Here’s What You Never Knew About Lily From The Iconic AT&T Ads

Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

It’s the break on your favorite TV show, and you’re about to switch channels. But your eye is caught by the latest ad from AT&T [American Telephone and Telegraph company]. It’s one of the series featuring the adorable store manager Lily Adams, who somehow makes phone plans funny and interesting. But there’s a lot more to Milana Vayntrub, the actress behind Lily, than you might expect.

Image: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

To start with, the character is quite loveable, but she’s also much deeper than others considering it’s a commercial. And over the time that AT&T has featured her, we’ve gotten to know her quite well. A friendly nerd, she’s a bit gauche, but never in an unpleasant way. We even know that she likes to bedazzle.

Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

Of course, a lot of Lily’s appeal is down to Vayntrub. Not only is she cute without being overly sexualized, but she has a ready wit and charm. Furthermore, she’s not out of place in the brightly colored storefronts that form her backdrops. Noticeably, she’s often younger than the customers whom she helps in the ads: reflecting the target demographic of the commercials.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

In fact, in one of the popular ads Lily talks by whispering so as not to wake up a baby, while in another she hilariously fails to recognize ex-basketballer Grant Hill. More confusion arises when she offers a regular deal to a celebrity she doesn’t know, and he thinks he’s getting special treatment. In this case it’s Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek.

Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

What’s more, the character’s encounters with hard nosed business people leave room for laughs. For instance, they try to take the tough approach, while she offers them “fantastic” deals. And the joke is always that Lily gives everyone the same professional treatment while being kind and approachable. So who exactly is the face behind Lily?

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Mark Davis/Getty Images for YouTube

Well, first of all, she’s got an exotic name – Milana Aleksandrovna Vayntrub. And she was born in what was, at the time, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, now just the Republic of Uzbekistan. As you may already know, it’s a former member of the Soviet Union and has a warm climate with reportedly little rain. But there’s a darker side to the country’s fabric, too.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: JB Lacroix/WireImage/Getty Images

For you see, Vayntrub’s family suffered a lot of religious persecution there because they were Jewish. So they decided to try to gain political asylum in the United States. Of course, it wasn’t easy, and the process saw them stuck in both Austria and Italy at one time or another. However, they did eventually make it, and Vayntrub, two years old when they left, grew up in the States.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Instagram/mintmilana

And astonishingly, the refugee soon found herself with an acting career. Yes, Vayntrub first appeared in an ad – coincidentally for a phone company – when she was five years old. And she didn’t have to wait too long to appear on a TV show, either. For she played a sick patient called Tatiana on E.R., opposite Julianna Margulies and George Clooney. Moreover, the youngster liked the look of Clooney as a playdate and incessantly asked him to come to her house.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via IMDb

Next up, Vayntrub showed her dedication on children’s show Lizzie McGuire. Sure, she only played a girl who burped when she thought no one was looking. However, the then middle-schooler put in tons of practice into her burping. So it turned out that her role as “Cute Burper” was a very professional effort indeed!

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

However, despite her early roles, Vayntrub was ready to give up on acting as a career. Indeed, she told Esquire magazine in 2015, “I remember thinking, ‘I should probably focus on something more realistic. This is probably not going to work out. I have high hopes, but that’s probably not enough to make it in film’.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

So instead, Vayntrub concentrated on her schooling in her teens. And she did a good job too: dropping out of high school when she passed her proficiency exam early and then going on to study at university. Furthermore, she went on to graduate in communication, aptly enough, from the University of California, San Diego.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

However, Vayntraub did not give up on acting after all but worked to hone her existing skills in improv. And she did that by training with the Upright Citizens Brigade. This is the renowned comedy company that set Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler, among others, on the road to stardom.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/LivePrudeGirls

Interestingly enough, Vayntrub brought those improv skills to YouTube, where she proved a hit as a creator of “Live Prude Girls.” Indeed, her videos would score hundreds of thousands of views, and although she doesn’t make them any more, they’re still available to view.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/LivePrudeGirls

