Aug. 22, 2008 -- Is America ready for a transgender top model?
Tyra Banks seems to think so -- or at least, she seems to think that a transgender model ought to be able to strut, pose and vogue alongside female hopefuls in a bid to prove she's the next big thing.
Banks' show "America's Next Top Model" will debut Isis, its first transgender contestant, when it begins its 11th season Sept. 3. It's a progressive move for a network reality series, 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," said executive producer Ken Mok. "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 Isis, 22, 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?'"
A Jewel in the Rough
Leggy and lean, Isis looks like she can strut with the best of them. Still physically male, Isis is saving money to afford a sex change operation, Mok said.
She's not the first transgender person to break into the modeling world: In the '80s, 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, at the end of the day, measurements trump all else.
"As far as I know, provided a transgender model had all the physical traits the industry demands, getting representation and finding work shouldn't be too difficult. Agencies care more about your measurements and your overall look than anything else," said a working high fashion model, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But while the fashion world may embrace transgender people and throw gender norms out the window, the same can't be said of the world at large.
"There have always been trannies on the periphery of fashion. But using transgender people to market things involves a certain amount of risk because there's a lot of people out there who do have prejudices and preconceived ideas," said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's and author of "Eccentric Glamour."
"There are editorial things they can do, say, avant-garde magazines. But they're not going to be Revlon models," Doonan said. "I can't see one showing up in a Lord & Taylor ad. There's too much money at stake."
"They don't speak to a large enough community," he added. "The transgender community is very small, and deserves respect and tolerance, but it's not a large community. So from a marketing standpoint, it's a risk to take a transgender model to market to straight women."
Models realize the risk in attaching themselves to a nonheterosexual lifestyle, whether transgender, gay, lesbian or something else, and often shy away from campaigns that could throw them from the mainstream to the fringes of the fashion world.
"I've known male models who, though gay themselves, are antsy [or their agencies are antsy] about them doing work for gay publications or gay-targeted clothing lines, because they don't want to be passed over for that campaign that'll pay $10,000 for a dude to look really sexy next to a girl," the high fashion model said. "And the same goes for lesbians. I know a couple who are, though not closeted by any measure, a little discreet about their orientation, because they don't want clients with male consumers in mind to think they can't look into the camera lens and project pure sex."
But Isis is open about her status. And she's not the only transgender person on reality TV: VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy" features Laverne, a transgender contestant, and LOGO, MTV's gay-themed cable channel, just wrapped the first season of "Transamerican Love Story," a dating competition starring a transgender bachelorette. On scripted TV, "Ugly Betty," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "All My Children" have featured story lines involving transgender characters.
"While the actual number of transgender representations on TV remains relatively small, what we're seeing on TV is a move away from the stereotypical, marginalized roles we've seen in the past -- sex workers, behind bars, being murdered," said Damon Romine, entertainment media director for GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). "These more diverse and accurate representations play a vital role in helping audiences understand transgender lives."
So while America may not be ready for a transgender top model, it's certainly time audiences and the fashion world considered one. In the sea of too-thin and too-pale models currently dominating in the industry, diversity, of any kind, is a good thing.
"Maybe its time for a tranny to end up on the cover of Vogue," Doonan said.