“I am Gigi Hadid, and I am a model.” Except Gigi is not in this TikTok. A blonde in dark sunglasses and a faux leather ensemble, complete with high platform boots is miming these lines Gigi once said. This is Britney Manson, standing in the middle of the street in Warsaw. She is surrounded by people who look into the camera, as if waiting for something to happen. Then she stops talking and stalks ahead as if she were on a runway, followed by the crowd of people who strut alongside her.
Britney’s TikToks boomed on Instagram during Paris Fashion Week towards the end of last year. Everyone quickly became obsessed with this model who walked down the streets or on the train – we watched her imagine how she would walk if she were a Versace, Gucci or Saint Laurent model. Even if people were not into fashion, they were watching her. When asked why so many people watched Britney’s power walk, Stafaniya Bruin, a model and Britney’s friend, who has collaborated with her on some of these videos said, “Maybe some people would like to be public and recognizable. So they look at those people who are not afraid of it.” As, let’s be real – all of us have done the runway walk at some point – be it in our bedroom, or on the road, feeling particularly fierce. How could we not relate to the model treating the supermarket aisle like a runway? Janice Dickinson’s reaction to her videos was: “Oh my god, look at her walk. She sashayed right through a group of people,” and wait for it, “My god, in twenty-five-inch heels!” Twenty-five or not, no one could stop watching her, and she quickly amassed 1.3 million followers on TikTok. Britney’s walk which gained so much popularity online, with followers recreating her walks, have a degree of performance to it. One of the videos starts with Madison’s line from American Horror Story, “Surprise bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.” She had previously acknowledged that it was also about acting. “I definitely would like to try as an actress,” she casually mentioned, “The badass role or something dramatic and depressed.”
Britney’s modeling journey began when she was much younger, walking in fashion weeks in China, Russia and Moscow. Part of the reason why she decided to make videos of this kind was because of the difficulty she faced while trying to find a mother agency: “I just needed a mother agency ASAP. The agencies are kind of scared of something extra. But only ‘extras’ changed the industry. That’s why I decided to go ahead with my goals through the power of social media.” Stafaniya, who literally saw this trend being born before her, said that it was amidst all these difficulties, that Britney decided to “go on the street and walk like on the runway shows”. It has now made her a known face in Europe. These videos have allowed models and influencers to talk about personal issues through their walks. Britney once held up a card saying ‘Mr Plein book me as a model’ before entering a Philipp Plein show. As a trans person, Stafaniya often highlights the reaction of people seeing her walk down the streets – she has not faced any negative comments in real life – maybe people are afraid, she thinks. Kristy Ponomar who has walked for brands like Prada, YSL, Raf Simons and Schiaparelli and collaborated with Britney said, for her the walk means being her best self. Another model, Alex Giniagar, who found her videos online and later collaborated with her, said that these walks are a way to express his feelings. “When we film this ‘walking’,” said Alex, “I really like to see how people react to unusual outfits, model catwalks, heels on a guy etc. It’s one thing when you watch a fashion show, and quite another when you see a model walking down the street.” For Stafaniya, the shooting process is exciting, “I feel these emotions as if I’m on a runway - it’s like a drug - I don’t know how to explain it, I love this feeling so much. But as a trans person, this is an opportunity to tell people we are here, we are among you, we are normal people, like everybody.”
As the Russian-Estonian trans model and performer spoke to me about the kind of attention she has received online, she said, “This is what I live for!” Then she added, “No really. I’ve been manifesting it through my whole life, and I feel so happy now. But I still can’t wrap my head around it. I mean, it’s kind of a fairytale when your childhood idols and celebrities (start) following you on social media. Coco Rocha, Vlada Roslyakova, Naomi Smalls, even Bill Kaulitz!”
Many of us were introduced to you through your runway walks. What made you start doing them?
Actually, this idea came to me so spontaneously! I ran into a lot of problems in November that I had no control over. So, I decided to change the focus of attention and do whatever is in my power. I met my friend and one of my favourite TikTokers Vivi Kosa to shoot something together. At the end of the day, I said: “Could you please record me just walking on this zebra crossing?” It was just the thing I’m really good at – my signature, my walk. I thought it’s just going to be a nice video, but after uploading it on TikTok, things started to change so fast – I gained one million views in one hour! Imagine that. Then five million the next morning and it kept growing, passing ten million. I was not expecting that. A couple of days later I recorded my next video, my most viral “walking till I get noticed by a modelling agency” video, that hit forty million. So that’s how I started.
