#85 Storytellers I Admire: LizBee
On Nonas, Purpose, and Pride
This month’s Storyteller I Admire is another treat and one I feel lucky to get to share with you. I sat down (via zoom) with Liz Bertorelli, founder of Passionfruit, a queer t-shirt brand that promotes pride, authenticity, and togetherness and social media marketer at TikTok. We chatted about Nona’s and their unique stories, what it means to show up as our true selves, and the power of the underdog story among so much more. I laughed a lot and we both did a great job of not taking ourselves too seriously as we talked about the value of a good story and Liz’s perspective on the ones that she finds interesting.
The brand she’s built over the past ten years believes in, “the power of togetherness, a colourful and bright future for all LGBTQQIA youth, and visibility.” Liz’s story and her experiences are infused into the brand itself and comes to life across all of her passions. She is a prolific creator on Instagram and tik tok as well as something of an inadvertent advocate for showing up in the world (and on the internet) with joy and creating a picture of what’s possible for queer youth and adults alike.
With a mission to create inclusive clothing and accessories that enable you to show your pride all year round while giving back to their community, Passionfruit is just one (amazing) way that Liz infuses purpose and energy into the story of her life and shares it with others.
I’ve also added something a little different this month. These interviews are always such a joy and while I edit them (a teeny bit) to keep it short, I always feel bad not sharing all the conversational fun with you. So, I decided to include the recording of our chat for those of you who are curious and want to hear some of the tangents we go off on that you may not always get in the edited interview. Let me know if you’re into it and I’ll try to keep sharing this and maybe even videos of our chats in the future.
You can listen to it here!
It's another fun one this month, so grab a cuppa, get cozy and read about Liz Bertorelli’s perspective on storytelling, life, and how to show up authentically and joyfully for it all.
Chantaie: So, what’s your story?
Liz Bertorelli: Wow, that's a big sandbox to play in. I guess I will say, when I hear a story because I am a queer person, my brain automatically takes me to my coming out story or that path. My identity is obviously not my whole story. That's not the only thing about Liz but I think it's the most important story for me because of this sense of purpose I have of being representation for other queers. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. So tell me that story. Maybe tell me the story of, if you want guidance otherwise you can choose whatever you want, but tell me the story of not necessarily you're coming out even though that might be part of it, but how you got to a place where you felt like it was important to be a voice or part of that conversation and represent queer folks?
LB: How I got to that place, oh my god, I have to go way back. I think if I go to the coming out piece specifically, obviously everyone's journey is very different. Mine wasn't hard, mine also wasn't easy. I think after I came out, it felt like I shed my old skin. Like I was a snake or something and I became the most Liz that I was. That took years and I think those are all individual stories that all overlap. I think I always wanted to be this person I never had, or maybe that is what it was. So I didn't necessarily have that representation in my life when I was younger, otherwise I'm sure I would've come out way younger.
How old were you when you came out?
LB: Like 20, 21. I grew up in an Italian family, very traditional. I didn't really know queer people until I got to university and I started to meet different people, went to the centres. So I think a big part of my coming out story and even my business story was that moment where I was like, "Ugh, if only I had someone to look up to at that point," or even support, I didn't really have anyone to talk to. It wasn't until I met other people like me, or it wasn't until I met people that I connected with in that way and then figured out that I was like them. I was like, "Did I waste a lot of gay years not knowing? Maybe." (laughs)
But that's your path and that's your story. You're bringing up something that has come up in conversation with other folks for me a lot lately and it's that notion of representation. So just how important is representation? And I'm interpreting from your story that representation actually matters in some ways, because just to have that person or that image for you to have looked at and seen what do you think about that idea of representation?
LB: I think even for me there's the queer identifying Liz, that sense of purpose that comes in and then this random business that I decided to pursue. If I think of it from a business perspective and I look at representation, number one, just being a queer business owner, I've had so many people just reach out to be like, "How did you do it?" They're inspired by that. That brings me the most joy.
