Just before lunch on Monday a photo popped up on my Facebook feed. I did a double take because it was the flavor of the day — a back-to-school picture — but it was richer than the others.
The woman, Jena Willingham, was in the pool on a float and appeared to be drinking a Mimosa. Her three children were poolside in their first-day-of-school attire.
“Happy First Day of School everyone,” Jena wrote.
Happy first day of school, indeed.
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I noticed it when Bubba Copeland, the mayor of Smiths Station and a pretty interesting guy in his own right, shared the photo. His comment was short and sweet: “Everyone can quit posting back to school pictures, Jena Willingham has Won the back to school game already!”
You got that right, Bubba.
About 1:30 Monday afternoon, I wrote a short story about Jena and her epic photo. It posted to the Ledger-Enquirer Facebook page shortly after that.
By lunch Friday, that Facebook post had reached nearly 1.6 million people. There were almost 7,100 shares, 8,200 reactions and nearly 375 comments.
You want the definition of viral, that would be it.
And that was just on the Ledger’s Facebook page. The photo went worldwide. Jena had never done a media interview in her life until she talked to me on Monday. By lunch Friday, she had done more than 100 interviews, by her count.
At 6:01 Monday morning when she posted that picture to Facebook, she had no idea the reaction it would draw.
“I was hoping to get 200 likes,” she said.
By lunch Monday, she had 750 shares on her page alone and people knew at least one mother in East Alabama had a sense of humor. By the end of the week she had more than 20,000 shares off of her Facebook page and a new following.
What got everyone’s attention?
Timing, for sure. In a stream of traditional back-to-school photos, Jena’s stuck out in an unique and timely manner. But the message was more important.
“A lot of people won’t say it, but they do want to get away from their kids for a while,” she said. “And there is nothing wrong with that.”
What Jena said in that staged back-to-school photo was what many mothers were thinking. They just didn’t say it.
Over the last week, I have learned through following her Facebook page and three interviews, that if Jena is thinking it, she might well say it. And that is refreshing. The 31-year-old mother of three lives in Beulah and is a Valley, Ala., girl through and through.
If you spend any time on her Facebook page, it is obvious she is a mama bear of the highest order. And this whole pop celebrity business brought that out from time to time.
There were some folks who were mean — you know, the kind of folks Alabamians look at and just say, “Bless their heart.” Some, with only one photo as evidence, questioned her parenting skills. One online poster even made fun of her oldest son Wrangler’s name.
“Her next kids will be named Levi, then Lucky, then Guess, then Forever 21,” posted someone under the Facebook name Fun Nature Facts.
Jena swatted down the meanness of the comment by sharing it to her Facebook page with the comment, “Y’all mean comment of the day goes to this person. Have to admit it’s pretty funny.”
If you are going to be a social media star overnight, you better be able to laugh at yourself. Jena does it with the best of them.
If you look at the photo, you would think Jena is a well-to-do suburban mom with a pool and luxury lifestyle. If you jumped to that conclusion, you are dead wrong on just about every level.
She lives in Beulah, Ala., a pretty rural place. It was her cousin’s pool. She lives in a trailer with her kids and husband, Edd, who works in the family logging business.
She has a job as a part-time rural mail carrier.
She was dubbed the Mimosa Mom because of the drink in her hand. There was irony in that, too. It was just orange juice, no champagne.
At the end of the day, she’s a mama. The kind of mama who works hard, raises her kids and likes to have a little fun on social media.
Friday morning, she was on a morning-drive radio show in Raleigh, N.C. After a few minutes of banter where her personality and wit came through the radio, one of hosts told her she should start her own YouTube channel.
“She told me I would be YouTube gold,” Jena said.
That is another irony of all of this. Media outlets around the world — including this one — have picked up clicks from Jena’s photo.
What’s she gotten out of it?
“Artic Zone noticed Emmy’s lunch bag and sent me some lunch bags,” she said. “Frito-Lay reached out and they want to throw a pool party for me and my friends.”
That would be fitting.
Nice job, Jena. You represented Alabama moms in the best possible light. You showed the world there really is another kind of Valley girl, one that is real.
And you made us all laugh along the way.
You go, girl.