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My Greek mom rose to TikTok stardom. After her sudden death, I found comfort in her fame

Underneath my mom's hard exterior was a whole lot of love.

When I started stand-up comedy, I looked to my upbringing as the youngest son of Greek immigrants as inspiration. I was always talking about family, even if they weren't at the core of my set.

My childhood wasn’t always easy, partly because my mom, Julia, wasn't the warmest person. She was strict. She was tough. She was aggressive about her nurturing. (Think: Chasing down a 4-year-old on a swing set trying to get them to eat meatballs and french fries.)

But my mom’s personality, as tough as it was to deal with at times, was the reason my comedy career took off.

During the pandemic, I started posting videos as this “Greek mom” character, an exaggerated version of my mom and other Greek women I knew. My mom never learned English, so I always had to translate what she was saying to my friends. The character came easily to me — all I had to do was think of what she might say. 

After a few flops, I almost gave up until one video took off in April 2020 during quarantine. It was titled, “Greek moms on Easter,” and was just that: What Greek moms might say on Easter. I said things like, “Greek Orthodox Easter is the real Easter,” and, “Your cousin Maria told my sister Maria that she doesn’t like my pastitsio, so she’s not invited to Easter.” 

The video went viral on every platform I posted it on, which is how I knew it really resonated with people, who were saying, “This is my mom, or my aunt, or my cousin.” I feel like the video captured that familiar feeling of the holiday for people who weren't gathering for Easter in person. They were craving family time.

At first, my mom was uncomfortable by my new internet fame. She thought the video was offensive and wanted me to take it down. Then she went to church one weekend and her friends, who all started following me, said, “Oh, we love your son. He’s so funny.” After that, she was like, “Oh, never mind, this is funny.”

For a year, impersonating my mom was my “thing.” But soon, followers on my account started asking to see the real Greek mom behind the “Greek mom" videos.

So, at my 29th birthday party in 2021, I took out my phone to film her. “Mom, it’s my birthday,” I say in the video. She’s walking next to me pushing a stroller. She looks at me up and down and goes, “It’s your birthday? 29 years and you’re still this dumb?” 

My mom and I cooking lamb.
My mom and I cooking lamb.Courtesy Gus Constantellis

She was brilliant. She was merciless. People were instantly obsessed. I think people loved her because she was devastatingly authentic, but underneath her hard exterior, there was a whole lot of love. 

Viral stardom didn’t change her critical opinion on my career path, though. Six months after that first video of her, we did a joint appearance on live TV in Greece, and she ended the interview by saying it wasn’t too late for me to become a lawyer.

She replaced me as the Greek mom on my account, and I was thrilled. Through filming these videos, I also got to spend more time with her and actually got to know her as a person, beyond who she was as a mom and grandma.

Cooking lamb again. We're Greek!
Cooking lamb again. We're Greek!Courtesy Gus Constantellis

She told me about her life, the youngest of seven in a small Peloponnesian village after World War II. Her family was so poor that they wore clothing dropped in the town square donated by the U.S. through the Truman Doctrine, when $400 million was granted to Greece and Turkey as part of an effort to stop the U.S.S.R.'s expansion. Once, they ate the goat she had named as a pet because they had nothing to eat. She left her village when she was 12 to work in a factory in Athens and met my dad at 21. They started a new life together in the U.S., against her parents’ wishes.

Growing up, my family would visit Greece regularly, but my mom went every summer. In 2023, when she returned for the last time before her death at 65, she was greeted as a straight-up celebrity. 

When we swam in the Mediterranean, someone next to us shouted, “It’s the mom!” When we walked down streets, people turned their heads to look at us. When we went to a gift shop in Crete, her picture hung on the wall the next day.  She was my mom, and thanks to my viral social media account, it’s like she became everyone’s — and she loved it. 

It’s hard to look back on what happened next. Before this last trip to Greece, I filmed a video of my mom talking about the vacation. She said she was terrified of going to the small islands. When I asked why, she responded, “In case I die. I’m a grown ass woman now. They don’t even have ambulances on small islands."

My mom collapsed waiting for the ferry from Zakynthos, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, while she was with my dad. They could see the boat coming when it happened. As she was smoking a cigarette (I asked my dad this as I wanted to make sure she got one in before she went), she turned to my dad and said she had a weird pain. Seconds later, she had an aneurysm due to high blood pressure and instantly became brain-dead.

I was supposed to meet them in Athens the next day. But instead of being greeted by my parents at my cousin’s apartment, it was just my dad sitting down, telling me she wasn’t going to wake up from a coma.

My mom and I on the way to Greece.
My mom and I on the way to Greece.Courtesy Gus Constantellis

The five days that followed in Athens were surreal. I decided to share the news of her death on my Instagram, since I didn’t want to get out from a source other than me, though part of me wished I had taken time.  

People stopped me everywhere I went. Some told me they were sorry. A few followed that up by asking for a picture. I said no. Others said, “I love you and your mom.” I could tell they hadn’t found out the news, and I didn’t want to tell them, so I just said “yes” and kept walking. 

Online, I was inundated by comments, too, but those became a source of comfort. So many people loved her, too. I was also grateful to have a catalog of videos I could look back on. The only regret I have is that I didn’t start filming her sooner.

Courtesy Gus Constantellis

My mom used to joke about what my dad, brothers and I would do when she died. “You guys are gonna starve,” she’d say. But actually, she prepared us. 

I learned how to cook from my mom over the years, and now, I feel like I’ve got food taken care of. Currently, I’m compiling about 50 of her recipes in a cookbook that we were originally supposed to work on together, which she was super excited about. Some of the recipes I know myself, some I got from my brother, some I got from my Aunt Zoi and her friends.

The cookbook will be a gift to her fans on social media and to her two grandchildren. For me, working on the cookbook has been a helpful tool in allowing myself to grieve every single day and to work through that grief. It’s been nice hearing new stories about my mom through other people.

The rest, I’m figuring out. After three years of making comedy about my mom, with my mom, and touring with a set about my mom, what does “next” look like? I’d been the “mom” comedian; I don’t want to be the “dead mom” comedian. What I do know is this: When I got home from Greece and the dust settled a bit, I had an overwhelming feeling rush over me. A feeling that everything was going to be all right.

My mom, dad, brothers and I.
My mom, dad, brothers and I.Courtesy Gus Constantellis

Looking back, I’m so happy we had the past three years together. Somehow, the brutal comebacks that affected me as a kid became a way to bond as I got older. 

A few months before she died, she spoke about how she could be cutting with her words. She was smoking a cigarette, like she always was. Turning to me, tears streaming down her face, she said, “Gus, please know that I loved you guys so much. I did everything for you.” 

It felt like she was saying sorry for some of the toughness, the old school stuff we had to go through with her. 

Our last day together was also a comfort. We went to a famous beach in Crete. I planned the trip … and, if I’m honest, it was kind of a mess. It was too hot. She was complaining, as she always did. But on the way back, she held my hand and said, “Thank you so much. It was the most fun day.”