Interview with a High-Fashion Model Who Is Also Transgender
Arisce Wanzer lives in New York and is signed to the BMG Agency. Right now Fashion Week is putting her to work.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your childhood?
I’m from Northern Virginia, which is a wonderful place to grow up. My family was very supportive, and everything was really normal. I had a brother, and he played with his G.I. Joes, and I played with my Barbies, and I had two sisters too, and we were just all different and it was fine.
Any struggle that I had growing up was always internal rather than external. Once I got to school, I didn’t know why certain qualities about me were suddenly different — I always had friends, and people always thought I was funny, but everyone would always call out my differences.
Differences that weren’t interpellated at home.
Yeah. I think people are just really used to black-and-white, cut-and-paste. But, you know, we’re all different. Someone’s going to be an accountant if they’re good at math, and the thing that I’ve always been best at is being a girl.
Did you identify as a girl starting as a really young kid?
Well, I didn’t have any real examples, so not really. I saw Shanaynay on Martin, and RuPaul, and I recognized something there — like, “Okay, so that’s a thing” — but I didn’t identify with them, because what they do is fabulous, but it’s like clowning, almost.
I just thought I was really feminine and super gay.
How old were you when you started to think you were gay?
Really young. 4 or 5. As soon as I found out what gay was. For a while, it was totally neutral. I’d talk to my girlfriends in the neighborhood about how we thought Tyler or whoever was cute, and it wasn’t till we got older that people started to really make these divisions, and it sucked.
Did your sense of who you were attracted to shift over time?
No, I’ve always been boy crazy! I just love boys. I think they’re so cute, and also so awful, they’re just the worst for you. The nice guy is so hard to find and he’s usually married. But I’ll always love boys, all of them. I date everyone under the sun. If you’re a boy and you’re cute and you’re nice to me, I’ll totally give you the time of day. I go on three or four dates a week. I write a dating column!
It’s cool to hear that you’re enthusiastic about dating — that’s sort of rare to hear in general.
Yeah, dating is awesome! I mean, that’s one of the biggest things I want to be about — that transgender people have lives like anyone else. I had such a good support system growing up, I went to college, I’ve never gotten into trouble, and my dating life is totally normal. People are always like, “Oh, you’re going to be a hooker because you’re a tranny.” I’m like, “Ahh, I don’t want to be a hooker!”
Did you come out as gay when you were growing up?
I came out as gay when I was 17, and I moved to Miami, which was an interesting thing to do. I was this super queeny gay guy who had long hair and wore lots of mascara, and I was going to gay clubs and just no dating life materialized for me. These guys were just like, “Listen, I date queens, but you’re actually a girl.”
I said “No way!” But then I started hanging out with other trans girls, and they were like, “Are you going to go through the rest?”
I was like, “The rest of what?”
They were like, “You’re trans. You just don’t know it yet.”
So I decided to do some reading. I checked a bunch of books out of the library. I immediately identified with some things, but I wondered about others. Like, I didn’t feel like I was trapped in the wrong body.
Yeah, not at all. I have the body I want, like, very consciously — I’m very careful to maintain it, especially now, because of what I do for a living. I go to the gym a lot, and don’t do any weight lifting because I don’t need any help getting a man body, hello!
What about hormones?
I don’t take any hormones. I don’t like anything that alters your body chemistry other than alcohol. Hormones really change everything, I’ve seen so many of my friends, and their mood swings — it’s playing with fire.
Which isn’t to say I’m opposed to them! If you want hormones, awesome. Live and let live. You go smoke crack on the corner if you want. I’ll be over here watching Sex and the City on my couch with a bowl of oatmeal.
What was the turning point for you to define yourself as trans?
I went to a therapist. I had already come out as gay once — I didn’t want to come out as the wrong thing again! As soon as she met me and asked me a few questions, she was like, “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and pre-diagnose you as trans, but let’s get these questions answered.” I went to her every week for about three months, and then I was like, “Yep. I’m definitely transgender. Thanks so much for your time.”
I called my mom. She was like, “What’s transgender?” and so I explained. She said, “That sounds about right.” She asked me if I was happy and healthy and if I was going to finish school. I said yes. She was like, “Okay, that’s all that matters.”
That’s great. When and how did you start modeling?
