It’s hard to pin down the exact mix of candor and theatrics required to break out online. But Bretman Rock seemed destined for memehood.
He first went viral around 2016 by smacking his sister’s ponytail when she meandered across a Beyoncé dance video he later posted on Vine. “Are you fucking serious?” he spit out.
As he shared snippets of his family life and taught contouring on YouTube, Rock became part of a wave of gay teen content creators — like fellow Viner-turned-influencer Rickey Thompson and controversial makeup YouTuber James Charles — who were out, unapologetically femme, and no one’s sidekicks. They turned comedy, camp, and fashion into a new mode of stardom.
Now, he has arguably transcended online fame more than any of those peers. In 2021, his nipple-baring bunny pose for Playboy magazine’s cover brought out new fans (and trolls). And he’s starring in a second season of his MTV reality show, Following: Bretman Rock, where, alongside sister Princess and cousin Keiffer, he grapples with issues like intergenerational trauma.
You’re That Bitch: & Other Cute Lessons About Being Unapologetically Yourself, his new memoir, seems designed to appeal to his young audience by combining his life story with short, awkwardly pedagogical how-to sections about intimate but quotidian topics, like ass douching or spotting toxic relationship patterns.
The most compelling sections are introspective about his evolving relationship to gender and the struggles behind his online persona, like his claims of abuse by an older brother (who has not publicly responded to the allegations; they have since reconciled). The result is like an unapologetically queer version of the sanitized beigeness of stories like Love, Simon.
Rock grew up in the rural Philippines, and he vividly captures what sounds, at first, like a magical childhood. He loved being outdoors, eating tree bugs, selling snails, and collecting feathers in cock fights he attended with his father, a long-haired wrestling fan who named him after Bret “the hitman” Hart and the Rock.
“People would be crying over their chickens and sewing up their cuts like they were [martial artist] Conor McGregor,” he writes about the cock fights, adding with characteristic matter-of-fact, family-friendly raunchiness: “I only know who he is because he posts pics in tighty-whities.”
Rock’s mother was often working, and he was raised by aunts and a grandmother who encouraged his femininity. Fans know his mother and sister from the reality show and his online content, but here he writes about a more complicated relationship with the men in his family.
His father had an affair with a young woman after his mom left to work in Hawaii, and it fell to Rock to tell her. When she returned, she burned the woman with cooking oil. Rock had to testify in divorce proceedings. He grew up quickly and became estranged from his father. “Their separation drove me to want to be the breadwinner of my family,” he writes, “because I wanted to be greater than my dad, and become the dad my dad would never be for my little sister.”
The memoir emphasizes his American pop-cultural self-making after he arrived in Hawaii following his mom. He learned English from reality television shows like Bad Girls Club and Drag Race. In many ways he was lucky, he writes, to grow up in cultures — in both the Philippines and Hawaii — with space and traditions for genders outside the Western cisgender binary: the bakla in the Philippines and the mahu in Hawaii.
Still, Rock struggled with his family’s limitations. His mother didn’t quite understand the impact of an ADHD diagnosis he received in his early years and Rock claims an older brother, JR, subjected him to homophobic comments: “If you are ever gay,” Rock remembers him saying, “I’m gonna kill you.” Rock also claims JR slammed his head into the ground and gave him a concussion, and threw a charger at his head when he returned home late once from Costco.
“When the bullying at school and home got so bad,” he writes, “I tried to suffocate myself with a blanket again in my bed before school.”
The memoir isn’t chronological — it's formed as a series of essays and personal ephemera like photos — and the writing doesn’t often connect the dots of motivations and context. He does note there wasn’t really a lot of Asian American or queer of color representation before Tumblr and YouTube, which helped him start seeing himself in Asian American beauty videos. (In another chapter, he meditates on unlearning colorism, and the desire to be mestiza — a light-skinned mixed person.)
As he became more and more comfortable with his femme side, he shared Vine videos where he was just being himself, cursing, twerking, or eating a bug. Then YouTube videos about makeup contouring earned him more subscribers, who he says saw him as everybody’s “funny gay cousin.”
Young queer femmes taking agency over their own image was new and disruptive, and the content creation industry struggled to catch up. “I went through two not-great manager situationships,” he writes. “[One] called me a ‘spectacle’ to my face (and not in a cute way), and sniffed that … my brand would never live on or amount to anything. Hearing those things from someone who was supposed to lead me in my career hurt and had a lasting impact on how I saw myself.”
But he broke out into the mainstream, proven when he got a pop-star Instagram follow: Ariana Grande. It’s easy to forget that before bottoming anthems and devilish lap dances, femme gay men were relegated to the cultural role of asexual comedy relief. That’s part of why the memoir is so sociologically compelling. In You’re That Bitch, Rock delves into the development of many elements of sexuality and identity that haven’t traditionally reached a mainstream audience, including bottoming for the first time at 18, dealing with dick pics, and growing into himself as a “twonk,” or a very built twink. In one unselfconsciously frank passage, he confesses to being primarily into older brown men and jokes that white penises scare him: “They’re very pale and you can see through them, and when I can see the veins and it’s purple, it’s like oh my God, no I don’t want that,” he writes.
That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect read. Terminally online creators can easily become one-dimensional, and Rockman’s voice on the page can be one-note. That Bitch’s clichés about hard work and believing in yourself probably won’t win any converts to his brand. Still, in the relatively small pantheon of queer-of-color coming-of-age memoirs, it’s a unique perspective on emerging as a young public gay figure.
“I wish there was a Bretman Rock when I was young,” a queer fan tells him. Now there is. ●