‘Trans Handy Ma’am’ Mercury Stardust on compassion, fame and Florida

If you’re not one of the almost 650,000 people who follow Mercury Stardust across Meta’s social media platforms, you may be one of her nearly 110,000 YouTube subscribers. Or maybe you’re one of the 2.4 million people (and counting) who follow the LGBTQ+ content creator on TikTok.

That’s where she went viral in 2021 for her unique brand of compassionate DIY, where she kindly explains how to complete certain tasks. It led fans to deem her the “Trans Handy Ma’am,” a moniker Stardust wears with pride.

The professional home maintenance tech has put her newfound fame to good use, focusing not just on rental repairs but on building her community. For Transgender Day of Visibility 2022, Stardust raised $120,000 for Plume, “the largest virtual clinic for transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people in the world.”

She did so during a “TikTok-a-Thon,” now an annual staple of Stardust’s philanthropy. It returned for a 30-hour livestream in March to raise more than $2.2 million for Point of Pride, which “provides financial aid and direct support to trans folks in need of health and wellness care.”

Stardust’s notoriety also led to the Aug. 22 publication of “Safe and Sound: A Renter-Friendly Guide to Home Repair,” her No. 1 New York Times Bestseller. It features over 50 home maintenance projects.

“Remember — a little bit of knowledge can go a long way toward making you feel safer and in control of your own life,” it promises. It’s a sentiment Stardust has shared directly with fans across the country for the book’s 52-city tour, coming to Tampa’s Mojo Books on Oct. 15.

Ahead of the stop, Watermark spoke with Stardust about compassionate DIY, why she wanted to bring her book tour to Florida and more.

WATERMARK: Your performance roots are in burlesque. Did that help prepare you for TikTok fame?

Mercury Stardust: My favorite compliment that I ever get is when people think that I handle this well, because the response I want to have is, “well, I’ve got you fooled!” (Laughs.) But yeah, I went to college for theatrical production and performance; my degrees were in theatrical light and set design, essentially, and I also got on stage and performed. So my whole background, other than the fact that I grew up on a farm and knew how to fix stuff, was the fact that I was a Jan of all trades and I really liked to be in front of people. I was good at entertaining people and bringing joy to people — so when I started blowing up on TikTok, my response was, “well, this is a show now!”

What did you do next?

I knew it boiled down to having a good support system. I thought, “we’d better get a good stage manager, a really good creative thinker and a director,” and that’s what I did. I essentially just put pieces in place to build it all up around me, and I think that stems directly from my theatrical experience.

I ran burlesque shows for 10 years here in Madison, Wisconsin, so it wasn’t just the fact that I knew how to perform, I knew how to build a show out. I knew how to use the tools around me — ha — to build a community for a like-minded goal.

People make fun of theater kids, but theater kids are really good to have around when we are basically doing anything. We’re hardwired to think in an efficient and group-minded way.

What have been some of the challenges of viral fame?

I would say the toll it takes on your mental health. It does something to you, meeting or speaking to thousands of people who don’t really know you in the sense of like, we haven’t spent Thanksgiving together or I haven’t seen you on your birthday. It’s very much me giving out and you receiving, and because of that there’s a very strong parasocial relationship which sometimes takes a toll on me. I worry about letting people down, I worry about not upholding my end of the bargain about being someone people look up to, about being someone who isn’t just trying to solve one problem. I’m not just trying to fix your drywall, I’m also trying to use my platform to uplift other people’s voices and raise money for trans health care, gender-affirming care, raising money for fixing people’s roofs.

It’s weird. I know how it feels as a queer person growing up in the world, and as a trans woman, I’m very used to rejection. I’m extremely good at handling people not liking me. I’m fine with that. The most difficult part is being loved by everybody — that is a thing I’m not used to, and being admired and looked up to and inspiring so many people is very overwhelming. I remember when I was on stage and I couldn’t get five people in the crowd to watch what I was doing. So that type of rejection is fine, but the amount of letters I get saying that I changed their life, or I’m the reason they’re sticking around, those really heavy things sometimes I hear, that is more difficult to process and work through than I think people understand.

How do you protect yourself?

