“Oh my God, have you been waiting for this?!” Irvin Randle asked his second graders. It was a big day: the students were finally learning their multiplication tables, and the excitement inside the portable classroom was palpable. “Yes!” the kids screamed in response. They wiggled in their seats and pumped their arms. Some even rose to their feet, propelled by anticipation.
It was a Tuesday morning in late April, and the sixty-year-old Randle was teaching math at a southeast Houston elementary school, as he has most weekdays between August and May for the past 25 years. Randle commanded the room, thanks to one of the staples of his teaching style, a remarkably effective use of call-and-response. When he hollered, “I need everybody to pay what?” he was met with a resounding “attention!” When he said, “Today is April 26, two thousand and what?” there was a chorus of high-pitched “twenty-twos.” It was a classroom full of aspiring teacher’s pets. It didn’t hurt that Randle looked as if he’d walked right out of a fashion magazine and exuded a charm and sense of self-possession that could captivate all ages.
He wore slim-cut designer jeans and a form-fitting red polo, accessorized with a tweed newsboy cap and brown leather shoes. The only part of his outfit that seemed vaguely teacherlike was the candy-striped red apron tied around his waist, with a convenient front pocket to store pencils, pens, and dry-erase markers. But even that looked fly, and Randle’s appearance felt incongruous with the kitschy, handmade butcher paper posters that adorned the faux-wood walls. Over the door, a short bio informed all who entered that “Mr. Randle enjoys cooking, traveling, movies, exercising, and spending time with his two grandchildren.”
What the bio didn’t include—but what most everybody in the school knew anyway—was that Mr. Randle also enjoys going on talk shows, walking runways, and interacting with his 650,000-plus Instagram followers. He’s not just a celebrity to his students, he’s also one of the most successful social media influencers of his generation, a leading member of the “grandfluencers,” a group that is, according to the New York Times, “sharing a new vision for what it means to live meaningfully with age.”
Outside the classroom, Randle is best known as Mr. Steal Your Grandma, a moniker he received in the summer of 2016, after photos of him went viral, trending along with the hashtag that would become his nickname. He’s been featured in People and Cosmopolitan and was publicly lusted over by the former talk show host Wendy Williams. The comments on his social media accounts are chock-full of fire emojis. And he’s paving the way for more people like him: one of his latest endeavors is the Silver Fox Squad, a group of older male influencers, cofounded by Randle after he grew tired of being the only Black male grandfluencer getting much attention.
After school that day, Randle met his photographer and assistant, Blaine Simmons, to take photos for a campaign by Two Roads Hat Company, a sponsor of the Silver Fox Squad that has several stores in Texas. It was the golden hour, and we were on the seventh-floor lounge of the Hermann Park high-rise he calls home. Our surroundings were quite the departure from the aesthetic chaos of the portable classroom. The lounge was sleek and uncluttered, designed in expensive-looking but inoffensive taupes, granites, and steels.
Randle too was different, quieter. He was dressed in thigh-hugging white jeans and a dark, slim-cut denim jacket unbuttoned at the top to reveal a clinging white crewneck underneath. For the thirty minutes or so he spent posing for Simmons’s photographs, I didn’t hear him say much beyond “Here?” and “Like this?” But eyes were still drawn to him—not just mine but those of the other residents enjoying the communal space. He made small adjustments to his form, fiddling with the buttons of his jacket, placing his hand upon his hat as if he were about to tip it and gallantly wish you a good evening. His gaze was often directed into the distance, but occasionally he’d lower his eyelids and look directly at the camera—and in that moment Mr. Randle became someone your grandmother would want to run away with.
Randle tries to maintain some separation between his teaching and influencing lives, but they bleed into each other. When his classroom went virtual during the first year of the pandemic, he saw a lot more of the mothers than he was used to. “I’d get online and the mom would be there, sitting up all perky, and I’d have to be like, ‘Ma’am, please turn the camera on your son,’ ” he recalls.
When Randle first became an internet sensation, people told him to quit his job. “I was like, ‘No, I can’t, because that keeps my mind going,’ ” he says, explaining why he still shows up to teach every weekday even though he could potentially command half a year’s salary from one sponsored Instagram post. “Engaging these children and helping them to learn and open up their minds about the world keeps me sane.”
He has tried to bring this same instructive spirit to his influencing. Hence the Silver Fox Squad, which allows Randle to mentor a whole slew of older gents. The squad exists to spread a message Randle has been advancing on his social media platforms for more than seven years. “Just because you’re over fifty doesn’t mean the world is over for you,” he says. “You can dress well. You don’t have to wear the pawpaw clothes. You can still be a trendy, swaggy guy and have that confidence.”
