An interview with Jarvis Derrell, author of the Instagram @shehashadit
“Reading,” says legendary drag queen Dorian Corey while making herself up in the mirror in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, “is fundamental.” Jarvis Derrell, the voice behind the wildly popular Instagram account @SheHasHadIt, first watched the influential 1990 film on New York City drag culture on a VHS tape a friend had spirited to his Florida home. Derrell took what he saw of queens cutting each other down while simultaneously celebrating one another and built on it to create She Has Had It, his Instagram collage of the deranged and delightful individualism of anonymous New Yorkers. The site features his own version of reading that uses the cultural touchstones of a childhood spent in a poor, Pentecostal household and incorporates back stories, journeys, and narrative arcs from people he encountered in church. Reading, Corey says, is “the real art form of insult”—think Don Rickles meets Ru Paul—but it also celebrates the subject, because so rarely are we ever really seen and acknowledged by another person, let alone a stranger on the subway with a smartphone camera.
While reading may be at least as old as Oscar Wilde, Derrell has reinvented the art with creative hashtags, adding layers of complexity and microfiction to the photos he captions. His frame of reference is vast, encompassing teen movies, high theater, ghetto language, the black church, and consumer aspiration.
To be good at reading, one has to be ready to be read. While Derrell’s assessments can be harsh, he is always quick to come with an upper cut to his own face. He describes himself as a “Holy Ghost bowlegged ethnic power bottom with a sensible community college AA in HPV, weaving and gay wizardry #lonelyoldbottom #ihavenolife.”
But She Has Had It has had critics other than Derrell himself. Some say he is exploitative and voyeuristic, as many of his images are of the city’s downtrodden. Jesse Darling describes his images as those “in which the sorrows of long hours and urban poverty and precarious labor in the Sisyphean late-capitalist grind are reimagined as a series of joyful auditions and queer style choices and performative expressions of defiance.” He might say it’s something a little more lighthearted.
In person, Derrell is everything like his She Has Had It persona and also nothing like it at all. He is prone to bursts of exuberance and cruises the cute waitstaff, but he is also contemplative. He showed up at Café Select on a recent Wednesday afternoon wearing a conservative gray cowl-neck sweater and diamond studs in each ear—though She Has Had It would speculate that perhaps, given the size, they may have been cubic zirconium. We talked about language and the ethics of projection, about how struggling in the city can be an exercise in joy, and ultimately about how reading is an expression of love.
(The conversation has been edited for clarity and shortened.)
How would you describe what you do?
It’s so complicated. For me, it’s an escape. It’s an extracurricular that just happened to pick up and become lucrative. I tell stories. That’s the basis of what I do, I tell stories. By any means necessary.
There’s always such a distinct narrative arc that accompanies each photo. How long does it take you to write a caption or a story? Do you write drafts?
I get thousands of submissions a day, but I have decorum. I’m not going to use naked people or really poor or homeless people. It’s a fine line. But I know what I’m going to say the minute I see it. I do one little draft, it takes five minutes, and I post it.
You’ve taken the platform of hashtagging and elevated it to an art form. What were your reads like prior to Instagram?
She Has Had It is not anything new. I’ve been saying it with friends since college, since the first night I blacked out drinking. Somebody asked me, “Have you had it?” and I was like, “Yes, she has had it!”
Reading then was always to rebut statements. You know, like “#regret!” “#youdontknowmylife!” It just kind of happens naturally. It was definitely storytelling. I have done face-to-face reading, and it’s a different experience.
What are some of the differences?
For any of my reads, I never come from a place of hate or trying to cut someone down. We all have lived lives on spectrums, with crazy highs and crazy lows. That’s what I like about reading—it includes everyone in on the joke. I’m laughing at you, but I’m also laughing at me, so we can laugh at each other. Everybody’s laughing, let’s laugh! Nobody’s safe, which makes it a safe place. It’s not hard to read someone to their face if you’re living for them. And I’m also vulnerable enough to be read, whatever you have to say about me I can handle it. You have to, if you’re going to.
