Jill Smokler just might be Baltimore's biggest unknown celebrity. Few recognize her tightly coiled curls, her peanut-butter-eating children, her tired dog. But online, thousands upon thousands of mothers grasp onto her every word. And on Twitter, nearly 155,000 people follow her, more, by far, than Baltimore's mayor, Maryland's governor, chef Duff Goldman and the Ravens' Ray Lewis — together.
In the virtual world she's a well-known and influential voice. Yet in the real one, you'd walk right past her in Whole Foods without realizing.
Jill Smokler is Scary Mommy — and she's becoming scary successful.
Corporations snap to attention when she tweets, Target fills her closet with free merchandise and Simon & Schuster will release her first book next Mother's Day. All because when, say, she admits to swearing at her children under her breath, legions of fans clap with delight and sigh with relief, responding, "Me too! Me too! Me too!"
"In a million years I would never have seen myself here," she says. "Really, the fact that I can be doing something that I love and making a living off of it is kind of a dream. … It's more than I ever imagined and I'm still kind of pinching myself."
Smokler is a 34-year-old former graphic designer living in Mount Washington along with the characters that regularly appear on her blog. There's Jeff, the loving yet annoying husband. There's Lily, the spunky firstborn. There's 5-year-old Ben with his superhero obsession and little Evan, a devilish cherub who's growing up too fast for Mom's taste.
It was a March day a little over three years ago, not long after Evan's birth, when Smokler created her first blog post, apologetically addressing friends and family. "I have started a million things that I never follow through with," she wrote, "and this whole blog thing may very well become one of them (some of you may recall my brief dip into the cosmetic industry, an event [and] invitation company, a little store … So, anyway, here goes."
Her son, Ben, inadvertently came up with the name during a phase of his when he was tagging everything "scary." Scary car. Scary closet. Scary mommy!
In the beginning, Smokler considered the blog a modern answer to the baby book, something her children might one day browse through and also, perhaps, a venue for her out-of-town relatives and friends to check in on The Smoklers. But it quickly became much more than that.
With the tag line "an honest look at motherhood," "Scary Mommy" represents a hyper-realistic take on parenting, a portrayal in which the children don't always behave, the laundry might pile up, and when frustrated, the mommies and daddies just might curse.
Smokler has written about hating her children's names, packing uninspired school lunches and spending a beach vacation fruitlessly trying to shoot a mantel-worthy picture of the three kids, only to realize that in the best shot Evan had no pants on.
"That's what the site is. It's the imperfect side of parenting," she says. "My readers like it most when I admit my failures."
In one post she describes making peanut butter sandwiches for her kids, when her husband comes up behind her. She wrote:
"You're not making those with much love," he snidely remarked, as I plopped the jelly down, assembly line style, on three slices of bread.
"Love?" I snorted. "No, not really."
In the post "Motherhood is…" she wrote: "Motherhood is siblings bickering over who can look out of which window and who started it and who you love the most even though you love all of them the same but at the moment you don't like any of them in the least."
The first time Kirsten Mackin came across "Scary Mommy", she thought to herself, "Who is this person? Oh my God, I love this woman."
Now, when Mackin, the mother of a 9-year-old, reads "Scary Mommy", it's as if she's reading a friend's funny email. The disappointments, the frustrations, the hilarity — she relates to every last bit of it.
She turns to "Scary Mommy" in the wee hours of the morning when her daughter is still asleep. She'll quietly brew a pot of coffee and then turn on the computer.
"I feel like she is one of my best girlfriends, like I know her," Mackin says. "When I read her, it's like we should all be sitting around drinking wine and having this conversation in my living room."
A key feature of "Scary Mommy" is spot on the blog where readers can submit their own anonymous "confessions." And they do. By the thousands.
Some are guilt-ridden: "I let my baby go down for a nap with a dirty diaper."
Others are funny: "DD's beta died. Crap, off to Petco for a body double before she notices!!!!!"
And some are just heartbreaking: "Tears are so close to falling out. I just can't do this anymore."
While on Facebook people can "like" something that's posted, on the confessionals, "Scary Mommy" readers can choose the "hug" button or the "OMG, me too!"
Heather Walsh, who last year launched a parenting blog from Baltimore called "Cool Progeny," suspects Smokler's success has everything to do with this candor and relate-ability.
"For 99.99 percent of her readers, they see themselves reflected in her words," she says. "We've all met that mom that tells us how perfect their kids are. Every child is wonderful, but no kid is perfect. She takes evaluation and competition out of and just tells it like it is — while making you laugh.
"It makes you feel like you're not screwing it up."
Smoker's star power has accelerated exponentially in recent months.
This spring Target forged a deal with her by which the company gave her a month's worth of free clothes and accessories. Smokler agreed to let readers choose her outfits for the entire month of May.
Then this month she announced that Simon & Schuster would publish her first book, "Confessions of a Scary Mommy." The book is set to debut next Mother's Day.
The celebrity has certainly made Smokler's comfortable life a bit more so. But it's done little — if anything — to change the blog's tone. In fact, when Smoker let readers in on the book deal, she did it by describing the scene immediately after she broke the news to her family:
"Ben yells from the bathroom, 'Mommy, come here fast! I need you to wipe me.' Evan sticks his finger in his nose and examines the contents. He wipes them on my jeans and walks away. Lily discovers that her computer game has been turned off and informs me that I am the worst mother in the world."
What with all the talk of domestic dysfunction, readers might assume that Smokler's is one of those homes where the laundry piles up, along with dishes, toys and dust. But that's not the case — at least not a recent afternoon right after the cleaning service pulled away.
As disappointing as it may come to some, the Smokler residence is as tidy as it is charming, with children's rain boots lined up near the front door, family photos everywhere, a little tepee perched in the backyard and the graying family dog snoozing in the dining room. On the foyer wall hangs a sign that says "Who are these kids and why do they keep calling me mom?"
Though "Scary Mommy" readers might detect a whiff of hyperbole here and there, Smokler will tell you that nothing on the blog is scripted — it's all real, and all her.
"The thing about the site is, it's just me," she says. "There is no act at all. It's just who I am."
As the site has grown, Smokler has learned — sometimes the hard way — that certain friends and family members would rather not appear in the drama. Her mother-in-law, for one. ("I thought it was really funny, gently poking fun in an affectionate way. She didn't see it that way.")
She's also discovered the power of her words. Once when she criticized Dyson on Twitter, the company contritely hurried her a new vacuum. When she similarly bemoaned Comcast after two weeks of interrupted service, a repairman materialized almost instantly.
These days fans of the site can buy Scary Mommy key chains, Scary Mommy travel mugs, a baby Tee that says "Is your mommy scary?"
Smokler has been thinking about launching her own line of onesies.
With the blogosphere at her feet, Smokler's only worry might be running out of material. But with a toddler and elementary school and summer camp, with lunches to pack, birthdays to plan, messes to wipe, tantrums to soothe and tears to kiss away … she's not exactly concerned.
"When I think I have nothing left to say," she says with a laugh, "the kids serve me something on a silver platter."