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A Tough Act to Follow: In conversation with Joe Polito

This article series – A Tough Act to Follow (get it?) – is an exploration into the performative nature of social media. Each feature will see me interviewing an Instagram influencer, social media personality, or somebody who utilises social media to advance their career, as we explore the construction of online identities. In particular, this series is interested in gender and sexual identity – which is all the more poignant given the fact that February is the UK’s LGBT History Month!

Joe Polito

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Following my last “tough act”, Patrick Ralphson, is digital creator and model, Joe Polito. Joe is also a Production Assistant on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.

I only came across Joe’s Instagram profile fairly recently. I was instantly drawn in by the way he uses the platform, especially his gender-nonconforming fashion.

I had not been following Joe for long, and so did not have as much to go on as I did with the others. I therefore did not think that the interview would last too long. But it went on for an hour – the longest yet in this series!

Joe has so much to say, and all of it is eloquent and intellectual. He is a chill, down-to-earth guy, and I really enjoyed interviewing him. He said himself that our meeting was more like a chat between friends; a casual back-and-forth as we passionately discussed identity and culture.

Joe’s beginnings

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe’s rise to Insta fame happened unexpectedly. He made a coming out post to the platform just over a year ago, after coming out to his family and close friends. He then created a TikTok account in March 2020, whilst Canada was in lockdown, which lead to him receiving lots of positive feedback. Since then, he has modelled for a large number of swanky brands.

Joe’s fashion

Joe told me that he had just checked out my Instagram profile, and found my posts really inspiring – and that I need to tell him where to get a ‘Boys Get Sad Too’ t-shirt. The photo of that t-shirt is my most-liked, so it sucks that I despise how I look in it. The message is important, however, and that outweighs my vanity!

Photo: @boysgetsadtoostudio on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe told me that he thinks people should wear more items of clothing with bold, progressive statements on them. He agreed with my characterisation of these items as “a subtle form of activism”. Joe said he used to be worried what others would think about his clothing choices, but he eventually chose to just do his own thing: “it’s so important to dress for yourself and not for other people”.

He explained that, whilst people love seeing photos of masculine and muscular guys (especially shirtless ones), if he is feeling more feminine, then he is not going to dress masculine just because other people like to see him like that. “[I] dress according to how I feel in the moment,” which is clear when you see the contrasting masculine/feminine photos on his feed.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Fortunately, almost all of the feedback Joe has received for how he uses Instagram has been positive. Though, he has received some hateful, homophobic messages. Joe said that negative feedback and a loss of followers is something that you just have to accept if you want to be your true self, and help others.

Unsurprisingly, these accounts generally have no content. But whilst I would characterise them as hateful trolls living sad, pathetic existences, Joe is much more compassionate. He believes that for people to go out of their way to attack others, they must be facing certain battles themselves. He admitted that he feels like fighting back, but it is not worth it. Educating people is great, but adding fuel to the fire is futile.

Joe collaborated with a variety of different brands that encourage gender-nonconforming fashion for Fashion Art Toronto (FAT). One of the first brands he worked with was GORM. I told Joe how much I loved the photos where he was draped in red fabric: “GORM AGAINST THE NORM”.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe loves this brand and its outlandish clothing. It doesn’t see gender and fashion as correlated. This brand enabled him to step outside of his comfort zone, and these photos lead to lots of positive comments.

However, when he first posted photos with GORM, he received a mixed reception: mostly positive, but he noticed his follower count decreasing. Whilst he finds it sad that some people do not like seeing him being his true, authentic self, he decided: “That’s fine… just unfollow me then”.

These negative comments are rendered irrelevant by all of the positive feedback that Joe receives, especially from younger people who he has helped dress outside of their comfort zone, or even come out. Joe has realised that this is who he truly is: he is doing it for himself, but if he can help others, that makes it even better. In fact, the positive comments from queer teens motivate him to experiment with gender more boldly. Colourful designs, crop tops, nail varnish, make-up, face jewels, etc.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

To co-opt another theatre phrase – glitter and be gay!

Joe’s background

This is all a little different for Joe, because he grew up meeting masculine stereotypes, playing team sports, etc. Joe lost a considerable number of male friends when he came out and started dressing “unorthodox”. It was not that they necessarily gave him negative feedback, they just stopped talking to him. Their silence said everything that Joe needed to know.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

I expressed surprise because, as my Canadian aunty once suggested, I am one of the many people who has a romantic image of Canada as a progressive paradise, where one can be whoever and whatever they want to be. Sadly, even Canada has people resistant to difference and change.

