Ari Fitz is burning bright, and she isn’t showing any signs of dimming. The entrepreneur-turned-model-turned-YouTuber-turned-director’s plate is consistently and perpetually filled to the brim; on any given day, it can be assumed that she’s working on about five different projects. But the importance of Ari’s work isn’t really defined by the numbers—it’s more about the person behind it. Ari is a black, queer, androgynous woman making authentic strides to represent the underrepresented, to redefine gender and beauty altogether. Hers is a path of trailblazing. Lithium EIC Olivia Ferrucci and photographer Gabby Agustin sat down at the Santa Monica Pier with Ari to talk about her new start-up, commodified inclusivity, and becoming the next Zuckerberg.
Lithium Magazine: Whenever I watch your Instagram stories and listen to you talk about everything you’re working on, I always feel like there’s more that I should be doing. To summarize, you make fashion YouTube videos, run Tomboyish Mag, facilitate Dear Body Project, are an ASOS insider, wrote a queer science fantasy comic, professionally model, and made a short film. How do you possibly balance everything?
Ari Fitz: You know, I don’t think I do! (Laughs) Certain days will go by and then I’ll feel like I haven’t posted enough on Dear Body or I haven’t done enough of one of the projects. What I’m trying to do now is just give myself the freedom to let certain things fall. Like, I’m going to miss posts on my ASOS page, I’m going to miss posts on Dear Body! I’m not going to do everything. I’m one person. If I can’t do something, [I’m trying to] not beat myself up about it, and then also get better at delegating, which is the hardest thing ever. It’s so hard to communicate to other people when it’s so much easier to just do it yourself. I have a friend who’s helping me run Tomboyish and it’s been the most freeing thing ever, because it’s like, “Cool, that’s one less thing out of the like twelve thousand things I have to worry about.” So delegation is good, it’s helping. I’m trying to be less of a control freak!
Lithium: So what drives you to continuously make your work so multifaceted?
Ari: I think I’m so tired of the narrative that we all have one way of being. You know, being an influencer, being in this space for so long, I’ve seen people really come up and start to learn how to be a YouTuber, how to be an Instagrammer, whatever, and what happens is people forget how to just be human—like, I have so many interests! I wanna twerk on my friends and then turn around and work on my comic book and then geek out with my film friends! I’m a dynamic person. I am a dynamic bitch. I feel like all of us are, and I think it’s so annoying that we craft these like digital personas that don’t allow for us to be as layered as we are. We all have a variety of interests, [so] why not cater to all those things? I think it’s silly.
Lithium: Years ago, you were really open to sharing your relationships online and they were very well documented, but you’ve kind of taken a step back and made them more personal.
Ari: Oh, you noticed that shit?
Lithium: Of course! What was the decision to have that shift and keep things to yourself?
Ari: It’s so funny, because I go back and forth about it, ‘cause sometimes I’m like, “Oh, it is nice to just publicly say ‘Hey, this is the person that I adore.’” I think early on, coming into being a public person, everyone knew so much about who I was dating and everyone had an opinion on it… People just create all these narratives on their own, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that the internet could convince itself about, you know, what my relationship was without me having any input. Also, I saw a lot of my friends who were very public with their relationships, and it was like always such a taxing thing. I didn’t like people being in my business, and I think that...the way that I am online just lends itself to a lot of people wondering who I’m with. That’s very true to form, it’s just—it’s not everyone’s business. (Laughs)
Lithium: No, it’s not.
Ari: It’s just really not. I mean, it’s fun to give people peeks into the life that I live, ‘cause I think that it can be very sexy at times.
Lithium: So I think as social justice has become more prevalent among young people, there’s been this kind of phenomenon where some companies have manipulated and warped activism so that they capitalize on diversity.
Ari: Hell yeah.
Lithium: Do you feel like you’ve been on both sides of that narrative?
Ari: Absolutely. I’m always trying to make sure that in the event that I’m a token, in the event that my narrative and the things that I talk about are being used for profit, that I’m benefitting and the communities that I care about benefit. So if I’m gonna get a check from doing a huge campaign with a company that’s all about inclusivity, fine, but I wanna make sure that then goes into my projects that are really about inclusivity. Hopefully, by doing this, [eventually] inclusivity won’t be such a buzz term. It’ll just exist! We will all know what it’s like to see a queer, brown, disabled couple. Let me go back to your original question, though. When it comes to these campaigns, I’m happy that they’re happening. I was just texting a friend of mine who’s a plus-size, dark-skinned black woman, and she got picked for a major campaign, and I’m like “Fuck.” Like, that’s the kind of shit we need to see. And I think we’re only moving to a place where like people [will be] like, “Oh no, we can’t just put eight rail-thin, brunettes—like, that won’t go over well.” I like that people are scared, and I like that people are excited about inclusivity and trying to really push for reflecting the way that the world looks. It does feel a little contrived, obviously, but that’s because it is. Like, people are making decisions and they’re saying like, “Hey, we want to be more inclusive, ‘cause we know that it’s a problem. And we know that we’ll get killed on the internet otherwise.” So, if fear’s the way we have to lead these companies to doing some good shit, then fuck it, be afraid, I guess.