Most people read in fits of anger, but I’d rather save them for times of praise. I don’t like to be provoked. People will ask me to do live reading, and it’s not really me. I can do it. If you’re paying me, hell yeah. But I’m usually not inspired to read people face to face in the She Has Had It sense. But I read people everyday just naturally. It’s just people watching. Like, “She’s gonna wear Louboutins, but she’s rocking a fake Coach? What is going on?” Just read! It’s usually the first three things you think about a person. I actually have a spreadsheet somewhere.
So what are your tips for reading? What makes a good read? What should your amateur reader know?
I’m from the south, so my mom taught me that you win more people over with sugar than you do with salt. So usually when I meet a person I think of three things off the bat that I like about them. No matter who you are. It’s also really good at helping me remember people’s names.
That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard! How have you ever survived in New York?
Well, I don’t tell them, but I remember, “She smelled good,” or “She has the cutest eyes! So when it comes to reading, I pick out three things that stand out that are right. Because it’s usually just one thing wrong, but usually when it’s a lot of things wrong, you just think about the things that are wrong. But for me personally, I like to praise them, in a very kind of side-eyed way. Like, “What is that, Lane by Lane Bryant?” Then you play on words and think of the most floral way to deconstruct them.
Do you think some of the criticisms of She Has Had It—where people say you’re making fun of people who are poor or struggling—do those critics misunderstand the context of reading?
I don’t believe in overanalyzing. If there’s something that doesn’t work for me, I don’t follow it. And I understand that about She Has Had It. Poor? I don’t do those people. And poor? Who isn’t poor? I live in NYC. I arrived here with $50 to my name on an air mattress in Brooklyn five years ago so I know poor, I know what it’s like to struggle, and I also know it wasn’t the worst time in my life. I wasn’t miserable, I had to wear some hand-me-downs, but I rocked it like it was Hermès!
Have you ever taken any posts down that you felt in retrospect crossed that line of decorum?
There was one a really long time ago of a boy who was really rude to me on Grindr. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to read him!” That was pure vengeance and one of my first big successful posts. He had long luscious locks, and I was like, “We’re both bottoms, this isn’t going to work.” It was so successful, and I felt really bad.
Another one was of a woman breast-feeding on the train. I was breast-fed as a kid—clearly, it did nothing for me—but not when I was a toddler. The kid could walk and talk. I hashtagged it “#breastfeeding.” A lot of people saw it and said, “This is very cruel, you’re exploiting this woman,” and that was never my intention. I just thought it was funny. She seemed fine with it, having her breast out on a crowded train. But I decided to pick my battles. So I took it down. But no others. And I’ve actually met a lot of people who have been in She Has Had It, and they’re like “whatever!” or “that’s funny!”
Lately, it seems like a lot of language from black drag culture is coming to the fore in the popular lexicon—like queen, throwing shade, reading, even ratchet. Why now?
The gay culture, and the black gay culture specifically, is arriving at a level of notoriety where it needs to be, because it’s spilled over into so many other different parts of society. It’s crazy, it literally is mainstream. With “Queen,” I changed the spelling. “Queen” with a Q is so feminine, whereas Kween with a K means that everybody is a kween. I’ve always called people kween in the She Has Had It voice, and everyone—boys, girls. If you are making do with what you have, you are a kween. I wanted to make that something indigenous to She Has Had It.
People know about shade and reading. I’m like, “You don’t know shade! You’re in Louboutins, sit down!” I’ve known these words all my life. It’s funny, it’s refreshing, really seeing people learning the art of it. Because it is an art.
How did you come to reading?
My movie of choice when I was a teenager was Paris is Burning. All of that is in the documentary—reading, shade, ratchet. It’s all in that documentary. And I feel the footprints of our history. It really is history. I loved that as a teenager, and I taught myself how to read.
I was raised very religious, very sheltered, and that was just my small glimpse. No one taught me. I wasn’t surrounded by influential black gay people in my life, I just wasn’t. I was very much more a musical theater kid, and in musical theater you learn to fake what you don’t know, so you make it up. So in my own mind, I made up this whole version of reading, and I think that’s how She Has Had It is what it is.
