Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time. Photo: Knowinsiders.
Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time. Photo: Knowinsiders.

There's no doubt that the fashion industry has a way to go when it comes to transgender representation.

While transgender figures like April Ashley and Tracey "Africa" Norman paved the way in the 20th century, now a number of trans models, designers, and activists are making waves in the fashion industry.

While the fashion industry still has long strides to make in terms of inclusivity and equality, recent years have seen the kind of progress that trans people once only dreamed of. It was just 10 years ago that Isis King became the first trans woman to compete on America’s Next Top Model, an arc on the show that ignited a larger dialogue about trans representation and visibility in American media.

The list of top 10 most famous transgender models in history

1. April Ashley

2. MiMi Tao

3. Leyna Bloom

4. Nathan Westling

5. Chella Man

6. Laith Ashley

7. Hunter Schafer

8. Lea T

9. Theodora 'Teddy' Quinlivan

10. Valentina Sampaio

Who is the most famous transgender models of all time?

1. April Ashley

George Ashley – as she was born in Liverpool in 1935 – had the pioneering operation in Casablanca in 1960 after years of suffering. Feeling she was a woman in a man's body, she was beaten for being different as a child, then subjected to brutal psychiatric treatment as an adult.

English model April Ashley is credited as the first successful transgender model. She was born in Liverpool, England in 1935 and underwent sex reassignment surgery at age 25, making her one of the first Brits to have the procedure. After moving to London, she began booking gigs left and right with notable photographers. She also did runway and editorial work, appearing in high-profile magazines. After being outed by tabloids in 1961, her career was cut short. She has since been honored in an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool and released an autobiography.

She kept her past a secret, but her modelling career was cut short when she was outed by tabloid newspaper the Sunday People in 1961, under the headline "The extraordinary case of top model April Ashley: 'Her' secret is out". The fascination of April Ashley is surely that she raised all the issues around transgender life that are still debated today more than 50 years ago. In a way that was insouciantly subversive, she passed as a woman and was celebrated as an object of heterosexual male desire: she was a lingerie model for Vogue until a friend revealed her secret to the newspapers, for £5. "My agent called me and she said 'April your career is finished. You will never get another job in this town'," she told the BBC in 2013.

She was born into a world where boys who acted like girls were beaten and reviled and scorned. She lived into – and helped create – a world where everyone has the right to the life they need to live. Isn't that, quite simply, liberating?

In 1983, despite almost reaching 50, she had a one night stand with Michael Hutchence, who was just finding fame with INXS. Following a hard fought campaign, April was finally able to legally call herself a woman in 2004, when the Government’s introduced the Gender Recognition Act. It was not until 2005 that she was granted a new birth certificate, asserting that she was born female – with the help of old housemate John Prescott.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
April Ashley photographed in 1964 and 2015: VIC SINGH/REX FEATURES AND JUDE EDGINTON

2. MiMi Tao

In 2019, "Project Runway's" 17th season welcomed its first transgender model to the show.

"I have been working so hard to get here, especially for the transgender people, they need to work harder than other people," Tao said on the show. "I'm so glad I'm here. I'm the first transgender model in 'Project Runway.'"

Tao was born in Thailand and grew up training to be a Buddhist monk when she started putting on makeup and blurring genders. She moved to the US and signed a modeling contract that eventually led to her casting on the reality competition show.

"I want to change the industry," Tao said on "Project Runway" in 2019. "I want to inspire all the transgender young generation who have a dream. Keep knocking the door. If they don't open, the door is going to break one day."

Despite training as a Buddhist monk, Mimi Tao always knew that lifestyle wasn’t for her. Training under former Thai model Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha, Tao had her sights on becoming a supermodel in New York City. After debuting as Project Runway’s first trans model, Tao continues to walk fashion week runways and star in editorials.

“It was a really positive experience and I received a lot of support from the people around me—from the designers on the show to the crew working on set,” she recalls. But she also reveals that it took three years of auditioning before she was selected for the show.

“Each time I failed the audition my friends and modelling agency would dissuade me from trying again. But I continued to go every year until I made it,” says the 27-year-old Thai native. Some may call this stubbornness, but she prefers to call it optimism. “It’s my personality to keep trying until I get what I want.”

At the same time, she was fighting for a cause greater than her. “I think I was also driven by the fact that it wasn’t usual for a transgender person to be on a popular TV show like Project Runway,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself that if I go for the auditions and the judges don’t like me, they’ll at least be aware that I exist. I think that’s better than staying at home and waiting for opportunities to fall on my lap, or for other people to speak up on my behalf.”

