There aren't many people like Rain Dove. A wilderness firefighter and landscape business owner turned model (you read that right), Dove's story might sound like most models. Young teen from small town gets scouted by an agent...you know the script. But for this Vermont native, modeling is really just the beginning.
In just two years, Dove has managed to catch the wave of fashion's agender movement, making a name for herself amidst the changing tides — and a place she, truthfully, never expected to be.
"I had a really crap day at work, and I ended up going out to drinks with a friend of mine who was a model for DKNY. And she told me I should be a model," she tells Refinery29. "So we made a bet on a football game: If she lost the bet, she would have to endorse my landscaping company in a small commercial for YouTube; if I lost, I’d have to go to a casting call of her choice‚ which, at the time, sounded like the worst punishment you could possibly give me."
Fast-forward three months later and Dove found herself at a casting call for Calvin Klein. The gig was a charity show, and she would be walking in undergarments. "They cast me as a male by accident," she says. "And on the day of the show, when they found out that I have these massive pecks and the smallest penis ever known to man [laughs], they decided to still let me walk. They put me in a very long men’s shirt." But, of course, reality soon set in: "They paid me $250 to not attend the after-party, because they were afraid of losing conservative charitable contributions if people thought they were making a social or political statement. So they paid me not to go."
"Long story short," she continues, "they didn’t get as much press as they would’ve liked to for that show, so they kind of promoted the fact that one of the models that was in the charity show was actually a woman. And [then] people started contacting me about modeling opportunities."
But to her point, this is what Dove finds to be the catch-22 when it comes to diversity (of all kinds) and designers. Hiring someone who defies the modeling norms is often perceived as some type of personal proclamation, whether intended or not. And some designers, like Demna Gvasalia of the Vetements-Balenciaga phenomenon, who told 032c magazine that he would never "compromise the credibility of a collection, for instance, to cater to what someone might think regarding our politics, or to send an insincere, first-degree message about something people expect for the sake of correctness” in fear that it hinders on artistic vision and distracts from the clothing. Dove understands this sentiment, and has experienced the repercussions of such first-hand: "If designers want to cast somebody who’s androgynous, they always have to think about if someone doesn’t necessarily see this as an artistic expression, rather a political statement that they support LGBT rights, and that definitely hinders my ability to get some work," she says.
Albeit at a loitering pace, diversity in the modeling industry is happening. In the past two years alone, we've seen a plus-size model cover Sports Illustrated, differently-abled models fronting major campaigns, and a plus-size male modeling division open at IMG. (There's still work to be done on the race front.) But for Dove (and for us), frequency and continuity are
key crucial. And, it can't be something that's merely considered "a trend."
"It’s a very interesting thing, because we’re in a world where communication is happening faster than ever, so conversations that have taken decades — women’s rights, LGBT rights, people of color and their rights — can happen in days," she says. "Things have very much shifted in an exponential way, as far as incorporating more diversity in campaigns. But at the same time, we have to see if these things will actually stick.
Change is possible, of course. And there are things that can be done to ensure the industry continues to move in a more progressive and inclusive direction. Dove took matters into her own hands in December, when she called out Victoria's Secret for the flawed (and basically subliminal) messaging in their annual fashion show. "I saw the Victoria’s Secret runway [special] and it claimed it featured 'the most beautiful women in the world,'" she says. "Yeah, they have a little bit of diversity as far as skin color goes, but the rest of diversity isn’t represented. They don’t even have people with short hair! So when they say they have the most beautiful women in the world, it’s very damaging, because with that kind of power comes a lot of responsibility and obligation to the world, because their marketing campaigns reach around the world. I just felt, honestly, a little angry. And concerned about the younger generation and what they think beauty is. I wanted to show them that they're fine just the way they are, even if they don't fall into the checklist that's been stated on television."
But the most important thing, Dove notes, is that this movement remains, above all else, authentic. "I would say one out of every three times that I step onto a photo shoot, it’s a gimmick," she says. "It’s just tokenism, and allowing someone to just be there because they know it’s gonna get a little bit of a buzz or it’s oh-so-controversial. But I know that my job in this industry will be complete when it’s boring to see me in any campaign."
After acknowledging the inequalities, the strides, and everything in between, what's the solution? Dove's answer is one we've heard before: Less talking and more doing. "In order for things to change, people have to be more extreme about the demands of the things they want to happen," she says; and that's where her continued activist work comes into play. (On Wednesday, she'll be heading to North Carolina to protest the newly-proposed "Bathroom Bill"). And while she never anticipated her modeling career to compliment her social advocacy, she's realized that the fashion industry has given her the platform to do just that.
"I always thought I had given up my chance to be a human rights activist by doing fashion, because fashion can be so narcissistic sometimes," she says. "But in a weird way, this industry has given me the power to do activism at a force and rate I never anticipated I'd have the ability to do. I demonized fashion when I first got into it. Even to this day, I still ask sometimes ask myself, 'What am I doing?' But fashion teaches people certain things that I never thought about. While modeling may seem like a negative profession, it's taught me that I need to take care of myself first and foremost. You have to love yourself, a lot. What fashion says is, sometimes, things aren't practical, but it gives you permission to wear something that makes you feel joyful. In a weird way, fashion has been marketed all wrong. It's not about exclusion or self-torture. At the end of the day, it's about self-love."