Everyone loves a good Instagram collage of a beautiful trans model, right? (All pictures via Carmen's Instagram)
Like most women, Carmen Carrera finds it a little rude when strangers ask questions about her genitals. But Carrera, a reality TV star, model and, potentially, one of next year’s Victoria’s Secret’s “angels”, is trans, which means people ask her about them anyway.
I got the chance to talk gender – and fashion – with Carrera a few days ago during a Skype date. The call connected and I asked her to go on video. “I look like shit,” she whined, and then went on. Needless to say, she does not look like shit. She’s already got the mermaid-like Victoria’s Secret waves going on, and she has on minimal makeup, with the exception of black eyeliner and mascara. It’s a Saturday evening, and she wears a bare-bones, gray spaghetti strap top – the uniform of an off-duty Cindy Crawford in the 1990s. Carrera seems to be getting more famous by the week, thanks to some of the amazing work she's done lately. Plus, her fans made a petition calling for her to become the first trans Victoria’s Secret model.
Although she’s obviously been quite successful at this point in her career, Carrera still struggles with intense insecurity issues and is constantly fighting the labels people try to stick to her. I ask her if there’s one thing she can’t stand being asked in the flurry of media attention.
“Yeah, when they ask me if I got the sex change surgery. It’s kind of weird. At the beginning of my transition when people would ask me, I would answer. But now, it’s kind of getting to the point where I don’t think that that’s relevant. Like, I wouldn’t sit here and ask you about your genitals. It’s indecent! Don’t be concerned about if I’ve had the snip or not, because it’s between me and my intimate partner.”
Carrera’s a Jersey girl, and clearly she’s not scared to tell people to fuck off when needs be.
Carrera has been outwardly presenting as a woman since last year, when she was selected as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now, Carrera’s interested in what, for her, is an authentic gender performance, both in her personal life and her professional one. But she says in order for that to happen, trans people and trans allies need to push for the fashion industry to be more inclusive when it comes to gender lines, and accept all forms of beauty within its folds. About 42,000 people have signed the petition for Victoria’s Secret to include Carrera.
“Trans people are beautiful. It’s a different kind of beauty, and it should be recognised and respected. I want to express that, and I want to show people that, hey, this is trans beauty. This is beauty, period. It just so happens that I’m trans. It shouldn’t have to be, like, ‘Oh, that’s the trans model selling the trans clothes.’”
She says she’ll audition to walk for the iconic lingerie conglomerate, but the prevailing state of mind in the industry won’t shift from that step alone. There’s still an excessive level of stereotyping in fashion, despite the attention models like Andrej Pejic and Ines Rau have brought to the scene.
Carrera’s trans pride is fully intact, but she says it can be tiring always being cast as the trans cast member or model – she just wants to be a woman in the entertainment industry, play a woman in the entertainment industry and not be typecast as a trans character. She wants people to define her by her work, not her gender identification. By writing about her daily life, posting photos on her various social media accounts and playing roles of biological women, Carrera hopes to shift the viewpoints of label-happy people and inspire them to just enjoy the beauty in front of them, regardless of its particular form.
“My life isn’t really that different from a biological female. The only thing that’s different is what’s in between my legs,” she says. Carrera lives a normal female existence, going to the gym, picking up her stepdaughter from school, going to parent-teacher meetings. She says it gets irritating when people focus only on the transition a person goes through, looking at nothing beyond the before and after photos. She wants people to know she’s just a girl.
Carrera is polite, but her bright tone slips for a minute here. It’s clear she’s tired of explaining her basic existence to journalists. But she puts a funny spin on it despite her weariness with the subject of herself:
“I’m just a female who was born with a penis. That’s all. It’s like a surprise. You know, it’s like there’s white meat and there’s dark meat. There’s women who have vaginas, and there’s women who don’t. It’s really that simple, but a lot of people can’t understand that.”
Someone should book this woman in primary school gymnasiums across the globe until everyone just gets it. But until that kind of awareness sets in, Carrera is working on herself. In order to better reflect her identity as a female, Carrera did undergo some surgery. She’s on a hormone regimen and had a nose job.
“I fixed up a couple things. I got a breast augmentation because, you know, I wanted to be a bad bitch.”
Carrera says she hasn’t had any procedures just to boost her career, and the ones she has had make her feel more like herself.
“Now I get to be charismatic – I get to be the person that I want to be. I get to crack little jokes and I get to be cheesy – it’s OK. It’s feminine, and it’s fine.”
Though fashion thrives on judgment and makes most of its money by capitalising on the inadequacies of ordinary mortals, it’s showing signs of trying to learn. The thick gendered lines drawn around what is and is not considered beautiful are morphing and bending.
If you’ve ever been sucked into the guilty pleasure that is America’s Next Top Model, you’ll have witnessed an example of this already when you had your heartstrings yanked and mangled by Isis King. King was the human elastic/transgender model with the killer poses who competed in both cycles 11 and 17, and was unceremoniously ejected. The elimination, to say the least, seemed incongruous in relation to her skill as a model. But regardless of the fact that she didn’t win, her participation in the show provided a significant level of exposure of the masses to trans beauty. Carrera’s success is another sign of that fledgling change. There was no way for fans to know if King didn’t take home the next top model title because she was trans, but we all wondered if prejudice was the cause. Carrera says this uncertainty holds true industry-wide.
“For any model in this industry, you never know if you’re going to get work. You never know if people are going to relate to you and embrace you. And then being trans is kind of like – I hate to say it – but it’s kind of like a setback.
“If you go on a go-see and they decide not to use you, you don’t know if it’s because you’re trans or not. But that thought is still in your mind.”
Despite her rapid success in a cutthroat field – within only a year of presenting outwardly as a woman, she’s been signed with Elite and she walked for Marco Marco – she says she still lives with insecurity. Growing up was hard because she spent all of her energy working to present herself as a man, even though she didn’t feel it.
“Honestly, I never really looked at myself as anyone who was attractive. You know, I’m so used to being insecure that I even catch myself nowadays being afraid, and it’s just something that’s probably always going to be with me.
“I tried my hardest not to be myself, so now that I am myself, I’m a little afraid. I was so caught up in what people would say and what people would think and how they would perceive me and how they would receive me. There were times that I caught myself not wanting to walk into a room because I was afraid of the people. You start to fear society; you start to drive yourself nuts.”
The fashion industry is far from embracing gender diversity, but there have been major strides recently. There’s the aforementioned Pejic, whose beauty, like Carrera’s, transcends all gender lines. But while the two have different looks, they’re both made of what’s considered beautiful in fashion: high, angular cheek bones, giant eyeballs, somewhat pale skin. Though their gender bending makes them different from other prominent models, there’s much about each of them that sticks with the prescribed standard of Western beauty.
The standards of beauty in the fashion industry need to change, and Carrera is fighting that fight, despite the distaste she has at being typecast and the harsh judgment she faces at times. She says she’s going to talk to Victoria’s Secret and see what they say. Sports Illustrated is a dream of hers, too.
“For trans people in the industry, it’s hard to dream – or just be taken seriously, even. Not a lot of trans people have been able to break through, but, you know, that time is now.”
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