One thing is abundantly clear after spending a few hours with Madison Bailey: She isn’t interested in wearing a mask that grins and lies, as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once wrote. She’d much prefer to show the truth of her reality and to live in a world where that’s the norm. “If everyone were just 10 percent more honest, we would see a lot of shit changing,” she says over lunch at a French bistro just outside Los Angeles.
“I want to be respected. I want people to think I’m glamorous. I want people to see pictures of me and be like, ‘She’s stunning,’” she continues. “But I also want people to know that I don’t look like that every day. I’m not perfect, and I’m trying to show y’all I’m not.”
It’s a refreshing departure from the going-rate expectation that the people on our television screens be different (read: better) than us. But it’s also Madison’s rare kind of Hollywood magic: People feel like they really know her because she’s not interested in publicly being anything but herself.
For fans of the North Carolina native, this won’t come as such a surprise. From her earliest roles in 2015 (on Constantine and Swamp Murders) to her multi-episode arc on The CW’s Black Lightning to now three seasons of the wildly successful Netflix adventure drama Outer Banks, she’s been as open a book as possible. About being a mixed-race Black daughter of white adoptive parents. About living with borderline personality disorder. About being pansexual and in a loving relationship with her girlfriend of three years, former UNC Charlotte basketball player Mariah Linney. (At one point during our chat, Madison shows me a video just sent to her by a friend who’s on a snowboarding trip with Mariah. “Here goes my girl. She looks like she’s having a blast.…Yeah, get some energy out because I can’t hear about snowboarding again,” she jokes.)
But don’t confuse such honesty, she cautions, with the idea that she’s got everything figured out. “I’m still learning,” she says simply, acknowledging the perfection within imperfection, something that we as a culture could stand to do a lot more of these days. For now, she’s busy bringing representation to new projects and to the front row at Paris Fashion Week. “As long as my fans are willing to grow and learn with me,” she says, “then we’re good.”
You have this quote in your Instagram bio: “Self-discovery is a lifelong endeavor.” Say more.
I saw it on TikTok. It was a really good reminder that I don’t need to be one thing; I don’t need to spend time searching for labels for myself. Because I don’t need to be easy to describe—and by the time I figure out the language, I’m going to be a different person. It’s a reminder to people not to limit themselves.
What other quotes almost made the cut?
“When nothing matters, anything can matter.” As somebody who has an existential crisis every four minutes, I love that. We really don’t know what we’re doing on this planet. We can just make up our own shit and create our own purpose.…[Coughs] Ignore this cough. I’ve had it for a month. I went out a week before my birthday, and 24 has been making me pay for it ever since.
Was that your way of telling me it’s not COVID?
It’s not COVID. I took a test yesterday! Do not be alarmed.
Okay. I imagine you went from having however many followers1 to millions pretty quickly once Outer Banks took off.2 But the show premiered during the pandemic, so you’re only now finding out what that means for you in real life. How’s it going?
I always thought things would feel different on the other side, and then it’s like I woke up the next day and literally nothing has changed except all these people are looking at me. In a way, I’m like, “Boom. I’m ready for this.” Because I believe that my beliefs are correct. I believe the way I see humanity is helpful. I was excited to have a platform so I could preach what I preach. But there are other ways I wasn’t 100 percent ready. People are looking to me for answers, but I’m still filling in so many of my own.
1. “Two thousand,” Madison says.
2. Upon its initial release, the series was one of Netflix’s most streamed shows ever. Upon its season 3 premiere this spring, it topped 3 billion minutes of viewing in one week.
In a way, your visibility for all the communities you represent makes you a possibility model to many and a spokesperson to others. Your social media posts are not just little asides anymore.
It’s overwhelming at times. I have a love-hate relationship with it because sometimes I don’t think I am the best example. It’s hard to sift through what version of myself to bring out—I love so many different sides of me—and I’m still all over the place.
A lot of the demographics I’m representing, I’m just now learning about.3 Being raised by two white parents, I’m learning about my ethnicity as I’m getting older. Being queer but not from a queer family, I’m learning about that too. I’m also trying to explain myself at the same time. I feel like people are looking for somebody who’s more concise or put-together.
3. Madison tears up. “Tomato, tomato, tomato,” she says, quoting the popular TikTok meme by user Niqqi Tee. We both burst into laughter.
That’s a lot. And it’s beautiful to witness your vulnerability in this moment because there is a lot of pressure put on those of us in the public eye to get it all right the first time. I’m by no means on your level, but I cohost a couple of podcasts and write books,4 so this deeply resonates with me. I think your fans will appreciate it as well, because you’re simply being human.
I try to be. There are times I want to delete my Twitter, delete my everything, and just not talk to y’all. There are times where because my job is acting, I feel like you can just love me or hate me in whatever role I’m playing. I bounce back and forth. I feel all of these feelings, sometimes all in one day.