But then representation in a sense of on paper, I sell t-shirts, I sell products. But for me, it's the messages that are on all of those products that reach people I'll never meet, I don't know, in faraway places. I think that brings me the most…I don’t know, fulfillment I guess? I don't know if that makes sense—I think it's representation in two ways. There's me Liz as the queer business owner and then what the products do out in the world.
Since we're here, can you tell me the story of your business?
LB: I think it was my first pride after I'd come out. Honestly, the business was an accident. I essentially wanted to make shirts for my friends. Because I grew up in Ottawa, there was honestly no store to go buy a not tacky rainbow shirt. So I just decided to make a few designs for my pals so we would go to pride and wear matching shirts, the whole thing. I was out and proud year one. At the time I was working at Shopify so I was like, "I'm just going to throw these on this site. I don't know what the site is, I don't know what to do with it," but it kind of blew up from there. So it was meant to be a fun, little project for me and pals and it turned into a business I've run for, how long now? Maybe like eight years, nine, 10 years. I can't even remember at this point.
LB: That's how it started.
Okay. Cool. So tell me about the work you do that brings you joy. You're going to notice a theme, all the questions are quite big. They let you go wherever you want to.
LB: Oh my god, what brings me joy?
The work you do.
LB: I feel like the word work and joy fight each other in my head a bit. Because I feel like I love my day job and it does bring me joy, but I feel like things that feel like work are less joyful. So going back to what I said about seeing those products out in the world... You know what brings me the most joy honestly? Is getting an email from a Passionfruit customer saying that they came out on Thanksgiving at their family dinner by taking off their zipped hoodie and showing that they're wearing, a forever queer shirt.
So that to me doesn't feel like work. It goes back to this sense of representation and this sense of purpose of being very involved in the community. So I think that brings me the most joy. I know on paper it’s work. I had to design it, I had to set up the business, I had to do all those things but the feeling I get from that brings me the most joy.
I love that pushback against the combination of joy and work. It reminds me of that Eartha Kitt quote. Have you ever seen it? There's a meme about it now where somebody asked her what her dream job is, or maybe it's not Eartha Kitt [it is not] but, she's like, "Darling, I do not dream of labor."
LB: I love that. But it's true. As soon as you said both words, I was conflicted because I very much work to live. And then anything outside of that, I'm doing it intentionally, I'm doing it because it brings me joy. I'm not doing it because I get a paycheque at the end of the day. Because even if I look at Passionfruit, sometimes I don't even know what it's made, and it's because it's a side hustle too so that's a symptom of it. But I'm like, "I don't know what we made last month." But if I go look I'm like, "There are 80 shirts that are out into the world. Who knows how far reaching all of those are?" And again, it's pushing out a message even if they're small messages.
Thanks for sharing that. So I want to dive a bit into storytelling now, starting with how do you define a story? Or a better way to think of this question is, what makes a good story in your world?
LB: Oh my god, these questions. Can you give me a bit of a sandbox for this one?
Sure. Let's think about your day job or the world of social media because I know you tell stories in that space. What makes a good story in that world?
LB: I don't want to get technical but in that world it's short and punchy. I will say, when you first said it my head always goes to underdog stories. I love knowing the problem, how it was solved and how people got to where they are. Maybe it's going back to the entrepreneurship thing too and coming out. Those feel like one and the same.
I will say, when you first said it my head always goes to underdog stories. I love knowing the problem, how it was solved and how people got to where they are.
Okay so tell me more about that, what does that mean?
LB: Not to say that there's a problem but on the entrepreneurship side, there is likely something. Most businesses that have passion behind them we know do better. I didn't know who I was, I figured it out, I did something about it and then I became me. And then when I think of side businesses, potentially you run into an issue, you figure out a way around it and then you've made the world a better place. Let's go to that extreme. So I think I like stories with that arc.
That was the answer. I love that, thank you for sharing it. So, first of all, do you consider yourself a storyteller?
LB: I mean, I'm a human with a voice so yes, and I have lots of stories.
