One of the first-ever fashion and social medial influencers, Bryanboy speaks to Tatler about pandemic woes, racism in fashion, views on cosmetic surgery and getting back to his roots

“The spectacle is back.” So declares influencer, creative consultant and now TikTok sensation Bryan Grey Yambao, better known as the global fashion personality Bryanboy. Twenty months into the pandemic, the fashion whirl has resumed, and in course of just a few weeks, Bryanboy has already jetted off to three continents. In Manila, he opened the first Ikea flagship in the Philippines, then he sauntered down the runway for Alessandro Michele’s ode to Hollywood glamour show for Gucci in Los Angeles, made a pit stop at the TikTok headquarters, and extended his stay to attend his good friend Paris Hilton’s wedding, before flying off to his home in Sweden, then to London for meetings at Perfect magazine, where he is the international editorial director.

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That itinerary, however hectic it may seem, is only a fraction of the dizzying schedule of fashion shows, parties, openings, shoots and events that he’s accustomed to.

“It’s fascinating, you know, that fashion is very quick to latch on to issues that are relevant,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s all for show, you know, it’s fun!” When the pandemic first struck, he recalls, everyone saw it as an opportunity to reflect and refocus—at least on the outside. “They were, like, ‘Oh, we have to be conscious of how we show. We’re not going to follow the fashion calendar anymore. It’s not really sustainable to have all these collections.’ And here we are, we’re all doing shows again. It’s just embedded into the industry. I mean, you cannot remove the glitz and the glamour in a physical event from fashion because fashion is meant to be seen. It’s meant to be worn. It’s meant to be experienced. And how else are you going to communicate that?”

While he doesn’t mind getting back to the frantic pace, the jetlag can be brutal. But he is happy to suffer through it now travel restrictions have been lifted in most places outside Asia. He’s especially pleased that the mandatory hotel quarantine in the Philippines was shortened from 14 days to five; it was difficult not to be able to see his family for almost two years. Pre-pandemic, he would try to get back to Manila three or four times a year to see his parents and his two sisters and brother. “I’m completely beholden to my schedule when I’m working, so if I had an event in Tokyo or Singapore or Hong Kong, I would always make sure I go to the Philippines.” The pandemic made that impossible. And he wasn’t about to “waste two weeks of my life trapped in a hotel room that I’m paying for”, where you can’t use the spa or the gym. Five days of quarantine, however, were infinitely more tolerable. “It was actually great. I ended up doing work in the hotel, and I got to see my family after that.”

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Above Bryanboy wears Louis Vuitton bomber jacket

He is grateful, at least, that technology allows constant communication, wherever he is. “I talk to them every day on WhatsApp,” he says. “It’s so nice. We all share food pictures; we all look at my content.”

Of late, that content has been populating TikTok, where he has amassed 2.2 million followers. Admittedly a latecomer to the platform—he originally dismissed it as an app for kids, and was more active on Instagram and Twitter—he has since taken to it with relish and attracted a new audience beyond the fashion crowd.

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Instead, he turned to a persona he’d first created for Instagram, a satirical but affectionate character that recalls luxury label-loving Hong Kong housewives or Park Avenue princesses for whom shopping and socialising is almost a full-time career.

“I exaggerated the Instagram persona. But I realised that whenever I create an Instagram reel, it won’t work on TikTok because it’s a different platform. It has to be really authentic. It must be real; you must be entertaining and spontaneous. So I created a fictional story series called Today Was the Worst. And it’s just pure comedy.”

In Today Was the Worst, his character, bedecked in designer clothes, pearls and Birkins, stomps about complaining about her husband, buying “poor people” clothes, living on child support payments and other scenarios that could, in the wrong hands in today’s environment, be interpreted as offensive.

“People know it’s satire,” he says, adding that his husband, at least, thinks it’s funny. He’s also used the platform to expose the ridiculous, as well as to address his growing Filipino audience in Tagalog, something he’d never done before.

In his first Tagalog post, he vents his exasperation at having to wear a plastic face shield, a mandatory Covid-19 prevention measure in the Philippines. He uttered a few curse words, annoyed that the face shield was marring his beauty. His Filipino followers loved it—it attracted 4.3 million views—and he’s been directly engaging his compatriots ever since. He realises, nevertheless, that his core audience is global.

Read also: Everything to Look Forward to in Fashion This 2022

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Above Bryanboy wears suit, shirt and sweater, all by Fendi

“I don’t want to alienate them [international fans], so I am also creating content for them. But platforms like TikTok, it really exposes Filipinos to all kinds of humour and all forms of comedy and they’re very receptive to it. They know when something is satire, when someone is being sarcastic or dry. You know, it kind of makes people smart. It matures them as an audience as well.”

Some people, however, were offended by a recent post; as a result, it was censored, another first on any platform for Bryanboy. This particular snippet was filmed in LA, and features him and fellow blogger Chriselle Lim discussing the qualities of an ideal partner. Lim’s criteria are straightforward: ambitious, smart, funny, etc; while Bryanboy, speaking Tagalog, minces no words: rich, handsome and well-endowed.

Bryanboy is unapologetic. But then again, he has always been characterised by candour peppered with crazy. Last year GQ called him the “last great influencer”. He is in many ways still the same person he was when he exploded into the international fashion cosmos in 2008, thanks to Marc Jacobs, who named a bag after him. Soon, he was a fixture on the front row of fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

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He was outrageously camp from the start; the tagline splashed across the landing page of his eponymous blog read: “So gay, I sweat glitter!”. Day after day he would gleefully chronicle his exploits, fashion, social and sexual. Then, as now, he was outspoken and unfiltered, with that elusive trait in the fashion world, authenticity.

Today, at 39, he is perhaps sleeker in appearance, and less flamboyant in style; Chanel and Hermès are his favourite brands, and he prefers spending on investment rather than throwaway pieces. While he concedes, “I know I need to be healthy, I need to be conscious, especially as I am not getting any younger,” he is not a fan of working out. “I have no time, no motivation to exercise. I’d rather eat, and not eat if I’m feeling out of shape. And am I going to take a photo of my face, or of my body in a bikini? I feel like it’s not a sin to indulge, every once in a while, and just not be hyper aware of how I look.”

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Above Bryanboy wears Prada coat and Chloe boots

But appearances do still matter to him: with his platinum blond hair now parted in the middle, and his enviable complexion, he has retained his superficial appeal. Having undergone rhinoplasty in 2016, and spoken about other cosmetic treatments he receives, altering his look surgically is clearly far from taboo. “I love science projects!” he says, noting we all modify the way we look one way or another from the moment we put on clothes or make-up.

“The stigmatisation surrounding surgery is unwarranted. Our bodies, our choice,” he says. “Cosmetic surgery is powerful in a way that it enables people to take charge of the way they look to give themselves confidence and self-satisfaction.”

But he has also shown a more substantive side in recent years, and is one of the rare fashion personalities who has no qualms about calling out the industry’s most sacred cows when the occasion merits it.

Read also: Cosmetic Surger During the Coronavirus Pandemic, Is It Safe?

Recently, he’s been vocal about the racism rampant in fashion. “I guess it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. Obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement exacerbated it. Racism and fashion: I’ve always been passionate about it. I mean, I guess I was fortunate enough to have a seat at the table early on. It’s funny how when I look at that old image of me sitting front row with Dolce & Gabbana: that was so many years ago.”

In that 2009 photo, the only other people of colour are Vietnamese Canadian photographer Tommy Ton and Black British fashion editor Michael Roberts. Bryanboy notes that there were no people of colour in the seven rows behind him. “So clearly, there’s something wrong,” he says. “You know, where’s the Asian PR? How come I’m one of the only brown people here?”

It was disappointing to realise that fashion was quick to pander to Asian consumers to win their business but not as quick to represent them. He accepts that it’s improving a little, but brands still continue to make catastrophic mistakes—the Dolce & Gabbana pasta-slurping chopsticks ad debacle, for instance, or the Gucci balaclava hoodie with the fat lips. How do these things pass without anyone thinking they’re offensive?

It’s because whiteness pervades the houses, he says. “If you’re white, you are the status quo. You are not aware of what is offensive or not because you are white. So, if you’re in a company, and most of the people on your design team are white and most of the people in your company are white, how are you supposed to be aware of what is offensive or not to other cultures?

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Above Bryanboy wears Saint Laurent coat and Gucci boots

Over the years, the influencer has experienced many racist micro-aggressions. He remembers going to Milan early on for a fitting at a well-known designer brand’s headquarters. “I met the designer, who I’m not going to name, who said, ‘Oh, Bryan, so nice meeting you. Where are you from?’ I told him I was from the Philippines. He said, ‘All my cleaning ladies are Filipinas.’ And I said: ‘Oh, great, amazing.’ There’s nothing offensive about that. I mean, it’s a respectable job.”

But what was offensive for Bryanboy was the man’s wholesale association of one country with his cleaning staff. “It felt very weird. Perhaps they were not exposed to other Filipinos. And yet Italy is one of the most visited tourist spots in the whole world.”

It would be natural to expect brands to be more aware of their customers, as Asia is responsible for a significant percentage of luxury fashion purchases worldwide. It would appear that brands are learning that they can’t be patronising any more towards their Asian clientele.

“I feel like we’ve certainly made progress in the past five years in terms of diversity, of being aware. More and more brands and companies have obviously hired people of colour. There are a lot of changes that are happening, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. It’s long overdue.”

He hopes the changes are not merely performative. Gucci, he notes, is one such fashion house making structural changes. “Six, seven years ago, every single fashion executive was either Italian or white, but now more than ever, they’re hiring more people of colour and bringing them into the fold.” That, he says, is preferable to coming out on Instagram with a post professing public support for a cause but not doing anything to change the structure of a company.

His life in Sweden provides a blissful contrast to the frenzy of the fashion world. His house is by a lake in a nature reserve, and there, he is a complete homebody. “I do walk around there, but most of the time, with all honesty, I’m just home because I spend most of my time on the road travelling, seeing a lot of people. So, when I go back, I just want to recharge my batteries.”

Sometimes it all appears a little fantastical and surreal: being a fashion A-lister, becoming a social media star, having a global fan base, dressing in beautiful clothes and advising designer brands on digital activations. As a young and flamboyant gay boy in Manila, Bryanboy never imagined in his wildest dreams that his life would turn out the way it has. “I grew up not privileged. I don’t have the right last name, I don’t come from the right family. I’m self-made, and I love the idea of inspiring people.” That perhaps explains his drive and his work ethic, as well as his attitude to his followers. “I love connecting with my audiences. I feel really good about that. I don’t want to be that person who, when I see them in real life, will be rude or be standoffish. These people are helping me pay my bills. In essence, you know, it gives them joy if I spend time with them. And I love doing that to people. I love entertaining them. I love seeing them happy, taking a photo with them. It doesn’t cost anything to do that.”

He speaks about wanting to reconnect with his roots, and really uplifting the image of the Philippines and Filipinos. “There are a lot of Filipino creators who are so talented. I love Bretman Rock [who recently posed for Playboy] and Bella Poarch, a Filipino American TikTok star who is the third most followed person on Tiktok.” The three of them recently got together in LA, and commemorated their shared Filipino pride in a TikTok post.

“I definitely want to work on that and really make everybody see us in a much better light, because Filipinos are some of the most incredible people in the world.”

Read also: “How Can I Help My Family . . . if I Myself Am Drowning?”—4 Career-driven Mothers Speak Out

This was originally published in the January 2022 issue of Tatler Philippines. Download it on Magzter for free.

  • PhotographyBJ Pascual
  • HairFrancis Guinto
  • Make-UpRia Aquino
  • LocationShangri-La at the Fort, Manila
  • ProductionIsabel Martel Francisco
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