It goes back to the community and group around me, the support system. I have the best spouse mouse in the world, we’ve been together for eight years and married for five. I have the two best cats in the world. I have the best friends in the world, one of them works with me every day and that’s the wonderful Basil, who’s my creative director. And I have people in my life who inspire me. I’m supported and inspired by people, which makes it easier to get through because I can go to them and they’re still sympathetic and compassionate to being a cog in that attention economy.

Where did “Trans Handy Ma’am” come from?

If you go back to the very first video I did that went viral, which was my ratchet strap video, you will see that I said, “Hey there, hi there, my name is Mercury Stardust and I’m the intersexual trans maintenance lady.” It took 19 seconds of a 59-second video to explain who I was. (Laughs.) I did that in a bunch of my first videos and in the comment section, there would be a lot of people who were like “Boy, that’s a mouthful. You know, ‘Trans Handy Ma’am’ would be pretty simple.”

So I always tell people I didn’t name myself, my audience did. I named myself and my audience told me I was wrong. (Laughs.) It’s another example of me listening to and caring about my audience — and I wear the name very proudly because that’s what the audience gave me. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not in this alone … I’m in this blanket of support from people who named me.

How do you explain compassionate DIY to people?

I label it compassionate DIY because innately when you hear it, you’re like, “oh, that’s kind, that’s loving.” There’s a central component of love behind the education. When you think of the status quo of education within a DIY system, or within the repair world that I inhabit, compassion isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. There might be a demographic that comes to mind, there may be a way of speaking that comes to mind, and neither of those things are connected to my style and who I am as a person.

So compassionate DIY tells you right away what it is. You don’t even have to really have a framework for it. It demystifies the barriers that have kept a lot of people, especially in the queer community, away from it.

What challenges do you think the LGBTQ+ community faces in DIY?

Some of us lost our support system when we came out or lacked it to begin with. People may have thought we were too feminine, or we were too different, or our identities that people believed us to be didn’t correlate with the need of repair. We also might have trauma around people and the way they taught us.

I remember my dad literally kicking me in the ass when I brought him the wrong tool or hitting me in the head with his baseball cap whenever I wound up a cord wrong. Those kinds of things stay with you. You stop asking questions. You stop learning. You stop seeking that information and you start telling yourself you’re not good at that. Well, why do you think that? Have you tried before? Have you turned the wrench?

If not, why do we believe that we have failed before we even started the task? I think that’s basically what compassionate DIY is. It’s addressing the problem head on. It’s meeting them where they’re at. If the way I teach does not tickle your fancy, if it doesn’t speak to you, then it is not for you. You may work really well with the status quo, but there’s a lot of people who’ve been left out who hear me talk and they feel like they can learn from me.

Why is it important to showcase your skills as someone who’s trans?

We have a very strong sense of what a maintenance technician will look, sound and behave like. It’s an archetype within our media and within our reality, we see it all the time. We see it in contracting and we see it and construction as well. So if that is the case, there should be an alternative and we should also see representation within these fields.

There are plenty of trans women, trans feminine people, trans masculine and trans men who are in this field. I know that because I’m on the internet and talk to these people all the time. I’ve met people who have been in construction for 30 years who are trans women. I’ve met trans men who worked on the oil machines. I met all of them doing these jobs.

But most of them are stealth, not wanting to share their trans identity with people, or they are open but they are terrified of people around them. So I think it’s important to bring attention to that and give out more support and love … just saying I’m the “Trans Handy Ma’am” is a small step forward in that direction.

What can you share about the success of the TikTok-a-Thons?

We started doing them because I feel very strongly in the mentality of it’s a privilege to have this large of a platform, and it’s a privilege to maintain that trust with the audience. Not only do I have a platform, I’m lucky that my audience has been following me for two and a half years. The longer they’re with me and the more good we do with it, the more we can succeed and the more good we can do. We’re building something quite large and quite beautiful, and one of the cornerstones of that is the fundraisers, because we help each other. Next year we’re going for four million and doing it over a course of three days, 10 hours each day.

You’re also on tour with your book. How did that project come to be?

My current agency reached out to publishers and we pitched the idea of a renter-friendly book. It was an uphill battle. It was a fight. Every single publisher had doubts about a renter-friendly book; 90% of them thought that we were limiting the market — but what they didn’t understand is that while almost every single homeowner has been a renter, most renters will never be a homeowner.