People often have a mixed relationship with the online platforms considering the hate and love they receive – what has been your experience?
No, when I see some shitty comments, I always know that it’s a good sign – I just triggered their comfort zone. It’s time to break comfort zones and bring glamour into your life honey. I did, so I wish they would. Thank me later.
Not everyone opens up about the hustle involved in getting signed – what made you do so?
Omg, this is so cringe. It’s part of the nineties-two-thousands attitude, when model bookers created stories for their models like ‘I was discovered when I was nine years old in a public toilet and then opened for Versace the next day'. Back in my childhood, as I watched and listened to those stories, I felt even more insecure. Rejections are a huge part of the modelling business – even hot list models are rejected, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
How have agencies viewed you after you became an online personality?
I have the best management! When my mother agency wrote to me, “hey, can we try”, I thought – this! Literally the day I was confirmed for Milan Fashion Week.
You just modeled for Mugler x H&M – Valentino and Etro contacted you for collaborations and you walked for Berlin Fashion Week. What was this entire journey like?
I remember the moment when I saw the message from Valentino — I almost forgot how to breathe - could twelve-year-old me imagine that? Of course not. And now one of my favourite brands had reached out to me - it means a lot. It’s such an honour for me, as an openly trans person in the media. I guess if I can make it happen, y’all babies could handle everything in your life.
Tell me something about your musical journey. Have you always wanted to be a performer or a model since your childhood?
Absolutely yes. I got my first runway experience when I was twelve. I just saw the runway show in a shopping mall and decided – I will be a model, period. I snuck backstage and asked the team if I had any chance to work with them. They called me back in one week, and that’s how it started. I also spent a couple of years in music school. So, I always knew who I wanted to be.
How did you develop your signature walk?
I’ve been watching Natasha Poly catwalks for a while. Not really! Maybe it was my mask when I was younger. I used to watch a lot of fashion shows instead of doing my homework, and it was easier to walk like a model down the hallways when the whole school hated me. It’s easier to give them a strong face when a few people are coming after you after the classes.
On that note, what was it like growing up?
I’m new to Berlin. I’m half Russian and half Estonian. My childhood - I think it was the hardest time of my life, I remember myself during my puberty very vividly - I was being bullied a lot. My classmates had been beating me and broke my neck in fourth grade. I spent almost a year in a hospital after that. Then I started my transition at fifteen-sixteen, and the situation got worse. Now not only the schoolmates, but also people from two different schools waited for me everyday after classes, I guess you know for what. Teachers had done nothing as they were on their side. The principle said I’m the “shame of the school” once and one of the teachers told me, “a faggot like you doesn’t deserve to live.” She encouraged my classmates with good grades to bully me during class. I ended up making three suicide attempts. During that time, I learnt how to not give a fuck about people and their opinions.
You’ve written a song about the struggles of being trans in the industry. What made you do that?
I was inspired not only by my feelings, but also Andreja Pejic’s story. She is one of my childhood idols. I think she had a hard and difficult career path. Could I imagine what she was struggling with back then? I guess I’ll never know, but I can imagine. I created a lyrical hero – a tall, extremely thin, genderless creature with long hair, without any feelings and soul. Just like a mannequin. The living robot, the last supermodel on earth – and wrote those lyrics, being inside of this character.
Not everyone opens up about their personal life online. For queer people, we often find our community online rather than in real life. You’ve highlighted your struggles in a very relatable way. What were your thoughts behind doing so?
I just wanted to be an inspiration for my audience, not the reason for anxiety.
Other than walking for fashion weeks and working with brands, has your real life changed after TikTok?
Definitely. I feel a lot of love and support from my audience, and it makes me more confident - a lot of models have image issues. I’m not an exception, especially since I’ve grown up as a quote unquote ugly child. And sometimes this voice inside my head used to say, “you are not good enough”, etc. But now I know – there’s no way to think like that. I feel like I’m not alone, I feel more confident. Me and my followers literally made each other more powerful, and I’m so happy to say that.
So, what is the next step for Britney Manson?
I can say that my next single Gloryhole is coming in June! Don’t even try to ask me about the meaning! Back to modelling of course, I would like to work with so many brands that I knew since my teenage years – Diesel, Blumarine, Versace. I dream of walking for Valentino – they’re hiring a lot of trans and non-binary people for their shows - and opening a Philipp Plein show.