What would your particular version of reading look like?
Oh, you know looking at a person in church and praising them, but also knocking them down a little. Like, ‘You are serving Payless heels! And they are WORKING! You can’t walk, but God is still good!”
What about the Miley Cyrus fiasco? You were at the VMAs as a correspondent, and people were up in arms about her performance, co-opting ratchet signifiers and using black backup dancers in a way that seemed a little prop-like.
I think it’s all fair game in this industry and in this culture, and in this day and age. There are bigger battles to fight. She’s not claiming that it’s hers. A younger fan might think it’s new. But a deeper experience would be to say this isn’t new, this is old. It opens up a conversation, which I think is healthy. So I can’t knock her. These words need to be out there. Look at hashtags. I’m quoting stuff that isn’t new, but now it’s open to the whole world on Instagram. But it’s only been a year since I made my Instagram public.
What was that experience like, becoming Internet famous overnight?
Overwhelming, when you’re waiting tables! A year ago I was in a really rough place. She Has Had It was on my Facebook and my friends loved it. The pictures started when my friend Joshua and I first moved to New York. On our first train ride, we saw a woman who had fallen asleep and we took a snapshot. And he had the idea to make a Facebook album. But he was like, “These are just pictures. What’s her story?”
But at that time, I was struggling. I didn’t have any money. I was trying to pay rent, it was really awful. So I was moving home around this time last year. She had had it! I needed to go home and refocus. I was like “I have this useless degree in musical theater, I’m broke from it.” I knew I’d be poor living in New York for a little bit but not like this. I couldn’t even afford ramen. But my friends were like, “You are a star through and through.” And I was like, “I don’t understand what you mean by that.” And here I am seeing it manifested in different ways because they didn’t give up on me. I crashed on a friend’s couch, I got a job waiting tables within a week, I turned my whole life around. Then within a few months of waiting tables, my Instagram followers were at 10,000. Then people started knocking on my door. And I’m so grateful. I don’t wait tables anymore.
Tell me more about your background.
I moved here literally on a whim. I studied musical theater at Florida State, and I wanted to move to New York, but my journey, where I’m from, I’m poor. I knew I was going to have all these student loans. Like, I have a degree in musical theater. What can you do with a degree in musical theater? Why why why? So I saved up two paychecks from working at McDonald’s and college graduation card money, which was enough to pay for my one-way ticket, and then what was left over from that was $50. Looking back, I never would’ve done it. There’s no way you can live for even a day in New York for $50! It’s not even enough for a weekly Metrocard!
What about your family? Do they get what you’re doing?
No, absolutely not. They are super conservative and religious. I wasn’t raised with TV. I came out when I was 13, but they were always supportive. They never tried to make me straight. It could’ve been a lot worse! I’ve heard horror stories. They are supportive. They are so proud. When the piece in Paper Magazine came out, they were like, “Well, why are you in your underwear?” and I was like “Can you read the article?” I’m going to be in Vogue next month, and they don’t know what Vogue is.
So what was it like growing up in that environment, while you’re memorizing Paris Is Burning in your room?
I loved it! Paris Is Burning was a look into an outside world that a friend showed me on VHS. It wasn’t my dream, it wasn’t anything obtainable for me, it was just pure fascination of a world outside my own. Which is kind of like She Has Had It. A lot of people don’t live that life, but they can relate. I was a gay male, and I could relate to those kids and what that was like. But I didn’t want that life, I didn’t want to be a drag queen. But it was just fascinating. And it worked. So growing up I didn’t really know what I was missing.
I went to church like four or five days a week! There was a lot of gay sex in that church!
Thinking about stereotypes you often play with on She Has Had It—like theater queens and low-budget fashionistas—coming from your background, there are a lot of stereotypes people could project on to you: as a conservative Christian—
As a black male, as a gay black male—
Do you think that the voice of She Has Had It plays with those stereotypes or subverts them in any way?
