Dianne Brill recently defined the “it-girl” as someone who, “all of a sudden, when you leave, the party’s down.” She was talking about her scene, in her era: 1980s New York City nightlife. If there’s a parallel to today’s pandemic hangover world, it would be the endless virtual party of the internet. And on the internet, a sizable proportion of the it-girls are trans.
“Goblin mode.” Christian girl autumn. The BBL effect. These iconic online phenomena were all shaped by trans women’s humor and creativity, memes millions of people quote and remix, often without ever knowing where they come from. But while trans people have never been more visible in culture, with that exposure has come a coordinated, brutal backlash in both American politics and global culture war discourse. From Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s book bans and orders that students cannot discuss anything related to sex or gender identity to J.K. Rowling’s very public transphobia, anti-trans sentiment has seeped into every corner of mainstream discourse, including journalism.
I spoke to six of the funniest, most trendsetting trans women on social media right now about what it’s like to be at the forefront of culture while also being the targets of daily harassment online. “Trans people have such a beautiful wealth of life experience,” explains influencer Uniekue (pronounced “unique”). “We’re so in tune with ourselves — you have to be as a trans person. There’s so much beauty that comes from knowing oneself and loving oneself and choosing oneself in spite of the sea of voices telling you that you’re not worthy or that you don’t deserve to be here. The world only benefits from being privy to that beauty.” Welcome to the era of the trans it-girl.
Antoni Bumba/@antonibumba, 25, New York City
Content creator, entrepreneur, art collector, artist
How did you first come up with the idea for the BBL effect?
I moved to New York City after the pandemic cleared up a bit and I was living with my two roommates. I had no fucking money and I was super broke. We were sitting at the dining room table and we were going back and forth about these people who were running the internet at the time — the Revolve girls, for example — and then we started talking about lip filler and BBLs [Brazilian butt lifts]. It was less about the surgery and more about the lifestyle, the attitude that they portrayed. Then I heard this sound on TikTok and I was like, “I can make a really funny video out of this.” And then I really ran with it. So many people think it’s about getting the work done. But it’s all about the energy — it was a way for me to display a certain type of femininity in a way that was powerful and brandable and strong.
A lot of people who go viral on TikTok turn into one-hit wonders. How did you build it into a broader career?
I went into the industry and I became friends with all different types of people in my community — Black creators, trans creators, and then also white girl creators. I wanted to know who was making what kind of money, who people are connected to, and what is the climate in this industry. It took me a couple of months, right around the time I met my manager, but I started to understand the weight of what it meant to have a media space. I don’t want to become one of those people who does so well in their career, but doesn’t have a personality and has never touched grass a day in their life. So I keep regular people who work real nine-to-five jobs around me to keep me really grounded, as corny as that sounds.
What’s your biggest it-girl moment?
Three days ago I met Solange Knowles backstage at a music festival and I was talking to her for like, seven minutes about braiding hair. I didn’t even tell her what my name was, we were just shooting the shit. I was like, what the fuck? There was also a moment where I invested in a piece of art by Nan Goldin. It was a photo of this trans burlesque dancer in Paris, and I met her a couple weeks after I bought it at a charity event, and I’m the only trans girl who has ever bought a piece of art from her. I feel like the more of us that are in the industry, being seen, putting a spotlight on ourselves, the more we’re actively changing the world.
What are some of your style influences?
My mom was the coolest ’90s it-girl. She set the tone of the kind of woman I wanted to be: It’s about style but it’s also about unconventionality, and not being the kind of woman who prioritizes being coddled over being understood. I always was into really cool women like that: Angelina Jolie, Vivica A. Fox, Sharon Stone, Brandy. They’re all gorgeous, they fit the beauty standard, and they weren’t trans, but it’s what I could see, and I picked a part of them that empowered me the most.
How do you deal with internet hate?
My therapist gave me the best advice ever. He told me, “You don’t have to accept it.” And I don’t accept it when people are hateful or give criticism that’s not constructive. I block people for anything. The other day, I blocked somebody because I posted this video on my story of Beyoncé, and someone replied to the story and said, “LOL what drag queen is that?” I blocked them so fast, because I felt like it was disrespectful. I’m not even gonna sit and try to think about the semantics. I was like, “Yeah, fuck you.”
