Bel rose to fame on TikTok by candidly sharing her transition. Now the budding starlet is ready to take to our TV screens and talks Heartstopper series two, lucky girl syndrome and the road to Hollywood.
In November last year, Bel Priestley’s life changed forever. A TikTok star with over one million followers by the time she turned 19, this could seem to some like she’d already achieved a level of stardom that many of us could barely dream of. But for Bel this was just the beginning, as she now prepares to star in the upcoming and much-anticipated second series of the Netflix global hit Heartstopper as ‘Naomi’.
Bel was a big fan of the first season, watching the show with her mum and finding kinship with Yasmin Finney’s character Elle Argent. “It was probably a bad idea to watch it before I auditioned because we loved the show so much, I would have been heartbroken if I didn’t get the role,” she shares.
She reveals that as the season two premiere approaches, her nerves are mounting. “Everyone keeps having these deep chats with me and offering support for when the show comes out, I think because it has such a big fan base,” she says, tying her hair back with a scrunchie as we chat over Zoom. “I don’t totally know what to expect, the first season was so massively successful but it also came a bit out of nowhere and for a lot of people, it was a new story. This season, the expectation is for it to be bigger and better, so I don’t know how people will react.”
The second series of Heartstopper, which completed filming in December and is set to release on 3rd August, will follow Volume 3 of the YA graphic novel anthology that follows the central romance between Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) and their friends. While Bel remains tight-lipped regarding plot details for the upcoming season, it appears to explore the characters beyond their initial identity exploration in season one, with new family members including Nick’s older brother (played by Jack Barton) joining the cast, exam season and that Paris trip all to come.
Bel admits that while she wants to go offline when the first episode drops, she’s made “so many promises” to friends to watch the show together: “I’m so lucky to have friends that are so supportive but so many people have now asked, I think I’m going to have to throw a viewing party!”
For the second series, Bel joins alongside fellow trans actor Ash Self, and the pair bonded as new friends of Elle. “I’m so grateful for them,” Bel says of their castmate. “We were so nervous going into it but we filmed most of our scenes together and there can be a lot of waiting around on set so we spent a lot of time building up a real friendship.”
Bel also credits Yasmin for her support, serving as a positive role model to other cast members who haven’t come from professional acting backgrounds, as well as the show’s creator Alice Osman for writing such authentic characters.
While transgender acting representation has increased in the last decade thanks to hit shows like Pose, Orange Is The New Black and Euphoria, prime-time shows that centre trans characters and feature multiple trans actors remain few and far between. Heartstopper’s casting, while praised as revolutionary, is in many ways incredibly straightforward – casting age-appropriate queer and trans actors to play queer and trans characters. The result is an honest portrayal exploring identity and sexuality that simultaneously deeply resonates with young trans people in the UK and carries a wide appeal to queer communities around the world, becoming Netflix’s most-watched debut show with over 10 million viewers in its first week.
I think it’s amazing that LGBTQIA+ movies and TV shows are doing so well right now, and it’s incredible to see Heartstopper break so many boundaries and receive awards for it, but I’d also love to see the mainstream embrace trans actors across different roles in the future.
For Bel, Naomi is the dream first role, introducing herself to new audiences via a character that shares many of the same difficulties that Bel faced growing up and transitioning in her early teens. Now, she hopes that the role will reach young people facing similar struggles and add to the positive depictions of trans people in the media amid relentless hostile press and right-wing ‘culture war’ crusades. “I know who I am and I know who I’m not – I’m not a villain, I’m just a girl whose experiences are a bit different from yours,” the 20-year-old eloquently states.
In a retrospectively defining moment in her teens, Bel’s drama teacher discouraged her from pursuing a career in acting due to the lack of trans roles available. Casting remains a hot topic in Hollywood, with heated debateson who is appropriate to cast in particular roles when considering a character’s gender identity, sexuality and race regularly circulating entertainment news. In 2017, Jeffrey Tambor received critical acclaim and three Golden Globe awards for his portrayal of a transgender woman in Transparent despite the actor being cisgender, while actor Eddie Redmayne has admitted it was a “mistake” to have been cast in his Oscar-nominated role as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl.
“Representation is so broad, I love having trans roles but I also want to play cis women,” says Bel. “In some ways, it would mean more to me to play a Bond girl or a superhero role that are typically reserved for cis women as it could have such an impact on normalising our lives and our talent.”
