This week on The Cut, co-host Jazmín Aguilera seeks advice on … giving advice. She sits down with John Paul Brammer, the voice behind the popular column “¡Hola Papi!,” to talk about his new book of essays, how he uses his own experiences and identity to help guide his readers, and whether he would even call himself an advice columnist.
To hear more about the magic behind “¡Hola Papi!,” listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find the full transcript below.
Jazmín Aguilera: When I was 22, I made a decision that forever changed the course of my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but hear me out — it’s true. I had two job offers to choose from: a stable, very well-paying job at a law firm in San Francisco and a wild-card option at a podcast in Oakland. It was hard to choose between the two of them because one job was stable and reliable and had a better salary, but the other one was fun. It seemed like a fun job. The thing is, I didn’t have a safety net. I didn’t have savings. It seemed to make the most sense to pick the stable option. So I called my mom. My mom’s a hardworking immigrant. She really wanted me to take this legal job because it was a career with longevity. But my dad had a different take.
Okay, so let me just say here that my dad … I usually don’t take his advice. It’s complicated, but he’s the kind of guy who makes unpredictable, reckless decisions sometimes. Like one time, I had to pick him up in the median of a major highway because his girlfriend left him there and he needed a ride. But for some reason, while riding the escalator up the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco, on a whim, I called him and asked him what he would do. He said, “Mija, you’re going to have your whole life to do boring, easy jobs. If you want to take a risk, do it in your 20s.”
So I took his advice, and he turned out to be right. Because it doesn’t really matter where advice comes from. In fact, some of the best advice comes from someone who’s been there and gotten it wrong. Like advice columnist John Paul Brammer.
John Paul Brammer: I pitched it to my editor as “queer, Latinx “Dear Abby” huffing poppers.”
JA: John Paul Brammer writes this advice column called “¡Hola Papi!,” and it’s mostly queer, very entertaining, and his book by the same name is a collection of the best columns from “¡Hola Papi!” since its weird start. Because it started on Grindr, the gay hook-up app. Unusual, I know, but Grindr was breaking into news and media at the time and asked him to write a column.
JPB: People would often send me “Hola, Papi” on [Grindr] because I’m Mexican, but I thought it would be so funny to take that and turn it into an advice column, sort of flipping it around. Like, Now you have to address me as “Hola Papi” because I’m your mentor.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpts: I’m going to level with you, reader, I’m too hungover for this shit.
I am a Latino homosexual with a mismanaged anxiety disorder and an internet connection.
Theoretically speaking, if I were to try to obtain poppers while visiting Mexico during one passionate summer of my bygone youth.
Imagine someone deciding to date you after they’ve seen the way you live.
Your roommates have every right to call each other ‘partner’; it’s their relationship. I once knew a couple who called each other “honeydew” and “little lady.”
This is uncomfortable, and I wish my co-worker would leave me alone. I have corgi tuition to pay. Their legs are so little, but their dreams are so big.
Just go to any bodega in New York City and say Papi sent you. Don’t do that. I don’t know what will happen if you do.
JA: Okay, so first of all, John Paul Brammer is hilarious. He literally has two articles up on Substack right now called “Top 5 Rat Movies I Made Up” and “Is Space Gay?” But the thing is, pretty quickly his “¡Hola Papi!” advice column became much more than a goofy Grindr experiment. “¡Hola Papi!” is vulgar and stupid, but it’s equally raw and sentimental, and smart. A good place to go if you’re lost and just want someone to be lost with you.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpts:
Hola Papi, I want to dress gayer, but I’m afraid.
I saw my manager on Grindr, do I say something?
How do I make peace with years in the closet?
How do I fall in love with myself?
Can I be proud of where I’m from even if it sucks?
How do I let go of my childhood trauma?
Signed, Damaged Goods.
Signed, Wasted Time.
JPB: There was this sort of unfilled niche that I accidentally stepped into. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people don’t have a whole lot of people they can ask questions about LGBTQ-related stuff with. They don’t have maybe someone in their immediate community where they can be like, “Hey, I’m gay” or “I’m bi” or “I’m trans.” “How do you approach this issue that I’m dealing with?”
So recognizing that I couldn’t just be funny all the time, I had to sort of bring some emotion and some genuine, earnest advice into the whole equation. If I was just some person who had come from a lot of money and didn’t have to have a job and I was living in some big house, and I’m sitting here trying to relate to the queers who barely have any money and who are being ground down by capitalism and homophobia, etc., I maybe wouldn’t be “Hola Papi.” I would be “Hello Father.”