Joe is of Italian heritage. Whilst his dad was born in Canada, his mum (or “mom”) and grandparents were all born in Italy. His family is from a small town in Calabria, Southern Italy; “so you can imagine their conventional views”.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

But whilst his grandparents were very religious, his parents are not. His family were surprised, because he never met the “gay stereotype”, but they accepted it and were willing to learn more about the things that he feels passionately about. They even attended Toronto Pride with him in 2019!

Perhaps even more adorable – his best friend, Alexia, threw him a Pride party last year, to make up for the Pride parades that got cancelled thanks to this virus, Covid19 – you might have heard of it?

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe then asked me about my background and culture. I explained that my grandparents were very conservative, but my mum is progressive, and my dad is liberal (but still a middle-aged man).

“Exact same as my parents,” Joe said. Indeed, women are often more socially liberal – or, at the very least, more accepting of “difference” – than men. As Joe said himself, he lost a lot of male friends when he came out, but all of his female friends were supportive.

Joe believes that the cultural conservatism of our parents’ generation renders it imperative that our generation, which is inarguably much more open-minded than the last, takes a stand for what is right: “we’re, in a way, shaping the younger generation”.

Joe’s aspirations

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

As well as being an influencer, Joe is working as a Production Assistant on The Umbrella Academy, mainly focusing on ensuring Covid-19 protocols are in place. Tom Cruise made headlines (again) for ranting at the Mission Impossible 7 (yes, 7!) crew for not following said protocols. Joe said that cast and crew must be vigilant during production, because just one person testing positive affects the entire filming process. He said that seeing how production operates during a pandemic is strange. It definitely slows down the whole process – even without anybody being positive.

He really enjoys being on set, especially when he gets to meet the cast – and he of course hopes to meet Elliot Page, the actor, formerly known as Ellen Page, who recently came out as transgender.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe graduated with an Honours BA majoring in Film Studies at Brock University. During his third and fourth year, he studied abroad at the University of Kent – which allowed him to travel all around the UK and even Europe, something which would have been much harder if he had stayed in Canada. He has even visited places in the UK that I, a Briton, have never visited – for example, Brighton, the gay capital of the UK. “You would love it: it’s all colourful, so accepting and happy; it’s such a… good vibe place!”

Sadly, he has not visited our swanky city of Manchester – the capital of the North (period) – but I told him that he must visit us (and our Gay Village) the next time he is in the UK.

Joe’s long-term goal is to create LGBTQ+ films. He thinks that there needs to be more diversity in film. He aspires to create films that are inclusive and share different experiences. To inspire minorities and disenfranchised groups, and help them realise that they are not alone. Joe recognises that there is much more diverse and inclusive representation today than there was when he was growing up, but he wants to see more.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

I told Joe about the recent casting controversy surrounding Ms. Marvel, a television series about a teenage, Muslim, Pakistani-American superhero. It appears that studios were ready to take a step forward but not go all the way. Joe agreed: “you see the progress there, but it’s not there completely”. Hopefully, with people like Joe breaking into Film and Television, these small steps will turn into giant leaps.

Joe’s activism

Joe feels very passionately about fighting toxic masculinity, especially within the gay community, where there is too much focus on white, muscular, masculine males.

“There are just so many different angles to the LGBTQ+ community that need more representation… As a white, gay male, I think it’s really important to address this… lack of representation and lack of diversity, especially in the LGBTQ+ community,” he said, stumbling on the letters: “the alphabet mafia,” he joked.

I noted that most gay-themed films cast only white men, before Joe added, “that sometimes aren’t even gay” – and as much as I liked Armie Hammer (yes, past-tense, don’t cancel me), were there no gay actors available for that major role?

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Indeed, Joe is very big on intersectionality. He fights not only for the queer community, but also uses his “white privilege” to fight for the rights of people-of-colour. During the Black Lives Matter movement, he noticed that a lot of social media content was US-specific, so he created a whole guide for Canada specifically. “It can’t just be one community; we all have to step up,” he explained.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

As aforementioned, Canada is often considered a liberal utopia, a whitewash of the many problems surrounding race in the country. Take the missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) human-rights crisis, which has been described as a national crisis and genocide.

