STARING into the camera, curtains shut behind him, Jamie Raines smiles nervously before beginning to talk quietly.
“Hey… my name is Jamie,” he says, shifting in his seat.
“I am just making a female to male intro video. I am pre-everything, but I’m out…”
After chatting for two minutes and 42 seconds, the 18-year-old student uploaded his video to YouTube, sharing the link on Facebook.
Within an hour it had received hundreds of views and likes.
“I was about to have my first appointment at a gender clinic and wanted a record of my transition from girl to boy,” explains Jamie, talking about that day in September 2011.
“I was so nervous, it took several attempts, but when I finally posted the video I got a huge positive reaction.”
Documenting something so personal on such a globally accessible platform is incredibly brave – but Jamie, from Colchester, Essex, is just one of a rising number of people showcasing their transition online.
According to clinical psychologist Dr Bernadette Wren, this growing trend is down to a mix of high-profile stars who’ve recently transitioned, such as Caitlyn Jenner and Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox, and the increasing visibility of transgender people on social media.
“We have seen a cultural shift and more acceptance in how we think about gender, and greater recognition of transgender people,” explains Dr Wren, who consults at the gender identity clinic at the Tavistock And Portman NHS Trust in London, which saw a 1,000% increase in referrals between 2009 and 2015.
“Raising awareness of these issues online can help challenge stigma and discrimination, and responsibly told personal stories can be a powerful way to reach out to people experiencing similar issues.”
The movement began in the US in the late 2000s, with transgender vloggers such as Princess Joules and Skylar Kergil posting updates on their changing bodies – Joules from male to female, and Skylar from female to male.
As they spoke about undergoing hormone treatment and eventually sex reassignment surgery, the pair rapidly gained followers – mostly young people searching for advice on similar issues – and earned themselves the nickname TransTubers.
They now have hundreds of thousands of subscribers and today a YouTube search for “transgender transition” on the site throws up over 169,000 results.
Like many members of the transgender community, 24-year-old Jamie, who was born female, doesn’t like to reveal his former name as it’s part of the identity he’s left behind.
“I remember being in the reception class at school and thinking that I was one of the boys, but that I hadn’t finished developing,” he says.
“As I got older I hung out with the lads, playing football.”
Jamie finally realised he was trans after watching the Channel 4 documentary The Boy Who Was Born A Girl in November 2010.
“I had never heard the word ‘transgender’ before, but I felt jealous that the person in the film was getting the chance to live as a man,” he remembers.
“Searching online, I came across Skylar Kergil’s YouTube channel, which really helped me get my head around what taking testosterone would involve, such as growing muscles and facial hair.”
In 2011, Jamie used one of Skylar’s videos to help him come out to his mum Christine, 62.
“I showed her one where he talks about getting his first testosterone prescription,” he explains.
“Then we watched one after he’d been taking the hormone for three months so Mum could see the process. I said that I wanted to do that and, thankfully, the video really helped her understand. She said it made sense to her that I was trans, because I’d always been such a tomboy.
“I asked her to tell my dad and brother for me because I was so scared, but they were really supportive, too. I then told my friends at college, including my best friend Shaaba, who eventually became my girlfriend.”
Shortly afterwards, aged 18, Jamie started making his own YouTube videos, mainly for himself but also to help others in a similar position.
He began hormone treatment at a gender clinic and changed his name by deed poll, too.
“It was great getting such a good reaction, especially from other trans guys,” he remembers.
“But it didn’t take long for someone to click ‘dislike’, which was really upsetting. Then I realised that not everyone was going to like me, and I had to accept that.”
Zoe Pierce made her first TransTube video when she was just 13, in March 2014.
“Knowing I was finally going to be out in the open, I went through every extreme emotion possible,” she remembers.
“I was really scared of being so honest about a part of myself that I’d kept hidden for so long, but also incredibly happy I was no longer hiding it away.”
Zoe, now 17, was born a boy and remembers realising she was in the wrong body when she was just four.
“I loved dressing up in heels and wigs and only wanted to play with girls,” says Zoe.
“My mum Gill, 42, never said anything to me about it, but the older I got, the more uncomfortable I felt about anything masculine.”