LB: But I think everyone's a storyteller. Even me talking about coming out I'm fascinated by coming out stories. That's all I ever want to hear about because I've never heard one and the same, ever. So I think we're all storytellers because we're living humans that have to walk through life. Would I raise my hand and say like, "I'm Liz, I'm a storyteller?" Probably not. I think it's just an inherent thing that we all are.
So I think we're all storytellers because we're living humans that have to walk through life. Would I raise my hand and say like, "I'm Liz, I'm a storyteller?" Probably not. I think it's just an inherent thing that we all are.
I love to hear that because most of the people I interview for this don't consider themselves storytellers.
LB: I think that’s so funny because, every app that we have is us stringing stories together. Literally Instagram stories, TikTok, all that stuff is putting your story out into the world. So if you post, you're telling a story, if you tweet, all of that medium to me is storytelling I guess. But that's also my day job so it's hard to separate the two of them.
I hear that. Also, I agree 100%, 1000% on that one. So what made you realize you were a storyteller? What made you come to the realization that we're all storytellers?
LB: I don't know if I had a realization. No, I think you just ask someone how their day was and they tell you the story of their day. So I don't know if it's a realization and more so just a way of life or a way of getting to know someone, a way of letting someone into your weird little world. I don't know if I ever had a realization, I think it's just part of everyone.
It's what you do, it's living. Building on that though, there's no realization moment but when you think about work or what you do in a day to day, are there elements of what you do that you see as direct storytelling? And when I say what you do, it can be your day job, it can be your side hustle.
LB: Just sharing my coming out story or speaking at a conference and talking about the coming out story and how the business was started, I think that's probably the most direct. Because Passionfruit is an extension of me and my story and why it started.
Can we circle back to your coming out story because I don't think you actually told it when we started talking about it in the beginning. Which is my fault.
LB: Do you want the full thing?
Yeah, your version of your coming out story.
LB: Obviously to tee it up, I have an incredible family, very loving, but grew up in Ottawa, I didn't know any queer people. I had boyfriends. I had no idea. I had this whole life before that moment. I started to meet other people and hear other people's stories outside of my regular bubble, actually the first time was through Tumblr. I met queers on Tumblr. A few of us came out at the same time, it's very sweet. We were kind of each other's support system in a weird way. But you figure this out by obviously talking to other people and obviously your emotions, the physical, all that stuff. So I ended up breaking up with my boyfriend at the time. I came out to my family. I mean, it was hard. It wasn't poorly received but it wasn't rainbows and butterflies either.
There's a lot that comes with a big Italian family worrying about your future, your job, especially this is now like 12 years ago so there was a lot more fear. It is different now, right? I think one thing that I learned too is I wanted them to accept me so bad so fast but I also forgot that they also have to process it too. And there's fear too as a parent. So anyways, I came out with the help of Tumblr. I went to Carleton University and met a lot of queers there.
I was meant to actually go to school in Australia for a year for an exchange but I canceled it, which I don't regret. I stayed behind because I wanted to make sure that after I came out, I was living at home, I was putting in the time, I wasn't running away. I feel like if I would've left and come back, I would've been in the same spot versus I stayed, I got a girlfriend, my parents met my first girlfriend, we started going through the motions. There was a lot of late nights, a lot of crying, a lot of figuring that stuff out.
Well thank you for sharing that. So with that context, let's jump back to stories and storytelling and let's stay focused on Passionfruit because I think there's like a lot to mine there. So when you think about your business, who would you say is your audience or who do you create for?
LB: I would say my audience was me before I came out.
Tell me more.
LB: Well I think because I had no one to talk to at that time, I sought out community on something like Tumblr. So if someone was questioning and they saw that this business existed and they could see themselves in it, whether it's some of the blogs or the posts or the shirts or me as the human face of the brand—I did that on purpose.
