This article series – A Tough Act to Follow (get it?) – is an exploration into the performative nature (and indeed, the “theatre”) 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.
Like Raphaël, Jony is perfect for this series because he sees social media as a virtual “theatre” where he can “perform”.
I have been a fan of Jony’s since September, when my best friend, Charlie, sent me his “Disney Villains: Boy Edition” transformation video. We both absolutely love his Maleficent hair.
I can’t attach the video into the article, but you can click the hyperlink – and here is an exclusive photo (one of two in this article!) of Jony as Maleficent and Captain Hook.
You’re starting to understand why I just had to feature him, aren’t you?
However, I wanted to wait until the series had really got going before I featured Jony because of how notable an “influencer” he is. Indeed, he is the most-followed person that I have featured so far in this series.
The reason I put influencer in speech-marks is because Jony does not refer to himself as such. Rather, he is a contemporary artist who uses social media as a platform to showcase his art.
There is an ongoing debate about influencers – and who and what they are “influencing” – which is why I am putting the spotlight on people who I believe use their social media platforms positively.
Jony is, without a doubt, one of those people.
Contrary to popular belief, Jony is not Canadian.
He has been asked where he is from by various different websites and organisations. For some reason, they presumed he was Canadian – perhaps it is because of his French-sounding accent. Indeed, this had me thinking he was from Quebec.
Anyway, everybody loves Canadians, so it’s fitting!
Jony’s make-up and social media
Jony started experimenting with make-up when he was “pretty young”. He believes that the first time he played around with make-up was when he and his sister used some of their grandmother’s lipstick.
“I don’t know if she gave it to us, or if we stole it. That is not clear,” he admitted.
Jony said that he probably did not wear the lipstick, because, as boy, he felt that he was not allowed to wear make-up.
The first time he started wearing make-up properly was during his time in a circus.
I don’t have a picture of Jony’s circus years, so here’s a picture of him as that scary crown – in a skirt!
“[Make up] is part of being a performer, or part of the performance,” he said.
Jony’s mother bought him make-up, and he learned how to apply it by watching make-up tutorials.
It took Jony awhile to feel comfortable wearing make-up in public. This is probably, in part, because of past experiences that left him hurt.
As a child, he occasionally had people ask him whether he was male or female. He puts this down to his chubby face and smooth features giving him an androgynous look.
Eventually, Jony decided to embrace wearing make-up as part of who he is.
“I just decided to post stuff on Instagram and… here I am.”
Whilst most people would consider Jony an “influencer”, it is not a term that he uses to describe himself.
“Technically, I am doing the job of an influencer. But… I am an artist… and I will still stand by [that]… So, I’m an artist that does a bit of an influencer job.”
Indeed, Jony is using the platform of social media to showcase his art. He says that visual artists need to adapt themselves and get with the times, just like music artists began creating music videos when television became more mainstream.
Jony always wanted to be an artist, and he wanted his art “to be seen”. He knew that this meant he would probably have to work harder than people going into more stable jobs, but his mother’s love and support made this easier.
Something else that might surprise you about Jony is that he never wanted to be a make-up artist. His original dream was to be a theatre performer, but he always saw make-up as an intrinsic part of theatre and performance.
A further surprise is finding out that Jony prefers not wearing make-up. Make-up to him really is a performance.
Jony made his first make-up post in 2015. He was inspired by other men who had the confidence to showcase their make-up talents, so he decided to start doing it himself. Most of these looks were SFX (special effects) and character-based.
He witnessed the rise in popularity of make-up tutorials, so about a year after he shared his first make-up look on Instagram, he started doing tutorials of his own.
Jony thinks he found success because his make-up creations and tutorials were always based on a character or a piece of music.
“It was never about the make-up; it was about the character. So, I would always create a character and then bring it to life. So, it always had a story… It was a whole production; it was never just me putting make-up on”.
This all made sense to me because Jony’s content is all very theatrical. This sets him apart from most make-up artists and is probably one of the reasons he has become so popular.
Indeed, his verified Instagram account has over a million followers!
When I brought up his 1.5 million TikTok followers, Jony quickly (and sassily) responded “1.6! Since yesterday.”
Jony says his Instagram account blew up around May 2016, when he posted a tutorial that was better quality and better produced than usual. This post went viral.
Jony refers to his early make-up tutorials as “Tik-Tok… on Instagram,” because there was always some sort of transformation. It’s as if he saw the change coming.
Still, there are noticeable differences between Instagram and Tik-Tok, and Jony has at times felt scared to try something different, but “art always evolves”, so artists have to keep up with these changes.