Things started to click into place when, aged 11, Zoe watched the reality show My Transsexual Summer, which followed the gender transition journeys of seven people.
“I’d heard the term ‘sex change’ before but didn’t really understand what it meant,” she remembers.
“When I watched the show I broke down, because it summed up how I had been feeling my whole life.”
Zoe, from Wrexham, North Wales, began searching online about changing sex, and came across Princess Joules’ YouTube channel.
“I realised there were other people like me out there,” says Zoe.
“As she spoke about hormone therapy and what the transition process involved, it was the first time I understood what it would be like to change gender. It also confirmed that it was a step I wanted to take.”
By September 2012, Zoe still hadn’t confessed her feelings to friends or family, so as a way of testing people’s reactions, she came out as gay to her school mates. She then started experimenting with her look, growing her hair long and wearing mascara.
“I got teased a lot,” she admits.
“It really upset me that I couldn’t just be myself. I became depressed and wanted to hide away from everyone.”
Watching TransTubers was the one thing that gave her strength.
“Seeing them so confident and happy encouraged me. I wanted to be as comfortable as them with who I was,” she says.
Zoe finally came out as trans to her mum with the help of a family friend in February 2014.
“I was so nervous, but Mum told me she just wanted me to be happy and admitted she’d always had an instinct I wanted to be a girl ever since I was little.”
It was then, with the backing of her mum, that Zoe decided to make YouTube videos to document her transition, talking about trans issues from a UK perspective and connecting with other people going through the same experiences as her.
“I knew there would be a reaction, but I wasn’t expecting it to get as big as it did,” says Zoe, who changed her name by deed poll in September 2014 and began living as a girl while waiting to be referred to a gender identity specialist.
“People were sharing it, and my video became the talk of the school. Most of the reactions were positive, lots of people commented on it saying how proud they were of me. It felt amazing to be out in the open at last.”
But with acceptance also came intolerance, and both Jamie and Zoe have experienced bullying on and offline after coming out as trans.
Jamie – who has more than 88,000 subscribers – explains that as his YouTube channel grew, so too did the abuse.
“Some people would write horrible messages in all capitals with loads of swearing,” he remembers.
“I just block them now. If someone sounds uneducated about the issue, I will try to engage with them. I’ve had people change their minds and apologise for being ignorant.”
If someone sounds uneducated about the issue, I will try to engage with them. I’ve had people change their minds and apologise for being ignorant.Jamie Raines
Meanwhile, Zoe’s videos made her a target for bullies on the internet and at her school.
“Some people left comments online saying I was a freak,” she says.
“And after I posted my first video, some of the children at school started calling me ‘it’ or raging that I was an abomination, which was devastating. I told the teachers that I was transgender, but they didn’t know how to react – they still saw me as a boy. I had to fight to use the girls’ toilets.”
Zoe, who now has more than 4,000 YouTube subscribers, decided to make videos talking about the bullying as she found it helpful to share her feelings.
“The school asked me to take them down and when I refused, they punished me by putting me in isolation for a day. I ended up getting my local MP involved, and read out the 2010 Equalities Act to the school, who eventually backed down. They even put together a strategy to care for transgender students after that.”
But Jamie and Zoe both insist that the positive interactions far outweigh the negative ones.
“I’ve had lots of people contact me online saying they think they’re trans, and that my videos have benefitted them. I’ve spoken to people aged between 12 and 50, and helped people come out to their families,” says Zoe, who started hormone treatment in 2015.
However Jamie, who had his breasts removed in 2012, admits the vlogging can take an emotional toll.
“I did one video that was a letter to my pre-transitioned self, which was hard because I had to revisit what it was like growing up feeling I was in the wrong body,” he says.
“I also made one about what it’s like to still be getting your period as a trans guy, as I hadn’t found anything discussing that and it’s so important to consider.”
But YouTube videos do not always give a fully realistic picture of what it’s like to transition.
According to Dr Wren, it’s important not to see them as a one-size-fits-all guide to transitioning.
“Everyone’s journey is different and we should not idealise any single pathway,” she warns.
“Not all people will go down the surgery route or decide to transition. There are no set rules.”
Even though Jamie and Zoe have both left school – Jamie is studying psychology at university in Essex and Zoe is learning health and beauty therapy at college in Wrexham – they have no intention of abandoning their channels.