Joe is not prepared to let Canada off the hook for its problems, just because it has a smouldering hot Prime Minister that identifies as a feminist and attends Pride.

Joe’s spirituality

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

I next asked Joe about his interest in spiritualism. Earlier that day, I had seen him share a few spiritual posts to his story. I had been looking at my notes whilst asking him this question, but when I watched the recording of the interview back, I saw Joe grinning excitedly as he waited for me to shut up. “Yes, completely, oh, I love it, I’m so into it!” he said. “Sorry, I’m just so passionate about it.”

Joe is interested in spirituality in general, but angel numbers (11:11) in particular. He started his “spiritual journey” in 2018, before he started travelling, which gave him an “everything happens for a reason” mindset, making him feel connected to different cultures and ways of life. He believes that most people grow up in bubbles, and our minds are opened when we explore different peoples and cultures.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe grew up Catholic and attended church, but whilst he still believes in a God, he is much more spiritual than religious. “In my opinion, religion is more narrow-minded, while spirituality is more universal, united and open-minded”.

Joe’s use of social media

Joe agrees with my characterisation of social media as “performative”. “There’s a lot that people don’t show behind closed doors,” he said. This is not necessarily something major; some of us just show the world a specific image. For example, Joe and I laughed about how our Instagram feeds are so fancy and boujee when our go-to outfits are hoodies!

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

But Joe also sees a lot of positives in social media. He explained that it is interesting to see how different people use their platforms. Some people use it very positively (Joe is indisputably one of those people). He sees social media as a great way to identify with other people, especially for young, queer kids; many of whom are now coming out very young.

When he was young, he put his sexuality on the back-burner, as something to deal with in the future. He always knew he was gay but did not want to deal with it as a child, so he is so proud to see children being themselves at such a young age. They are given this confidence, partially, by seeing other people expressing themselves online.

That’s the good part of social media”.

Joe’s sex talk

Joe’s desire for sexual liberation lead me to asking him his thoughts on some of his fellow influencers using OnlyFans. Joe has mixed feelings towards it. Whilst money and attention are great, it is not a career that will provide you with longevity and, sadly, lots of people still see sex work negatively. But “it all depends on how you want to express yourself; it’s your body at the end of the day”.

I then asked Joe how he feels when he receives inappropriate, “thirsty” messages from his followers. “Yeah, I definitely do,” he admitted. Funnily enough, after Joe shared my post on his story, I received a few, let’s say, forward messages from some of his followers…

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

Joe explained that he posts risqué photos for himself, not for the approval of others. “It comes down to being confident, loving yourself and showing others that you can love yourself as well… How do you expect to love other people, or how do you expect to move forward, if you don’t love yourself?” I told him that this reminded me of Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’, where she sings, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all”. Oh, I’m so embarrassing…

Joe’s city

Joe and I spent the remainder of the interview discussing Toronto and Canada. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Canada and how badly I want to visit Toronto – somebody once bought me a Canadian flag as a Secret Santa! So, I took this opportunity to find out a little more.

Joe made my yearning to visit Canada even stronger, especially as the UK is currently in a (seemingly constant) state of chaos. When my Canadian aunty visited my house a few days later, I proceeded to ask her a hundred questions about Toronto.

Photo: @journeybyjoe on Instagram. Link to original.

“I’m telling you, you have to come to Toronto one day; you have to visit,” Joe said, before I told him that he must visit Manchester. Two diverse, cosmopolitan cities with absolutely incredible gay scenes. What more could you possibly want?

Joe later said he’ll show me around Toronto when I visit – you know, maybe when this pandemic ends, in 2047 – which would be the best possible “thank you” for me featuring him in this series.

But I, too, must thank Joe – not just for being one of my “tough acts to follow“, but for literally helping me, a brown Muslim man from the conservative countryside, to feel more comfortable exploring my gender identity.

For that, I am forever grateful.

I have interviewed Emmy, Grammy and Olivier winners, but I can honestly say that Joe is one of my favourite interviewees. Never have any of my interviewees been so involved in the whole creative process. I thank him for his investment in and dedication to this feature, and I have not only gained “a tough act to follow” and an Insta follower – but also a friend.

You can follow Joe on Instagram and TikTok at @journeybyjoe.

Tags: A Tough Act to Follow, Influencers, instagram, Mental Health, social media, Tik Tok

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. To write for theatre, DM me or email [email protected]
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