What’s your dream life?
I want to take over the world. I want to have a beauty brand, I want to have a chain restaurant, I want to have a talk show, I want to tour around the world and perform really, really beautiful and expansive music. When people see my face — hair, makeup, beard — and when they see how I identify myself and how I carry myself, I want to do enough so that when I die, this whole issue of thinking women are less than or that queer people aren’t relatable or that some people don’t belong in this world, I pray that I spend my entire life bleeding all that shit from culture, so when I’m dead, it’ll die with me.
Blizzy McGuire/@blizzy_mcguire, 23, Brooklyn
Vibe curator, internet magician, comedian
Who are some of your comedic influences?
When I was younger I was so obsessed with Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. I’ve always felt so connected to her — the Target lady, or the little hands. If I’m gonna imitate anyone’s comedic style, it’s gonna be Kristen Wiig.
Do you get recognized?
I hate to say it, but I do get recognized a lot. The other day I was walking to the bar to get chicken tenders and someone just leaned out of their car and said, “TikTok!” If I’m ever on the L train and I see someone with blue hair I’m like, “Oh, God.” In my immediate area I’m either going to Popeyes or I’m either going to Dunkin’ Donuts, but if I’m walking around Soho on my break it’s like, “Can we get a photo together? You’re such a star!” and I’m like, “I’m on shift right now, baby.”
Where does your sense of style come from?
I grew up in poverty, but I grew up around Long Island style, which is basically like, you go to the mall and you get a Michael Kors bag. So [my style is] that, plus being 12 and in middle school. I’m literally wearing a Hilary Duff tour shirt from 2004 right now.
You’ve been open about your struggles with money and your experience in shitty retail jobs. What’s it like having a big following but not the money that we tend to expect goes with that?
I’m not like Dixie D’Amelio, I’m not doing the “Renegade.” I would like to be booked, I would like to have an income from all this stuff. I don’t want to be stuck in this cycle of bad retail job to bad retail job. I see these people who have fewer followers than me and they’re flying to Cancun so that they can do the “Renegade” on a beach. I’m like, “Girl, what’s going on? Where’s my flight?” At the end of the day, I’m still just that little broke girl from Long Island. I could be in a room with a whole bunch of big-name people, and I go home and my card’s getting declined at Dunkin’ Donuts.
What’s your approach to monetizing your content?
I’ve been trying to figure out how to monetize. I’ve been doing a lot more gigs lately, and it’s been a lot more modeling as opposed to comedic [gigs]. Which is crazy to me, because I feel like I spent a lot of my transition being super insecure, and I pride myself more on my personality and my sense of humor than my looks. So it’s kind of validating because it’s like, “Oh, I’m not only the pretty girl in the room, I’m also the funny girl!”
A lot of sponsored content is like, “Here’s a day in my life!” and it’s just this white girl in her kitchen pressing the button on her Keurig. I can’t remove myself enough from reality to be able to do that. I have to make a joke out of it. I’d be like, “So these motherfucking bitches sent me this gay coffee concentrate and I’m gonna drink it and shit my pants.”
Selyna Brillare/@trapselyna, 22, New York City
Artist, content creator, part-time supermodel
How’d you go from being a content creator to making music?
I’ve been making videos on the internet since I was 14. I’ve had spikes in popularity here and there, and during Covid I started making TikToks. I always had a background in music, I was very big into musical theater in middle and high school. A lot of my friends growing up made music — we were 13, 14, in recording studios. I was always dating rappers and being in the studio with them. So then two years ago I woke up one morning and I was thinking about a song, and I had a friend drive me up to the Bronx, because a friend’s boyfriend had a studio out there that we could use. I went into the studio and I made a song. Every dude in the studio after I came off the booth was impressed by me. They were like, “Oh my god, how long have you been making music?” And I was like, “Today.”
How would you describe your music?