Randle exudes self-esteem the way Larry David exudes insecurity. He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and everybody can see it. It’s part of what has kept his classrooms engaged for almost thirty years. It’s what made Randle’s photos explode on social media. It’s why almost every silver fox he’s asked has agreed to join his squad. And it’s what grandmothers presumably find so attractive. Not only does Randle project self-assurance and self-respect, he’s eager to help you find your own.
Randle has been influencing the sartorial choices of elementary schoolers since he was a student himself. Growing up in Houston’s Third Ward, the only child of Odis and Norma Randle, he was an adventurous dresser from the minute his mother let him pick out his own clothes in the fifth grade. His taste was inspired by his father’s fashion magazines, which he would dig into as soon as they came to the house.
“I thought GQ was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. He’d beg his mother to drive him to Joske’s, a department store near the Galleria, so he could spend his allowance on the latest trendy apparel. Since it was the early seventies, young Randle would show up to school in polyester button-downs with loud prints and comically large collars. He was particularly into knickerbocker pants, ballooning capris that had their origins in the nineteenth century but were briefly popular during the Nixon and Ford administrations. “When I went to school, those kids laughed at me,” he recalls, “but come to find out, a couple months later, the guys were all wearing the same pants!”
Randle says this kind of thing happened a lot back then. He always knew exactly how he wanted to come across, frequently requesting that his mother alter his shirts and pants so they would fit a little tighter, matching the snugness that was popular in men’s clothing at the time. “She would ask me, ‘Are you sure you wanna wear that?’ and I would always say yes.” This boldness was bewitching to the other kids. In the seventh grade, after he once skipped class, his mother punished him by confiscating all of his favorite footwear, and Randle was forced to wear an old pair of bowling shoes he didn’t like. Soon, the other kids started rocking bowling shoes. He came to be known as a fine dresser, a guy who always looked “clean,” as Randle puts it. “I was voted best dressed in my class all the way from seventh to twelfth grade.”
This reputation followed him through college, at Prairie View A&M University, about fifty miles northwest of downtown Houston, where he mostly partied, and Texas Southern University, located near the city’s center, where he graduated in 1988, with a bachelor’s degree in communication. He met his wife, Rhonda, in the mid-eighties (she prefers to stay out of the spotlight). A son, Marcus, arrived in 1988, and their daughter, Jessica, followed four years later. By the mid-nineties, Randle was a schoolteacher and a family man, albeit a very well-dressed one.
Randle cites the late-aughts popularity of the fitted jean as a turning point in his life. (“The slim fit came in, and I just thought, ‘I got to do that,’ he told me, more than once.) It was suddenly much easier for the fortysomething to find clothes as he’d always wanted them, the way he wore them in the seventies, when he was first learning about fashion. He could once again experiment with the looks that would make him famous: loud colors and bright prints. At the same time, he had a vehicle through which he could show off his new ’fits: social media. Like many other baby boomers, he joined Facebook, figuring it would be a good way to keep in touch with family and friends. It wasn’t long before he fell into a natural posting rhythm. He soon became a master of the mirror selfie, one of the medium’s most reliable methods of self-promotion, the act of taking a photo of your own reflection so everybody knows how good you look.
One day in June 2016, one of his Facebook friends sent him a message asking if he could share some of Randle’s selfies on an Instagram page he’d recently set up to celebrate men in their fifties who could still look sexy. “I said, ‘Sure, but let me see what you’re gonna pick, because I take pictures in my swimming trunks, and I’m a schoolteacher,’ ” he recalls. These early photos display Randle’s sartorial range: in one, he wears ripped jeans and a beige collarless jacket; in another, he sports track pants and a black T-shirt with a panther on it. All showcased his shapely arms and legs, the products of his weight-lifting regimen and runs through Hermann Park. But the showstopper in all of the shots was his impressive, impenetrably thick silver beard. The photos went up, and Randle figured he’d get a few likes and maybe even some new followers out of the deal. He had no idea what was coming.
There’s some mystery as to how Randle went from a few dozen Instagram likes to trending across multiple social media platforms for almost a week, but the ball got rolling on June 29, when a Twitter user called @_magamedze shared four photos of Randle captioned “Mr Steal Your Grandma.” It was retweeted more than ten thousand times, and the internet quickly did its work. By early July, Randle was a viral sensation, having been covered by the likes of Bossip, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, and TMZ. He even had his own explanatory page on the website knowyourmeme.com.
