Yasmin Finney Talks Heartstopper and Changing the World

“I didn't realize how powerful the universe is, how powerful manifestation is.”

You know that TikTok audio of Wendy Williams saying, “She’s an icon, she’s a legend, and she is the moment”? The one with a backing beat that – in a probable case of Beyoncé-induced Mandela effect – morphs into “Virgo’s Groove”? It’s destined for a catwalk, for ballroom voguing, for clinking glasses with your friends on a night out, unmarred by catcallers. That sound, that vibe, that energy, is Yasmin Finney. 

She is an icon, she is a legend, and she is the moment. Like Queen Bey, Finney, 19, is a Virgo; she bumped Renaissance during her New Hollywood 2023 cover photo shoot. The shoot took place just a few months after she appeared on the December 2022 cover of British Vogue, dubbed “Gen Z’s brightest young star.” 

It’s been an almost nauseatingly fast ascent, after her scene-stealing first role as Elle in Netflix’s hit Heartstopper, a rare example of tender, sweet, queer and trans joy in an era full of violent headlines. Within a month of the show’s premiere last spring, it was announced Finney would join the long-running British classic Doctor Who as the new Rose. Then came that British Vogue cover. Judging from the 2023 projects she teased during our conversation — projects that are still under wraps — everything’s coming up Yasmin Finney.

Yasmin Finney wears a GCDS catsuit, Jimmy Choo heels, Miscreants arm puffs, and Tiffany jewelry.Jingyu Lin

Finney knew she’d end up here. “I always used to watch Paris Is Burning, the House of LaBeija, and the fantasy world of living a high-luxury life… It was always this thing: ‘I want to be a model, I want to be divine femininity, and I want to be everything everywhere all at once, and I want to be on the cover of Vogue.’ I remember the exact speech,” Finney recalls, swaddled in a plush, pale pink knit after her wardrobe fitting for the photo shoot. “I was 14, in my bed, pre-transition. I just had such goosebumps, and I was like, ‘I want that. I really want that.’ And I got it. I didn't realize how powerful the universe is, how powerful manifestation is.” (See also: Finney basically manifests herself being cast as Doctor Who's Rose in a previous Teen Vogue interview.)

When you meet Finney, her stratospheric success seems only right. She is the type of woman so radically self-actualized, so incandescent, she makes you think, unbidden, of fairy tales. And all that success? Again, it's just confirmation of what she already knew. “Put the shoe on, and the shoe fits, girl. It fits. Period,” Finney says, calmly confident. “It's like Cinderella. Yes, thank you, I'll take it.”

Not so long ago, Finney was getting bullied in school in her native Manchester, living with her Jamaican mother and half-sister, not sure of who she was — a far cry from the at least somewhat supportive school environs in Heartstopper, not to mention the composed, thoughtful, and assured woman who sits before me. Like countless others, she turned to Tiktok for solace. “I didn't really have a clue when I was in high school what was going on with my mind…. There was never really a trans or a nonbinary or an asexual," Finney recalls. "There wasn't any of that in my world back then, because it wasn't talked about.”

Though a lot of her pre-Heartstopper content is gone now, Finney’s TikTok became a platform for clapping back at transphobes, boosting UK-based LGBTQ+ organizations like Stonewall, documenting her dating struggles, and just generally loving on herself — thus developing the audience that led to her casting in Heartstopper. 

Meanwhile, Finney was simultaneously developing her sense of responsibility for what she wanted to share. She has nearly 2 million followers now. “When I went on TikTok, that was the time I would be able to talk about [my experiences] and make humor out of the sad reality that [was] my life," she says. "I built a huge fan base through that, and that was before I even knew what Heartstopper was.” 

As a result, before Finney became a cover star, she already understood the responsibility of, as she puts it, “being representation.” “I think I've always had this mindset of being a leader and being able to navigate this world,” she continues, apparently centered and wise beyond her 19 years. “My job isn't over yet. This is just the beginning. There's so much more I want to do, so many stories that need to be told, and there's so much politics and just — ugh, there's just so much that we need to do.”

Yasmin Finney wears a Dion Lee jacket and Tiffany jewelry.Jingyu Lin

In her so-far short career — again, Finney has one completed credit under her belt — she's been confronted over and over with how powerful her presence has been for others. “Heartstopper is escapism. It's something that is there for people to watch and escape into a world of fantasy and comfort,” she says. “We all watch and think, I wish I had this, but I don't think anyone's really had this, because it's so new and fresh…."

Finney continues, "It's opening new boundaries for people, and that's why it's resonated with a lot of older people as well. Loads of people come up to me and they're like, 'I'm in my 40s, but your show still really affects me.' I have people that are 30 messaging me, being like, ‘Oh, my God, I came out as trans because I saw Elle.’”

Finney understands that feeling from personal experience. “It took me a while to find representation that was real, that represented me, who I was as Yasmin,” she says. “After a while, I would just reach that point of like, Oh, no one's like me on TV. I'm never going to be able to do what I want. I'm never going to be able to do what I love. I'm never going to be able to live a life of safety because of who I am.” (Finney’s vulnerability reminds me of why “Church Girl” makes me teary — a world away from Elle’s sweet but reserved self-protection in Heartstopper’s first season.) 

