In her latest column, Dazed Beauty LGBTQ+ Editor Munroe Bergdorf sits down with Laith Ashley
As well as being an important activist for transgender rights and an all-around 21st Century trailblazer, Munroe Bergdorf has squeezed in the time to become our Dazed Beauty LGBTQ+ Editor, and we're incredibly excited about it. Munroe has spent the last few months speaking to her favourite LGBTQ+ icons about some of the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQ+ community today, as well as asking: when your identity is inherently marginalised, what does it take to feel beautiful?
Laith Ashley is many things: a male model, a trans rights activist, a singer-songwriter. He featured on Strut, the reality TV show about trans models, asked on the show after NBC saw a viral pic of him modelling in his Calvin Klein underwear (Nelson Castillo shot it), and he recently made a brief appearance in the incredible TV show Pose. As a visible transgender man in the media, Laith is in a minority, but he is using his platform to try to change that, by uplifting other trans men and campaigning for greater acceptance towards trans people.
Here Munroe talks to Laith about staying fit, his grooming regime, and how it feels to be a role model.
Munroe Bergdorf: Let’s dive straight in. The chat is going to be quite aesthetic focused, but also we want to know a little about you. Who is Laith Ashley, for those who have been sleeping under a rock?
Laith Ashley: I guess you can say I’m a lot of different things. My official titles are model, activist, actor and singer-songwriter. But before that, I was a counsellor for LGBT+ youth, and it’s something that is still dear to my heart and that I still use my platform for. Obviously, it’s in a different capacity but I think that I’m fortunate enough to be able to reach a larger group of people. I never hold back the fact that I am trans and the things that I’ve gone through, especially if I’m in a safe space. I’ve always struggled with depression and opening up and talking about what it is that I’m feeling is very helpful for me. I usually put that out on social media for people who may be going through the same thing.
Munroe Bergdorf: That’s one of the things I really admire about you – you’re not afraid to be vulnerable. When I first became aware of you, there weren’t many trans men in the media. How did it feel being one of the first repping the community in the mainstream?
Laith Ashley: It was very scary. I remember at first it was challenging because the only reason (as far as I knew) that people were making any deal out of who I was, was a lot of sensualism, mostly around my body, as well as that my appearance and me were not necessarily visibly trans, as far as what the majority of cis people thought a trans person would look like. There was some shock value, followed by fear – the same thing that trans women face on a daily basis – that we’re out here trying to fool people into sleeping with us.
So, I think it’s difficult because the commentary was initially pretty negative, but like two weeks after all the negativity, I started to get all this love and support from the community. That made me feel a lot more comfortable with being so open; in the beginning I felt like I was just standing naked and everyone is looking at me, throwing rotten tomatoes at me. I wanted to disappear, I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t shut up.
Munroe Bergdorf: How do you deal with those public perceptions around what a trans man looks like?
Laith Ashley: I think for the most part, my experience in the modelling industry has been pretty positive, but I do think it started with me being “passable” and not visibly trans, which is what kind of attracted certain brands and people to me. Because the perception was that I am a “successful transition”, which is something that I have to see as a privilege, and I have to use that privilege to advocate for those who don’t have it. Not every trans person wants to look this way. There are a lot of people who identify as trans, but the way they present themselves to the world is not so binary. I am a binary trans man and I understand that there are certain things that come with that. It’s my responsibility to talk about people who maybe don’t have the voice that I do yet, or who are gender non-conforming, or those people that are visibly trans and aren’t respected as the gender that they identify as.
Munroe Bergdorf: Who within our community would you like to amplify in terms of their voice, their message and what they stand for?
Laith Ashley: That’s a tough one because there are so many people. There a lot of great people that came before me, like Buck Angel who received a lot of backlash because he was in the sex work industry. Marquise Vilson who is making a name for himself now – I knew of him way back in 2002, way before I even thought about transitioning. I saw his documentary The Aggressives and I was like this guy is so cool! Today I found out that Chella Man is going to be a superhero which is major. You know this young, deaf, trans guy of colour, he has all these things that could potentially work against him, and he’s successful, so it’s possible for all of us to be seen and be heard, so I’m very happy.
Munroe Bergdorf: I’m so excited about Chella!
It just shows that nothing is impossible, anything can be attained if you work hard, and you’re honest with who you are. Especially with the society that we live in today, social media is so powerful, it gives every individual a place to say what they want to say. You’re one of the people for sure. And Devin-Norelle.
Munroe Bergdorf: So, I can say this because we’re friends... Have you always been so gorgeous? How has the Laith aesthetic come about?
Laith Ashley: I mean, I’m going to thank my parents for my genetics. I think you can say that I’m conventionally attractive, prior to transitioning I dated mostly straight-identifying cis-gender women who found me attractive. They always approached me, I’ve only really approached like one woman in my life.
In terms of my appearance, testosterone masculinised me for sure with facial hair and a deeper voice, but I’ve always been pretty muscular. I’ve always worked out a lot because I wanted to have this kind of physique. I don’t think I’m that cute, I would change a lot of things but it's what I’ve got.
Munroe Bergdorf: Who are your style or beauty heroes? Who did you grow up looking at?
