Inside the World's First Modeling Agency with a Trans-Only Division
In 2014, Thailand's Apple Model Management added the world's first transgender-only division to its roster. Could their small business be the tipping point for transgender models worldwide?
Photos courtesy of Apple Model Management
With one coltish leg crossed over the other, Lolita is an Apple Model Management recruit, when she poses for the camera, her sharp cheekbones slink down her heart-shaped face. Lolita was born male and she is one of the 50 trans models that Apple Model Management has on its books since opening the world's first transgender-only division in 2014.
Lolita's rakish smile belies the decades of turmoil that accompanied the gradual realization she was transgender. Dressed in skinny jeans and a tank top, the 24-year-old explains episodes of rage as a child, frustrated by her inability to articulate why she felt different. Her introverted, academic childhood progressed into a troubled adolescence as her father, determined to "fix" his child's visible signs of femininity, enrolled her in military school. Years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her classmates followed. "It was a very hard time," she recalls.
"We were the first agency in Thailand to ever bring fashion models, runway models, blondes, blue eyes, black girls—everything that Thailand didn't have," says Noam Lev, one of Apple's founders. Lev is an Israeli national but has made Thailand his home for the last two decades. In 2007, Lev and his former lover turned business partner Siwaporn "Apple" Hotarapawanond, worked with a transgender model in a television commercial for Sappé, a local beverage. "It was such a great job... that we just continued working with [transgender models]," Noam says with a shrug.
In 2014, Lev and Hotarapawanond made another bold move: they added a permanent transgender division to their roster. At first glance, the decision appeared motivated by hard-nosed business acumen. After all, 2015 was the year of Caitlyn Jenner's triumphant transition from former Olympian athlete and reality TV star Bruce into the vixen gracing Vanity Fair's front cover in a corset. Meanwhile, actress Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black fame was making milestones as the first transgender woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Introducing a transgender division seemed like a canny way of capitalizing on a wave of public interest—particularly when news broke that Apple Model Management were expanding to open a second outpost in the States.
It was an audacious move—and yet one that, "business-wise [was] not a good decision," Lev admits. Despite the media's timely love affair with transgendered celebrities, Lev and Hotarapawanond knew they'd meet resistance from their conservative clients every step of the way. "It doesn't matter how beautiful she is, they'll say no," says Hotarapawanond. "When we started this, we knew we weren't going to make money— at least, not for a very long time."
Walk down any street in Bangkok and it's likely you'll see a member of the city's gender-bending community. But despite its high number of transgender citizens per capita —not to mention the annual Miss Tiffany's transgender beauty contest—the country has a conflicted attitude.
At the start of 2015, Thailand attracted international attention for its decision to include a "third gender" in its constitution, intended to protect the rights of those whose identity does not match the body they were born into. Months later, the country generated headlines again when Bangkok University issued new uniform guidelines that gave transgender students the freedom to dress in clothing that reflected their chosen sex.
But despite these gestures of progress, daily life can be filled with entrenched discrimination; many transgender people face exclusion from white-collar professions and rejection from family members. And, for the women represented by Apple Model Management, the reluctance of Thai clients to cast them in lucrative commercial shoots means that most are restricted to magazines and fashion shows that often don't pay at all.
It's "the land of contradictions," says Lev, with the weary air of a man who's spent years battling against a culture that will always feel alien. "One thing about Thailand is they accept everything. They accept everybody and don't accept them at the same time."
Undeterred, Lev and Hotarapawanond began scouting for potential models a year before they opened the new division. The same criteria was applied as to all the other girls on their books. "They need to look like models—we're a modeling agency," Lev says, brusquely. They announced the launch with a photo shoot in a local magazine that showcased their new flock of talent—and acknowledged they were transgender.
Now standing at 5' 8", Lolita has shrugged off her shyness and looks to supermodel, wild child, and all-round industry darling Cara Delevingne for career inspiration. "She is like my character—a crazy girl, natural and naughty," Lolita says with a giggle. She hopes that harnessing her long limbs for the fashion industry will encourage others in the same situation to persevere. Certainly, her own resilience has paid off. After many years of painful denial, her father has finally welcomed her as his daughter. These days, she lives with him in the family home; when her first magazine shoot came out, he proudly showed it to friends.
Can the fashion industry show the same willingness to change? Robbie Sinclair, womenswear editor at WGSN, believes so. He looks to the high-profile career of Andrej Pejic, the Serbian-Australian supermodel whose androgynous look quickly landed her on the catwalks of Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs' shows, as proof that the industry is starting to celebrate gender diversity. Since Pejic came out as a transgender woman in 2014, undergoing gender-confirmation surgery, her career has shown no sign of abating: recently, she landed a commercial contract with cosmetics brand Make Up For Ever that takes her from the gilded world of high fashion into the mainstream.
Sinclair hopes that this gradual inclusion of transgender faces will encourage mainstream brands to accept a wider range of models for their campaigns. "A new breed of consumer is coming through with a more accepting, exploring, and individual view of what is the 'norm,'" he says. "This is a very exciting time in fashion that will hopefully trickle down and have a huge effect on society and people's views towards gender."
Change is certainly on the horizon for Apple Model Management. After signing a deal with Departure Films, a New York-based production company, a reality TV show about the agency—with an emphasis upon its transgender division—is in the pipeline. And, since the news of their US office broke, the founders have been delighted to see a surge of agencies with a similar agenda suddenly follow suit. Could their small business be the tipping point for transgender models worldwide?
"As far as the trans community goes, this is very interesting," Lev says, his sock-clad feet just visible underneath his desk. "If it's only Apple, we're the ones that have to fight, keep fighting, keep pushing, keep investing. With other people opening up, it's a lot of help." He pauses to mull it over, then continues with a smile. "We welcome the competition."