In 2022, TikTok found its unlikely host: a “devout Christian, Caucasian, heterosexual woman” by the name of Terri Joe. Even though Terri Joe found fame and notoriety on the platform, she was not too pleased with what she saw there. TikTok, after all, is overwhelmed by a constant flow of foolishness: Fleeting trends, trauma dumps, the whole world in synchronous and embarrassing choreo. Terri Joe was there to wake the TikTok community up from its sinful, silly slumber.
Sitting coolly in front of her shabby floral wallpaper, adorned with not much more than a wig and a glare, Terri Joe goes on TikTok Live roughly between 10 PM and 2 AM CET, usually four days per week. Don’t worry if you miss it live, though. A dedicated community of stans watches every stream and posts all the best moments for posterity — highlights that largely consist of Terri Joe decrying the many “hommasexyuhs” (see: gays) who torment her.
Clips from Terri Joe's Lives with Madonna, Doja Cat, Hunter Schafer and other celebrities have helped turn Terri Joe into a perennial meme and catch the eyes of everyone from Ziwe to Lizzo. But even as her brushes with the rich and famous have supercharged her ascent, it’s Terri Joe herself who’s the main attraction. Whether she’s talking to Bob The Drag Queen or a giddy normie, all who enter a Terri Joe Live receive the same treatment: a southern belle’s righteous flogging, interrupted only momentarily by the slight quiver of her lip before she finally breaks character. Keeling over to the corner of the screen, Terri Joe lets out one cathartic laugh before she returns to form.
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Terri Joe is no true preacher’s daughter. She spawns from the mind of Kelon, a shy, bubbly 27-year-old hailing from Houston. Kelon worked in tech before going viral on TikTok, but now he’s a full-time internet personality with more than a million followers on his main account @_psyiconic. And while Terri Joe is his most famous character, you can also find him on Live as Terri Joe's cousin Jeorgia Peach, an LA party girl perpetually blessed with a neon pink glow, or as her doppelganger Amethyst Jade, a goth girl vampire currently haunting Salem, Massachusetts.
PAPER talked to Kelon about life before TikTok superstardom, the mechanics of the improv and the method behind the madness — one that appears to be refreshingly unmethodical. The “Terri-verse,” as fans have dubbed Terri Joe’s cinematic realm, is sprawling and complex, but it truly is created “on the fly.” In fact, Kelon doesn’t even think about the Lives during the day. When he goes on Live, he “blacks out” and lets the story flow. Nothing, not even the most absurd interaction, seems to faze him, let alone his interfacing with superstars.
Which is probably why the whole thing proves so consistently thrilling. In an era overrun by hyper-strategic influencers and “content creators,” maybe the most genuine thing you can be is a person in a wig with a haphazard knowledge of the Gospel and an unflinching commitment to the bit.
Welcome to the Terri-verse. Like our own, it’s ever-expanding.
Describe the first time you went on TikTok Live. Were you in character?
I have no clue. I started going Live while I was working for this little tech startup job and it was annoying as hell. So it came from me needing an outlet. It was something fun to do after I got out of work.
And I'm not even that kind of person. It’s not in my personality to be happy on camera and be doing dumb stuff. Well, I guess it is now. But even right now, like [this Zoom interview] is awkward for me. Not because of you or anything. I just feel awkward because being on camera is weird. But when it's Terri, it’s different, because it's not me.
So I really don't remember how I started going on Live. I just decided to do it and then it all snowballed from there.
So did the Lives start with Terri? Did you already have the character developed?
It wasn't really Terri per se. It was just me in a wig and clothes that I perceived as more feminine. And it was just me talking to people. I was talking in a normal voice and everything. But I never gave the person I was portraying a name until a little bit later.
Did you know starting out that this character you were portraying would be a conservative Christian and homophobic?[Laughs] It actually didn’t start off with Terri, but with Jeorgia Peach. It started with that background and with me talking to random people and saying the most random things. And then one day I decided it would be funny to just throw on a grandma costume that I had and a raggedy wig and just go on Live. I think I was loosely basing it off of a character from my favorite TV show True Blood. So I was like, “Yeah, I'm a Christian.” And I think I just was randomly blurting out stuff like I usually do. And it just stuck.
Did you ever know anyone in your real life who had those beliefs?
