Bretman Rock on Manifesting His Gay, Asian, Immigrant Success

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Bretman Rock has always been manifesting. “I really don’t think there’s anything in my life right now or any accomplishments that I have that I didn’t manifest,” he says as he leads me toward the backyard of his Hawaii home.

The house, a villa nestled along the base of Oahu’s lush Ko‘olau mountains, is a recent move for Bretman. In October 2020, when many of us were exhausting our banana bread recipes and feeling the stirrings of lockdown cabin fever, the 22-year-old was in the midst of a metamorphosis. “Moving on to bigger and better things,” he announced on Instagram in typical Bretman fashion, “if my a** is getting fatter so does my house.”

The Instagram caption read like your average celebratory post, simply Bretman announcing moving into a new place. In hindsight, the post was more prophetic, hinting at the coming tectonic shifts shaping his life.

Around the same time as the post and unbeknownst to his fans, Bretman was being followed by a camera crew, documenting his day-to-day for what would eventually be MTV’s Following: Bretman Rock. The reality show was greeted with fervent enthusiasm if the first episode’s 6.4 million views on YouTube is anything to go by. But it also signaled a transformation for Bretman from social media influencer to budding reality show star.

Bretman manifested this too. “I would always tell people I’m going to have a reality show, I’m a star, or I’m rich,” he tells me as we settle into his lounge nook. On this cloudless Hawaii morning, Bretman is the physical embodiment of his Leo sun. His soft curls tumble over a flawless face that holds an exact likeness to his virtual self, a breath of fresh air in an influencer culture characterized by filters and FaceTune.

“One day I decided I was a star and I would walk to school with my head held high. I would walk to school in my stilettos and high heels, listening to ‘Lucky’ by Britney Spears,” he recalls, before briefly erupting into an acapella rendition of the early 2000s pop anthem, a sample of the natural comedic timing that has made his content so addictive. “And I would just think to myself, Everyone is going to know me one day.”

This was before internet virality plucked the Filipino-American immigrant from obscurity into the social media spotlight, back when his now-famous persona of Bretman “Da Baddest” Rock — or as he often introduces himself: “singer, songwriter, actor, actress, athlete, activist, scientist on the motherf*cking side, the star of the crystal of the day, and a coconut water connoisseur” — was still in its infancy.

And yet, as he sits poised across from me, exuding the same self-assuredness that he broadcasts to his millions of followers, it does seem like he is capable of willing anything into existence.

“I really don’t think there’s anything in my life right now or any accomplishments that I have that I didn’t manifest.”

Beyond his reality show, this year it was announced he is a face of Nike’s Pride-themed Be True campaign, he was named MTV’s 2021 Breakthrough Social Star, and another reality show (30 Days With: Bretman Rock) debuted. Before that, he was named People’s Choice Awards Beauty Influencer of the Year and one of Time’s 30 Most Influential Teens. In between his budding television career, he’s been collecting brand collaborations and lucrative sponsorship deals and growing his fan base—which, based on our last tally, stands at 17 million followers on Instagram, 11.9 million on TikTok, and 8.6 million on YouTube.

Yet chalking his success up to mere manifestation belies Bretman’s indefatigable work ethic and shrewd understanding of the mechanics of the internet. And while influencers and internet celebrities are now a dime a dozen, Bretman’s ever-widening influence is no mere blessing from the algorithm gods. Because the truth is, as Bretman says, “I always knew I was going to be a star.”

Austin James Smith earring and ear cuff, Justine Clenquet necklace.

Bretman Rock Sacayanan was born on July 31, 1998, in the Philippines’ Cagayan Valley to his parents Mercedita Sacayanan and Edmund Laforga. At the age of seven, Bretman’s family immigrated to Hawaii. But his dad stayed back and Mercedita raised Bretman and his siblings on her own. New to the country and with three children to provide for, Bretman’s mother worked multiple jobs, leaving him and his sister, Princess Mae, to look after themselves.

