Dylan Mulvaney Wanted To Be An Actor, Not An Activist

“I want to push forward with my strong suit, which is showing trans joy,” she says. Now all this.

by Harron Walker
Dylan Mulvaney
Dewey Saunders/Bustle

No one should read the comments, least of all Dylan Mulvaney. The actor and influencer, who blew up on TikTok last year with her comedic “Days of Girlhood” videos documenting her transition, gets thousands of responses under every new post, sometimes even tens of thousands. The positive ones always outnumber the negative, but inevitably, some kind of transphobia lurks beneath. When we meet in late March, a few weeks before her spon-con for Bud Light would become a national firestorm, Mulvaney seems inured to the negativity. Engaging with the comments, she says, is just part of the job for a content creator trying to stay connected to their fan base. But there’s another remark that has gotten under her skin lately. “I saw some trending videos from that night that were like, ‘She can sing?!’” Mulvaney says, raising her tone in mock surprise. “Like, yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

By “that night,” she means Day 365 Live!, a one-off musical showcase celebrating the anniversary of her public coming out that streamed live from the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center in March. Featuring cameos from Pose star Dominique Jackson and Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride, the highest-ranking trans elected official in the United States, along with original music by the Tony Award-winning creators of Six, the show marked a return to form for Mulvaney: Prior to transitioning and becoming very famous for doing so, she had been a professional actor, most notably performing in a national tour of The Book of Mormon.

Over french fries and tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Champagne Bar a few days later, Mulvaney, dressed in a Burberry skirt set, matching headband, and ruby-red turtleneck, tells me she hopes the show will be a “catalyst” for how people see her. “I’ve loved making these [‘Days of Girlhood’] videos,” she says, sliding the recorder closer to her to make sure that it gets every word. “But let me act! Let me — let trans people — do things other than just exist as trans!”

With her guileless optimism and open-book candor, Mulvaney has become one of TikTok’s most enduring personalities, with more than 10 million followers. “What resonates with people about Dylan’s content is that she truly focuses on trying to be positive in her day-to-day life,” says Devin Halbal, the beloved @hal.baddie of “doll check-in” fame. Her success has made her a valuable partner to many, from companies trying to reach younger audiences all the way to President Joe Biden.

Yet it was one of those partnerships with Bud Light, which has intentionally marketed to LGBTQ+ consumers for decades, that turned her into a lightning rod for harassment from the far right, which has repeatedly pounced on her every move amid its escalating attacks on trans people. During one week in mid-April, she received more than twice as much coverage on Fox News as the battle over access to the abortion pill mifepristone. Mulvaney declines to discuss the backlash in further detail when we text in late April, but she has spoken generally about being made into a target, telling Rosie O’Donnell during a recent podcast interview, “I have tried to be the most uncontroversial person this past year, and somehow it has made me controversial still.”

I know exactly what I want. I know exactly what I’m worthy of. And I will not compromise on it.

Mulvaney has typically responded to right-wing provocation with positivity and grace. (Just watch her response to Caitlyn Jenner, who trashed Mulvaney in one of her many futile bids to win over conservatives.) “There is just so much horrible anti-trans legislation. If my joy and my success can chip away at that, even in the smallest sense, it’s all worth it, I think,” Mulvaney tells me. But she’s wrestling with what kind of trans spokesperson to be, if one at all: On the other side of anti-trans fervor are companies eager to use her identity to prove their inclusive credentials. “A lot of brands will ask, ‘Could you relate a little bit of your struggle growing up into this?’ Like, no! If you want me, you want me because I’m Dylan, not because I’m trans. That’s when you know they were just trying to check a box,” she says.

And it’s true: Her sponsored posts for Mac Cosmetics, Kate Spade, OKCupid, and other companies are generally devoid of the self-serious, queer activist-influencer rhetoric that reached a fever pitch a few years ago. There are no essay-length captions praising consumer products as gateways to liberation, self-love, and authenticity — sometimes, Nike leggings are just “comfortable.” “Let me do what I’m really capable of,” Mulvaney continues. “If I enter too much into the activist space or too far into politics where I’m not ready, I could misspeak or I could, you know, give information that’s not correct. I don’t want us to take a step back — I don’t want to be the reason for that. So, I want to push forward with my strong suit, which is showing trans joy, which is showing empathy, which is showing all the good there is in the community, and, of course, entertaining people.”