No, literally no one in my life is like that. My parents and family members are religious and believe in God, but none of them are devout Christians. They don't go to church every day. I've never met a person like that actually, so I don’t even know where that came from.
"I was just turning on the camera and being dumb and people loved it. And then they wanted more."
When you started going on Live, did you immediately know that this was something special and would take over your life?
I don't even think I’ve even processed that to this day. I didn't expect anything. I never expect anything in life. But I didn’t think this would go as far as it did. I was just turning on the camera and being dumb and people loved it. And then they wanted more. And then they started supporting me financially to be able to do this full-time.
That I would say is the biggest impact that this has had on my life. I don’t have to work a “real job,” which I hated. I hated working. So that was the most impactful thing that came from this.
Hat: Vaquera, Dress: Wiederhoeft
When you realized that this could be your professional work, did that change how you acted on live or thought about it? Did it make you more strategic?No. [Laughs] When I do interviews, I feel like people expect me to be more calculated with what I'm doing, but it's not like that. Everything happens on the fly. Everything is spontaneous. Nothing I ever did was thought out at all. It just happens. I think of it as like improv. And I think that's why people enjoy it. They like the unexpected.
Terri Joe and all your characters have had some pretty dramatic storylines develop. Are those also spontaneous?Yeah, nothing is planned. I don’t even think about it at all during the day, because I usually go Live late at night. Even the kidnapping things or the stuff about Terri’s dad dying. Everything happens either on the spot or right before. Right before the Live I’m like, “What can I say when I start this live?"
I do talk with the people I go on Live regularly with. They’re my friends. We have each other's numbers. We talk through DMs on Instagram, but we never talk about the Lives and say what we're gonna do. It just happens on the spot.
"I was really just sitting in front of the TV and watching Disney Channel most of the time, mostly That's So Raven, which I attribute to the things that I'm doing — like character work."
Did you spend a lot of time online?
Online wasn't even a thing when I was a kid. I spent most of my time watching TV like Disney Channel. I’m 27 years old, so I didn't get my first phone ‘til I was in the 12th grade. I was not really ever on the internet like that. I was really just sitting in front of the TV and watching Disney Channel most of the time, mostly That's So Raven, which I attribute to the things that I'm doing — like character work. [Raven Symoné] would do that all the time: play random characters and do the most random things.
What was your life like before going viral?
It was almost the same, to be honest. I don't really do extravagant things. Just like hanging with friends on days that I wasn't working. Getting drunk. Basically just doing the normal things that people do.
The only difference is that I was actually working a normal job, which was excruciatingly painful for me. I mean it was fine, because the job was not even that hard. It was just driving around in a car, but it got very boring and tedious because you could only drive like 15 miles per hour. You couldn't look in any direction but forward.
I was still going Live while having a job, but I noticed that I started getting [TikTok] “gifts” from people and the gifts could be transferred to cash. The money was like the same amount or more than I was making at my eight-hour job. So I was like, Why would I be working? I just quit the same day, no two-weeks notice. I was just like, “Okay, bye.”
I took that leap of faith. And the gift money is very fickle. But I just trusted that it would work out. And it did.
"I would always be telling everybody growing up that I was gonna be famous one day. And then it happened."
Were your friends and family surprised by this life pivot?
I wouldn’t say they were surprised, because they've always been urging me and encouraging me to do social media things. I would always be like, “That would be so easy for me to do because I’m so likable and people love me.” [Laughs] I’m just kidding.
I just felt like it would be like a fun thing to do. I would always be telling everybody growing up that I was gonna be famous one day. And then it happened. And I've said it so much that they were not shocked at all. They were more like, “Okay, you said you're gonna do it and you did it. And that's that.” They ask about it sometimes, but it's just like another job to them honestly.
Top, jeans and boots: Telfar
So you weren't an influencer before?
Not really. No. I don't remember the last time I posted on Instagram. Like it was in 2016. And I rarely used any other apps. I watched people, but I never really posted, which is why I'm saying this, now, is so out of the ordinary for me.
It’s interesting that you always knew you could be big on social media, even though you weren't really on social media yourself.It was more so famous. I wasn't saying I was gonna be a social media influencer at all. It was just that I was gonna be someone.
Did you have a vision of who that person would be?