JA: I don’t want to hear from somebody who studied my problems. I want to hear from somebody who’s gone through my problem. There’s just something about that relatability, about you having gone through it, that is valuable.
JPB: Oh, absolutely.
JA: What makes someone qualified to give advice? What makes someone credible or qualified?
JPB: So I thought about this a lot because I look at other advice columnists and ask the same question. I’m like, What are your credentials, here? And some of them actually do have legitimate credentials to fall back on, which is the formula that I didn’t want to emulate because I recognize that I’m just some guy. I don’t have a license. I don’t really think of myself as an expert in any way. What I am pretty good at is just being a friend — someone at the bar that you can talk to. I can be relatable. So in using a lot of humor, I can sort of offset people’s expectations that I’m some sort of life coach. I can sort of embrace that unhinged, manic energy that the “¡Hola Papi!” columns have become known for and then put a healthy dose of how I really feel and some genuine emotions or genuine empathy into it as well. That’s where the recipe comes from for “¡Hola Papi!”
JA: Are there any parts that you feel like you are faking it? That you haven’t really figured out yet?
JPB: Oh, all of it. I think we’re all sort of faking it to some degree. That’s just part of life because I think that, for example, the media industry, writing industry, the publishing industry — these are all very unnatural arrangements. They sort of ask us to become actors, at least to some degree, in order to fulfill our duties. So in working all the jobs that I’ve worked in — and there have been many, be it a tortilla factory or at a bookstore or a reporter — I felt like I had to zip myself up into a costume and sort of become this person that was not me.
JA: This is what sets “¡Hola Papi!” apart from other advice columns I’ve read. When someone writes in with a question, J.P. usually doesn’t launch in with a solution. Actually, he shares a story from his own past that features the same kind of struggle, pain, or confusion that the reader is dealing with. It’s not clean or authoritative, but somehow knowing that someone else survived the same thing … it helps.
JPB: So one thing as a writer that I am super-drawn and attracted to is those decisions we make that make no sense, especially in the context of love or obligation.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpts:
Hola Papi! Something bad happened to me. Can I be mad about it like … years later? Signed, Indecisive.
It was a slate-gray afternoon in April, one of the many afternoons I …
JA: In one chapter of his book, he had a heart-wrenching story about a relationship he had with a man named Carlos, who had sexually assaulted him and who he had continued to date.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpt:
A wise person might surmise that perhaps Carlos and I were incompatible, given how often I was irritated with him. But I perceived my irritation, rather, as a character flaw in myself, a roadblock I had to overcome if I was ever to end up with someone as good as Carlos.
JPB: If you look at that chapter, it’s not just about this person who inflicted damage on me and ended up being this horrible person. It was also a portrait of all the decisions I made to keep getting closer to him and to move into his house. And even though I wasn’t attracted to him, to continue going on dates with him and all this other stuff that I was doing. And I look back and I think now, What on earth motivated you to do that? It seems like we are constantly having to justify our behavior in a way that makes it seem like the good guy or that makes us seem like we’re acting logical.
JA: Yeah, you have to justify yourself.
JPB: Yeah. You have to justify your actions, and you have to talk about what pain or personal trauma caused you to act in this way. I think that that can get a little boring and not reflective of how life actually works. Sometimes we just make decisions that are completely left field and there is no really good justification for it. There’s no absolution from some personal trauma, or from some personality quirk or what have you, that can make what happened okay. I love stuff like that because that’s what makes us textured, fully dimensional people.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpt:
So why did I keep going, Indecisive? Why, when he poured us two glasses of wine and we sat at a card table with a tablecloth and lit candles, did I do my best to conjure what I liked about Carlos? I thought about how dignified he made me feel, how he offered me glimpses of some other kind of life where people spoke foreign languages and talked about books I hadn’t read. In the soft, warm light, I rooted for him and against my intuition.
JPB: So, yeah, that chapter was very much not about me trying to be like, I can’t believe Carlos did this to me, because in that chapter, actually, the betrayal comes from myself. It comes from a past version of me that treated him with kindness even after he had sexually assaulted me. If you saw someone else having that conversation with your abuser, you would be like, I’m so betrayed right now. But it was me doing that.
