But it’s all too rare that trans people see themselves reflected in mainstream media, so we spoke to 16 trans people about the icons who resonate with, if not represent, them — and (with the help of stylists from Bumble and bumble and Metro Look) turned them into their idols for the day.
Here’s what they had to say.
For this project, they decided to embody Scary Spice.
“When I was little, we would play Spice Girls in school, and I always wanted to be Ginger — but my friends would always tell me I had to be Scary because I was black. It was upsetting for me as a 6-year-old, but as I got older I started to think, Why would I want to be anyone other than Scary? Scary is clearly the best Spice Girl! So my emotional relationship with Scary Spice is weird, because initially I was forced into a particular role due to my race and appearance, but ultimately I ended up celebrating that I resembled her. Scary Spice is badass, gorgeous, and has a great personality!”
“A lot of discussions around trans lives are so heavy, because the state of the world right now for trans people is so upsetting. We’re in a crisis. I get caught up in it — it’s overwhelming. But for this shoot, I wanted to do something lighthearted; I very purposefully chose a fun person to be, and chose to let myself be joyful. I want to show that not everything about being trans is depressing, because it’s not — we are multifaceted people, we live full lives, we like to sing karaoke to the Spice Girls, we like to wear leopard print and cute makeup, we like to be nostalgic, we like to have a good time, we are happy and sad and everything in between and beyond! We deserve to celebrate our lives and ourselves.
“This experience really clicked for me once the makeup was done and I was in costume. The makeup was so spot-on, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, because normally on photo shoots, my look is kept pretty natural — but seeing this transformation, I looked damn good! It helped me channel Scary Spice and get great photographs.”
They wanted to take a closer look at their relationship with famous images of David Beckham.
“I was just starting to physically transition when David Beckham’s initial H&M campaign came out. When I saw it, something crystallized for me around that experience and other experiences I’d had, in which I wasn’t sure whether I desired him or desired to be him. I felt the floodgates opening both in terms of my attraction to men, which I hadn’t understood before, as well as an understanding of the image being aspirational.
“I wanted my body to look like that at the time, but now, several years into transitioning, I recognize that this and other models of cis white masculinity that I’ve been attracted to aren’t really how I see myself. That’s why it was important to me to wear nail polish in this photo, and to not pack: I identify as non-binary and as femme (although I’m a transmasculine person, so the world generally reads me as male), so I wanted to call into question this particular model of masculinity, and to demonstrate the ways in which I both am privileged in how I conform to it, as well as the ways I feel tension against it.”
“Having experienced extremely hateful transphobia around my body, which I don’t have dysphoria about — I don’t feel uncomfortable with my lower half at all — but still having been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted because of my body — made me want to put it out there and be like, ‘Hello world, this is me, this is my junk! I don’t have what people culturally consider to be a penis, and I feel totally fine with that!’ It was a reclamation after some of the shit I’ve been through. And you know what? I think my butt looks awesome. It’s not often that trans folks get to celebrate their bodies, so seeing these pictures of myself was a wonderful moment of getting to feel proud.”
In preparation for this project, they considered which celebrities represented important parts of their identity, and decided on Bruno Mars.
“I don’t see brown masculinities like me in the media, so Bruno Mars was the only choice I had, aside from some obscure chefs. I was like, ‘Let me find a chunky Asian guy with disabilities,’ and there were none! So I said, ‘Let’s find a Filipino guy!’ And I found a half-Filipino, half-Puerto Rican guy whose soulful tunings are some of my favorites. Close enough!”
“Bruno Mars is a short, big-haired, Filipino man. Since he was a child, he’s been performing in front of crowds, which is something I really identify with. I love that he’s all about sharing his heartbreak, and I feel like he understands the sources and roots of music — honors black artists, and honors Motown and R&B — in ways that a lot of musicians don’t. So I’m like, ‘OK, Bruno, you cute; I’ll sing your songs in karaoke and dress like you and wear a little pompadour and do my people proud.’ It was hilarious to pose like him! I felt like his uncle.
