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The Business of Casting Queer Models

Rising demand for LGBTQIA+ models is being driven by marketing as much as by social responsibility. But whatever the motives, greater visibility can help fight marginalisation.
New Pandemics models at Jacob Riis Park beach, a historically significant landmark for the queer and trans community | Photos: Slava Mogutin for BoF
  • Robert Cordero

NEW YORK, United States — In the 1970s, Tracey "Africa" Norman's improbable rise to the top of the modelling world was a dream come true — until it wasn't.

A combination of chance and moxie led Norman to a casting at New York City's Pierre Hotel, where the legendary photographer Irving Penn booked her for Vogue Italia. She scored editorials for Essence magazine, a coveted beauty contract with Avon skincare and a stint as a house model at Balenciaga's Paris showroom. For years, her face was plastered on every box of Clairol's Born Beautiful No. 512 Dark Auburn hair dye.

But after nearly a decade of passing as a cisgender female, Norman, an African American transgender woman, was outed while on a 1980s shoot for Essence by her hairdresser's assistant, who informed the title's editor. The pictures were never published. Norman's modelling career suffered and eventually collapsed, forcing her to move back into her mother's house in Newark, New Jersey, and take up work performing in a burlesque peep show.

Three decades later, however, her fortunes swiftly changed. In August 2016, the tale of Tracey Norman appeared in New York Magazine. Shortly afterwards, Clairol asked her back to star in a campaign. As singular as her story sounds, the fashionable return of Norman, now in her late-sixties, reflects a much wider shift in the industry's stance on casting long-marginalised lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) models.

Today, some of fashion’s most celebrated models are queer.

There's Teddy Quinlivan, who has walked for Prada, Dior, Gucci and, just last month, nabbed a Chanel Beauty campaign; Hunter Schafer, who has worked for Miu Miu and Dior, and is the breakout star of HBO show Euphoria; Indya Moore, the star of FX show Pose, who has fronted Louis Vuitton campaigns; Nathan Westling, formerly Natalie Westling, who revealed his true identity on a Prada men's runway in Shanghai; Dilone, who has walked in two Victoria's Secret fashion shows; Krow Kian, who has closed Louis Vuitton and appeared on the covers of GQ Spain, Vogue Korea and Vogue Ukraine; Ruth Bell and Selena Forrest, who appear together in a current Dior campaign; Finn Buchanan, who opened Maison Margiela's last couture show; and Gucci favourites Otto Zinsou and Oslo Grace.

According to data supplied by fashion search engine Tagwalk, models who openly identify as queer appeared in 25 percent of the industry’s 68 top runway shows during the Spring/Summer 2019 season, up from an average of 10 to 15 percent in previous seasons since 2016, when the company began tracking the gender identity of models on the runway.

"You really are starting to see that a lot more people are coming out and saying: 'I am trans. Look at me as a model.' They don't fear that being transgender could be a negative in their pursuit of fashion. It could actually be a positive," says Samuel Ellis Scheinman of DM Casting, a casting director who counts Louis Vuitton Men's and Saint Laurent as clients.

But why are queer models, long rejected, suddenly in demand?

On one level, it's the left-leaning fashion industry's reaction to the rise of Donald Trump, America's populist president, and his administration's anti-LGBTQIA+ agenda, as well as movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which have spotlighted social inequality.

“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to use our platform in fashion, which is now [a more] accepting industry, to highlight people from this community and give a face to them, so that we are communicating to people worldwide: ‘We do value you. We do care about you. You do exist. We want to celebrate you,’” says Scheinman.

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to use our platform in fashion [...] to highlight people from this community.

There's also an economic argument. At the crux of the matter is a new generation of young luxury consumers who are more diverse and gender fluid than their predecessors and embrace inclusivity, "favouring brands that are aligned with their values and avoiding those that don't," according to The State of Fashion 2019, a report co-published by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company.

It's also cool to be inclusive. Brands have embraced queer models to keep pace with the zeitgeist and generate buzz. "The fashion industry loves to use their visuals to make their statement or hop on a trend," says Phillip Picardi, editor-in-chief of Out magazine. "We have to be careful that diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords or marketing speak."

Quinlivan, one of fashion's most successful models, admits that some brands "may have tokenised my trans identity." A model since the age of 17, she got her big break four years later in 2015, when she was discovered by Louis Vuitton womenswear designer Nicolas Ghesquière. But she kept the fact she was trans a secret. When Quinlivan confided in a male friend, however, word spread fast and others quickly positioned themselves to try and take advantage of the potential PR coup.

“When people suspected I was transgender, they were already trying to use it — not against me, necessarily, but to barter with me. ‘If you come out, I will give you this.’ And [that’s an] enormous pressure when you’re not out yet because you’re like: ‘OK, I really want to book this contract.’ But the only way I was going to be able to do it is if I come out.”

