Ari Notartomaso: “I Didn’t Have to Perform and Could Figure Out Who I Really Was”

Luke Fontana

Ari Notartomaso stars in Paramount+’s musical “Grease” prequel series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” as Cynthia, a butch lesbian in the 1950s who’s coming into her own despite the regressive social forces around her. Notartomaso’s performance became a fan favorite not just because of Cynthia’s journey, but also because of their powerhouse vocals on songs like “Crushing Me” and “I’m All In.” Season one ended earlier this June.

In a year that has seen unprecedented anti-trans legislation and violence, POPSUGAR is highlighting the perspectives of trans and nonbinary folks throughout Pride Month. These leaders are sharing ways they protect their joy, reminiscing on moments of gender euphoria, and suggesting how allies can support the LGBTQ+ community right now. Explore all of our coverage here, and read Notartomaso’s story, in their own words, ahead.

A lot of my friends that I gravitated toward when I was younger have since come out as queer. I didn’t really know why I felt such an affinity for queer and trans people, but then during the pandemic, I finally had some space to engage with the thought that I might also be trans. And once I did have that space, it was like an immediate connection for me.

I had a conversation with one of my friends who has since come out as a trans woman, and she reminded me of a conversation we had in the theater building in college. She asked me how I knew that I was a woman, what it felt like to be a woman, and I responded that I don’t really see myself as a woman. I don’t know what it feels like to be a woman. That was the first time I really thought about my gender, and during the pandemic when I was figuring out that I was nonbinary, she educated me a lot about what it means to be trans.

“It felt like in theater there was safety around gender transgressions.”

I was young, like 13, when I was in a production of “Les Misérables,” and I wanted to be Gavroche, the little boy, so bad, and I got the part. It was so fun. I loved having dirt on my face, wearing my little newsboy cap, having my eyebrows filled in. And no one batted an eye. It felt like in theater there was safety around gender transgressions.

After the show was over, I would talk to people, and they would say, “Oh my God, you’re not a real boy? You really looked like a real boy.” And that was also incredibly exciting for me. It felt like a magic trick at the time, and now I realize I was expressing my masculinity in a way that was receptive.

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Growing up, people would ask me what’s your dream role, and I’d tell them, “I look so young, I’m going to be playing little boys forever.” I was so proud of myself because not everyone could pull off playing a little boy, but I didn’t realize there was so much about being a little boy that was a part of me and what I wanted – what I wanted to look like and wear and act like. But that wasn’t allowed without feeling like I was transgressing some kind of expectation and rule that’s set up in the gender binary.

As a kid, I was obsessed with Jeremy Sumpter’s “Peter Pan” movie. I watched it probably hundreds of times, and I would write in my diary, “I have a crush on Jeremy Sumpter.” Looking back, I realized I wanted to express gender the way he did. He’s an incredibly feminine, young, little Peter Pan with long blond hair. Peter Pan is like a nonbinary androgynous icon. And the other thing I liked was that Peter Pan was allowed to show his affection for Wendy and Tinker Bell.

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But at the same time, while theater let me express myself, it also set me up to continue performing constantly. I was always performing my gender on screen and on stage. And then the pandemic happened, and it was like, suddenly, I didn’t have to perform and could figure out who I really was.

To play Cynthia, I talked to lesbians who were teenagers in the 1950s, and I’ve realized how similar their experiences were to my own as a teen in the early 2000s. There’s actually an incredibly strong line linking queer experiences throughout history. There were times on set when being a queer person portraying a queer person was hard, because Cynthia’s experiences would remind me so much of my own.

One of the biggest things people on our set did, from the cast to the creative team, was be supportive and understanding in those moments and give me space. If I was on a set where there weren’t so many women and other queer folks and so many people of other marginalized identities who understand how oppression works, it would have felt so difficult to not be supported like I was.

“It’s more affirming to express my masculinity in a way that uses color and subverts expectations.”

When we were going to start doing press stuff for “Rise of the Pink Ladies,” I reached out to Justin Tranter, who wrote all the music for the show, because they are the coolest nonbinary icon in the entire world, to see if they knew a stylist that would be good for me as a gender nonconforming nonbinary person, and I also wanted a queer person as well to dress me. And they connected me with Christian Stroble, who’s the most stylish person I’ve ever met in my entire life.

It’s been incredibly affirming to be able to wear stylish clothes that are more masculine but still feel super queer. It’s more affirming to express my masculinity in a way that uses color and subverts expectations. Me wearing a suit is queer regardless, but I just really love the back and forth that I get to have with a queer stylist who’s also an incredibly brilliant human being and who understands where I’m coming from.

If you’re looking to be a better ally to trans and nonbinary people, have conversations with queer and trans people, and just generally the people in your life who are oppressed for other marginalized identities. Listen to them, and try not to get defensive, and try to learn from those experiences. But also, when someone does call you out for something you did or said that was homophobic, transphobic, racist, ablest, or oppressive, talk about it with other people in your life, so that it’s not on the nonbinary person, that trans person, or people of color to educate you. And there are resources online.

And if a trans person tells you to change something, listen and change it, and then keep changing it every time it comes up. There was a moment on the “Pink Ladies” set where I realized there was no gender neutral bathroom, and I advocated for myself and they changed it. You create a baseline outline of how to respect queer and trans people on set, and I think my coworkers can carry that forward to more sets they work on.

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