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The Mystery That Is Leo Reilly

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Music Group

None of it makes sense. Not his thin mustache or its 901,000 followers. Not the photos and videos where his eyes are lips, or his neck is three feet long, or his head appears on the body of a voluptuous woman. Who is this gorgeous boy with an endless trove of white tank tops, who looks like the trim love child of Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, straight off the set of an Almodóvar movie? Could he actually be the 21-year-old son of character-actor John C. Reilly, a man not necessarily known for his stunning looks?

Denizens of Twitter love this sort of cognitive dissonance. At the end of February, a tweet from HuffPost writer Zeba Blay revealed the single-earring’d progeny. The observation was picked up and spread quickly. E! News said, “John C. Reilly’s Son Leo Is the Internet’s Latest Obsession,” and HuffPost gushed, “Turns Out John C. Reilly’s Son Is a Model, a Musician and Very, Very Hot.” The Cut’s own Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz asked, “Did You Know About John C. Reilly’s Hot Son?”

Reilly knows he looks like a young Freddie Mercury mixed with a doe-eyed manga character. But he would rather you not mention it. “If you really want to you can still comment on it, but just know that I know, and know that I know that you know,” he told me, Zooming from his apartment in Los Angeles, with a life-size cutout of himself in the background. He embodies nonchalance, and clever narcissism, sporting rainbow-colored nails on one hand, and Bowie-esque (and fake) heterochromatic eyes (“If I’ve got to put these stupid little pieces of plastic in my eyes every morning, I might as well get something out of it,” he told me.)

His wide-ranging creative “enterprise” includes music, clothes, videos, TikToks, Instagram Photoshop jobs, and jewelry. Earrings are his specialty, and his Instagram shows him dangling everything from tea bags to lollipops to Juul pods (“dont shmoke it! wear it!”) from his ears. Of course, he sells them on his Depop.

His main project, however, is his music, which Ones to Watch called “dance-inducing anti-pop with a call-to-action that is practically begging to be meme’d.” The songs are appropriately recorded with a teeny USB microphone on GarageBand, sometimes in bed at home, “crisscross applesauce,” while his mom makes dinner. “Boyfren” is the most popular, with nearly 180K plays on TikTok and 25 million on Spotify. He calls the song “a building block for my discography,” and I can’t tell if he’s joking. It is “the first element in setting the listener up for some kind of sonic journey” — a journey not of deep, poetic meaning but rather super-DIY songs, lyrically perfect for teens.

On TikTok, fans sing “Boyfren” (“You should break up with your boyfriend / And get with me”) while waxing poetic about their high-school crushes. In one video, liked by over 400,000 people, a girl plays the song while the story of her personal heartbreak flashes over her head: “So my boyfriend broke up with me. I already bought a dress for prom & all my guy friends already asked their dates. He told me I was too problematic and needy. So I dm’ed David to go to prom with me … Tag David so I don’t go to prom alone & can flex on my ex.”

Reilly also operates under different personas. “I come up with alter egos for fun,” he said. “I think of different characters in an alternate universe I could be in.” He goes by “LoveLeo” (a name he created lying in bed) and says you can pronounce it “Lovely-O,” since he is a “big cereal fan,” or also “Love-Elio,” if you want to get “like super Euro and very chic with it.” The alter ego he’s currently plotting is “a private investigator detective type” (who has been making appearances online). Before this, he was “Young Frosty,” a bleach blond who made “melodic SoundCloud rap kind of stuff.”

The performance is so easy because, obviously, his generation lives with 24/7 access to being “Live.” Performing isn’t exactly apart from reality because you can stream your life as performance for your friends and strangers. Talking about his hope for singing live one day, Reilly said, “For an artist like me it’s really important to take myself out of the internet, and be present and show people who I am.” But, whether or not that is necessary or even desirable has yet to be determined. It might only work online, in 15-second snippets.

Reilly’s music videos, which he makes at home with his “two guy friends,” are a prime example: trippy fever dreams full of snakes and fires, multiple Leos on one screen and his face on an egg yolk. He seems to have an endless well of interesting props to smash, retro cars to drive in, and spacious homes and apartments to film from. “The goal is just to get somebody to look at it twice. Some people try to sound out by being loud or big or in your face. ‘Look at me!’ What’s a lot more attractive to me is doing that in a very subtle way. The viewer has to work for it and figure it out on their own.”

When Reilly’s full oeuvre — I mean, feed — is viewed as a whole, the sensibility is camp, calling to mind Susan Sontag’s 18th note: “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

Reilly’s presence is naïve, but not entirely. He’s a celebrity child with an elite Waldorf education, who pursued a college degree in fashion design. He’s an L.A. cool kid who lives with his blonde-mulleted, androgynous girlfriend. He plays with conventional gender norms despite the fact that he also seems like just another 21-year-old guy who surrounds himself with succulents, and plays with a pet Tamagotchi or logs on to Animal Crossing.

He’s worth your time for the sheer entertainment of his performances, but you won’t necessarily understand what any of it means. He likely doesn’t know what it means either. In fact, it all might mean nothing. As he says in his first single, “Ring around the Rosie / You barely even know me / Pockets full of I don’t care.”

The Mystery That Is Leo Reilly