Pattie Gonia Is Shaking Up the Adventure World
As Wyn Wiley, the creator of the drag-queen Instagram star, explains, it all started when he grabbed some six-inch heels buried in his closet and decided to take a risk
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At first glance, Pattie Gonia’s Instagram profile (@pattiegonia) looks a lot like every other glossy adventure feed, with dozens of shots of dreamy outdoor landscapes. In her first Instagram video, Pattie wears a green technical shirt and matching hat while carrying hiking poles and a backpack, with the mountains of Colorado’s Never Summer Wilderness looming in the background. Scroll down too quickly and you’ll miss the twist: her patent-leather boots with six-inch heels.
Pattie, whose name is a play on you know which brand, is the drag-queen alter ego of 27-year-old photographer Wyn Wiley. (Wiley refers to himself with male pronouns and to Pattie as she or her.) In that first post, from October 3, 2018, Pattie eats hot Cheetos, dances to Fergie, and declares herself the world’s first backpacking queen. Within a week she had more than 12,000 followers, a number that grew to over 150,000 in less than a year. Her fans leave hundreds of emoji-laden comments, praise her outfits, and invite her on hikes. She’s been featured on the websites of Backpacker, Elle, and Vogue, fielded a deluge of attention from advertisers, received DMs from Fergie, and even attended the Tony Awards.
Few people have seen anyone quite like Pattie on the trail before, and that’s the point. It’s still rare for someone to step beyond the traditional bounds of gender and sexuality in outdoor media. While the industry takes baby steps toward fixing that, Pattie is charging ahead. “It is very emotionally vulnerable,” Wiley says of the Pattie persona. “What people are looking at is me figuring out myself.”
Wiley grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, “an active kid in every nontraditional sense of the word.” He figure-skated, skied, did musical theater, and sang and danced in show choir (in the Midwest, a taxing physical activity). He credits the Boy Scouts with some of his first powerful experiences in nature, and he worked his way up to Eagle Scout. Wiley says he felt accepted, to a point, when he came out as gay the summer before college. “I had it said to my face, We’ll accept you for being gay, but don’t become one of those gays,” he says. “Don’t become feminine, don’t ever do drag, stay in your straight-passing gay lane.” Wiley’s voice was higher when he first came out, but then he lowered it, finding the register he still uses today. “When you change yourself to be who people want you to be, it’s a tattoo and a scar.”
After college he picked up rock climbing with his brother and took regular camping and skiing trips with friends. He built a career as a photographer, teaching workshops, shooting portraits, and doing commercial work for brands, including Adidas. At a creative conference in February 2018, he tried drag for the first time, dressing up in those six-inch heels and taking the stage name Ginger Snap—a nod to being a redheaded photographer. “It was a really powerful experience,” he says. “It was crazy to look in the mirror and see another gender, and to strip back a lot of my straight-passingness.”
To mark the event, he posted photos to his Instagram account. The next day he lost 5,000 of his 70,000 followers. “The messages started streaming in, calling me every word under the sun,” he says. “A lot of people who I really thought were in my corner unfollowed me.” He put the boots back in his closet. “That felt vulnerable,” Wiley says. “I have mad respect for the drag world, but I thought, Maybe it’s not for me.”
Wiley still isn’t sure what made him take the boots back out of the closet last fall for a four-day group backpacking trip on the Continental Divide Trail. At stops along the route, he pulled out the heels and strutted while friends took photos. He created the Pattie Gonia account shortly after the trip. Wiley has come to realize that Pattie is helping him quash all those fears of being rejected for expressing himself. “How special to have a new playground to figure out yourself on. For me, Pattie is that playground,” Wiley says. “I think that’s why a lot of us go outdoors. It’s my place to leave behind all the judgment of the world and just be me.”
Each new post brings a small delight. Pattie soundtracks wilderness scenes with Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, wears outfits made of recycled materials, and makes pop-culture homages. (She loves Brokeback Mountain.) Solemn moments gazing at sweeping vistas? Not so much. “It’s making light of something that can be so serious,” says Karen Wang, a photographer, through-hiker, and friend of Wiley’s who took pictures of Pattie in Seattle. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, those heels—she’s gonna fall down!’ Or some ultralight hiker will be like, ‘Those heels are going to be so heavy.’ Y’all are missing the point!”
Given the size of Pattie Gonia’s following, it’s no surprise that outdoor companies have come knocking, looking for opportunities to reach her fans. Wiley was initially resistant to turning Pattie into an influencer—a word that makes him cringe. But in April, Pattie wrote a post naming brands that had approached her with free gear and that agreed to donate it, at her request, to those who need it more than she does. A month later, she shared her evolving thoughts on sponsored content in another post. Wiley says he knows that gear recommendations aren’t why people follow Pattie, but if sponsored posts help her organize group hikes and lift up nonprofits, they’re not out of the question. “It’s about trying to do it the right way,” Wiley says. “What hasn’t felt right so far has been, Buy from this brand!”
He’s also wary of using Pattie’s platform for personal attention. Instead, he often steers the conversation toward activists he admires, like Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers or Jaylyn Gough of Native Womens Wilderness. He wants to highlight people doing hard work for equity, inclusion, or the environment. “For every one of me, there are tons of people fighting for diversity in the outdoors, in courtrooms, in companies,” he says. “Those are the real forces. What would it look like to have sponsored advocates?”
For now, Wiley seems content to simply use his persona to spark conversations about who belongs in the outdoors. In January, Wiley attended the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver, which attracts thousands of industry insiders. The crowd tends toward athletic gearheads who gush over the feel of the latest performance boxers. Pattie showed up the second day in a blinding-white off-the-shoulders dress, complete with a matching wig and platform boots. All eyes were on her, she later wrote on Instagram, “many with smiles and equally as many others with looks of hate, furrowed eyebrows, and so many ‘what the fucks?’ after I passed by.” Pattie had the grace to stop, smile, and explain why she was there. “Queens, there wasn’t a conversation that started that way that didn’t end with a hug and me getting glitter on their sleeves,” she wrote. Still, Wiley couldn’t help but notice that a lot of those same people had wanted to talk business opportunities when he showed up presenting as a man the previous day.
Wiley’s on the road more than he’s home in Nebraska right now, and wherever he goes, Pattie Gonia is there, too. As far as plans for growing her account, he says, “It really is just, What’s the week ahead? Who’s gonna be around me? What can we do together?” The first time he took those boots out of the closet, there was no real plan, either, and he wants people to know that it’s not always an easy process. But he got a lot more out of it than he expected—as did thousands of others. “If there’s anything Pattie could leave a legacy with,” he says, “I’d want it to be: whatever those boots are for you, put them on.”