Much of my knowledge about Barbie Ferreira dates back to 2014, when she first reached Internet Cool Girl status. Before American Apparel’s official death knell, she represented the brand and garnered attention as one of its few thicker models. Before photographer Petra Collins went on to direct adverts for Gucci and Adidas, and music videos for Cardi B and Selena Gomez, Collins created dreamy photoshoots with Ferreira—all of which garnered thousands of likes on Instagram. Before Tumblr became an internet wasteland, Ferreira became a Tumblr teen queen.
The Barbie Ferreira era of Tumblr is a reminder that the 22-year-old wielded a different kind of fame before starring on HBO’s Euphoria, which just ended its first season and got renewed for a second. It’s also a reminder that even with the viral un-retouched Aerie modeling campaign that boosted Ferreira’s profile in 2016—and the slew of modeling gigs that followed—she could have easily ended the 2010s coasting as a resident cool girl. It’s not an awful job title, but Ferreira had other aspirations. She wanted to conquer acting, and unlike plenty of other models who try their hand at it, she was actually good.
On Euphoria, a grittier, Gen Z response to Skins, Ferreira plays Kat, a sardonic fat teen girl who goes through an ultimate transformation: From a virgin who secretly writes smutty fanfiction, to a harness-wearing crusader of casual sex who dabbles in financial domination. By the end of Season 1, Kat’s journey could best be described, Ferreira tells me, as Kylie Jenner-esque: “There’s a lot of realizing things,” she says.
Leading up to the finale, which aired on Sunday, I spoke with Ferreira about being pegged as a “body positive” model, Kat’s evolution, Euphoria’s iconic makeup, and why Kat was so damn mean to Ethan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: I remember when you were first on my radar from Tumblr and Instagram—what feels like a billion years ago now—you were modeling for American Apparel, then you did some other modeling, and now you’re doing acting. How’d you make that transition and land the role of Kat in the first place?
BARBIE FERREIRA: Yeah, I started modeling at 16. I did American Apparel; that was, like, my thing. I didn’t model anywhere else other than a few editorials here, and I was working with Petra Collins, too. From 16 to 18, I was pretty much just, like, posing for painters or just, like, being somewhere for like 50 bucks and spending it on Uber. My whole motivation was like, “How can I make money on Uber and weed?” [Laughs.] But I started modeling professionally when I was 18 when I got signed to Wilhelmina.
So I was doing a lot of commercial stuff and I could actually make a living off of it, which was nice. But I always wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid. That was my main goal. I knew that modeling wasn’t forever, and it never really was my passion in life, so [about two-and-a-half years ago], I knew I had to start making moves. I was doing really well in modeling, so I thought it was the perfect time.
Euphoria sort of came by [through] my agent, and then I knew about it from the New York phenomena where every single person I knew was auditioning for it even if they weren’t actors. Usually, if it’s an open call it’s a bunch of actors, but this was like... my friends who own vlogs, writers, visual artists.
It was a scene.
Right. The more I auditioned, the more anxiety built, and the more I was like, “I need this; can you trust me with it?” And yeah, I got it. It was the best moment of my life. I had a month of anxiety-diarrhea because I was waiting to hear if my life was gonna change or not.
You’re a natural as Kat, and when I got the screener for the first four episodes, I literally screamed during your backstory in Episode 3. Kat starts off as this virgin who is secretly internet-famous for writing an epic X-rated fanfiction about One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, and in Euphoria-verse is responsible for the popularity of the Larry Stylinson, the very real conspiracy theory that Styles and Tomlinson secretly dated. The episode even included a brief, animated sex scene of the two. I thought it was brilliant, but some One Direction fans obviously felt some kind of way. What did you think of the backlash? I bet your DMs were inundated.
