Before there was Teddy Quinlivan, Ariel Nicholson and Hunter Schafer, there was Sophia Lamar, Connie Fleming and Zaldy
The revolution is here. It’s televised. It’s Instagrammed. It’s stomping down runways. A new and expanding crop of faces - Teddy Quinlivan, Leyna Bloom, Ariel Nicholson, Hunter Schafer and Geena Rocero, just to name a few - are redefining notions of gender and beauty. Major brands have taken note, as they should. For the first time, collectively, gender is being understood as the broad, fluid spectrum it is. But, there have always been trailblazers. The likes of Teri Toye, Caroline ‘Tula’ Cosey and Coccinelle made waves, big ones, in the fields of fashion, art and entertainment. And then, of course, there was Sophia Lamar, Connie Fleming and Zaldy - three icons who helped smash through to the radically enlightened place we find ourselves today.
No stranger to producing stars and standouts on the fringes and the cutting edge, New York nightlife is where Lamar, Fleming and Zaldy started out. While some burned out on partying, these three went on to flourish outside the glare of strobes and smoke.
Sophia Lamar escaped Castro’s Cuba at age 24. It was not a place she describes as friendly to those considered ‘other’. “It was illegal to be transgender. It was illegal to wear make-up if you were a boy. It was illegal to have long hair. A lot of things were illegal. I got arrested and they shaved my head. I got thrown into jail for being myself.”
She landed in Miami and then went on to Dallas and San Francisco before finding her place in New York. Michael Alig’s club kid scene provided her with a springboard into the worlds of acting, singing, art and modelling. She’s graced the pages of publications such as Vanity Fair, Dazed and Confused, and i-D. Francois Nars’s photo of her for the NARS book, in which she’s kissing a parrot and wearing a shirt that says “faggot”, has become an iconic shot. In 2001, she sued the nightclub Twilo after being fired for being transgender and won.
Although much is made about the fact she is trans, it’s not something that defines her. “I present myself as Sophia Lamar. I don't wear my gender on my sleeve. I don't present myself as ‘I am a woman. I am this gender. I am this. I am that.’” Her definition of beauty is also fluid. “The idea of beauty, to me, is… sexless. I’m really into androgynous beauty. Beauty that cannot be defined by gender.”
Like Lamar, Connie Fleming and Zaldy also transcend the base notions of male and female beauty. They strive to represent their authentic selves. Amazonian grace and strength buoyed buy a pair of luscious lips, oozes off Connie Fleming, aka Connie Girl, and made her a ubiquitous face of 90s high fashion. Born in Jamaica, she and her mother moved to Brooklyn when she was five. By the late 80s, she was performing as one of the Boy Bar Beauties at the famous Boy Bar on St Mark’s. By the early 90s, she was getting photographed by Steven Meisel and caught the eye of Thierry Mugler. She walked for five seasons in Paris for visionaries like Mugler and Vivienne Westwood. She took a turn alongside superstars like Linda Evangelista and Julie Newmar in George Michael’s music video ode to haute couture and haute drama, Too Funky. In 2012, she starred as former first lady Michelle Obama on the cover of Candy Magazine. On top of all that, she’s also one of NYC’s toughest and most legendary door guards. Getting past her is a rite of passage.
When it comes to beauty, Connie, expresses a similar opinion to Lamar. She defines it as something beyond what is understood as a purely physical idea or ideal. “Beauty is relative, fleeting and transcendent. It defies place and time and makes no excuses for its existence, only asking to be reflected truthfully to the soul.”
Another iconic face of 90s high fashion, Zaldy was a fantasy unlike any other. Zaldy, born in Connecticut to immigrant parents from the Philippines, broke into fashion after university, on a trip to Paris looking for work as a designer. “Marc Ascoli and Martine Sitbon and Thierry Mugler and all these people, everywhere I went they were like, ‘you should be a model.’ So my entry into fashion was as a model and it was a great experience.” A striking natural beauty, he elevated it to new heights in how he chose to express and present himself. “I loved fashion, but, women’s fashion was way more interesting than men’s fashion and I wanted to integrate it into my life. I never even considered myself a drag queen. They were clothes. They were in the women’s department, but, they were clothes to me. I liked the idea of the fashion option and it was definitely there for women.”
His first shoot was with Steven Meisel. His second, Steven Klein. In no time he was walking for Mugler, Westwood, Rachel Auburn… all as a woman. “I didn’t want to be defined as anything but me,” he says. “And I want you to see who I am. It might be masculine. It might be feminine. It might be whatever.” Along with his partner at the time, Mathu Andersen, the duo became famous for their hers and hers matching club looks in the New York nightlife scene. His most infamous milestone is a 1995 Levi’s advert that was banned in some countries and restricted to post-watershed in others.
The execs at the time, when presented with Zaldy as the potential face of the brand, were not keen. “They did not want a black trans person to be the spokesperson for this. The director said to them, ‘he’s not black, he looks black when he’s got make-up on, but he’s not black.’ They said to him, ‘we don’t want an ethnic person. We want a white model.’” The spot is still as provocative now as it was then.
Zaldy manages to sum up his take on beauty in a way that also perfectly describes himself. “Obviously, things that attract your eye are beautiful or things that move your heart can be beautiful, but I think what we’re really talking about are both things because we’re talking about the presentation of oneself into the beautiful being that you want to present, and with performance, if you add that into it, that’s beauty. It’s a feeling. It’s a look.”
What makes Sophia Lamar, Connie Girl and Zaldy such alluring and iconic figures in the world of fashion, what drew genius minds to them, is their authenticity and desire to live a truth that many cannot comprehend as anything but fantasy. To breathe life into such startling self-creations requires the presence of a rare treasure. Which they are, but, not just physically. Sophia Lamar is a whirlwind force of nature. She’s a never-ending monologue of lived experiences, philosophical musings and razor-sharp humour dipped in blackest ink. Connie Girl is a vision of the unexpected. Her stature and presence is contrasted by her quiet, soft voice. A voice that, once sensing it can trust, purrs out witticisms worthy of sparring with Dorothy Parker. And Zaldy is a spirit so kind, so pure, it can make a person start counting their sins. There’s a magic to him and his talent, something ephemeral, and, he’s kind enough to share it with everyone he comes into contact with.
They all continue to be forces to be reckoned with. Connie works behind the scenes now, as an illustrator and runway coordinator. She’s often called upon to teach new girls how to really walk a catwalk. Sophia continues to act, perform and enthral. In 2017, Vogue dubbed her appearance in Shayne Oliver’s Helmut Lang show “one of the more memorable fashion month moments”. Zaldy, aside from hit runway collections, creates out of this world sorcery with stage costumes for the top of the pops. From Michael Jackson to Britney Spears, there’s nary a pop star that hasn’t come begging for his stardust touch. A whole new generation of fans have become infatuated with his work as a result of his twenty-plus year, ongoing collaboration with a certain Supermodel of the World and host of Emmy award-winning televised race, RuPaul. It’s not luck or coincidence that they all endure and go from win to win. It’s who they are.
As for the future, they’re all optimists. Zaldy is eager to see the next step in the evolution of where we are now. He says, “there’s such pressure these days to fit in. I hope the future and the direction of beauty is back inwards again and finding what you think makes you beautiful and not the beauty that other people want you to be as defined by somebody else.” Connie agrees, hoping that “beauty can go to a place where it is received without questioning its origin, gender, or age. A place without judgment.”