Laith Ashley: I looked at the heartthrob of every teen show. That’s kind of what I wanted to be. When I was in high school I loved to watch Smallville, Tom Welling played Clark Kent. His style wasn’t anything spectacular: he was a farm boy, he wore his jeans, boots and plaid shirts. That was me, but with a little more flare because I’m from New York and we’re going to do it a little bit nicer. Now I can say the people that I follow in fashion and style, it’s also because I love them as artists; Bruno Mars and Zayn Malik.
Munroe Bergdorf: Oh yeah, Zayn is like a tattooed you.
Laith Ashley: I love them. I wish I had the balls to get the tatts but I’m so safe and square.
Munroe Bergdorf: Talk us through a little bit of your grooming regime. What products are you using, and what can you not live without?
Laith Ashley: My grooming routine is like two hours long. In the morning before I get ready to go out, obviously I shower – hot water to open my pores and cleanse with Dermalogica Daily Micro Exfoliant. It’s fucking amazing, it leaves your skin so smooth. After that, I’ll add Differin Gel which is an acne medication, just to prevent some spots from happening because I have really coarse facial hair so if I shave or trim sometimes I’ll get ingrown hairs.
For my hair I use Wen. One of my really good friends is Chaz Dean who is the founder of the company. I use a co-wash cleansing conditioner so I’ll leave it in and not wash it all the way out. There’s also Cantu leave-in conditioner that I leave in as well, followed by Wen’s treatment oil.
Munroe Bergdorf: I think that’s one of the things I noticed about you is that your hair is really thick.
Laith Ashley: I’m like thank God the testosterone hasn’t knocked it out yet.
Munroe Bergdorf: Was that something that you worried about before starting testosterone? I know a lot of my friends worry about that.
Laith Ashley: Oh absolutely, because the men in my family are bald. My dad still has some hair on his head but it’s really thin. All the men in his family like his brothers are completely bald, they lost their hair very young. I just started taking extra good care of it. After starting testosterone I began conditioning a lot more, using a lot of oils. I use vitamin E oil on my face, it’s also part of my grooming routine. I let it sit for a few minutes. This is a great tip for men – trans or not, even trans women if you haven’t gotten laser hair removal – cortisone treatment. There’s a cortisone gel or cream that you can use on your face after shaving to kind of settle in and prevent the redness so that when you put on your makeup you don’t have a lot of bumps.
Munroe Bergdorf: That’s a good tip to everyone really because I know some trans women need to shave. It’s something that trans women don’t really speak about. Even I need to shave sometimes. Sometimes you know your skin be doing you dirty.
Laith Ashley: Even for cis women, the makeup goes on smoother if you remove the hair.
Munroe Bergdorf: Yes, a lot of cis women shave as well. We’re all out here shaving.
Laith Ashley: Exactly, because we all are animals and we grow hair everywhere. I’m a hairy motherfucker, so sometimes after I shave I get some irritation no matter how careful I am. So with the cortisone cream, it’ll just soothe that area and bring down the redness and any inflammation. Something that I can’t live without is bump control, which is also a bump treatment for post shaving to prevent any burns or irritations caused by shaving. I also have my beard and moustache treatments like beard oil, and all that stuff.
Munroe Bergdorf: What’s your favourite beard oil?
Laith Ashley: The one I use is called Pure Body Naturals The Modern Man Beard & Moustache Balm & Oil. So I just let that sit and have my face absorb it for a little while. If there’s too much residue, I just pat it away with some tissue or a cotton pad.
Munroe Bergdorf: And what about treatments, do you get any treatments?
Laith Ashley: I do. I go to my dermatologist and he does a cryo facial which is supposed to help with collagen production and firmness. I also get Fraxel laser on the scars on my chest. It’s a fractional laser that’s supposed to minimise scarring. My scars aren’t really that visible but I’ve noticed that the laser has helped lighten the texture a little bit. So I recommend it, especially for guys who have just had top surgery. I want to start it on my face as well to reduce acne scarring.
Munroe Bergdorf: What misconception would you like to challenge when the public is thinking of the trans-masculine experience?
Laith Ashley: I can’t speak for all trans men but when it comes to me, personally, there is a misconception that all I am is a fit body or that that’s the ultimate goal for a trans-masculine individual – to look really fit so they can fit this idea of masculinity that is acceptable. There’s this idea that in order for a trans man to be perceived as a man, masculine, or accepted into “the boys club”, you have to be super macho – at least in appearance, have muscles, have a beard, and look the part. I don’t think that’s what a man is: a man is more than his genitals, more than their appearance. I think the strongest men are able to be vulnerable and gentle. masculinity is more than being aggressive and angry. I think that’s very toxic.
Munroe Bergdorf: When it comes to conversations about trans existence within the media, it often goes towards trans women. What would you like to see change going forward?
Laith Ashley: I’d first like to see more stories because there really aren’t many. What I’ve noticed, at least with roles that I’m presented for TV or film, is that they’re usually from a gay cis male’s perspective, and that’s very fetishistic. Obviously, I’m speaking to the choir because trans women have been fetishised forever in the media, usually playing sex workers when they can literally play any role under the face of the Earth. Trans men, I find, are now playing the gay lover to a cisgender gay man and I think we can do better. I’m not saying those stories aren’t true, they’re just very limiting – the scope is very small and I want it to be a lot broader. We can be the love interest, the waiter, the guy driving the Uber, we can be anything.