Alyah Chanelle Scott, who stars on The Sex Lives of College Girls and is a longtime friend of Mulvaney’s, acknowledges the tightrope Mulvaney has to walk. “She cares deeply for people and, more than she would like to admit, cares about what people think of her,” says Scott, who also produced Day 365 Live! “I think she often feels the pressure to appease everyone, which is not a practical thing she can do.” But as the backlash continues — two executives from Bud Light maker Anheuser-Busch have gone on leave, while CEO Brendan Whitworth struggled to quell the controversy with a poorly received statement — it’s clear that Mulvaney had been trying to do the impossible. There is no person uncontroversial enough for those determined to eradicate trans people from public life.

Dylan Mulvaney at Day 365 Live! in New York City on March 13.Nina Westervelt/Variety/Getty Images

At an earlier time in her life, to “just exist as trans” would have been a blessing for Mulvaney. She grew up east of San Diego, a city where, in 1996, the year she was born, queer youth organized with others statewide to push lawmakers to pass protections for LGBTQ+ students. But in the rural conservative town Mulvaney called home, and in the stringently Catholic circles she was raised in, gender nonconformity was hardly encouraged. In Day 365 Live!, after recalling how she told her mom she was a girl at age 4, Mulvaney broke into a rendition of “Children Will Listen” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which warns to be “careful the things you say.”

Did her parents react poorly to her coming out? “No, not at all!” she says, her eyebrows raised in concern; even worried, her voice retains its sunny tone. “I hope that people don’t take that as me putting that pressure onto my family to have done something different.” Because of the intense spotlight on her, she is protective of her family’s privacy. “The important part, to me, is that people are capable of change,” Mulvaney says. “Even if my parents don’t always get it right, even if they don’t align with me on every topic or issue, the fact that, at the end of the day, I still get a hug is more than enough for me right now.”

They did, however, always support her passion for performing. Mulvaney started taking dance classes at 3 and at 11 played Ryan in a local production of High School Musical, which got her “hooked for life” on theater. She worked in professional productions around Southern California and, after high school, attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, a highly selective program known for producing Broadway talent. But while many misfits and queer kids find refuge in theater, Mulvaney repressed her desire to transition as best as she could. Success, onstage and in life, depended on her fitting neatly into roles. “There was no room for transness at college,” she says.

After receiving her BFA in 2019, Mulvaney moved to New York, juggling auditions with unglamorous day jobs like so many aspiring actors before her. “I didn’t have the best New York experience,” she says. “I lived near Times Square in a one-bedroom with three roommates. One of them was always stealing my packages.” But after three months, she scored the part of Elder White in the national tour of The Book of Mormon — only for the gig to be cut short by the pandemic.

I’ve never said ‘on behalf of the entire trans community.’ My experience has been one in a billion.

Back at her parents’ house, with nothing else to distract her, Mulvaney, like countless others in those early months of lockdown, finally began to grapple with her gender. “It was tough to do that in a space where I wasn’t surrounded by other queer people,” she says, so over the following year, she came out first as nonbinary, moved to L.A. to once again pursue acting, and started the TikTok account that would eventually make her famous.

TikTok fame has opened plenty of doors for Mulvaney, but it’s also limited her creative autonomy in some respects. She’s had a few potential Broadway opportunities come her way, but she’s ultimately declined to pursue them. “As much as I want to get out there, I have to keep in mind that my following will be coming to see the show,” she says. “I want to make sure that it aligns with my audience and that they would enjoy it, whatever it is.”

In the meantime, she remains in a sort of “professionally trans” limbo where she’s treated as a poster child for transness itself. It’s an unfair expectation, for her or anyone else, but it impacts her decisions all the same. Before breaking out on TikTok, Mulvaney had tried her hand at standup comedy. “I was really edgy in my standup,” she says, laughing. “I could be edgy like that because there weren’t kids in the audience.” The stakes are too high for that now — “I’ve got all these right-wing news sources using everything against me that they can” — yet being a family-friendly entertainer is a mantle she happily accepts. “I actually think it’s very special that parents are allowing their kids to follow me,” she says, “so I want to maintain that relationship as much as I can.”

