By: Landon Peoples
To be a supermodel means to embody an era; to lend not just a face and figure but a voice to what’s going on. It’s why we fell in love with people like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington — muses who were as close as family and thick as thieves, and brought Girl Power to the runway. We admired them for their honesty, their aggressive personalities, their ability to fuse fantasy with reality, and their respect for the craft.
But the industry has changed. These days, having a famous last name has superseded having a skill, and the ones who get the most work are more likely to have already been on a reality show. What they stand for? Sometimes, just a paycheck. But there’s another community of rising models like none before them: They’re brave, they’re diverse, and they know how to sell clothes. That they’re transgender is not the point — but it definitely matters.
Teddy Quinlivan, Leyna Bloom, Casil McArthur, Gia Garison and Geena Rocero are fashion’s present and future. Beyond being featured in some of the world’s most prestigious magazines and runways, they’re changing how the industry views women, and what a model should be. The fact that they’re advocates, not just spokespeople — each in different ways — makes them more than worthy of the ‘supermodel’ title. Because, the very nature of modeling means that their bodies are valuable, desirable, and beautiful, which is a fight, a statement, and a protest in and of itself.
When we think of what makes a model a ‘super,’ it’s not only the ability to win fans, but also to turn the runway into a global stage on which they represent the best of what’s to come. Whereas getting on the catwalk was once the entire point, now, it marks the beginning of something more. We’re in the middle of some revolutionary shifts in our culture, and models have been vocal about keeping the industry honest and pushing it forward. From calling out racial inequality and sexual harassment, to confronting body shamers, and turning their platforms into political stages, they’re not afraid to fight for justice — and to not take no for an answer.
After several seasons that saw an increasing number of transgender models on the catwalk — from 12 to 45, during spring 2018 — transgender visibility is increasing, though it’s all but clear. Teddy, Leyna, Casil, Gia and Geena are some of the biggest names in the community, and it’s time the world knows them by their first names, too. Though their stories are different, they all possess an honest investment in where fashion is going, and how their presence in the industry contributes to the cultural zeitgeist at large.
We’re in the middle of some revolutionary shifts in our culture, and models have been vocal about keeping the industry honest and pushing it forward.
Last season Teddy Quinlivan revealed her gender identity via CNN Style. By doing so, she acknowledged from that moment on the fashion industry would refer to her as a 'transgender model' — instead of 'a model,' as they had for years.
"I think the fact that I’m transgender isn't what makes me successful, but it is what makes me special and unique," she says. "Is it the most important thing about me? No. But is it a part of me? Yes. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say, 'Oh, well you just got that show because you're trans.' I wanted to make sure that nobody could say that about me or use that against me because your genitals do not play a factor in how successful you can be as a model."
Quinlivan entered the industry without disclosing her gender and reached global success, which makes her story both frustrating and revealing. It means that she's considered to be the first transgender model to walk the runways of dozens of major fashion houses, like Versace and Prada, not to mention her endless editorial work. Her passing privilege has won her a career many models, transgender or otherwise, will never achieve in a lifetime — and she openly admits it.
"I honestly wish I had some drama to tell you about being a transgender model, but it's really no different for me. However that doesn't mean that every chance you get in the industry, people aren't constantly trying to push you down," she quips. As a result, Quinlivan developed her own insecurities. But after scoring her first major exclusive, with Louis Vuitton no less, she began to see herself for what she is: someone who was born for this. "'Are my cheekbones high enough? My jawline narrow enough?' I thought, Well, if my face is good enough for Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci, then it must be okay.'"
Quinlivan's experience in the industry is unique, and the factors that play into her success aren't exactly secondary to the obvious. But she's even more read on what it's like for people who don't look like her; that with the odds of becoming a model being slim, the odds for a trans model are even slimmer. "We're a very, very tiny minority, so I think it's important to understand that while there are a lot of transgender women in the world, there are not a lot of transgender models," she says. She recounts a story from a season past, where she was set to walk for a luxury fashion brand. Upon asking the casting team if she was the only transgender model to walk the show, she was told there was supposed to be one more — but they couldn't fit the shoes.