“¡Hola Papi!” Excerpt: My previous exchange with Carlos, on the surface, looked friendly enough and would look that way to any third-party observer. But I knew better now. I recognized in my past self a feeling again, of obligation.
The version of me in that hotel room and the version of me that replied to Carlos were both me and not me, guided by different understandings and contexts and subconscious motives that maybe I’ll never be able to unearth. And yet they are me nonetheless, in the geological way the earth is layered — ancient, old, recent, new, in a gradient towards the surface.
But I, me, myself, stand at the top. And from here, with the freedom of movement it grants me, I’ve come to think that it’s fine and perhaps expected to change your mind.
JA: After the break, I ask Hola Papi for advice. Stay tuned.
JA: If everything that you’ve written in your book is something that you’ve already come to terms with, I am so jealous of you. I’m so jealous of you. I have so many issues. Half of them are addressed here. But one line in your book that really stuck with me was that you were describing you, your mom, and your sister as “Americans with a squeeze of lime” and that working in a Mexican restaurant as a teenager and how you were learning Spanish with the workers but that you felt like you were deliberately undermining the work your abuela had done to make you white. That, oh my God, that got me right in the feels. You’re turning your cultural experiences like that into advice. So my question for you, seriously, from me, Jazmín, to you, is, Did you get over those issues? Am I going to get over my issues?
JPB: Yeah, I do think that I have at least reached a peace with that issue. I don’t know how long that peace is going to last because it seems like people’s understanding of race is constantly changing. But also some of those conversations can be really painful and difficult to deal with. For example, my Mexican family, my abuelos, my mom — they are definitely brown people, especially my abuelos. They were more dark-skinned people. And so they dealt with a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have to deal with. Going on to Twitter, for example. It’s funny, I think people classify Mexican Americans as different races all the time on Twitter. It’s just, like, one day you’re white, one day you have Indigenous ancestry, one day you’re neither. You’re mixed, or whatever.
JA: It’s exhausting.
JPB: It’s extremely exhausting, and it strikes me as being like, Okay, no one has settled on this, and maybe no one ever will settle on this, that it’s going to be shifting.
I think that that’s the quality inherent to the system of race. You have to have that flicker quality. Otherwise, race wouldn’t work. It has to constantly be seeking to put you in this category when it’s convenient to sustain itself and then put you in that category whenever it needs to survive. And that’s a feature; it’s not a bug. Separating myself from completely identifying within that system is really healthy. There are times when, yes, it’s very important and critical for me to acknowledge places where I have privilege. Places where I’ve been given the things that other people wouldn’t. But it’s also important to recognize that I’m not the one making those shots. We’re sort of living in a system that assigns people certain things and denies other people other things, depending on resources, depending on protecting capital. These are all things that we have to negotiate our bodies and beings with, and that can be a really difficult conversation. But it is a conversation, and that means it’s ongoing. So for me, my peace is very much there. Where I think about, Who’s hurting? How can I help them? I talk about in the book that the experiences that racialization produces — that’s the important stuff, rather than figuring out I am this or I am that.
JA: I wonder if the secret is just storytelling, understanding yourself through storytelling. The fact that, even if it’s rarely motivated by giving yourself the assignment of figuring out that question, it allows you a method that is external from your person, your connection to yourself, in a way that’s connected to your job as a way of addressing that.
JPB: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve been talking about impostor syndrome and also just trying to figure out how to approach trauma or how to approach issues in a certain way, and I think that a lot of it comes down to just settling on the narrative about that thing. It’s not necessarily that we have the complete correct answer; it’s more that, once we have decided on a story for something, then we can understand it, even if that story is one that doesn’t have a happy ending.
JA: Does getting a question about something that you are actively struggling with motivate you to resolve it?
JPB: Yeah, I would think so. I’m sure that that’s happening. One example would be that I got this one letter from this trans man who was dealing with male pattern baldness, and he was really afraid of it. He was like, “This is something that I didn’t know I’m going to have to deal with because I transitioned, and I was getting more at peace with myself and my body. And then my body does this other wild thing that I wasn’t expecting.”