Dylan Mulvaney at the PFLAG National 50th Anniversary Gala in New York City on March 3.Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images Entertainment

Anti-trans fervor depends in part on the idea that transness is a new phenomenon, but even a celebrity like Mulvaney has historical precedent. Her journey recalls that of Christine Jorgensen, the famed “ex-G.I.-turned-blonde beauty” who in 1952 became “arguably the most famous person in the world for a few short years,” as author Susan Stryker writes in Transgender History. The parallels between them are striking. Jorgensen, like Mulvaney, was a natural entertainer, performing in nightclubs with a delightfully campy act that featured both a Wonder Woman costume and a rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” Neither woman found fame on her own terms, exactly; Jorgensen gained notoriety after news outlets publicized her surgical transition without her consent, while Mulvaney’s visibility, of course, has been undoubtedly shaped by right-wing outrage. And much like Mulvaney, Jorgensen used her platform to act as a trans ambassador to cis America. She gave countless televised interviews, spoke at college campuses, and published a memoir in 1967, all in the hopes of giving “as much good publicity as possible for the sake of all those to whom I am a representation of themselves.”

Jorgensen’s fame, however, only allowed for a narrow slice of trans inclusion, limiting acceptance to those who, like Jorgensen, embodied the respectability, domesticity, and heterosexuality expected of white American womanhood, as University of Chicago professor C. Riley Snorton notes in Black on Both Sides.

Part of what has made Mulvaney so influential — and perhaps explains the right’s particular fixation on her — is the way she is “palatable to Middle America,” says fellow TikTok creator Mardi Pieronek, a friend of Mulvaney’s who talks about her experience transitioning in the 1970s under the handle @mardipantz. “Dylan has created a lot of allies where we wouldn’t have had them. Her journey from the beginning has been so organic. She’s so amicable and approachable and wholesome and honest that these mothers in Middle America have really resonated with her. They have felt invested in her journey and want to protect her.”

It’s also those qualities that have made Mulvaney wary of being a figurehead. “I’ve never said ‘on behalf of the entire trans community’ or anything like that,” she says. “We can all agree that my experience of this past year has been one in a billion.” For example, she was able to afford facial feminization surgery less than a year into her transition, a costly procedure that close to half of all trans women say they want but only about a 10th of us have actually undergone. “With Day 365,” she adds, “I tried to tell my story while also bringing in a trans and nonbinary ensemble that could share a little bit about their journeys alongside my own.”

That’s something she’d like to do on a grander scale someday, maybe through her own production company. “I could find other trans people doing their own ‘Days of Girlhood,’ help them turn their stories into scripted content, and really help elevate our community,” she explains. “That’s why I’m trying to break into Hollywood. There are so few of us over there in positions of power already, that it’s easy for them to take what little we have away from us.”

In the meantime, she’s working on two nonfiction books and hoping TikTok doesn’t get banned over purported security concerns. (“Isn’t every app already sharing our data?” she jokes.) She dreams of writing and starring in her own TV show (something like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or The Nanny) and would love to do a rom-com like a modern-day Roman Holiday or Never Been Kissed. As she has said many times on TikTok, she hasn’t kissed anyone since she transitioned, much less found a partner. Surely there must be a few people sliding into her DMs? “It’s… not the right ones,” she says, laughing as she dips another fry in her ketchup. “I’ve had a lot of matches on Raya, but once they go to my Instagram and see how much I share, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl?’”

There’s so much anti-trans legislation. If my joy and my success can chip away at that, it’s all worth it.

“I have the opportunity to correct some of the not-so-lovely experiences I had as a queer teen,” she continues. “A lot of queer young people can relate to that — that a lot of those first experiences weren’t super healthy or didn’t foster the romance they might have wanted. Now, I know exactly what I want. I know exactly what I’m worthy of. And I will not compromise on it.”

When Mulvaney really wants something, she puts it on a vision board. For 2023, she wanted to meet Laverne Cox, then crossed paths with her at the Grammy Awards red carpet in February. She wanted to meet Paris Hilton, who “the night of my show, sent me the sweetest message I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Mulvaney says. She wanted to have her own Breakfast at Tiffany’s moment, and Tiffany & Co. sent her a bottle of Dom Pérignon to congratulate her on Day 365. And she’s always wanted to stay at the Plaza, ever since she first saw Eloise at the Plaza — look how far she’s come.

“Oh my God, like half the things from my vision board have happened this year,” she says, leaning in across the table, her eyes wide, as if sharing a secret. “There’s something about asking for what you want or letting people know about it. We’re conditioned to be embarrassed for wanting nice things or wanting to meet someone.” Her optimism is as contagious as it is, in retrospect, heart-breaking. Mulvaney’s vision board for the rest of the year probably looks a little different than she hoped. But she has always believed, in a world full of people willing to tell her otherwise, in the power of defining your own path. “Everything I have, I’ve found by telling people what I want or who I am or what direction I want to take,” she says. “People listen.”