Right now I’m promoting my EP, Lyna’s Summa. It’s a mash of different sounds, but the most consistent sound that you can hear throughout is that you can dance to it. “Leche de Tigre” is my first song I’ve ever made in Spanish. Basically, the direct translation is “gangster cum.” A lot of people think I’m talking about a tiger, but it’s a Spanish term for a bad boy or a gangster. It’s a very sexually explicit song — the music video is shot like an early 2000s porno. A lot of it has to do with trans culture, because a lot of trans women get into sex work and I wanted to show that I may not be doing sex work myself necessarily, but it’s still a big part of the trans culture of how we survive. If I was in a different circumstance, I probably would be doing sex work, you know?
Are you able to support yourself full-time with social media and music?
To be honest with you, I’m not very materialistic. As long as I can buy everything that I want to buy, if I feel like I’m okay with things. I’m just not somebody who makes it a very big part of who I am. But I do believe that I should get paid. When I get booked for a gig to go perform, I get paid very well, along with some influencing jobs here and there. So I feel pretty good about myself. Not that I manage any of that money well.
Thoughts on Pride?
I actually don’t celebrate Pride, which is ironic. Pride is amazing. I feel like if you want to celebrate it, celebrate it. But it doesn’t celebrate enough of the women that have fought for those rights. Pride is very gay men-centered more than it is about lesbians or women or anybody besides gay men, and it’s kind of been co-opted by straight cis women to do whatever they want. We obviously celebrate in our own different ways, but when we see campaigns, it’s a lot of gay men more than it is the actual pillars of our community. I’m not saying that gay men don’t contribute to that, but they kind of ran with it.
What’s something you want to see more of on the internet?
I want to see more trans women who don’t have to perform hyperfemininity, period. I think it’s so funny how when we don’t want to perform it anymore, we’re scrutinized not only by our own community, but people outside of our community, which is another reason why I’ve kind of stopped performing hyperfemininity. I’ve literally thrown out everything in my wardrobe that’s hyper-femme. I’m going to wear baggy clothes and be a tomboy. I’m a girly girl in some aspects, but I’m a girl from New York, I want to wear my baggy jeans and my Jordans. I feel like I’m not allowed to do that because I quote-unquote “look too much like a boy” when I dress like that. I think that’s very unfair, because trans women can be butch, too. It doesn’t mean that we’re men. I want to see more stud trans women. Being a trans woman just means that you’re a woman, and your expression of your gender identity is something completely different. It’s not about wearing makeup and getting a whole bunch of surgeries, and I feel like people only want to see that from trans women, and it’s damaging for trans women. At the same time, [hyperfemininity] is our only defense mechanism in order to be able to pass and survive in the real world.
What’s your biggest it-girl moment?
This may sound a little crazy, but I don’t think I’ve had an it-girl moment. I feel like everything I’ve ever done is so main character energy. So for me, it’s just kind of like, this has been my life. I’ve been that girl, it’s just now the internet knows about it.
June/@junlper, 27, Wisconsin
Quality control technician, podcaster, Twitter troll (the fun kind)
What was your biggest viral moment?
I would probably say “goblin mode.” I didn’t coin it — I originally saw it on a Reddit post a while ago in like an r/relationships post and I thought it was really funny. I was like, “this has potential,” and then I made up that Kanye West post about going goblin mode. It got Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year!
I’m partial to the Snickers “dick vein” thing.
The dick vein thing was more fun for me, because there were right-wingers getting really mad about it. The Snickers dick vein has always been a Reddit meme, but I made it political — I did a Tucker Carlson spin on it where it’s like, “Woke mobs have taken away the beloved Snickers dick vein” just like he does with M&Ms, and it somehow caught hold. There was a right-wing writer who was really pissed off, and the comments on the Fox News website were full of boomers genuinely getting mad about the dick vein. They were like, “Everything’s going WOKE these days!” But they’re reading about something that’s not real.
What’s the key to a great right-wing troll?
It’s very easy because they get mad about literally anything. They got mad about like, Dylan Mulvaney holding a Bud Light. One way that I push back on hateful people is that they all have one insecurity that really gets to them. So I try to find their biggest insecurity and exploit it because that’s what they do to us. I realized, “Oh, these are some of the most insecure people on the planet if in their free time all they do is go online and be hateful.” It’s not going to fix anything, but if someone comes at you, try to find their insecurity. It works. In my mind I have a list of six big right-wingers and which buttons to push to get them mad.
