As Bretman Rock’s Dreams of Stardom Become Reality, His Message Remains: ‘Be Yourself, Bitch’

Don’t call Bretman Rock an influencer.

Rock, who considers himself a digital celebrity, is described by his manager, Dru Sansenbach, as a comedian.

“Everyone thinks he’s a beauty influencer,” Sansenbach said in an interview with Variety. “But this kid is a comedian. He’s a performer.”

Rock, who lives in Hawaii, has 38.3 million combined followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, a steady fanship he first began to amass in 2015 with laugh-out-loud content and how-to beauty videos.

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“Whenever I see a camera, I just want to perform for some reason,” Rock said. “If I was getting paid for it or not, I would still be posting random videos of me on the internet.”

On Instagram, Rock typically begins his Stories each morning with some iteration of: “Good morning, bitch. I’m having a cute day because I decided to have a cute day. I hope you’re having a cute day, too.” Across his accounts, followers can watch him work out, make iced matcha lattes, pole dance, show off his outfits, read from his journal, longboard and make friends with local wildlife.

“Two years ago, three years ago, no one really knew what to do with Bretman,” Sasenbach said. “Bretman curses and he wears makeup. He’s not nonbinary; he just is the way he is. And he’s kind of sexual and he smokes weed. And he’s not willing to tame himself.”

His online presence grew and spurred brand deals, New York Fashion Week cameos and even his own eyewear collection. Most recently, he added MTV reality star to his resume with the network’s YouTube series “Following: Bretman Rock.”

“I don’t think anyone that joined or started YouTubing past 2013 even knew what it would turn into. That was when I was making videos before the word influencer was even a thing,” Rock said. “We were all trying to figure out and maneuver social media.”

While the digital space is slowly becoming a staple of the entertainment industry, its frontier-like nature can leave talent at risk. An October 2020 investigation by Vox described it as “fledgling, unstandardized and oversaturated.” But Hollywood is evolving. Just last month, SAG-AFTRA announced influencers can join its union.

“No matter how stories are told, we should all be supported and protected,” SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement to Variety. “The Influencer Agreement is a reflection of our commitment to creators and our dedication to remaining flexible within the ever-changing media landscape.”

The agreement recognizes that influencers wear many hats and embraces their crossover potential in the same way other members, for example, have been known to act in feature films and produce television. In the last few years, SAG-AFTRA noticed members were dabbling in influencer marketing and influencer work. To them, it made sense to create a new tool to reflect the nature of the space. What’s more, the move appears to anticipate what Sansenbach foresees as the digital space bursting, leaving influencers vulnerable if they don’t have a well-established career.

“It is like the Wild West,” she says. “All they know how to do is make money off these kids and that’s not enough to build them up for careers that will lead them to success well into their adult age.”

Talent agencies have begun taking notice of social media influencers as well, helping broker their movie and TV gigs. TikTok star Addison Rae Easterling is repped by WME and will be in the upcoming remake of “She’s All That.” Her peer Charli D’Amelio is getting her own Hulu docuseries, set for later this year.

Rock himself signed with UTA last October. With good-humored antics and refreshing transparency, he proves upward mobility in the digital space is possible.

“I think it’s very liberating for people to see someone who’s just so unabashedly themselves,” Sansenbach explains. “He doesn’t feel like a celebrity in a glass box. He feels like your friend. He feels like your family. And it’s cool. It’s like the right social pressure. The social pressure is ‘be yourself, bitch. I’m being myself.’”

To have a show on MTV — long considered a pop-culture barometer — is to affirm Rock as one of the leading voices of Gen Z. The 22-year-old, who moved from the Philippines to Hawaii as a kid, grew up watching MTV reality shows like “My Super Sweet 16,” “Cribs” and “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.” He and his team first pitched the network a few years ago.

“[Bretman is] so unapologetically authentic,” says Heather Johns, MTV’s vice president of talent and development. “His voice really kind of resonates and clears the crowded digital market.”

Delayed a few months by the pandemic, filming “Following: Bretman Rock” finally began in November 2020. With just four primary cast members — Rock, sister Princess Mae, best friend Larry and cousin/assistant Keiffer — and occasional appearances from his mom and niece, the show’s premise centers on Rock staying in a lush beachside rental while renovating his house.

On Feb. 26, four days after the release of Episode 3, the first half of the series had racked up over 12.8 million views and brought 200,000 new subscribers to the channel. More than half of the audience is under the age of 24. Episode 6, the finale, airs March 15 at 4 p.m. ET.

“I think that the show really touches on a lot of content pieces that are happening in people’s lives currently, whether that be your gender identity issues or sibling dynamics or what does it mean to actually be a part of the immigrant experience in the States,” Johns said. “Seeing the response is just so overwhelmingly positive because people are seeing themselves in him and his family.”

At the end of Episode 1, Larry says, “Bretman talks about his emotions very rarely.” And yet the show is rooted in vulnerability. For example, the second episode focuses on Rock and his sister working through the complicated relationship they had with their dad, who died in November 2019.

Episode 4 puts the spotlight on Keiffer, who opens up about wanting to feel accepted for not identifying with traditional gender labels. During his “gender reveal,” they pop a balloon that rains down rainbow confetti.

“It’s a bad bitch! Period,” Rock yells out. “You can be whatever the fuck you want to be, Miss Kay.”

Sansenbach says the MTV show represents Rock transitioning into the traditional entertainment world. It’s something she’s seen coming for a while, though she reassures that social media will always be home base.

“No matter what next steps he takes in his career, whether it’s shooting in TV for a month, or shooting a feature film for three months, Bretman wants to make sure he never loses sight of his digital presence,” Sansenbach said. “His relationship with his audience is so important to him.”

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