She continues, “I think it’s amazing that LGBTQIA+ movies and TV shows are doing so well right now, and it’s incredible to see Heartstopper break so many boundaries and receive awards for it, but I’d also love to see the mainstream embrace trans actors across different roles in the future.”
Having already achieved her first dream role straight off the bat, Bel has now set her sights on playing a Disney princess and breaking into Hollywood. With her budding talent and tenacious spirit, I don’t doubt she’ll do it.
So does Bel, but not due to an overinflated ego or naivety about the difficulties minority actors face in the industry. Instead, she possesses a quiet confidence in divine timing. “My mum used manifestation when I was younger and I was going through a rough time,” she explains. “I was getting bullied at school and feeling so low, and I used the tools to encourage more positivity. Whatever you believe in or don’t, being more positive is always a good thing.”
Manifestation – the idea that a thought, honed and directed well enough, can impact the physical world – has surged in popularity thanks to a revival on TikTok and, no doubt, paired with the hopelessness and lack of control many faced during the COVID pandemic. “When I got Heartstopper, for about two weeks during the audition process, I wrote down every night ‘I’ve got the role in Heartstopper and I’m so excited.’ When I would write it I’d get butterflies in my stomach as I visualised getting offered the part,” she says.
“I did the same when I first started my TikTok hoping my videos would go viral, and literally a few days later, my video got 10 million views and my social career skyrocketed. I grew by half a million followers in the space of about a month, it was crazy,” she shakes her head with a sense of disbelief.
“I owe a lot to that, it works for me,” she affirms. “I know it’s not for everyone, but I think it’s one of the things that you have to really believe in. You have to put it out there and let it happen. Letting go of that pressure is a big part of it I think, and I think that can be positive for anyone.”
When I first signed with my management, I told them what I really wanted was to be on an epic show, and now it’s happened.
As we discuss her interest in the laws of attraction, I’m met with her understated confidence that feels beyond her years and I’m reminded that many queer and trans people are forced to forego childhood and grow up quickly. “Many people don’t think they have limiting beliefs, but if I said to someone, for instance, what’s your dream salary you’d like next year? Most people would say a limited amount of money, a limited version of what they really want and what they’ve deemed as ‘realistic’, but really you’re limiting yourself,” she explains. “When I started acting, I remember thinking I’d love a role on Casualty or a soap, and I had to stop myself and really think if that was my dream goal. When I first signed with my management, I told them what I really wanted was to be on an epic show, and now it’s happened.”
She keeps a vision board next to her bed that includes career goals, guidance for navigating friendships and her dream travel destinations. “I love affirmations, I actually have the lucky girl affirmation as my home screen,” she says, turning her phone to her webcam to showcase the quote. ‘Lucky girl syndrome’ is the latest manifestation practice taking over TikTok ‘For You’ feeds, centring a state of being in which everything happens to work out for you and where opportunities seek you out.
But Bel’s career isn’t down to luck – it’s the product of over a decade of hard work and persistence. “I started studying musical theatre when I was six, and every day was singing, dancing and acting. I did it all throughout my childhood, all the way up until my transition,” she reveals.
When asked, she reluctantly shares that she still enjoys singing and that she even writes her own songs, but says, “I would never post them anywhere as they’re not very good. I would love to look into it in the future, but I think I need to take one step at a time for now. I feel very focused on acting – my popstar career can wait.”
A star in the making, Bel fondly recalls playing the lead roles in plays at school. “I think I played Jesus in the school Christmas play once. I had a big song and I remember being so nervous. I was also the lead polar bear, in another one – I know, go me.”
She cites her parents’ early support as her motivation to stick at it. “My mum and dad have always been my number one fans, they used to come to all of my shows. I’m dyslexic as are all of my family, so my dad used to run lines with me as I used to really struggle with it. I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older but it’s not a school play anymore, it’s a Netflix show, so there’s a bit more at stake,” she laughs.
I think when you first transition, there’s so much pressure to have it all put together, and I only feel like I’ve really found my style this last year. Even now I’m still evolving, and fashion is just such a fun way to express yourself.
