‘Papaw’ and ‘Aunt Pam’ launch online success of Appalachian actress

Published 11:16 am Friday, June 30, 2023

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The Daily Yonder

Social media was just something fun for Andi Marie Tillman until “Papaw” and “Aunt Pam,” characters based on her upbringing in rural Tennessee, came along.

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Tillman said she used TikTok and Instagram as a way to advertise her acting and other creative work. The characters she portrays were inspired by her roots in Scott County, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau near Kentucky. It wasn’t until she posted a video of Papaw that her social media blew up.

“One of my friends said, ‘You know, you ought to put some of your characters on TikTok because people would get a kick out of it,’” she said. “I thought it’s not going to hurt anything, if anything it gives me a place to play around, so I entered into it having zero expectations… Then, one day, I posted a video of these two papaws talking… I woke up the next morning and it had like 40,000 views.”

Tillman said Papaw is a little old man fashioned after her grandfather. Some of his videos include talking with friends at the diner after an election, planting a garden, and giving his wife chocolate-covered cherries for Valentine’s Day.

People tell her he reminds them of their own Appalachian grandfather.

“I get the most fan mail and cute things about Papaw,” she said. “People will literally send me pictures of their own grandfathers and stuff… My papaw is a lot like the papaw that you see in the way that he dressed and the way that he walked. I grew up with so many old men that were like that. I knew that he was going to be an identifiable person because it’s very specific to me. Sometimes the more specific you get, the more relatable it is to another person.”

Tillman said she has about 10 characters who routinely show up in her content. One of the other more popular ones is Aunt Pam, the aunt who’s always late to church. With short black hair, thick black eyeliner and over-done make-up, Pam sits in her pew as she chomps on gum, whispers to those around her, and asks everyone to come over after church for dinner. Another is Charlene, a cheerful woman with big blonde-hair, reminiscent of a small-town church secretary many Appalachian residents might relate to.

“People also really like Pam,” she said. “I have a whole section in my Patreon where people need to see Pam. I’ll upload stuff where it’s long form pieces of Pam ordering take-out from the Chinese restaurant down the road or something – just ridiculous stuff. It’s so much fun. I love to do it.”

Tillman’s Appalachian version of “Lord of the Rings” on TikTok racked up more than 450,000 views, while her slap back to fashion trolls has nearly a million views. The popularity of the videos was a surprise, she said.

“I have always acted so I’ve always wanted things that I did to reach a bigger audience,” she said. “Most people do whether they’ll  admit to it or not. That’s the only reason why they put it online is because they want people to see it. I truly feel like it’s an honor. I don’t take it for granted.”

As a child, she was always entertaining. So much so, she said, that her grandmother called her “Hollywood.” At 15, she started acting professionally, and appeared onstage at the Cumberland County Playhouse in Tennessee. Now living in Nashville, she’s appeared in commercials and music videos, but it’s the social media videos that have made her “internet famous.”

Tillman has nearly half a million followers across social media channels, and the popularity of her characters has garnered her other work with other Southern comedians. One collaboration with the comedy “It’s a Southern Thing” introduced her Papaw character to a wider audience.

Showing the different aspects of characters can help educate others on what Appalachia really is, she said.

“We have a long history of being misrepresented in the media,” she said. “That’s getting better because there’s a huge swell of interest in the region… I want to be involved in more weird art house movies that are made by Appalachians and are based on Appalachia. That’s not all I want to do, but I am an Appalachian person and that is a huge part of my story and so is being raised Pentecostal. But I still cleave to those things.”

Now, offers are coming in from all over. Her social media is a part-time job, she said, that is leading to other endeavors. Tillman said she’s working on projects across the South and is proud to represent her Appalachian heritage in them. From writing her own pieces to performing with others, she said there’s so much more to explore in her Appalachian characters, and the characters she has yet to create.

“I think that my passion would be to collaborate more with Appalachians to show the nuance of our region,” she said. “It’s a large region too. A lot of people forget that. There’s a lot of overlap and there’s a lot of commonalities. There’s a lot of archetypes that are the same, but there’s also quite a lot of diversity and nuance.”