Apple models has been going for thirteen years, but this year opened the world’s first transgender division. “It’s good news,” says Noam Lev, co-director of Bangkok’s Apple Model agency. “Some of our transgender girls have had problems with their passports; you have a beautiful woman turn up at airport immigration and their photo, maybe taken years before, is of a guy. So even being able to address that issue officially is another step in the right direction.”
But while the fashion industry, (and the rest of the world), seemingly takes leaps forward in terms of trans acceptance, signing transgender models is just another day at the office for many Bangkok based modelling agencies. “It’s not a new thing here in Bangkok – many of the agencies have had trans models but they’ve always been pushed as girls, so the clients would never know. If a model became very successful, then it was easier for them to come out, but otherwise they were always in hiding. What we’re doing is being upfront: We tell the girls that we represent them as who they are.”
Despite the fact that transgender people are highly visible in Thai society, a trans model’s work is predominantly editorial. “Thailand is a very easy going and accepting society,” explain Mark Maruwut, the Fashion Director and Polpat Asavaprapha, the Parsons-educated founder and creative director of local Bangkok brand Asava. “But it’s difficult for us to use trans models in our lookbooks and campaigns. It’s not our point of view, unfortunately it’s the consumers point of view.”
Below, three models share similar stories of growing-up; self-prescribing hormones whilst still at school – many drugs are available over the counter in Thailand, including birth control – and managing to balance their mid-teens with exams and the added concern of gender identity.
LOLITA, 24-YEAR-OLD, FROM LOPBURI
“How do you strap it up? Tape?” I ask. Lolita laughs, “no, I just use Thai underwear”. Except she has to say this several times before I realise she’s saying tight underwear. Doesn’t it hurt, tucking it in all the time? “Yeah, can do. Although the hormones do shrink your balls over time.” She’s cooking lunch at her Bangkok home, dressed simply in a vest and a pair of jeans that says ‘THE DUDE / EVERYTHING IS PERFECT’ on the label. She lives in a two-bedroom barracks apartment that she shares with her father, who is a Major in the Thai Army. Her parents are divorced, her mother living with her sister a little further north in the country, although they see each other every month. And even though her whole family are now supportive and proud of their daughter, this wasn’t always the case.
“My Dad wanted me to be a soldier,” she says. “I was very sporty at school and was a long distance school champion. I loved running. I started taking hormones when I was 15. I went with a friend shopping to a pharmacy after school and was amazed at what was available. So I started taking the Pill; it’s very easy to buy. Some of my gay friends knew, but otherwise it was a secret. After one month my breasts really started hurting and then growing, so I strapped them up. But when my Dad discovered what I was doing he didn’t understand, so I had to leave home for a while.”
She talks about her ex-boyfriend from Wales, with whom she was going out for three years. “There came a time when our relationship wasn’t going as well and I thought he was seeing someone else. But he wasn’t – that’s when he came out to me, he said he wanted to become a woman. He wanted to become transgender. I didn’t know what to think: I loved him as my boyfriend and I was losing that relationship, but how could I not support him? We still keep in touch – he’s in Wales now, has come out to his family and changed his name. I know he’s happier.” With her own reconciled family and editorial modelling jobs, Lolita is loving life in Bangkok – “I’m a party girl,” she says. “But work hard as well. This year I did two runways for student designs and my first cover, for a Thai travel magazine. We went to an island for three days shooting, just me in a bikini on a beach. It was a great experience. The stylist was transgender as well and she cast me because she liked my look. I feel lucky, because I don’t need surgery on my face and I have a great figure; I feel like a natural woman. Although I’d like to have breast surgery to get a perfect C cup.”
BIWTY, 23-YEAR-OLD, FROM BANGKOK
“They made me feel like a superstar!” Biwty is beaming as she recounts her recent trip to Beijing where she was the special guest at a promotional roadshow for a Chinese cosmetic surgery. Although it feels like she was being paraded as a miracle of surgery rather than as a model, as a new face she says she’s very happy with the mix of student fashion shows, department store grand openings, beauty pageants and catalogue work that’s coming her way. “I walked into an agency when I was in Beijing and the first question they asked was how tall am I. Well I’m 175 and they said, ‘sorry we only take 178 minimum’.” She laughs, having not even got round to talking about herself. But in any case as she says, she has her eye more on securing television and event work: “I have a stylist friend who regularly casts me for jobs, but I studied Business and Marketing at university and I really feel that my experiences as a transgender woman have given me a talent for public speaking and I’d like to pursue that in the future.” The first prominent transgender people in Thailand, who are now already in their sixties, became famous, with many landing careers as popular TV presenters. Hosting is seen as a de facto career for many trans models.
“I had a really smooth childhood, although my parents are divorced so I lived with my Dad, Grandma and Aunty. My Grandma took me everywhere with her, from the market to the hair salon. I remember when I was ten, I wanted to be a cheerleader at school because they looked so beautiful. My grandparents are open, I’m lucky because they always supported me, even paying for my dance lessons when I wanted to do Thai dancing, which is usually not for boys. Then I started taking hormones at fourteen, but was too shy to go to the pharmacy so my grandmother sent my twelve-year old sister to get them for me. She told them that the pills were for our Mum.” It’s amazing when you think of the Pill: A drug launched in the summer of 1960 that defined the swinging Sixties and caused a sexual revolution. And now, fifty years later, the same tablet is being used by teenage boys and men for a new sexual revolution: That of gender fluidity. “We all have masculine and feminine hormones in us,” she notes. “The pill just helped me become more feminine. I remember the first couple of months I took it – my skin got softer and less oily and my chest started growing. I’ve taken it at the same time, every day since I was fourteen, and now I’m really happy to be an elegant woman.”
BEE, 27-YEAR-OLD, FROM PHETCHABUN
Bee lives in a one-bedroom studio in Bangkok with her sister, Beau, who works in the financial securities market.“I had a bad car crash when I was thirteen and I lost all my memories. Well I remembered my family, but I couldn’t remember events.” Her sister recalls that Bee was always quite girly as a young boy. And now that her brother has become her sister, “she’s very proud of me,” says Bee. “She tells me I’m her little sister supermodel.”
These days she divides her work time between modelling and her day job, marketing for a pharmaceutical company. “I still can’t believe I’m modelling. It hasn’t changed my life because you know, I’m a boy…” she says self-deprecatingly. “I love and I need both jobs. I’ve only been at the agency for 8 months and I’m a new face, so weekends are usually my time for modelling. Sometimes I have to model on a weekday, but I have a very understanding boss. Everyone in my office supports me.” Bee’s free time is spent with a regular visit to her local temple, then seeing friends and shopping: “It’s always difficult to find shoes in my size. So I’ve discussed this with my sister and we’re thinking of starting up a shoe brand for trans-women. I think there’s a real market there.”
With Bee’s pharmaceutical knowledge, she knows what the long-term effects could be of taking hormones: “I’ve been taking hormones since I was 16. Every day, one tablet, for beauty. It’s fine now but I know that there could be liver problems in the future. Also I don’t want to have surgery yet. I know that the cosmetic procedures and medical knowledge will get even better in a few years, so I will wait.”