Now, one of Vayntrub’s shows was Let’s Talk About Something More. And she described how the show worked to Esquire, saying, “It was me and another girl and we would sit our guests in between us and harass them gently. Matt Damon was our guest. And Bob Odenkirk, B.J. Novak, other YouTubers.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via IMDb

From there, Vayntrub’s career took her into the world of TV and film, where she scored lots of small roles. In the reboot of Ghostbusters in 2016, for instance, she played a woman confronted by rats in a subway. And in TV’s Key and Peele, she was a vampire.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: JB Lacroix/ WireImage/Getty Images

More substantial were Vayntrub’s appearances on Judd Apatow’s Love on Netflix, where she played the protagonist’s wicked ex. Also, she turned up on Silicon Valley, where she appeared in a couple episodes as Tara. But bigger was to follow for Vayntrub with a part in one of the most-watched dramas of the 2010s.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for ReedPOP

Yes, This Is Us was the top-rating debut show in 2016-17, ending up in fifth place for all shows. And Vayntrub played Sloane Sandburg in the Pearson family story, a playwright and one of the main character’s love interests. Although she only appeared in four episodes, she could always return given how the show leaps around in time.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Yahoo

Another project for the actress was Other Space, a sci-fi comedy that showed on Yahoo! Screen. In it, Vayntrub stars as the inept navigator of a spaceship. Unfortunately, money problems caused the demise of Yahoo! Screen and the show with it. And despite creator Paul Feig’s keenness to make more, it hadn’t resurfaced at the time of writing.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Lilly Lawrence/Getty Images

During 2017 Vayntrub’s name was linked with a role that other actresses had been keen on. She would be Doreen Green, better known to Marvel fans as Squirrel Girl, on Marvel: New Warriors. However, the show never made it out of development, although Vayntrub was not left entirely high and dry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Friendly96

That’s because the project appeared in a different guise. Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors featured Vayntrub’s voice in the role of Squirrel Girl. And it represented the beginning of a new franchise that includes short films and specials as well as the TV film. With comic-book tie-ins and YouTube showings also involved, the character of Squirrel Girl seems sure to gain more notice.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Moving on, Vayntrub made an appearance in the flesh when she starred in TV series Threads. That particular show is set in the world of online chat forums. And also, she starred in That Moment When where viewers got to make choices for her character, Jill, as she confronts difficult moments in life, with rib-tickling consequences.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/YouTube Originals

However, animation called again as Vayntrub lent her voice to Ellie Moonshiner in Dallas & Robo. This story of space truckers aimed at the adult market starred Kat Dennings and John Cena and appeared on YouTube Premium. And it garnered at least one decent review, with a critic describing it as “must-see television.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

Despite this varied and interesting career so far, Vayntrub is possibly best known as Lily in the AT&T ads. Now, they have consistently shown her in a good light on television since December 2013. And that’s not bad considering there was only supposed to be one solo commercial featuring Vayntrub.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

Yes, and AT&T advertising vice president Valerie Vargas explained why that original plan changed to Ad Week magazine in 2016. She said, “The first spot was so successful for us that we thought, let’s do another one and then another one and then another one. It was so well received that we kept bringing her back.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Funny Ads Compilation

Hank Perlman, a director for the Hungry Man agency, who shot many of the ads, told Ad Week, “I think Milana’s Lily resonates with audiences because she’s a multi-dimensional character in a way that’s rare for commercials. We try as hard as we can not only to make her funny but to make her as strong, smart and human as possible. And hopefully all of that makes her as relatable as a character in a 30-second commercial can be.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Indeed, the ad series was so eye catching that actress and comedian Amy Schumer thought it was worth parodying. However, Vayntrub was not impressed. She told Ad Week, “Ultimately, I have a real feminist issue with it. The way that you’re going to portray this character is that you’re going to play her dumb? Well, that’s lazy.” But it didn’t end there.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Amanda Edwards/WireImage/Getty Images

