How Gigi Gorgeous "Became the Person I Couldn't Find in Traditional Media"

Courtesy of Benjo Arwas Photography
Gigi Gorgeous

The transgender talent was a lonely YouTuber who, in documenting her transition, tapped into a community — she now has 2.9 million YouTube subscribers — and connected with allies: "When I started, I had no one to look up to."

When I started on YouTube in 2008, it was a completely different place. I was 16 and had almost no one to look up to in the beauty space and had to pioneer my own journey. Michelle Phan was doing beauty videos, and her creativity was inspiring, challenging me to attempt different beauty looks and styles. But the double-edge sword of YouTube is that you are still in charge of establishing your own identity, in front of a faceless audience who is always ready to judge and criticize. At the end of the day, I never really saw anyone like me on YouTube, so I was truly on my own. Looking back, I did not have a role model or even anyone that was in the shape of what I could identify with on TV or in movies. It was very frustrating to not know where I stood in the world.

There was no time in my day-to-day life where I could put on makeup and find like-minded people. I went to a Catholic school. I wore a uniform. So YouTube really did help me flourish, express myself and find a community where I felt safe to do so.

When it came to my transition, the people whom I turned to were my trans sisters, people who had transitioned before me who had years and years of their life being their desired gender and who became my friends in the process. It was talking with them that made me feel like, "You know what? I can do this." It all happened over the course of years, but it felt so fast because I was posting frequently and things were happening: My career was growing, I was growing up, my body was changing, and my mind was changing. I knew I had to document this process and immediately started filming. I intended on holding the footage secret, to look back on and see how far I've come. I was literally going to keep it in a vault. But when I was all done, I decided to turn it into a movie with the hope of educating others and letting people know that no dream is too big.

Barbara Kopple was one of the first people whom I met with, and I just connected with her. I loved the lens that she saw life through, and I knew that she was the director I wanted [for the 2017 documentary This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous]. That alliance became really strong.

Still, it was challenging to hand over that film. It was so personal, and for the first time I wasn't the producer/director/editor of how I would be perceived. I didn't have control. I had to let go of the reins and put my trust in people to tell the most important story in my life. I was so scared, but ultimately it was rewarding. It ended up premiering at Sundance. I pinch myself every day.

Another relationship that I cherish so much is with my wife, Nats. We got married in July, and that alliance is stronger than anything I've ever felt before. It's something that I never really thought I would have. As humans, it's easy to get comfortable and not challenge ourselves. She's so different from me, and having that new perspective has really helped me.

The other person who has impacted me most professionally is my mom. She passed away when I was 19, and I never got to tell her that I was transgender. But while she was here, she showed me what the essence of a woman is without knowing that was how I identified. With everything I've accomplished since her passing, I feel her influence constantly. She was with me when I moved to L.A. when I was 21 to pursue my dreams. She was with me when I walked down the aisle. She was sitting on the floor with me when I was laying out the pages of my book, He Said, She Said: Lessons, Stories and Mistakes From My Transgender Journey.

Today, it's surreal to meet people who have followed me from day one and have them say things like, "You are the one that made me realize I'm transgender and that I want to take this journey. You helped me see that it's OK, that it doesn't have to happen overnight, and that it's the journey that matters." I changed their life in such a monumental way and yet, I had no idea.

Ultimately, I became the person that I couldn't find in traditional media. People like myself, creators who share their stories, LGBTQ+ characters on TV shows and in movies, are finally giving representation to our community that wasn't there when I was just starting to find myself at 16. And what it does is accelerate people's capacity to succeed. 

A version of this story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.