You’ve only been on Twitter since 2019, but how have you watched it change under Elon Musk?
Pretty much everything Elon has done has incentivized harassment, and he’s given people who just want to harass get visibility. To be fair, I harass who I view are bad people, but I personally think me harassing Lindsey Graham for being against abortion rights is a bit different than a weird 60-year-old blue check insulting me because I’m trans. Bluesky reminds me of what Twitter used to be like: It’s a smaller platform, there aren’t really reactionary right-wingers, there’s not really discourse, it’s not super intense. I personally really like it and use it all the time. It’s just a good vibe.
You don’t typically post photos of yourself. Is there a reason for that?
I occasionally do it, but for me, it’s not important. If I change my profile picture to my face, people are like, “Put it back to the worm!” Especially as I’ve grown in size, I post pictures of myself far less on Twitter, since Elon Musk has become very, very vitriolic, and just downright viciously mean to trans people and queer people.
At this point, I’ve taken so much harassment and I’ve been targeted by some of the worst people online that it really doesn’t bother me anymore. Like, I posted a picture of me in a tank top the other day and of course there were maybe like, 20 transphobes in the replies insulting me. It’s sad, but it’s the reality of being trans, and to an extent being a woman online.
For the record, despite what it says in your Twitter bio, you are not an employee of the New York Times.
People still ask me that all the time. Over half my audience at this point genuinely thinks I’m a journalist, which is very funny to me. And I don’t really want to change that. I think it’s beautiful.
Uniekue/@uniekue, prefers not to share her age, New York City
Professional bad bitch, influencer, stylist, model, dancer, host
When did you first join TikTok?
It was right before the pandemic hit in February 2020. I had a friend be like, “If you don’t join TikTok, I will ruin your life.” I opened it, and I wasn’t really feeling it — like, why are there 13-year-olds dancing? I’m fully in college studying business and economics, what does this have to do with me? And then the pandemic hits. I’d always wanted to be an Instagram baddie, and I saw a video on TikTok where it was like, “You can twerk to anything.” And I literally talk about this all the time, this is something I’ve basically written a dissertation on within my friendship circles. So I made this cute video of me twerking to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and it went viral.
You grew up all over the world — what kind of influence has that had on you?
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and around midway through my childhood, my family moved to Saudi Arabia. My parents work in medicine, and for this six-year span we lived in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Dubai, and then I moved back to the states for high school and college, and I’ve been here ever since.
It’s interesting, because in societies where queer people are not visible, people don’t read femininity as queerness, they read it as eclecticism. I also didn’t have the language to communicate what it was that I was feeling, but I also think it was really great for me because I wasn’t so encumbered by the concepts of, “Who do I like? What gender am I presenting as?” It allowed me to focus on experiencing rather than my perception of who I was. The difficulty of being a queer child in the Western world is you have to confront the queer parts of yourself early on, even when you don’t have the language to understand what it is. I don’t envy the experience of young, queer, Black, and trans children because it’s so difficult to navigate the world while feeling as though eyes are watching you, or that you need to have eyes watching you to be worth any value when you’re literally 13. You should be playing with Legos, not worrying about how you get 20,000 followers.
How do you handle working with brands and sponsorship deals?
The first thing I do as soon as an inquiry comes in is Google. If there’s anything that comes up that’s like, an oil spill or environmental scandal or a discrimination case, I’m like, I don’t think this is a great fit for me. And if there’s no queer or trans representation within their corporate structure or their online presence, I also err on the side of caution. I try and gauge whether this is like a real thing or just a PR move. I’m really blessed to be at a point where I’m able to have that discernment and the security to turn certain deals down. When you are a queer person who is brought into mainstream spaces, sometimes there is this pressure to perform, and a pressure to shrink yourself and be more palatable for brands and executives or whoever the case may be. But I think that we do ourselves a disservice by not showing the full scope of our humanity in every space, because I think that until everyone can exist truly and freely as they are, we will never all be truly free.