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
MiMi Tao. JP Yim/ Getty

Tao says her positive outlook on life is very much a result of the time she spent at temple school in Thailand. Having grown up living near temples, she developed an early interest in Buddhism and the monastic life. At 11 years old, she chose to join the monastery and was ordained as a monk after six months. She left the monastery six years later, when she decided to work in order to support her family. By this point, she says she had had the time to discover who she was and make peace with herself.

3. Leyna Bloom

Bloom was born in Chicago to a Filipino mother and an African-American father. “I’m representing Filipina, I’m representing black, I am representing people who have been immigrants,” she told The New York Times. For them, I’m a vessel of change.”

When Bloom was a child, she read fashion magazines and, like millions of others, dreamt of appearing in their pages one day, according to Gay Times. In 2017, she made her dream come true by becoming the first trans woman of colour to appear in Vogue India.

Bloom isn’t only lighting up the catwalk, but the big and small screens too. In 2019, she starred in the movie Port Authority that screened at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming the festival’s first leading trans actress of colour. Now she’s in the final season of the hit FX series Pose with “soulmate” Indya Moore. She also appeared in the film Asking For It alongside Kiersey Clemons and Ezra Miller, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

Leyna Bloom's modeling career began at the same time she came out as trans. It was 2014, and she graced a Candy magazine cover highlighting trans women. Since then, she's walked in 2017's New York Fashion Week — the first time the event welcomed such diversity. That same year, the Filipino and African American model was the first trans woman of color to grace the cover of Vogue India.

In 2021, Bloom made history again when she became the first trans woman of color to model 12 swimsuits in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The model wrote on her Instagram that the achievement was "bigger than my wildest infinite dreams."

"Everything that we want, need, and seek is inside of us," Bloom told Essence in 2019. "We need to find things inside us that we don't see in the world and then go out and create them. We are in a world where we don't fit in, so we need to create one where we do. That's our responsibility, the gift we need to pass on."

When Leyna Bloom recently became the first trans woman of colour to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue – and the first trans person ever on its cover – she made the world sit up and take notice.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Model and actress Leyna Bloom has set a series of firsts as a trans woman of colour. Photo: @leynabloom/Instagram

4. Nathan Westling

In 2015, Nathan Westling started his modeling career, quickly becoming one of the top female models in the industry, working with Marc Jacobs, Versace, Prada, and Chanel. In 2019, it was announced that Westling would be transitioning.

Nathan Westling is no stranger to the runway. He made his debut for Marc Jacobs in 2013 as Natalie, and starred in campaigns for houses including Chanel, Versace, Prada, and Christian Dior. Since transitioning in 2019, Westling left New York for the sunny streets of Los Angeles as Nathan and went on pause from modeling, but has expressed that he'll likely return to fashion.

Westling was first known for dying his hair red for the Marc Jacobs campaign with Miley Cyrus in 2010. He also gained major exposure for his red-head tresses during New York Fashion Week 2014. A favourite of designers like Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière, Westling established himself as one of fashion’s most coveted muses in the 2010s before taking a sabbatical starting in October 2018 to focus on himself and his health.

"It feels like I've been wearing like a mask my whole life," Westling told CNN in 2019. "Once I removed that mask, it was like I was finally ... I don't know. I'm not wearing a skin that I don't feel I am anymore. I'm not playing a persona; I'm not trying to be something I'm not anymore. I don't feel like I'm stuck in this weird moment of having to be in-between."

Westling plans to continue working in the job he has had since the age of 16, and will join a growing group of transgender models that includes Lea T, Dara, and Teddy Quinlivan. In the CNN interview, Westling said that many of the designers and photographers he had worked with in the past had already expressed their desire to keep working with him down the road. Westling also said at that time he had managed to land a major fashion magazine cover, but would not say which one at the time. He had, however, said that the shoot had already taken place.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Nathan Westling. Photo: Collier Schorr/Courtesy of The Society

5. Chella Man

Chella Man is a Jewish Chinese actor, artist, and activist. He’s also deaf and genderqueer. As he told Teen Vogue, “There is an extreme lack of representation for young, Deaf, queer, Jewish, Asian, transgender artists — sorry, that is a mouthful. So, I decided to be my own representation.”

Having grown up in Central Pennsylvania, Man left for New York at 17, also becoming the first trans masculine and Deaf person to sign with IMG Models. Since then, he’s also written for Conde Nast’s pioneering queer publication them, as well as given a TEDX talk about what it’s like to transition. It’s this topic around which his super successful YouTube channel is centred too: a place full of openness and education, where he discusses everything from his top surgery to his relationship with photographer MaryV Benoit.