“I will never stop,” insists Zoe, who hopes to have full gender reassignment surgery in the future.
“It’s helped me accept who I am.”
Jamie, who is planning on doing a PhD specialising in behavioural differences in trans children, still uploads his videos every week.
“My university know about my channel and I’ve been involved in some diversity campaigns with them,” he explains.
“I’ve never purposefully met people through my videos but have had people recognise me at Pride events.
“Being so open online has helped me feel comfortable within my new skin. I finally feel proud of who I am.”
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Being famous for being yourself is both the eye roll of the millennial age and, truth be told, a viable profession, as it is for many a YouTube vlogger who has managed to turn everything from mundane “this is what I did today…” recaps to emotional confessionals into actual revenue—each dollar earned from the interest of an army of fans in simply hearing what these typically young personalities have to say.
Being famous for becoming yourself, however, is a largely uncharted territory in this already exhaustively explored field.
It’s that layer that likely sparked the interest of Oscar-winning documentary legend Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.; American Dream), a filmmaker with a keen eye for the intersection of social justice, civil rights, Americana, and zeitgeist cultural phenomena. They all collide again for her latest film, This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, available Wednesday on YouTube Red, about a YouTube superstar who documented every step of her transgender transition as it happened.
Perched on a beige sofa in a Park City hotel room the afternoon after the documentary made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Gigi Gorgeous—with her form-hugging magenta top, matching lipstick, and supermodel-long hair a shade of blonde one turn-of-the-dial short of translucent—pops like a Lisa Frank trapkeeper on a pile of manila folders.
“I brought looks!” she sighs, bemoaning the burden of high-fashion aspiration in the aftermath of a sludgy Utah snowstorm. “I didn’t know I’d be trudging through the snow with them, but that’s fine.” Glancing at my own ravaged footwear, she nods knowingly, “We all have matching salt stains on our boots.”
Relatability has always been Gigi’s calling card, after all. It’s what made her famous when, as awkward Canadian teen Gregory, he became a YouTube vlogger.
Gregory Lazzarato was a teenage national diving champion when he launched a YouTube channel in 2008, eventually exploding in popularity when he announced that he was gay and began posting makeup tutorials. As his own appearance became increasingly androgynous, he interspersed smoky-eye tips with anecdotes about his struggles with his identity, eventually adopting the name Gigi.
In 2013, Gigi posted the video “I Am Transgender,” announcing her decision to transition. Ever since, Gigi’s channel has doubled as an educational tool on everything from plastic surgery to hormone replacement to everyday life—one of the most public and detailed documentations of transitioning.
Kopple’s documentary culls the Lazzaratos’ home movies to not just chart the transition from Gregory to Gigi, but from troublemaking toddler to questioning teen to transitioning woman undergoing extreme surgeries, and finally aspiring celebrity walking runways and trying on designer dresses.
Her family’s own journey plays heavily into the film. Gigi says her mother’s death was a major catalyst in her decision to transition. Her brothers barely bat an eye at the news, while her father, despite some tension over his inability to use correct pronouns, ultimately comes around to be an inspiring beacon of acceptance, rebutting the popular disownment narrative.
This Is Everything then also becomes an examination of modern fame and trans celebrity. As Gigi attempts to parlay a career built on accessible relatability into a high-fashion “brand”—whatever that means nowadays—does that make her out of touch, or triumphant?
In person, Gigi’s presence is much like in her videos.
She’s loud. Her laugh takes over the room, and her gesticulation while she speaks could be described as “athletic.” She tends to ramble while she talks, the kind of freewheeling candor that suits a YouTube vlogger but doesn’t necessarily make her the most articulate soundpiece when talk turns to trans issues in the age of Trump.
But somehow, with her striking and carefully manufactured appearance—Barbie is a comparison thrown around, and one she likely relishes—Gigi radiates authenticity. It’s lavish, vapid, ebullient authenticity rooted in a palpable joy in, day by day, becoming more and more herself.
So we sat with her, her father David, and director Barbara Kopple to discuss public transitioning, acceptance, Trump, relatability, and why Gigi Gorgeous is everything.
Was there a goal when this project came about? A mission that you hoped would be accomplished?
