January-February 2021

Almost famous

A Churchill senior has racked up 2.4 million followers on TikTok

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Andy Jiang outside of his Potomac home. Photo by Louis Tinsley

It started with a bet. Last February, a few weeks before schools closed, Winston Churchill High School student Andy Jiang was eating lunch near some lockers when a friend said he’d give him $20 if he could start a TikTok account and amass 1,000 followers in a week. “I was like, ‘OK, that sounds cool,’ ” Andy says. “Why not?”

Almost a year and about 750 videos later, the 18-year-old from Potomac has surpassed 2.4 million followers and
90 million likes on the social media platform, which is best known for its viral dances. (Actress Reese Witherspoon, by comparison, has 3.8 million followers.) Andy started out making comedic clips about the woes of AP classes, unrequited crushes and quarantining. Stuck at home in the pandemic, he began noticing the fear pervading TikTok, so he decided to branch out. “I was thinking maybe it would be nice if there was a little bit of positivity in the news and on TikTok because everything was just so dark,” Andy says.

Ever since elementary school, Andy has had a habit of scouring the web for extraordinary true stories. Last April, he posted a video about Greg Thomas, a Minnesota man who went into remission from Stage 4 cancer in 2012 after helping to restore a decaying church. The video, part of Andy’s “Medical Miracles” series, racked up 5 million views in a day, his first viral hit. After that, Andy leaned into the storytelling side of TikTok (he never dances), sharing fun facts, often part of his “Daily Dose of Good News” series. A video about Lyft partnering with Starbucks to drive employees to the polls garnered 20,000 likes. “I always manage to find something,” he says.

Once Andy decides on a topic—he’s posted about everything from the world’s most expensive hotel room to the craziest prison escape—he compiles stock photos from Google that relate to the story to use as green screen backgrounds for the video. He then shoots the clip, sans script, sometimes returning to double-check the story’s facts. Each video, shot on his phone, takes 40 minutes to three hours to produce. “In the past…I would watch it three or four times, maybe even more, just to look and scrutinize everything,” he says. “As I posted more and more, I got used to it, and so that feeling has gone away a little bit, but it’s definitely scary putting yourself out there in the beginning.”

Other than the occasional ribbing for a mispronunciation (“Keanu Reeves” was a particularly embarrassing gaffe, he recalls), his followers return the positivity. “I started getting comments [from] people saying, ‘Thank you for this, this really made my day,’ or ‘This made my day a little bit brighter,’ and I really realized this is actually making an impact,” Andy says.

Courtesy photo

Though he doesn’t have time to respond to all the comments, he still replies to every direct message. One fan sent him the story of his grandma, who’d survived a seemingly terminal cancer diagnosis, and Andy put it in a video. “It was just so amazing that I could share her story with the world,” Andy says. He’s used his platform to promote a fundraiser for face masks to support local hospitals, including Shady Grove Medical Center and Suburban Hospital. He’s also worked with a few companies, including The Coldest Water, on sponsorship deals.

Andy’s dad, Chuanzhong, and mom, Qin, ordered takeout as a celebration when his account (@andyyjiang) hit 1 million followers last summer. His mom, one of Andy’s “number one fans,” he says, faithfully watches his videos and got worried when it seemed like TikTok might shut down in the U.S. He’s learned to be quiet if he’s making a video late at night, and his family has learned to be patient if they call him down to dinner when he’s busy with TikTok. “I’ll be like, ‘Give me a few minutes,’ but then that usually turns into like 15, 20 minutes, maybe half an hour,” he says. “I go down and everyone’s finished eating.”

Though TikTok has taken a back seat to college applications and Zoom classes, making videos sometimes feels like “more of a priority than homework,” Andy says. His calculus teacher once made a well-meaning crack about his fame, saying: “Oh look, it’s Mr. TikTok Star!”

A shooting guard for the Churchill basketball team and a member of the mock trial club, Andy describes himself as a once-quiet teen who hated seeing photos and videos if he was in them. “I feel like my whole personality has kind of changed,” he says. “I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself, more confident in myself, and overall grown as a person.” He wrote about TikTok in a personal essay for his early decision application to the University of Pennsylvania, where he hopes to study sociology—and keep making videos. Even now, he finds it nostalgic to go through his old clips. “I can actually remember where I was and what I was feeling and what had happened that day when I made that TikTok,” he says.

As for the friend who made him the bet, “he thinks I owe him money and food,” Andy says with a laugh. “If it wasn’t for him, this really wouldn’t have happened. So every time we hang out, I always try to buy him food.”