“On a more serious note, I wanted to make sure my cane made it into this photo. I feel like it’s important as a disabled person to have these opportunities and feel cherished and good in your body, and embrace glam and glitz, and get comfortable being photographed. I understand that some folks aren’t, but I had a really good time. I feel like it was funny and heartwarming to be Bruno Mars for the day. We’ll see what he thinks of the mustache.”
She decided to work the spotlight like an equally badass woman — Madonna.
“Madonna and I are both strong women who are trying to make a difference in the world. We’re both Leos, and I feel like we both share characteristics when it comes to pursuing our dreams: We’re very driven, very ambitious…and very blond! I wanted to recreate this look from her Blond Ambition Tour because it’s maybe her most recognizable one, and at that time it was incredibly provocative. I loved the way she mixed extremely feminine lingerie with masculine elements like suiting, playing with traditional symbols of gender.”
“When a lot of mainstream media covers trans issues, they don’t actually let trans people speak. But we need to give trans voices a platform; only a trans person can say what a trans person’s life is like. I host a web series called Spill the T With Vikki Le, where I feature trans people who can talk about their own journeys and experiences. I want to create an outlet that people can relate to.”
They wanted to iterate on an image of David Bowie that is at once colorful and solemn.
“David Bowie had so many amazing looks that it was hard to choose one, but there’s such a beautiful simplicity to this particular photograph. I love how quiet and contemplative it is; so much of my gender expression is about being bubbly and ostentatious, so this felt like a nice change. But I still wanted to engage with the artistic, creative spirit of it, so we decided to overemphasize my lips and lashes and eyebrows. Whatever you do, making it yours is so important.”
“I had a little hesitation coming into this shoot, between wondering if this was the right way to honor David Bowie and having learned about things in his personal life that complicate his legacy, but the fact is I never knew him as a person. What I know about David Bowie is what he put into the world as someone who opened the doors to diverse expressions of gender. His expression felt like freedom to me; he shook the world I had been living in, where no one expressed their gender at all differently.
“When I first saw him in Labyrinth, I really didn’t like it — but I understand now that I was just reacting strongly to someone who was free in a way that I wasn’t. He depicted something I wanted so badly, but I had so much internalized shame at the time around being a femme person, and I know I’m not alone in that. There are so many people who are raised as boys and men who have that desire and that shame, but David Bowie opened up the possibilities for us.”
Ze fulfilled a childhood dream of being photographed as an icon famous for bucking gender norms: Prince.
“I have always admired Prince because of his musical talents and capabilities. I recall, as a child, dancing with my mother to his albums. When I was introduced to his videos on MTV, his visual aspects deeply appealed to me as well. He was no longer just another great musician; his personality, his movement through space and time, his aesthetic, and the way he fashioned himself resonated with me. I applauded his challenging the status quo. As a black man, he embraced femininity despite any derision, and I don’t know of many black men who were respected for breaking all the rules. He transcended gender and I idolized him because of it.”
“What I like most about this particular photo is Prince’s vulnerability. He is bare and exposed for viewing, inviting both our praise and scrutiny. Despite his vulnerability, he also displays uninhibited confidence — it’s almost as if he’s giving gender expectations a huge middle finger. I find him to be both feminine and masculine, threatening and nonthreatening. Also, I believe omitting his nipples from the photo plays a bit into his androgyny (though for this photo, I chose to show my nipples and scars). For many years, I have wanted to portray Prince in a photo series, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity, in the wake of his death, to hopefully live up to the colorful soul that is Prince.
“‘I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.’ —Prince, ‘I Would Die 4 U’”
He chose to recreate a look from one of his personal style icons, Zayn Malik.
“As a trans man, it’s been kind of hard for me to find men who I can even aspire to be, because I feel like our definitions of masculinity and what is attractive are being really tall and buff, and in a trans body, that’s hard to attain. So I’m always looking for different representations of masculinity in celebrities. I feel like Zayn definitely brings masculinity, but it’s stylish and alternative — it’s the kind of masculine that I want to be. So I look up to him as a fashion icon.”