I am playing with them. It’s complicated. I’m praising them, I’m living for them, I’m defying them. It’s hard. Stereotypes are caricatures. It’s larger than life. Especially the gay stereotypes, like being a bottom. I’m playing with all of them—religious caricatures, black caricatures, white caricatures, poor, rich. It’s all there if you look for it. There are some hashtags that are so on a level that you really do have to get your shit to know them. Some people don’t get all the hashtags, but the ones they get they really get. Like, how’d you get that movie, how’d you get that reference?
Would you say there’s a distinction between the She Has Had It persona and you?
Oh, yes! Day and night! I am so different, because I am such a lover of characters, She Has Had It is a person who is so different from me. Even style-wise. I dress pretty conservatively, except in the summer. I love a booty short. When I meet a lot of people, they say I’m not how they expected me to be. People expect me to be so many different things. They think I’m going to be mean or ratchet or ghetto. I can be if you want me to be. If anything, I’m a musical theater gay, at my center.
I struggled a lot with self-esteem. I never felt I was handsome enough, so I liked to hide between characters and makeup in the theater. I felt comfortable being gay, but I never felt pretty enough, or handsome enough, or the fact that I was black, and black didn’t seem like a thing that was in. I never thought I dressed cool enough. But now I like the clothes that I wear. I like the skin that I’m in.
Everyone wants to be understood. That’s why we write, that’s why we do, that’s why we are. I want to be understood. I like the character of She Has Had It because she is all understanding. She’s reading you, but she gets you. But me as a person, I’m so different, even in my sex life. There was a point in my life when I was doing all that—the Grindr hookups and what not. I’m not on Grindr now, but I have been. But the sexual culture in New York can be a little dangerous. I’m not afraid of it, but it’s not for me at the moment. I prefer to date exclusively. But She Has Had It is like “Dicks!” “Gurl, live your life!” I feel like everyone goes through that phase, so let her be in that phase and it’s fine. I like the separation.
For a while I worked out a lot of my problems in She Has Had It, even with Grindr and hookups, because that’s what I was doing for a long time to find validation. Boys didn’t want to date me, so I would hook up and that validation would last for 20 minutes after sex. So I was working a lot of that out in my writing, of “Whew, gurl, I met a stranger, I went to his house!”
But working out personal issues and projecting them onto someone else’s photo, is that unethical?
I don’t think it’s unethical. I think it’s human nature to project your problems on to other people. But it depends on how you do it. I’ve been the brunt of people’s anger, but it’s fine. People have trolled me, telling me I’m not funny, and I’m stupid.
I’ve never understood why people expend the energy saying someone is stupid instead of just moving on to the next thing.
I get it. I say go for it! If this is what you need to do to feel better about yourself, then go for it. But just know that it does not affect me in any way. It’s not going to hurt me. I don’t give people that control over me anymore. But for a long time, I did.
What have you learned from seeing She Has Had it blow up?
There’s really something in every hashtag of humanity. That’s what it is. It’s looping someone in, but with realness, a tangible truth that is inevitable. It’s to grab someone in a moment and make that connection. That’s the true power of the words.
Do you have a favorite hashtag?
#canthost. You know, it’s like, you can’t come to my house, but I’ll stop by yours. Because I wanna fall asleep after this, and I don’t want to deal with you! And you might steal! I love #everybodyaintable. I started a weekly column for MTV about style called #everybodyaintable. I also like #youdontknowmylife I don’t know there’s so many ... #blessed #regret.
My ex-boyfriend is this giant hairy hetero six-foot-three guy and he loves She Has Had It, and it’s so funny hearing him do the dramatic dude reading of it—“#thriving #youdontknowmyjourney #brave”
Yasssss kween!!! The fact that a straight guy loves it literally makes me want to cry. You don’t understand, I love that. Everyone is in on this joke. It gets conversations started. It’s the thing at a party that opens up the floor. That’s what it’s for. This is why I do it. That’s why I love it. That is her, having her whole life! You can have all of that!