Lithium: Do you think that where we’re at now, it’s important that everyone is their own representation, or should we strive for a place where multifaceted identities are shown everywhere?
Ari: I think there are different iterations of this. The first thing that needs to happen is that everyone needs to see the variety and just the span of ways to exist in the world. If you’d never seen a non-binary person before, you probably would not have any idea of what that would look like! Just seeing that person exist could make someone say, “Oh, that is one aspect or one avenue that I can go in.” And the second iteration is just people owning their own power and their individuality. It’s just too easy to get lost in categories. For the longest time, I was like, “Oh, I am a queer, black woman that likes feminine women, so that means I have to dress in this very masculine, very butch way,” because that’s all I saw. I saw femme, I saw masc, and that was it. And so [when I] really did my research, I was like, “Oh, wait, androgyny? David Bowie? That feels more my shit. I’m Prince, fuck all y’all!” I think representation’s really important, but I think that it’s only important in that it helps all of us kind of learn how we want to craft our own individual personalities. Personally, I’m just Ari. I’m a conduit. I am a vessel that you can use to figure out who the fuck you wanna be in this weird, crazy, terrifying world, and if you can use my outfits or my videos to figure out how you wanna be polyamorous, to figure out how you want to dress as a trans man, feel free to use me. But at the end of the day, that has no bearing on how I see myself as a person.
Lithium: Yeah. I think labels can be very beneficial because they create communities, but at the same time, it can be a hindrance when people are like, “I can only look up to people who are exactly like me.” If you’re a trans man, you can still look at Ari as inspiration.
Ari: Yeah, straight men are the funniest when it comes to the style shit. I was wearing this suit in New York the other day, and a group of construction workers—I was terrified, because I was dating a girl that has a Kim Kardashian body, she’s very curvy, draws a lot of attention—
Lithium: And construction workers are the worst for that.
Ari: I know! So we’re crossing the street, and we’re just [on] cloud 9, we just had breakfast, and I’m wearing this suit. She never wears anything that shows off her body, is terrified of it, and I’d convinced her to wear a dress! So we’re walking and I see the construction workers in the corner of my eye, and I’m like, “Fuck, dude, what’s gonna happen?” I can feel her clam up, and as we’re walking by, I heard a dude say something. I was like, “Here we go, here we go.” But I hear the thing again, and they’re all yelling “swaggy!” I turn around and they’re all pointing at my suit, smiling and waving and shit. They completely ignored her, didn’t even pay attention to her at all, and I’m like, “What just happened? Those are construction workers. I’m a black dyke in a suit holding another very attractive girl’s hand, and they were talking about my suit?” Like, that’s amazing.
Lithium: That’s a good plot twist.
Ari: I was so ready for the worst, but it’s cool that, regardless of background or whatever, people are starting to see themselves in me. The guy was just like, “Where can I get that suit, bruh?” And then I was like, “Who—you’re talking to me? Hold up! We’re really having this conversation right now? This is so dope.” And yeah, I chatted with the construction workers, told them where to get the suit, and we walked off. They didn’t even look her in her eyes. It was wild. That happened a couple days ago.
Lithium: Okay, so on that note, who or what would you cite as your most significant fashion influences?
Ari: Oh, shit. It’s such a hard one, ‘cause I like giving older answers like David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Grace Jones, Coco Chanel, all the androgynous icons, but there are also some new ones like A$AP Rocky. Jasmine Jae is fucking incredible, too. I like the way that she puts shit together. I have a good friend named Hannah Anderson, she lives here in LA, and she just sees outfits in a different way than a lot of other people. I like people who can fuck around with current styles and then make [them] their own, and I think Hannah does that really well. I also like a lot of the influencers today that are doing streetwear but adding feminine touches. My thing is I get dressed so that, regardless of your gender—male, female, nonbinary, everybody in between—I still want you to want me to fuck me. That’s the thing.
Lithium: That’s a good line. That’s a t-shirt waiting to happen.
Ari: (Laughs) That’s what I want! Do you want to fuck me? How can I dress so I can best make that happen? Like, a granny was just like, “You’re sexy!” and I was like, “I did it today. Well done.”
Lithium: So what’s the process of putting together an outfit for you? I feel like you would sit in your bed and create mood boards. It must be such an intense process.