I think it was pre coming out Liz. That's the audience. It's someone who's questioning, who's unsure, who feels scared, because there's tons of resources on the site to support. Even just scrolling through the Instagram, I feel like I would've felt comfort in knowing that there were groups of people, seeing groups of people at pride together. So I would say someone who was me and kind of lost at the beginning.
What made you decide it made sense for you to be the face of the brand versus it being faceless or someone else?
LB: I did it very early on. I thought it was important. I didn't want it to feel like another brand run by maybe a straight person on Amazon, like an Amazon seller just selling pride shirts. I wanted people to know that we understand the community, we're in the community. We just happened to be selling these shirts. We donate to non-profits too, so I wanted to make sure that they knew that our hearts were in the right place and that we were queer business owners not just faceless business owners.
Right, Not people trying to make a buck off of a community without being involved in it. Sorry, that’s my cynical voice coming out. I'll put it away now. So why would you say stories matter at all, again in the world of your business and your world?
LB: Why do stories matter at all?
You can say they don't matter but I'm going to assume that you think they matter.
LB: Oh my god, of course they matter. The world would be a pretty boring, dark place without stories now.
I think so.
LB: Who knows if I ever would've come out? I'm sure in my head I would've been like, "Something's off, something's missing," but it was through conversations and stories and experiences that I even came into myself. So I think the world would be a bit dim without stories.
Who is a storyteller that you admire?
LB: Oh god.
(Laughs) People always say that to that question.
LB: No, actually I said that but, in my head, the first two people who came into my head were both my grandmothers. When I go home, all I want to do and honestly I need to do this, I need to record all their stories. Because that's the other thing about stories is that there are so many that go unheard. There are so many that you forget and that is one thing I worry about so much. My grandparents are both very old, I'm so lucky to have them, but I fucking—sorry for swearing.
No swear. Go for it.
LB: I love, love, love, love, hearing everything about their life. My grandmother's been a widow for a really long time. She married someone very quickly, very young. She ditched her boyfriend at the time, she fell in love with this guy, they moved to Canada. I love their story. It brings me so much joy. I guess it's because I also didn't really know this grandfather that much. He passed away when I was four. And the way in which they tell their stories, they remember every detail. She's like, "My photo was in the window of the fish and chip shop and that's how he saw me." So I admire that level of detail. She's still sad about him passing, she cries every time and it's been so long. But the detail in which an 89-year-old can go through her life or even just about the war or anything like that, so I admire both of them as storytellers.
They're storytellers I admire. And they have so many stories.
I love it. I feel like, especially when you think about the stories of your grandparents, that's access to a world you will never know.
LB: That's what I mean. It's not in a book. Well there are stories about the war but I'm talking her story, someone who is related to me, who raised me. If I'm not listening to her it's just going to disappear one day. Then I could take that story and if I ever have kids, I'll tell them about it. So the idea of being able to pass along stories too is something that feels very dear to my heart. Even something as simple as a recipe, I view a recipe as a story.
I won't include this in the article but it is so refreshing to talk to somebody who thinks about stories in similar ways that I do. Because you're preaching to the choir right now in terms of your perspective. I love it.
LB: Well it's crazy because it's like the story of your day or the recipe piece specifically, obviously I'm thinking about my grandparents but they all write their recipes on these cue cards. And half the time they make no sense but you know because you've talked to her like, "Nona, when you make the Gnocchi," she's like, "you use the grooves and you do it this way, not this way," but she doesn't write that down. So those are like the secret ingredients to the actual recipe. That's why I think stories are important because you're listening to the other bits of it. Now I'm just rambling about them. Can we move on? Queens.
So what's a story you've created or shared recently that you're especially proud of?
LB: (Pause) I post so much, so those are such small little stories. I don't know. I feel like I've shown my whole life on social. Doesn't mean I'm proud of it
Lb: But I just mean that I definitely let my audience in on my life, a lot of my life.
Tell me a bit about that choice. What made you decide to open up your life in that way to your audience?
