Hari Nef, Andreja Pejić, Valentina Sampaio – today, a handful of openly transgender supermodels walk the catwalks of international fashion weeks, snag deals as the faces of big beauty brands and grace the covers of the fashion industry’s most coveted magazines. However, only this month has Vogue debuted its first trans cover star, 22-year-old Brazilian-born Sampaio. The March issue of the Paris edition will be the first magazine in French history to put a trans person on its cover. "Beyond her evident physical qualities and her sparkling personality,” writes editor-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt, “(Sampaio) embodies... a long and painful fight against being perceived as a 'gender exile’.” The headline on the cover reads: “Transgender Beauty: How They’re Shaking Up The World.”
It’s been a long road to this level of inclusivity for trans models in the fashion industry. The moment Pejić was scouted as a 16-year-old working in a Melbourne McDonald's back in 2007 was a major turning point; by 2011 the Bosnian model was walking Paris Fashion Week for Jean-Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, one of the first trans people to become an in-demand industry name. The same year, Brazilian trans model Lea T was pictured on the front of LOVE magazine, kissing Kate Moss. Then, a few seasons later, photographer Bruce Weber shot 17 transgender models for New York department store Barneys' Spring 2014 campaign. In 2016, Caitlyn Jenner landed a campaign for H&M. In fact, if 2016 felt like it belonged to any one model, it was the 24-year-old, Philadelphia-born Hari Nef, who has graced the covers of Elle, Wonderland, and LOVE.
“Hari Nef was a very striking impact on me,” says Shon Faye, a British journalist and commentator on trans issues. “Not because I dress particularly like her, but because she showed ways to be feminine that weren’t high femme. I felt less pressure to wear hairpieces or wigs while my own hair grew, because she was modelling and living openly as trans while transitioning quite subtly and over time.”
To look back over the last decade and call this representation progressive, however, might be to speak too soon. Talk to trans people working in or around fashion, and it quickly becomes clear that demand only extends to particular types of trans models, that the day-to-day reality of being trans and working in the fashion industry might not be as glamorous as a Vogue Paris cover would have you believe, and that the drip-down effect of media representation – to how trans people are treated at street level – is wilfully slow. Plus, of course, there is the question of how sincere a gesture it is to put a trans model on the cover of your magazine or in your latest campaign, when, in 2017, it seems to be a surefire way to garner publicity.
The question, then, is how do we circumvent a situation where trans people are treated like they’re just the latest trend? What does real inclusion look like?
“Most trans people are not trying to 'shake up the world',” says Shon, when asked about her reaction to the Vogue Paris cover. Shon points out that, although kinder than the coverage of a few years ago, it’s still a “sensational representation” of trans people. “Being trans is not a political statement designed to make everyone rethink gender,” explains Shon. “It may have that effect sometimes, which is good, but we are not a style aesthetic. ‘Shaking up the world’ is not always positive for trans people. Shaking people up often means they won’t give you a job, or that they throw you out on the street, or that they rape you."
Transphobia, in fact, is more rife than ever. In America last week, President Donald Trump revoked protections introduced by Obama that allowed trans students to use the bathroom of their choosing. Earlier this month in the UK, a boy shot an 11-year-old transgender girl at school with a BB gun, the culmination of weeks of bullying. LGBT rights charity Stonewall estimates that around half of young trans people have attempted suicide. "The fashion industry could do with being a little less self-regarding about using trans people's bodies without knowing the brutal rift between those bodies and the world that trans people emerge from," comments Shon.
Besides finding covers like this a far cry from the reality of being trans, Shon wants to know why trans people “are only ever the models” within the fashion industry; “in majority of cases they are the most precarious and lowest-paid cog in the machine,” she points out. “Why are there no trans designers receiving investment, or makeup artists or trans fashion editors? When you look around the trans community many creative people are doing these things for no money.”
Talking to trans people with experience modelling, Shon’s words ring true. 24-year-old London model Tschan Andrews recently quit modelling after six years in the business because her identity was "always in question and openly disrespected”. The biggest disrespect of all, says Tschan, was being openly misgendered, which is something that never happens in her day-to-day life. “That’s incredibly disrespectful for a transgender model, it will cause dysphoria” she explains, detailing an experience where she was sent home from a shoot for a famous fashion magazine for questioning why she was being asked to dress more 'masculine' or play the role of a male, then a thug, when the shoot was meant to be all about celebrating trans inclusivity. She didn't react to the negative racial stereotyping but talked with her agency; together they agreed that the best and only option was for her to leave the shoot.
Looking back on those experiences now, Tschan says: “It’s like fracturing your mind – you being yourself and someone saying no – it triggers negative thought processes about dysphoria that you have had to break down over years to be yourself.” If she felt taken in by the world of modelling when she was younger, says Tschan, now she’s realised that she’s just not comfortable “foregoing her identity for a picture.”
When Thai trans model Pêche Di moved to New York in 2008, she had a similarly testing experience. She snagged a few token high-profile modelling gigs specifically featuring trans people, but couldn’t get signed to an agent. Instead, she took the initiative to set up her own agency, specifically for trans models. Now, Transmodels agency represents 19 people, and recently worked on the landmark National Geographic issue on trans identity.
“I’m very surprised Vogue Paris was the first Vogue to put a trans model on the cover,” says Pêche over the phone from NYC, “France are liberal but America are more liberal.” Pêche said the cover made her feel “thrilled”, explaining that she grew up reading Vogue as a young person in Thailand, and if this had happened when she was a kid she could have shown it to her parents or friends who criticised her for being trans.
However, Pêche makes the point that when trans models “get to be on covers”, as she puts it, they’re still usually Caucasian models. “In addition to that, I want to see trans women of colour getting to be on covers,” she explains. “The beauty contracts trans people get signed to are all Caucasian trans women, too; Caitlyn Jenner got a contract with MAC, and Andreja Pejić Make Up For Ever... most trans women approved by the industry are white trans women, but it’s trans women of colour that get attacked and killed. I want to see the changes to our media include those people.”
For this to happen, says Pêche, the language we use needs to change; “I’m shocked to hear the industry still calls darker skin tones ‘minority’, when Asian and African people are a majority of the population. I get frustrated and pissed off by that term.” If the beauty and fashion industry wants to cater to those markets, says Pêche, and magazines want to sell globally, it’s time their representation matched up.
Tschan agrees. As a black, trans model, she has witnessed a similar pervasion of racism from behind the scenes. “White models are treated as differently to black models as day is different to night,” she says. “I’ve been shot by some of the world’s best photographers, but [as a black, trans model] I’d never expect a beauty campaign.”
If there’s a notable lack of trans women of colour in the fashion industry, there’s also a glaring lack of male trans bodies. Try to name one male trans model and you’d be hard pushed. Curator E.J. Scott thinks this is because “the idea that a trans man can be an attractive, authentic man is even more of a threat to patriarchal heteronormative society” than the idea that a trans woman can be beautiful.
E.J. points out that, as long as fashion “perpetuates the notion that successful trans people are people who look like cisgender people – specifically white cisgendered copies – and doesn’t celebrate the diversity of trans people”, the impact on real trans lives will be minimal. “In the last five years, violence towards trans people has doubled,” points out E.J, citing UK statistics that saw the number of hate crimes against trans people rise from 215 in 2011 to 582 in 2015. “Of course we need Hari Nef on covers – she is beautiful and inspirational, but I care about the trans women who goes to the shop, too, the one who doesn’t have passing privilege. Trans people on the front of magazines doesn’t stop the non-beautiful trans person being harassed.”
So, how to effect real change? E.J. is sceptical of the fashion magazines’ ability to represent the diversity of all bodies but suggests the entire industry needs an overhaul. “It perpetuates gender normativity,” he says. “Men’s fashion week, women’s fashion week, men’s changing rooms, women’s changing rooms... Fashion as an industry needs to be behind the gender revolution, to respect the full gender spectrum. Not just a couple of trans models or talk of agender clothes at Selfridges.”
E.J. points to more diverse and authentic representations of trans lives outside of the fashion industry. The work of the trans portrait photographer Del LaGrace Volcano, for example, or a project called Brighton Trans*formed – a book, exhibition and website documenting trans people’s stories. Then of course there’s the excellent show E.J. has curated, Museum of Transology, currently on at Fashion Space Gallery in London, which displays objects and clothes that represent 122 trans people’s gender journeys.
“The fashion world spectacularises trans lives when it does depict them,” says E.J., a point with which Tschan agrees. “We live in such a clickbait world,” says the former model. “If people want to use trans models nowadays it’s for free advertising – to reach demographics they wouldn’t normally reach, or go viral. It’s just a means to an end – instant publicity.”
As such, E.J. and Tschan both find subheads like “Trans Beauty” wholly unnecessary. “It would be nice to have the person’s name rather than having to have the word ‘trans’ in the headline,” says Tschan firmly, pointing out that, in the 1980s, trans models like former Bond girl Caroline Cossey were shot for Playboy or did beauty campaigns, only no one knew they were trans – except maybe the photographer. “It wasn’t because she was trans that she was shot then, it was because she was beautiful.”
Pêche disagrees about the subhead however, and believes that, at the moment, labels can be useful. “I think labelling is important for young people. When they have that term “trans” they know they have found their representation. Some people think we shouldn’t label but if we don’t, what about the younger generation who have no idea who is and isn’t trans?”
Ultimately, says Pêche, we need trans models. But more than that, we need trans role models with strong voices. Pêche would like to see the African American trans actress Laverne Cox on the cover of US Vogue, she says, because Laverne is someone who lends her voice to young trans people who are in bad situations, like those thrown into the wrong prison for their gender, or those affected by America’s bathroom laws.
For Shon, the fashion industry needs to take a wider look at catering for trans people’s bodies. “Forcing a trans woman model into a dress designed for a cis model's ribcage to send her down a runway constrained and breathless is kind of the perfect metaphor,” she says, frustrated. “When it comes to clothes, we are being bent into shape by the old standards, still forced in every way to live in a cisgender world. Nothing is being created for us. There is still no material acknowledgement that we exist.”
Ed. note: An earlier version of this article omitted certain details of Tschan Andrews' story. This version is a more accurate reflection of her experience.