Barbie Ferreira closed out the last decade with a bang. In the summer of 2018, the then-twenty-one-year-old actress and model was cast in her breakout role as dominatrix cam girl Kat Hernandez on HBO’s hit series Euphoria. Since its release in 2019, the show has become a cultural phenomenon. Gossip Girl on steroids, if you will. As the first teen drama series HBO has ever made, the sex-and-drug-fueled bacchanal became an overnight smash hit, drawing 577,000 viewers for its initial showing, accelerating to more than 2.3 million viewers in its first few weeks. “It’s not like there weren’t these roles for people, it just wasn’t fleshed out,” Ferreira says of the show’s success. “They weren’t meaningful roles. They could easily be like, ‘Kat is the fat best friend who is submissive to all her skinny gorgeous friends.’ It’s fleshing out these characters and not playing into such a literal stereotype . . . exploring the psyche and giving them the correct depth, as you would a thin, white, cis, straight male character.”
It’s safe to say, we fell a little bit in love with the unapologetic Kat, whose story was loosely based on Ferreira’s own growing pains as a teen. “No, I didn’t cam at seventeen years old,” she says. “But I did have this revelation, this sexual awakening, like: Oh, I can be hot. I’m not this dowdy, ugly person. I’m not sentencing myself to a life like that. So, my past and being made fun of by people . . . a lot of small things that were really personal went in [to that role]. I think that’s what makes the show so great.”
For someone named Barbie, Ferreira is as real as they come. She answers our Zoom call wearing a topknot bun and rounded glasses, clutching a Virginia Tobacco-podded Juul. “So, I got a cat during the pandemic,” she says, tilting the camera to show her pet calmly nestled between her crossed legs. “She was in a bush outside an elementary school and my friend texted me and said: ‘Can you foster a kitten?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’” With her welcoming, ear-to-ear smile and raspy giggle, Ferreira instantly makes you feel like you’ve known her forever, one of the many reasons she’s enchanted a generation.
The Queens-born actress is part of a new era in Hollywood, one that has swapped refinement for realism and captured the spirit of today’s youth who desire to see faces and stories that resonate with them on the big screen. Ferreira’s mere presence in Hollywood is the product of a move to dismantle societal pressure to look a certain way in order to have a certain job, but this isn’t a narrative narrowly focused on body positivity. Her self-made success story is of the zeitgeist; one that doesn’t start with agents and scripts and auditions, but on the internet. Like many children of the digital age, Ferreira found solace in the online world. “I found my voice through it and I felt accepted by a community,” she says. “I wasn’t very popular at school. Shocker! I was a theater gay! So no one really liked me. Growing up on the internet was vital for me; I don’t think I would’ve made it here without it. I wouldn’t have had the confidence.”
At age 12, Ferreira entertained an audience of around 20 who would watch her pierce herself on the live-streaming service, Stickam. She went on to garner a massive following in her teens, chalking up reblogs and likes on Tumblr and Instagram via her pouty selfies under the username barbienox. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress, but I was just like, ‘No way, me? I don’t know anyone in the industry.’ My mom is a private chef, my grandma cleans houses, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a modest job, and [being an actress] is a very grand job. I think the internet really gave me a support system and I got confidence and was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can pivot this to do whatever I want.’”
Ferreira began modeling professionally at sixteen after sending photos of herself to an American Apparel casting call. “When I started, I was a plus-size model and I felt like that was my lane and that was something I was expected to talk about and expected to embrace,” she says. She quickly became the poster child for body positivity, booking campaigns with mass fashion brands, hosting her own award-winning Vice series on present-day etiquette called How to Behave, and landing herself a spot on Time magazine’s “30 Most Influential Teens of 2016” list.
“I still have a lot of thoughts on body politics, but as you get older and you’re in this kind of body-positive world, you start to realize that it’s not. These companies are not speaking from truth, they’re speaking from a marketing standpoint,” she says. “The more we normalize it and don’t have to put these words and labels on people, the more the world can change and find actual equality.
This past year has been one of growth for Ferreira. She purchased and renovated her first home in Los Angeles, where she goes on daily hikes with her girlfriend Elle and occasionally plays Animal Crossing for fifteen hours straight. And she scored her first leading film role in HBO Max’s Unpregnant, in which she plays Bailey Butler, the angsty high school misfit who supports her holier-than-thou former friend Veronica Clarke (Haley Lu Richardson) in handling an unplanned pregnancy. The Thelma & Louise-style road trip film is as lighthearted as it is raw and emotional, following the estranged besties as they set out on a cross-country journey of a lifetime to find an abortion clinic, learning a few lessons along the way. It’s the kind of movie you wish you could’ve seen when you were growing up, or maybe even been shown in school instead of those uncomfortable informational sex-ed videos. “It’s the feel-good movie formula that’s kind of been taken through a loop,” says Ferreira.
Indeed, Unpregnant puts a modernized spin on the teen film genre, ditching polished plots and characters for storylines extracted from real life situations. “If I’m watching something and everyone is extremely boring and it’s something I’ve seen before, it just doesn’t catch my eye, it’s not memorable,” she says. “It’s not even about forcibly diversifying something; it’s not about creating these PSAs and these stereotypes—I just think people don’t like that anymore. I don’t like that anymore. If you gather a bunch of ten girls, they’re going to look different. They’re not all going to look like supermodels.”
Recently, Ferreira and Euphoria’s writer and producer Sam Levinson had a renewed conversation about the highly-anticipated release of the show’s second season, which has been put on hold for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19. “If you thought season one was going for it, we’re going to really go for it in season two,” teases Ferreira. “I think season two is going to be even more rambunctious and in-depth, more fantastical and trippy—all that good stuff.”
The new season hints at expanding on the struggles of the East Highland High School students in their truest and most unbound form. “In the beginning, I was like, I think it’s so good that it’s going to become a cultural classic, but people aren’t going to get it until the future, because they might be scared off by it and how intense it can be,” she says. “But people got it!”
While eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds account for two-thirds of the show’s viewership, HBO’s push toward a more realistic and informative show for young people has also resonated with an older generation. “I didn’t think the average person could handle seeing that, but everyone has angst at all ages. And that’s what I really learned from Euphoria,” says Ferreira. “There are parents who are obsessed with it. I was at the airport and there was this mom who was like, ‘I watched your show, you scared the shit out of me. I love it!’”
Yes, some parts of Euphoria do in fact scare the shit out of us, but for all the right reasons. Real life is more often than not uncomfortable, no fluid story arcs here. It’s the antithesis of Hollywood, with Ferreira and her peers highlighting a new and important narrative in the media we consume. “People want things that are interesting, and that’s what I look for in projects,” she says. “It has nothing to do, necessarily, with the attention of making something that is powerful. It’s more about making something that’s real.”
HAIR: ROB TALLY
SET DESIGN: EVAN JOURDAN
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