By Kate Hearst.
Over the course of forty-plus years, Barbara Kopple has made her documentaries with one focus: to be truthful to the voices of her subjects, whether they are coal miners or country singers. In her new film, This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, Kopple crafts a heart-gripping narrative capturing the journey of transgender YouTube star, Gigi Lazzarrato. While Gigi’s fearless optimism to “be who you want to be” is at the heart of this moving documentary, the film is also about family: an accepting mother, a father, two brothers, and an online community of fans. How Kopple sculpts a documentary narrative out of a life already documented in YouTube clips is one of the many intriguing aspects of this film. It is also the first time a YouTube Red original film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, stretching boundaries of what defines a feature documentary.
The film chronicles the transformation of Gigi from a fourteen-year-old diving champion from Toronto, who spends nights posting make-up videos on YouTube under the name Gregory Gorgeous. In early clips, we see an already confident Gregory encouraging viewers to be themselves despite bullying and harassment at school and on the Internet. Gregory is bullied mercilessly in comments posted online, but derives solace from fans who send supportive videos, explaining how vital Gregory is to them as they navigate their own young lives. Indeed, this film provides a bird’s-eye view of what today’s youth grapple with, both at school and online.
Taking her own advice, Gregory informs her parents that she identifies with being gay. Her parents and two brothers are supportive, though her father David admits to struggling with understanding Gregory’s decision. Then, Gregory comes out as gay online. Younger brother Cory admits he was fearful for Gregory because YouTube can be a worse “firing range” than school. The opposite happens. Gregory’s viewership soars to 100,000 and Gregory acquires a first-time manager, Scott Fisher. Having little experience himself, Scott helps Gregory earn substantial money, $16,000/month, in advertising on YouTube and elsewhere.
When Gregory’s mother dies of cancer in 2012, twenty-year-old Gregory realizes “life is too short” and decides to realize her destiny as Gigi, “a girl.” The film follows Gigi through the painful process of Facial Feminization Surgery in Boston, and later breast surgery in Los Angeles. Widowed father David remains by Gigi’s side throughout. One of the many poignant moments is when David, who struggles with using proper pronouns to Gigi’s chagrin, earnestly coaches Gigi on the most effective placement of ice packs to help heal her breast surgery.
A marked change in the tone occurs when Gigi, finished with surgeries, begins living the glamorous life of a YouTube star, driving her “dick magnet” sports car, and appearing on television with Kylie Jenner, among others. The intimate relationship Gregory had with her camera in her bedroom at age fifteen, is replaced by a “reality television” camera crew who follow Gigi wherever she goes.
Gigi also has a new manager, Adam Wescott, who works with Scott to monitor Gigi’s postings, making them conform to Middle America and enhancing her branding potential. This does not always sit well with Gigi. After a successful New York Fashion Week runway performance, in a somewhat jarring coda, Gigi is detained at the Dubai airport where “impersonating a woman” is forbidden. Gigi is outraged and she speaks out against these injustices suffered by the LGBT community. Regardless of whether one believes twenty-something Gigi Gorgeous has succumbed to the commercialism of her celebrity status, she remains a strong advocate for LGBT rights, and in this role she is beloved by her immediate and extended family of 2.3 million subscribers.
Parallel to the journey of Gigi Gorgeous is the story of YouTube itself, born in 2005, and once a free-wheeling frontier of private postings, a place where young and old could share their intimate secrets, and where many in the LGBT community could “come out” and find support. YouTube’s “age of innocence” is virtually over, even if it continues to be a free access site. YouTube today courts significant advertising dollars and its vloggers are as interested in becoming recognized celebrities by Hollywood and branders, as they are in sharing their personal stories. While Gigi Gorgeous lives gender fluidity, YouTube itself pushes different borders. Meanwhile, Barbara Kopple continues to shape timely and relevant documentaries, capturing the voices of those struggling against injustices.
Kate Hearst is working on a book, The Cinema of Barbara Kopple: American Activist. She earned her PhD and MFA in Film at Columbia University and has been teaching film history since 2011.