The most important modeling agency in NYC isn't what you think
Breaking into the modeling industry is tough for anyone, but it's particularly hard when you don't necessarily fit into "conventional" standards of beauty. When transgender model Peche Di first moved to New York City from Thailand in 2010, it was to study English and film at NYU. After competing in the Miss Asia NYC beauty pageant a month later — and promptly kicking ass, taking names, and beating out the competition (our words, not Di's) — she set her sights on something different: Getting signed. But this proved to be more difficult than she expected.
"I had a very strong portfolio that shows that I've worked with high-fashion photographers, like, for example, Bruce Weber," Di tells us. But despite her campaigns with big names likeL'Officiel, Teen Vogue, Barneys and Candy magazine under her belt, she still couldn't land an agent. "I went to Ford Models and Women Management and I didn't really get accepted that well. They wouldn't want to represent me...[and] they didn't really tell me why, they just disappeared. I didn't get a call back."
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Di saw a window when The New York Times contacted her in December of last year for a story about trans models. The English language not being her strong suit, she hired her friend, Roi, to help her prep. In-between sessions, she confided in him her dream of opening up a modeling agency that solely represented transgender talent. His reaction? Do it. With the push — and despite her roommate and friends telling her she was crazy — Di immediately went online to check domain names. She settled on TransModels.com: Short, sweet, and to the point. "I just didn't really want to give up...I wanted to feel like I had something that I gave birth to," she says. "So on March 15, I went downtown to sign the paperwork to [start] my business."
Fast-forward three months and Di's dreams of opening an agency that both helps and understands hopeful transgender models has finally come to fruition with the opening of Trans Models, New York's first transgender modeling agency.
Today, Di's signed 19 models — 10 men and nine women — most of whom she found through Instagram, as well as trans makeup artists, and fashion and hairstylists. The models have done shoots for Budweiser and Smirnoff, as well as landed gigs in i-D andTime Out magazine. Not bad for a seven-month old company.
If Di could sum up her ultimate goal for the company in one sentence, it would be: "We're in it for the change: Both making a living and making an impact." And this starts and stops with visibility. While growing up in Thailand for Di had its downsides (the gender marker on her passport still reads mister, which she can't change), this was one of the things her homeland had a one-up on over America. During her transition, the number of successful trans people in the media, she says, helped her parents both understand and accept her. And while America does have notable trans advocates in the spotlight today like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock, Di hopes the agency is able to provide even more — particularly for the younger subset. "I think a lot of trans people need [more visibility] in the media, so they'll understand [more] about themselves and get treated early, while they're still young," she says. "To get educated and inspired."
The agency also aims to push for trans models of color. A total of 20 trans people were murdered this year alone, according to an August Fusion article. A 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that 72% of victims of anti-LGBT homicide are transgender women. 67% of those are trans women of color. Transgender people are seven times more likely to be subject to police violence and this increases drastically for trans women of color.
"I think it's very important to have them represent the true, unique beauty of trans models...I want to project them to be gorgeous human beings that people shouldn't look down on or treat like they're not normal," she says. "There are trans women who have landed beauty campaigns, but most of them aren't transgender women of color."
Of course, this change doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual process. And Di has her hands full with work — like trying to get her models on the cover of major magazines like GQ and landing major beauty campaigns. She's also keeping busy planning an all-transgender fashion show in November with FED, which she describes as Ted Talk, but with a gourmet dinner. The name: Transgiving. "It's like Thanksgiving in the sense that we're giving [an] opportunity to people," she explains. "So Transgiving is giving an opportunity to trans people that they didn't really have, so they feel included and welcome in a warm environment that's both loving and accepting." We definitely want a seat at that table.