No, actually. I just knew it would happen. Once, when I was in middle school, I had a substitute teacher. She was doing roll call and she stopped at my name. She paused and looked at me and she was like, “You're gonna be famous one day.” And I was like, “Okay?” Sometimes I think about that and I’m like, Was she psychic or something?
I've always felt like that. I think most kids think, I want to be like an actor. I want to be on the Disney Channel. I want to be like all these other celebrities. I just had that in the back of my head. And I kind of manifested it.
TikTok is where your work happens. But the clips are all over Twitter and the internet. Do you remember when you started realizing that your characters were having a life outside of TikTok?
Yeah, I started getting texts from my cousins and other friends who were like, “Is this you?” They were sending me videos of me on Twitter. And I was like, “Wait, what?” I literally didn't even have a Twitter. I have Twitter now, but I don't ever use it because I really don't know how to use it.People would send me videos that were posted or reposted on there. And then people in the comments were like, “Who is this? Where can I find this person? This person is so funny.” And then I saw my Reddit, and all kinds of crazy things. I still don’t understand it, to be honest.
Have you spent any time on your Reddit board?
No, I'm scared. I don't even know what Reddit is. I didn't even have an account. One of my friends tells me what he sees on it. But I never looked at it for myself.
I just made a Discord because my fans made a Discord [server] for me. And I was not in it for the longest time, but then I went in there and was just seeing what they were talking about, which actually is kind of a secret because I don't want them to know that I'm in it, but I am.
You periodically get banned from TikTok. Do you understand why?I know exactly why. [Laughs] I mean, it makes sense. I'm never upset about it. I say the most outlandish things. I say very crude things and very sexual things all the time. So it makes a lot of sense that they ban me every time I go live. It comes with the territory. That's why I have like eight accounts. When I get banned, I just hop to the other accounts.
Dress: Jenny Fax, Hair bow: Vaquera
You're such a staple of TikTok, though. You would think that TikTok would want to keep you happy. Has anyone from TikTok reached out?
Yeah, I have a TikTok Live manager or point person. She works [at TikTok] and she talks to me about the Lives sometimes. But we never talked about me being exempt from being banned because it wouldn’t be fair. I do violate the community guidelines, and if they do it for me, they have to do it for other people, too. So I don't really mind.
Your interviews with celebrities helped to bring your work to the wider world. What was the first one? And how did you start going on Live with more celebrities?
I think Doja Cat was the first celebrity I went Live with. I was just on Live one night and that’s when I was literally having like 2,000 people on my Live. People were commenting, “Doja Cat is here!” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. And I'm Beyoncé.”
I thought they were lying, but then I saw her commenting, and I was like, “Wait, what?” So then I just added her to the Live and when I added her, her following came to the Live and they were watching us interact with each other. And then she joined again a few more times. That's where it snowballed, because her following came to me and they enjoyed our interactions together. And then they posted it everywhere, and then others slowly saw it and were like, This person is funny. I want to go Live with him as well. Or that’s what I assume, because I don't really have any contact with any of them beforehand. They just show up and I add them.
Were you nervous when you first got on camera with Doja Cat?Yeah, the first time I was, because I was like, Wait, this is literally Doja Cat and she's here. But I wanted her to have the experience that she was looking for, which was just going back and forth, the banter. I didn’t want to be like, “‘Oh my God Doja Cat!” the whole entire time and be annoying. And I honestly don't even see celebrities like that. I'm not a fanboy type of person. They're just people. I may like their music. I may like their work, but I'm not going to attack them. And I think they enjoy that aspect as well.
Was there a celebrity who you had an especially good time with and you felt like really got it?
Doja Cat. She just likes to talk. She says crazy things, too. The back-and-forth just works. I don't ever feel like there's a moment where I'm trying to force the conversation with her and force it to work, you know? It doesn't feel like work. It just flows.
I was so gagged when Madonna did poppers on camera with you.
Yeah. I thought that was so funny because I was like, “Wait, what?” I saw her while she was doing it and I was like, “Wait, are you literally doing poppers on Live like, what is this?” And the fact that she didn't get banned for that was hilarious. Yeah, that was amazing.
One of my favorite things about the Terri character especially is it seems like she knows every lyric of every song ever. Is music really important to you?
