Busting the transgender barrier

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Transgender model Dusty Rose, left, practices a runway walk with model agency founder Peche Di. AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) – Dusty Rose has spent an entire year trying to become a model. Thwarted at every turn, she finally got a lucky break in the form of Peche Di, founder of an exclusively transgender modelling agency.

The 19-year-old trans woman born and raised in the conservative southern state of Alabama jumped for joy when she discovered the agency, founded in March 2015, through Instagram.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is kind of why I came to New York, to meet people like this!’” says the 6ft1 (1.85m) wannabe model, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a strappy black top.

While some transgender models – like Brazil’s Valentina Sampaio, who graced the cover of French Vogue in February, or Andreja Pejic, who walked here in Fashion Week – have found success, most continue to face a wall of prejudice.

It’s a problem even in liberal New York, where trans people are widely accepted, says Dusty, who started her transition when she was 15 and still in high school. “The first day me and my mom came up here, someone screamed ‘faggot’ at me and my mom was like, ‘My gosh this is New York, this is not supposed to happen here.’ And I just said, ‘Oh it happens everywhere.’”

Dusty works in a New York hair salon. “There are clients sometimes saying, ‘I don’t want this one doing my hair’, ‘I don’t want this one touching me’: Not even ‘her’ or ‘him’, just ‘this one’ – that kind of bothers me,” she says.

Before meeting Peche, 27, Dusty had sent her resume to modelling agencies each time introducing herself as a young trans woman from Alabama. All to no avail.

“Expectations are definitely higher because you are battling a lot of physical attributes that go along with being trans,” she said.

“You have to be smaller or you have to be skinnier. If you are trans you are typically bigger, you just can’t help it… and then being too masculine and not feminine.

“I’ve had photographers tell me ‘no no no, we only need female models’ and I was just like ‘oh! OK!’”

US President Donald Trump’s decision to ban transgenders from the military hasn’t helped. “He’s showing the country, ‘I’m the president, I can treat people like this, so can you. So now there’s so much more aggression and just outward hatred,” she says. 

Peche, a fellow trans woman, put Dusty at ease when they recently first met. Peche, who migrated from Thailand, went through similarly difficult experiences in setting up Trans Models, one of the world’s first modelling agencies to specialise in the transgender market. Today she represents 19 models, most of them women but some men, as well as clients who consider themselves neither male nor female.

“Of course I see the progress,” says Peche when assessing the 10 years since she first began modelling in Thailand. “Trans models have become a thing right now, but before it was not accepted.”

Peche proudly reels off campaigns for big brands such as Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Smirnoff and L’Oreal Paris, which made model Hari Nef a campaign spokeswoman in the US.

Peche, who disguised her desire to be a woman throughout her entire childhood, also set up dating app Teadate after Tinder blocked transgenders. The app already has 25,000 users.

For New York Fashion Week, which ends today, Peche’s goal is to get her models on the runway. In the longer term, she hopes to book trans men and women for campaigns advertising body lotion, shampoo and body wash, believing it would be “very inspiring” to see trans people on the screen.

And Dusty’s dream? Becoming a Victoria’s Secret Angel.

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