From “chaotic” bathroom lip-syncs with Rita Ora to sharing intimate details of and celebrating her transition, Bel Priestley has TikTok’d her way to prominence as one of the UK’s most trailblazing trans personalities.
But three years ago, the 20-year-old was making a living as a school cleaner, recalling that she “had no friends” or general direction for her career. In 2019, Priestley began sharing her story on TikTok, where her candid – and hilarious – videos about her gender identity, beauty and fashion have cultivated an impassioned following. As of writing, she boasts a whopping 1.3 million followers on the platform. “I had no idea of what I wanted to do back then,” Priestley reflects over Zoom, one week after her GAY TIMES cover shoot. “I’m so grateful for where I am now, my life has changed so much.”
This year, Priestley continued to fulfil her dreams as she made her acting debut in one of the decade’s most championed LGBTQIA+ series: Netflix’s wholesome coming-of-age dramedy Heartstopper. It marked a full circle moment for the performer, who always “had this dream to be in front of the camera” her life, but was told by a former teacher that acting was a futile career for her – “really supportive,” Priestley jokingly recalls – because of the lack of roles for trans people.
While trans representation is still severely lacking in all industries, small screen visibility has steadily increased thanks to trailblazing shows such as Pose, Euphoria and of course, Hearstopper. Priestley credits Yasmin Finney’s character in the series, Elle Argent, with inspiring her to pursue acting as a full-time career. “Elle was the first trans role in the UK that I saw. It wasn’t until then that I got excited about acting, because I realised it was now possible to act as a trans woman.”
Through her role as Naomi, a trans art student who forms a strong connection with Elle, Priestley continues to serve as an inspiration for trans youth and – in what may well be a first for British on-screen representation – explores the power that comes with trans sisterhood. “Naomi is what I wish I was like in school. She’s a really cool, confident, talented trans girl and she’s kind of like my alter-ego,” Priestley says. “It’s also nice seeing two trans girls being friends on-screen and exploring the world together.”
Below, Priestley reflects on new frontiers of trans representation in UK media, protecting her peace as a public figure and her dreams of playing a Disney princess.
(Please note that this interview took place prior to the SAG-AFTRA union strikes.)
Bel, huge congratulations on Heartstopper. This marks your acting debut, right?
Yes, unless you count my high school drama play which is really crazy! It’s such a big show, this is a world I’ve always dreamed of going into.
Not bad at all! You once said that people who bullied you at school tried to take pictures with you after the cast announcement, right?
I went to my school fête, the day after, and saw loads of people that used to take the piss and laugh at me. A few of them asked me for pictures which felt so random. It’s so mad to think these people used to mock me and now they’re asking for photos.
How very surprising! It’s always the way, isn’t it? When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I’ve loved performing ever since I was young. I did musical theatre when I was five or six. It went on the back burner as I got older because there were no roles at all. To be fair, Elle was the first trans role in the UK that I saw on screen. It wasn’t until then that I got excited for acting because I realised it was now possible to act as a trans woman. I was going to go to drama school but my teacher said to me, ‘There’s no trans roles, give up.’
Yeah, I know, that’s really supportive. Then, I then fell into social media and did that for a few years. It’s quite difficult crossing over from social media to main media. I thought I’d be trapped into a box of being a TikToker – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that was my mindset a little bit. Now, with the way things are moving, there’s more trans roles coming in, and it’s nice to see trans people playing cis roles as well.
You were one of the first trans people in the UK to become a superstar on TikTok, where you’re known for documenting your transition. How does it feel to share such intimate details of your life with the world?
It’s always scary. I debated what I’d share and I’ve shared everything, really. It always comes back to knowing it will help so many people. I love making people happy and being a small part in their stories. The amount of people that tell me how I’ve helped them come out or realise who they are blows my mind and that’s what I do it for. When I debate sharing certain things, I remember that it will help so many people.
TikTok has changed my life in every aspect. Three years ago, I was a cleaner at a school and I had no friends. I had no idea of what I wanted to do. I’ve always had this dream to be on camera, helping people and sharing my life. I’m so grateful for where I am now. My life has changed so much, I now live in London, and I’ve created a friendship group of people who love and support me for me. The next steps are going to be crazy!
