Bretman Rock Says to Always Remember That “You’re That Bitch”

The internet star talks growing up online, moving on from social media, and his new memoir.

Bretman Rock
Photo by Emman Montalvan.

Bretman Rock has come a long way from his first paid gig — collecting cow dung with his bare hands in Sanchez Mira, a small village on the north coast of the Philippines where he was born. (His auntie needed fertilizer for her plants, and besides, "a little shit-stain never hurt nobody," the 24-year-old writes in his debut memoir, out Feb. 14.)

How Rock went from scrounging for manure to social media star with nearly 50 million followers and partnerships with brands including Balmain, Michael Kors, and Nike is the overarching storyline of his new book. In You're That Bitch & Other Cute Lessons About Being Unapologetically Yourself, Rock also offers practical tips ranging from how to start a successful business to how to move on from a toxic ex ("breaking up is hard to do, bitch”).

If Rock's rise was partly a case of being in the right place at the right time — the internet in 2015, when influencer culture was in its unironic infancy — it's also one of self-professed delusion.

"I was just always such a main character in my head," Rock tells InStyle in a Zoom interview from his home in Hawaii, where he moved at age 7 and learned English from reality shows like A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and America's Next Top Model. "To be honest with you, girl, I just knew. I was like, 'Bitch, this is where I belong,'" Rock says, referring to the spotlight, as his shoulder-length black waves shine under an enviable video setup.

It's a characteristic statement of bravado from Rock, whose social feeds offer a near-constant stream of "he really is that bitch” energy. The day before our interview, Rock's Instagram Stories found him comparing his butt to the mountain range visible from the backyard of his Honolulu mansion ("Like, the resemblance is really uncanny") and wielding it to herd his chickens ("Come here if you think I have a fat ass!"). 

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But Rock's assurance on-screen masks some of the more vulnerable notes in his origin story and the insecurities he admits from the perspective of "good old, regular Bretman," rather than Bretman, the brand, and its attendant social media handles. 

Bretman Rock Sacayanan, who is partly named for his father's WWE wrestling idol The Rock and fell in love with makeup the first time his grandma rouged his cheeks one Sunday before church, has always been a bit butch and a bit girly. He grew up in a big, extended family almost universally supportive of his gender fluidity, so much so that he says he never even had to come out to them as gay. But Rock's childhood was not without trauma; in the book, he describes a fraught relationship between his parents that had personal consequences.

It's not just being queer, or Filipino, or an immigrant. It's combining all of those things that makes Bretman Rock.

Legend has it that from the first time Rock saw himself on screen — it was in a Walmart security camera while shopping for second-grade school supplies — he knew he'd found his calling. "All I truly ever wanted was just to be famous," Rock says. When his mom finally let him have his own camera phone during his freshman year of high school, Rock started posting a mishmash of personal content. One video, in which Rock's sister interrupts his dance to Beyoncé's "Smack It in the Air" and he whacks her ponytail ("Are you fucking serious?") saw his following rise to some 2.5 million overnight. 

"I was a very ignorant child and very fame-hungry," Rock says. "Everything I posted before I was 18 years old was a cry for attention. As much as I loved what I was doing at the time, it was fueled by numbers and instant gratification." Rock eventually developed a reputation for his beauty tutorials that defy gender norms and for his unfiltered persona and highly online vernacular. He has since starred in an MTV reality series, become the first openly gay man to appear on the cover of Playboy, and joined the board of When We All Vote, a voting rights organization founded by former first lady Michelle Obama.

Growing up relying on online engagement as a measure of success had its apparent advantages, Rock recalls ("Oh my god, I got 100K likes, bitch, I'm, like, famous."). But, it has also led to some damaging patterns that he's still working through as an adult. "Everything that I have right now is thanks to little Bretman Rock, who planted all of these seeds for me, but a lot of my mental issues are also because of him because he was such a little bitch," Rock says.

"Now, if I don't get a certain amount of likes or views on posts, I start to blame myself, and I'm just like, 'What the fuck? You still have your house and your family and your career, and you're having anxiety over, like, numbers," Rock says. "I think that really messes up your mental health."

Still, You're That Bitch is filled with the sort of self-reflection and heartfelt self-help of someone who has processed the challenges of achieving digital fame before he was mature enough to understand what it meant. "I'm grateful that I was called out for being problematic as a child because it created an adult who is very socially aware and takes time to educate themselves," Rock says.

While he recognizes his position as a kind of role model, Rock's message to fans lies in simply being his uninhibited self. "I try not to let the pressure get in my head because I do know that I have so many flags to wave," Rock says. "It's not just being queer, or Filipino, or an immigrant. It's combining all of those things that makes Bretman Rock." Being what he calls a "native girl" himself, Rock is especially passionate about working with native Hawiians on land reclamation efforts at the moment.

It's a conviction that aligns with his dream of joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wave, the water-based protector of the Philippines who has already overlapped with Namor, who appears in the Black Panther sequel. "I'm ready for a bigger screen for Bretman Rock because I'm tired of being in people's phones," Rock says. "Every time I think about it, I can only see myself as a superhero. I just be having, like, weird visions of me like flying and shit." 

Whether or not it leads to his dream role, Rock is determined to continue his pivot from beauty to fitness ("I'm putting down the makeup brush, bitches”). And he's holding his breath for fans to learn the intimate details from his personal life that he divulges in You're That Bitch, for which he also recorded the audiobook. "I'm excited for people to find out that I lost my virginity at Disneyland — as a flex, because who does that? — but I'm also scared that my mom might read it," Rock says. 

And what would Rock say to other kids who, like him, are unicorns in their communities but don't thirst for fame the way he did? For a moment, he seems at an unusual loss for words. "It's hard to communicate to kids that one day, it'll just click where they see themselves and where they belong," Rock says. He reflects on his own good fortune in this regard. "I know there are kids out there who are not necessarily as blessed as I was to have an accepting family. So I'm trying to watch what I say because I know it's easier said than done," he says. "I would say to find your light — just do what you love the most and escape to that."

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