4. My podcasts are Crooked Media’s What a Day and Maximum Fun’s FANTI. My book We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film comes out May 9.
You’ve been pretty open about living with borderline personality disorder. A few years ago, when you were first talking about it, the rest of the internet wasn’t yet on its collective “self-care” journey. How has the shift felt for you?
I think people are comfortable with mental health now, but also, they pick and choose. People are comfortable talking about depression, about anxiety. I have one of the disorders that people don’t like talking about. There are still so many harsh stereotypes. What I hope I can deliver to my fans is that I’m human to a fault. I used to wish that one person I looked up to would admit they’re not perfect, admit they’re a hot fucking mess. That’s all I seek out in celebrities. I’m here for the people who are figuring it out.
Starting in 2020, I feel like my openness came with a disclaimer, like, “Hi, before you choose to support me, this is who you’re supporting. Now, you either follow or don’t.” I think I cut my audience in half by doing that.
Some people need to be sifted out.
Exactly. I’m a people person. I love people. But I’ve never understood those who think it’s a personality trait to hate people. I wish I could connect with everyone, so sometimes it hurts to be misunderstood and sit there and not say anything.
I understand that—because you can’t fight every time. Because also, let’s be real: We know some celebrities who like to fight with everybody.
Yeah, or celebrities who make an apology video every 0.2 seconds for something that was someone’s opinion of them. I’m not that person either. I’ll apologize when I’m sorry.
How has it been navigating all this alongside your Outer Banks castmates?
It’s been comforting to have people to rely on when you need to explain something that nobody else understands. We’re all having our own experience, but we’re the only people who can closely relate in this way. I don’t know what I would do without them, without Jonathan and his whole family and Chase, who’s the oldest of the group and like our leader. We know each other’s pain and this love-hate relationship with being in the spotlight.
We’re chatting mere hours before season 3 officially comes out. How does it feel?
I’ve been on my phone for, like, 72 hours straight, watching fans predict our entire season. It’s crazy how accurate they are. I’m more excited this season—I feel a little more involved and I have more of a storyline to talk about.
And you’re also now gearing up to film season 4. Season 3 ends with—sorry to anyone for this spoiler!—an 18-month time jump. Will that allow you all to do things you perhaps couldn’t before?
Seasons 1 and 2, there was a childlike excitement for treasure. Even in season 3, we’re young and it’s all cool and exciting. I believe this will give us a chance to think about things in a more mature way.
That makes me think of some of the comments I’ve seen online from fans who say the show doesn’t handle race well, if at all.
I think it would be good on the writers’ part to start considering that critique—slightly late but better late than never. In season 2, we added Carlacia5 to our main cast. She brings a vibe to set that we very much needed. I think it’d be in the writers’ best interests to start emphasizing it more.
You have three characters who are Black, and I’ll speak on my character specifically. Her whole theme is a foot in both worlds, and we’re lacking a huge part of that, which is her race. That said, there are moments. They’re too brief, but there are moments.6
5. Carlacia Grant plays the sharp-witted Cleo, who meets John B. and Sarah on their way to Nassau and quickly becomes a member of the crew.
6. Madison cites, for example, a scene where E. Roger Mitchell as the father of Jonathan Daviss’s Pope has a version of “the talk” with him.
If you could place your character on any other show, which would it be?
Why is my first thought Euphoria? Then I was like, “No, no, no. Kiara should not be on Euphoria.” She’d be like, “Y’all are doing way too much.” I don’t think Kiara would like the characters on it. Maybe Stranger Things. I feel like she would do really, really well. I don’t think the Demogorgons7 would catch her off guard. She would be a badass.
7. So apparently, Demogorgons are predatory creatures from the Upside Down, but I ain’t seen a single episode, so I just smile and nod.
And what’s your go-to at craft services while filming, to keep that badass energy up?
A ginseng shot, which, don’t ask me what it is. I have no idea what it is, but while everyone else is shotgunning Red Bulls, I’m with my little ginseng shot. It tastes like shit, but if I can take a tequila shot, I can drink a little ginseng! Have you met Casamigos?!
Ha. So I know you’ve been getting your acting on outside of the show. I read you’re going to be in a thriller called Time Cut that comes out next year?
Coming off of season 2, everyone was looking to keep working, trying to keep the momentum that we gained. I filmed American Horror Stories, which was an easy two weeks of shooting. And then two weeks later, I went up to Canada for Time Cut. It was my first direct offer, my first time not auditioning for something, which is mind-blowing to me.
We love that! It’s giving “Mama, I made it!”
They were like, we know your skill set, we’ve seen you’re talented, and we see you in this. It’s so rewarding. That’s what you want out of this. I was so excited. Like, I can do this!8 First time being number one on the call sheet. First time leading the project—first and only, currently.