“It was really validating for me to step into Zayn’s shoes. Something I struggle with as a trans person is feeling attractive as a man, so being transformed into him, knowing how many people find him attractive, and seeing myself looking like something I really like to see was so exciting. I felt so confident. I’m working on getting my own confidence, but getting hair and makeup helps!
“I hope that this post shows the humanity of trans people — that we’re just people like everybody else, and we have celebrity icons, and style, and we can be attractive too. I hope it humanizes us.”
She wanted to examine the similarities and differences between herself and her favorite actress, Ellen Page.
“I remember watching Juno when I was a teenager, and being totally captivated by Ellen Page’s presence; there was this angst in her performance that really resonated with me, which I started to recognize later on was probably related to my being trans. Her role in Gaycation is kind of strange to me because of the overtones of colonialism, but the truth is, you can have good intentions and be super problematic. Allies can; I know I can in my allyship to others. We’re all human. So it doesn’t diminish the aspects of Ellen that are still meaningful to me, and I still appreciate her as a huge celebrity who’s bringing attention to the queer umbrella.
“It was fun being made into a ‘different kind’ of girl for this shoot. Although I’m sure Ellen is wearing makeup in this photo, it’s a very natural, minimal look — which is something she as a cis woman is able to do without much consequence. As a trans girl, I can’t do that without my womanhood being questioned. I have to work so much harder to conform to even the absolute baseline of what society sees as ‘feminine.’”
“I don’t see cis as aspirational; I think being trans is pretty cool! That said, I have to really be prepared to go outside without foundation that covers the shadow on my jaw or my lip, because I will get stares and comments. Which in a way I care about less and less — in general, I have more important shit to do than worry about whether you think I’m a ‘real woman’ or not — but I and other trans women still have to stay safe. Especially trans women of color; that I have the option of sometimes saying, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care enough to wear makeup today’ is in itself a privilege. And in our current political climate, things exist like the trans panic defense, which is still legally admissible in almost every state. It’s absurd and terrifying.
“I was going out the other day all made up in a skirt, and a contractor who’s been working in my building for the past month ‘Sir’-ed me. In ways, it’s never going to be enough for society, no matter what you do; they’re always going to find a way to locate the boy that they think is just lurking under the surface. Clearly I don’t believe womanhood is a costume that you just get to put on. What I’m saying is, no amount of makeup is going to legitimize you in most people’s eyes — so present in whatever way for you, not for them.”
He decided to get dapper for the camera like his personal model of masculinity, BuzzFeed’s own Eugene Lee Yang.
“There aren’t a whole lot of representations of Asian men in the media who are allowed to be sex symbols; the roles are really limited, and in terms of the way people are presented, there’s a certain archetype of what an Asian man is supposed to be. And then as a trans guy, it’s hard to find representations of masculinity in the media that I identify with, much less ones that aren’t centered in whiteness.
“But Eugene embodies a type of masculinity that I really identify with: He’s sexy and vulnerable and comfortable in his own skin no matter what — all of these things that are really refreshing to see in representations of masculinity in general, but especially for an Asian man.”
“I am such a believer in the power of costume. Once the suit was on and the hair was done, I was like, ‘OK, I can be a sexy guy now.’ It became really easy to go with that — it felt natural in front of the camera to roll with that Eugene-esque attitude.”
They wanted to evoke the spirit of painter Frida Kahlo.
“There aren’t many models of Latinx femininity that I could think of (or relate to) in the mainstream. I chose Frida because she is one of the few brown women who’s easily recognizable to many folks. Also, because I love her. I appreciate Frida because of her radical political background, her gender-bending nature, her queerness, her public suffering and endurance, her art and her oddity.”
“When I see Frida, I think of my sisters and I think of my mother. This photo shoot allowed me to step into the shoes of all these women — Frida, my sisters, my mother — and feel a deep solidarity with them. When embodying Frida, I could feel all of their love and their pain.”
