Photos courtesy of Starla Dawn Photo

Andi is telling me the story of rediscovering a childhood notebook, and by that point in the call, my cheeks hurt from smiling for an hour straight. Between her unapologetic voice colored by a childhood in Scott County, Tennessee, and an unexpected punchline peppering her every phrase, when Andi speaks, you can’t help but smile.

She made the notebook as a Christmas gift for her dad, a full-fledged Mel Brooks parody with rapping shepherds visiting baby Jesus in the nativity. At the end of the book, she wrote an artist bio: “Andi Marie is nine years old. She enjoys making people laugh and writing emotional poetry.”

For Andi, she says nothing has changed. “I don’t remember a time before believing that I was supposed to act and sing. I don’t remember a time in my life, ever. So if you have no prior memories, you just feel like it’s destiny calling you,” she said. “I know that sounds so ‘pie in the sky,’ but I really feel like there’s something in me calling me to do that.”

These days Andi is living out her calling and continuing to make people laugh by the millions with the power of social media. The self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Pygmalion” multihyphenate “actor, songwriter, humorist, papaw and general shitass” has earned millions of views across her social media channels and an avid fan base of supporters, amassing over 13 million likes on her TikTok alone. What started as Andi using social media to promote her acting projects quickly meteored into hundreds of thousands of folks backing Andi’s music, her spot-on impressions, her clever commentary and most of all, her laugh-out-loud skits that feature a cast of familiar characters.

Her digital family tree started with Pawpaw, an old man adorning overalls and a toothless scowl loosely inspired by Andi’s real grandfather. A video skit in 2022 of Pawpaw visiting his buddy at Hardee’s jump-started her viral career, racking up over 2 million views and thousands of comments with some variation of “This is literally my Grandpa!”

Then there are the aunts. There’s Aunt Pam, a church gossip in a Liza Minnelli wig; Bethany, the “Woo Woo Aunt” who peddles crystals and essential oil remedies; and the unnamed Heavily Medicated Aunt who is — you guessed it — on enough muscle relaxers for the whole family.

And this only scratches the surface of Andi’s online character reel. There’s Claudia, Merlee, Charlene and then Nashveratu, the displaced vampire trying to make it big as a singer-songwriter in Nashville. Watching, mockumentary style, with Andi masked beneath a full face of theatrical makeup, a bald cap, fangs and a perfected Transylvanian accent, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor.

All of her characters are an amalgamation of the folks Andi grew up with in Scott County. Pawpaw has the look of her grandpa and the mishmash personality of other old men that were in her life as a child. Aunt Pam is based so closely to Andi’s own Aunt Carletta that the parishioners at Carletta’s church lovingly rebranded her as “Pam” at Sunday service. Even Heavily Medicated Aunt has a real-life muse who shall remain anonymous.

The short-form video style and Andi’s innate comedic timing makes her work seem deceptively simple. But as you scroll through her Instagram or TikTok profiles, the honesty, complexity and intellect be- hind the comic couldn’t be more clear. She deftly morphs her voice and mannerisms between characters, each richly designed with their own comedic point of view. She’s conceived a living, online portfolio that showcases her knack for character work and has molded her own memories into these Appalachia-meets-Commedia dell’arte archetypes, achieving something so few who make jokes about the region can muster. Andi crafts comedy about Appalachia devoid of stereotypes yet still relatable. She manages to be genuinely funny, always poking fun, but never making the region and her people the butt of the joke.

“I know people. This is my background. These are people that I saw every single day, and so they’re a part of me,” she said. “They live inside of me. As an actor, I feel I’ve been given a gift to communicate these people’s essence through character work.”

It’s no surprise some of Andi’s greatest inspirations are masterclasses of comedy and chameleonic characters like Tim Curry and Carol Burnett. All of her influences (she said there’s some Audrey Hepburn empathy and Joni Mitchell songwriting folded in there too) are stitched with a similar thread, untethered by others’ expectations and steadfast in their own individuality. For her, that’s the secret sauce.

“I love anyone who’s singular,” she said, “anyone who it feels like when you watch them, you’re seeing the essence of them, and it goes beyond craft.”

I told Andi it must feel absurdly cool to be pounded with daily comments comparing her to these idols. There’s dozens of comments on each video crowning her “TikTok’s Carol Burnett,” “hillbilly Tim Curry” or star of “yeehaw Saturday Night Live.” But according to the social media starlet, it doesn’t feel she’s earned that level of praise just yet.