Tik-Tok is perfect for Jony, though, because of how theatrical it is. What’s this about Ratatouille: The TikTok musical?!
“I feel like Tik-Tok is even more of a performance!”
Jony’s gender-nonconforming fashion
Jony says that he has never seen gender and clothing as correlated. He would often go to the women’s aisle because “clothes are cool”, so why should we deny ourselves the right to wear them just because they were designed for people with different bodies to us?
He then went on to talk about the radical difference between men’s and female’s clothing.
“There’s such a nice, colourful world with shapes, patterns, textures and stuff – and then you’ve got the men’s… It’s like t-shirts and trousers, and that’s it – and you’ve got black, brown and green, that’s it – or blue as well!”
He believes that it is only in the past two years, or so, that men’s apparel is getting more “out there”.
This prompted me to ask him if he shops at ASOS. “Yes, that’s what I’m talking about!” he laughed.
Jony thinks that it is amazing that big brands such as ASOS and Gucci are embracing gender-nonconforming fashion, because this will help normalise it, but he is not naïve enough to think that everything is going to change overnight.
“It’s gonna take a good few years before we start seeing more men in dresses [and] it’s gonna be a long few years before we feel safe wearing that kind of outfit in the public.”
But whilst we wait for men’s fashion to improve, why not just turn pillows into dresses?!
Yes, the dress that Jony is wearing in this article’s featured image is a pillow!
You might remember the “pillow challenge” from last year. It’s safe to say that Jony won it!
Jony finds it weird how androgynous male artists (such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Prince) were so prevalent and popular in the 70s, 80s and 90s but then seemed to disappear in the 2000s.
Whilst he does not see Harry Styles wearing a dress as that “out there”, he appreciates Styles making gender-nonconformity more “day-to-day”.
This reminded me of the discussion I had with Raphaël Say in the previous interview, when we talked about the very different reactions people had to gender-nonconformity in the 80s to today. Whilst society has come a long way regarding gender, people in the 80s seemed to be more accepting of androgynous artists than people today.
Jony and Raphaël both agree that this difference is because the gender-nonconformity of the 80s was seen as “theatre”, whilst today it is seen as both personal and political. Today, we are having real discussions about gender-nonconformity. It is not just something you see in a performance; it is about real people and how they want to identify in real life.
Speaking of Freddie Mercury… What a Queen!
“I think [an unprogressive] cis, male… straight… you know, the package… would laugh at a guy wearing a dress onstage, but they would be offended seeing a guy walking in front of them, on the street, wearing a dress – the same dress… It’s more of an issue now.”
I agreed: “they almost feel like it’s affecting their life because it’s real life.”
“Yeah, exactly. For some reason. I don’t know how, but apparently it does,” Jony laughed.
It is interesting how people tend to feel more comfortable expressing themselves online – even when they have huge followings like Jony – than being themselves out in the real world. I imagine this is because of the immediate, face-to-face reaction.
Jony said that he still feels worried about wearing dresses outside, before acknowledging that even a lot of women feel scared wearing certain clothing in certain places “because men are… you know,” he laughed.
Jony spoke of the time he wore a dress in a skate park for a photoshoot. There were three or four kids, aged between 8 and 11, who were later joined by three more.
“That’s when, suddenly, they discovered that I was wearing a dress, even though I was wearing a dress the whole time I was here,” Jony said. “That’s when they started laughing [and] taking videos of me.”
This experience was not hurtful or scary for Jony. He said himself that they were just kids, and we live in a society where men and women and taught to act in certain ways, so seeing a man in a dress is shocking for a lot of people. But he hopes that, over time, it will become “normal”.
Jony says he received a lot of judgement early on in his career because he was “different” and what he was doing was not something people were used to seeing.
Since getting TikTok, he fas faced more abuse; he says people can be crueller on Tik-Tok than Instagram. It does not bother him, though, and he tries not to take it personally.
Admirably, he has not let the hatred hinder him. Rather, it seems to make him work harder.
I have used these two photos as a visual metaphor for this. As Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump said: “Throw me to the wolves, and I shall return leading the pack!”
Whilst Jony does receive some hateful comments, he says that “the love balances out,” in that all of the love he receives from followers and fans makes the hate he receives from trolls irrelevant and unnoticeable.
Jony thinks that most of his followers are young women and girls. He told me that he thinks they like his “safe, little world,” before sassily adding, “little/big – depends where you look at it.”
