I first stumbled upon Ari Fitz when I watched her short documentary, My Mama Wears Timbs, which follows a lesbian couple having a baby and brought up discussions about how motherhood doesn't always have to look feminine. But Ari is more than a filmmaker—she is a queer role model to her over 262,000 YouTube subscribers. From creating projects like Tomboyish, which looks at the ambuiguity of style and being a queer woman, and Promboyish, where Fitz sends prom garb to LGBTQ+ teens, Ari is a revolutionary. Her art speaks for herself, but her unapologetic existence and yearn for representation as a black gay androgynous woman is powerful.
Recently, Ari just recently released BUBBLES, a three-part scripted web series about soft, queer love stories that have really yet to be told in the media. Here, we catch up with Ari about how BUBBLES came to fruition, how she's pushing the envelope to talk about culture and gender, and oh, yeah, how she graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a business degree.
You are Ari Fitz—you are a filmmaker, an androgynous badass, model, comic book creator, YouTuber, former reality TV star. Are there any other ways you’d describe yourself to people?
I have a mini-panic attack whenever somebody asks what I do just because I do what I want whenever I can. I worked really hard and built a lot of freedom within my YouTube channel. The common theme between all the stuff that I do is I like storytelling. I like to tell stories through comic books, film, as a model — I just like to be able to craft a story. I think that the stories I care most about are the ones that talk about gender and identity, and just race and culture, but do it through fashion and beauty. I’m a YouTuber, I make mini-films. I don’t like when people tell me I can’t do shit. I’m pretty sure I can figure it out, and I’ve been lucky to figure it out pretty much every time.
You said in another interview that all of this work takes time, so could you talk about how your journey has progressed to where you’re at now?
My mom hates that I never talk about this, but I got a full ride to Berkeley. I went for physics and then I transferred into business. I had a whole tech career, raised money, sold a company; I did all that shit before I do the stuff I do now. After I sold the company, I started working as a model. Then I got on The Real World, then after that I was really nervous about people turning me into the angry black character you see in a lot of reality shows. That's so far away from who I am. So, I started a YouTube channel. That way, I could have my own place in case I needed to defend myself against the show and when I got on YouTube, I started meeting a lot of other YouTubers, and I was like, "What the fuck is this industry, it seems really fun, I want in."
That’s crazy! So did you think you were going to end up in business or tech since you graduated from Berkeley?
I was really afraid because in my neighborhood where I was growing up, there was three trajectories for black kids that I saw. There’s one trajectory where you go into entertainment or sports, and you got super famous and rich that way. Or, you went to college and got a job and you got out that way. Or you never got out, you got pregnant and stayed in town. I always was against going into entertainment because I don’t want people thinking I’m doing that just because I’m a black girl. I’m bigger than this and smarter than this. Essentially, I was just really scared of being a stereotype. I think even until today, I’m really scared of being a stereotype. I hate when people think that they know what my next move is going to be, or what they think I’m going to do. It’s so irritating to the point where you think I’m going to do something, I’m going to do the opposite.
You don’t want someone to create your own narrative.
Yeah! But at the end of the day, I like being challenged. Math and science, especially in high school, was the most challenging thing there was. I do think that I have an innate talent for storytelling. An innate talent for being on camera. I just feel at ease in a way that I was when I was younger. Now I’m like, "Look, if this is my gift, this is my fucking gift. Let’s make some money and have fun."
In your career as an artist, you are constantly exposing identity and gender. How do you approach a project, one that you want to share with the world? Does it originally start with something you can relate to?
Half my audience and half my friends and family they think that all of this is just me being like, “Weee!” The other half knows I’m crazy and have spreadsheets. I take notes on everything that I see. But then, for [My Mama Wears Timbs] my friend Frankie was pregnant, and we were just gonna do a regular YouTube video. The more I started thinking about it, it kept getting bigger in my head. I was like, “Oh fuck, I think I’m making a documentary.” I study every project that I do, I look at the metrics for everything that I do. I study my audience and what they request often. And then I find ways to incorporate what I want, with what the data says is working, with what my audience wants, and what I fucking want to do. Those are the things that come together.
You are so transparent online, do you ever get drained or need to step back from social media to recharge?
Everything that I’ve experienced has prepared me for the time I have now. When I was in Real World, I had to get used to waking up and possibly being seen by two million people if they decided to use that cut. So that training of not always being on, but always being okay with having my raw self be seen, kind of prepared me for that. The internet... y’all can’t fucking touch me. What are you going to do? Cancel me, do whatever you want, but I’m still going to be here making the work I want to make and making money from it. I could say anything and do anything online. And was I paid? Yes, I was. Are there still brands who want to work with me? Yeah. And I was butt naked on the Gram. The only thing that I am online is just me.
You’ve been open with yourself being polyamorous, and as an artist, you said on Twitter recently that you haven’t seen relationships or love like yours represented in TV and movies. So a two parter question: How do you approach something that has never been made before (as far as your knowledge) and how important is representation in 2019?
BUBBLES is [about] queer love stories, because when I was coming up, the only kind of queer sex and queer relationships that I saw were a) either just traumatic, like life was so tough and so hard. For them to even fight for love, there was to be a hate crime the next day, so you’re never going to be able to experience the softness of love. Or, it’s [either] super sexualized. Some of my friends are asexual, but they want intimacy, but they don’t even see their love represented. If I’m coming up, and I know I’m starting to have queer feelings, but I think that the only ways for me to experience queer love is through either violence or hypersexualizing things, then that’s a fucked up queer experience. Maybe I’m going to push down all these feelings because it doesn’t even seem to be worth it anyways according to the media. But instead if you can see soft, queer love and see that there are really beautiful sides to this life, you might feel a little bit more comfortable acknowledging that in yourself. Like, "Yo, is my love not right? Because I feel really good. We’re having a lot of fun!" I want to show us having a little bit more fun. Representation comes down to people feeling like the lives that they want are actually possible.
For BUBBLES, I wrote it, directed it, I starred in it, I produced it, and casted everybody, and I’m editing pieces of it, too. The freedom of holding all of the different hats and being able to just tell the story I want to really made me feel like it was a walk in the park. Forget how this is all done, forget how sets are supposed to be operated, forget how I’m supposed to direct or act, what is this story I want to tell? How would it happen for me? Okay, let’s shoot that. And that freedom I think every artist needs to experience that because then you really get to see what it is that you’re capable of.
You can watch the first episode of BUBBLES here:
Top photo: Screenshot from episode two "2700 Miles" from BUBBLES
More from BUST
Gretchen Sterba is an editorial intern for BUST. She recently graduated with a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago with a double major in magazine journalism and creative nonfiction. Her most profound accomplishment is getting a Michael Scott tattoo. Follow her on Instagram at @gretchensterba