Devin Halbal with her now iconic selfie stick. (all photographs courtesy Devin Halbal and used with permission)

In only a few months, one Bronx native has blown up on TikTok with her distinctive catchphrases and terms — including the now-ubiquitous “Met Gala Behavior,” referring to the elegance associated with that annual fashion celebration, and “Doll,” referring to femmes who like to dress up. Devin Halbal has been increasing her TikTok fandom, encompassing over a quarter of a million followers, as she takes us on a daily journey through her life.

“For me, Met Gala behavior is writing your ideas down, sharing all your ideas, being unafraid to really express yourself,” Halbal told Hyperallergic from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last month. “So, if you’re scared to do that in your day-to-day life with people that you’re interacting with, you can always just journal, manifest, express yourself because that is also artistic expression, period.”

@hal.baddie

“Met Gala Behavior” —Devin Halbal

♬ original sound – Devin Halbal

This type of positive expression and reinforcement has become a staple of Halbal’s channel, which has since grown to include Instagram and other platforms, even if her most dedicated fanbase continues to be on TikTok. While she was initially hesitant to identify as an artist, during our conversation she was quick to point out that museums have long been part of her life. 

“I remember I would always be going to museums, especially when I was in college. I interned at the Frick Collection. I was an education [summer] intern there … and that building, to me, was so mysterious.” It was at the Frick Collection that she first thought, “That building itself is Met Gala Behavior. It’s not the Met, but she is very low key. She’s a low-key museum. She’s famous, but she’s not as famous as the Met, right?”

Halbal’s experience at the Frick was formative for her; she remembers the immersive and decadent Fragonard room most of all. “That room itself is literally Met Gala Behavior. I was obsessed with the fashion in that room. I don’t know, the style was Rococo … I’ve always loved art. And that was my first time I got to really intern and be in an art space. And now, even just thinking about that now, that was me manifesting Met Gala Behavior too, being at that institution, being surrounded by Met Gala Behavior, just really beautiful pieces.”

Halbal oozes the optimism of young creatives who see the world anew each day. Her travel to the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and later Georgia, helped propel her into the spotlight under the username @Hal.Baddie (she has coined the term “Baddies” for her fans). She’s been recognized by Indonesian tourists in Cappadocia, Turkey, and by random fans who ask if she’s “that TikTok person.” 

Her popularization of the term “Met Gala Behavior” is particularly poignant at a time when many people are starting to emerge from pandemic hibernation, and she wants to be clear: It isn’t about money, fame, or luxury; it’s about much more. “Growing up, I always just looked up to the magazines, the models,” she said. “And that was before I came out as she, her, trans. I always envisioned high fashion. I didn’t have money for high fashion. I was never rich growing up. And even now, [in] most of my videos, I’m not really wearing high fashion, but for me, I just know that I was destined to be on my Met Gala Behavior. … Me and my friends, we would always speak about fashion and looks. And even if I’m not at the Met Gala, that’s fine. I will be on my Met Gala Behavior. My energy … will be so vibrant, and artistic, and captivating. It’ll give Met Gala, even if I’m not at the Met Gala. That’s how it came up. … It’s about knowing your words. It’s about being the queen in your day-to-day life, being a star … and knowing that everyone deserves to be on their Met Gala Behavior. Everyone deserves to fully express themselves, wear whatever they want, and feel beautiful.”

The attention has been a surprise, and she’s enjoying it. “It’s really fun. I feel so touched all the time to just know that people care about what I’m thinking and care about me. It’s nice to know that I’m helping people. People say that I’m helping them feel better. Someone wrote on Twitter that I’m saving their life. It’s nice. It makes me feel loved, and it makes me feel inspired to keep on posting and just make better videos.”

I asked Halbal if she sees what she’s posting as a type of performance art, a term often used around social media posts nowadays. “I definitely feel like it’s performance art. It’s a performance of my innermost ideas. It’s a performance of my inner brain, the little monologue, the little thoughts that I have in my day-to-day life. I’m being vulnerable and sharing that with complete strangers. And I also think that’s why my videos do so well. It’s literally me sharing the random thoughts I have at a stop or at a cafe. So, it is performance. It’s a performance of my innermost thoughts that I also sometimes would be afraid to share with people in real life,’” she explains.

Her performances are also consciously camp. In one January 22 video she declares, “I am the queen of all things camp, so this is a safe space.” You can see how she constructs her image for the camera as a queer person engaged with a large, mostly anonymous audience. I asked her about whether this is all camp. “Oh, 100 percent,” she said. “Bringing back the selfie stick is camp.” The selfie stick, which has mostly fallen out of fashion, is a staple of her performance. “I would describe it as camp. I think it’s actually never been done before, performance art with a selfie stick and giving a mix of poetry, prose, and journal entry. I have yet to see that on TikTok. Yes, there’s poets. Yes, there’s writers. But they’re not giving in the way that I’m giving. And I feel like it’s a different breed of literature, and mixed with performance. I would say it’s camp.”

While other transgender social media personalities online shy away from that type of attention because of personal safety concerns, Halbal continues to demonstrate bravery as an open trans traveler unhindered by the bigotries and small-mindedness of the world around her. Her enthusiasm is contagious, which might explain why her following is growing fast — from only a few hundred followers last year to her current 250 thousand-plus. 

Now, she’s back in her hometown of New York City and she’s enjoying her time at home. “Being in New York City is great because I am able to catch up and see friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. The other day, I saw my best friend in the whole entire world, Bilal Morsi, the one person who heard of Met Gala Behavior before I said it on TikTok,” she explained of her childhood friend, who is currently a student playwright. “While I have been having a great [time] meeting up with people, it has been overwhelming because [before] getting stopped in public did not happen too much. Now I am getting recognized every time I leave my house. Hopefully I can get a manager or an agent or a bodyguard to help me feel a little more safe. I want to do a meet and greet one day, but I would like to have some form of security before I do that.”

But everything isn’t ideal in NYC. She says, “Spending time away from New York City taught me that I love to spend time alone and be in nature and quiet environments. NYC really is a loud place and it is hard to film TikTok videos with pristine audio.”

And for all the Baddies out there, Halbal has finally done what we’ve all been waiting for and gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to show us all her faves, including her beloved Impressionist collection. “Yes, I went to the Met last week just to walk around … and be inspired by the paintings.” 

Devin Halbal seems well suited to handle her newfound fame, and her posts continue to inspire people daily. As she told me during our interview, “Innovate, elevate Met Gala Behavior.” Words to live by.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.