He's wearing an earring of himself as a baby, with a little baby mustache on. It's on his left ear. At 21 years old, Leo Reilly is already a burgeoning multihyphenate, with toes dipped in fashion, music and social media content creation. The way he explains it, and with a distinct breezy gusto, is that his virality on platforms like TikTok and Instagram feeds into his real passions: design and recording.
The physical comparisons are obvious — and he's heard them all before. There's a bit of Freddie Mercury peppered with some Ezra Miller and undeniable traces of Wario from Nintendo's Mario. "You would expect me at this point to be like 'stop calling me Freddie Mercury,'" he says. "But you got to think about it objectively and whenever I see a new comment or a new DM of 'you look Freddie, oh my God' or 'I didn't know Freddie had an Instagram account,' I think about it from their perspective, like if I was seeing me for the first time, I too would be like, 'Oh yeah, Freddie Mercury.' And so it makes sense every new time I see it. It's more so funny to me that people still think they're the first person figuring it out."
A March profile in The Cut seemed to paint Reilly in broad strokes: a simpleton amidst extraordinary circumstances. "Reilly's presence is naïve, but not entirely," wrote Brock Colyar. "He's a celebrity child with an elite Waldorf education, who pursued a college degree in fashion design. He's an LA cool kid who lives with his blonde-mulleted, androgynous girlfriend. He plays with conventional gender norms despite the fact that he also seems like just another 21-year-old guy who surrounds himself with succulents, and plays with a pet Tamagotchi or logs on to Animal Crossing." But the Reilly I speak to over Zoom is far more complex. It's not that he's not those things. But there's an awareness, as well as an active desire to push back, do more, and be more.
Take, for instance, our conversation about the moment we're living in. I ask him what he wants for our country's future under the leadership of President-elect Joe Biden. He pauses to think critically. "First and foremost, getting all the steps backwards that we've taken this last four years, taking those steps forward again in the hope of at least getting back to where we were. From there we gotta have mass reform across almost every part of the government and society in general. It's a scary time. Like, I can't believe I'm even saying that. I mean, everybody knows what's going on, but it's a wild time for this huge apocalyptic mess of events to be happening and then for my career to be taking off in the middle of it."
That career includes the July release of his debut LOOK AT THIS MESS I'VE MADE, precluded by two debut singles — "BOYFREN" and "ROSIE" — the latter of which is (sadly) not an homage to Rosie O'Donnell. Quarantine squashed any plans to promote the EP IRL and thus Reilly has been forced to get creative. Luckily, that's a comforting place to be for him.
Below, we chat with Reilly about putting USB ports on earrings, how COVID has changed him and oh, of course, growing up as the son of John C. Reilly.
Photography: Julia Marie
You're known for rocking many shades of hair color. Have you colored your hair or had the inclination to do so at all in quarantine?
I went through a heavy period for like four years where I would change my hair every couple months. I feel like I really put my hair through the ringer there for a while, just bleaching it over and over again. I had bleached hair for a year and a half and then I shaved it and then went aquamarine, I did like a purple, a silver, and then a green. I kind of did all the colors that I would want to do at that point. It's funny you mention this though because literally today I was talking with some friends and I was like, "it's been too long since I've changed my..." I was looking at pictures of myself from a year ago and I looked the same, and that's just not a good feeling for me.
It's not a good feeling to be the same. What do you mean by that?
It's just not exciting. And I think I look at music in a similar way, where when I was starting to make music four or five years ago I wanted to make as many kinds of music at all times so I could have the freedom to go down whatever path I'm drawn to at the moment. When I change how I look, it's like a reset almost; it's like a shedding of the old way I looked to almost say that that version of me was experiencing any number of issues — depression, anxiety, etc — and I'm resetting, like shaving it off or dying my hair, and trying something new. Right now, as we speak, my hair is just far too long. I was thinking of maybe doing a blond streak in my hair and then having the blonde streak continue down through my eyebrow and then through my mustache. It might look terrible, it might look cool, but I haven't seen anybody do something like that. So, you know, somebody has got to try it.
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When did you first become interested in fashion?
When I was in like sixth grade I was super into basketball. For a minute there I was like "that's going to be my thing. I'm going to be in the NBA." I'm glad that I let myself think that for a little bit, but at the time I was like five foot two, and pretty average at basketball, but it was good to dream [laughs]. But yeah, one of the first things I loved about basketball was the basketball shoes and how they looked, how they performed, everything about them. So I started a YouTube channel where I did basketball shoe reviews: breaking it down, going through the traction, the comfort, the fit and all that.
