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Mina Gerges

Mina Gerges is forging space for body diversity in fashion

The model, who became the first plus-sized member of the pit crew on Canada’s Drag Race, never felt seen or represented by the media and communities around him – here’s how he did something about it

“What does beauty look like when you’re a person of colour and queer? What does it look like when you’ve got stretch marks and brown skin, and you’re proud of it? What does it look like when you have a story to tell, a powerful voice, and a community to fight for?”

These are the questions that Mina Gerges, model and actor, explores and puts forth in the work he does, reimagining and reclaiming our currently limited and restrictive concept of beauty. Growing up in the Middle East, Gerges, now based in Toronto and New York City, felt alone and invisible, unrepresented by the heteronormative society around him and then later by the muscular white ideals that dominate many gay communities. 

In response to these experiences, he set out to create a future for himself where he could fearlessly express himself on his own terms, and uplift his community with him as he went. Last year, Gerges made history when he became the first plus-sized member of the pit crew on Canada’s Drag Race, while campaigns for the likes of Sephora and Calvin Klein have helped his mission to redefine male beauty standards and spread the message of body positivity and celebration of self. “I got to experience what it’s like to create that meaningful representation,” he says of his time on Drag Race. “I was on TV for maybe 5 minutes, but the outpouring of support from thousands of queer people who felt seen for the first time was truly incredible.”

From the colourful, expressive shoots done with publications like Teen Vogue to his recently introduced drag persona Nefertiti, there is a vital joy present throughout Gerges work that is very important for him and purposeful. “Queer Middle Eastern identity is only talked about in the context of this constant internal struggle and lack of acceptance,” he says, “so I actively try to reject that narrative and build a new future through my work.” 

​​Here we chat to Gerges about his experiences growing up, his career so far and what advice he would give to anyone who is struggling with their bodies. 

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Mina Gerges: I was always a bigger kid and had family members or kids at school bully me for my appearance. But the first time I became conscious about my appearance was when I was around 14 years old. I was coming to terms with my sexuality and wanted to find other gay men on the internet. The Google images results for “gay men” showed me thousands of pictures all of extremely muscular, white men. No different body types and no men of colour like me – nothing. That was the first time I ever realized that my appearance might be a problem, and that it might get in the way of being accepted into the gay community. 

“The rebellion I developed as a kid fuelled my desire to change a system that harmed me and so many others”

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Mina Gerges: At the time that I lived there, growing up in the Middle East meant being part of a culture that was extremely repressive (there have been steps toward social change since I lived there). There was a huge emphasis on conformity and discipline – being expected to act and dress a certain way that fulfills the religious, cultural, and patriarchal obligations imposed on us. Terms like “haram” are used often to shame us into obedience and it’s something I heard a lot growing up as a feminine guy. 

I began to develop a sense of rebellion against that way of thinking early on. I was inspired by music videos by female Arabic pop singers like Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe, and would sneak into my mom’s room when she wasn’t home and put on her red lipstick, dress up in her clothes, and lip sync as if I were in the music video. In these brief moments, I felt free, but I knew it had to be my secret because being caught would be catastrophic. Because I learned from a young age that my identity had to be kept a secret, my sense of self became intertwined with feelings of shame and internal conflict about who I am and who the world around me wanted me to be. 

Why are you a model? What made you want to become one?

Mina Gerges: I wanted to get into modelling because I experienced first-hand the dangers of the industry’s lack of representation and I wanted to do something about it. As a teenager, I would obsess over these images I saw in magazines and campaigns – all of thin, white men. I desperately wanted to look like them because they were the only type of representation available, which made me feel like I had to look like them in order to be seen or valued. I eventually developed an eating disorder trying to achieve that body type, and it was fuelled by wanting to fit into the gay community which sadly puts muscular white men at the top of the food chain. 

After realizing that no amount of dieting or exercise will allow me to achieve that impossible beauty standard, I worked really hard to decolonize my way of thinking and learn to accept my body. It shocked me that an industry that is so complicit in making so many men hate their bodies was still refusing to change and embrace different body types, so I decided to be that change myself. The rebellion I developed as a kid fuelled my desire to change a system that harmed me and so many others.

How did you actually get into it? 

Mina Gerges: When I made the decision to get into modelling, I began to research and seek out agencies that would represent me. Requirements are very clear on all agency websites: you must be at least 6 foot, size 30-32 waist, and have an ‘athletic’ or muscular build. At the time, there were no submissions for plus size men. Seeing this reinforced why I needed to do this in the first place, so I began travelling to NYC to work with other creatives who shared a similar vision for a more inclusive world in fashion. I began carving out my own space online and using my platform to create this representation on my own terms. After a couple months, I got my first national beauty campaign with Sephora and got signed to a modelling agency in Canada, and several months later, booked my first global campaign with Calvin Klein.

What advice would you give to somebody who is unhappy with the way they look?

Mina Gerges: Visual culture, Instagram, and being online so much during the pandemic have created a perfect storm that has intensified feelings of unhappiness with our bodies. We’re always subconsciously comparing our bodies to the images we see online and in magazines, and it feels suffocating. I always tell people to unfollow pages and people who make them dislike their bodies, unfollow those “hot gay men” pages that only post pictures of muscular men, and instead to follow people who look like them and who make them feel good about themselves. The more we actively try to decolonize our Instagram feeds and seek out people that look like us, who make us accept our bodies instead of striving to achieve an impossible standard of beauty, the better we’ll feel about ourselves.

What advice would you give to young creatives hoping to get into the fashion industry?

Mina Gerges: This is what I tell myself as I navigate this industry, and it’s what I wish I’d heard when I first started: don’t be discouraged by rejection, and understand that rules are meant to be broken. Find other creatives who believe in your message and work with them to create the types of images you want to see. Use Instagram and TikTok to share your work with the world and reclaim your voice; we no longer need permission from fashion’s gatekeepers to be visible. Remember your purpose and stick to your mission, because no one can take your voice away from you. Understand that not fitting into traditional beauty standards is your superpower; being unique is powerful, and that being different doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Embrace your story, your life experiences, your voice, and everything that makes you who you are because that’s what makes you beautiful. 

How would you like to see the fashion industry improve to be more representative in the future?

Mina Gerges: I would love to see men with different body types being routinely included in campaigns, magazine issues, and Instagram feeds without their inclusion being a one time thing or for a special “diversity” feature. The fashion industry has been complicit in creating unrealistic beauty standards, and it’s responsible to reverse that damage. 

What are you currently working on?

Mina Gerges: My main goal this year is to continue working closely with local queer community organizations to build a safe future for our communites. Before the pandemic, I could see the impact of this work on the lives of people with similar experiences and struggles like mine, so I want to continue uplifting these communities. It’s important to me to use what I’ve built online to do something meaningful in the real world, especially for young queer people of colour like me. I spent the past year in lockdown feeling broken, battling my own demons, and working to regain my confidence. Once I get out of my depression and the world opens up again, I’m unstoppable!