He wanted to recreate a significant moment in the career of rapper Kendrick Lamar.
“I love Kendrick Lamar’s music — his artistic style of mixing jazz and other influences — and his message. I got a record player and bought his first album on vinyl, and it changed my life. His Rolling Stone cover is iconic, and I can’t deny that I love his hair in it. Up until then, he’d kept it short, but growing out his natural black hair felt like a statement.
“Though this was my first time modeling, I’ve spent plenty of time on the other side of the camera as a filmmaker. Kendrick’s a short black guy with a whole lot of talent, and I like to think that’s me too.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s 2016 and we still need to say these things, but trans and gender-nonconforming and LGBT folk are people too. We’re not monsters; we love music and movies and have icons like everyone else. We’re not out to set an agenda. We just want to live.”
12. Renée Reopell is a social worker and community advocate.
For this project, they wanted to help keep Robert Eads’ legacy alive.
“Robert Eads was a trans man — someone who was assigned female at birth, and identified and lived as a man. Later in life, he ended up developing ovarian cancer. He sought the care of almost two dozen different doctors, who all told him it would be an embarrassment to treat someone who was transgender, or that it would make their other patients feel uncomfortable. By the time he finally found a doctor who was willing to treat him, the cancer had spread so much and progressed so far that it was no longer treatable, and he ended up passing away.
“I’m a social worker in the medical field. One of the reasons I went into my line of work is because our medical system is so binary: cis male and cis female. You hear about Robert Eads and you want to say, ‘Well, this is something that happened a really long time ago.’ But it was in the late ’90s, and it’s something that still happens today — there’s still not a lot of room for folks with diverse gender experiences. So in my work, I want to help make sure it’s something that doesn’t continue to happen. That kind of prejudice is an experience I know that I’ve had, my friends have had, people I love have had. If you don’t feel healthy and well within yourself, how can you move forward to live your most authentic and fulfilled and wonderful, happy life that you want and deserve?”
“Robert Eads documented the last year of his life in a film called Southern Comfort. It’s such a profound film to watch; his sense of forgiveness to the providers who couldn’t find it within themselves to treat him is really powerful. He says multiple times in the film, ‘I don’t blame them.’ But he does blame the binary system of gender that we hold so dear, that’s taught people to put others into these incredibly rigid boxes. That’s a lesson I try to hold within myself: not blaming individuals, but thinking about the larger system that has informed ways of thinking. We need to fight that system, not that individual.
“I think we’re at such a fantastic point that we can say to ourselves, we’re looking to move beyond these systems and these boxes, and we’re looking to reshape them. Talking about stories like this, and making sure they don’t get forgotten, is one way of doing that.”
She wanted to channel singer Lauryn Hill, whose music has inspired her since childhood.
“I grew up listening to Lauryn Hill’s music, and I feel like I grew up with her kind of in the family. She reminds me of my mother, my sisters, and my aunts; like her, we’re from a West Indian background. My family went through a very tumultuous time right around when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released, and I can remember being in my mother’s car at the time and hearing Lauryn’s music on the radio, and feeling so connected to it.”
“I have such a deep appreciation for her music lyrically and spiritually. She has always inspired me to create music, art, and poetry that is truthful and authentic to who I am and my experiences. She’s affected me greatly, and I know that’s the case for a lot of trans women, especially of color. So whether or not she agrees with how I identify, I think she deserves homage and recognition for her work — it’s inspired so many people.”
He found his match in Queen’s alternately flamboyant and introverted late frontman, Freddie Mercury.
“I was a fan of Queen since I was a little kid, and Freddie Mercury’s death was when I learned about HIV and AIDS. I grew up in a fairly conservative area, and I witnessed the stigma people have around HIV and AIDS, and being gay, and all around different ways of living, and I understood that Freddie’s otherness was connected to mine in some way.
