Mercury Stardust’s phone camera pops on in the vacant Google Meet room. She’s doing her makeup, surrounded by her team offscreen, in a period of relative calm before the release of her first book, Safe and Sound: A Renter-Friendly Guide to Home Repair, which will be accompanied by a 52-city book tour.
Just over two years ago, the self-proclaimed Trans Handy Ma’am, based in Madison, Wisconsin, worked solely as a maintenance technician and burlesque performer, spending most of her time in other people’s homes. Today, she has more than 2.4 million TikTok users following her DIY home improvement content and can hardly leave the house without being recognized somewhere.
Trans activist Aydian Dowling is giving gender-affirmation a high-tech spin.
“I was somewhat used to being recognized prior because I was a world-renowned burlesque dancer,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “So I got recognized every once in a while. But not like I do now. I mean, I go into Target, I go to Walmart, I go into any grocery store, I go to any gay bar — oh my God, gay bars!”
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As a trans woman in maintenance, Stardust is all too familiar with the barrier to entry for women and LGBTQ+ folks to trades that society codes as masculine. With the near-immediate rise of her channel, it’s clear that many other people share the experience.
@mercurystardust @creating.in.chaos How to replace a toilet fill vavle #DIY #Askmercury #Toilet #lgbtqia #trans ♬ original sound – Mercury Stardust
“Being a renter myself, being in this field directly, that meant I knew exactly how to communicate to people who might feel pretty crappy about just asking, right? And I think that’s what people gravitated toward: I’m a little dorky, I’m a little goofy, I don’t always know the right terms for things.”
Stardust’s book will be released on August 22 and will no doubt be the start of a new chapter for her budding empire.
The Trans Handy Ma’am is Born
Stardust joined TikTok in March 2021 and had only posted a handful of videos before she went viral weeks later. She stumbled upon a video made by a Vegas showgirl who didn’t know how to use a riser strap.
“She got made fun of for everything. People were just so mean and rude to her that I got really upset, and it was almost like I was being made fun of. When I was growing up, that’s how I was made fun of for being too fat, or being too sissy, or not knowing something.”
Stardust made her first stitch, which allows users to tag another creator and post several seconds of their video with a video reply of their own. She didn’t know what she was doing; she just wanted to answer the question. After one take, Stardust posted the video and didn’t think much more about it.
What happened next is somewhat common for many creators striking gold with their first viral video. When Stardust checked the app a few hours after she posted, the video had accumulated more than 150,000 views and she suddenly had 20,000 followers. As a performer for more than a decade at that point, she had tried to get that type of online attention for years, and she was ironically on the verge of retiring from burlesque.
“Then all of a sudden, boom. That happened,” she said. “And it just changed the course of my entire career.”
Stardust didn’t press forward with specific goals or a content strategy to get more views. She simply answered the questions she received. One answer often led to another question, and eventually users posted videos tagging Stardust directly with very specific questions. She kept responding.
She took phone calls from people in Alaska, even taking time to learn about Australian and U.K. plumbing. It was fun, tiring, and all about helping people. The fact that she was so overloaded was a clear sign that knowledge around home improvement wasn’t as accessible as it should be for many people, she said.
Stardust meets her viewers where they’re at. She communicates with compassion and encouragement, walking through any process with easy-to-understand step-by-step instructions. Through it all, she emits nothing but warmth. In a sea of other influencers buried in filters posting only the most highly curated content, it’s clear Stardust is simply being her authentic self on camera.
“TikTok is already so intimate, right? Like, most people watch their TikTok while they’re pooping,” she laughed. “They’re holding you in their hand, right? All I’m saying is, ‘Hey, you’re worth the time it takes to learn a new skill.’ That type of impact is huge, and I don’t think my methods of educating would have resonated so deeply, so vastly, without that extra intimacy, how the kind of content we’re making is consumed.”
By July 2021, she was able to turn to content creation full-time. As her online audience grew, she said it was harder and harder to show up to her job as a maintenance technician. Although she had a number of issues with the profession that were coming to a head anyway, it did afford her the opportunity to connect with people in her community.
Quitting her job was the hardest moment of her life.
“I help more people now than I ever did then. But when you’re in someone’s home and they trust you enough to open their door up to let you come in and fix the thing. You talk about their kids and about their kids’ partners and you talk about their grandmas and their grandpas. They want to share the world with you if you’re willing to listen.”
The gaps in home maintenance & the need for Mercury Stardust
Stardust said more than once that she’s no celebrity, though she admits that her career demands a lot of energy. In addition to her video content, she also hosts the “Handy Ma’am Hotline” podcast, where she answers additional maintenance questions from her audience.