Not only a valued voice within New York’s LGBTQ+ community, Man is an active and engaged artist and queer activist among the city’s circles. “The discrimination I face as a Deaf, Jewish genderqueer, trans masculine person of colour powers my work,” Man explains. Despite having many strings to his bow, he puts his success down to the people surrounding and supporting him: “The chosen family I’ve been lucky enough to find here in New York makes me most proud. Their existence has saved my life and my identity.”

"I never foresaw myself modeling," Man told Teen Vogue in 2018. "Growing up in narrow-minded Central Pennsylvania, I did not consider myself beautiful. This was before testosterone and top surgery, when I identified as a cisgender girl. Now, I realize the conservative culture and lack of representation clouded my perceptions of beauty as well as my struggles with identity and gender dysphoria. True beauty is defined by confidence, pure hearts, and strength."

Man joined DC's "Titans" TV series as the deaf superhero, Jericho, in 2019.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Chella Man. Photography Ryan Duffin
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6. Laith Ashley

One of the most notable male trans models today, Laith Ashley has a long list of high-profile modeling gigs, including a Calvin Klein underwear campaign. Before becoming a model, he worked as a social worker at an LGBT community health center. With a heart of gold, the model continues to be an inspiration for the trans community.

Laith got to know about his sexual preference at the age of four. “I want to make sure I say this perfectly,” he says, pausing to consider how he represents a community that can’t be depicted by just one person’s story. The LGBTQ umbrella is a vast spectrum and it’s impossible for Laith to please everyone. He wants to, though. He’s always, he says, being a people pleaser.

Likewise, at 19 he came across YouTube videos of trans people documenting transitions. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is who I am.’ I was so filled with fear. In my mind, I still wanted to be my parents’ little girl.” In addition, “I saw everyone living their authentic lives, being able to go to work and make a living. I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this,’” he says. In November 2013, he’d come out as trans but hadn’t had a medical transition. One of his trans friends told him Barneys was doing a trans campaign. They attended the casting together. “I didn’t think I was gonna get it,” says Laith. “Then I got a callback.”

Eventually, in 2013 November, he came out as a trans. Later on January 22, 2014, Laith began a medical transition to change himself into a full man.

Laith Ashley's modeling career began when he posted pictures of himself on Instagram, modeling Calvin Klein underwear. He eventually broke into the mainstream, modeling on "RuPaul's Drag Race" and appearing in a Diesel campaign. He also appeared in an episode of "Pose" in 2018.

"For a long time, we were taught that femininity for men was something that could be degrading or decreases what it means to be a man," Ashley told British GQ in 2018. "And I think it actually makes you a more rounded, a more complete person. Just be yourself; own who you are."

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Laith Ashley. Santiago Felipe/ Getty

7. Hunter Schafer

Hunter Schafer's career began when she was 18 and was signed to Elite Model Management. In just a few years, Schafer was walking the runways for Dior, Helmut Lang, and Miu Miu. Eventually, she broke into the mainstream when she was cast in HBO's hit series "Euphoria" opposite Zendaya.

"It's really wild to be at this new level of visibility," Schafer told Marie Claire 2019. "It's something I'm still adjusting to and trying to understand. I've received quite a few messages from trans people who are excited about the representation on the show."

With her background as a model—Schafer had already walked the runways for everyone from Dior to Miu Miu before landing the Euphoria role—her red carpet and promotional appearances quickly marked her out as a fully-fledged style star too. Happy to mix up edgier big-name brands like Loewe, Mugler, and Rick Owens with emerging designers like Lou Dallas, CDLM, and Charlotte Knowles, Schafer has drawn attention not just because her style is so distinctive, but also because of the palpable sense of joy she takes in wearing fashion—you’re more likely to find her beaming from ear to ear and swishing her Givenchy skirt than delivering the standard step-and-repeat death stare.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Courtesy of Hunter Schafer
You may recognize Hunter Schafer from the runways of Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, and Miu Miu, or, most notably, from HBO's Euphoria. Before the 20-year-old became a model and actress, however, Schafer was always a trans activist. As a high schooler, Schafer protested for trans rights, even suing North Carolina over the bathroom bill, which requires people to use public restrooms according to the gender they were assigned at birth.

8. Lea T

Transgender Brazilian model Lea T, also known as Leandra Medeiros Cerezo, is somewhat of a trans pioneer. In 2010, her good friend designer Riccardo Tisci cast her in his 2010 Givenchy ad campaign (the T in her professional name stands for Tisci). Since then, she’s appeared in Vogue Paris and Love magazine and on one of Oprah’s last shows. She is also the face of Redken, making her one of the first transgender models to front a major beauty brand. Lea T has been taking a break from modeling, but the Cut caught up with her in Paris for a chat about Caitlyn Jenner, what it takes for attitudes to evolve, and whether she considers herself an icon.

