This is the third in a 5-part series profiling the panelists from GO’s virtual Pride event, “LGBTQ+ Representations in Film and TV.”
Karyn Blanco isn’t going to lie. “The first time I saw a promotion for ‘The Circle,’ I was not interested,” she tells me, referring to Netflix’s hit reality show that made Blanco a household name. “I was confused.”
That’s understandable considering “The Circle” is, well, confusing. In writing, the concept of “The Circle” is difficult to grasp in specifics: A group of strangers are sequestered separately in an apartment building where they interact only through social media and have the power to send each other home.
The promotional ad for “The Circle,” which a friend had seen advertised on Instagram and suggested she check out, stayed in the back of Blanco’s mind despite her initial confusion. Already a singer under the moniker the Silent Celeb, Blanco “started 2019 off saying I wanted to go back into acting more, so I was going to take it as a sign.” She decided to audition.
First impressions, like appearances, can be deceiving, and so Blanco’s second-guess proved a good one. Not only was she hired for “The Circle,” but she became one of its most endearing personalities by playing “Mercedeze,” a femme-presenting version of herself represented by the avatar of another woman — in essence, a catfiish. The audience at home saw the real Blanco, who identifies as aggressive-presenting; her fellow contestants saw a photograph of the feminine Mercedeze.
“[The show] was actually one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she told me when we spoke on the phone early in July, only a few weeks after she appeared as a panelist on GO’s virtual “LGBTQ+ Representations in Film and TV.” Playing a catfish gave Blanco the opportunity to illustrate how we live in a world where we judge others by standards preconceived and based solely on appearance. It also gave her a chance to show just how wrong those judgments can be.
Blanco built her career by defying these types of expectations, starting with her music. “Music was always a part of me,” she says, although “it wasn’t until I was 18 that I started taking it seriously and I started being more involved with writing my own songs and linking up with producers and saving my money.” She and a friend had already made themselves regulars on the club circuit, going so often that they were allowed to skip lines that extended around blocks; the treatment earned them the nickname “silent celebrities,” from which Blanco would take her performance name the Silent Celeb — aka “the person in the crowd no one ever notices but [who] has the most pull.”
Once she started making her own music, her familiarity with the clubs — and the producers who frequented them — led to greater performing opportunities. Success, though, Blanco says, was hindered by expectations that women who sang a certain way should also look a certain way — mainly traditionally feminine. “I was always overlooked for certain opportunities with music because of the fact that no one at the time could understand how I was an aggressive, or AG, who sang like Mary J. Blige,” she says. “So I was a contradiction of both.”
Ironically, however, this contradiction also brought new opportunities and kept well with her “silent celebrity” brand. “It brought me more notoriety, and people wanted to know who I was.” She started landing more jobs, hosting club events, and even had her song “Girl from Ipanema” featured on the web series “New York Girls TV.” Soon after, she launched her first album, “The Silent Celebrity Project,” a hip hop/R&B fusion grounded in the artist’s crystalline soprano with just a hint of Mary J. Blige.
Still, when Blanco was cast on “The Circle,” and was asked whether she wanted to play herself or a catfish, her choice was obvious: She would play a catfish, but with a twist. “I personally made it very clear that although I was playing a catfish for the spatial, upfront part [of the show], all of the wording, all the personalities, all the emotions — it’s all personally me. That was my reason for playing a catfish,” she says. “I feel like people tend to think that because I am a dominant female — an aggressive female — I am supposed to have this machismo or this facade of wanting to be a man. I’ve come across that so many times that it’s become annoying.”
Her decision to play a catfish, and her suspicions about judgment, were “solidified and justified” when an eliminated castmate, Antonio, opted to visit Mercedeze before his departure from the show and ended up meeting the woman behind the avatar. He confessed that had he seen her as Karyn and not Mercedeze, he would have blocked — or eliminated — her from the house. “I don’t know if anyone knows, really, how major that was, but for me, that was absolutely major, because it proved you judge a book by it’s cover every day,” she says. “At that moment, it was a moment of ‘Bingo.’ This is what I needed.”
But the show didn’t just confirm what she already knew about appearances. It also “opened a platform to me that I personally wouldn’t have had as quickly if it hadn’t been for ‘The Circle,’” she says. This platform has allowed her to further open up about, and challenge, preconceptions she and other LGBTQ+ persons face. Sure, her celebrity has landed her spots in O Magazine and on billboards in Times Square, but more important for Blanco is the chance it’s afforded her to speak to, and for, others like her who are constricted by societal expectations. Once the show aired, those people began reaching out to her.
“I have so many DMs of people telling me that I opened up a conversation in their home that they needed to have, that it was overwhelming for me the first month of the show,” she tells GO. “I was really a crybaby every day because there’s so many people that I was speaking to that went through what I went through”
Although Blanco knew she was gay around the age of 12, she “was never sure how to express it, but I knew that I was going to be different, and I knew that my family wasn’t going to be with it.” Raised by her grandmother in a conservative, Honduran family, Blanco was forcibly outed to them in her early teens when a neighbor saw her kissing her girlfriend. The revelation left her estranged from the family and “pretty much on my own” until she moved in with her mother, who was more accepting, when she turned 17.
She has since regained contact with her family — “Thank god they have all just realized that I’m pretty strong-minded!” — and her family, she says, has since learned to understand and respect her. But she knows that while they may accept her, “they’re still not accepting of the community. And that, to me, I feel is a major issue that I’m still trying to work out in general.”
“I think it’s tough when people are against my community when they support me, because it’s kind of like you have to pick one or the other, that’s a battle you can’t win; you’re going to love me for who I am and what I represent,” says Blanco. “I shouldn’t get a pass because you think I’m extra-cool but I also happen to be gay.”
In addition to her music and her appearance on “The Circle,” both of which she uses to make LGBTQ+ voices and persons visible to a larger audience, Blanco also hosts a podcast with her friend Erica called “Friends and Other Drugs” that tackles issues pertinent to the community, such as trans rights, coming out, and the importance of knowing one’s status.
But she’s most proud of her appearance on “The Circle,” since it brought her into the homes of people all over the world; as a result of her openness, people now feel comfortable sharing their stories with her. “It’s always a humbling moment for me, and a moment of thanks to God when I get a message and I have to Google translate it, because I just know that I’ve now reached another country — I’ve come to another home and I’m going to put a conversation in someone else’s home now,” she says. “That’s really my goal: to make this a normal thing, not something that’s so taboo, so much of an issue. That’s always gonna be most important to me.”
As for how she wants people to see her, beyond whatever first impression they have: “I’m a woman. No matter if I have the same haircut as your husband, no matter if I wear the same cologne as your dad, no matter if I wear the same clothes as your brother. I should be respected, treated, and honored as one. My stature and my demeanor doesn’t mean that I want to be a man; it just means that I’m comfortable in my clothes.”
“And until people can understand that and respect that,” she says, “we’ll never fully be free.”