8. To get the proper impact of how she said this, you have to imagine Madison’s shoulders moving like Shereé Whitfield’s in that Real Housewives of Atlanta GIF.
Do you like leading?
I loved every minute of it. I filmed with Antonia Gentry from Ginny & Georgia, who I adore. I feel like we understand parts of each other that not everybody else understands. The movie’s like a little time-travel moment.
It’s being described as Back to the Future meets Scream, which is an interesting mix.
It is interesting! I loved working with Hannah Macpherson, our director. I feel like she instilled so much trust in me in this role, and there was a greater sense of collaboration, which I want for my career.
Well, since we’re getting direct offers now, what is it that you want to do next?
Obviously, my eyes are peeled for a queer role. Where are they? I don’t know. They’re not coming through my inbox. I would love to get cast in a queer role and them not ask me to cut my hair or add something more…
Yes, “more queer.” Like, “Add another piercing!” I get it because that be us….
That do be us!
But also, this be us.9
9. She points to herself. Because she is femme and presents in a certain way, Madison won’t always be read as queer, even though her girlfriend, Mariah, is in almost every one of her IG and TikTok posts.
That’s a message! Queerness comes in all shapes, sizes, and piercing levels. And speaking of, it’s about to be Pride season. I personally have complex feelings around Pride but would love to hear your thoughts and what your first Pride was like.
My first actual Pride was in Charleston, while filming Outer Banks season 1. It was really fun. I wore my pan shirt. I did my rainbow makeup. I did the Pride thing that you’re supposed to do that first time.
Yes, we all go overboard for our first Pride. You kinda have to.
You actually do. I remember getting to the park and I was like, “Where do y’all stay in Charleston when we’re not all at this park for this event? Because I haven’t seen a single one of y’all walking around. I would have seen y’all, and I have not seen y’all anywhere.”10 They had a little drag show. I learned how to do the thing!11 I was like, “Yeah, this is me!”
10. We joke about all the queer people not actually living in Charleston but instead in surrounding cities like Summerville, Moncks Corner, and Goose Creek. “My girlfriend’s from Goose Creek, so I guess that’s where they are,” she says.
11. “The thing” = cracking a fan like you’re on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Pride will likely look a lot different for folks this year because we are in a moment of intense legislative attack on LGBTQ+ culture and our people. How are you navigating our reality?
I’m just living. I hold my girlfriend’s hand everywhere. We’re PDA all day. I think I’m navigating it with a “fuck you” attitude in a way. Like, “I’m here. Nothing you’re saying is changing attitudes.” I feel like I’m very, very lucky to be in a position where my safety has not been affected. I get hate—but all I can do in my position is keep advocating, keep being proud of who I am, keep spreading whatever word I can spread.
Before we wrap, I wanna take a hard left. I read somewhere that you initially wanted to be a singer?
I’ve been singing since I could talk. I think it’s part of coming in at number seven in my family, something about wanting attention.
You said, “Oh, y’all gon’ see me!”
Yeah, “Look at me! We’re holding a talent show tonight at 6 o’clock in the living room, pay attention!” Me and my sister would do a Christmas program. She’d have a dance solo. I’d sing solo and then we’d do a duet. I’ve been performing and singing my whole life—it’s something I’m passionate about. I think the reason I started taking it off the table a little is because I don’t write music. I feel like that stumps me. I’m also scared to sing in front of people now for no reason. My voice gets shaky. My throat gets dry.
Still, I feel like everyone is a multi-hyphenate these days. Is there a world where you do focus on music?
There’s a world. I don’t know what world. It exists somewhere though. I would love for someone to just write me a song and be like, “Sing this!”
So we’re looking for queer roles and songs. What is Madison’s sound? Folksy or an R&B, bluesy moment? Jazz, perhaps?
All of the above? I have a very hard time figuring out what my own sound is, but I think it’s definitely maybe something bluesy. I think, against my own will, I don’t sound bad singing country music. I’m from North Carolina. I can’t help it.
Stylist:Cassie Anderson. Hair: Graham Nation for The Wall Group. Makeup: Kendal Fedail for The Wall Group. Manicure: Eri Ishizu using Dior Vernis. Props: Jesse Nemeth for 11th House Agency. Tailoring: Wesley Nault. Production: Crawford & Co Productions. Deputy editor: Madeleine Frank Reeves.
Tre'vell Anderson is an award-winning journalist, noted podcast host, and authoress doing world-changing work around society and culture. Named to The Root’s 2020 list of the 100 most influential African Americans, they have dedicated their career to centering those in the margins and at the intersections of life. Tre'vell co-hosts two podcasts: Crooked Media’s “What A Day and Maximum Fun’s “FANTI”. They are also the authoress of We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV & Film.