It just takes a quick gander at the roster for Princeton’s men’s diving and swimming team to see that Griffin Maxwell Brooks presents themselves a little bit differently. Amidst a sea of clean-cut faces, Brooks stands out in their team photo.
The junior is wearing striking black eyeliner and a pearl necklace — complete with the requisite piercings. There are a few streaks of pink sprouting out of their rich blonde mane.
Brooks never hesitates about expressing themself, whether it’s a Saturday night at Le Bain or team picture day.
“I don’t feel like looking like everyone else and kind of disguising and masking who I am,” Brooks told Outsports. “I’m a part of this team, and I don’t think being part of a team should be about erasing the individual. We as queer people exist everywhere.”
On the surface, Brooks seems to be a walking contrast. They are an Ivy League athlete; mechanical engineering major; and New York City club kid. Growing up, they viewed diving as a respite from the lonely life of being outwardly queer in suburban New Jersey.
It was an activity that Brooks could claim for themself.
“Diving was my first interaction with this performance and self-expression that I value so much now,” they said.
Brooks also sees the creativity in engineering, believe it or not. They say it compliments their routine at the club, where they’re constantly trying out new outfits and looks.
“I’m a competitive person, and nightlife and fashion and diving are all kind of competitive. They’re performance-based, if that makes sense,” they said. “I’m trying to go out there and perform in a way as best I can.”
Like many of their fellow Gen Z influencers, Brooks started gaining popularity on TikTok during the height of the pandemic. Their page, which boasts more than 1 million followers, features an effervescent collection of comedic relief, bold fashion choices and social justice stands.
Every day, Brooks says they hear from LGBTQ people across the country who flock to their account for their look at college life through an unabashedly queer lens.
“I like the idea that my lived experiences are helping people,” Brooks said. “It’s usually queer kids from the middle of nowhere who are like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to wear a crop top to school,’ or people in their 30s in professional workspaces — men — being like, ‘I’m going to wear a dress to work today, because it’s within the dress code and I don’t feel I shouldn’t be allowed to do that.’”
Even with those messages, Brooks says they didn’t fully recognize the enormity of their following until Covid restrictions lifted and they could start enjoying New York’s indulgent nightlife scene. Brooks’ first night out was a party for the anniversary of Lady Gaga’s iconic album “Born This Way,” and naturally, they wore a Gaga-inspired look.
At the club, Brooks saw their TikTok world come to life.
“I would go out to these clubs that I had never been to before, and people would recognize me,” they said. “That was kind of when I started to realize, ‘These are real people. They aren’t just numbers in my phone.’ They watch my content on a regular basis, and I’m impacting people, which is crazy.”
It’s not easy being a nightlife fixture while also balancing the responsibilities of training and managing an Ivy League workload. Sometimes, Brooks goes to class in their nighttime getup, because they don’t have time to change.
After lecture hall, it’s off to Manhattan, where Brooks often stays out until the wee hours. They’ve picked up a job working for Susanne Bartsch, the legendary promoter whose epic parties at the Copacabana made her an icon of New York City nightlife.
Brooks finds the hedonism to be intoxicating and utterly freeing.
“These events were pivotal for me. I had never been in a space like that where the idea of standing out was celebrated,” they said. “I often feel like I’m playing dress up every day, and for that to be something people admired and kind of the norm for that space, it just made me feel great. I can be celebrated for it, rather than just tolerated.”
The pool is still one of those areas where Brooks feels tolerated, though they say their teammates are largely supportive. The trouble usually comes at big competitions, where elite athletes are gathering from all over the country.
Brooks usually causes some heads to turn, not that they mind.
“I think that you do yourself a disservice to not be exactly who you want to be, even at the risk of getting backlash,” they said. “It’s got to start somewhere.”