“Y ’know, I’m 33 years old. I remember a time before the internet,” she said, “The internet feels less real to me than a show. I’m just trying to prove something bigger to myself, you know? There’s only so much that a 30-second video can really impact you.”

She’s far from ungrateful. It takes a miracle blend of luck, talent and persistence to make it online, and that isn’t lost on Andi. Still, she knows she wants the medium to build into bigger and bolder ideas.

Andi never tried to become an “influencer.” That much is clear when you watch her videos. She isn’t touting tummy tuck tea or fast fashion discounts like many an influencer online. Andi is selling Andi.

“I ain’t trying to influence people to do jack shit! Except for maybe laugh, or listen to good music. And the only thing I am trying to sell you is merch with my face,” she said.

Even so, Andi’s authenticity paid off as this digital persona has swiftly transformed into a lucrative, full-time nine-to-five. Before her online career catapulted, Andi said she was every bit a “starving artist,” cleaning houses full-time between the sporadic acting gig. Now, her day-to-days are full of writing or filming sessions to create fresh video content for her social media. She updates her Patreon with exclusive subscribers-only bonus videos, and her Cameo with personalized video shoutouts from Pam or Papaw. Her success on social media got her signed with a talent agency and booked for new projects. She onboarded a management team to oversee her larger projects, and she really does sell merch with her face on it (well, Nashveratu’s most often). Accelerated by the pandemic’s surge in screen time, Andi’s career has completely transitioned in just the last few years — a switch that she said is still often surreal.

“I have a poverty mindset. I always feel like I’m gonna run out of money, no matter what,” Andi said. “I’m like, oh, in two months, people’ll stop watching this, and then I’m gonna have to figure some- thing else out. I’m just gonna have to hit the acting classes like crazy. But the short answer is, I have felt very grateful.”

The newfound success she’s found from her fictional family shouldn’t come as a surprise to her actual kin because performing is in their blood. Andi was born into a family of traveling gospel singers who toured the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s, even headlining the Opry’s Grand Ole Gospel show at their peak. So when a young Andi started reenacting Passion Plays in her living room, playing Jesus, Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene AND the Romans at the Crucifixion, her folks only encouraged the budding actress’s interest in the performing arts. That’s another one of Andi’s smile-inducing stories: her first big audition. At age 12, her parents drove her the hour to Knoxville to try out for her first regional theater production.

“I didn’t realize that all the other kids were being groomed to be performers. They all had theater moms and theater dads that were bringing them to these auditions. They knew what a monologue was. They knew what 16 bars of a song was. They knew how to affect their neutral accents,” Andi said. “These are children — I shouldn’t characterize them as so snooty — but in my mind at the time, I was a country bumpkin! And, I thought, I’m going to make a fool out of myself.”

Shaking scared and between sobs, Andi belted out the best rendition of “Happy Birthday” she could muster, and ended up landing a role in a youth production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Auditioning, or really starting anything new, has never been easy for Andi.

“I always feel like I’m having to prove to somebody that I’m worthy,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I promise you, I deserve to be here.’ Just let me get past these nerves. They’re debilitating for me.”

This deep-seated fear washes over her until she really settles into it, until she’s been cast or she’s comfortable with a script. The terror subsides, and as she performs, the feeling morphs into something new entirely, something divine.

“The feeling that I get when performing, the feeling that I get when I’m creating art, is the feeling that I thought I was supposed to get when I was in church or when I was supposed to be talking to God. And I begged him to answer me, and he didn’t. But, I felt what other people described feeling when I was on stage.”

As a “recovering Pentecostal,” Andi has talked candidly online and on-stage about her complicated relationship with God. “When I was writing music, when I was creating anything artistic, I thought if there is a God, he’s pleased with this. He’s pleased with me now because I can feel it. And I do have a lot of conflicting feelings regarding what God is, but there is something that feels so central to being, almost like there’s a life force in performing great works of art and creating your small works of art, you know?”

