What It’s Really Like Being A Transgender Model When Trans Is Trending
23-year-old Tschan Andrews on whether the fashion industry is really becoming a more progressive place.
On the surface, 2015 seemed to signify both a rise in popularity for trans fashion models and a wider acceptance of trans people. The ripples were felt throughout pop culture, from Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition to the continued campaigning of activists such as Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Jazz Jennings, to successful films exploring trans narratives such as Tangerine and The Danish Girl. Meanwhile, the fashion industry saw the launch of New York’s first all-trans model agency and figures like Hari Nef and Andreja Pejić make strides on the runway and beyond. But Tschan Andrews, a 23-year-old model, maintains a healthy skepticism and questions whether fashion is truly becoming a more progressive culture or welcoming space for transgender people.
Andrews is most easily labeled as a transgender model. But that doesn’t explain the presence she brings to an image—the reason she’s caught the eye of notable photographers like Jürgen Teller, Nick Knight, and David Bailey. The London native has also used the platform of modeling to reach a wider audience beyond the world of fashion as a trans advocate and quasi-activist. Andrews found her voice after years of enduring emotional trauma, culminating in being disowned by her family. Growing up in a home where she was constantly ignored, dismissed and belittled—alongside bullying from non-relatives—Andrews now credits the experience of being kicked out, and the support from her subsequent foster family, for helping her recognize that abuse didn't have to be the norm, and the possibilities of a nurturing environment. The resulting boost in self-esteem contributed to her now-successful modeling career—and the constant struggles that accompany being both black and trans in a still-prejudiced industry.
As her career has only become more high-profile in 2015—see her work with Teller for Barney’s—Andrews is uniquely placed to comment on whether the fashion industry is truly becoming more inclusive. In her own words, she offers us a nuanced take on the progress we’ve seen in 2015 and ways forward in the years to come.
TSCHAN ANDREWS: For me, gender was always very present. I had no concept of it, but I was always policed. Everything I did was fundamentally wrong because it was an expression of what was seen as not what boys should do, I guess. That's the only reason I was aware of it. I remember when I first started school, and everyone started going, "Oh, the girls do this and the boys play football." I thought we were just pretending. I thought you could go, "I'm a boy today," or, "I'm a girl today." I used to think it was like a dress-up game.
My mum kicked me out when I was 17. There's this charity in London called Nightstop. You stay with a different family every night. I did that for a while and then I stayed with my friend. But obviously, when you're 17, you don't know anything, you haven't got any money. My nan contacted me and I stayed with her for a while. But she put me in fear—"You're going to be raped, you'll end up homeless"—so I ended up going back home. But it was worse than ever. I didn't feel comfortable or safe leaving my room.
I had these trans friends who were in Stonewall Housing, so I applied for that. I also found out about the Albert Kennedy Trust, which is a charity for young LGBT people. (And one thing I have to mention is that [with] most homeless LGBT people, 90% of them are people of color. It's definitely a cultural thing, and a level of massive ignorance.) I contacted them and they provided me with support and lodging, and was how I met my two gay foster parents. Finding a foster family fundamentally changed my life. With them being gay as well, it was massively beneficial. Really, for the first time I could have conversations. Whenever I had an opinion before, I’d be shut down and told, "Shut up, you're just a stupid poof," or something like that. It was always like, "your opinion doesn't matter, you're disgusting." Whereas being with them, they taught me self-esteem.
When I was with [the Albert Kennedy Trust], I always used to get asked to do shoots; I did one with David Bailey. One of the people who works at the charity is best friends with the director of [agency] Models 1, who saw me at some event. They took me on for about six months, but at the time there was no such thing as a trans model, so they didn't know how to market me. They explained that their main client was Burberry, and if you don't fit that profile...
I understand, because commercial interests are so safe. Also, me being black is a massive factor. There's a lot of trans models who are white who have been afforded way better opportunities and exposure than I have. People are openly racist, and I have experienced people perpetuating racial stereotypes without even realizing it. But [after being dropped by the agency] I continued to be messaged by casting directors on Facebook and asked to do shoots. But when I tried to get another agency, [the agencies] were like, "We don't do trans here."
