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How a Transgender YouTuber Became a Queer Role Model

The power of representation in ‘This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous’

(SelectNext/Ringer illustration)
(SelectNext/Ringer illustration)

“Hi guys,” says Gigi Gorgeous, in a YouTube video dated August 11, 2016. “I have a story for you. It’s a real-time story, ’cause I’m still in it.” Gorgeous — a blond, statuesque YouTube sensation — had been detained for five hours at Dubai International Airport because, she says, of who she is.

Who she is is complicated. She’s Gigi Loren Lazzarato, a 24-year-old model and internet personality whose YouTube career began, almost 10 years ago, with makeup tutorials and a plethora of bitchy punch lines. She’s Canadian, a former high diver with childhood Olympic aspirations. And she’s transgender — hence, she says, the holdup in Dubai. (Local police said it was a matter of her passport’s gender designation being out of date.)

We were of course privy to this, and to Gigi’s feelings about it, almost as soon as it happened: Gigi is a child of the internet era. Every one of her life experiences has the potential to be refashioned into a glammed-up life lesson for her subscribers. “It does make me really sad to talk about it,” she says in the video “I Was Roofied,” a humorous account of a bad night out in Brooklyn with friends. “I wanted to get the word out there on this topic because it’s happening all the time.” She’s by some accounts one of those dreaded self- and image-obsessed millennials who uses the internet like it’s a churchly confessional. Gigi, who says she’s online 24/7, is happy to add to the noise: “From the moment I wake up, I am checking social media. I am very passionate about it and want to keep the ball rolling.”

Her YouTube channel, which has almost 2.5 million subscribers, is a compendium of practical style advice, personal confession, and — of course — self-promotion. Over the years, her legion of followers, most of whom she says are teenage girls, have been privy to the pivots in her sexuality (she recently threw them for a loop and came out as lesbian), her breakups, and, most daringly, the multiple steps in her transition, including grace notes such as her first bra.

That’s why the Dubai incident stands out. When it comes up late in This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, a documentary about Gigi’s life and persona, the moment hits like a sucker punch. The documentary had otherwise ended on a high note: a triumphant Gigi walking her first runway in New York. The scene in Dubai, which plays out like a last-minute coda, brings us back to reality. Acceptance, for a trans woman, isn’t universal. This Is Everything, which drops on YouTube Red on February 8 after a limited theatrical release, would appear to be your usual chronicle of life from childhood to adulthood. Indeed, it is an inspiring tale of how Gigi grew up a gay male named Gregory and eventually became an internet star. The film satisfies this demand, going out of its way to look and feel the part: talking heads, chipper music cues, and neon-bright, can’t-miss-’em emotional beats. It satisfies our expectations of a story about transition, too — a narrative with growth and adversity built into its DNA.

But what sets the movie apart is Gigi herself, for whom there is no real divide between private life and public performance. Her YouTube career is a point of fact. Whether style guide or diary entry, her posts are chances to perform. In even her most intimate uploads, such as one of her more essential videos, “I Am Transgender,” Gigi sits with poise. The lighting carefully hits her hair and cheekbones just so, her shoulders tilted carefully to one side in a conspicuous pose, the way you’re told to contort yourself for a yearbook photo. Jumping through clips like these over time, as one does while watching this documentary, you realize that what you’re seeing is the making of an internet celebrity. The difference between Gigi and her younger self is not only a transition: It’s better styling, a pricier camera, and a much greater sense of what it takes to become a star.

That’s the story of every YouTube personality who makes it big, getting even so far as Hollywood. But queer YouTube stars like Gigi perform with the knowledge that their personas have higher stakes by default. There’s a recurring theme among queer celebrities when talking about the importance of being out and visible to the masses. The line always goes: “If only I’d seen [enter actor, YouTube star, or magazine queen here] when I was younger!” There’s an implicit awareness of representation — and their place in it. Gigi and her contemporaries, among them Tyler Oakley (who began posting on YouTube in 2007, one year before Gigi), have become de facto queer role models. They’ve gotten rich doing it. But they’ve also made a striking case for the intimacy this affords queer teenagers, in particular, for whom these encounters with queer role models via YouTube are formative first steps to accepting themselves. Where a critic of digital natives might see distance and artifice, Gigi sees closeness:

This Is Everything was directed by documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.), whose long, underrated career is full of gem-like character portraits such as this, movies whose seeming lack of aesthetic risk often results in the two-time Oscar winner being overlooked in snobby discussions of nonfiction filmmaking. Her work here isn’t revolutionary, but Kopple understands the way her characters work and how, through the basic tricks of storytelling, to get their personas to sing. The central drama of This Is Everything, for example, heightens the ongoing conflict Gigi has with her father, who initially struggled with her varied declarations of identity. Kopple uses material from Gigi’s videos to emphasize not only the pain of reconciliation, but also the small moments of intimacy and care. Her father’s tenderness after Gigi’s multiple surgeries, for example, proves revelatory for even Gigi herself.

This Is Everything largely consists of Gigi’s greatest hits: carefully selected clips from her vast videography. You see them play out alongside the present-day insights of her father and her two brothers. Kopple’s talent is for knowing how to isolate the purest, most telling moments of self-discovery, for her argument is that Gigi’s is a life full of them. You walk away feeling like you’ve seen a rich portrait of not only a person, but a personality. And it’s all the more fun in the case of a YouTube star like Gigi, for whom there would seem to be little difference.