It's these types of provisions that ratify the idea that designers design with one type of model in mind, leaving hopefuls with only one option: imagining what the industry would look like if they didn't. When faced with the question of whether or not she'd suggest more transgender hopefuls try their hand at modeling to make up for the imbalance, her answer can be summed up in one word: "reconsider." And she means it: "Don't do it. The world needs serious help right now. Forget about having your picture in a magazine to validate your attractiveness. Because regardless of your gender, you can spend ten years waiting around for Steven Meisel to call — it probably will never happen." Because even if that phone does ring, she knows her fortune won't last forever.
"I'm one of the only success stories I've ever heard. And that's all you hear about: success stories or the model who became successful and then had a drug overdose and lost it all. Why put yourself through all of this bullshit for a photo in a magazine? I ask myself that question on a daily basis."
From the suburbs of Chicago, to sleeping on trains in New York City, to appearing in the pages of Vogue India (the first transgender model to do so), Leyna Bloom is the embodiment of a success story — nay, the American dream. An Afro-Filipina whose voice is tender yet tough, Bloom has all of the qualities of what it takes to be taken seriously as a model, and she’s got the proverbial scars to prove it.
When she broke into the industry just a few years ago, Bloom knew exactly who she wanted to be. After all, her time spent serving face on the floors of vacant Harlem theaters and dance halls in the ballroom scene prepared her for it. Eyes wide, she goes down the list: “I had a beautiful group of girls I was inspired by: Tanay Pendavis, Onjenae’ Milan, Tracey ‘Africa’ Norman, Octavia Saint Laurent, Carmen Xtravaganza... thinking about them gives me chills.”
Though Bloom was inspired by the many greats before her, she's an example that very few women of color who are also transgender manage to go all the way. "Before I knew anything about being trans, I was a human knowing my soul comes from Africa, from true queens and kings. That gives me the ideology to know where I come from and where I'm going. But I've had more issues with racism than transphobia. Due to the fact I am cis-passing, people on the day-to-day just see a brown skin girl. The 'wow' factor is always me being trans."
But when it comes to identifying with her own gender identity and race, and in what order, Bloom has it mapped out to a T. "I'm a person of color, first, a woman, second, the third, filled with possibilities, and lastly, I'm trans — each of them giving me strength," she declares. And though each characteristic is a vital component of her character, she acknowledges that non-cis identifying models need to fight harder for their place in the industry. That when it comes to equal hiring and treatment, the fashion industry goes from being one of the only safe spaces for transgender women and models alike, to yet another workplace that requires transgender people to work harder than others.
"The biggest setback I've been directly affected by is the lack of money being spent on myself and other trans models of color. They're making so much money and press off of us, but they're not paying us and that really fucks with me. Our clients need to pay us," Bloom holds. "The majority of trans people of color, especially trans women, have the worst living situations. We are homeless, we are starving, we need medical aid. Society has rejected us in public spaces to live normal lives, ignoring how badly we want to."
And when backed up with the fact that, since December, more than 28 transgender women have been murdered (most being transgender women of color), with nearly all of their stories unreported in the media, Blooms words hold even more significance. "It's crucial that we're paid for our stories and talents so we're not subjected to other means of survival that's common with our lifestyles. Don't fetishize us, protect us."
Before Casil Mcarthur caught the eyes of industry heavyweights, he was held up in Colorado, exploring his gender through cosplay. McCarthur considered the form of fantasy dress up to be one of the only outlets he had to explore, and get comfortable with, his gender identity. "It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication — a lot of late night conversations with yourself," he says, admitting he didn't like himself before transitioning.
"I had no energy, no drive. I felt like I was a black hole. I had pretty bad gender dysphoria up until I was able to get my top surgery done, even though I had been on hormones for a good amount of time leading up to then." Last year, photographer Collier Schorr shot him for Italian Vogue, pre-surgery, which led to a 16-page spread with Steven Meisel in W, a campaign for Kenneth Cole, stints on the Coach and Marc Jacobs runways at New York Fashion Week, and more. "I've always been comfortable in front of the camera, but that weight on my chest caused massive insecurity no matter what I did."