“Before school, [my mom] was already at work. By the time we got back from school, she only really had time to cook dinner. And then she would sleep, wake up, and go to work,” Bretman says. “So we never really saw our mom.”

“One day I decided I was a star. I would walk to school with my head held high, in my stilettos, listening to ‘Lucky’ by Britney Spears and think to myself, ‘Everyone is going to know me one day.’”

In the first episode of MTV’s Following: Bretman Rock, he recalls a childhood marred by financial hardship. In middle school, he failed a cooking course because he couldn’t afford to bring in any ingredients. “I didn’t want to tell my teacher, so I just took the L,” he says in the episode. “It taught me so many lessons about having nothing and only having dreams—that’s all we could afford.”

Maisie Wilen top, The M Jewelers necklace.

Young Bretman found solace in the fantasies he manufactured in front of the camera. He often borrowed his mother’s phone to film make-believe commercials. “Anything that had a lens, I was always in front of,” he says. He took inspiration from 2000s reality TV shows like The Simple Life and A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, eschewing Saturday morning cartoons for MTV’s drama-laden plotlines. Looking back, one can draw similarities between Bretman’s now-online persona and these Y2K reality stars: the flair for melodrama, the raunchy humor.

Bretman is witty, with an exactitude for comebacks, punchlines, and catchphrases — a natural-born entertainer. His comedy can veer from vaudevillian camp, like twirling on a stripper pole only for it to fall over, to mundane moments that somehow become laugh-out-loud entertainment, like turning his turtle’s feeding time into pun-heavy serenades. “I just think my life is so f*cking funny,” he says. “There are so many things that people don’t realize are funny. And I feel like I bring that out.”

It was through social media that Bretman found an outlet for his comedic talent. This was in the early 2010s, when media giants Twitter and Instagram were still in their adolescence. Influencers were just emerging, with make-up and lifestyle gurus on YouTube carving out an online niche that would become today’s multimillion-dollar cross-platform industry.

Stylist's own tank, Disco Daddy pants.
Stylist's own tank, Disco Daddy pants.
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At first, Bretman simply sent silly Snapchats to his friends, as bored teenagers do. But his friends urged him to upload his Snapchat stories to his Instagram feed, where their replayability can live beyond 24-hours. His feed encompassed everything from risqué dance moves to expletive-ridden diatribes on typical teenage angst.

For a week Bretman kept the account private, limited only to an intimate 600 followers, most of whom Bretman knew. Upon going public shortly after, his existing archive of bawdy rants and slapstick antics quickly ballooned his followers to more than 10,000.

Then two of his videos went viral: one in 2014 where he meme-ifies the transformative powers of Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy,” and another in 2016 where he swats at his sister for walking into the frame as he dances to Beyoncé’s “7/11.” By the end of that sophomore year in high school year, Bretman had over 10 million people watching his every move.

“I've met people who only know who they are online. When I'm separating Bretman Rock and Bretman, it's really just to help with my mental health. The internet is not real life.”

Maisie Wilen top, The M Jewelers necklace and ring.

When I asked how it felt to be thrust into the spotlight so quickly, Bretman concedes that he didn’t notice the fame. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around it when you grow up on such a small island,” he says, recalling the contradiction of his digital life and IRL reality. “How do you feel the eyes of 2.5 million [people] when you’re serving lunch at school, running track, and going to student council [meetings].”

Although he may have been blindsided by overnight success, his early slew of content reveals an often-overlooked deftness to content creation. Bretman, a true child of the internet, swiftly mastered the elements of virality. Like many of his Gen-Z peers who grew up in the digital boom, he took easily to the mechanics of social media. Already a veteran of earlier iterations like Myspace and Facebook, Bretman navigated the internet with an effortlessness that would have puzzled creators just five years his senior. This was buoyed by innate comedic talent, an endearing personability, and a striking confidence that rendered him almost immune from the insecurities that usually afflict the teen spirit.