It’s very difficult to be a trans person in the UK right now with the media’s escalating attacks on the community. While the majority of people who follow you shower you with love and appreciation, there’s still a few anti-trans trolls out there who feel the need to insert their opinions on your posts. How do you deal with that hate, while making sure you’re preserving your mental health?
It’s difficult. There’s so much love but also so much hate. A lot of friends that I have in the social media industry have all said that the hate that I get is astronomical compared to most people. There’s some days where I have 10,000 hate comments. At the same time, the love always overshadows it. When I first started, it all got to me a bit. Luckily, I got a lot of shit in school so I have a thick skin. If anyone says something to me that I haven’t heard before, I’m normally quite impressed. That’s how I see it now, ‘Hats off to you for that one!’ Also, just because you think being trans is wrong, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop being trans – I don’t know what you expected from that conversation. That’s the thing, with TikTok, you share so much of your life so people think they have the right to an opinion on you which is a weird concept.
Do you take comfort in knowing that these people, however, are very stupid?
I have never had the urge to comment on someone’s TikTok with hate. I can’t imagine what place you have to be in to comment nasty stuff on people’s pages. I’ve always grown up with the idea of, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything’ so I don’t understand it. I could honestly write a book about how horrible my time was in school, but I try to take it as a lesson. It’s all made me who I am so I don’t get too caught up in it.
For those who aren’t familiar with your story, do you mind reflecting on your journey with your gender identity?
Munroe Bergdorf inspired me, she’s the reason I came out as trans. People always ask when I knew, which is interesting because it’s never really been a ‘Oh, I’m trans’ moment. I’ve always wanted to be a girl but I didn’t know what trans was so I never really knew it was possible. I came out as gay when I was 10 or 11 and I had a predominantly female friendship group. I started doing my brows and that was the first time I started experiencing makeup. That then became a massive obsession for me in expressing myself and how I looked. I had a makeup room at my mum’s, where I did YouTube tutorials, and it was a massive part of my life. It’s what got me into social media. Then, I went into drag and played with wigs and outfits. It wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be trans. I came out at 13 or 14 and had a pretty tough time of it. Over the last two years, I’ve been finding my own comfort with myself. It takes a while to settle into a new life. I’ve only really settled into who I am as a woman.
You’re now the inspirational Munroe figure for countless trans people in the UK and around the world. How does that make you feel?
It’s crazy. Full circle. There was no one I could look up to in school so I’m just trying to be that person I never had growing up. Being that person who could inspire people and the next generation is what I do it all for.
How do you identify with Naomi, your Heartstopper character?
Naomi is what I wish I was like in school. She’s a really cool, confident, talented trans girl and she’s kind of like my alter-ego. I think she’ll be a great influence on Elle and I’m excited to see where their friendship goes. It’s nice seeing two trans girls being friends on-screen and exploring the world together.
It’s also highly refreshing that we don’t see elements of trauma in either of their stories…
It’s always positive and it doesn’t focus on the negatives. We’re not the only trans people on the show. There’s so many trans and non-binary people and, for such a young audience to see that, I can’t imagine how many people it’s going to affect – it’s going to be so exciting.
What was your first experience on a set like?
Everyone gets along so well. It’s such a vibe on set. It’s not just the cast, it’s the whole crew. They make you feel so at home and so at ease. Everyone was already friends in season one so I didn’t know anyone except for Yas, who I knew before the show. To go in and feel so at ease and at home was lovely. You tend to work by yourself doing social media so it’s nice being around creative people who are hard-working and dedicated.
Heartstopper’s first season catapulted its cast to global superstardom with Joe Locke joining the MCU and Yasmin Finney becoming part of the Doctor Who universe. Knowing what the show can do for its stars, how do you hope it impacts your career as an actor?
There are so many roles I’d love to play. My dream would be to book a Disney Princess. That is the ultimate dream. Fingers crossed! I’m going to focus on stories I can tell. I don’t want to put any pressure on myself to book anything but I’m really excited to see where the industry goes and where I fit into that. It’s a really exciting time.
Heartstopper season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.