I think around 2010, there was a massive domino effect—a change in popular culture about trans identity. There was the huge popularity [of], and how people responded to, models like Lea T and Andreja Pejić. But there always were trans models; I don't think people realized. There was Tracey “Africa” Norman, Connie Fleming, and Teri Toye in the '80s. Teri Toye used to walk for Chanel, was friends with Steven Meisel and was always in Italian Vogue. Connie Fleming used to do Thierry Mugler shows all the time. But because fashion was such a small world then, I think people didn't really question. They just took them as they were, because they were so beautiful. No one ever thought, "Oh, that's a trans person."
People are so caught up in labels now, they don't take people as they are. With me, I feel like agencies are gatekeepers. Most models get an agency, and their agency promotes them as a model and gets them work. I've just been contacted directly by photographers or casting directors. When I go to find representation, I'm told, "No," directly because of what I am. But if you break it down, I take great photos, and I get [work] all the time.
I don't think fashion has changed for the better, at all—in my experience, anyway. I have heard about the all-trans agency. I think it's amazing, as it’s giving beautiful trans people an experience that they may not have been afforded in a small world where only a Caucasian and, if lucky, a trans Caucasian model can thrive. But within the same breath, I also find that it eventually may end up being slightly problematic, as it further segregates and others us.
“There’s a lot of trans awareness in the media, but things that are never talked about are trans murders. If they’re going to showcase someone’s story, I think it’s so important that you showcase the diversity of it. Not everyone can be Caitlyn Jenner.”
Five years ago, you wouldn't see any Asian models at all. It's really funny how now that's a popular thing to have. But it's like, "You're not actually being not racist anymore, you're just responding [to trends], and trying to be in a greater market." If anything, it makes it even worse. I go to the agencies who already are representing one trans person, and they say, "Oh, we don't do trans here." And they're quite derogatory in the way they say it. They're exploiting that person's popularity at the moment, or trans-ness, banking off of it, then not affording anyone else who is also trans an opportunity.
There's a lot of trans awareness in the media, but things that are never talked about are trans murders. If they're going to showcase someone's story, I think it's so important that you showcase the diversity of it. And not everyone can be Caitlyn Jenner. Not everyone can be on the cover of Vanity Fair. There are so many different stories. For example, not being able to have access to work because of discrimination, or being kicked out of your home by the family. Or being bullied at school or not feeling safe all the time, or having no access to healthcare. That's never covered. It's just exploitation of a trend, marketing it as a Caucasian experience, and not telling diverse stories at all. Or if you do, it's not as highly publicized.
It's damaging because it's false advertising. It's great to have exposure, but at the same time, most trans people don't want to be supermodels. And not every trans person can be. The whole point of their transition is just to assimilate and feel normal. So exposing trans stories makes people more visible and also in some sense, unsafe. These days, no one looks at me or says anything to me on the street—I think they just read me as a normal female. But what about the people that can't pass as easily? They are literally unsafe. People are crazy, and will attack you for no reason. I also realize now there are a lot of people wanting to transition not because they actually are trans. They've fallen under the delusion that being trans will be an instant way to get popularity or become famous, or what have you. It's really strange, because there's absolutely no benefits to being this way. Not in my experience.
I can't just look at something and take it as it is. I have to look at the reasons as to why. I can't naively say, "Oh that's nice that they're using [trans models] now." No, they're just exploiting. As well, the majority of fashion is actually run by gay men, and it's like, "50 years ago, you were treated in the exact same way, so I find it really sad that you're perpetuating all these stereotypes."
I wish that people would stop getting so caught up in labels and just realize that we're all human beings and we're all here to learn from one another. I think that's the whole purpose in life. And if we forgot about labels and stopped perpetuating old, archaic, systems that don't benefit anyone at all—I guess they do benefit one group of people [laughs]—then the world would be a greater place. And if someone is amazing, give them the opportunity to thrive as a person.