Yeah, I mean, I got a firsthand lesson on how public outrage works. Like, it happens for two days and then it just fizzles out, and no one ever brings it up again. Like, what the hell? But I completely understand where they’re coming from. I knew that that was going to strike a nerve. Whether it be a positive one or a negative one. The reality is that Larry Stylinson was a giant internet phenomenon. I mean, I was there. I saw it firsthand. I was a One Direction fan. You never really outgrow that. I totally hear where they’re coming from. One Direction fans are very protective, and I would have done the same thing if I was, you know, protective over people that I’m obsessed with. But the reality is that Euphoria puts the mirror up to society. So yes, it’s uncomfortable. And yes, I get why they would be very protective over the band, but it reflects a very specific, niche, and large group of people. And I think that having it be One Direction really puts a stamp on the generation of that phenomenon. It’s like if it was the Backstreet Boys.
It was the zeitgeist!
And Larry Stylinson was interesting because people were shipping these two people, but it was so much bigger than just the two of them. It was, like, a community. It’s turned into a whole fandom. So I stand by it. The scene is very awkward and uncomfortable and funny. We’re not saying Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were in their relationship. It’s fanfiction.
You’re often described as a “body-positive model.” Over time, body positivity as a social media movement became co-opted, both by people with socially acceptable bodies that rarely face stigma and by brands hoping to sell things. What’s your relationship with the phrase “body positivity” now? Do you kind of feel a little alienated by it or do you think it still holds meaning?
Well, I have a very complicated relationship with body positivity. Because when I started modeling and I was seen as a body-positive figure, I was a size 10-12 white girl with “proportions” and a skinny face, and I feel like I contributed to the watering down of what body positivity really means.
That’s why I stay away from it, because I feel some sort of... not regret, but more of just like... when I was in that space, it was a little bit hard to navigate because I had a lot of body dysmorphia. And I feel like I was also promoting this idea that a lot of body-positivity, capitalist schemes are doing where it’s like, let’s get this digestible girl who looks like a skinny woman who fits our beauty standards if you just cropped out her body. I’ve since gained weight, and as a person who is now a size 14 to 16—and that’s even the borderline of plus and straight size—I started to kind of reflect back, and I’m like, wow. Yes, like, of course, I was contributing in small ways to making people feel better about themselves, but it was also like I was also feeding into the capitalist fashion industry version of it. And that’s why I stay away from it. I find that a lot of it, especially in the fashion industry, lacks depth, and lacks understanding of what the actual phrase “body positivity” means.
Body positivity within the fashion industry has equated to this thing where it’s all clickbait, and I’ve seen people who conform to these beauty standards that a lot of fat people cannot relate to, kind of patting themselves on the back or really thinking of themselves as a hero when in reality... it doesn’t stop there. We have to keep pushing, and I think there’s a severe lack of representation of fat people who don’t necessarily look like me, or look like the plus-size models who are doing well right now. I remember maybe a couple of years ago I went on this rant on Instagram—when I used to do those—and I looked at these plus-size websites, and none of the women that were modeling for them were plus-size. When I started modeling, I would have to wear padding to make myself fit into those clothes.
And so that’s how my approach with it has kind of struggled. I don’t really subscribe to the way body positivity has evolved.
I saw an interview you did with Out in which you said that you call yourself and your friends “The Fat Agenda.” You were even part of a group chat of the same name for a while. Tell me more.
When I was modeling, there was a lot of negativity, especially because you’re working with a different team every day, and you’re going all over the world, and people have their own opinions—and fashion is so opinionated—and people can be very rude because they don’t know how to talk to people. On top of being overworked and disrespected, I was feeling sort of on edge and depressed all the time.
When I became friends with other plus-size models and other curve models, [the Fat Agenda] was like... the joy of knowing that we’re all beautiful, we’re all big girls, and like, you know, even though we’re different than everyone, we can all talk about it to each other. We can discuss money, we can help each other out. It’s such a specific industry and there’s not a lot of people in it, so it’s hard to navigate, especially when we were really at the forefront these last few years of getting plus-size people to be in these campaigns and spaces that otherwise would never have allowed us there, and kind of dealing with the initial reactions of people who don’t agree or aren’t used it.
