Executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg, the show documents the journeys of five models represented by Slay Model Management (including ANTM alumni Isis King), the first transgender-only modelling agency. Premiering on U.S. channel Oxygen last night, Strut welcomed viewers into a corner of the business they may not even know exists. There's reality-television style drama, of course, but it carries an array of important personal stories that deserve to be shared. Ahead of its debut, we spoke to cast members Arisce Wanzer and Laith Ashley on their experiences before Strut, the power of saying yes in an industry full of contradictions, and how much work still needs to be done to reach fully representative equality.
Arisce Wanzer: "I met Cecilio [Asuncion], our agent, a while ago. He’d done a movie called What’s The Tea? (it was a trans documentary), and I was one of the writers for Original Plumbing (a trans website)... I was their Carrie Bradshaw (their dating writer), so when he started casting for the show, he approached me and was like, 'Hey, I want you to do the first press for the movie,' so I said absolutely. When we were done with the interview, he was like, 'Why aren’t you modeling?' And I was like, 'Oh no, I quit. I’m done. I moved to L.A. to quit.' And he was like, 'Well, what if I could get you signed to an agency?' And I said, 'Ugh, fine…' I thought he was just blowing smoke up my ass, because this industry is full of liars, it’s filled with people who just want to see you excited. And I’ve been modeling for 12 years, so I’ve had my fair share of [people saying] 'I’m gonna make you a star!' I thought I was going to get my writing job done and go home. But a month later, I’m flying to San Francisco shooting the reel for the show. I was like, This is crazy...this is absolutely crazy."
How do you feel about famous models in the industry getting plastic surgery to enhance their looks? And what was it like to be told to change your nose?
AW: "A lot of the girls in this industry start at 15. I think legal modeling should start at 18... [When models start so young] they end up with a lot of psychological problems and insecurities that they would have never had before, had they not been compared to 30 other girls just like them... So when you call a girl fat or ugly or this or that, or not good enough — why did you call her [for the job] in the first place if [her look] wasn’t good enough? When people tell me I’m not good enough, it’s like, then why am I here...you liked something about me, right?"
In a world where everyone’s fighting to look the same, I really enjoy looking like me. I don’t want to look like anybody else.
Laith Ashley: "There’s obviously an industry standard when you come into this, but to stay true to yourself is the biggest thing — for the show and for ourselves, period. We’re trans people. We transitioned to be our true selves, so we don’t want to change so much to where now we’re just like everyone else. You want to recognize who you see in the mirror."
'Yes' (at least) gets you somewhere. You can always go back and say, Well, at least I tried it
LA: "They have an idea of what beauty is. And they want all of their models to fit their own idea of what is beautiful and what is attractive."
AW: "That’s where I come from with the nose thing, and changing facial features, and all. We’re models — we have to fit sample sizes; I get it, designers don’t want to spend a lot of money on fabrics, so you have to be this size, so yes, it’s the smallest thing because it’ll be cheaper for them. But faces should always be different. Do you really want the same girl walking down the runway the entire time? That’s going to get so monotonous."
It’s funny, because designers are contouring and transforming models' faces with layers and layers of makeup anyway, so they’re kind of defeating that purpose.
AW: "Exactly. So, why didn’t they hire the girl that looked like that [without makeup]?"
What are some trans-specific experiences you have had that cis-gendered models maybe haven’t?
LA: "I get fetishized by some photographers, and it gets a little awkward sometimes."
AW: "They overstep their boundaries is what they do."
LA: "Almost every time."
AW: "Questions, invitations…"
LA: "Touching… I’m just like, 'We’re here for a job.' But it definitely happens to trans women, too. I’ve heard horror stories about casting directors, photographers...it happens."
Do you find they’re as uneducated about what it means to be trans as those outside of the fashion industry?
AW: "Yes. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people think I’m stupid or inexperienced. I’ve seen it all — I’ve lived for two people. But with every Fashion Week, they call you in for castings, and I’m not going to go down there and waste my time if you didn’t call me in. They call your agent, and they get a round of girls they want to pick from, so when it comes to me going in the line — and this has happened countless times, so now I’m used to it — I get done walking; they take the snapshots and then they go, 'You’re absolutely amazing, but we’re not really doing the trans thing this season. But thank you for coming in.' Then I think, So, I’m just your freak you wanted to parade around here? You wasted my fucking afternoon. You take the train all the way there thinking you totally have a shot at it, and then you get totally snubbed.