Gigi: When I started documenting it was just for me. It was my transition story for me. But once we signed on for the documentary it started to have a bigger picture and I really wanted it to be a transgender person’s film, a love journey about a family, and I wanted it to be educational and inspire people to chase their dreams after watching it. “Wow she did it and so can I.”
The quote that had everyone crying in the screening was, “There was no surgery done on the heart and soul. That’s still there.”
David: The same person.
Why do you think it’s important for people to see that?
David: I said that a) because it’s true and b) because I’m a parent, and maybe I’m talking to parents a little more than I’m talking to other people in the audience. I think that’s important for people to understand, whether your kid or nephew or whatever told you they were gay or transgender—it’s the same person. I mean, look at the video. Look at the video of Gregory when he was just 5 years old, and that’s Gigi. Just energy and fun and smiling and laughing. I think that’s important for parents to understand. You’re not changing. You’re the same person.
What do you make of people’s surprise to the depth to which you accepted the transition?
David: It’s hard for people to just watch the movie and understand the whole story. Gigi told us she was gay, and then 4 or 5 or 6 years later, said transgender. Before she said she was gay, she was wearing makeup a little bit. So when she told her mom and I that she was gay, our reaction was surprise, not shock.
But transgender was different?
David: Transgender was different, because I didn’t know transgender people. I didn’t think I had friends that had transgender kids or nephews or nieces. But once you begin talking about it, guess what? You do. People think I have accepted this and supported this more than somebody else? I can’t compare that. I’m just one guy.
As your public profile has risen and your megaphone has become louder, how have you grappled with that? Now when you say something you’re viewed as almost a spokesperson.
Gigi: Well I definitely have to censor myself a lot of the time because I’m used to just being a loose cannon, and I’m used to doing and saying whatever I want because I work on YouTube. This movie—ugh, I keep calling it a movie when it’s really a film. Sorry Barbara!
Barbara: It can be either!
Gigi: It comes with great responsibility, but I’m ready.
Especially because there are few transgender people in public life, the people who are tend to be asked to speak for the entire community and reflect a universal experience that isn’t universal.
Gigi: I would definitely say that everyone has their own individual experience. And as for speaking for the entire community, I’ve learned to speak for the entire community on some situations. But I can only really speak to what I know and what I’ve personally gone through in my journey. I don’t want to just pretend to be the smartest person in the world. I’m just me.
Barbara, what was it about this that made you believe the story would be worthwhile?
Barbara: Getting to know Gigi and her dad and her brothers and her family and all the people who love and care about her is when I started to say, “I am so excited about this.” Here is a woman who just really knows who she is and what she’s about, and here is her family who, maybe even if they don’t understand everything about her, they love her and respect her opinions and want people to know that they care about her. That’s how this film made wonderful sense to me.
I’d imagine that parts of this are painful to revisit, Gigi.
Gigi: Definitely. The whole thing has an emotional vibe, whether it’s extremely happy or a little bit sad. The part that got me in tears was the part about my mother. Losing her was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. Reliving that on screen with the world is going to be extremely hard, but I think it was done in a really nice way. Another thing that is going to be hard for me is that looking back at some of these videos, I was really sad as a young teenager, putting on makeup. Really I just was confused about who I was, so that was kind of dark to relive.
Are there times that you wish you had chosen to do this privately? That there might have been a toll taken on you doing this publicly?
Gigi: I think it was more rewarding to do it in public. Because I can handle it, and I don’t know any different. For me to do this in private, I don’t know what to say to that. This is just me. I don’t know it any other way.
Dad: I can’t imagine you not doing it publicly.
Barbara: I also think people who have chosen to be open about themselves, because they want to build a community and they want to help other people, need to be as open. My last film was called Miss Sharon Jones!, about the soul singer. She got pancreatic cancer. She told everything. She said, “They’re my fans. They’re the people who love and respect me. I want them to know what’s happening to me.” Gigi is very much the same. She lets them know the good times and the hard times. You can’t be on one course the whole time. That’s what makes it real. I think that’s what makes her so beautiful, being so open.
When Gregory began filming these videos, part of what was so relatable was that this is a teenage high schooler like anyone else, struggling the way many teen high schoolers do. Then we see Gigi becoming a brand, and the concerns she has become different, and different from our own. Do you think that evolution has affected your relatability at all?