And from there I branched out from basketball shoes to just shoes in general. And then from there it was like, well, what goes with shoes, clothes? So then I got super into that. And towards the end of high school, I started to realize that a lot of the stuff that I wanted to wear, I wasn't finding in stores, so I would start thrifting a lot. I've known how to sew and knit since a young age, so I revisited that skill and started customizing clothes. I really fell in love with making clothes and fashion design and every step of that process, so I ended up going to school at FIDM.
Are there certain designers who inspire you most?
When I was starting off, Vivienne Westwood was one of my favorite people. There was just such a fuck you attitude to all her stuff where the patterns didn't have to match. It's whatever you feel like wearing as opposed to here's what's the zeitgeist of the current time is. But then on the flip side of that, there's much more technical people like Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto who use silhouette as their primary way to convey what they're trying to get across artistically. And so then that blew my mind too, because on one hand you have like Vivienne who was very oriented toward the expression and the colors and the patterns and the styling is the message. And then on the other end, you have the details and the measurements of Yohji and Rick's stuff, which is their focus.
Photography: Leo Reilly
The specificity of that response! I feel like often I get like an "Oh, I love McQueen," or "I love Dior." And I liked that you gave me three very specific references to work with. I've seen your style referred to as genderless. I'm not entirely sure what that means and I'm curious what you make of such a description? Is that something you think about when dressing up?
I mean you see it in all different parts of pop culture, where someone will make something that is just genuine to who they are and it makes them feel good and represents to them how they want to be presented. And they don't think about it. Like for me, when I make an earring or paint my nails, I'm not thinking, "I want to do this genderless thing." I just want to paint my nails. I just want to make this earring. And so then I think where we get pronouncements like that is when after me or someone in my position does something like that. It's everybody else trying to make sense of that and use terms that they know to describe it. I just do it intuitively, because that's what feels right to me. People can call it whatever they want, but I definitely agree that there's some weird, inherent gender assignment that goes on behind the term "genderless."
Tell me about your robust earring collection, which I read that you both make and sell. How did this interest come about and how do you decide on what to feature?
The earrings all started when I had a bunch of earring hooks laying around from working on some project for school. And I saw my USB flash drive sitting on my desk and I was like, "that's pretty small; I could probably fit a hoop around that." And then I realized from there that I can turn any small thing that won't damage my ear lobe into an earring pretty much. And some are more tame than others, and some have genuine utility, like with the flashdrive I would put my homework on it and then walk into class, take off my earring, plug into the thing, take my Photoshop and Illustrator homework off of there. It's just so fun and it's so easy. There's definitely projects that were where the value in it is the process, but for earrings it's the opposite where you have the idea, you can make it in a minute and a half and boom, it's there. And it's just a very immediate way of taking something around you and working it into what you're wearing.
So in 2018 Lady Gaga did her Vogue 73 questions interview, and I was really intrigued by one of the questions that the interview asked her. He asked if she ever feels pressure to be "on," and Gaga responded in the most Gaga of ways by saying she doesn't know what it means to be "on," and even threw up air quotes for emphasis. I want to ask you a version of that question. How interested are you in having people know the real you? Because from my perception there's somewhat of a persona to your existence online that might deviate from who you are in private.
I think the real me comes through in the different characters and personas that I play. Obviously it's different than just sitting down and having a cup of coffee with me. On one hand you can be like the mysterious "You know nothing about me" type, and it draws you in to find out more. And then on the other side, there's "I'm super genuine. This is me. Every time you see me, I'm giving you completely unfiltered what I am and who I am."
Both sides have pros and cons. I find that fully being myself can get a little tricky because the internet's a scary place and it's a very vulnerable thing being super, super open. But I also hate nothing more than when someone isn't being themselves. I think it's so obvious and easy to see when someone's just playing a character for the sake of their career or fame or whatever. So I think being super genuine, but also keeping a little bit of mystery so that my characters and just the different ways that I want to represent myself can exist as those separate characters and personalities, without it being so tied to who I really am.
Photography: Cece G
In February, right before the pandemic hit, which was essentially 84 years ago, you became the source of a lot of headlines generated with people online figuring out that John C. Reilly was your dad. I imagine there's some duality there in both seeing your name out there but also not wanting it to be only associated through the prism of your father but also seeing that that could be a gateway for people to discover you and your work. How did you see it?