Because Vayntrub felt that Schumer had only considered her as eye candy. And she told Ad Week, “Also, I think the character was portrayed as a prop that was there to entice men… I think a lot of brands use women as props to sell products, and we work really hard to make Lily strong and smart and funny and independent.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: C Flanigan/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Vayntrub continued, “She’s the successful store manager, she’s really doing it, I’m proud of the girl we have made. I think even in that case, if you see Lily as a prop that’s there to entice men, then you need to look at the way you watch women on television. You can’t say that we need to give women more roles, and then when we do, say that they’re only there because men want to look at them.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Amanda Edwards/WireImage/Getty Images

Furthermore, this willingness to speak her mind has been reflected in Vayntrub’s big love: activism. Now, the cause close to her heart is refugees, and she began the
“Can’t Do Nothing” movement to help those in need. And it’s gained plenty of traction, with almost 250,000 people engaging with the project.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/CantDoNothing

You see, in January 2016 Vayntrub kicked off the campaign with a documentary titled Milana Can’t Do Nothing. In this, she used her own story as a lens to look at the problems refugees face. And a focus of the short film was the terrible conditions that refugees had to put up with when they journeyed from Syria to Greece.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Interestingly, Vayntrub’s non profit organization does appear to be getting results by working with other groups. She told Ad Week, “One of the organizations that Can’t Do Nothing works with is called The Syria Fund, and they’ve worked with us to erect these classrooms, hire teachers, create music and art programs… I wanted to shoot a lot of it as a way of letting people know where their donations have gone.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

After that, Vayntrub explained to Ad Week why she felt that her movement was needed. She said, “People are really waking up to a global responsibility, especially our generation, and I think the internet has a big part in it. I think it’s maybe just a time of so much strife in the world that it’s hard to ignore. Then there are brilliant comedians that make it something digestible but also infuriating.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/CantDoNothing

The actress continued, “So yeah, I think entertainment and activism go very much hand in hand. Though I don’t want to say it’s an entertainer’s responsibility to also be an activist. I don’t even really think of myself as an activist. I just feel very passionate about these people who are going through a hard time.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

And although Vayntrub might’ve had concerns that her outspokenness could harm her career, AT&T at least are right behind her. That’s correct, because Vargas told Ad Week, “Milana’s passion for her cause is absolutely remarkable.” And certainly the actress doesn’t let any worries prevent her from speaking out on social media about different issues.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images

Indeed, Vayntrub told Ad Week that she felt compelled to do whatever she could. She said, “It’s so cocky of me to think that I could change anyone’s mind, but I can’t do nothing. How am I not supposed to talk to these 100,000 people about something that’s tearing me up today? How am I supposed to act like it’s not happening?”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

And there was no way that Vayntrub was going to stop. She explained in the Ad Week interview , “Maybe this will be the downfall of my career if people stop following me and studios don’t want to be involved with someone this controversial – not that I am controversial in any way – I don’t know what is the right move or the more advisable career move, but life is long and complicated, and you’ve got to do what you feel is right.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Manny Carabel/Getty Images

Not that the activism seems in any way to have held Vayntrub’s career back. Indeed, she branched out even further in 2016. Yes, she stepped to the other side of the camera to shoot an advertisement as its director. Her funny effort for Cracker Barrel showed off the eatery’s mac and cheese.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

When Ad Week asked Vayntrub how she coped with so many different areas of expression, however, she had an explanation. She said, “You’re right in that they are all very different parts of my brain. And creativity, especially in improv, is about turning off a part of your brain to get rid of any kind of self-consciousness and allow things to pop in and through you.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Araya Diaz/WireImage/Getty Images

What’s more, Vayntrub explained that she didn’t think she’d get a job that didn’t involve some improv – because that was where her best skills lay. Indeed, she believed that if a job lacked the need for making it up as you go along, perhaps others would be hired because they’d be better.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Advanced Imaging Society

Still, the versatile performer is far more than just a face in an ad. In November 2019 she showed off her funnywoman skills at a stand-up gig during the New York Comedy Festival. And the in-demand one-time refugee is sure to light up our screens in future in a range of roles.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT