ENTERTAINMENT

Bretman Rock is becoming bigger than your phone screen

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Following the success of his MTV reality T.V. show, Bretman’s next venture is a YouTube Originals Series which took him into the jungle for a week. Here, he talks about being a "breakout star," his father, and why the world needs a "gay moreno Filipino immigrant man in front of their T.V." Photo by BRETMAN ROCK

When Bretman Rock won MTV’s Breakthrough Social Star Award, what might be the highest honor a social media star can achieve right now (it’s the first big award of its kind), he wondered why it hadn’t come sooner. “I’ve been doing this for six years and to [be] recognized as a breakout star like, bitch, I’ve been doing this for six years, what do you mean I’m a breakout star? You know what I mean? I been breaking out!”

Unlike his peers at the table, Bretman did not prepare a speech, nor did he know which camera to look at. Instead, he let the words spill out like his content — unfiltered, relatable, and funny. "I would like to thank everyone that watched me grow up on the internet. It's probably the most traumatizing [thing] I've ever done in my entire life," he said. "But it's all worth it because I'm here onstage accepting this award."

Watching his speech and then speaking to him over Zoom for CNN Philippines Life, I realized that it isn’t just his candor that pulls you in. Bretman’s ability to maintain that level of energy, to keep it interesting with almost minimal effort, is what keeps you watching him.

Photo by BRETMAN ROCK

My being charmed by Bretman is not an isolated event. He has a way of making anyone feel like his best friend. This particular trait is not only what sets his content apart today, but what will continue to keep it evergreen. Because social media will only continue to permeate the ways in which we navigate relationships, it’s become much easier to separate the online persona from the authentic. A physical indicator in the homogenized Instagram face has even emerged. It’s becoming clearer than ever that with social media, much like online shopping, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

That is not the case with Bretman Rock, and that is why you and I watch him.

A self-proclaimed learner, Bretman is naturally curious and willing to try anything at least once — and he has taken us all along on this journey by posting it online. “I just get bored. And my mind is always interested in so many things — my mind is always eager and so hungry to learn,” he told me, listing down all the things he’d tried during the pandemic: sewing, gardening, and reading Asian Settlers Colonialism to prepare for writing his book. “I try not to complicate it because, if I’m not interested in makeup right now, I’m really not gonna do makeup right now. I’m really interested in fashion right now, so that’s where all my energy is going. And who knows, next week I might be interested in cooking! I just never know.” His content is compelling precisely because, like him, we don’t know what we’re going to get next —and that is genuinely exciting.

In short, he keeps it real.

Bretman’s channel has grown immensely since his fifteen-year-old days dancing to Charli XCX and his first viral success, “How to Contour.” Apart from the Breakthrough Social Star award, he has been included in the Times’ 30 Most Influential Teens of 2017 and the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Media, Marketing & Advertising. His YouTube channel alone has 8.8 million subscribers, with average viewership hitting 2.9 million, culminating into a grand total of 514.81 million views. He also has 16.9 followers on Instagram, 5.7 million on Twitter, and 12 million on Tiktok.

The massive amount of engagement he brings with him is consistent not only on his personal channels, but in everything with his name tacked on it. His clothing collection with Playboy sold out before he could even post it, and the first episode of his MTV show raked in 6.5 million views (as of this writing), with each succeeding episode hitting similarly high numbers — episode two with 6.5 million, episode three with 4.9 million, and episode four with 4.1 million, to list down a few.

Bretman is quickly becoming the poster child of what it is to make it as an internet star — a fact he’s known since he was eight years old.

“My grandma has always found a way to tell me I was a star without telling me I was a star,” he said, recalling how she always told him his eyes sparkled watching Filipino movies or “Wowowee.” “She knows how I would look at and watch T.V., and she knows that my eyes were always so big whenever I’m watching something.”

Following the success of his MTV reality T.V. show, Bretman’s next venture is a YouTube Originals Series, which took him into the jungle for a week. “It was a horrible fucking experience, Maia, let me fucking tell you that, bitch,” he said. “I was so hungry but I learned so many things about myself that I don’t think I would ever have learned if I didn’t do it. So, I’m glad I did it, but never again.”

“I’ve been doing this for six years and to [be] recognized as a breakout star like, bitch, I’ve been doing this for six years, what do you mean I’m a breakout star? You know what I mean? I been breaking out!”

Addressing me by name was something he did a lot during the interview. He spoke to me with the warmth of an old friend, excited to catch up on months’, even years’ worth of conversation. He said he refuses to go into anything, PR or not, like a robot — poised and stiff, answering questions with practiced answers. Instead, he weaved jokes in between stories, asked me questions about myself, and punctuated statements with his signature bitch! “Oh my gosh, Maia, I think this is the funniest part ever,” he exclaimed, talking about how the concept of camping in the jungle started out as a joke. “I did not think y’all would actually go through —and girl, when I tell you I was so shook because they came in with a full storyboard, [fully] drawn out of where I’m gonna be, [what] the plan was, I was like, I was just joking. And I was just like, Imma do it, then I ended up doing it, so that’s how [the show] came about.”

From the first episode, which has already hit over 2 million views since it premiered, it is clear that Bretman was unprepared for the experience. He attempts to bring two large bags worth of clothes, make-up, and emergency supplies, which his bootcamp instructor, Cap, immediately orders him to leave behind. Now armed with only a backpack, his bare feet, and his signature gung ho strut, he learns how to create shelters out of branches and weave baskets using leaves.

The experience is meant to show viewers how he reconnects with his inner self, his ancestors, and his late father. “I don’t wanna talk about it as a bad thing, but when I went home to the Philippines, fans showed up to my dad’s funeral and I don’t blame them — they were probably very much excited to see me — but I could not help but feel that that moment was taken away from me, especially because I have not seen my dad for three years before that nor have I spoken to him before that,” he explained. “And so, I guess I was always yearning for that closure with my dad, and I always just wanted to tell him that I got it from here. I’m taking care of the family you left behind — my mom, my sister and all my sister’s kids, and my brother.”

Bretman’s father carried himself with the same aplomb Bretman carries now. “My dad had really long hair growing up, and it’s so hard not to look up to him because I just saw him as this rock star. He literally put rock in Bretman Rock, because he was literally my rock star.” Though he admitted that his father wasn’t perfect, he still nurtured Bretman and empowered him as a gay son. “I owe so much of who I am to my dad, and that’s really why I wanted to dedicate it to him,” Bretman said.

Photo by BRETMAN ROCK

In the same way his father created a safe space for him to be gay, Bretman hopes that, as the newest face of Nike’s BETRUE Pride campaign, he can encourage more people to be comfortable with themselves and their identities. “There’s a time for everybody, and really, all I can do as a gay person is to encourage them to come out — I cannot make people come out. I can only encourage you that, you know, there’s a reason why a rainbow represents us as gay people because rainbows really do come after the fucking rain, Maia, I am telling you that right now,” he said. “If there’s one thing you could learn from me is that I’m a strong ass bitch even though I look like this because strength should never be measured by what you look like on the outside, it should always be measured from within.”

During our conversation, Bretman brought up the concept of Māhū, “That is a way to describe the third gender. Back in the olden days, people would look at gay people as healers, as [goddesses] because they possess both feminine and masculine energies, and so I just always identified with that.” I said that it reminded me of the babaylan, pre-colonial ritualists and diviners (among other things) who were usually women or feminized men. He joked that, actually, the Philippines has always been ahead of its time, “You know, even in the fucking Philippines, bitch, everybody there is non-binary. When you go anywhere, ‘Hello mam/sir’.”

As we riffed off each other’s stories and jokes, I noticed two things about Bretman. First, he’s not afraid to admit when he doesn’t know something. And second, he’s similarly unashamed to ask questions about it. “If there’s anything about me is that I’m ignorant and I can always be taught,” he declared. “I’m not a stubborn little bitch. I can always, always be corrected, and I can always be taught.”

Part of the responsibility he holds as a well-known online personality is the expectation to speak out, and, in contrast, accepting the statement staying silent makes. He admitted that he spent years terrified to speak out and use his platform as a vehicle to bring larger issues to light. Until, one day, a realization dawned on him. “If you’re not talking about changes that you wanna see in the world, then you are a part of the problem. And so, I think when that clicked in my head, I was like, bitch, let’s start a fucking revolution!” Apart from being vocal about LGBTQA+ issues, Bretman tries his best to be aware of Filipino, Hawaiian, and environmental issues. “I’m very appreciative that people my age find value in my voice, and I’m still getting used to it, you know, still getting called out sometimes to speak out on things. And sometimes, I’m absent on certain things but that doesn’t mean I’m not speaking out on what I believe in — as long as you’re speaking out on something that you believe in from the heart, that’s all that matters because, if you’re not speaking out, baby, you are the problem, period.”

So once they’ve hit all the millions — in views, followers, and comments, what is the next step for someone who’s successfully made it big through the Internet?

“Maia, my ass is getting too fat for your phones. I think Bretman Rock is ready for a bigger screen,” he declared, confidence coating his every syllable. “I am getting too thick and I need to be on your T.V.’s and I need to be in your movie theatres. Because when I say I am going to be and I am the best entertainer of my time — I say that with my chest but I know I have the talents to prove it as well and I have to sharpen those talents.” He dreams of having his own special night on Netflix, writing jokes for stand-up comedy shows, and acting. “I want the world to see a fucking gay moreno Filipino immigrant man in front of their T.V. because that’s what the world needs right now. Girl, they need new faces in mainstream media — I am that.”