When 29-year-old Benjamin Melzer, the first transgender man to be on the cover of the German edition of Men’s Health, stopped by BuzzFeed News for a chat, he brought along his mom Margret. Soft-spoken and low-key, Melzer doesn’t demand attention — until he gets in front of a camera, where he somehow feels at home.
“Modeling, standing in front of the camera is so my thing. It doesn't feel like work. I just love it,” Melzer said. “I don't care if it's all day long and if it's exhausting, if I'm freezing — I just love it. It feels right for me.”
Melzer grew up near Cologne, Germany, knowing early on that he felt like a boy. “Since I was little, I looked up to cover models, like being on Men's Health or GQ, like really masculine men with good bodies, good physiques.” Yet he also felt like the ideal those men represented were out of reach for him, until he started medical transition at 24. Through hard work at the gym, he found his own body resembling those men. And eventually, he started doing some amateur modeling.
“The first time I was in front of a camera, that gave me the feeling of, This is where you belong, this is what you're born for, and this is what you need to do.”
So when he heard that Aydian Dowling was a finalist for the Men’s Health cover contest in the United States last year, he decided to enter the same contest in Germany. He won an online audience vote to be one of the guys considered for the cover, and went on to a final casting where he met 19 others who were up for the same gig. Eventually, he was chosen to be one of five guys to appear on the cover of the magazine’s collector’s edition.
Melzer expressed a lot of satisfaction about being shown as just one among a group of guys. “That's what I want [being trans] to be, just normal. We don't have a choice, and it just is the way it is, and we can make the best of it,” he said.
Growing up in a family that didn’t force him to dress in a feminine way allowed Melzer to come to terms with being trans without a lot of turmoil. He was able to present himself as masculine in school, and ended up dating a woman he knew from college, after they met up five years ago, a month after his first testosterone shot.
“But for her, I always looked and acted like a boy,” Melzer said. “It was just the body. And I was on my way to fix that.” His girlfriend, who identifies as straight and had dated only cisgender men before Melzer, told him that he didn’t have to go through the whole process and get bottom surgery, but it was Melzer’s choice to proceed. It’s an operation that the German government requires health insurance companies to cover.
Having transitioned to have a face and body that few people would be able to distinguish from cisgender men, Melzer remains open about being transgender, both in his career and with people he encounters in his day-to-day life. “There's a trainer at the gym, a coach. We see each other when I'm at the gym, and she's always talking to me, we're good with each other. She's like, ‘Hey, what happened to your arm?’” Melzer has a large rectangular scar on his forearm from where skin was grafted for his surgery. “Sometimes I say, ‘None of your business’ but this time I was so me, I really wanted to tell her. So I did, and her reaction was, ‘What? Really? Are you kidding me?’ And she's so interested in it, and she's so curious, and now she's proud to know me.”
At the same time, Melzer is also aware that not everyone has the privilege of being able to choose when to come out to people as trans, or a body that’s celebrated in men’s magazines. “Not everybody has to look like me,” he said. “I think we all have beauty inside. That's what counts at the end of the day.” Melzer also tries to motivate and give tips to other trans men through his social media channels.
“A lot of people say, 'You're my hero, I look up to you,' but at the end of the day you have to look in the mirror because the hero's standing right in front of you,” he said.
Melzer’s goal is to be a full-time male model, and he has one specific fantasy job in mind. “My life goal would be to appear in a Calvin Klein commercial, not wearing anything but boxer shorts or briefs,” he said. Melzer got closer to that goal on his trip to New York, where he was shot by celebrity photographer Mark Saliger for an upcoming project. “He’s had almost everybody in front of his camera. I mean, Charlize Theron, she's one of the most beautiful women in the world. Brad Pitt — I love Brad Pitt. I wanna be Brad Pitt!”
“I feel so grateful,” Melzer said, “and I hope that I can open doors for other trans guys who would love to work in the modeling business.”