She was lined up for a campaign with a major brand, but “they wanted me to come out only to bring endorsement to their product,” recalls Quinlivan, who confirmed her gender identity on her own terms in late 2017. “Queer people don’t owe anyone to come out but themselves,” she adds. “The new era is a confusing era for people, and everybody is trying to navigate it, and everybody is trying to take advantage of what’s cool and interesting right now.”

Last year, Cody Chandler, the founder of New Pandemics, a 16-month-old agency focused on LGBTQIA+ models, saw an opportunity. "I think there was such a pent-up desire for something like this culturally; whether I created it or not, I felt like eventually an agency with this context was just necessary." New Pandemics, says Chandler, is "like a beacon for brands" to make it easy for labels to find queer models so they "no longer have an excuse not to use them."

New Pandemics has assembled a diverse roster of talents, who Chandler refers to as “artists” because the industry expects more from models than looks these days, regardless of their gender identity, he explains. Isaac Cole Powell, one of Chandler’s models, who is of Native American, African American and Caucasian descent, is also an actor and is set to play Tony, the lead role, in the Broadway revival of West Side Story when it opens next February. Cameron Lee Phan, a non-binary Vietnamese American who appeared in a Prada campaign, is also a photographer.

New Pandemics works for indie labels known for inclusive casting such as Eckhaus Latta and Vaquera, as well as giants like Gucci, Prada, Nike, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Major brands are certainly more open to queer talent these days, says Chandler. And yet queer models who aren't celebrities or influencers with large followings can often be labelled as "street cast," which comes with lower rates. Tokenism is also a problem. And rarely do queer models get cast unless their gender identity is explicitly part of the brief from brands.

“That is the biggest hurdle this agency has,” says Chandler. “Casting directors need to be a little bit more progressive to [a point] where if a brand doesn’t ask for queer talent in a breakdown, they’re going to naturally include them anyway.”

"We don't want to be a model they use if they're looking for someone who is non-binary just to be a diverse cast," says Noah Carlos, an 18-year-old gender non-binary model, who was discovered climbing out of a moshpit at a California music festival and is one of the few queer models of colour who has caught the industry's attention, appearing on the runways at Kenzo, Maison Margiela, Dries Van Noten and Alexander Wang, and in the pages of Vogue Italia, Interview and Dazed.

Scheinman says he tries to push diversity whenever possible, but points to economic and cultural barriers in the wider world. “As somebody who’s very liberal, if the world could just be my own reflection, this is a non-issue and we could do whatever we wanted. We can be as politically forward as possible. But we also need to keep in mind that progress may be slow given brands want to remain commercially viable worldwide, which includes serving markets that are less progressive and have different social values than our own,” he says.

Oftentimes, brands use queer models to score marketing points during events like Pride, then revert back to business as usual. "I think that there's a real 'Pride plateau' that happens where brands see queer and trans people and book them for their pride campaigns and then discard them for the rest of the year," says Picardi who, himself, appeared in several Pride campaigns this past June. "They only engage with you because they put you in a box of being queer; they think you're only relevant to their marketing campaign for 30 days out of the year when, really, we are queer and trans 365 days a year," he continues. "Our lives are being threatened 365 days a year and our community needs empowerment and funding and enrichment 365 days a year."

At the same time, working with big brands, no matter their motives, can boost visibility for queer people. And this, Chandler says, is still one of the most effective methods of fighting marginalisation. “I have had first-hand experiences with friends who were part of the community but were absolutely afraid to be vocal about their identities,” he says. “It affects so many other aspects of someone’s life when they can’t be transparent and authentic about who they are.”

All imagery shot by Slava Mogutin at Jacob Riis Park beach, a historically significant landmark for New York City's queer and trans community. Mogutin, a Russian-American multimedia artist and author, was an outspoken writer and activist for LGBTQIA+ people in his native Russia where he faced criminal investigation and harassment. In 1995, Mogutin fled Russia and was granted political asylum in the United States for homophobic persecution. He has published numerous books of his writing, poetry and photography. Mogutin, who lives between New York and Berlin, is the winner of the Andrei Bely Prize for poetry.

Glossary of Terms

Cisgender: A term to describe a person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
Genderqueer: Someone whose gender identity is neither man nor woman, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders.
Gender expression: A person's outward gender presentation, usually comprising personal style, clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewellery, vocal inflection and body language.
Gender identity: A person's deep-seated, internal sense of who they are as a gendered being; the gender with which they identify themselves.
Intersex: A term that describes a person with a genetic, genital, reproductive, or hormonal configuration that does not fit typical binary notions of a male or female.
LGBTQIA+: An acronym used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual individuals and communities.
Nonbinary: A spectrum of gender identities and expressions, often based on the rejection of the gender binary's assumption that gender is strictly an either-or option of male or female based on sex assigned at birth.
Queer: An umbrella term for a range of people who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender.
Transgender: Sometimes abbreviated as "trans," an adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity does not match the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

This glossary is a summary of key terms defined by National Geographic for its January 2017 issue in consultation with Eli R. Green of the Center for Human Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania’s Widener University and Luca Maurer of the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Education, Outreach, and Services at New York’s Ithaca College.

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