So that was a process but it was the coolest thing ever, coming to the table with why and having them listen to me. [Publisher] DK strongly had my back with everything after that, and our editor and everyone did such a beautiful job with the layout of the book. It just feels so different than any other DIY book I’ve ever held before.

How did you decide what to include?

That was a group effort. We have around 65 DIYs in the book and had a list of probably 220. We kept trying to think of universal stuff that would be in most renter’s homes — and if they’re in renters’ homes, they’re probably in homeowner’s homes, too. So we had discussions and also used my online audience as a resource. We knew if a certain video went viral and what questions we’ve gotten a lot. Now I get to tell people they can read the book and find the answer, because most of the questions I’m asked on a daily basis are answered in the book.

What’s reception been like?

In the first week we sold something like 38,000 copies of the book, and we sold the most books in the entire country. Period. There are no buts behind that. We sold the most books of the first week it came out, which is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I cannot believe we did that, but we did that. We did it, it was amazing, and we hit the number one New York Times bestselling list the week that we came out. It’s just wild to me.

What’s it been like touring?

It is the largest book tour in the country and we’re paying for 85% of it. It’s an absurd thing to do, 52, it’s a wild, ridiculous number. (Laughs.) But I knew it would get people watching, and we also get to help independent bookstores in the process, because the average turnout has been about 250 people at every event. People have been waiting for two and a half hours sometimes in line and they’re just chilling and just having fun times with friends and family and other fans, just an absolute wild experience.

I don’t think many content creators get to have this experience, but I highly recommend content creators getting out of their garage, getting out of their bedrooms and getting to meet people directly. This is more a signing but I get to talk to everyone for 15-20 seconds, and getting to meet them and seeing their faces and hearing how my videos are affecting them and how many of them are really large fans of mine, it really contextualizes why we’re doing this. It refuels you.

You’ve gotten some pushback for visiting places like Florida.

It’s weird how much pushback we’ve gotten from people about the places we’re going. Anywhere in the south, anything below D.C., has this response. It’s like a large group of people have forgotten that a lot of people who are queer and trans actually live in those places.

There’s a cognitive dissonance there, where people say, “oh, no, isn’t that terrible to live in Florida,” and it’s so disrespectful. A lot of people can’t leave Florida. They don’t have the means, they don’t have the community, they don’t have the connection. It’s their whole life. People build a whole world down in Florida or down in Tennessee or Mississippi or Texas. Am I a little nervous? Yeah, I mean, I’m a loud and proud trans woman traveling the country via vehicle and going to the bathroom in places. But at the same point in time, I’m willing to roll the dice and I’m willing to say, “look how safe it can be existing openly.”

Why is that important?

The trans community needs loud representation. We need everybody to feel encouraged enough to live as themselves openly, because if we do that, then more people will come out and more people will be on our side and support us. It’s the same thing with the gay liberation in the 70s, having more and more people coming out is good for the community. I think going down there and showing the world that you can live openly in these places and you can thrive and be a best-selling author, I think it pushes things forward in the right direction.

What other message do you have for LGBTQ+ Floridians?

We talk about survival a lot as a community and we’re very much in survival mode. Every trans person I know feels like we’re walking around with a target on our back right now, and that’s heavy and that’s hard. But I also think that we need to remind ourselves that this is a moment in history where if we build community, and we build strong connections to support and uplift each other, the glass ceiling will be struck down and we’ll be able to move past it.

Getting there is difficult and we shouldn’t have to live through history in order to be in that place, but if we support each other and love each other, it’s going to be okay. We’ve been here before, we’ve been here many times, the queer community is no stranger to being underground and silenced and pushed away — but the difference is, now we have the internet and it’s much, much harder to completely erase us. I don’t think we live in a timeline anymore where our history could be erased effectively. So hang in there. We’re gonna be okay.

Mercury Stardust’s “Safe and Sound: A Renter-Friendly Guide to Home Repair” is available wherever books are sold. Entry for her tour stop at Mojo Books & Records is currently standby only due to interest and space.

Learn more at MojoTampa.com and MercuryStardust.com.

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