I have a really severe case of body dysmorphia, and the idea of it really scares me. That letter scared the crap out of me because I remember I was in college and I had this one episode related to body dysmorphia, where I locked myself in my apartment for a week and I didn’t want to go outside or have anyone see me. Because I really thought that if anyone looked at me, they would feel secondhand embarrassment, or they would think I was funny, or they would be like, Oh, this poor guy. That’s how severe it sometimes got. In just engaging with this letter about having a body and things happening to your appearance that you can’t control because this is the process of things. How do you put yourself between it and that? Oh God, it really made me super-anxious. That was the case where I was like, Oh, but I really want to answer this because it’s so relatable to me, and I feel like I have ways of coping with this that I can share. But I think those are a little bit rarer. Ones where I’m like, Oh, this letter is a little bit of an assignment for me, I need to make sure that my thinking on this is coherent and that I have good advice to give. And also that I can present my relatable story to it in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m just speaking over them.
JA: When you do revisit your memories and your personal experience in order to help someone else and you rethink them for yourself, having to do that, aren’t you afraid that you’re going to run out of stuff? Can you repurpose? That would be my fear, like, I need to go out and do some crazy shit so I can learn from it, so I can help other people learn from it.
JPB: Okay, so listen, don’t tell our good friends at the Cut about this, but I’m starting to be like, Oh my God, have I run out? Because I haven’t really been living much of a whole life this past year-plus. And I think I draw a lot of inspiration from the natural turbulence that we encounter in our lives. The daily sort of shocks and throws and bumps and bruises that we get from going on a bad Tinder date or taking a trip to some city that we thought was going to be great and ended up not being that great. I really love stuff like that. That’s how I get my material. I’m finding lately that I’m taking more pauses between writing new columns and also just writing new stuff in general. As bored as I am, I don’t have a whole lot to write about at the moment.
I used to think this about music as well. I remember listening to new songs in high school or whatever and thinking to myself in this very panicked way, Are we going to run out of sounds or rhythms? Are we going to run out of lyrics? How can you possibly? And the reality is that the alphabets and words and the English language and music and art, they can all be sequenced in new and exciting ways infinitely. I mean, look at a deck of cards. You can rearrange them in so many different ways that it’s, I think, in more sequences than atoms there are in the earth or whatever. Some wild fact like that. And so I think, No, I’ll be fine.
JA: At the beginning, you talked about advice columns being not who you are. Do you feel now that you’ve really stepped into that space? You’ve written this book; you now have this way of being and understanding yourself. It works, obviously. Do you feel like you are the advice columnist?
JPB: It’s interesting. So writing a book was always my goal. I started out as a writer in high school, really. I just kept pushing and pushing for that. I think my whole writing career has just been in anticipation of this book of just being like, Okay, I just want to put something together like this. And after I brought myself into perfect alignment with that goal, it actually opened up a whole new identity crisis where there’s this looming specter of the “Adios, Papi.” The idea that I can’t write this column forever and that, at some point, I want to stop doing it. But also it’s become such a core part of who I am and what I do on a daily basis. I sometimes get recognized as Hola Papi, you know? That’s something that you have to bring into your identity, forming it to some extent where it’s like, But I’m Papi. I can’t just stop being Papi.
I think that I am 100 percent “¡Hola Papi!” I’ve proven that more than anyone else in the world, that I am “¡Hola Papi!” But in terms of being an advice columnist, I still don’t see myself that way. Even when I was writing my advice column, I rarely saw it as an advice column. I saw it as just a convenient medium for me to do the writing that I like to do. I never really thought of myself as an heir to “Dear Abby” or “Dear Prudence” or any of these other amazing advice columns that are out there. I never saw myself really in conversation with that group of people; just because I’m not really super-focused on giving people concretes at the end of every column and saying, like, “Do this: Break up with him, Sis,” that sort of thing. I do that sometimes but only when I feel like it. Freedom is really important to me.
I’ve done that with “¡Hola Papi!” a few times. There was this one time where someone wrote in asking, “Hey, I saw my manager on Grindr. What do I do?” And of course, the answer is “Don’t do anything; mind your business.” But I had several hundred other words to fill before I could turn in that column. So I interviewed a bee expert about whether or not the bees were actually dying and what we could do about it. To this day, it’s one of my more successful ones. The ability to just completely play with form and to completely sabotage the idea of rubrics and structures is really fun to me. It’s something that I hope to continue to do. I think I’m going to carry that with me whether I’m doing “¡Hola Papi!” or not.
JA: Yeah, yeah, that’s part of just your style.
JPB: Yeah, I think so, yeah.
JA: John Paul Brammer’s book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, comes out June 9.