It's never something that I present because I don't wanna be known for that. I'm my own person. I'm doing my own thing. I'm making my own path. Most of what I'm doing isn't even in the same world as my dad's. If I was acting then that would make sense, and I could see people latching onto the comparison more. But on the other hand, like you said, it's a great opportunity for people to discover me, discover my music, and it's kind of similar to the Freddie Mercury thing. Like, it wouldn't really make sense for me to get mad about that, because it's a thing that people are excited about. So if they discover it and they're excited about it, let them be excited. But it still is never something that I will lead with, because I feel like people sometimes assume things about me and about the way I was raised based on how they look at other children of celebrities. And I never want people to rush to conclusions about me and that the way I was raised and the way I see things.
I want to get your response to Brock Kolyar's piece in The Cut in which he wrote, rather harshly: "He's worth your time for the sheer entertainment of his performances, but you won't necessarily understand what any of it means. He likely doesn't know what it means either. In fact, it all might mean nothing." Is that true? Does it mean nothing?"
I think with that quote it seems to me like he doesn't understand what the meaning is, and he just left it at that without trying to look into it any further. No knock on him, but everybody interprets what I do differently. I think he should just look a little bit deeper.
Let's talk about the music. You released your debut EP LOOK AT THIS MESS I'VE MADE in July. The song "Boyfren" became a TikTok sensation. What's your issue with the "I" and "D" in word boyfriend?
This is something I do in almost all my songs — and a thing that I do in general. There's words in the English language that would be so much better if they were spelled phonetically. Like "boyfren" is how we say it. The "d" really isn't important; neither is the "i." "Tongue" is another one that bothers me. Also there's a billion songs called "Boyfriend." I look at everything as a chance to flip it creatively, like this is how it's been done, what's a little way I can tweak it? It carries over into everything: the earrings, the clothes I customize, my music videos, really everything. I'm looking for little angles on how to flip stuff.
"Rosie" was released in March, so I have to believe you recorded pre-pandemic. I imagine the pandemic has squashed any plans to promote the EP through live performances. How has COVID affected the rollout of this EP and your musical aspirations more generally?
I was about to go on tour when the pandemic started. I had been practicing in a performance space for months leading up to when the pandemic started and when it started, and everything shut down a week from that date I was supposed to have my first live show. And one of the most exciting things about having my song blow up was having an audience to perform for. So that really sucked.
But the thing is, I'm not going anywhere. Hopefully after this next election cycle, we get a better handle on this pandemic. But everybody had to adjust in terms of rollouts. Part of me wanted to push the EP, but the other part realized that by everybody pushing it, there would be a huge lack of new music, and along with that, a lack of just good things in the world and things for people to be excited about. So there was definitely a slight adjustment period, but I embraced it as opposed to just moping about it and now I feel like I'm in a good spot where I can safely execute many of the ideas that I have in this new apocalyptic world that we live in.
Photography: Zak Beshir
How would you say, if at all, COVID has changed you? Because it's been six months now. We've all had to adjust to what is day-to-day becoming a new normal for us. And I think as a result of that our heartbeats have gotten slower because we're less active. There's a lot of ways in which our day-to-day lives have changed, but our emotional and our interior lives have changed as well. What's one way that you feel like you've changed in these — what is it — seven months now?
Well, my number of close friends went from ten to two once quarantine started. When everything started I stopped being active, because it was built into my everyday life pre-quarantine and so once it started, I didn't really know what to do. And I created some habits for myself that I wasn't happy with. And in the past month, my girlfriend and I have both made it a point of writing down our goals, writing down the habits we want to have, and then slowly, with each other's help, working towards getting to that place of living lives that we want to live. And I think in the past couple of weeks, we've really kind of zoned in on that. I've started waking up a lot earlier. I meditate every day. I do transcendental meditation which is wonderful. I got a blender! So I've been making a lot of smoothies, which I absolutely love. You know, taking care of our bodies. And it feels really good to do it and it feels really good to do it with somebody else too.
Couple last questions: What is the most underrated John C. Reilly film?
To be honest, when I was growing up most of the moves he was making were adult movies. So I still to this day have only seen maybe half of his movies. But I would say The Lobster is probably one of the most underrated ones. There's just so many great existential ideas and questions posed in that, which brings me to my next point: If I was to be turned into an animal, it would definitely be a cheetah. I feel like they live a very loyal and speedy lifestyle and I love that.
Will you two ever release a duet?
Potentially, you know, anything can happen
Would you ever consider doing a cover of "Mr Cellophane"?
My brother and I used to sing that when we were younger. It's a great, great song and a great performance too. But I don't think I would. I think he did it the best that you can do that. I think I'll let that exist as it is.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Header photo: Motoki Maxted