I actually started as a boy. The first trip I took to New York to visit the big agencies, I got a lot of nos, but not firm nos. Like “You’re not right for us right now.” So I knew I had a shot, and back in Miami, it was easy for me to get work, because I was in fashion school and people just always needed models. I did a lot of work for free, which is fine. If you love it, you’ll do it for free.
How did you present as a model back then?
I couldn’t possibly come off as masculine on camera, so I just tried to be very androgynous. Even now I like a sort of androgynous, mixed look — I’ll wear a boy’s T-shirt with short-shorts and pumps. I promised myself early on that I would never extend certain social hang-ups to the way I dressed. I never want to be that tranny that’s afraid to be seen out of a dress.
You don’t shy away from the word tranny. Do you feel like it’s fine for other people to use it when they talk about you?
Oh, words are just words. I’ve been bashed on websites for using the word. I understand. But I think no one can use a word against you if you’re already using it in your own way. Someone yells at me, like, “You’re a hot tranny mess,” and I’m like, “Yep!”
There’s a lot of appearance-based stuff in the queer community that I don’t like. For example, people will be very quick to bash a sloppy tranny on the street, a guy in a wig who looks like he came out late in life. Or you’ll be out and someone will be like, “Will you just look at that queen in the baby tee, high on molly and blowing bubbles in the club.” I’m like, LET THE BITCH BE HIGH! We can’t only support people that have a well-executed look. I mean, I’m a model and I don’t execute my look well all the time. Everyone’s gonna have a laundry day. We’re all just the pot calling the kettle black. Everyone is hated by someone.
Preach. So, what made you transition sort of officially into modeling as a girl?
Things really took off when I got my boobs.
Did you always want boobs?
Oh, I have always wanted boobs. One of my biggest role models is Victoria Beckham. She’s just a G. Out there, doing it all. She’s stunning. I modeled my boobs after her. My doctor was like, “It’s not gonna look natural,” and I said, “I don’t care!”
Yeah, I mean — her boobs don’t look natural, and they look great. What’s your cup size?
I’m a 32 A/B. I didn’t want big boobs, I didn’t want guys to see me and be like, tig ol’ bitties. I didn’t want to get new clothes either — that would have been expensive!
How long ago did you get them?
Four years ago, almost exactly. Their birthday is August 24th.
How’d you decide to get them?
I was in my shower, listening to a Lily Allen song, “The Fear,” and I had an epiphany.
I should say — it’s not like I’d been unhappy, but I knew that modeling projects would open up to me if I had boobs, and I felt like I was just really close to looking like the person I felt like. This was the one part of me that I did feel nervous about, dating guys and always being like, “Ugh, I feel like a fucking boy.” I was tall, skinny, lanky. I was just feeling raggedy, like I lacked finesse.
Then that song came on, those lyrics like “What are you waiting for,” and I got out of the shower mid-shampoo, Googled “plastic surgery doctors for transgender people Miami,” and made my appointment for the next day. Then I got back in the shower and finished washing my hair. And two weeks later I had boobs.
What was it like to have them so quickly?
I woke up and it was as if they’d always been there.
Cool. So I’m sure you face a decent amount of resistance in the fashion industry, but I wonder what that feels like specifically, and what you attribute it to.
I think in general the fashion industry is just fickle. They just don’t give a fuck. If it’s not trendy right now, it’s dead to them. And so often, they’re like, “We already have a tranny. We already have a black girl.”
You feel like there’s a lot of tokenism.
Yeah. They’re like, “It’s going to be hard to force another one of you in there.” But that just tells me they’re lazy and I don’t want to work with them. If they don’t see my potential, then that’s just sad. I mean, you have to be a good model if you get here and you weren’t even born regular!
Who were your favorite models growing up?
Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, all the supers. They were such vixens! They made getting paid to be beautiful seem like such a great idea. Except of course that’s not what the job is, really — modeling is a lot of work.
What do people not know about model life?
It’s really repetitive. You’re constantly on the move, you’re getting measured over and over, people are just sort of mindlessly asking you to take off your top and tell them your inseam even though your measurements are right there on the card. Just, yeah, lots of measuring.
How hard do you have to work to make sure your body doesn’t change from those measurements?
HARD. Today I had pine nuts, a handful of raisins, and a bowl of mixed fruit, and that’s just… what I’m going to eat today, because I have to be naked tomorrow in front of 100 people. On a diet like this it can take all of your energy just not to be a bitch! Sometimes I’m like, “I wish I was good at something else besides modeling so I could just EAT.”
Is that sort of heavily restricted eating what you find that most models do?
Oh yeah. If anyone says otherwise, they’re either lying or they’re 15 years old. Me, I’m 26 and I have to watch that shit. I also save some calories for going out, just for casual drinks at the bar. I’m much more a bar girl than a club girl. In the club I can’t even hear myself and people are just like “I HAVE A ROLLS ROYCE” and I’m like, “Don’t you even want to ask my name?”
Anyway, it’s a lot of work. No cheese ever. It’s okay for now — my body is my rent. One day I’ll be able to eat cheese. If I last in this industry I plan to pull a Tyra and just look however I want.
How much is your transgender identity part of your model identity?
I definitely see myself as a female model — I think I take great pictures as a real, just, woman. At the same time I’m so open about being transgender, I’ll tell a stranger on the street. And I get typecast a lot. They’ll suggest me for club-kid things, crazy rave shoots. I’m like, “I grew up in northern Virginia listening to Dave Matthews, and I watch Sleeping Beauty on Saturday mornings, and I’ve never been to a fucking rave.”
I mean, I’ll do it. But it sort of jades me. The same group of us ends up at these castings over and over. We aren’t the girls who get Chanel and Christian Dior. And when it’s all transgender girls, we’re not even in the same visual paradigm. Some are short, some have blue eyes, some are curvy. I know I’m getting taken seriously as a model when I’m in a line of girls that just look like me: mixed-looking, short hair, skinny. THAT’s a competition.
What in your portfolio are you the most proud of?
I did an Opening Ceremony commercial, a campaign for Selima Optique — I just did a spread in Purple Magazine with Andrej Pejic, shot by Mario Sorrenti and Mel Ottenberg. Andrej and I often end up at the same castings. The tranny elite! I also shot with Patrick Demarchelier a long time ago, and I did a thing for Candy Magazine that I was really proud of. I also did a commercial for Chrysalis Lingerie, which is specifically for transgender people and women who’ve gotten surgery for cancer. They’ve got pockets in the bras — it’s a great training bra for young transgender girls who can’t do hormones or surgery.
Let’s talk about dating. How much ignorance do you encounter in your dating life?
Well, it’s listed on my profile, but in general I do get a lot of backhanded compliments. I get a lot of “I can’t believe you’re trans, it’s too bad, you’re so beautiful.” I’m like, “I’ll take it, but I’m sad that you think this is such a problem.”
Do the guys you date mostly date transgender girls?
There are some tranny-chasers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but some of them do have these ideas about what we’re going to be like, and of course we’re all so different. These guys want to pigeonhole us to be porn stars, and I am so not that. Like, I talk to my mom on the phone every day. I’m not going to do this freaky thing you saw on the Internet.
How often are you the first trans girl a guy’s dated?
It happens. They’ll ask questions, which is natural, but after a few I politely let them know that I’m not their teacher. I’m like, “Please ask me questions about my dreams and aspirations rather than this sexual part of me that is not relevant at this point in our conversation.” I don’t want to be mean about it, but I’m really not a teacher.
It’s also like, why would you claim you’re into this and not do some reading? Google will teach you anything they need to know. Ignorance is a choice these days. I think a lot of men have a hesitation to own that they might be into transgender women in a real way.
Do you have any tips for non-models on how to look good in front of the camera?
Confidence is key! I cannot stress that enough. Confidence reads on camera and it reads in the room — you can tell when everyone’s beaming, and you are working it because it’s your job. If you’re not comfortable, a shoot just turns into an awkward train wreck, with the photographer just staring at the model and being like, “Can you just give me something here?”
You have to just lift your chin up and be silly and refuse to be afraid or embarrassed. No one’s making you do this; you’re here because you wanted to fight for it. Train yourself in front of the mirror, find out what angles work best for you. Learn to be ugly on purpose! And have fun. It’s supposed to be fun.
What’s the best part of your job?
I like seeing my pictures just like anyone would. But you know what I really love? Seeing girls that I taught to walk. Like, I’m so old, they’ve always got me teaching these bitches to walk during Fashion Week — they’re like, “Can you please take this 15-year-old girl who can’t speak English and teach her how to walk down a runway?” And I’m like, “Fine.” And then I see the girl go out there and do it, and start booking tons of jobs, and I’m so, so happy.
Fashion Week’s got to be a trip, right?
Oh, honey. I carry a flask.