Growing up, I struggled a lot with my personal style, going back and forth between masculine and feminine, feeling pressure to definitively be one or the other. I’d love to pretend like I quickly figured out what fit me best, but I grappled with the question well into my twenties.
I remember being in one of my first ever gay bars many years back. I showed up in super baggy jeans, a jersey, heels—feeling mad cute. And then my older lesbian friend leaned over and said, “Next time, pick a side.” She said that no one would approach me if they couldn’t tell if I was masc or femme: “Who would want to date someone who confused them?” And, just like that, I was embarrassed and all of the confidence from my outfit melted away like the ice in my drink. I danced in the back the rest of the night, didn’t talk to anyone, and spent years after that trying desperately to “pick a side.”
It was only after a whole lot of dating and heartbreak, and a dramatic stint on Real World, that I finally decided to really own the middle—to allow myself to exist at the center of femininity and masculinity. And when I really started feelin’ myself and trusting myself there, that’s when things started to pop off for me—not only with my dating life and style and all that, but also with my career. Honestly, I don’t think I would be where I am now if I wasn’t androgynous. I wouldn’t be invited to read for certain roles or be on Nylon’s cover if I wasn’t the androgynous girl in the space. And I also wouldn’t be myself. I wouldn’t be Ari, ya know?
But it’s also a double-edged sword. Being someone who isn’t clearly masculine or feminine, I’m daily confronted with people who don’t understand me. So, I’ve found I have to assert who I am every single day; from the way I dress to the art I make, all of it. I have to be protective of my narrative, I have to own and communicate my own narrative constantly, because if I don’t, people will get it wrong. They often do.
At all times, I tell you who I am and how to define me. I refuse to give that power to anyone else. And for me, doing that has involved making Youtube videos—a lot of them.
I was 23 years old when I started vlogging. I remember walking around my hometown of East Oakland, looking for fabric to put up in my room so I could brand my videos and act like I didn't live in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom. I found this ugly-ass pink wallpaper and, for some reason, decided to use that.
At the time, I had a nine-to-five job. So in the mornings, I would get ready for work, then have my mom drop me off at the train station and take photos of my outfit for Instagram before she drove away. After work, I would shut myself in the bedroom (my mom slept in the living room) and spend hours making weird-ass Youtube videos. I did that every day. For a long time—like, too long.
In 2016, I quit my job, packed everything I had into two suitcases, hopped on a MegaBus (FYI they have a one-suitcase limit), and moved to L.A. to do this vlogging thing for real. My grandma had just sold the only house that our entire family owned, and she gave me the money as a safety net. I promised that if I used any of it, I’d pay it back and buy us a new house one day soon.
Right before I arrived, I got an email from a major modeling agency. They were like, we love your androgyny, we love your Instagram photos—thanks mom— we think you’re perfect for the industry right now. I was pumped, everything was falling into place. They even offered me my dream campaign with one of my favorite denim brands of all time right off the bat.
But the moment I walked into our meeting, they dropped this fat contract in front of me. Now, I’ve modeled before and been on TV and I have a business degree. So ya girl has seen some contracts, but this shit was insane. They wanted to own me. Still, it might have been worth it, if it wasn’t for one hitch: The agency wanted to control my YouTube content.
At the time, I was living in this roach-infested apartment in LA’s Koreatown. (The roaches didn’t give a fuck, they would look at me like I was the intruder when I walked in.) And I was using my family’s money to pay for it. The guilt was setting in heavy but still, I couldn’t do it. The opportunity to tell my own stories, the freedom to control my narrative, was the whole reason I was in LA and I couldn’t give that up. I had to walk away.
For the rest of 2016 and most of 2017, I was convinced I’d made the wrong decision. All my friends in LA were uber successful YouTube vloggers. We’d go out for dinner and I’d be the only one who couldn’t afford the meal. Imagine being the one bitch that looks at the group receipt and is like “so I only had the water, just sayin’.”
Even then, I refused to be that person who moves to LA then returns with their tail between their legs. So, I said fuck it, if I’m not making money then I’m going to make a video every day. And I did.
Eventually, slowly, things started to pick up. And the videos that really got me love were the ones that were just me being me, that I couldn’t have done any other way: videos of my friends and I—a bunch of gay women—watching music videos and yelling about how hot the women are; introspective videos about how clothes have helped me come to terms with my gender and sexuality; and a short documentary I directed that explores the experience of being pregnant as a masculine-of-center woman. It was all stuff that wouldn’t have happened if I had had to compromise.
Now, after doing the YouTube thing for a while, I’m moving into acting, producing, and participating in bigger projects. But as both a masculine- and feminine-presenting person moving into traditional from digital, people just don’t know what to do with me. They can’t help but want to shape me into something that they understand. You’ve got your jocks, your leading man, your leading ladies—all these archetypes that people are so afraid to move away from because they are understood, and things that are understood make money. (That’s why we have so many fucking reboots, people are too afraid to try new shit.)
See, I understand that Hollywood is about acting. But everyone knows when you watch a YouTuber and they’re trying to sell you on some shit and it looks fake. I try my best to avoid that online, and I definitely don’t want to see myself do that in film and TV. If I’ve learned anything from being my own producer, from controlling my own narrative, it’s that everyone wants to see full human beings. We are attracted to nuanced, real characters. We want honesty. We want range, and we can all tell when people are only providing a fraction of themselves. Plus, and I’m just spitballing here: Maybe it’s time for folks that look and love like me to be allowed to be themselves in traditional media.
At this point, my approach is to be almost bullish about what I put myself in, about what I say yes to. And I hope other androgynous people, non-binary people, trans people, people of color, all people really, are a little more bullish about the ways our stories are told. The scripts out there, the opportunities out there, the executives out there, aren’t ready for us. But the good news is if you have a cell phone and a clear idea of your narrative, you probs won’t need any of them anyway. Go make your own work, sis.