I never imagined my life would be like this. I was groomed from age 4 to be a doctor, so I just thought that I would be either a mundane doctor, or possibly the surgeon general. Now that I’m at this place of being really hot and hyper-visible, it’s thrown my world upside down and I’m like, “Okay, now these dreams I had when I was younger are actually possible.”
What’s overrated right now?
This “old money,” “quiet luxury” aesthetic is unbelievably tired and morose, and I’m over it. Please, let’s be serious and move on.
Crop tops. And not just crop tops, but cropped everything. Like, why is your stomach not out?
Kay Poyer/@kay_wow 22, Texas
Content creator (with a desk job)
What drew you to TikTok?
I was really against it for a long time, because when I was in high school it was still Musical.ly and that was for literal children to do lip-synching videos. 2020 was a really crazy, terrible time; it was lockdown and I got kicked out of my parents’ place, so I was like, whatever, let’s get on TikTok. I actually had an account before my current one that got to like, 70,000 followers, but I ended up getting banned. I did my first ever live[stream] and I got swarmed by transphobe bots. Overnight I got six videos reported and taken down and then woke up to check my account, and it was gone. So then I pretty much rebuilt it from scratch.
Do you get recognized?
It’s never a complete stranger coming up to me. But it’s funny, I have a friend in LA who’s a drag queen and she tells me all the time, “All the queens out here know who you are.”
What’s the queer community like out there?
So my area is very punk, a lot of non-binary people. That’s kind of par for the course for an artsy college town. But in Dallas, that’s where you have the really huge drag scene, a really big goth scene, and a lot of like, super doll-y, hyperfeminine trans girls, so I love to go down there when I have the time. I don’t self-identify as a goth, but this girl messaged me and asked if I wanted to go to this goth club. I had never had a good club experience, it was always horrible for me. But honest to God, it was the best club environment. People are actually dancing, and people are really, really nice, and it’s usually pretty safe.
Trans girls, at least in Texas, tend to spawn in the least-expected places. We go wherever we’re accepted. If you go to popular clubs in Dallas, you might get kicked out or people will give you dirty looks. There’s one area where a lot of my friends go, but if I show up with my other trans friends, it’s clear you are not welcome. So the goth club became a place where so many trans girls flocked to because even the gay neighborhood isn’t really super trans. It’s very much a gay man’s place.
I loved your one video about how you were “a razor’s edge between what is acceptable and what is rockabilly.” How would you describe your style?
I don’t love the whole movement of just grabbing an aesthetic and embodying it. I try to touch on inspirations from my real life. I’m very much a Texas girl, so I’ve got my little cowgirl boots but I like the goth look too, so I have a lot of black and a lot of metal hardware. I’m actively purging anything that gives rockabilly because I don’t feel any connection to that. I could not rock a beehive. If I had to give it a word that I know the TikTok girls would eat up, I would call it “whimsigoth,” but I’m never gonna say that publicly.
Trans women have never been more visible, but with that visibility has come a huge backlash. How do you handle it?
At first, we were making plans to pick up and get out of here. I am still going to leave Texas someday because there are states where I can go and get FFS [facial feminization surgery] covered by state insurance, and you can’t do that in Texas. When everything was starting, it was really frightening, but as far as I can see, it really does seem like it’s not a super popular voter issue, and it’s not panning out in the way that I think a lot of these lawmakers were hoping that it would. I didn’t even expect the protests. I thought they would be like, “No more trans people anywhere!” and most people would just be like, “Okay,” but it hasn’t really worked out like that. So I’m honestly hopeful, even though right now, particularly for trans kids, it is still really dark.
But it’s not like we’re gonna go anywhere. Trans women have existed just in America since the beginning, from the 1800s to the ’50s and the ’60s and through the AIDS crisis. The girls before us have been through so much shit, and you can still find some of those old ’70s girls on TikTok talking about, “Back in the day, we used to go to a motel and they would inject us with fucking wall sealant to get our butt bigger.” I will never have to face that. So if they can get through that time, I can get through this time.
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