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United States

The transgender models breaking down the barriers of bigotry

Like the transgender soldiers US President Donald Trump decided to ban from the US military, trans models are battling discrimination on the catwalks and during photoshoots, but are determined to overcome it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:49am

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 American state of Alabama jumped for joy when she discovered the agency, founded in March 2015, through Instagram.

“I thought, ‘oh my God, this is why I came to New York, to meet people like this!’” says the 1.85 metre model, dressed in jeans, pink trainers and a strappy black vest top.

While some transgender models – such as Brazil’s Valentina Sampaio, who graced the cover of French Vogue in February, or Andreja Pejic, who walked in this month’s 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 Rose, who started her transition when she was 15 and still in high school.

“The first day me and my mother came up here, someone screamed ‘faggot’ at me and my mother was like ‘my gosh this is New York, this is not supposed to happen here.’ And I just said, ‘oh it happens everywhere’.”

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Rose 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. She once had to ask a client to leave.

Social media posts about Peche Di

Before meeting Peche Di , 27, Rose had sent her resumé 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 mean 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. People “feel like it’s OK.”

Peche Di, a trans woman, immediately put Rose at ease when they met in a Greenwich Village studio.

Peche Di, who migrated from Thailand, went through similarly difficult experiences 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 Di 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 Di 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.

But she chokes up when she talks about the US president.

“It’s horrifying,” she says. “I felt the government is not accepting us. How are we going to survive?”

Peche Di, 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.

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For New York Fashion Week, Peche Di’s goal was to get more castings and ultimately 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.

“Not completely naked but partially,” she says, to show off their natural beauty.

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