Upon his entry to the fashion industry, he was met with another identity challenge: Would he model openly as a transgender man? Or did he even have to? "Because I started modeling so young (at 10 years old), there was no point in hiding that part of me going into male modeling. It was out there already," he maintains. But McArthur was hesitant, not wanting to be seen as a transgender model, and thus separated from his peers. "I just wanted to be a male model. I was scared to be seen as a trans man." His concerns with his outer appearance are valid, considering the physical requirements for male models, too — and, at one point, McArthur thought transitioning would mean the end of his career. Being open about his gender allowed him to pursue his dream without the fear of being outed, being made to fit in a gender that wasn't his, or the ultimate trap: being typecast.
"Being open about my gender in the industry, I don't have anxieties over people finding out I am trans. It forces me to love myself as a trans person and to see the beauty in this experience. It helps me realize that this is completely normal, and every trans individual deserves to feel normal about themselves," he says. Sentiments like this are frequent on his Instagram, where McArthur often calls on the industry for radical improvements to the way it regards transgender models. "We are not modeling being transgender. We are modeling the clothing, the art, the fashion, and so many other things that are not focused on our gender. Your gender can't hold you back."
It's a nice idea, but on set, it's not necessarily the most realistic expectation to have. While it's known that male models are just as prone to hyper-sexualization, which is just now coming to light, female-to-male models experience a heightened type of fetishization, including personal questions that move the line and then cross it. As he says, "Don’t ask us about our dead name. It's dead. Don't tell us that we can trust you won't tell anyone as a way of guilting us into it." McArthur's referring to deadnaming, the act of calling a transgender person by their old name, which denies them the progress they've made in their transition.
And he's not done: "Coming from a point of being trans male, don't refer to us as butch lesbians. We're not butch lesbians. We are men. We are also not tomboys. I know that when I first started modeling people loved to use the, 'You have such a tomboy look!'" It's hard to believe people actually still commit these types of social snafus, given the progress that's been made, but the harsh reality is that they do, and most of the bubbled fashion industry is still unbriefed on the most basic of gender politics and terminology. "It's unprofessional to not educate yourself. At the end of the day, it's all about respect and boundaries. If you want to change the world, you have to tell them you're here to do that."
If fashion is art and the industry is a museum, Gia Garison is the Mona Lisa. Still a teenager, Garison is both a veteran and rookie of Brooklyn nightlife — a persona that, via social media, has drawn the eyes of the industry her way. In just a few years, Garison has secured her stake among the fashion elite, attending and hosting parties that would otherwise require cocktail attire with Garison showing up in next-to-nothing glam — chokers, chains, and miniskirts.
"I'm always the black sheep wherever I go. I could never be a full-blown commercial model, and I don't know if I ever really want to be. I don't conform to a lot of traditional standards of beauty," she says, looking at her stiletto nails. Garison doubles as a DJ on the weekends, and a Pat McGrath favorite during the week. "I definitely receive a lot of negative attention for things like that, but I wish our society was more open to letting me do whatever the fuck I want." For the most part, Garison marches to the beat of her own drum.
Garison didn't find herself as a transwoman until later on in her life, which means she and those around her don't associate her outer appearance with [conventionally] feminine qualities as easily as her peers. "It's not like I could really hide it or act like I was a woman my entire life. But I've never been one to hide anything about myself," she says, changing her tune. "The bottom line is: Being trans is really hard; some people just want to fit in as a cis-passing person. It can be so overwhelming to constantly be fighting for your existence, so I totally respect if one would want to just keep quiet about that and just try and lay low."
Unlike the passing privilege inherited by cisgender-appearing trans models, Garison often modifies her look to fit in. "I definitely change myself to sort of fit a mold, or sometimes be someone that I'm not. People sometimes make me think I’m not feminine enough," she admits. "But a lot of it is just because I don’t want to deal with people harassing me. Some days I don't even want to leave my house because I have to shave my face or put on makeup just to get by. But I don't feel like doing that every day. It gets so stressful and expensive; beauty products are not cheap. Sometimes the combination of everything just makes it hard to even go outside."