I wouldn't say that it's that important, but I do like music. If you notice, there's a running theme with what I say. I do enjoy things, but I don't really delve that far into it. I do enjoy music, but I think what people are intrigued by is the music that I'm singing. I'm interested in all kinds of music, almost every genre. So I feel like that's where people are like, “Wait, how do you know these random songs? It doesn't make sense.” But I've always been like that. I've always listened to the weirdest music. Or not weird, but eclectic.
Hat: Vaquera, Dress: Wiederhoeft
"One of my followers... showed [Lana] my videos. And she was filming her. I don't remember what she said. I don't think she said anything. She was just laughing."
You’re always singing Lana. It’s my favorite part of your Lives because it’s such a dramatic and funny juxtaposition with Terri, who’s usually more uptight. Are you not a real-life Lana stan then?
Oh, yeah, for sure. With Lana, I know every single one of her songs and I know them all by heart. I was just playing a game with my friend where I guess the song they're playing when they’re shuffling through all of her discography. It was like two seconds of them playing a Lana song and I could guess which song it was.
Yeah, I’m a really big fan of hers. But I'm not like a “stan” person. I don't even know when her new album will come out. But I know that she is coming out with another album, and I will be listening to it. But I'm not looking for it and searching for it.
Do you dream of interviewing her?
No. [Laughs] I want to, sure, but I'm not like, “I need that to happen.” Actually one of my followers is friends with her and she showed [Lana] my videos. And she was filming her. I don't remember what she said. I don't think she said anything. She was just laughing. But yeah, I would love to go Live with her one day if that was possible. But if it doesn't, that's fine as well.
So you don't have a dream interview? You don't think about that?
Most people you go Live with are just random people, and most of the interactions are pretty surreal. I was on one a few weeks ago where some guy kept asking to marry Jeorgia.
Lately, I don't even remember. I just black out whenever I go Live. So people will tell me, “Oh, this one was so funny.” And I'm like, “That happened?”
So nothing pops up in your mind from one of your Lives that is particularly crazy or memorable?
Well, I do have one I just thought of right now, but it's not safe for work at all. But there was one time I went Live with this guy and he was wearing gym shorts and nothing under. And he was jumping around. I'm sure you can deduce what was happening while that was happening.
Yeah, people can get pretty wild on your Lives. I guess they have an expectation of what the experience is going to be like, and they come in with a certain energy?
Yeah, I think it's just that most of the people have never seen me before, but when I click to add their Lives, they can see how many people are in my Live. I think that's where that energy comes from. They’re like, “I have to be crazy. I have to get these people to like me. I have to have this be a funny or shocking thing.” I think that's where it comes from.
Do you have an internal sense of how to keep things entertaining? Is there a signal that’s like, “Okay, it's time to move on or this isn't working?”
It's only when I get bored. When I get bored from talking to a person, I'm just like, “Okay, bye,” and just go on to the next one. You can see it in the comments as well. People are like, “Next!”
So I’ll be like, “Let's do a battle.” I'm like, “Want to do a battle?” and I just end the Live, because they think I'm going to press the button to do a battle, but I'm actually ending it with that. I feel like that's the least awkward way to end the Live. So now that's been a signal from the comments to me. They're like, “Battle! Battle!”
But I don’t really listen to them most of the time. If I still want to talk to the person, I'm going to. But yeah, usually it’s when I get bored or when I see the comments and people are like, “Okay, we’re done. Let’s go to the next person.” Which actually pisses me off.
"I don’t even think I built [the Terri-verse]. The people built that."
Talk more about how you react to your viewers' comments during your Lives. It sounds like you follow their directives, but you also feel complicated about it?
Sometimes it upsets me, because I’m just like, “Shut up and enjoy the show!” But most times when they’re like “This person is boring,” I’m like, “Yeah.” Usually, when they’re feeling it, I’m feeling it, too.
Is there a certain trait in people you look for when you go on Live and know, “Okay this is going to be good?”
It’s usually — and this is horrible to say — like older people. Like people in their 30s and above. They just really don’t understand what’s happening. They’re a little confused and I just play off them being confused and say the most outlandish things to them and try to get their reaction. The people I enjoy going on Live with the most are the people who have no clue what’s going on. They’re just going with it as if I’m a real Christian person who’s saying these things to them. I like their reaction to that.
Okay, so you’ve built this whole Terri Joe Cinematic Universe —
I don’t even think I built that. The people built that. I just gave them the material and they did the Terri-verse thing. I went along with it. I give them credit for that.
