Inside L.A.’s first transgender modeling agency

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On a recent afternoon, lots of very beautiful people gathered in a downtown Los Angeles hotel ballroom. They were all models, there to audition for clothing designers participating in L.A. Fashion Week. Many of the models were female, many were male, but some identified themselves as transgender. Those models were represented by Los Angeles-based Slay Model Management, the first modeling agency in L.A. specializing in purely transgender talent.

“I’m really hoping that they book as much shows as possible, that’s what the agency is about, employment for my models,” said Slay’s founder and chief talent scout Cecilio Asuncion. “We are not here to reinvent the fashion wheel, we just want a fair space, a fair share of the real estate is what we want.”

Transgender models with Slay Model Management walk through the lobby of L.A.’s Biltmore hotel to attend auditions. Slay is the first transgender-only modeling agency in Los Angeles. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The most experienced model with Slay is Arisce Wanzer, a six-foot tall honey blond who wore a form-fitting top, shorts and very high heels to the auditions. Like most other models with Slay, Wanzer calls herself a trans woman, that’s a person born a male who self-identifies as a woman. Wanzer has been modeling since she was 17, starting as a male model, but then transitioning to modeling as a woman.

“My agent at the time was stressing like how big I was going to get by boobs,” said Wanzer. “She was like ‘you have to fit the clothes, or we can’t sign you anymore.’ So, as long as I could fit the clothes, they just moved me to the women’s board and it was no argument.”

And looking at Wanzer, you can see why that would be easy, with her sharp cheek bones and seemingly mile-long legs, she fit right in with all the other transgender models at the auditions. Then, there was her very model attitude.

“I am a complete diva! I’m the Naomi Campbell of our group,” said Wanzer. “Yeah, that’s just who I am.”

Transgender models have been around for decades, but many of them hid their gender identity. Others modeled after they had decided to have a sex change operation, like British-born Caroline Cossey who appeared in Playboy in 1981 and had a small role in a James Bond film.

But as society’s attitudes change, more transgender models, like those represented by Slay, are increasingly open about their identities. They say every time they walk down the fashion runway or appear in a magazine photo spread, a small blow is struck for transgender rights and acceptance.

“I do want to represent my community, the trans community in a very positive light,” says Cetine Dale, a trans woman model represented by Slay. “It’s more than just the next gig for me, I want trans awareness.”

Slay models wait their turn for auditions. They hope their work will lead to greater transgender acceptance, both in the fashion world and beyond. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

Of course, the people who hire the models, like the designers and their representatives at L.A. Fashion Week, aren’t transgender civil rights champions. They’re looking for those faces and bodies that will make the clothes look great and impress fashion buyers.

“We aren’t looking for the girl next door. We’re looking for culture, for pizzazz, you know something unique,” said Glenda Lugain, who was at L.A. Fashion Week auditions to find runway models for four different designers. When asked whether she would select transgender models for her clients, Lugain said she had no problem with it.

“If they can walk the walk and fit the garment, that’s all I’m looking for,” said Lugain.

Cecilio Asuncion, the founder of Slay Modeling, says he hopes opinions like that will mean acceptance and success for his business. He also says working with transgender models has certain advantages, namely, they won’t get pregnant and they’ve had life experiences that prepare them for the work.

“You know, when you have always been different all your life, they are not afraid to look silly in front of a camera or anything like that,” said Asuncion. “I think once you’ve had a different journey of being the person you want to be, you learn to be okay with a lot of things because you have to fight for it.”

New model Olivia Storms knows about that fight. As she waited for her first audition, Storms talked about how she lost her last job working at a movie theater because of public hostility.

“The employers were fine, it was the customers, especially in the customer service industry people are looking to be rude, so I was a big target,” said Storms. “And so I had to leave that job and I took that pretty hard.”

But veteran model Arisce Wanzer said she tells her younger colleagues that although the modeling business might be more accepting of transgender people than other places, it has its own unforgiving prejudices, ones based on looks, weight and physique.

“Whether you are transgender or not, this is a rough business, especially for women because you have to fit a certain body type,” said Wanzer. “And if you don’t fit that body type, you don’t model. Not everybody can be a basketball player, it’s that same thing.”

A line of Slay models preparing to do their “model walk.” The transgender models know if they’re going to find work and keep it, their looks and physique have to be match those of non-transgender models. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As for Asuncion, he said his big dream for his models isn’t having them strut down the fashion runways of Milan, New York or Paris. He believes real success is way less stylish and way more Middle American.

“I want for them is to infiltrate the commercial market,” said Asuncion. “I want one of my trans models to be pushing a cart for an ad for Target, looking happy because they just bought dishwashing liquid and put it a cart. Why not? I want to appeal to everyone.”

That appeal will depend both on the talent of Asuncion’s models and how they’re accepted both in the fashion world and beyond.

Cecilio Asuncion, founder of Slay Modeling, and his stable of talent. Courtesy Slay Model Management (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)