LB: When Instagram first started, I did photography a lot on the side and just generally that's always been a hobby of mine and Instagram was the outlet and it gained a lot of traction. I built up an audience so I think I just kept doing it. But I actually don't know why I actively decide to do that. Maybe it's ingrained in me because I've worked in social for so long. Maybe it comes back to the representation piece of it all. Like this 30-year-old queer-identifying woman works in tech. She runs a side business. She has fun on the weekends. She has a chubby dog. I don't know. I think a big fear when you come out or anyways a big fear in my household when I came out was,,what's your life going to look like? And I think my life looks pretty good.
Because my audience is mostly queer, I think other queer people seeing that [matters]. I get messages being like, "Where do I buy clothes that make me feel good? Where do you shop?" Even just small snippets. That stuff makes me feel good. But again, I don't know if it's proud. I think it's just a part of my day to day. I don't even think twice about it anymore really.
But you're doing something in that sharing I think, it sounds like. Not deliberately or in a calculated way, but you're creating a vision for what's possible in a lot of ways.
LB: Yeah, exactly. Especially on TikTok where the community is a 100% queer on my account. It's being authentic and silly and just showing who I am in hopes that other people find... don’t know, maybe that's silly but they're like, "Yah, this person exists. I can exist too. We can all exist."
I don't think that's silly at all. I think that's actually amazing. And that you're just doing it naturally too. Is there a story that you're looking forward to telling that you haven't told yet?
LB: Honestly I don't think so. But I say this because I feel like a lot of my stories are rooted in experience. And a lot of my experience in the last two years has been confined by the pandemic. Maybe this is where my brain is taking it but I post a lot, travel photography; I get so much joy from traveling and meeting people and eating new food, all the things that honestly everyone likes let's be real. I've missed doing that. I can't wait to go on my next trip and share that story because it brings me so much joy to be like, "Yes, you've got to go here, you've got to eat this, you've got to do this."
How has the pandemic impacted the way you think about your own story and the things that you share? Because what you just said just made me think, what role has the pandemic played in your story?
LB: I think going back to even just posting my day to day, I've been more vulnerable about how much it's affected me on social. I don't really filter myself on stories and maybe I should (sometimes).
(Laughs) It's up to you.
LB: But I will post being like, "I'm sad or I feel X, Y, Z or what not. But I don't really know where I'm going with this. People can be so filtered on Instagram too. You can tell if I'm having a bad week or bad month or bad year or my relationship is weird. I'm not going to post stuff to post stuff or I'll go on a posting break if I don't feel up for it and I did for a long time in the pandemic because I was like, "Nothing's bringing me joy. Why would I put this out into the world and have it be perceived as me being okay? No, I'm not okay. No one's okay."
It sounds also that you're choosing to share and be in joy with people in social. Do you know what I mean when I say that?
LB: Maybe I am just sharing the good when it comes to certain things. I wouldn't post a picture of me... Well I probably would post a picture of me sick with COVID to be like, "I got it." But going back to the trip thing, would I post a photo being like, "This trip was shit." Probably not.
Because I find your Instagram specifically, I'm very rarely on TikTok I'm sorry, I'm too old for it, I find your Instagram quite joyful. I know I'm going to get something happy.
LB: Right, right, right, right. The feed is more curated for sure. I don't remember the last time I posted because what have I really been doing? I don't know, not much. But in stories, I think I'm a bit more unfiltered. I'm not going to regurgitate what I talked to my therapist about necessarily. No one needs to know that. But I guess I would say I’m pretty open and I wouldn't post or tag or whatever just because I have to.
So what's a story you've seen recently out in the world that you've loved? It could be any story. It could be a movie, it could be a book, it could be a person who told you something. Just anything that you’ve loved.
LB: I will say there's so many incredible stories on TikTok all the time that bring me joy, and I'm obviously on the app all the time. My most favorite one? I already talked about the underdog thing, I think a lot of the TikTok success stories and maybe this goes to even just seeing small businesses take off, those success stories bring me a lot of joy. There was an artist on TikTok. What was her name? I can get you the name. Emmy Meli. I should know this. She recorded this song called I Am Woman and overnight it became this incredible success.