At first, Randle was oblivious. He woke up on June 30, a Thursday, and went about his day as he normally would. Then he got a call from Jessica, who was living in L.A. “She said, ‘Dad, you’re trending!’ ” Randle recalls. “I said, ‘I have no idea what that is. Can you make it stop?’ ”
Of course, no one could, so Randle not only got used to his new fame but soon sought to capitalize on it. He set up a Facebook fan page and registered a couple potential business names for his fledgling media empire—“Mr. Steal Your Grandma” and “#ZADDY.” Randle enlisted younger members of his family to help him navigate this new path, and they quickly shared with him a venerable internet axiom: don’t read the comments. Eventually, Randle hired a publicist, who trained him overnight on the business stuff. She told him, “Irvin, don’t do anything for free. Don’t take a picture for free. You’re a brand now. You have to learn how to charge.”
He did learn, primarily by watching her negotiate his deals. If a footwear company got in touch to see if Randle would be interested in posting a photo with its $600 product but offered to pay him only $1,200 (and let him keep the shoes) for the trouble, his publicist would point out that if Randle’s post led to just ten sales (out of his thousands and thousands of followers), the company would generate five times what they’d paid Randle. “She had to teach me quickly that when brands reach out to do an advertisement, I need to multiply, to see what would be a good estimate for me.”
Before long, the big brands came calling. In early 2017 Clorox sponsored a series of videos in which Randle played with his grandson or worked out at the gym and talked about how important it is to keep a clean and tidy home. For the most part, though, Randle worked with clothing brands, including Fashion Nova, a global fast-fashion behemoth; Southern Gents, a Houston company whose tagline is “vintage style with a modern twist”; and Taft, a retailer that handcrafts leather boots.
Soon he was making real money. Amazon paid him $20,000 for a series of posts with Randle wearing the company’s proprietary V-neck T-shirts. He did some sponsored content for AARP, which organized a 2019 South by Southwest panel that featured Randle and another famous grandfluencer, Baddie Winkle, who counts Rihanna among her three million Instagram followers. Randle says he’s earned as much as $40,000 for a single post. But even the partnerships that weren’t financial windfalls have paid off. Randle did a campaign with the retail website hear.com and got $10,000 worth of hearing aids for free. He started wearing them while teaching, which inspired a hard-of-hearing student in one of his classes (who needed aids but had been afraid of what others would think) to get some too, since his teacher made them seem cool. “He said, ‘My mom saw your commercial and took me to the doctor, and I told him I want to look just like Mr. Randle!’ ” Randle tells me, beaming.
He could learn the business side of influencing, but there was still a lot of trial and error as Randle figured out how to maintain the relevance that this new side hustle required. He did a series of nightclub appearances early on—a time-tested method of income generation in which “promoters” earn a portion of drink sales for the crowds they bring in—but that quickly began to feel gross. “I don’t want to be known as that old guy with the cologne on who was still at the club,” he decided almost immediately.
He was, after all, still an elementary school teacher. He came to cherish that part of his life even more as he got further into the image-obsessed world of social media influencing. Teaching kept his mind right by allowing him to connect to what had always given him meaning: helping other people learn and watching them flourish with every new piece of knowledge. He wanted his social media to be similarly educational, to inspire others to age as confidently as he has.
But he felt that there was more that he could do. When Randle became famous and found himself lumped in with other influencers his age, he was the odd man out—literally. Even when he was paired with other male influencers, he was the only Black one. “I was put into a group of European men,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘Okay, I can roll with this, but where are my brothers at?’ ” He knew he wasn’t the internet’s only good-looking, well-dressed older Black man.
One of those brothers was Jean Titus, a 54-year-old fitness influencer nicknamed “Ripped Grandpa.” The two had met in New Orleans shortly after Randle became famous and were paired again at a fashion show in New York in 2017. “We took a picture together, and it went viral,” Randle recalls. Commenters called them silver foxes, and Randle realized there was power in numbers. “I went home and started doing my research,” he says. “I looked at some guys on the ’gram and came across these amazing pages,” other accounts that were similarly dedicated to fostering confidence through style and self-care. He started asking them, one by one, if they wanted to work together. The Silver Fox Squad was born.
On a tiresomely hot Saturday night in early June, Randle perched on a white leather barstool in the lounge of a different luxury Houston high-rise, surrounded by Silver Foxes. “I am so glad you guys came out tonight,” he said to the crowd of one hundred or so, who were all sweating up the cramped space. It was a ticketed event for the Silver Fox Squad, a meet-and-greet that cost attendees $110 at the door (drinks not included). “When I went viral, I was fifty-four at the time, and they were asking, ‘Is fifty-four the new twenty-four?’ ” Randle told the audience, which included his cousins, his mom, and some of his high school classmates. “So with these guys right here, we just don’t want you to push us fiftysomethings to the side and say, ‘That’s it for you—here’s a TV remote and a bag of chips.’ ”
Sitting to Randle’s left was Titus, who had flown in from Miami, where he lives. The two of them wore complementary fitted suits, Randle’s ivory to Titus’s tan, both accessorized with tight black shirts, low-heeled boots, and matching silver beards. (Randle did set himself apart with a black Two Roads fedora.) They were joined by nine other finely besuited gentlemen, some in muted gray and navy, and others sporting light blue or loud plaid. Some were clean-shaven and bald; others had expensive-looking haircuts and neatly trimmed beards. A couple of them were white. One was younger than the rest. JP Hanney, a.k.a. “the baby of the group,” got a collective “aww” when he told the audience he was only 43. But all were graying and all were foxy, as evidenced by the wolf whistles that occasionally erupted from the crowd and the way fans rushed to get selfies with the influencers as soon as the Q&A portion of the evening was done.