But do you have active plans about where it’s going to go? Is your work going to expand off of TikTok? Are there any plans you can share?
I would like to see it stay on TikTok but also expand, because something that is stagnant for a long time gets boring. I would like to see it travel further than that. I know some people have concerns about that. Like if you go to a network or a different platform, they’re going to try to dull everything down and ruin everything. But I personally wouldn’t work with anybody where I couldn’t have almost full creative control. That would be dumb. I’m already doing what I’m doing now, so I wouldn’t relinquish the reigns of what I’m doing to someone just for them to fuck it up.
I would like to see it go somewhere else and I’ve been talking to some people about that, but there’s nothing definite.
Is there a dream form for the characters? A TV show? Movie? Podcast?
No. I feel like all of it! Why not all of it? I feel like I could transfer it to a lot of things, it’s just how. We haven’t figured that out yet.
I want to put in my two cents for a club night somewhere hosted by Jeorgia.
I mean, it would be fun. I’m just terrified to be Jeorgia anywhere because she’s like, “I have a BBL,” and I show up and I’m like [hunches his shoulders] built like Zoidberg. [Laughs] I guess that would be funny as well: for her to have all this surgery and then I show up looking crazy.
I think that would be funny, but I don’t think people enjoy her as much as Terri. I know there are people who do, because people are always like, “Are you going to do Jeorgia tonight?” But I feel like there are more people who like Terri than the other characters. But I would do that because that does sound fun.
I don’t think I could ever do stand-up. I think I would cry actually, because you have to set up jokes and nothing I ever do is set up. I don’t think I could even do that. Everything I do is on the fly. I never tried though, either. I think I have stage fright. I haven’t been on a stage in forever, but I’m pretty sure I have stage fright.
Are people recognizing you now on the street? Does that also make you nervous?
It makes me a little nervous, especially if I feel like I don’t look how I should look in the moment. If somebody asks for a picture, I’m like, “Yeah, sure,” but in my head, I’m like, No!
But people do recognize me and I always say, “Yes,” and I always try to give them the best experience or the experience they want from me. I think there are some people who are a little scared to come up and talk to me. They think I am how I am on the internet and will be rude to them, but I’m literally the complete opposite. I’m a very sweet and nice person if you meet me in person.
"Whenever this camera... is on and I have that wig on and I see myself in the camera, she takes over and I'm not even there anymore."
Going off of that: Are there any big misconceptions you’d like to clear up about how you are as a person outside of these characters?
That would be the main one. I think people know that now, but the biggest one is that they think I’m a horrible person or a rude person or a mean person or that I’d judge them if they came up to me, but I’m literally not like that at all.
Terri Joe doesn’t exist in your mind?
No. Not at all. I was literally like — wait I can’t say that. Wait I can! [Laughs] This interview is literally for PAPER and I was like, “I can’t talk about PAPER!” But [the PAPER team] was asking me to do these little videos here and there of me being Terri or saying something Terri would say, and I was like, “I don’t even know.” It’s just whenever this camera or this little setup is on and I have that wig on and I see myself in the camera, she takes over and I’m not even there anymore. I don’t even know what I talk about, to be honest. I think that’s the biggest misconception. The characters are not me and I am not them. They may be a piece of me, but I’m my own person.
I feel like what you’ve done is really inspiring. You’ve made this whole thing happen and had so much fun doing it. Do you have any words for someone who wants to put themselves out there and perform and make art or comedy, but may be nervous to do so?
I would say, “Just do it!” Me being Nike. [Laughs] Because most people want to do things. I’ve been saying I want to do stuff on social media for years, and the day I started doing it was the day it took off.
People get in their heads about how it’s going to be perceived, but you need to not worry about that and just have fun with it. And the people who like it will come and the people who don’t like it can die. I’m just kidding! But just start and when you start, keep doing what you want to do. Don’t try to change what you’re doing to appease other people, because that will take the fun out of it away from you.
Dress: Jenny Fax
Photography: Oscar Ouk
Styling: Abby Bencie
Hair: John Novotny
Makeup: Christyna Kay
Set design: Seamus Slattery
Photo assistance: Alex Kalb
Stylist assistance: Kelsey Logan
Production assistance: Em Marie Canon, Noelle Heriveaux, Gabrielle Narcisse
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