Refinery29 Somos is dedicated to elevating, educating, and inspiring a new generation of changemakers committed to Latinx visibility. It’s through this platform, created in partnership with Ulta Beauty, that we’ll explore the unique issues that affect us and dive into the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich‚ all while celebrating nuestras culturas. Here, 35-year-old Carmen Carrera, a trans Latinx model and actress, shares her experience performing in the NYC drag scene, dealing with trans stigmas and stereotypes in the workplace, and her mission to make the Latinx LGBTQIA community more welcome at home. This story was told to Jennifer Mulrow and edited for length and clarity.
I never really identified with my gender as a child, but then again, it also wasn’t something I actively thought about. It was only during school when I would express myself or do certain things — like color with pink pencils or say I had a crush on a boy — that people would comment, “Well, this is what boys do.” I would think, Is that who I am? That began my own internal questioning.
Growing up in the suburbs in northern New Jersey, I used to steal my mom’s makeup. She had a bunch of lipstick samples that she kept in the bathroom, and I used to get all dolled up in secret before I showered. My mom is Peruvian and Spanish, and my dad is Puerto Rican, and my family as a whole was very cautious about how we presented ourselves. Makeup wasn’t allowed (when my sister eventually started wearing makeup, she could only wear soft, neutral shades). As immigrants, there was a level of fear that came with moving to a new place: you didn't want to mess it up, you didn't want to stand out too much, you did what you had to do to get a job and have a good life.
Ironically, it’s makeup that launched my career at 18 years old. One of my older cousins worked at a beauty company and helped me secure a job interview at the brand’s makeup counter in New York City. And because she was a makeup artist and was so bold with her beauty choices, it helped my family become more comfortable with makeup. At work, I was a favorite among customers — there were fully booked days with back-to-back appointments. Back then, we didn’t have YouTube tutorials, so if you were good at makeup, everyone requested you. And it didn’t feel like work — I found that I could express myself and spread joy to others.
At the makeup counter, I was the favorite gay, but at night, I was working at one of the biggest Latinx LGBT nightclubs in New York City. I went in and I owned that place in my crystal-embellished capes, gowns, and pasties (which was the complete opposite from my usual fitted caps, jerseys, and Jordans). Onstage, I felt empowered, and I could be my full female-figure self. People couldn’t believe my transformation. I was a makeup artist by day, drag diva by night.
I created a name for myself in the nightlife industry, and then, at 25, I submitted an audition tape to be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. At first, I didn’t want to do it because I wanted to transition, but all of my friends encouraged me and I wound up being cast in the third season of the show, performing in drag challenges each week until I was eventually eliminated. As soon as I finished filming, I began transitioning.
My transition was a bit of a shock for my family, because I never fully expressed myself growing up. For my whole young adult life, I did what I needed to do to fit in, and figured everything would work itself out later. There was also no guidebook. That’s why I didn't make my decision to transition until I had given myself time to really think it through and weigh my options. I waited until I was in a position where I felt secure and independent.
Plus, my family didn’t see my process: I had left home, was on TV, transitioned, and then returned a different person. So, I had to reconnect with them, and I took on that responsibility fully because I didn’t expect my family to immediately welcome me with open arms. But thankfully, I wasn’t met with resistance. They didn’t stigmatize my being trans, but the same can’t be said for others. Many LGBT Latinxs are still not embraced or loved the way they deserve to be. It's a scary place to be in, when your parents aren’t there for you. Where do you go? Who do you trust? I think that now, because we, as a society, are openly discussing LGBTQ rights, people’s perceptions are changing for the better, but we still have a lot of work to do.
When I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I got the attention of editors at fashion magazines who put me in touch with my first modeling agency. I was their first trans model. I signed my deal, got a 16-page spread in a national fashion magazine, and the rest took off from there — I walked in couture runway shows, performed in theater productions, booked commercial campaigns, and landed roles in television shows. But, initially, there was a lot of pushback from clients and designers — everybody was saying no. I was being featured in all these news outlets, and it was still “no.” If I have the look, and I can do it, and the people want it, why is it a no? “Because you’re trans, and we don’t know what that means for our business.” That's what I had to deal with.
Now, I want to break into acting. I grew up watching soap operas on the Spanish channel with my grandmother (that’s also how I learned to speak Spanish), and at the time, Latinx representation was only seen on Latinx programming. That’s why it’s so important to me that there should not only be Latinx narratives, but also trans stories onscreen. So many trans stories perpetuate the stereotype that trans people are less than. Why can’t there be a trans person portrayed on TV who works at an amazing agency, has great style, and is funny? Why does it always have to be about the angry trans person whose life is so horrible? There are so many trans people — not just me — who are so much more than that. And they deserve to have their stories told.
Part of my life’s work has always been to restore hope, to redefine what possibility could look like for an LGBTQ person. I’m focusing on how trans people — specifically, Latinx trans people — are being welcomed into their home. Personally, I want to be a reflection of the women in my family. So it’s about figuring out how the women in my family can help me become well-versed in our tradition, even something as simple as cooking time-honored meals. I want to be accepted among other women, as well, and work to overcome the challenges we face as women today. Because I am a part of that storyline, too.
For me, a strong Latin woman used to mean that you were aggressive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true now. You can be vulnerable without compromising your strength. Embodying your beauty starts with opening up your heart and not being afraid to do so.