Lea T began became the face of Givenchy as an openly trans woman. Her career took off, and she posed for French Vogue and LOVE magazine. In 2014, the Brazilian model made history when she became the face of Redken, which is the first time a transgender woman ever fronted a global beauty campaign.

"There is still a lot of work to do, but I have to admit that society in recent years has started to have a different approach towards the transgender community," Lea T told Vice in 2014. "Compared to years ago, some societies are starting to believe in and acknowledge us. We live in a new era where societies are starting to believe in us. I think this will happen more frequently and as I said, this fills my heart with joy."

The gorgeous Lea T made history in 2019 when she was named the new spokesmodel for Redken haircare. "I love working with Redken because they appreciate all kinds of beauty," Lea T stated at the time.
Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Lea T. Rosdiana Ciaravolo/ Getty

9. Theodora 'Teddy' Quinlivan

Theodora “Teddy” Quinlivan’s modelling career took off after she was discovered by Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière in 2015, and she came out as a trans woman two years later in an interview with CNN Style. Aside from being one of the top models at the moment, she’s also an outspoken activist who advocates for the transgender community.

In 2015, Louis Vuitton's creative director Nicolas Ghesquière discovered Teddy Quinlivan, and her career boomed. She appeared on the runway for Diane Von Furstenberg and Jeremy Scott. Two years after starting in modeling, Quinlivan came out as transgender.

"I'm definitely a little bit nervous because I've been presenting as cisgender (a person who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth) for so long," Quinlivan told CNN in 2017. "Since I transitioned when I was 16, I've been living as a cis female ... I was very lucky because I won the genetic lottery — I looked a certain way and my voice hadn't dropped. That privilege gave me a lot of confidence to walk down the street, date and [work] in the fashion industry, where people I would presume I was a 'normal' girl."

In 2019, she became the first transgender model to be hired by Chanel Beauty for an advertising campaign.

"I am the first openly trans person to work for the house of Chanel, and I am deeply humbled and proud to represent my community," she wrote on Instagram at the time. "The world will kick you down, spit on you, and tell you you're worthless. It's your job to have the strength to stand up and push on, to keep fighting, Because if you give up then you will never experience the tears of triumph."

In August 2019, Theodora 'Teddy' Quinlivan became the first openly transgender model to be named a face of Chanel Beauty in a history-making move for the famed maison. She was discovered by Louis Vuitton creative director Nicholas Ghesquière in 2015, but did not come out as transgender until September 2017. She has since walked for numerous designers including Carolina Herrera, Louis Vuitton, Jeremy Scott, Dior and Saint Laurent.

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Teddy Quinlivan. Edward Berthelot/ Getty

10. Valentina Sampaio

Easily one of the most talked about models of 2019, Brazilian-born Valentina Sampaio made history as Victoria's Secret's first-ever transgender model. Victoria's Secret aside, the 23-year-old has quite the CV, having previously been a spokeswoman for L'Oréal and appeared on the covers of ELLE U.S., Vanity Fair Italia and Vogue Brasil.

"The world has taken huge steps for transgender people in recent years," Sampaio told Buzzfeed in 2017. "My cover is another small step — an important step that shows we have the force to be Vogue cover girls. The fashion industry is an instrument to raise flags promoting diversity, where things are more fluid and beauty evolves. Fashion is a world that's freer."

Sampaio also became L’Oréal Paris’ first transgender model when she was hired as one of the company’s brand ambassadors in 2017, but before that, in 2016 the company shared Sampaio’s story when she got her new i.d as Valentina for the first time on International Women’s Day.

In the video, Sampaio says it was her first “official” women’s day as she was shown putting on make-up and doing her hair ahead of the photo for her new identification as a woman. Sampaio said during her recent interview with GLAAD, “All trans people should believe that they can achieve anything they want to achieve — any profession.”

Top 10 Most Famous Transgender Models Of All Time
Valentina Sampaio in Italy. Photo: Instagram.

Sampaio also made headlines when she became the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue's first ever transgender model last year in 2020. She's now returning for the second year in a row, making her one of two trans women to pose for the magazine in 2021. "The team at SI has created yet another groundbreaking issue by bringing together a diverse set of multitalented, beautiful women in a creative and dignified way," she told Vogue in 2020. "I am excited and honored to be part [of this]."

While the issue won't be out until June, we'd have to agree with the sentiment of editor MJ Day who praised her for her advocacy work and called her "one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women I have ever met."

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