It used to be that chasing down fame and fortune in Hollywood meant relying on the whims of executives in suits with dollar signs in their eyes. But Rickey Thompson chose a different path. The 23-year-old internet phenom was able to stockpile 2.5 million Vine followers from his bedroom in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the strength of his creativity and charisma alone. When the platform flamed out in 2016, Thompson took his social media savvy to Los Angeles and began building his mini empire. He parlayed his knack for telling an entire story in six seconds into Instagram success, and later YouTube, where he has become known for his flamboyant dance moves, hypnotic rants, and relentless positivity. Whether he’s imploring his followers to catch flights instead of feelings or proving hatin’ ass bitches wrong, Thompson has built a devoted fan base that includes, among so many others, the actor and activist Jameela Jamil.
JAMEELA JAMIL: I’m embarrassed to say I slid into your DMs about six months ago.
RICKEY THOMPSON: No you did not.
JAMIL: I think I was trying to tell you that my boyfriend [the musician James Blake] was making a dance track that I wanted you to be on.
THOMPSON: I’m so mad I didn’t see that.
JAMIL: Do you ever feel shy anymore?
THOMPSON: If I’m at an event by myself, I get so shy. Growing up, I used to be such a shy kid. Sometimes it comes back out.
JAMIL: You’re a motivation mantra for me and my friends, all of whom are, by the way, older than you. We look to you when we need an extra dose of bad bitch.
THOMPSON: I love that, but I also have days when I’m going through it. I sometimes watch my own videos to get me up when I’m sad. Most of the time I’m happy and bubbly. I wake up in the morning and I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m feeling like a bad bitch. Let’s do it today.”
JAMIL: How does being so well-known impact your dating life?
THOMPSON: Dating for me is rough. People see an opportunity. They think if I’m dating them, I’ll put them on a video as well. It’s very hard.
JAMIL: Do you also feel like there’s an imbalance in the fact that they see so much of this side of you, and yet you know nothing about them?
THOMPSON: Oh my goodness, yes. When I go on a date, they know where I’m from, they know what I do. And I’m like, I don’t even know your last name.
JAMIL: What made you get onto YouTube?
THOMPSON: When I was on Vine, a lot of people were already hopping onto YouTube, and at first I was like, “How am I going to be able to talk for more than six seconds?” I didn’t know how to mess around and do a 10-minute video. But one day I put up my camera and I just started ranting, and it felt very therapeutic. I took it very seriously once I moved to L.A., because I was in my own place. I could talk about whatever and I didn’t have to worry about my sister or my mom or dad coming into my room.
JAMIL: How did your family respond to you putting your life out there like that?
THOMPSON: At first my mom was like, “Be careful, because there are crazy people out there in the world.” And I was like, “Mom, people look at me as a voice, and I really want to help them feel better.”
JAMIL: Was she concerned about your safety because you were coming out within a relatively homophobic time?
THOMPSON: She was afraid of what people were going to say. When I came out, I really thought that my career was over. I was like, you know what, I’ve been hiding this secret for so long and I did not think that people would accept me for being a gay male. But then once I came out, my career skyrocketed.
JAMIL: Did you receive any negative backlash? I can’t imagine somebody who puts out so much positivity incurring any negativity, but I also know that the internet is a fucking shitshow.
THOMPSON: Honestly, not really. There are comments, but it’s almost always people lifting me up.
JAMIL: What is your secret?
THOMPSON: My secret?
JAMIL: Nobody has that experience online. There are, like, eight-year-old kids being bullied on the internet.
THOMPSON: I was talking about this with my friend the other day. He said, “Rickey, I feel like nobody hates you.” And I feel the same way, too. I’m always so positive, I’m never in any beef, and I’m always minding my business. If you’re hating on me, that is so sad.
JAMIL: I also think it’s the level of confidence that you exude. You don’t seem like easy prey. I’m not someone who bullies anyone online anyway, but I would never fuck with you. Has the online community boosted you and given you a more enriched experience?
