vara is owning their emotions, the good and the bad, and embracing their identity

December 12, 2022

Interview by Alyssa Goldberg

Photo by Vara Gianna

vara, the 19-year-old singer, songwriter, and influencer released the confessional and contemplative track "paranoia" under their own independent label Kefe Records last month. vara entered the public eye at a young age, quickly building an infectious online persona and amassing over 60,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram at only age thirteen. However, the intensity and impalpability of this newfound fame brought a level of attention that at times felt impossible to manipulate. "paranoia" introduces a vulnerability to their music with themes of depression and choosing to struggle independently. On the track, vara sings, "Everybody says I'm tortured / Seven of my sins step forward." As friends express concern for their mental wellbeing, vara instead poses the question: What if I feel better this way?

In line with embracing their inner struggles on "paranoia," vara has been embracing her identity in real life, reimagining the way they interact with digital media and curate their online presence. Exploring their gender identity and coming out as non-binary has brought a freeing sense of authenticity to their public persona, as well as an honest and relatable edge in their lyrics.

SoS spoke with vara last week on growing up online, exploring their gender identity and coming out as non-binary, and how to make music that pulls on darker emotions without sinking into them entirely.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SoS: You entered the public eye around age thirteen and quickly gained more than 60,000 followers across social media platforms, and you've been open about being inspired by artists like Halsey, The 1975, and Arctic Monkeys, which are all big names in the 2014 Tumblr scene. Did you ever feel influenced or overwhelmed by the unhealthy aspects of that aesthetic? 

vara: I definitely did. At that time, I was like, 12, 13 [years old] and I was just getting my feet dipped into social media and really getting online. Tumblr was one of the first ones that I really got into because there's just so many different discourse communities and different people you can get connected to. But Tumblr wasn't something that I used as a way to gain followers, it was more so just for me to be social with other people. I kind of ventured into the pro-ana side of Tumblr a little bit, and that was really unhealthy and definitely led me astray for a long time. I think coming across that when I was that impressionable and that young was really damaging, but there were also really helpful and important aspects of that Tumblr era, aside from that. The internet is a dangerous place, so you gotta be careful. I think when you're that young, it's hard to distinguish what you should be getting into and what you shouldn't be.

SoS: When you fell into the more unhealthy sides of social media, do you think that was exacerbated by the fact that you were building a public presence and wanted to curate a specific image for yourself? 

vara: Yeah. I got really into photoshopping at a really young age just because I was very aware of the amount of people that were perceiving what I looked like and seeing my images and all of the things that I would post online. It was really overwhelming, and so, I got into photoshopping because that was almost like a protection barrier. I was like, well, if they make fun of the way I look in this photo, I don't even look like that. As I got older, I realized how much that screwed up my body image and the way that I perceived myself, so I quickly got over that. 

"I was going through a really tough time with disordered eating in the beginning of the pandemic, and thankfully I recovered. But, it's still a work in progress. Even when you recover, you're still infiltrated with these disordered thoughts. That mindset doesn't escape you, it's a disorder and it doesn't just go away. So now, as I've tried to loosen the reins of what the male gaze subjects onto females and am accepting that I don't want to participate in that, and that that is not how I view myself, it's definitely significantly better. "

SoS: As you've grown up, going from 13 to 20 and still having this public persona, how has your relationship to both using social media as well as presenting your online presence changed? 

vara: When I got to high school, I was going steady with social media, especially Instagram. But after sophomore year, and right before the pandemic hit, I really wasn't into social media as much just. I'd taken a little bit of a break from it to focus on school, and I really realized how much that was helping me internally with the way that I view myself. I wanted to just grow up as a normal-ish teen for a bit. Being in school with followers is kind of surreal just because you never really know what people are saying about you. Even when they say things to your face, it can be really hurtful at times. I always just kind of rolled it off my back and was like, well, if they were in my position, it'd be different. At the end of the day, everyone kind of wants to be famous when you're in high school. I wasn't saying that I was famous, but it was just more so like I had an online presence, and I feel like a lot of people are mean because they wish that they had the opportunities that I might have had. But, once I finished up high school, I distanced myself from social media and there was an intense amount of pressure there. My anxiety just around posting kept getting more and more worse. I'm at the point now where I'm okay posting and I actually think it's fun, but for a while there, I wouldn't touch Instagram with a ten-foot pole. 