"It’s like, they already knew I was trans before I came down there. They literally called me in. But I think a lot of casting directors love the power trip. If they can take a little bit of your shine or thunder away, they will. I can see when they’re doing it — everyone sees them."
AW: "Or they’re not even there. When I was in high school, I used to read fashion magazines cover to cover, but now, it’s business. I open it, and I’m like, Oh my god, I was in that line for two hours and they gave it to Joan Smalls? If they were going to give it to Joan Smalls, why was I there? They were just waiting for her to be available?"
And those models never go to the castings anyway.
AW: "She didn’t go."
A lot of casting directors love the power trip. If they can take a little bit of your shine or thunder away, they will.
AW: "You have to fill out how many followers you have on the sign-in sheets [now]. And you can just count up to see if you need to leave. You can see everyone else’s and you can tell if you have to go home or not because you can’t compete."
LA: "It’s a huge problem because you’re taking jobs away from other people who are really qualified. Even hair and makeup, they’re working for free now, whereas before, they could actually make a living doing what they were passionate about."
AW: "Now, it’s all about the Likes and the followers. It’s like being rich in Monopoly money."
How did you guys know this was even a possibility for you?
AW: "I created a space for myself where there wasn’t one. There are other girls who have paved the way before me: your Tula Cosseys, your Tracey Africas, your Lauren Fosters… But I remember being 14 years old, sitting around the television watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show... That particular year was amazing — it was the Christmas special, and they were all spinning on these things, and I just thought, I want to be pretty for a living. They made it look so fun. And I was just like, I’ve got to do this. I didn’t know I was going to do it like this...but that’s just where my life went. I started modeling at 17 and I’ve been modeling ever since."
LA: "I kind of fell into it myself. Prior to this, I was a social worker. When I was a kid, I’d always wanted to be a performer, singer, dancer — but as a guy. But then, I didn’t think it was possible. I did what my parents said: went to college, got a 9-to-5 job… I worked at Callen-Lorde, an LGBT health center, and people would always tell me, 'You should model!' Then I did a photo shoot with a friend, posted it online, and it went viral. And that’s kind of how it started."
What do you think people can learn from your experiences in life and as trans models?
AW: "I want people to know that the fashion industry is hard on anybody who’s a minority. It’s the same thing for Black models, Asian models, trans models — there will be 23 white models on a runway with two minorities."
AW: "Yes. And it can’t just be any Black model — she has to be the baddest bitch you’ve ever seen next to some nothing girl who just fit the clothes. I see the double standards, you know? They had to work three times as hard; we all do.
"This industry does need to change. There needs to be more inclusivity, more diversity, because it’s the world we live in. All of Brazil would be a great example of what the runways should look like: all colors, all different types of people."
LA: "But even in Brazil, there’s colorism."
AW: "But [designers] need to have real representation of everybody because you’re selling to everybody. The world is your audience, so you need to start selling to it instead of pandering to who you think is buying your product."
Do you think the industry takes things one issue at a time? For example, there’s a successful plus-size movement right now.
AW: "Absolutely. But they should be able to succeed together."
All it takes is for someone to say yes.
AW: "What’s crazy is that this industry is comprised of the world’s movers and shakers. These people call the shots. They tell everyone what’s cool. And they don’t want to be bold enough to say, 'I like this'? Then you’re a coward. The opposite of bravery is not cowardice, it’s conformity. They have conformed, and they’re safe — so what are you designing for? That’s why we joined fashion in the first place: Because it’s different."
Do you think that some designers might pander to certain minorities for a second and then they’re done with it?
AW: "Yeah...it’s not consistent and it’s always tokenizing. Yes, it’s big designers who use us for a split-second, but where is the commercial work? Where’s the Target campaign? The JCPenney campaign? The Macy’s campaign? We’re not curing cancer here, we’re just selling clothes. And if the clothes look good on that person, why can’t they sell them? It’s only fabric, and fabric doesn't have a gender."