The Silver Foxes are used to this sort of attention when they move as a pack. “When we were in Miami, people followed us down the street, and in New Orleans, same thing,” Titus tells me. “People walk and try to take pictures, following us to different places, honking horns and stuff like that.”
“I never thought I’d be in a situation like this,” says 56-year-old Darryle Jones, a semiretired IT consultant based in Washington, D.C. “When the brothers and I are together, I’m always surprised by how many people know who we are.” Jones, whose Instagram follower count has grown from around 600 to 52,000 since he joined the squad in 2019, gets recognized even when he’s by himself. “It has completely changed my life,” he says, “the people I’ve met, the exposure I’ve gotten—being on The Steve Harvey Show, being in TMZ and the Shade Room, in People magazine, publications in the U.K. and Tanzania.” Jones was still somewhat in awe, almost as if he were trying to convince himself that it had actually happened. “I would have never expected this in a million years.”
“I would never have expected this” is the refrain I heard from several members of the Silver Fox Squad. “Let me just tell you this,” says 52-year-old Michael Johnson, a Maryland-based clothier who joined the squad after he sold them custom-made hats for an event and they decided they liked the cut of his jib. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years,” he tells me of his clothing business, “and I’d never have thought at the age of fifty-two that I’d have a career like this, that I would have this much notoriety, this much visibility. It definitely changes your life. You go from being someone who is relatively unknown to probably twenty or thirty million people knowing who you are. It’s a huge deal, and it makes a big difference business-wise.”
The Silver Fox Squad was cofounded with Titus, but it’s Randle’s baby. “Irv is the foundation,” Johnson says. “We all feed off of him, so when you see the rest of the group, it’s really just a reflection of who he is and his values.” Titus, Hanney, Johnson, and Jones all refer to Randle as the “big brother” of the group, an intrepid guiding hand. “When we’re on trips, he’s almost like a dad, making sure nobody strays away from the group, making sure we all look a certain way, that we act a certain way, that our conduct is becoming,” Johnson tells me. Randle sees the similarities between his teaching style and what he does with the squad. “I do have a playbook for the Silver Fox Squad, and it’s almost like a lesson plan. Sometimes I wake up at three or four in the morning and an idea pops into my head, and I gotta write it down.”
The Foxes recognize that they appeal to women, but they would all tell you their target audience is other men. They were recently in New Orleans for the twenty-eighth annual Essence Festival, the largest Black culture and music event in the nation, where they hosted a symposium about grooming and health. “I would say it was about eighty percent men in the audience,” Randle recalls. This matches what he knows of his social media followers. “Most of my followers are male, twenty-four to thirty-four,” he says. “They’re watching to see how I’m aging and what I’m doing to take care of myself.” And his road map is simple: Cut out fast food. Eat more vegetables. Drink natural juice. Go to bed early so you can wake up early. Consume a lot of water. And, most important, he says, “stop hating, and go to the gym.”
It is generally accepted that as we grow older, our stars dim, overshadowed by the newer and shinier models coming up behind us. But Randle and his Silver Fox Squad are clearly an exception. Their collective popularity is greater than that of Randle or any other individual member, allowing them to draw attention to causes and organizations that pay it forward, as Randle has long tried to do. One beneficiary is Big Brothers Big Sisters, a frequent recipient of the squad’s meet-and-greet earnings. The Silver Foxes recently partnered with Goodwill of Houston in a project aiming to provide employment training for graduates of special education programs.
Randle knows he can’t be an elementary school teacher forever. “I always say ‘I’m gonna retire next year,’ but I’m gonna retire in three years, I promise you that,” he says with a laugh, perhaps as much for his own benefit as for anyone else’s. When that time comes, he’ll give all of his attention to influencing, working on his own line of shoes, expanding the Silver Fox Squad, and training the younger members so that one can take over as the squad’s “big brother” one day. For them and for his 650,000-plus Instagram followers, he’ll still be teaching.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Mr. Steal Your Grandma.” Subscribe today.