Ari: So I have my regular closet, right? And then I have—I’m trying to build my bedroom into a showroom. I’m such a dork. I put all of the items that either are new or I haven’t worn in a while on a rack and on a bookcase in my bedroom so that I can always see them. I try my best not to go into my actual closet. Every so often I’ll get a couple glasses of wine, put on a playlist, and run around naked in my apartment trying on a ton of outfits and then taking photos of them to save them for later.
Lithium: Your life sounds so exciting.
Ari: (Laughs) It’s pretty fun!
Lithium: Okay, so I actually had no idea that you went to school for tech until I read your interview with Afropunk. Is that something you’re interested in pursuing further down the line?
Ari: No one knows this—like, I never really tell people about it, but when I was 19 I started a company and I thought I was gonna be the next Zuckerberg. I’m very surprised that this is the shit I do now! I’d always wanted to go into tech because I was living in San Francisco, and it was like the Wild Wild West. Twitter [and Facebook were] just getting started, and I was just like, “I wanna be a billionaire like these dorky kids. Let me go learn how to code.” So I was coding, making small things just to get my feet wet. I knew that I wasn’t a strong enough engineer, so then I moved to the business side of things. And that’s when I learned how to basically build a company. So even though I’m not directly in tech now, I’m taking all those experiences from raising money, chatting with investors, building pitch decks, everything from the business side, and I’m applying it to a production company that I started this year. I’m just slowly but surely putting in the leg work to build the next Disney. That’s what I would love to do with my company.
Lithium: And while you’re doing all the 5,000 other things.
Ari: It’s fucking crazy busy right now.
Lithium: Do you ever sleep?
Ari: You know? Nah. Every conversation I have with my mom, she [asks], “Are you taking care of my kid?” And I’m always like, “No, I’m not.” (Laughs) I used to hate that I had this interest in so many things, but now I’d say it’s one of my best qualities. I hate being a dreamer! I hate the idea of just sitting and talking about something, and if I hear myself talking about wanting to do something for too long, I’m like, “You’re fucking fake! Hop in dude, hop in!” So then I’ll be up until 4 AM, trying to get something started. But what I’m getting better at is like, once I’ve got something going, finding somebody to come on and help it happen.
Lithium: Can I ask what your start-up was?
Ari: Yeah! It was a company called Gin Juice. (Laughs) It started off as kind of an ad agency. How it ended, I have no idea. At a certain point, I had just zero idea of what I was doing, but I knew a lot of people believed in me. I had a lot of investors that gave me money. I forget how much I raised, but I [had] a decent amount for me being 19 with no fucking idea, and I had a full team. I had, engineers, I had a business development person, I had a high-rise apartment in New York City... I’d done all this shit, but it was mostly charisma and no real, solid business model. I hadn’t really sat down and thought through exactly what I wanted to do! I just knew that I wanted to be the next Zuckerberg, so I was just going through the motions without realizing that I actually had to build something of value. So with the company that I’m building now, I just want to make sure that everything is honest. And I think that as long as I can do projects that will resonate with people and are honest, real, and representative of the world, then the company will be fine, the company will do well. Essentially, it’s a media company that’s dedicated to honest storytelling.
Lithium: What would your advice be to young, queer teens of color who are looking to express themselves, especially creatively?
Ari: I cannot stress this enough: this shit takes time. I think it’s so easy to look at someone or see someone online and be like, “Why don’t I have that?” I hope that young people in general—but especially young queer teens of color, trans teens, disabled teens, underrepresented teens—can recognize that all of this shit is a process, and the sooner you trust your process and trust that it’s going to take you some time and that you should have a little fun along the way, things are gonna be fine… Just stay in your lane, focus on doing better and improving yourself, and give yourself time to play, to experiment, especially creatively. I am light years more prepared to run a company now than I was when I was 19, not just because of age, but because of pure experience. And YouTube helped me do that. Modeling helped me do that. Working jobs that I hated helped me do that. All of this is a fucking process, and you just gotta take the lessons as they come.
Lithium: What’s next for you?
Ari: I’m working on my next short film. It’s a thriller with a queer, black, androgynous lead named Ari Fitz. (Laughs) And we have a queer, mostly people of color cast and crew. That project has been so fun. You may also see me in a very popular YouTuber’s music video soon. Just lots of, lots of fucking projects, dude. Those are the two that I can tell you about.
Lithium: And building the next Disney.
Ari: And building the next Disney. I will say, probably by the end of this year I’m gonna start hiring. For the company that I have yet to give you a name for. That’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to doing, ‘cause I wanna build, a dope ass team of people who get this shit and who are hungry. Those things!