Along the same lines, In Episode 5, we see Kat strutting through the mall, heads start turning, and her voiceover says, “There’s nothing more powerful than a fat girl who doesn’t give a fuck.” In a way, that line kind of speaks for itself, but should this be the fat girl mantra?
Yeah! I’ve felt that stress that clouds the way I move in the world. It was deteriorating. I mean, I was falling apart. All I could think about was the way I looked and how I would present myself and how I walked and how people were looking at me.
A lot of people, especially women, are pressured to pick themselves apart at all times. I think that [that line] is not so much being like, Kat suddenly finding out that fat people can be beautiful. It’s all about taking that pressure away. It’s more like, “I don’t give a fuck.” The power in that, it’s so monumental because everyone—whether you’re fat, skinny, whatever it is—is vulnerable to that. Not giving a fuck is the only way to combat that.
Your weight will fluctuate, your face will change. Nothing stays the same. But to actually not care about being—for lack of a better word—fuckable, to people and understanding that the only reason that when women are put under these pressures is for other people and not for themselves... Once you unpack that and remove it from your life, you start understanding how much energy you wasted on it and how much more freedom you have without it.
And I think there’s almost this kind of condescension that comes with idea that fat women have to feel like they’re beautiful before they can grant themselves permission to shamelessly take up space.
Yeah, like are you only worthy to be a woman living on this Earth if you are attractive and find yourself attractive and other people find you attractive? It’s so baseline, so shallow. At the end of the day, it’s a tactic to make people want to be smaller and thus have less power in this world. I don’t want to capitulate to any of it.
Did you have a say in the script or some of the lines for Kat? Because it feels like a lot of this is deeply personal.
In a way, yes, but in a way, Sam [Levinson, Euphoria’s creator and head writer] observes us and stalks us on the internet, he’s like, looking at all the video content that all of us have made. He’s not interested in creating a fictional character that’s completely different than us. Like, when I’m anxious on set, he knows exactly how I’m anxious. I know he’s going to put that in the script. That’s what he’s interested in. So he’s an observer, and I know that a lot of things—especially toward the end of the season—were observations about all of us, even how we talk. By Episodes 7 and 8, the way he wrote was so close to the way we actually speak that it was eerie. One Lexi line was written exactly how Maude [Apatow] would say it. He’s just really great at emotionally connecting with people.
Body image is certainly part of Kat’s journey, but ultimately Kat’s story is about re-establishing control after having her trust repeatedly broken by men. Kat has sex for the first time at a house party, and soon after discovers that the guy she hooked up with filmed it. The video ends up online, and Kat is initially mortified, until she realizes that the video garners some fans. She dabbles into camming (posting elicit videos online) before stumbling into financial domination (findom), a sexual fetish in which a submissive gives gifts and money to a dominant. She also enjoys casual sex. Both things help her gain a sense of control by asserting power over men, and she’s having a good time... at first. What was it like playing a findom?
I wanted to be in place when I was approaching the findom scenes as if I didn’t know anything about findom. But I know all about findom because I have internet access, and I have a lot of people in my life who do a lot of camming, or are in sex work. So I’m very aware of the depth of fetish culture. I kind of had to approach it in a way as if I’m this 16-year-old girl trying to figure it out on my own. I was going to do research, and then I decided against it, because if I know too much about exactly how to talk—the cadence, or the way that you speak to customers—it wouldn’t be authentic, because the journey is showing her innocence through these camming scenes and through these cash pigs [submissives], and all this stuff. So I kind of had to act like a blank canvas and approach it as if I have no idea what’s going on, or what penis humiliation is, which I... [laughs].
So I have a deep understanding of fetish, where humiliation and pleasure are intrinsically connected and whatnot. But I had to approach Kat in a way where she has no idea that that’s a thing and even in Episodes 5 and 6, she’s still not grasping everything. I wanted to always have that naïveté and that innocence.
