“Watching people’s minds become inquisitive, watching people react and respond to me when I walk into a room or on set, watching people navigate me, being a political statement before I even open my mouth. I love taking up space in a way that has nothing to do with me.”
Olly Eley is a star like none other. In Schön’s interview with Olly, they talk about taking comfort in reaching out to their community over social media, how we can make the world safer for trans people, and being free by living completely by their own rules. Take notes — you just might just learn something.
“I remember the day I discovered that I could connect with other Queer/Trans people across the globe in such a simple and visual way.” I’m quoting you from your Instagram because I find this to be really interesting. How do you think social media plays a part in your connection with others, and what do you think about this visual connection?
Social media has played a huge part in keeping me alive! I know that sounds dramatic [laughs]. However, it has played such a huge role in keeping me connected with my community, mainly because I’ve lived in so many places and travel so much! Thus, my only real connection to some people and groups — that I was once so physically immersed and invested in — is through social media.
I am such a visual and tactile person in processing information; it’s very effective in making me feel less alone where all my friends and communities are right in my pocket. On top of that, it’s extremely interactive, because you’re not just looking at pictures but actually engaging with your followers. I can only speak to what I know for me, but the visual part plays a huge role for queer and trans folks in seeing themselves in others, seeing different types of people, understanding that they’re not alone, etc. Seeing real life experiences of people who have even a slightly similar experience to you literally saves lives, I believe. There are obviously two sides to every coin, but I have learned how to really keep it flipped on the good side, which I also know is a privilege.
What conversations do you find yourself wanting to start recently?
I always have a million things going on in my head. Mainly conversations about making the world safer for trans people. I think the more it is spoken about and questioned, the more the world will naturally adapt — I already see it happening, albeit far too slowly. I always find myself biting my tongue around cisgender / hetero people, because I have a retort to half the things they say and do. Why are these things gendered? Why are there only two options? Why is it your business what gender they are? And, how does it affect you? Which choice/gender/bathroom/box would you suggest I choose? Why is x/y/x a boy or girl thing to you? Why is it monumental to you when a cishet man wears a dress but you hate when trans people do it?
I also have thoughts about conversations around why celebrities use gender fluidity/non-binary genders to capitalise and gain clout without giving back or actually supporting trans people. Gender fluidity etc. is becoming a bit of a ‘craze’ in a way that is completely undermining and tossing aside people who have been doing it since the dawn of time. It has also become an extreme disadvantage, especially if you are lucky enough to not be killed behind it. Being appropriated while still being oppressed and in danger is a very guttural feeling that many people can relate to, not just the trans community.
What does freedom look or feel like for you?
Freedom to me is living completely by your own rules. I have to find my own ways to be free, both physically and mentally, even when I’m not. For me to not feel completely trapped within the shackles of society, I have to view it in a specific way. Since so many binaries dictate people’s lives in ways they don’t even realise, I basically apply my non-binary view of gender and sexuality to literally every facet of my life. I am unlearning everything I’ve ever been taught, and navigating in a way that feels like the first human on a new planet, unscathed by any conditioning and figuring out how to exist. I exist in a slightly detached way, releasing my attachment to anything or anyone, and floating through the universe taking each day as it comes. I am making my own mind up about things and questioning everything. That is freedom to me. Being able to actually find it for yourself in a society that does not allow it. It feels like a superpower sometimes, I feel freer than my cisgender/heterosexual counterparts and I wouldn’t change who and how I am for the world. Finding peace, happiness and ways to live euphorically are more important than anything this current world has to offer me, and I refuse to conform to pretty much anything.
I also find a lot of freedom within queer love. Seeing, feeling and experiencing love in so many different ways and all at the same time feels like a protest. I feel like I have much more abundant freedom in that way than most people. It’s a power and a force within itself that I won’t get into, but it plays a huge role in my freedom for sure.
Could you tell us a bit about your tattoos? Do you have any memories about them you would want to share? Any you feel particularly attached to?
