tested tips to make life easier, her eponymous @BrunchWithBabs videos have struck a chord on a massive scale. Known as “the internet mom/grandma you didn’t know you needed,” Babs has amassed almost 4 million followers on TikTok and a similar number on Instagram. She’s also 75-year-old Barbara (Shamon) Costello, Arts ’70.

Costello wasn’t on social media — “not even Facebook”— when her youngest daughter, Elizabeth Ariola, persuaded her to make a video during the COVID-19 lockdown. In it, Costello walked viewers through a recipe for one-sheet Greek chicken and potatoes. The 43-second “easy family staple” went up on TikTok on April 7, 2020, and Costello thought she was done — until she read the comments.

“The comments were like: ‘You are getting me through this horrible period; you are my anchor to stability; you remind me of my mom that I can’t see, my grandmother that I lost,’” she says. “They were all so heartfelt, and I realized, this is bigger. This social media platform is very powerful.”

Since then, Costello’s content has expanded to include household hacks, party hosting tips (Did your mother ever tell you that your punch bowl doubles as a cake stand?) and life lessons. There’s also Costello’s favorite segment, “a slice of peace,” sharing motherly advice directly with viewers. Ariola is still behind the camera and doing the editing, as part of a creative partnership that packs plenty of Babs lovability into each minute-or-less package.

Mom goes viral

“I remember looking at my phone and seeing the numbers ticking up — it was all the people clicking ‘follow.’ It was like a meter on fast forward,” Costello says. “The followers seemed to gravitate from the very beginning.”

She had 100,000 followers in about nine months. In just under a year, Costello and her daughter were driving to New York to do a promo with Summersalt — a swimsuit company that features real women, not models, in its advertising — and was soon pictured on a billboard in lower Manhattan and in an ad in The New York Times. Appearances on the Today show, Good Morning America and the Drew Barrymore Show followed, as did interest from brands such as Talbots, Viva paper towels and Arnold (Brownberry, to Midwesterners) bread.

Although Costello originally intended to create videos only a couple of days a week, today it’s a full-time job with sponsors, partners, book deals and TV appearances. Her first cookbook, Celebrate with Babs, is out, dispensing menus, recipes and advice for holidays throughout the year. “All of this happened when I was 72 years old,” she says. “It was a second act I wasn’t expecting.”

Babs costello and alumni friends - Marquette Magazine
Costello, center, with lifelong friends Lucy (Smith) Shaker, Arts ’70, and Sandy (Soden) Noel, Arts ’70, left to right.

Life before brunch

Costello grew up on Chicago’s west side and attended Marquette with a group of friends. She loved the independence, the atmosphere and the experiences she had at the university, where she majored in English with a minor in education. “Being a liberal arts major, you learn how to think, you learn how to write, you learn how to communicate — I think that’s really important,” Costello says. “Marquette gave me that foundation.”

She would eventually settle in Connecticut with her husband, Bill (“Mr. Babs” to her followers). There, she and Bill raised four children and she started a preschool called The Growing Tree, which she directed and ran for almost 25 years.

Babs’ greatest hits

  • Babs costello greatest hits and tips
    Remove pumpkin guts with a hand mixer: With this hack that’s earned 4 million likes on TikTok and nearly 1 million on Instagram, Babs says skip the stress, keep your hands clean and let your mixer do the dirty work.

Lots to celebrate

Costello’s book is dedicated to all the mothers in her life — spiritual, biological and “mothers-in-love.” She credits much to her heritage. “I think it’s a wonderful combination, Italian and Lebanese,” she says. “It’s the love of family. The love of food and celebrations. That’s what my book is totally about.”

On the horizon, Costello is looking forward to taking trips and sharing them with her followers, writing a second cookbook, already in the works, as well as spending time with her nine grandchildren. She and Ariola have also started renovating an 1830s cottage on Connecticut’s Silvermine River. That may become the new home for Brunch with Babs.

Though Costello still isn’t scrolling social media with the rest of us now (“I just don’t have the time,” she says), she’s earned her spot as a presence in many of our feeds — and lives. And that doesn’t surprise her closest collaborator. “She is very charismatic and a teacher at heart, plus she doesn’t take herself too seriously,” Ariola says. “She really is and always has been a complete natural in front of the camera.”

Lead photo by Rikki Snyder