“I’m so beyond overwhelmed with all of the love that people have given to me,” Eliza Petersen told BuzzFeed News. “I literally owe my life to a dinosaur pun.”
In a week where social media has been particularly bleak, one of the few bright spots has been — ironically enough — an absolute gem of a TikTok about the dinosaurs going extinct.
“Hey angel, did you give the dinosaurs more muscle like I asked?” asks “God” (played by Eliza Petersen) in the now-viral TikTok.
“What?” responds the confused angel (also played by Petersen.)
“I told you to make them meatier,” says God.
“Make them a meteor,” replies the angel.
What ensues is both ingenious wordplay and an impressive performance that has generated plenty of praise for Petersen, a 23-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Petersen told BuzzFeed News that she does, in fact, have an acting background through years of community theater, but also that the tears in her TikTok were completely genuine.
“I think I’m around dinosaurs enough that I’ve grown this level of appreciation that most people don’t have,” said Petersen, who has volunteered at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s paleontology department for the past five years. “I thought about how it would be so sad to obliterate the dinosaurs, and simply by accident too, so I started to tear up.”
Petersen filmed the TikTok, which now has nearly 10 million views on the platform, during a slow day at the law firm where she works when she’s not volunteering. She initially wanted to re-film the scenes where she was crying, but told herself that few people were likely to see the TikTok anyway, posted it to the app, and set her phone down for the rest of the day.
It wasn’t until she got a text from her dad (who is one of Petersen’s biggest fans and had been religiously tracking the popularity of a previous viral dinosaur TikTok she posted this summer) that she realized the video had blown up.
“By the end of the work day when I checked it it already had a million views,” Petersen said. “My family was just losing it.”
Not only is Petersen’s dad one of her biggest fans, he’s also partly to thank for inspiring the meteor TikTok.
“The actual joke of meteor versus meatier is a decades old joke,” Petersen said. “My dad was telling that joke in the 80s, so it’s kind of been rattling around in my mind my whole life.”
It was a natural fit for Petersen’s TikTok, where she’s previously posted about her love of dinosaurs and her volunteer work as a paleontologist, which allows her to travel to sites in Southern Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming to scout for dinosaur bones.
After Petersen and a team of other volunteers transport the bones back to the Natural History Museum of Utah, Petersen helps clean them and put the dinosaur skeletons together for display, like a “65 million-year-old puzzle.”
While she didn’t go to school for paleontology (she’s a certified paralegal) Petersen said she fell in love with the field after she interned at the Natural History Museum when she was 18, and said it’s something she has considered going back to school for someday.
Though Petersen hasn’t been able to do any field work during the coronavirus pandemic, she said the overwhelming response to her TikTok has reminded her of another passion: acting.
“I’ve had writers and producers and actors and influencers that I admire say, ‘I saw your video it was awesome, keep it up,'” said Petersen, who said she was particularly starstruck by praise from TikTok creator Alissa Violet, “Blade Runner 2049” writer Michael Green, and actor Christy Carlson Romano: “My 8-year-old self dressed in a Kim Possible outfit is freaking out right now.”
Petersen said she loved to act when she was growing up, but was so devastated when a high school teacher told her that she’d never be as good of an actor has her brother and sister that she quit doing it entirely.
“I believed her. It was horrible,” Petersen said. “Now that this has blown up I’ve remembered how fun it was, being up on stage and performing and loving it. The past three days have been a total eye opener for me. If I can decide what to be and go be it, I’ll be it.”
She joked that if Hollywood needs an extra in “Jurassic World,” she’d happily “drop everything and go do it.”
But easily the most life-changing aspect of her viral success, Petersen said, came after she opened up about her the financial and emotional toll she’s experienced as a result of breast cancer, which she has been fighting since finding a tumor in her breast at 19.
The type of breast cancer Petersen was diagnosed with is one typically seen in much older women, and with no family history of breast cancer. Petersen said she and her doctors were at a loss to explain the tumor.
“I have to have an MRI, mammogram, biopsy and two ultrasounds every six months to track what’s going on, and that gets really expensive in America,” Petersen said. “My husband and I just bought a house, and trying to make ends meet every month, to deal with expenses that come every month with being human, it’s piled up really aggressively.”
Having seen other people who go viral ask for assistance for things like student loans, Petersen decided to share her story and link to her Venmo in a tweet. The response, she said through tears, has been overwhelming.
“In the past two days I have been able to pay off the largest lump sum of a hospital bill that’s been glaring at me for four years that,” Petersen said. “Unfortunately this isn’t going away any time soon and I recognize that. But I finally feel I’m in a place where I’m a lot safer financially. I’ve never felt so safe and so loved.”
The emotional support she’s received from complete strangers, Petersen said, has been just as life-changing.
“I appreciate people calling me a survivor because I don’t feel like it yet,” she said. “I’m still taking tumors out every year, I’m still without answers about why I got this at such a young age.”
While Petersen is still dealing with the reality of cancer, she said she hopes her persistence and her doctors’ work will help other women who may find themselves faced with the same diagnosis.
“I’m willing to make that sacrifice if it helps somebody else in the future, but that sacrifice has been viciously expensive,” Petersen said. “I’m so beyond overwhelmed with all of the love that people have given to me. I literally owe my life to a dinosaur pun and will forever be in debt to this stupid joke from the 80s.”