But by the penultimate episode, it kind of seems like the fun starts to wane, and the power shifts: Kat cams with a controlling customer; she had sex with a childhood boyfriend who broke her heart and claims zero recollection of dating her; and she gets into a fight with her friend Maddy, who says that she isn’t a fan of the new Kat. It seems like Kat’s transformation kind of comes crashing down. What was that episode trying to tell us?
When you try to find validation through men, there’s always going to be a downfall. It’s fun at first, but then you realize that—especially in an internet space—it can be creepy. Kat doesn’t really know what she’s doing at all: She doesn’t have a vetting process yet, she’s like a baby dom. She’s just having these experiences that humble her and make her go, “Oh, maybe it’s about balance, and maybe not in these extremes.” But [Euphoria gives her] permission to venture into these extremes because an extreme situation happened to her, where she loses her virginity and someone posted the video of that on the internet!
And when Maddy starts fighting with Kat, she wants the old Kat who everyone steps on, the “best friend” who’s funny and will always be there for everyone. But Kat’s exploring her own life and making her own bad decisions now.
Kat is living in these extremes and trying to find a balance, and she’s not doing it perfectly because she’s a teenager. Everything’s happening too fast, too quickly, too extreme. Kat’s vulnerabilities are still there, her insecurities are still there, her trust issues are still there. They’re just under this exterior. You have to kind of pull those layers back and see how fragile she is. At the end of the day, she’s a teenage girl. She’s playing a role. She’s trying to be a bad bitch and make these decisions that fuel her in a very instant way, just like we all do at 17. Everyone on the show is doing that, trying to find instant gratification.
One really fun thing about Euphoria is watching you, the cast, watch along with us. For example, you posted something on Instagram about your mom asking you why you’re so mean to Ethan!
[Laughs] At a barbecue, a couple of glasses of wine in, my whole family was just attacking me. I’m like, listen...
The streets needed to know why you were so mean to Ethan!
Literally, my own family. I’m like, wow. The family is Team Ethan.
You also posted something on Instagram about having to leave the room during your sex scenes when your friends come to watch. What’s that like?
You know, I’m just so excited that people I love enjoy the show and like the show, and it’s not like they’re just watching it because I’m in it; they’re watching because they like it. I don’t really get shy, but the Episode 6 ones with Ethan and Kat... it was a little too intimate! I had to leave. It was so intimate that it was hard watching, like, myself having an orgasm with my closest friends.
What do you think some viewers or critics get wrong about Euphoria?
At this point, I don’t even pay attention to negative reviews, because I feel like the vast majority are so positive. What I think adds to the commentary is that people are really analyzing these characters. It’s not like the dialogue on the show is like, “This is how I feel because I am fat,” and viewers can’t just rely on face-to-face communication. And the characters don’t talk much because a lot of teens don’t talk much. They’re on the phone or communicating through the internet. People really have to almost psychoanalyze all these characters off their background stories. I’m just so happy that people are playing like my psychiatrist or psychologist. I hope this show makes people think about what they may characterize as bad decisions that teenagers make. Now they can think, “Wow, okay, if I went through that, maybe I would be vulnerable to making this decision too.”
Everyone loves the eye makeup on this show, dude.
Yes! Doniella [Davy, Euphoria’s Makeup Department Head] and Kirsten [Coleman, Euphoria’s Assistant Makeup Department Head] are incredible! I remember just going to the trailer and being like, “This is going to change everything.” I feel like right now, makeup is all contour and looking as sexy as possible, but on Euphoria makeup expresses emotion instead of just making people look amazing.
It actually feels expressive, like this is teenagers playing around with makeup and having fun, not following trends.
Yes! It fits the characters so perfectly. We all kind of look like cartoon characters.
What do you want to see in Season 2? What’s your wishlist?
My wishlist is for Fezco’s backstory. I wanna know! We all wanna know. FezHive.
FezHive is real.
FezHive. Maddy Nation... I love them. Maddy Nation is my favorite subculture of Euphoria fans. They’re so fun. A little mean, but I love the shade.