Ophelia Nichols has become somewhat of a mother figure to her over 600,000 and counting followers on TikTok.
Take a look at any of her countless viral videos and you’ll understand why: The 39-year-old Alabama native and mom of four, who goes by @shoelover99 on the platform, has an undeniable way about her, with her calming, Dolly Parton-like voice and her kind, understanding eyes.
But what Nichols has been doing for her fellow TikTok users — or “tater tots,” as she lovingly refers to them — goes far beyond her disarming Southern accent.
For the past few months, Nichols has been talking people down from ledges, offering them kind words and building them back up after they’ve been bullied and belittled by their viewers, their dates or even their own mothers.
One of her recent viral clips shows her reassuring a young TikToker who shared a video of herself in tears after her mom made a rude remark about her appearance in a new dress.
“Hey, my lil tater tot!” Nichols sweetly addressed the crying girl in a video that has since drawn over 7.4 million times. “You know what, I had one of those mamas, too, that used to tell me I was fat and ugly from the time I could remember. And then as I got older, I quit listening to that heifer!”
“I don’t know who told you’re not beautiful, but I think you are, and I think you look lovely in your dress,” Nichols continued. “You wear that dress however you want to. Don’t worry about what that lady says. Everybody else thinks you’re beautiful. I do!”
It’s this special combination of Southern, sweeter-than-tea charm and gentle, motherly wisdom that makes Nichols a magnetic yet soothing online presence — especially amid a tough time like this, when a kind word can be the sole force that propels you through the day.
Nichols told In The Know she first became interested in TikTok in August 2020. She discovered the app the way most parents do — her daughter texted her multiple links to funny videos.
“I had heard of TikTok many times before because let’s face it, I have teenagers at home,” she shared. “Once I created my page, I began to see other people and their pages — some sad, some happy. I saw new babies being born, meltdowns due to COVID, comedy, you name it. It was an array of just about every emotion possible around the world.”
“It was so neat to see everyone of all backgrounds, shapes, colors, you name it,” she added. “It was like for a brief moment, I was invited into their lives. It made me happy.”
Nichols, who works as an operations manager for a local furniture store, decided to start posting her trademark advice videos after seeing how many users desperately needed support.
“The more and more I used the app, the more I saw just how many individuals were hurting and needed a little kindness to get them through,” she told In The Know. “The year 2020 pretty much destroyed everyone and their happiness.”
Although she now spends her time comforting and consoling others, Nichols says was not afforded the same treatment by her own mother, who she says struggled with mental health issues.
“My mother was terrible to me,” she recalled. “Terrible to all my siblings as well. At the age of 16, I became pregnant and was forced to quit school by my mother because in her words, ‘it was an embarrassment’ to see me pregnant yet still in high school. So I did. I didn’t realize what a mistake that was back then until I got older.”
Nichols — whose own children are aged 17, 18, 20 and 23 — says her mother kicked her out of her home after the birth of her first son, forcing her to “grow up really fast.”
“In honesty, my kindness toward people comes from the inside,” Nichols said. “It comes from me choosing to be better instead of bitter.”
“I am the spitting image of my father who was the greatest man who ever lived in my eyes,” she added. “He raised me to never judge anyone for anything.”
Nichols’ father — a beacon of acceptance for her — tragically died of a heart attack when she was just 13 years old.
Now, over two decades later, she finds herself acting as a role model like her father was for her — not just her own four children, but for her digital family, as well.
“There are so many children, teenagers, young adults who don’t have anyone they can go to,” she said. “They have no one in their corner that they are safe to come to about anything. I know I didn’t have anyone and I would have given anything to have someone like me but I didn’t.”
“They also see the bullying and hateful comments all over social media,” she added. “People will start to act the ways of what is most common to them. Meaning, if they see nothing but hate, they will eventually start to act and feel the same way. It just dawned on me one day — what if could make a difference just by showing kindness and love to strangers so that they would begin to show it to others as well?”
It’s has resulted in a trickle effect, which so far, Nichols says she feels pretty good about.
“Every day, my inbox is flooded with people of all ages,” she shared. “They tell me that they grew up just like me, their mom or dad treated them the same way, they are afraid to tell their parents they are trans, gay, anything. The fear in their little hearts and minds is heartbreaking to me. I know I can’t save everyone, but I will dang sure try.”
And despite how large her following has grown over the past few months, Nichols promises that not one message sent to her gets “skipped or ignored.”
“Yes, it’s very overwhelming, but I have to be there for them,” she said. “Someone has to be there for them. They need me. I know what it’s like to be alone in this world.”
Though Nichols describes herself as a chronic “workaholic,” she says she believes that it was through TikTok that she was finally able to find her one true calling — helping others.
“I was thinking to myself a few weeks ago, really wondering what my purpose was,” she told In The Know. “After reading messages from people who tell me that they contemplated taking their own life and then one of my videos popped up on their For You Page and it saved their life, I think I found my purpose.”
“I want everyone to feel loved, to feel important, to feel beautiful, to feel proud of, and most importantly, I want them to feel wanted,” she continued. “I truly feel that I went through the traumas that I did so I can help others get to the other side, so it can be a little easier for them.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to learn more about the warning signs of suicidal ideation.
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