It’s a theme she can’t help explore — whether it be bite-sized skits of Aunt Pam digging out gum in the middle of mass or in the iconography Andi interlaces with her songwriting. You can see it clearest in her latest EP, Cherub on Brimstone. The cover art alone is a story of the struggle. Backdropped by a church, we see fluorescent flames engulfing Andi, one arm outstretched leaning across a hulking wooden cross. The record is full of raw and autobiographical vignettes — stories of redemption and a childhood fear of hell she still can’t seem to shake, all underscored by a folksy, ‘80s power ballad production. Each song, Andi said, is trying to make sense of hurt, an oftentimes jumbled mainframe of crisscrossing emotions.

“I think a lot of art is untangling those wires,” Andi said. “Especially songwriting for me, it’s always music first. It’s chords first, then melody, then the story. And when I start writing the lyrics, that’s it’s own thing. I really try to start making something beautiful out of, oftentimes, what’s very painful. They’re feelings that I can’t make sense of, and they feel lodged in there.”

Her music career couldn’t be more different from her social media personality. She’s tapping into the “emotional poetry” side of Andi Marie Tillman that’s been there since childhood, walking hand-in-hand with the side of her that loves making people laugh. In her music, the silliness is stripped away. What’s left is the same intentional, razor-sharp performing artist deftly molding her message through a new medium.

Not everyone is going to get this full picture of Andi the singer, writer, actor and influencer. Some will only love the clown, some the songbird, and she’s okay with that.

“I don’t mind too much. I don’t know all the facets of every creator that I love,” Andi explained. “Like, I don’t give a shit about Jim Carrey’s paintings!” (She hit the nail on the head with this point. Prior to our chat, I had no idea Jim Carrey embarked on a painting career, nor do I really give a shit about it. But I still love him! And that’s exactly the point.)

Andi is content only being known for her online presence, or only for her music, or not being known at all. Maybe it’s55 the constant instability of being an influencer, or something else inherited in her performing arts career, but Andi really doesn’t want to turn her viral popularity into mega-stardom.

“I’m getting too old to have that many people watch me!” she said with a grin. “I want to have a cult following.”

According to Andi, she’d much rather be known by a ravenously loyal band of misfits and y’all-ternatives that support her — fans much like the toilet-paper-throwing, gender-non-conforming cult followers of Andi’s favorite film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s the same film that is a driving inspiration behind Andi’s largest project to date. She couldn’t tell me too much, just that she’s in the midst of developing her first feature film, a campy bluegrass musical of flamboyant aliens landing in Appalachia. Because, of course she is. The film is an obvious next step in her career, using her social media skyrocket as a foothold. She just got cast in a top-secret Nashville indie film set to start shooting in April. And there’s talk of a one-woman variety show in the not-too-distant future, a woven dramedy featuring her family of characters and her original music sure to gut-bust and tear-jerk her ever-growing “small but rabid” cult fans.

It feels clear to me from talking to Andi that she hasn’t let a few viral videos change her. She still makes the three hour trek back to Scott County at least once a month to visit her aging parents, a drive so rife with nostalgia it inspired her EP opener, a song titled “HWY 63.”

“There’s always something new about the landscape. There’s mist rising, or it’s dusk, and you can see over the mountain. You know, I really miss that,” she said. These days she lives in Nashville, technically just outside of the imagined map boundaries of Appalachia.

“Now is not the time,” Andi said on moving back home. “Because I’m trying to get things done, acting classes, all that kind of stuff, and this is where people are making things happen. But, man, I don’t want to be a woman in my 50s living here. I don’t want to live here.”

But don’t suggest she move outside her magical slice of home either, like when she quickly had to shut down a management company trying to convince her to move to LA. “I just love Tennessee so much. I believe in the indie spirit here, and there are people here that are so passionate about getting things done,” she said. “And that’s what I really want. I really want to see this community’s dreams come true.”

From the outside, it seems Andi’s dreams might just be the ones coming true. Having umpteen eyes on her social media has unlocked opportunities for her she could have never predicted and allowed her passion projects and oddities to come to life. She’s making the content she wants to make, telling the stories of her people, and it’s paying off. That has to feel good.

“I will say this, millions of people watch these things,” Andi smiled. “All I’ve ever wanted to do, anyway, is make people laugh and put great things out into the world.”

Find Andi Online

Instagram: @andimariere
TikTok :@andimariere
YouTube: Andi Marie @andimarie7554
Music: Andi Marie
Patreon: @AndiMarie
Cameo: Andi Marie Tillman @atillman1002