Headlines often commend those who make historic debuts on magazine covers or in runway shows, but their presence is nothing new. Trans models like Tracey Norman have long existed, but only now feel safe enough to openly identify themselves. What’s new is mainstream awareness and visibility, along with a growing appetite for gender-fluid expression.
However, as an industry heavily reliant on the gender binary—from clothing categories to change rooms—trans inclusion has often been on cis-normative terms. As writer Thora Simesen notes, “there is a big difference between celebrating the cool-factor and cachet of transness and actually supporting the community.”
To understand that difference, here’s what six trans and non-binary models have to say about why they got into the biz, what it’s like working in Canadian fashion and their ideas for ways the industry can improve.
“As a trans femme model of colour, I feel like the odds are already stacked against me”
“I started modelling because of girls like Alek Wek, Jourdan Dunn, Naomi Campbell and Arlenis Sosa. For a very long time I never wanted to be a part of an agency because I never related to any of the models. I never saw myself in the hundreds of faces, but nowadays there are so many new unique faces popping up. Big agencies are finally paying attention. Still, as a trans femme model of colour I feel like the odds are already stacked against me. I have to work ten times harder and be ten times better than my competitors.
“I wish the Canadian fashion industry reflected the beauty I see on the streets of Toronto every day, a beauty that comes from many different genders and cultural backgrounds. We’re privileged to live in a time that makes it so easy for us to hop on Instagram and reach out to more diverse individuals. The industry could easily get in touch with people who reflect what culture is right now.” —Amalia, 26
“My unique gender identity has actually been my biggest selling point”
“I am at peace in front of the camera, and modelling brings me deep personal joy. Lately, as I’ve started modeling while trans, the greatest wonder has been the feedback from the queer public. They are looking for people who look like them, they are looking for role models. People are really aching to see bodies like mine, and I’ve had a lot of encouragement since I began. Seeing a non-binary body in fashion is still very rare and I am so happy that my work as a model has more purpose than it did before my transition. My unique gender identity has actually been my biggest selling point.
“I have been very lucky. My body, though it is non-binary, is still thin and white and symmetrical. I know that this gives me great privilege when it comes to opportunities. My body is much easier for the mainstream to digest. It is critical for all trans individuals to be represented in all forms of media, but particularly in fashion. As a powerful curator of culture, fashion can change minds and start trends. If trans models become more commonplace in the highest levels, then I firmly believe opportunities for all trans folks in the arts will follow.
“Don’t guess at what the trans community needs. Seek liaisons for oppressed bodies and make sure you’re crafting your ideas with a diverse team that has a variety of experience.” —William Lavinia, 24
“I frequently worry about when I’m going to change or which change room I should use”
“I’ve been actively modelling for about a year now. I started because I’ve had a really long standing affection and passion for both photography and modelling—an affection that was a really big part in helping me understand who I was as a person, an artist and a creator. It was also crucial in navigating my identity as a queer trans woman.
“I’m fairly open on my portfolio about being trans. From the get-go, if someone had a problem they would probably turn away then. I’ve been really glad to find photographers that are actually very positive about my being trans. At other times, I’ve felt a bit tokenized. Like, “the thing you have going for you is that you’re trans—not any of the things that make you a unique model.
“I think a lot of the most trans-positive moments I’ve experienced while working have been when there’s sincerity behind a photographer’s motivations and expressions. Especially when they want to catch the actual beauty and wonder of trans models. I actually met my current partner through a photoshoot. We were cast as boyfriend and girlfriend in a very genuine way by a photographer.
“From big shoots to small shoots, I frequently worry about when I’m going to change or which change room I should use. It’s similar to the bathroom problem, but this one is even worse because usually you’re varying levels of naked around other folks. That becomes quite difficult when you haven’t had bottom surgery or don’t plan to have it. It’s just something I would like to never have to worry about. I’d like to see either designated gender neutral changing spaces or explicit safe space policies.” —Taylor Bai-Woo, 20s
“As I grew into a young adult, I came to learn that in individuality is strength”
“My Waardenburg Syndrome features (wide-set blue eyes, mostly) used to make me feel hideous, because people told me that I was. As I grew into a young adult, I came to learn that in individuality is strength— what set me apart quite literally is what made me stand out enough to make a career in entertainment.
“YouTube as a platform has brought me many opportunities, and in a way I see my modelling work as one pillar to hold up my overall career rather than my sole pursuit. First and foremost, I want to make people feel things, and if I can do that in an image, I’m more than happy to.
“The social liberation of people as a whole and the representation of diverse trans people in media are intertwined on a very intimate level. If you see a campaign with no diversity, suggest they do better next time, don’t ignore it. It is not from a place of ‘needing diversity’ but from a place of media reflecting the actual communities and spaces they are trying to appeal to. It just makes sense. It doesn’t have to be hard.” —Stef Sanjati, 22
“You have to be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared to be able to be in this industry”
“My desire to pursue modelling started when Hayley Elsaesser remembered me from working backstage during Toronto Fashion Week and requested me for her spring show. It was my first runway and I couldn’t have been more excited. I put on a fierce face and the rest came naturally.
“I struggled a lot at the beginning of my transition in seeing certain photos of myself after a shoot. Pre-hormones, my muscles were an insecurity of mine. Before I went through laser hair removal, I hated seeing bumpy skin on the lower half of my face and would ask photographers to edit it out in post-production. It’s no fun seeing a version of yourself you don’t like in high-definition.
“As a model, I constantly feel the pressure to look my best from head to toe at all times. That alone can be a little draining, but beauty is work. A photo-op is always waiting. You have to be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared to be able to be in this industry.
“Thick skin is, unfortunately, essential when it comes to being a trans model. One time, I was cast in a Toronto show and went in for a fitting. I tried on a few of the pieces the designer wanted me to wear, but struggled because at the time I wasn’t able to fill the bust sections. The designer said she would whip something up to make it work, but in the end, I was cut from the show.” —Jordan Adrienne, 23
“If I’m doing a show as a trans individual, I’m not representing anyone other than myself and the designer I’m walking for”
“I didn’t intend for modelling to become a career when I started, I just wanted to make art and be art. But then people started asking what my rates were and I realized that I might be able to do it as a profession. I love working with other creative people and I’m constantly amazed that I have a job I enjoy so much.
“I have faced challenges as a trans model, because the industry is based heavily on a binary gender system. When I do shows and shoots, I’m almost always automatically considered to be female. I am as happy to wear dresses as I am suits. I am happy to walk and shoot with the women. I would just prefer it if people would use my correct pronouns and not put undue emphasis on gender.
“Representation matters less to me than inclusion and overall presence. If I’m doing a show as a trans individual, I’m not ‘representing’ anyone other than myself and the designer I’m walking for. I don’t want to become some kind of spokesperson or be turned into the new expectation for what a trans person in the fashion industry looks like. I also think that we bring perspectives and experience to our artistry that you won’t get from straight cis white people. We are something different, and why wouldn’t a Canadian fashion house want to create something unique with people who have so much to share? We are essential to creativity.” —Iris Robin, 24