SoS: You've mentioned that struggling with body image at different points in your life was a major reason for not wanting to use social media in the same way that you were initially going for, as well as your experiences on the pro-ana sides of Tumblr. How did exploring your gender identity and coming to realize and accept that you were non-binary play a role in your body image changing over time?

vara: It took me a while to even come to terms with wanting to explore my gender identity. My online persona was very glamorous and girly and very fangirl, and it was a very tight role. So, [I took] time to distance myself a little bit from that and grow as a person. I went through Covid during very informative years of my life, which was junior year of high school through freshman year of college. I didn't have a graduation, and all of these things accumulating was a lot. I learned a lot about myself. My body image during that time was really, really poor. I was going through a really tough time with disordered eating in the beginning of the pandemic, and thankfully I recovered. But, it's still a work in progress. Even when you recover, you're still infiltrated with these disordered thoughts. That mindset doesn't escape you, it's a disorder and it doesn't just go away. So now, as I've tried to loosen the reins of what the male gaze subjects onto females and am accepting that I don't want to participate in that and that is not how I view myself, it's definitely significantly better. 

I recently cut my hair super short. I used to have really, really long hair, and it's still an adjustment for me. For a while afterwards, I would look in the mirror and be like, who is that? Who is looking back at me, because I do not know who that person is. But, it's great. It's freeing in a lot of ways. Just saying FU to a lot of the norms I had placed on myself based on what I was ingesting from the media is a big help in changing those disordered mindsets.

SoS: Through these steps that you've taken to feel more comfortable in your body, like cutting your hair and steering away from that online persona of being very glamorous, have you been able to bring a greater sense of authenticity to your presence?

vara: For sure. I think when I first came out as non-binary, it was very real all of a sudden. I came out to my parents, which was a big deal because I was raised in an immigrant household, and conversations like that are difficult. But my parents have been really, really accepting and wonderful and I couldn't have asked for a better response from them, and all of my friends have been great. It's a work in progress, because I think coming out and switching pronouns is a little bit more difficult than coming out as queer in a sexuality sense. Gender's a little bit different because it's not just telling somebody like, ‘Hey, this is my sexuality.’ It's more like, ‘Hey, this is my gender and I also need you to change the way you refer to me.’ It's asking them to get involved in a lot of ways and I think older generations aren't used to rewiring their brains and how they perceive someone in that kind of sense. So it's been a work in progress, but it has been super affirming to me to hear other people perceive me the way that I wish to be perceived, which you can't really control but still is helpful.

Since coming out, it's been a huge trial and error in trying to find ways that physically expressing myself makes me feel better. But since cutting my hair, I've been going kind of back and forth because I'm very aware that non-binary people don't owe others androgyny. Since taking a step back from social media, I’ve leaned more towards masculine clothing, but feminine hair and makeup. I really like the balance between both and I think cutting my hair has been great. It's been freeing, it takes like 30 seconds to wash and style it, which is so different than what I'm used to. But it's a learning curve. Like, I think I've found that I kind of prefer myself with longer hair, but that was an opportunity that I wanted to have to learn about that, and I wouldn't have known if I hadn't done it. And it's gonna be fun to grow it out too, you know. 

"It's been a work in progress, but it has been super affirming to me to hear other people perceive me the way that I wish to be perceived."

SoS: What role did music play in your life before coming into the space as a musician, and when did you decide to start putting out your own music? 

vara: Music has always been my number one hobby. I started playing violin when I was five. I picked up other instruments along the way, and I started singing when I was eight. I sang in musical theater camps and musical theater clubs at school. I was a thespian, so just a theater kid all around. It's brave of me to be honest with that, but that is the case. In my teen years, I started writing. I didn't know what to do with it because I was writing poetry and trying to turn that into songs and it was just a hot mess. Kinda what you'd imagine a 13 year old writing about. As I got older and into high school, I had a lot of free time on my hands and didn’t have a lot to do during Covid because school was online and significantly less time consuming than it was if I had to go there in person. Also being isolated, I didn't really have much to do, so I just started picking up instruments again after putting them aside for a little bit to focus on school and YouTube and whatever. I just delved right into music and put out a few covers in 2021. From then I was just like, okay, I love being in the studio. I love being in this creative realm. This is great. I want to explore this more. So, I did a writing camp in Nashville the weekend after I graduated high school. I spent that entire summer going into the fall semester when I started college writing, writing, writing, recording, writing, writing, writing. I wrote "Paranoia" that summer. I had just come out of pandemic mode, so I had a lot of built up thoughts, emotions, revelations that I was ready to start writing about. I had kind of made the decision before I started college that this was really what I wanted to do with my life. And my parents have been nothing but supportive. So that's been really great. I'm taking time off school for now and focusing on this and it's just been a blessing. 