She's since hit her stride and is no longer stuck between her gender identity and her gender expression. "People still commonly misgender me (as in, for a male model), but now that I've become more feminine looking because of the hormones, it's made people more aware," she says. Though walking through the outside world may be tough, when it comes to the business side of fashion, it's what makes Garison one of the only models out there who are a true chameleon. "If I go to a casting sometimes, people won't know what to do with me or what I am. It sounds so dark — but why does it have to be like that?," she asks.
Garison points out that most of the jobs she's gotten are due to her "interesting" appearance; that is, not necessarily because of her trans-ness, but because uniquely beautiful women are currently trending. It's these very qualities, ones that introduce mainstream audiences to cultures they've yet to immerse themselves in, that are behind the diversity movement happening in fashion right now. It both helps and hinders her.
"A lot of people associate being transgender with this idea that we're more crazy or wild, or open to doing things that cis people wouldn't normally do," she reveals. "But you can't act like everyone is the same. We don't all have the same lengths we'll go. I feel like being trans would only make someone feel like they could take control of you just because they feel like you're less-than, or damaged in someway."
From wrapping a T-shirt around her head as a child in the Philippines and telling her mom she was a girl, Geena Rocero's every step between the activism and fashion communities is rooted in the belief that gender is a destiny. After meeting a transgender beauty pageant manager at 15, she decided to give the modeling thing a try — and won. Rocero went from the boy who used fashion to express what he felt on the inside, to a woman representing transgender beauty queens across the Philippines. But Rocero acknowledges the transgender icons who came before her, who inspired her to "come out," and who didn’t have it so easy — see: Lauren Foster, Crimsona Kaiser, Caroline Cossey, and more — women who paid a price when they got "outed."
"When I started modeling, there wasn't an out, trans-identified, fashion model, so I made the decision to not share my trans herstory to my agent," she says. After being discovered by a photographer, Rocero was signed to NEXT Model Management, working as a model for the next decade. "After many years of living a life of constant paranoia, of thinking When will they find out?, I'd had enough. And I've learned to truly love and accept myself, and work through and heal the shame that I've had."
She expands on her decision to reveal her trans identity in the middle of her career. "I needed to be ready before I made the decision to share my journey for the first time," she says, referring to her viral TED Talk from 2014 when she came out as transgender on International Transgender Day of Visibility. During her talk, Rocero told her story, that includes a religion that contains it own set of transgender roots, and a set of supportive parents — both advantages not experienced by many of those from the Western world. It changed her life.
"When I decided to share my story, I was referred to by the industry and media as a 'transgender model'. It was an important moment in the American zeitgeist when the conversation on what it means to be trans was happening," she says. Despite it being an epithet that isn't technically necessary, the term comes with a degree of humanization. "For the longest time, trans models were invisible. And the sudden mainstream conversation was an opportunity for trans people to proclaim our space, to be seen as we are. It allowed me to bring my full self into my career — no more hiding and paranoia."
While she isn't modeling, Rocero plays the role of producer, and is the founder of her own trans-focused and trans-specific company, Gender Proud Productions. Through her various projects, Rocero and co-founder Allie Hoffman seek to elevate the transgender conversation, providing more (paid) opportunities for transgender people. "When I produce through our company, I try my best to be conscious of not just what stories are being told but also giving opportunities to trans and gender nonconforming people behind the scenes," she describes. It's through her own company that she sets the example for other working experiences for transgender people that are acceptable, furthering the point that trans-led projects are too few and far between.
"I recently executively produced a documentary with LogoTV called Made to Model, on the history of trans models. One of the models that we featured said she experienced misgendering and mistreatment about 80% of the time during shoots. It's incredibly sad, but common," she explains. "I think it's important to set intentions on the work environment. Before the shoot, educate the whole production team on language and pronouns, along with the goal of making the day on the job fun, inclusive, and supportive."
In terms of support, it's helpful to remember that Rocero, like most transgender models, didn't adhere to a formula for revealing her gender identity. There is no blueprint to coming out as gay, transgender, or anything — paths arguably less traveled when it comes to equal rights for all. For Rocero, that wasn't exactly a bad thing. "I wish when I was starting out there were a lot of out, celebrated trans-identified models. But I also think of the many trans youth seeing me and others on social media; I can only hope that it gives them a sense of reflection that they, too, can claim their space.
Special thanks to Vandervoort Studio.
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