Matt Bernstein: WHS graduate turned social media sensation

Photo courtesy of @MattXIV

Almost two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Matt Bernstein, a content creator, senior at NYU Tisch, and WHS Class of ‘17 alum. Better known as MattXIV by his 595K Instagram followers and his equally-impressive Twitter and Tiktok followings, Bernstein furthers conversations about the nation’s current socio-political climate, sheds light on the complexity of self-discovery and acceptance for everyone (especially queer people), and spreads a message of inclusivity through an unexpected medium: makeup.

When he first got to college, Bernstein and his new friends found themselves enamored with the city’s nightlife. “We would go out a lot, like to clubs, and it was too much, but it was really exciting and there were so many gay clubs and very queer nightlife spaces where people dressed and presented themselves in very queer and extravagant ways. So, we started doing eye shadow when we would go out, and it was just for fun,” said Bernstein.

At the same time, the start of Donald Trump’s presidency sparked a series of protests across the city, many of which Bernstein participated in and photographed. However, as Bernstein became more comfortable with wearing makeup and lost interest in standing behind his camera, which he also did for his photography major, he took to posting politically-inspired makeup looks on Instagram. What started as a playful form of self-exploration and expression quickly became a full-time job with a purpose.

Bernstein said, “My reason for going online every day is I want to make people feel valid, good about who they are, even if they don’t know who they are. Identity is very complicated and can be stressful and I want to remind people that who we are is something that we’re all always discovering.”

One of the benefits of being so authentic on social media and not shying away from difficult discussions is that Bernstein has earned the trust and admiration of his followers. Over the ambulance sirens from outside his small apartment, Bernstein said, “The best is having those singular conversations with people who are like ‘you’ve helped me come out’ or ‘I live in a strict Mormon community in Utah and your posts make me feel seen.’ It’s the personal connections and the perspective that you gain from them that is the most rewarding aspect of [my job].”

Photo courtesy of @Matt XIV

However, the immense pressure placed on content creators, especially those who are allies to many communities, to constantly be active on social media and bring awareness to the issues their followers are passionate about can take a real emotional toll. “You want to share everyone’s GoFundMe and amplify the right petition all the time, but the truth is, it’s impossible. The weight of knowing that you can’t do the right thing always is a lot,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein understands WHS students struggling with the impossible expectations placed on young people who feel like they don’t fit in because not so long ago, he was in their shoes. Despite being widely idealized now, the experience of growing up in a homogenous town wasn’t all that glamorous.

For all the kids “who don’t love going to school, who don’t feel seen by the teachers because of the way that a lot of them give preferential treatment to popular kids or the ones who have a hard time in the locker room,” Bernstein has a message: “Westfield and the experience that most people have going to WHS is so unbelievably unrepresentative of the rest of the world. The world is so much bigger. And you’re going to thrive after you graduate.”

Bernstein doesn’t feel that the town was a supportive environment for anyone who didn’t fit the traditional mold. While Folio and the WHS Theater Department still hold a special place in his heart, his experience coming out and being gay in Westfield was difficult— even more so because of the lack of happy gay adults to look up to. This is something that Bernstein hopes will change in the coming years. “It will take some very brave gays and I’m not going to be one of them.”

Bernstein goes out of his way to educate and uplift people every day, not expecting anything in return except for self-reflection and open-mindedness. And of course, he knows his way around a makeup bag. Who knew that advocating for marginalized groups and inclusivity could be so visually stimulating and beautiful?