SoS: "Paranoia" introduces this vulnerability to your music with themes of depression and choosing to struggle independently, even as friends are expressing their concern. You pose an interesting question that I think a lot of creative individuals grapple with when our art is rooted in an expression of darker feelings. That is, is feeling this way actually for the best? So I want to ask you that question, do you feel better when you're not feeling okay?

vara: Obviously people feel their best when they're happy and doing well, but I think when you've grown accustomed to living in a state of melancholy and sadness and emptiness, after a certain amount of time that becomes your new normal. That is what you know your life to be and that just seems like a natural state to you. Anything else seems scary and unknown. I think when you're really knee deep in depression like that, in my experience, it's almost scary to recover, get help, or start going to therapy, or seek avenues that can bring you out of that because you fear maybe relapsing and going back into it. And I think falling back in hits harder than just staying where you're at. 

SoS: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I really love hearing your perspective, because I've always approached it in the sense of like, finding comfort in a familiar feeling, and not so much in the sense of like, being scared of falling back. Like, being scared of going backwards so thinking you may as well just stay stagnant. 

vara: It is really comforting, though, when it's a familiar feeling. I think honestly, when you're really that down bad and in it, it feels comforting to know that it can't get any worse. You're like, if I can handle being here and if I can survive barely at this level, and it can't get any worse, then I'm okay, you know.

SoS: How do you use this edge and your personal experience with mental health to create music without sulking in these negative feelings? And is that possible, to create music that touches on darker feelings without feeling them fully? 

vara: I think a lot of artists get backlash for opening up about their mental health and saying that those were good times. Like, Lana Del Rey gets a lot of heat for romanticizing mental health issues and abuse and stuff like that. And so I'm very cautious and wary of projecting the wrong image. I want my music and my art to help people, and I don't want it to be like, 'It's okay if you're sad, just stay sad.' I really don't want it to be a negative thing, but it is a fine line because I want to be as honest as I can about my experiences as well. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about mental health issues if they're in the present. A lot of people like talking about it in the past. They're like, 'Oh, well, you're better now so we can talk about it.' But when it's in the present, people are uncomfortable by it. If I'm not currently doing well people are like, 'No that's scary, I don't want to talk about that.' But, I think my experiences are constantly going back and forth between past and present, but that's just how life is and that's how things go. 

SoS: We have a question that we ask all the artists that we work with. We have this project called Song That Found Me at the Right Time, where we ask artists what's the song that found you the right time and they'll cover it and then do an interview around it. What is a song that found you at a time where you needed it the most?

vara: Actually, I know exactly. I know exactly what place I was at, what time it was, when it was. "Mystery of Love." Sufjan Stevens. It's from the Call Me by Your Name soundtrack. It was 2019 and winter break. I was in Canada at Niagara Falls. I had just gone through a very, very traumatic experience that had left me in a really, really dark place. Almost like the darkest place I've ever been in my life. That was a few months right before the pandemic hit in March. So, that just kind of shotgunned me straight into a really bad pandemic era. It was freezing cold. It was snowing, and I'm from Florida, so I really wasn't used to it. I'd just seen Call Me by Your Name for the first time and that movie left me heartbroken. And it's a problematic movie, but it related to me in a lot of ways. That song and Sufjan's entire discography is just so beautiful and raw, and I think perfectly encapsulates a lot of the human experience and the pain that's attached to it. And that song really did help me in a lot of ways. 

SoS: When do you turn to that album now? Or is it something that you kind of have to leave in that moment that you found it? 

vara: I listen to it a lot now. Not nearly as much as I did back then, but it kind of turned a new leaf for me. Sometimes I'll listen to it and it'll catch me off at the wrong moment and I'm almost transported back to that time. Now, because it's also a very popular song that I hear on TikTok a lot, it's kind of desensitized me a little bit to a lot of the emotions that I attached to that song. So I can either just jam along and sing to it in the car, or I could hear it at 3am and just start sobbing. It's a good song for both.


Keep up with vara: Instagram // YouTube // TikTok

Listen to "paranoia":