“It’s hard to wrap your mind around it when you grow up on such a small island. How do you feel the eyes of 2.5 million [people] when you’re serving lunch at school, running track, and going to student council [meetings].”

From the outside, Bretman's confidence seems like a product of early self-awareness. He often comments about not having needed to come out to his parents. “They always knew I was gay,” he says. “My family has always supported me.”

But Bretman admits that his flamboyant persona is also a defense mechanism. Being brown, gay, and an immigrant on the internet opens him up to trolls and critiques. “It's my coping mechanism to be unapologetic, not giving a f*ck, to be loud,” he says. “Me just putting on whatever I want to wear today, people find confidence in that. But to me, I'm just coping.”

Bretman's personality came into full display when he began posting videos on YouTube in 2015. He gained popularity for his expertise with makeup when male beauty gurus were just breaking ground. He soon fell in with the rapidly rising industry of beauty YouTubers. Naturally, brand collaborations followed and, at just 20 years old, he developed his own brush set, highlighter palette, and eyeshadow kit.

But manifesting fame is a double-edged sword, a lesson that Bretman has learned after broadcasting most of his adolescence on the internet. During his MTV Awards acceptance speech, Bretman described growing up on the internet as “probably the most traumatizing thing I’ve done in my whole, entire life.” He admits that the person we see online—the loud, unapologetic Bretman Rock, prone to ridiculous antics—is just a persona, a character that he plays up for the cameras. Through the years, he’s felt the need to separate himself from the internet’s Bretman Rock, lest he gets swept away in the fame.

Gucci pants and vest, The M Jewelers ring.
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“I've met people who don't know who they are, but only know who they are online,” he says. “When I'm separating Bretman Rock and Bretman, it's really just to help with my mental health. The internet is not real life.”

Recently, it seems that Bretman is growing out of that Bretman Rock persona. Less and less of his content feels geared toward achieving virality and more just interacting with his fans. Scrolling through his TikTok page, most of his videos are serene snippets of his life: longboarding through his neighborhood, chilling with his dogs, and documenting his daily outfits.

“I think that’s the beauty of growing up. Yes, I have however many millions of followers, but I can’t touch that. I can’t touch these videos that I’m making. But I can touch my family and my friends—the people that I love.”

It’s a transition that is at the center of his latest reality series, 30 Days With: Bretman Rock. The series, part heartfelt documentary and part survival show, follows Bretman as he attempts to endure the Hawaii wilderness alone and away from social media. Though the filming was challenging (according to Bretman's team, the crew was only allowed to give him one bottle of water a day as a part of his 30 survival challenge where he was to gather his own resources), it was a chance to reconnect with Bretman before the fame. “Fame is not who I am,” he says. “It's not even what I do. It's just a part of my job. This show is about finding me, Bret, and not the Bretman Rock people see online.”

There’s a certain kind of vulnerability to broadcasting your life online, especially from such a young age. And the line between the internet and reality can often become blurred. But for Bretman, it seems to have the opposite effect. After seven years in the game, constantly shifting between his digital persona and his IRL self has only made him more grounded. “I think that’s the beauty of growing up. Yes, I have however many millions of followers, but I can’t touch that. I can’t touch these videos that I’m making,” he says. “But I can touch my family and my friends, the people that I love.


Photographer: Emman Montalvan

Photo Assistant: Patrick Molina

Photo Assistant: Angel Castro

Film Camera Tech: Ryan Kevin

Makeup Artist: Grace Pae

Hair Stylist: Jerrod Roberts

Manicurist: Shigeko Taylor

Stylist: Chris Horan

Stylist Assistant: Rachel Tate

Stylist Assistant: Dani Arsendorf

Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

Video Editor: Melanie Duran

Production: Goldie Productions

Art Director: Emily Zirimis

Fashion Director: Tahirah Hairston

Visual Editor: Louisiana Gelpi

Designer: Liz Coulbourn

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue