After making her a reality TV star, Trya Banks is making her a woman -- a real woman.
Banks announced Monday she found a doctor to pay for Isis King, the first transgender contestant on "America's Next Top Model," to undergo sex reassignment surgery. King, 22, was born male and went from a homeless shelter to cycle 11 of Banks' reality competition show after producers discovered her at a photo shoot. Now she's eager to be known for more than her gender.
"I look at it like, 'Yes, I'm the first transgender contestant, but OK, lets move past it now," King tells Banks in today's episode of "The Tyra Banks Show." "I try not to think about [being transgendered] because ... I feel like I really was born in the wrong body, and it's just the one thing that makes me feel uncomfortable."
Banks later surprises King with Dr. Marci Bowers, the gender reassignment surgeon who will evaluate and operate on King, to the tune of $20,000 to $35,000.
Banks' decision to debut King as her show's first transgender contestant was a bold move for a network reality series. King was eliminated almost midway through the current season, in part because she was uncomfortable posing in a swimsuit.
But pushing the envelope, in the modeling realm and on TV has become the MO of "ANTM": The show has cast multiple gay contestants, and last season crowned a plus-size model as its winner.
"We want to redefine what beauty is," executive producer Ken Mok said in September. "You can be tall, you can be short, you can be plus size, you can be transgender. You don't have to be what the modeling industry says you have to be. That was one of Tyra's original missions."
Mok and Banks didn't set out searching for a transgender model for "ANTM's" 11th season in which 14 wannabe catwalkers vie for a contract with Cover Girl cosmetics and representation by Elite Model Management. They found King when she was living in a homeless shelter "ANTM" visited last season for a photo shoot that paired contestants with disadvantaged girls.
"She participated in the shoot, and we didn't know anything about her," Mok said. "But when we started reviewing the photos, the girl that kept popping out of the background was Isis. She really knew what she was doing. Tyra wanted to know who she was. It was clear she really had a passion for modeling. So when it came to casting this season, we said, 'Why don't we find that girl?'"
King isn't the first transgender person to break into the modeling world: In the 1980s, Teri Toye and Billy Beyond modeled for Chanel and Todd Oldham, respectively. Model-turned-pop singer Amanda Lear built her career in the 1970s on keeping her sex status ambiguous. (Word on the street was she was born a man.)
And if there's any place where gender is categorically an illusion, it's the fashion world. Every other season, designers and magazine editors demand women raid the closets of their boyfriends, husbands and fathers for pinstripe vests, suit pants and fedoras. Guys tote around "murses." Girls whip out pocket watches. To market his latest collection of ladies dresses, Marc Jacobs put them on dudes.
Moreover, in modeling, measurements trump all else.