Tattoos are a huge tool in dealing with dysphoria — the more I have, the more euphoric I feel. I can’t wait for the feeling of being covered; if I close my eyes, I can feel it. The ways it covers and distracts parts of my body is just as effective as any type of body modification or surgery to me. Being as genderless as I am, it makes more sense to just find my own way to exist. I like being a walking art gallery. I like being as unique as possible and I like the focus being more on them (tattoos), because it takes the focus from my gender — for me but mainly for others. People notice and comment on my tattoos before they do my gender, thankfully. There is a lot more to it, though; I also like that I can make them political. I also love the feeling of getting them — something about controlled pain really does a lot for my dysphoria. I also love the culture and the people I meet through it. The few tattoos that have ‘meaning’ would be my siblings’ birthdates; the time I was born; one that says ‘no gender’; and then I have a bunch of matching tattoos with people I love! But mainly I just like to choose pieces that artists have on their flash sheets… I love being a journal and a piece of my own history, even as things change, I never regret any of them.
What are you looking forward to right now? Can we play rose (highlight, success, something positive), bud (new ideas or something you are looking forward to understanding more of), thorn (a challenge you could use more support with)?
Highlight of the year was definitely the Elle UK cover and interview I did! It was such a huge reach that impacted and educated a lot of people, which is a perfect example of the type of things I want to be doing in this world.
I’m looking forward to focusing more on my music, my voice, my instruments, my writing skills, and my engineering skills. My ADHD brain is currently learning a few different software skills in music production, French and Spanish — all in the background of life. It will be a slow but very steady rise to being my dream hyper productive and creative alien.
Capitalism ruins most of the fun [laughs]. It would be great to not have to worry about surviving on top of everything else, wouldn’t it? I’m always doing way too much. My interests and abilities are so vast that it’s hard to fixate and master one, but it certainly keeps me stimulated as well as stressed [laughs]. I could probably use some more help with handling my OCD/ADHD, but I think I do pretty well with it.
What is your favourite thing about your career?
Watching people’s minds become inquisitive, watching people react and respond to me when I walk into a room or on set, watching people navigate me, being a political statement before I even open my mouth. I love taking up space in a way that has nothing to do with me. I sometimes think of myself as a ‘sacrifice’ (mainly emotional) for the sake of other trans folks, for lack of better words. There are people doing far harder and more dangerous work than I am, obviously; however, I have this innate need to put myself through hell so that someone else doesn’t have to do it. Ultimately, someone has to do it, and there are so many trans people that are currently doing it and have died doing it. Unfortunately, that is what we have to do to be safe as a people; therefore, I could never be idle. Maybe it’s the Leo in me, but I have to be on the front lines of keeping my community safe — in my own special way that only pertains to me, because we are all unique — and this is how I’m going to do it. I have so many plans to take up more space and do what I’m doing tenfold. No one else can do these things in that exact same way because no one else is me. I also like being able to participate in seemingly vapid or shallow things while knowing I’m actually making an impact and doing it for a very deep and meaningful reason.
Could you pass along a few songs from your winter playlists?
Omg don’t get me started!! I write a thesis every other day related to music [laughs]. I would have to say regarding this season, always Ariana Grande’s Xmas & Chill and Tyler, the Creator’s The Grinch albums [laughs]. New releases I’ve had on repeat this month would be Romeo by Sega Bodega and Summer Walker’s’ Still Over It — both entire albums!
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you want to bring with you?
A girl, my phone, a portable speaker that never died, a guitar, a soccer ball, my entire skincare routine and a tattoo gun.
What’s next for you?
I don’t want to jinx anything! But I am very invested, capable and interested in the realm of music, film/tv, and writing. I am going to LA for the winter — any change in environment always sparks productivity and creativity for me, so who knows! I avoid planning, I just follow my heart and energy as it happens. I’m quite sensitive to my environment thanks to neurodivergence so everything is just trial and error for me, which I honestly love.
Follow Olly on Instagram.
photography. Matthew Priestley
fashion. Anthony Pedraza
hair. Satoshi Ikeda using R+Co
make up. Tomoyo Shionome using MAC Cosmetics
fashion assistant. Julian Mobley
photography assistant. Charlie Solis
words. Abby Wright