“All of [these questions] come back to one thing: Someone in their life makes them so nervous to ask them that they’re willing to ask a stranger on the internet. All of it does! There is a maintenance technician that is part of their apartment complex and they can’t ask them, or an ex-husband who doesn’t want anything to do with them, or a dad who disowned them, a brother who hasn’t helped them in years. All of them have someone in their life that they wish they could ask help from, but they can’t.”
Instead, they turn to her.
“I often tell people that the day that I don’t have to exist is the day that we finally overcome a lot of this inadequacy in society. The fact that I can do so well in this industry is a testament to how bad the standards really are.”
Stardust also holds transgender activism at the forefront of her work. It was never a question, she said, given her history working in pageants as a burlesque performer where she held multiple fundraisers for the community. It’s just what you do in queer spaces, she said, and if you want to be the King, Queen, Mx, you’ve got to do it right.
But it’s no longer just about the people of Madison — people around the entire country, and the world, are watching her now.
“The outside perspectives think it’s brave,” Stardust said. “For us, we’re living it. It’s not brave; it’s literally a necessity. If the options were, I did nothing and I stayed inside and locked my door, or I go outside and face the world that will be cruel to me, what are you talking about? The reality for trans people — especially for Black trans women — is wild, absolutely wild.”
Stardust also works as a speaker and maintains her fundraising roots. Earlier this year, she raised more than $2 million with fellow TikToker @alluringskull for Point of Pride, a trans healthcare nonprofit. She plans to hold the same fundraiser next year with an even higher goal.
Embracing the next chapter of Mercury Stardust media
Stardust is enjoying the calm before her book release catapults her into the next part of her career and life. Coming off of VidCon in June, she said it was a surreal experience to meet celebrities treating her “like I’m their celebrity.”
After returning home from the rush of the weekend, her team took a break, but she felt like she had to keep working. Upon some reflection, she disclosed in the interview — and to her millions of followers in early July — that she was taking some time to slow down to focus on her mental health.
“I see all these content creators who crash and burn in a year or two, 40 million followers and 10 million followers, and they don’t have a team. They might have an agent, but the agent has 10, 20 other clients. They don’t really care about you.”
She compared her current five-person team and the need for extra help to create a quality burlesque production: Maggie’s her stage manager; Basil’s her creative head; Ziggy, Raymond, and Matt are her crew. They are invaluable, and she ensures each team member makes an equitable living wage.
“You need to have those people who can make things happen when you can’t,” she said. Maggie Conrad, her business partner, is one testament to that mantra — the pair worked together, with Maggie writing and Stardust vocalizing her thoughts, to finish the book due to Mercury’s ADHD and dyslexia that kept her from completing it alone.
Mercury’s first instinct, and only intention, was to write a book focusing on renters, specifically. She’s a renter herself, and so are plenty of other Americans: The Housing Vacancy Survey said there were 44 million renter households in the third quarter of 2021.
She was told her vision would limit her audience — “Just because it’s for renters doesn’t mean that homeowners can’t use it! A focus is not an exclusion,” she said — but she kept fighting. Of the 11 interested publishers, only two offered bids, and she ultimately went with DK.
The cover, she said, was an “interesting conversation,” as it features an illustrated version of Stardust with vibrant colors, akin to the illustrations found within the book itself, a stark contrast to the somewhat clinical and uniform appearance of other home improvement books. But this book isn’t necessarily for that same audience.
“I knew that the book didn’t just have to have good content inside and out and make you feel good in the moment — it had to be different from ‘DIY Home Repairs For Beginners.’ It had to be different than what this looks like,” she said, holding up a book with blocky text over a collage of generic photos of tools. “I wanted this to look so different from this, that people who were like you and I would gravitate toward it. There’s things in there that make [LGBTQ+ people] feel good, but you can’t always convey that to people who aren’t in our community.”
After the release of the book, Stardust and her team will head out on a 52-city tour. She brings the interview to another room to reveal a huge map on a whiteboard, donning a dizzying zig-zag of lines connecting cities throughout the country — and she surveyed her audience to figure out exactly where to stop.
“We’re not going to large, well-known cities. We’re going to locations that our audience told us they needed us the most,” Stardust said, adding that all the stops are independent and queer-owned or -adjacent bookstores. “You make sure you go to locations where they don’t want you. The more they don’t want you, the more you should be there. Because there’s trans people who live there, right?”
Currently available for presale, the book is already a #1 bestseller on Amazon.
“When I believe in something, we can do it,” she said. “The more books we sell, the more people we can help… And that has been the mission the entire time. If you trust me enough to fix your sink, maybe you trust me enough to listen to me about trans issues in this country.”