Growing up a child of immigrants in Middle America, I didn’t think I’d ever be a fashion writer. Yes, it was a dream of mine, but it felt far from attainable. No one looked like me, in magazines or on TV. For years — in fact, well into early adulthood — I just assumed my dreams were meant for someone else.
Then social media came along and changed everything. Suddenly I was able to connect with people who had similar upbringings and cultural experiences. I began to follow people in the fashion industry and network, which opened doors to opportunities I had previously deemed out of my reach. Now that I’m in a position to do so, I want to be that representation for other immigrants and children of immigrants, a reminder that we exist and we are worthy of the same visibility and access afforded to others.
October is Filipino American History Month, and to pay tribute to the diaspora, we’ll be wrapping up the month with a series of profiles on Filipinas in fashion. These women aren’t just a part of the industry — they’re actively working to make it a more inclusive and progressive space.
First up: Model and advocate Geena Rocero, who made history this year as the first transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate to appear in Playboy magazine. Ahead, she sits down with Refinery29 to discuss transgender representation, the importance of advocacy, and her unconventional hidden talent.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a modelling career?
As someone who joined transgender beauty pageants at such a young age in the Philippines, I’ve always wanted to be on stage to express myself and perform. Becoming a model has been the perfect extension of that dream. Moving to the United States allowed me to dream of bigger things for myself. Moving to New York City allowed me to persevere in both the challenges and opportunities that New York has presented to me as a fashion model.
What does it mean to you to be the first transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate to appear in Playboy?
To be the first transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate is a huge honour. I found a perfect partnership with my Playboy family. Being associated with such an iconic brand that has always stood for freedom of expression, individuality, and unapologetic expression of personhood is such a wonderful feeling.
What has the response been like?
The response has been incredible and exciting. I’ve heard from people from all walks of life, including Filipina aunties looking at my centrefold, my high school classmates sharing how proud they are of me, and young trans girls all over the world — whether it’s in Indonesia, Spain, Brazil, or the Philippines.
What’s your assessment of Filipina representation in the fashion world? Is progress being made?
I side with the notion that there’s always an opportunity for more. More and more we are seeing not just Filipinas in front of the camera, but they’re also the decision makers [behind the scenes] like Raissa Gerona of Revolve, Kristina Rodulfo as beauty director of Women’s Health, and Kelsey Merritt fronting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
How would you like to see fashion become more inclusive, specifically for Filipinas?
I am invested in the idea of a model as a storyteller. A model is not just this one-dimensional person you hire to represent a specific brand. We’re in a culture now where people are asking for more — more stories, more of what’s behind the scenes. There are greater opportunities for Filipinx and Filipinx American identified fashion models to bring your whole selves at work. This is the time to tell your story, express what makes you who you are, define what makes you the proud Filipina you are. The gaps could be filled if we allow those spaces to flourish, and when we allow Filipina stories to be centred on a project.
Have you worked with many other Filipinas? Do you bond over your shared culture and experiences?
I’ve been blessed to work with many incredible Filipinas in fashion — whether it’s a fellow model at the Chromat fashion show, a beauty editor at Elle, or my loving and dynamic LGBTQ+ fam as a queer art collective of creative directors, photographers, or culture directors. The experience has been so empowering to recognise each other’s talents and contributions for the culture. But more so, it’s asking: How can we support each other? How could we elevate each other’s work? Or to keep it real, when we all get together, it’s always a question: When is our next dinner party? Who’s going to make the chicken adobo? Who’s going to bring the coconut rice?
What do you think about the current state of transgender representation within modelling and fashion?
In all honesty, we need more of it. We need more trans people in positions to make decisions throughout the industry, be it creative direction, casting, or management. As an industry, we’re having a much-needed conversation. Representation is not just who’s in front of the camera. It also relates to who’s behind the camera and who’s making those types of decisions.
How did you come up with the idea for Gender Proud?
I started Gender Proud after my Ted Talk went viral in 2014. I wanted to further the conversation about immigrants, gender-nonconforming communities, and what it means to be a trans person of colour. I wanted to advocate for transgender rights all over the world and share my story on the biggest platform I could think of. Whether it’s working with the United Nations, President Obama’s state department, or the World Economic Forum, I wanted to be heard. I wanted the world to know the journeys of trans people, our struggles, and the beauty in our authentic stories. I wanted the world to see our full humanity.
Rumour has it you can make swimsuits out of natural materials! Where did this hidden talent come from?
It started out as a hobby every time I would travel to different islands, specifically in the remote islands of the Philippines. I’d be on the islands for many days, and I’m surrounded by nature, with beautiful flowers and tropical fruits. I just wanted to create something. One of my dear friends mentioned he was opening a bar, and he needed a visual display. I would create different looks from each island, whether it was making a two-piece red swimsuit out of the heart of a banana, a one-piece swimsuit out of banana leaves, or a two-piece bikini out of pineapple — basically any flowers and fruits I could find on the islands. It was so fun!
What’s next for you?
As a media producer, I am so excited to be developing different projects, whether for TV, movies, nonfiction, and fiction. I’m currently pitching projects, and it’s been quite a journey. The hustle is real!