“Every day is a risk, every day is a life or death situation," Finney says. "Even now, the popularity that's come with the show also comes with a lot of danger, because people see Heartstopper and they're like, 'Oh, I didn't like that.' I've got to be even more safe now, because not only do I have the pressure of the community, but I've also got people following me on private accounts sending death threats.”

To her credit, Finney doesn’t seem very fazed. “It's really scary. But it's also life, and it's what comes with the role.” And she is clear that it’s not just about Heartstopper or Elle. “This is just one show. We need so many more,” Finney observes. “If we look at the world itself, how we keep going backwards and forwards, how trans people are always used as a political football in everybody's debate, when in reality there are so [many] other things that the government needs to be focusing on, but instead they're focusing on our genitals… It's all well and [good for] having Heartstopper, but what good is it if we don't have this as a reality?”

Yasmin Finney wears a Dion Lee jacket, top, and pants, Sadi Studios heels, and Tiffany jewelry.Jingyu Lin

We spend much of our conversation talking about all the ways our real world diverges from the world seen in Heartstopper, where Elle is able to enter a girls-only school and make friends with little fanfare. The trip to the US for Teen Vogue’s cover shoot is Finney’s first to the country. “Before I landed in the US yesterday, I was scared shitless,” she says with a chuckle. (Her trip through TSA was blessedly problem-free.) 

“You hear things, and people talk, and the internet is a very dark place," she continues, somehow placid and measured given the gravity of our conversation. "When I was younger, watching Paris Is Burning, I also was watching the news and seeing [yet] another Black trans woman being killed, and the rate of death for Black trans women going up in America — it was all at the same time. So my mind automatically built this idea of what America is, right? Because I mean, in reality, it is dangerous.” (Just getting through the airport had her “gooped and gagged,” among Finney's favorite phrases.)

Of course, we also discuss all the slaying she’s about to do when she hits the New York City streets of Soho, but we have to chat about her safety in doing so. Finney — I remind you, a cover model — has been stressing about meeting men on apps. “It's crazy because — I can't believe I'm saying this in the interview — but what I've realized recently is, it's the DL guys who will go for trans girls like me, and then they'll feel this pressure because they like this.” 

Finney recognizes their desire to lash out at trans women for the insecurity and ignorance it is. “When I came in [to the US], the first thing I did was go on [the apps] and when I saw it, I was gooped and gagged over how scary these guys are! They really are scary, and they will be the guys that hit you up,” Finney says with a wry laugh. “They like us on the DL, that's the whole thing. But I'm not your secret. I never will be your secret. I'm one of a kind, and I want to be treated like that. I want to be seen as what I am, and that's a powerful Black woman. Do you know what I mean? Like, anything else?” 

“F*ck all the rest, I reply. “F*ck the rest, period,” Finney agrees.

Yasmin Finney wears a GCDS catsuit, Jimmy Choo heels, Miscreants arm puffs, and Tiffany jewelry.Jingyu Lin

There’s the extent to which being an actor is automatically about how others perceive you; transness asks instead, how do you see you? It’s a skill not everyone has — indeed, it's a skill cis people don't even realize they often under-develop. When you’re trans, the stakes for self-discovery are life and death. Finney sets an equally high bar for her work: “I want to be able to change the world. I don't want to just be able to be on a screen and give people a fantasy world, because it's not the reality, it's just an art.”

How can she possibly forget the stakes when evidence of them is borne out in just what it takes for her to safely navigate the world? “I'm so happy that I've got this role to be able to, like I say, be representation, be a young Black trans girl living my life authentically,” Finney says. “But it does come with a lot of pressure. It does come with all of the technical stuff: Always making sure that I'm safe, always making sure that I'm surrounded with the right people, and always making sure that I've got my head held high in any situation, whether that's being misgendered on set or being misgendered in my real life."

Finney continues, "I'm always making sure that I carry myself gracefully. But that's just something I've always done, it's not something that I've just done now because this has blown up.”

So, what’s next for Yasmin? Well, first, if Hollywood has any sense, getting cast in a role that isn’t trans, a goal she’s mentioned in interviews before. (“That would be probably everything for this year.”) She'll explore her new life in London, with her new puppy, Coco, making music (she’s loving Sam Smith and SZA lately), and Doctor Who with Ncuti Gatwa, a former New Hollywood inductee himself

“Ncuti is power. Ncuti's power,” Finney emphasizes, eyes widening. “And we're both doing amazing. We're both taking over this space. So get ready.” That assuredness carries over to Finney’s security in her right to show the world who she is. “There are hundreds of trans people realizing that they're trans every single day. So what's going to happen 10, 15 years from now? Probably half the population will be queer and will eventually realize that we are here, and we're here to stay, girl.”

Bigots and governments are literally trying to scare the life out of trans people on both sides of the pond, but Finney will not be cowed. They’re spineless; her posture is ramrod straight, unshakeable and elegant. It strikes me during the photo shoot how dancer-like her movements are. On a day filled with stars, it’s Finney’s moment — soundtracked by Renaissance and other divas like Mariah — that busy workers stand around to watch, entranced, cheering “Yaaaas!” It’s impossible not to be pulled into her orbit. There’s nothing more seductive than a woman who knows she’s that girl.