When Millie Chan was working a fragrance counter at Bloomingdale’s in San Francisco, one of the customers caught her eye.
“There was just something about her I was drawn to,” Chan said. “I instantly introduced myself and was very comfortable chatting it up with her even though it was the first time we met.”
Isley Reust has that affect on people. She has, over the last four years, become a YouTube magnate, pulling in more than 7,500 subscribers with her video blog and music. Not only has she appeared on TV series Glee but also started a band, Spectacular Spectacular, which released its first album in June.
But for many of her fans, Reust provides more than fashion inspiration — many commenters on her videos compliment her eye liner and lace look — and electro-rock-pop beats. As a transgender woman, she provides hope for those facing the same situation as well as those wanting to know more about what it’s like to transition. Her videos and music become a catalyst for the conversation.
“As a transgender woman myself, I hope to have half the success you’ve had,” writes one fan. “Congrats on your transition. You look beautiful!”
“What a transition!” writes another. “I’m thrilled you were able to become the person you really are inside.”
And perhaps the most poignant: One viewer expressed excitement at going to the doctor to discuss having a male-to-female transition: “I am so happy. Love your music — helped me a lot.”
All the Web’s a Stage
In Spectacular Spectacular’s first single, “Orange Juice,” Reust sings “Show me the monsters inside of you.”
At 13, it wasn’t a monster inside her but rather her real identity, struggling to get out but suppressed by the environment around her. Born male and growing up in a small desert community called Victorville where she said she didn’t know anyone who was LGBT, Reust experienced the typical pre-adolescent self-consciousness — amplified.
“I was always scared,” she said. Although her parents were supportive and told her to ignore what others thought of her, she didn’t take the advice. “I feel if I would have done that back then, I would be farther than I am now.”
At the time, the world was even less transgender-friendly than it is now. Reust said she’s seen progress in the last year and a half, and a lot of it has to do with the ability of social media to share stories and open minds — when put in the right hands, of course. In fact, one of the tools Reust used before and during her transition was Youtube, where other individuals going through transitions would post videos about their progress and experiences.
In 2011, Reust began documenting her own transition through Youtube videos, more for herself than for anyone else. In fact, she chose to use an alias online to keep her transgender identity quiet.
“During that time I didn’t want to be public with being trans,” she said. “I wanted to separate my Youtube life from my personal life.”
But as she made more videos and got more views, she decided to go public — and received support from friends, just as she had had support from her parents.
That’s not always the case, however. Some people who are transgender prefer to keep it quiet, often because they fear the reaction of their families and friends. Some see it as a process to getting from one place in their lives to another and therefore a closed chapter in their lives. Reust sees the tag “transgender” as part of her identity — not her whole identity, but part of it — that she can use to help others.
Reust’s story didn’t stay on Youtube. Laura Jane Grace, known for her work as the founder and leader of punk band Against Me, included her in her documentary “True Trans.” Reust also appeared on Fox’s Glee as part of a choir made up of singers who are transgender and on the ABC Family scripted series, “Chasing Life.”
But Isley’s story isn’t limited to those who watch her on their computer or TV screens. The chance meeting with Chan at Bloomingdales turned into lunch, which then became a musical partnership.
“We went to lunch together the first day, and then every day after that,” Chan said. When Reust learned she was a bass player, she invited her to join the band she had started with Jessica De Grasse called Spectacular Spectacular, named for the show produced in Baz Luhrman’s 2000 film, Moulin Rouge!
Reust said Chan didn’t know she was transgender when they met and to this day forgets.
“If I talk about dating, how dating is harder, she asks ‘Why is it harder?’ because she forgets about it all the time,” Reust said.
Separation of Music and Emotional State
Chan isn’t alone. It’s easy to listen to Spectacular Spectacular’s work and not realize that the lead singer is a transgender woman because of its universality. Reust, who said she was influenced in her teen years by singer Shirley Manson from Garbage, takes on much of the same vocal and guitar tones — a little less raw, but equally emotive.
“I always wanted to be just like her, to be in this awesome band like her,” Reust said. “Like one day I’ll be her.”
Playing in guitar in bands acted as an escape for Reust when she was trying to cope with her feelings about being transgender and sadness. Today, it’s still an outlet, but has a much wider audience.
Although Reust’s fan base is largely LGBT — they often reach out to her — she said their music is meant for everybody. But it’s also a channel for her emotions, as is music to any songwriter.
“When you’ve got these feelings and emotions you’re going through in your personal life, it’s hard to keep that from influencing your music,” she said. “In a sense I like to think it’s separate, but I don’t know if it always is.”
That’s why Spectacular Spectacular’s first album, “Blur,” explores self-discovery — a theme that all listeners can relate to, but with which Reust is particularly familiar. To get it exactly right, the band worked on it for exactly three years, starting on June 30, 2012 and releasing it on June 30, 2015.
Although the main barrier was financing it themselves while living in the high-cost hills of San Fransisco and Los Angeles, Reust is also a perfectionist who wanted the band’s vision to be heard exactly as it was intended. They wanted three songs to have a live orchestra, which meant writing arrangements, finding an orchestra and recording the sessions.
Chan said the hardest part of working with Reust is how hard she can be on herself by either refusing others’ help or trying to take charge of too much at the same time. But musically, professionally and humor-wise, the two are always on the same page with each other.
“Even to this day, I’m still not excited about the mixes in a couple songs,” Reust said. “But it comes to a point in time when it’s time to start doing the next thing.”
Next Steps for Project Isley
What is that next thing? Spectacular Spectacular will be hitting the road this summer and is already in the middle of writing the next album.
Reust will also be appearing in a documentary-style short film that wrapped a year ago. When she first started her journey, a director in LA approached her to do a film with him about the life of a transgender woman with a fictional narrative. She said no, still reluctant to be fully open about her identity. After “True Trans” was released, he asked again, and she said yes.
The film, “Project Isley,” was shot over two years on the coast of northern California and incorporates the same whimsy as Spectacular Spectacular does in its sound.
But out of all of these things — accruing a Youtube fan base on a web overpopulated by video-bite celebrities, educating cis and trans people alike on the transition process, appearing in a number of TV and film productions, producing her own band’s album — Reust said she is proudest of the decision that started it all.
“My greatest achievement would be having the courage to transition,” she said. “(It’s) being able to be myself.”
Kate Everson is a Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”