WATERVILLE, Maine — A TikTok video shared earlier this month shows Jay Coelho dancing, playfully dropping to the ground and twerking under the figurative weight of Waterville.
Coelho — known as @therealmainemayor on the app — is the actual mayor of Waterville and uses that handle to promote his city through TikTok.
When he isn’t using the short-form video app to entertain himself, Coelho creates content that spreads positivity about his community. His clever approach allows him to interact with city residents and Mainers and to share with viewers from faraway places what Waterville has to offer.
Coelho has even produced videos to help the city recruit police officers and paramedics, and he plans to do it for other departments. He has attracted nearly 29,000 followers, and each week he opens his app surprised to see 500 to 700 new ones, he said.
“Waterville isn’t what people remember, he said. “Ten or 15 years ago, the city was boarded up on Main Street. That’s not it today. It’s an inclusive community that’s growing. Streets are being redone, new businesses are moving to town. There’s a different energy now. We have hope. I want to spread that.”
Coelho — who was elected mayor in November 2020 and began his duties at the start of 2021 — originally joined TikTok because he was curious about what his children were up to online.
He began producing goofy videos, sometimes with his kids, and some content evolved to flaunt his beloved Waterville. Coelho, 44, has worked his way up to posting nearly daily in the past seven or eight months, he said.
Sometimes the videos are purely for laughs — like when he used compressed air to achieve “big hair energy,” resulting in a softer version of his signature spiked hair — and other times they focus on Waterville and its attractions and the life of a Maine mayor.
Viewers will often cheer him on in the comments or inquire about who’s hiring in Waterville. Unsurprisingly, they give him a hard time too.
Coelho also shares messages about race, equality, women’s rights and other topics. When a draft of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade leaked, he donned a “Hands off her uterus” T-shirt and said women should be free to make their own choices alongside their doctors.
Coelho also shared a snippet of a City Council meeting where he voiced his support for the LGBTQ community and encouraged its members to get in touch if they needed a safe space.
He spent two days with Waterville police officers, shooting a video that gives a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work for the city’s police department, all in hopes of attracting applicants to fill vacancies. Naturally, the 1987 song “Bad Boys” from TV show “Cops” bops in the background, and Charlie Puth’s “One Call Away” plays in another version. Scenes include officers training with firearms and the department’s police dog, Riggs, who joined the crew earlier this year.
Coelho is from East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moved to Waterville in 2010 because his ex-wife grew up in the area, and it was a good place to raise their family. Coelho served on the City Council in 2018, lost his seat and then returned as mayor after defeating challenger Phil Bofia.
“Honestly, I wanted to know how things were happening in and around,” he said about his run for mayor. “I’ve always been a research person and inquisitive.”
Once the real work began, Coelho recognized it wasn’t so simple to implement fresh ideas and changes. “You realize you’re one of seven people,” he said, “and you can’t do anything alone. It was a crash course on realizing how to bridge the gap.”
From Coelho’s office window at You Broke It, his cellphone and computer repair company downtown, he sees his other office at city hall, he said. The mayor also owned Grub Bakery on College Avenue, but he closed it this year to renovate and convert the building into three housing units. It’s what the city needs most at this moment, he said.
Coelho wants more families with children to move to Waterville. He sees opportunities, current and future, for his kids and other people’s kids. And he advocates so strongly for his city online because he genuinely believes in what lies ahead, especially with downtown revitalization underway.
“My kids are here,” he said. “My roots are here. You don’t plant a tree for it not to grow.”
In response to a snarky comment that said Coelho “looks like he’s about to try to sell me bootleg DVDs and hair gel,” the mayor took the chance to respond and showcase a downtown business. He takes viewers inside Holy Cannoli on Main Street, orders one of every mini cannoli on the menu, and brings the desserts to workers at city hall.
“When someone is snarky, I like to give it back a little bit,” he said. “TikTok is really to entertain me. I watch my TikToks probably more than anyone else does.”
In one TikTok, the mayor shows off Waterville’s RiverWalk at Head of Falls, which overlooks the Kennebec River. In another, Coelho pokes fun at a person who called Waterville “a dump with small pockets of nice homes,” and gives viewers a quick tour of the city, highlighting the new Lockwood Hotel, people dining outside, the Paul J. Shupf Art Center being built, playgrounds, the municipal pool and other locations.
No city is perfect, he acknowledges in the video, but this city? This city is home, he says.