“I always loved his music and style. As someone who’s transmasculine, I know there’s a relative ease that comes with embracing more traditional masculinity — but Freddie Mercury’s expression of flamboyance even as a cis man is something I kind of aspire to. What also resonates with me about him was how separate his onstage persona was from his family and personal life. He was actually a very shy person, but his stage presence was so extroverted! When you see his performances, you can tell he’s kind of leaving it all on the stage. And that was helpful to keep in mind while I was being photographed; I was feeling kind of self-conscious at first, but I realized I could take a lesson from him and go all out in the moment.”
“I’ve heard people say that being trans is so ‘in’ right now, how ‘everyone wants to be trans now.’ But at the same time, we have laws and environments like what’s going on right now in North Carolina, where people are struggling with a new form of diversity in their lives beyond having to deal with racism and sexism and homophobia, and are scared because they can’t comprehend what’s going on. It’s extremely isolating for trans people. They don’t feel affirmed, they don’t have proper access to health care, they can’t even use public bathrooms without feeling other people’s hatred or disdain — these things take a toll. And then when trans people have a high rate of suicide and attempts, they call us psychotic?
“I hope this will be a call to action. Being an ally isn’t just saying, ‘Well, I don’t have any problem with trans people,’ and that’s it. You have to make space for us, because we’ve been in the margins for so long. Allow us to speak for ourselves. Don’t speak over us; if our voices aren’t loud enough, amplify them. I hope people see this article and understand, ‘OK, I see who these people are. They’re people like me. They have needs, just like I do.’ And then recognize that the differences between us aren’t only ‘not a problem’; acknowledge that you can exist alongside that difference, and that it’s a part of your life too.”
Jarrid wanted to follow in the footsteps of singer Grace Jones, whose aesthetic they’ve admired since a young age.
“I love Grace Jones for her music, but even more so for her style and her absolute lack of fucks to give. She doesn’t seem to care about the gender binary or societal pressures. I grew up in a pretty religious environment, so my gender and expression were policed pretty intensely; but watching Grace, the possibilities felt limitless.”
“I love the glam, paparazzi feeling this shot gives off, and how fierce she looks in it: She has some very traditionally ‘feminine’ features, but also such strength in her jaw and shape. She’s wearing almost the least amount of clothing possible, and while our bodies are kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum from each other, neither is the typically prized ‘feminine’ body.
“Like her, I’m an artist; I work in fashion, music, acting, drama, and writing, all to take my feelings and translate them into something that will change the social stigma around black, queer, fat bodies. To wear this little clothing in the skin I’m in, I feel, is a strong statement.”
They wanted to honor their childhood idol, Wonder Woman — and some other people, too.
“When I was growing up, Wonder Woman was on in the afternoons. In the summertime, I would go into the woods near my house and pretend to be her; so I have this spiritual affinity for Lynda Carter’s interpretation of that character. It wasn’t until I grew up that I found out about the sociopolitical history and feminist elements of the show; as a kid, I was just attracted to how a human being could be both so powerful and so glamorous at the same time. There was no sacrifice in either of those two areas; she was perfectly pretty and feminine, as well as perfectly self-assured and ready to save the day.
“So stepping into her shoes was liberating, and it was empowering to see what becomes possible with costume and hair and makeup — the sort of magic of transformation. Which is something I employ in my personal life whenever I wear things that make me feel good, but to do it in such a theatrical way was so affirming for the child who’s still inside me, the child who wanted to be Lynda when they grew up.”
“So often portrayals of trans people are so serious, and there are a lot of serious things that we need to accomplish as a movement; but it’s wonderful too to participate in a project with such fun and lightness to it, that shows a side of gender expression that’s playful. I hope it will help a lot of people feel good about who they are. I still get messages almost every day from people who feel like they’re suicidal, who feel like they’re left out because of their gender expression, and because of the way they wish they could present themselves, but can’t because of their school or their parents or their church groups. I hope when those people see this post, they’ll feel like we’re honoring them as well as the heroes we’ve chosen for our photographs.”
Special thanks to:
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