We ended up making video of her and why she wrote it and overnight on TikTok—which obviously is the power of social media—it got picked up as a sound. It blew up. It became the unofficial anthem for women. So one story, or I guess it was her idea, has created thousands and thousands of mini stories because people use the sound on TikTok and then they show their I Am Woman story. And they're all really beautiful so I think I love that one the most. These are small stories.
It doesn't matter the size. The power is there.
LB: They're small, but to her she blew up. This is going to be her career now. And there's so many stories like that on TikTok too where an artist just overnight gets signed to a label. I will get you the name so you're not just writing I don't know the name.
I might. I like to keep it real (laughs) and just add the link note. So my last question for you is, brace yourself please. This is another big one. What would you say is your life philosophy? So what's your governing principle or wisdom?
LB: Oh my god.
Take a deep breath.
LB: Is this therapy?
No. It's just I like other people's wisdom to guide the people who are reading this. You can leave it in the world of storytelling if it's easier for you, you can bring it out to your life. But what's your philosophy?
LB: Philosophy on life. Well I have one because of the pandemic, which is setting boundaries with work. Knowing that you work to live and not the other way around. So work to live not live to work. I also feel like that's such a big thing in North America too, the amount of overworking. We don't give ourselves a break. So I think that's a big one that's come to my head. When I was at my last job anyways, I was working nonstop around the clock. Why? So I think that has become a big one. (Pause)
Leaving room for life. And I know that has nothing to do with storytelling or maybe it has everything to do with storytelling. Maybe leaving more room for life gives you more stories and maybe that's why my grandparents have so many damn stories. I don't know.
Full Circle. I love that.
LB: Maybe. If I had to say something from like the queer angle, it's more of trust your intuition, everything always falls into place. And obviously being your authentic self to me anyways does so much more than you'll ever actually know for people and for yourself. When you're happy, you're going to feel more motivated. But I think walking through life as your authentic self is super important to me and I don't think I'll ever veer away from that ever again, because I did at one point. There's a few in there.
No, those are all great. They're all going to go in there. There's certainly a theme of authenticity in our conversation. So those were all the questions I had but was there anything that you wanted to mention? Anything that's important for people to know about you or your work or anything like that that you want to leave us with?
LB: I don't think so. I can't think of anything.
That means no. That's okay. (Laughs) Thank you so much.
LB: I don't want to force it either.
No, no, no, let's keep it real. Let's keep it natural.
LB: My story with you today ends.
(Laughs) Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
LB: Thank you. It's so fun to even just see your face and chat.
Yeah, it's been forever. It's good to see you.
LB: Anyways, thank you for reaching out. That was very fun.
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Chantaie, this one was a fun read for me!
Me reading this interview and finally seeing that I am a storyteller as well because of my Insta-story and Insta-feed sharing: insert lightbulb emoji. Not because I feel special because everyone does it, but more of a "aha!" moment, and thinking about the thought process as to what I choose to share and how. Especially if there are multiple stories at once, thinking about the message and the flow of them. There's this tendency to judge Instagram "Influencers" but it really makes you realize how much work there could be behind it all.
"But I feel like things that feel like work are less joyful" is so much yes. Having to do it is in instant joy-killer. But having said that, personally I think that's what makes me open to doing any job. It's all the same joy-reducer anyway so who cares if it's pulling weeds or data entry or selling clothes, it's all the same anyway so I'm happy to do it? Just pay me! I know that's not where Liz was going with it when she said that but it's nice to have someone say that out loud rather that that same narrative of "You should and must find that dream job in life to be happy."
"If I'm not listening to her it's just going to disappear one day" got me right in the heart. It's a striking reminder to talk to and listen to my grandma more, even if I just want to give up half the time because of the language barrier (and that itself brings up some serious shame).
Any way I'm rambling but I really enjoyed this one, including all the "oh my gods"! I feel like that's how I would respond to all of your questions.