Gigi: Um, I think it makes it more real. It’s something a lot of people who watch YouTube videos think about. So I like the way it was done in the film, introducing YouTube as a career. I think I would’ve liked to know that. If I’m not on YouTube, I want to know how people who are make it. How they make a living off it.
There’s a difference between watching Gregory in a basement and watching Gigi Gorgeous in Beverly Hills trying on designer dresses. There’s a difference in the level of relatability. Do you think that’s affected the connection you’re able to make?
Gigi: There’s the glamour side of it, with me trying on bras in Beverly Hills and doing brand deals here and there. I think it will always be me if I always keep a vulnerable side and honest side. My brand has grown because I have done the work. But it will always be me because I will always get down, I will always have those moments. There will always be those videos. Maybe for some people it makes it less appealing? I don’t know.
Barbara: I don’t think so. Because when Gigi was doing these things, these were firsts. She had just gotten breasts and she walked into a store that had bras. It was her really understanding her identity, or putting on beautiful dresses that she didn’t wear before. It was a first for her. It was living the dream she always wanted to live. As a filmmaker, that’s what I was seeing in those particular scenes and why they were filmed. Because she was excited, like a little kid who was getting to be what she wanted to be. That’s what she was experiencing.
Dad: I have people back in Toronto come up to me and say, “My daughter knows who Gigi Gorgeous is and thinks the world of her.” Since I’ve been here [at Sundance], I’ve had parents come up to me, including a couple last night, who almost couldn’t form words to explain what it meant for them to be here. They came from San Diego to see the movie last night. They have a son who absolutely loves you [looks at Gigi], that’s why I dragged you out of the van to take the picture.
Gigi: I had this dress on and I was like, “Dad no!!!” But he was like, “No. Really.”
The parents were here but not their son?
Dad: Yes. They said to me, “I don’t know what you think of all this, but you gotta know that there’s a 21-year-old kid in San Diego who is over the moon and inspired.”
Has your relationship changed over the years as Gigi has gotten more attention and bigger opportunities?
Dad: I don’t think so. If you think of a young twentysomething daughter moving to another city to pursue a career, how is our relationship different from that? Not at all. Gigi talked in the movie—the film (laughs)—I say everything wrong the first little bit, and that’s actually the point that I’m going to make. Our relationship was strained when I couldn’t get the pronouns right. Creature of habit. I get it right 99 percent of the time now. So I think that was strained. Now? No. I respect what she’s doing. Hugely successful. I’m very proud of her.
I’ve been at Sundance all week. Every conversation seems to have returned to the Women’s March: the fear, the anger, the frustration. I know you can’t speak for the community, but in terms of addressing that fear and that anger and that wonder of what’s going to happen, what do you say to people who look up to you and are feeling those emotions?
Gigi: Definitely a lot of fear going on right now, and I think that is honest to say. But in terms of the Women’s March, I think it’s amazing when people can really rally together and stand for what they believe in. And in this case it’s love. I was at a panel a few days ago and they asked, do you have three words to describe what’s going on right now? And all I said was, “Love Trumps Hate.” Because I truly believe that if you can come together with two people in your high school and create a LGBTQ group, or organize an entire women’s march—there were hundreds going on all over the world—I think it’s all about love.
Dad: I’m Canadian. I didn’t vote in this election. There’s not a doubt in anyone’s mind, even the person who remains nameless, what direction rights are going. He’s bombastic, he’s opinionated, he’s arrogant, he’s all those things. But he’s not going to change the direction these things are going. He might change the speed a little bit. People just gotta keep your foot on the gas. You gotta keep going. Things make progress like this (makes a motion of a car forwarding and reversing). Don’t let up. We’re not going to go backwards, in terms of rights. It won’t happen.
Barbara: Also, too, for me as a filmmaker, I see an even more important reason why we have to keep telling stories and we have to keep getting them out there, so that people will see and feel and understand each other. It’s really going beneath the soul and bringing out whatever you can from a person so that we’re all in this together. So even someone who feels differently about something, if they see a film or hear a story, maybe that will change them, so that they understand what’s going on. I see that as something that is very important to continue doing in my life.
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