Fairytales — made up of distant lands, glittering ballgowns, and slain dragons — usually live in the folds of childhood picture books. But for Melbourne-based content creator AJ Clementine, fairytales have become part of daily life. The 26-year-old model and influencer has amassed 1.5 million TikTok followers and has since been dubbed the modern-day Cinderella; romantic videos with her boyfriend Ryan, princess dress-ups, and whimsical edits fill her fantasy-fuelled feed.
In her debut memoir Girl Transcending, Clementine begins with the all-important four words: once upon a time. Over the phone, she tells Refinery29 Australia about how fantasy served as a “magical alternate universe” growing up.
“As a kid [I] saw the possibility of finding comfort in living in [these] moments in my head and then...as I got older I kind of realised that you can still take elements [from these fantasies], and you can still celebrate these things in your life,” she says.
“But then, you know, my life is never going to really be that full fairytale that exists in the movies and books, but you can try and emulate that into your real life, and that's ok. Like there's no one telling you not to do that.”
“I kind of found peace in the sense of, if I don't have it now, then maybe one day I [can] eventually have it. I was just scared more so in the sense of [missing out on milestones], like especially in high school when I didn't [go on] my first date, or [have] my first kiss, or my first anything.”
Instead, she knew she had to focus her energy on herself and her personal growth. In comparison to her teen peers, it felt like she carried an unexpected level of maturity. When asked about that, she says that it was out of obligation.
“I guess anybody really, if they’re in the LGBTQIA+ community or they have something in their life that separates them from traditional norms, they have to grow up navigating a world where people look at them differently, and it changes [their] own sense of who [they] are and it matures you in a way that makes you realise that you have to [mature] in order to get ahead.”
In Girl Transcending, she recounts a time in year two when she found out that a teacher had told her group of girls to distance themselves from her. She also writes about the time where she had a panic attack when being selected to be a part of an all-boys choir.
You could say that a lot of the fairytales and the princess aesthetic that I convey online is kind of a shield [that] protects who I am day to day.
When she was 18 years old, Clementine began to socially transition, and at 22, underwent gender affirmation surgery. These mark some of the moments she’s proudest of. “I never thought I'd be able to go through with that [and] being my present self in the future and looking back on it, [I’m able to be] like, ‘wow my younger self would be so proud.’]
It’s also what led to her decision to share these intimate life events with her thousands of followers. “I’ve made a pact with myself [because] it helps other people, but then again I always try and make sure that I keep things for myself as well and [I] protect [myself] in terms of who I am as a person,” she shares.
“You could say that a lot of the fairytales and the princess aesthetic that I convey online is kind of a shield [that] protects who I am day to day, because obviously, I'm not going to play that role and that character every [day]. And, you know, I kind of created that to tell my story in a different way where it’s another version of myself — an amplified version of the person I want to be — but it's not fully me.”
Clementine’s book is grounded in the consistent love and support she received from her Filipino mum, which was at odds with the religious landscape that her mum grew up in. “In the Philippines, it's very Christian, it's all very conservative and traditional,” Clementine explains. But on the other hand, she also points out how there aren’t binary pronouns in Tagalog and Filipino culture. But while religious values do have a stronghold, what triumphs them is family values.
I just always knew that she always saw me for who I wanted to be seen as, and I thought that was really special.
“Family values are more important, like family is everything. If your kid is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, you’re going to love them no matter what. It kind of defeats [these] toxic religious views — I guess it's learned hatred but because the family values are more important. The worst thing you can do is disown your kid, [in] the Philippines, many people will not look at you the right way you do that.”
And it wasn't just Clementine’s mum who embraced her transition, but her Aunty Zeny played an instrumental part too. “I always felt comfortable telling [Aunty Zeny about] the milestones in my transition… [she] was always affirming which was so important at that point of my transition because I never felt validated. I just always knew that she always saw me for who I wanted to be seen as, and I thought that was really special.”
The support that Clementine received came in unspoken forms too — like her cousin who knew she was borrowing her lip glosses without asking, so gave her a jar of them without saying a word, or her brother who took on the role of her protector from bullies.
Clementine's fairytale heroes came in various forms, from Sam in A Cinderella Story to make-believe characters in Animal Crossing, but the lessons she learned from them collectively led her to find her truth: that life really isn’t a fairytale.
“There's no knight in shining armour. It's all about yourself, your power, and... being who you are — and [whether] you're able to access that and jump over your own hurdles and fight your own demons,” she says.
“We're not in a fairytale; we're not in a reality that fully accepts trans people yet. I hope that we can literally just be safe and not have to worry about, like, being able to pass as a certain gender, so that we don't get hurt [or] get made fun of or all those kinds of things. I feel like if we work to a world like that then so many trans people [can] feel so much safer.”
A happily ever after doesn’t have to be a whole grandiose production sealed with a neat bow. In fact, it doesn’t have to even be an ending: AJ Clementine is only just getting started.