Right: Bodysuit: H&M x MUGLER
Bel studied fashion at college, and attended the Fashion Retail Academy for a week before dropping out as it was “a lot”, but her interest in the subject never wavered. “I love fashion because when I grew up, I always tried to fit in and fit inside a box. And ugh, menswear was so boring when I was younger. I was so sick of those H&M t-shirts, it really wasn’t my vibe,” she says with an eye roll. “I think when you first transition, there’s so much pressure to have it all put together, and I only feel like I’ve really found my style this last year. Even now I’m still evolving, it’s just such a fun way to express yourself.”
On the shoot, Bel gets stuck in with the styling and watches meticulously as our creative team deliberates over which accessories should be paired with her Miu Miu two-piece. As it’s her first editorial fashion shoot, nerves would be expected but Bel appears illuminated on set, and it’s clear that creativity and queerness are both central to her happiness and her evolving sense of style.
She notes red carpet royalty Zendaya and Rihanna as her style icons, and says more recently she’s been referring to FRIENDS-era Jennifer Anniston for her off-duty looks. “Definitely as I’ve gotten older, my relationship with makeup has changed a lot. When I first transitioned it was all about a bold look and heavy makeup, it felt a bit like a mask,” she says.
Unlike previous generations of queer people, forced to keep their lives hidden or to the fringes of society and certainly pop culture, Bel is a pioneer within a new era of exposure and radical self-representation. She says that sharing her experiences has always come naturally to her – as soon as she started wearing makeup, she began filming tutorials and posting them to Youtube.
After a fallout with some friends that left her with too much free time one summer, Bel started filming TikTok videos. Her videos almost immediately went viral as one of the first transgender creators on the app. In the years since, her content has ranged from comedy skits on what it’s like to date as a transgender woman to candid videos of her crying on camera, sharing the realities of growing up trans and transitioning in the UK. Much like Heartstopper, Bel’s self-made content has undeniably had a significant impact on many young people as they navigate their identities.
However, since acting has taken centre stage in her life, Bel admits her relationship with social media has changed. She tells me enthusiastically about the ‘no phones’ policy she and her friends now operate at group hangouts, and how much she enjoys spending the day journaling in abandoned fields near her childhood home.
“I think it’s great, it’s got many negatives but it’s a great tool,” she reflects on her TikTok. The negatives, for a young trans person sharing themselves with the internet, can include rampant transphobia, unkind weight loss speculations and vocal change criticisms. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without it, and I very much recognise that,” she affirms. “Wherever my career ends up, and I hope it’s as a famous actress, I know that I’ve come from a small town posting TikToks of my day. It’s crazy to think about, but I owe my life to social media.”
Wherever my career ends up, and I hope it’s as a famous actress, I know that I’ve come from a small town posting TikToks of my day.
Left: Dress: SELF PORTRAIT, Rings: BIMBA Y LOLA
Like many queer and trans people, Bel has had to advocate for herself her whole life – to wear skirts to school and to not play on the boy’s rugby team for PE, to the trolls in the comments of her early Youtube videos, to her high school bullies and now to Hollywood casting agents. “It’s great to see how many trans actors are coming up now. I’ve been in this industry for a few years now and I do feel pressure, even when I’m just out on the street, I feel that responsibility because I might be the first trans person someone has seen or spoken to, so I have felt this pressure to give a good impression.”
At a time when hostility towards the trans community feels like it’s at an all-time high, I’m humbled by Bel’s patience and self-assured nature as she navigates through the noise. “I’ve always held the opinion that if you don’t understand me, that’s totally fine, but if you can’t respect me then I don’t have time for you. I’ve always been happy to answer questions as long as they’re respectful as it’s important to help people expand their understandings of trans lives,” she says thoughtfully. “We need to educate people otherwise it’s never going to change.”
The expectation for any trans success story to become a public spokesperson and activist for their communities is a painful marker of where the fight for trans equality is at right now, but Bel takes it in her stride. “I know that I’ll always get those questions throughout my career, but if it’s helping people and educating people, and if it helps people understand and respect more trans people in the future, then it’s fine with me. I know what’s important to me.”
Heartstopper season 2 drops on Netflix on 3rd August. To keep up with Bel, follow her on TikTok or listen to her episode of the BRICKS I Did That Podcast out now.
Maddy is the Digital Editor at BRICKS with an interest in the intersection of fashion, digital culture, politics and sustainability. She is endlessly inspired by emerging designers, digital innovators and sustainability activists pioneering a new future for the fashion industry in the face of the climate crisis.
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