Peche Di, a Thai beauty queen who studied at New York University, spent five years booking occasional modeling gigs and looking for an agency to represent her. “They didn’t understand me,” she says, “so I struggled to find work.”
Finally, this past May, she decided to do something about the lack of opportunities for her and other transgender models. The 26-year-old walked into the county clerk’s office downtown and filed the paperwork for Trans Models, creating New York City’s first transgender modeling agency—and one of only three in the country, and perhaps the world.
Now, four months later, her agency has signed 19 models—10 men and nine women—and has done shoots for Budweiser and Smirnoff. Consultations are ongoing with a network executive about a possible reality-TV series.
Di, who grew up in Bangkok and whose given name is Pitchadapha Phasi, is starting an agency at a time when media is changing many Americans’ understanding of gender identity. The growing prominence of the former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, the TV actress Laverne Cox, the model Andreja Pejić, and scores of other transgender people has made the transgender community much more visible.
Although Thailand's transgender people by no means enjoy equal status, Di didn’t experience the level of discrimination growing up that many Western transgender people describe. It is hard to say exactly how many people born biologically male in Thailand end up living as women—estimates range from 1 in 180 to 1 in 3,000—but it is generally agreed that the country has an unusually high number who do. (Data is firmer but still shaky in the U.S., where it’sestimated that 700,000 are transgender, or 1 in every 450 citizens.) Different cultural norms, inexpensive hormone therapies, and an abundance of cheap cosmetic surgery make physically transitioning easier in Thailand than in other countries. Di has her own theory: “Thailand is a Buddhist country. With meditation we connect with who we are, and we realize our gender faster than other people,” she explains.
Still, growing up wasn’t easy. Di went to an all-boys school for grades 1 through 12, and attended a military school part-time beginning at age 15. “I was bullied by all the boys in school because I’m different,” she recalls. “But I was very into sports, especially Muay Thai and tae kwon do. So I let them know, you can’t hurt me, because I will hurt you, too.”
At 16, she began taking estrogen, which is available without a prescription in Thailand, and sneaking out of her parents’ house, secretly dressing up in long wigs and short skirts and hanging out with a group of other trans girls. Eventually her parents found out. They were supportive but didn’t really discuss it with her.
As her body changed, her confidence rose. She grew her hair out after high school, found work as a cabaret dancer and entered several of Thailand’s popular transgender beauty contests. “I did the contests to prove to myself and others around me that I’m beautiful,” Di explains. “Sometimes I won and sometimes I didn’t, but they helped me to be disciplined and get to know myself.”
Those pageant wins stoked her desire for success, and she quickly set her sights on New York and had dreams of competing on America’s Next Top Model. In 2010, at age 21, she arrived in the United States on a student visa to study English and film at NYU. A month later, she won Miss Asia NYC, an annual beauty pageant in midtown Manhattan for transgender Asian women, which she’d signed up for while still in Thailand.
Through that pageant she met Dorothy Palmer, an illustrator, interior decorator, and jewelry designer who’d been looking for an “exotic” model to be the face of her new jewelry line. “I didn’t want the typical blond, blue-eyed Ralph Lauren type,” says Palmer. “So I tracked down Peche, went out to dinner with her, and thought she was incredible, just perfect.” Palmer soon became a mentor to Di. She now helps run the agency and provides the spacious, high-ceilinged loft in Greenwich Village where Trans Models is headquartered.
Only two other transgender modeling agencies currently operate in the United States: Transcendence Icon in Boise, Idaho, and the fledgling Los Angeles branch of Thailand’s Apple Model Management. Traditional agencies are increasingly representing transgender models, too, but those opportunities remain scarce. “It’s very limited,” says Vikki Le, a 26-year-old New Yorker originally from Vietnam who was signed by Trans Models in July. “It’s like back in the ’80s when they had one black model on every runway and that’s it.”
Even with models such as Hari Nef, Valentijn de Hingh, and Lea T fronting major fashion and beauty campaigns, Le says it will take more to change the industry and society’s perceptions: “Seeing more trans people in print and in media makes it’s a little bit easier because now people know what it is. But have attitudes changed? I don’t think so. Not that much. It’s going to take a lot more.”
Rhyan Hamilton, a 22-year-old transplant from Monterey, California, also signed on with Trans Models this summer. A male contestant on America’s Next Top Model in 2013, Hamilton was uncomfortable with the pressure to act hyper-masculine and quit the show after the first episode. She began transitioning soon after. “I never thought I’d model again,” she says. “Then Trans Models reached out to me, and now I’m having this second wave of modeling, but this time as my authentic self as a trans woman.”
Laith-Ashley de la Cruz, a muscular 25-year-old with designer stubble and emerald green eyes, isn't sure how many modeling gigs await him, but he views Trans Models as a humanizing opportunity. “I want to show the world there's not just one way to be trans, just like there's not one way to be anything,” he says.
How much demand actually exists for transgender models? “The pie chart isn’t that big for [transgender models], but I feel it’s about to get bigger,” says Christian Alexander, the director of Front Management, a boutique fashion agency in Miami that used to represent a transgender model. “I think any company seeking to expand their clientele while making a bold statement would be the reason.”
“It’s never easy, in my experience, to get a transgender [model] work,” says Harold Mindel, the former director of Click Models in Manhattan. Mindel has represented transgender models for most of his three-decade career. In 1991 he signed Caroline Cossey, who became the first transgender model to appear nude in Playboy, and Click Models also represented the big-name trans model Teri Toye. “We’re at a time,” Mindel continues, “where acceptance for [transgender people] has reached the public more than ever, and what’s really important is diversity in the fashion world and on the runway.”
That lack of diversity, in fact, led Bethann Hardison, a former modeling agent, along with the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman, to form the Diversity Coalition, an organization aimed at drawing attention to designers who regularly use just one or no models of color. Gender, in addition to race, is now a part of that conversation, and design houses such as IMG, H&M, and Givenchy have responded by featuring transgender models and diversifying their casting calls. Peche Di, in fact, was one of 17 transgender models featured last year in a Barneys spring campaign shot by Bruce Weber—one of her few local successes before founding Trans Models.
But whether or not opportunities for transgender models are abundant enough to support ventures like hers remains to be seen. “It’s easy to get models and it’s easy to build up a roster, but it’s not as easy to get them work,” Mindel says.
Peche Di, meanwhile, isn’t dwelling on what could go wrong. She’s busy planning an all-trans fashion show for New York Fashion Week in February 2016. She’s also laying the groundwork for a conglomerate called Trans Media that she hopes will encompass Trans Models, a TV channel, and a slew of other yet-to-be-created subsidiaries. There’s also an official Trans Models launch party to plan for, scheduled to take place next month.
“Every day I get emails and phone calls from transgender people around the world who want me to represent them,” she says. “But right now I want to focus on local models. They’re the most interesting.”