He said he receives lots of messages from queer kids, some of whom he has inadvertently helped come out. He finds this surprising because he does not speak much about these things.
“[But] like you said… what I do [inspires] them.”
Indeed, I told Jony that just by being himself, he is inspiring other people to be themselves.
Whilst Jony does not consider himself an activist, I believe that he is inadvertently doing the work of an activist, simply by being himself!
He will not bow down to societal norms. A Queen bows for nobody!
Sadly, it is not always easy to be yourself – even though just being yourself should be the easiest thing in the world. Thus, seeing people like Jony refusing to conform to societal norms of what a man “should” be, is pretty cathartic.
I have used these two pictures here as another metaphor: by being himself, Jony is helping others be themselves.
Jony captioned these photos: “I’ll only share my crown if u promise me you’ll be nicer to yourself in 2021”.
Whilst Jony has always been passionate about a variety of causes, he was scared to bring this to his social media.
“My social media was really an escape from the world we live in. It’s literally a different world. I still live in a different world – that’s probably why the hate doesn’t affect me that much.”
It is still scary to him because he knows that his words can be twisted, but with a platform as large as his, he could not possibly shy away from activism.
“I never wanted to bring negativity to my Instagram or TikTok or whatever, but then I realised that it was important… It’s not negative… It needs to be said.”
Whilst Jony had never considered this before, he agreed with my characterisation of his social media content as “artistic activism,” because he is helping normalise the radical notion that people can wear whatever they like.
“I don’t know where my posts go, and I know they don’t go in the nicest places sometimes, but it helps other people… so I think I totally agree with that.”
Jony’s queer politics
Jony also spoke candidly about problems within the queer community.
He admits to never having related to the queer community as a kid because he was a little bit shy and this world seemed to be “out there, crazy and partying and all that.”
“That’s the first thing I saw; obviously, there’s layers.”
He went on to speak about the “huge” amount of transphobia in the gay and queer communities: “we can say it’s a safe space, but it’s not always [safe].”
He even feared being too feminine around other people in the queer community.
“I always thought the only way I could express femininity was through drag or through make-up, and that’s probably why I started doing make-up,” he said. “You don’t need to be a drag queen to be feminine – and what is femininity?” he asked.
The above photo is the second of two exclusives in this article. Let’s use it as another visual metaphor: you can try to shackle Jony, but he’ll just turn those chains into accessories!
Jony’s friendship with Yungblud
I finished the interview by asking Jony about his friendship with Yungblud.
Yungblud makes awesome music, but I pay more attention to him as a visual artist than as a music artist. I absolutely love his gender-nonconforming, punk rock fashion.
Jony became acquainted with Yungblud after Yungblud messaged him to tell him that he loves what he does and would love to hang out with him sometime.
Jony referred to the content that they have created together as “cool” and “iconic”.
He loves how hard-working and open-minded Yungblud is.
“You can do whatever the f*ck you want in front of him, and that’s something that I cherish in everybody – when you feel safe to do whatever the f*ck you want.”
At this point, the call crashed – again! When we re-joined, I told Jony that it crashed just as he began talking about Yungblud.
“Oh, my gosh, I went on for a minute after that,” he laughed.
Jony then told me that he and Yungblud stand for the same thing – freeing the world of gender norms.
The both of them were very inspired by Lady Gaga as pre-teens because of her refusal to conform to societal norms, especially relating to gender and fashion.
Speaking of – the above photo is a BTS from his shoot with Gaga, when he was the face of a HAUS Labs launch/campaign!
This prompted Jony to reveal that he has always loved the punk rock world. His own aesthetic used to be very dark, but social media pushed him to become “bright and colourful and all that”. He felt that he could no longer express this punk side of himself.
“80% of my being is punk, even though it doesn’t necessarily look like it.”
Jony said that Yungblud helped him feel more comfortable expressing his punk side.
This shows that even if you are inspiring other people, you can still be inspired by other people yourself.
I would love to go on about Yungblud, but that requires an article of its own – hey, maybe I’ll interview him one day, too!
Jony and I chatted about a few other things, even nail rings for some reason, but I need to stop before this article becomes a dissertation!
Speaking of, I should probably begin my dissertation…
I set several aims when I started this series. One of them was to explore the “theatre” of social media, and this feature, in particular, tackles that.
Jony shows that using social media in performative ways is not necessarily negative. In his case, it’s quite the contrary. He is an artist that knows the power of social media, and whilst he dislikes the term “influencer”, there is no question that he is influencing people in positive ways.
This, without a doubt, makes him a tough act to follow – so go follow him!