THOMPSON: Yes, 1,000 percent. Ever since I got into this whole world, I have become so confident. I used to think that I was ugly, I used to try to fit into different groups, but when I came out to the world, people were living for me.
JAMIL: Do you feel like there’s a community of out, gay, black men in the industry?
THOMPSON: Yes. I’ve met so many other amazing, gay, African-American men out here really killing it. And they’ve let me know, “Rickey, you’re out here killing it, too.”
JAMIL: What did you want to be when you grew up?
THOMPSON: I always wanted to be a star.
JAMIL: But as what?
THOMPSON: An actor. I was a theater kid, and I loved being able to play different characters. When I would do school plays, it was just so much fun to be anybody other than Rickey.
JAMIL: I remember hearing stories of your experience with bullying at school. Do you think that was a part of what drew you to being anybody but Rickey?
THOMPSON: I had so many people doubting me, and I used to always cry about it. But those people are now saying, “Oh my god, Rickey, congratulations.” I’m like, “Wow, how the tables have turned.”
JAMIL: I got really badly bullied at school as well. Girls used to write “ugly bitch” in makeup across my school locker, and I never got invited to any birthday parties. People would sometimes turn up at my house on a Saturday night just to let me know that they were going out and that I wasn’t invited. But those same people are now all up in my fucking DMs, telling me that we should hang out and calling me “babe.” I don’t know how to respond to them because I’m still pissed.
THOMPSON: Not going to lie, sometimes I respond. If a guy comes up in my DMs like, “Do you remember me?” I’m like, “Yeah, you bullied me. So what’s up?” They’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” And then I just block them. I don’t have time for that.
JAMIL: I’m so glad to know that I’m not alone in my pettiness. I’ve seen you all over the place—you’re even rapping. Do you plan to do more music?
THOMPSON: Actually, yes. I want to dip my toe into everything. A little bit of dancing, a little bit of music, a little bit of acting. I want to be a triple threat.
JAMIL: Who do you love at the moment?
THOMPSON: I love Summer Walker. Her new album, Over It, is so good. SZA, we’re still waiting for that new album. Same with Rihanna.
JAMIL: Have you ever met Rihanna?
THOMPSON: Yes! There was one time I went to this pop-up shop and I didn’t think she would be there. But she came and I bought a pair of her Fenty platform shoes and she checked me out. It was the cutest moment ever.
JAMIL: How do you feel about the future of YouTube? There’s still a weird industry snobbery toward content that exists online, and yet there’s so much more freedom within that content.
THOMPSON: I love that if people get a “no” in the traditional world, they can take their project to YouTube. I’m amazed by the videos I’ve seen. I hope and pray it keeps growing and growing and growing.
JAMIL: And winning awards.
THOMPSON: I want to win an Emmy so bad. Oh my goodness. I know it’s going to happen.
JAMIL: I’m going to be so excited for your acceptance speech. I feel like the internet has birthed an opportunity for the people who networks and music labels would never have taken a chance on. But YouTube created this platform, as did social media in general. Look at how huge you are on Instagram and Twitter. You’re so viral. I’m really glad the world was able to find you via that medium. Who’s the next rising star that you have your eye on?
THOMPSON: Summerella. She’s literally everything. She’s a comedy genius.
JAMIL: What is something that you haven’t yet tried out?
THOMPSON: I’ve never done drama. I really want to be in an A24 film, something very dark where people are like, “Whoa, Rickey actually tapped into that character.” I want the challenge.
JAMIL: Again, I look forward to your acceptance speech. I hope that we actually get to meet in person someday soon.
THOMPSON: Are you in L.A.?
JAMIL: I am in L.A. I’ll slide back into your DMs and we can find each other. You speak to the little kid in me who felt so unconfident, and I look to you and your videos to feed that little girl and remind her to get up and put on her “shut up, I’m talking” boots.
THOMPSON: I live for you, girl. I live, I live, I live. I live.
This article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.
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