PHOTOGRAPHY MYLES LOFTIN @mylesloftin
INTERVIEW JESPER GUDBERGSEN@yessirjesper
STYLING HEATHERMARY JACKSON @heathermary.jackson @thewallgroup
HAIR PASQUALE FERRANTE @pasqualeferrantehair @thewallgroup
MAKEUP AYAKA NIHEI @ayaka_nihei
PRODUCTION: NADJA LA COUR @nadjalacour
STYLING ASSISTANT ANA TESS @ana.tess
SPECIAL THANKS TO CAFE STUDIO @cafestudionyc
A short time after shooting the images for this story, I sit down again with Aaron via zoom and she looks just as striking with little to no makeup, pulled back hair, and a simple tee giving me the same X-Girl vibes she did on set in full glam. I start off with a softball asking Aaron to point out some of her favorite career moments so far. The answer is simple: many experiences stand out, but it’s probably happening tomorrow or could be a few weeks away. “I love every moment I’ve experienced so far, and honestly, I am flabbergasted on a daily basis that anything has happened at all.. It’s hard for me to comprehend. But the best is yet to come. I feel like there is so much beautiful stuff going on right now”
We speak about some of our favorite beauty moments and I ask her if she can tell me about one of her earliest memories of beauty. “I would have to say one moment that really stands out to me is from around the time I came out as trans, around 8th grade. It’s a moment where I really remember feeling beautiful for the first time. My sis had planned a summer day picnic for us in an amazing tiny public park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and surprised me by bringing her makeup along.” Aaron paints a beautiful image of the setting – a lush garden with butterflies and bees swarming around her and her mango juice, as her sister is painting gold leaf on her brows and highlighting her cheekbones. “I had never been outside my house wearing makeup before, and it turned out to be the first time I ever felt just really HOT and beautiful. It felt so right to share that on IG. Even though I was super young, I was still a baddie. I had to share it with the world. I needed to be a bad bitch back then already”, she laughs.
I am curious about her experience with social media, Instagram in particular, and learning what it’s been like coming out as trans, gaining a massive following and becoming a famous model, all before high school graduation and in front of hundreds of thousands of people?
“I joined Tumblr and Instagram very young, and it’s always felt second nature to me, as it does with most of my peers. A major difference for me though, is that what I share on IG has always been viewed as provocative from the beginning, simply because it was coming from me. People put attention on me because they thought what I was doing was provocative, and I guess in a sense, yes. Maybe it was different for people to see someone like myself asking for attention in this way – but was it really provocative though? It’s something I consider a lot these days. I don’t think what I’m doing now is really any different than what my peers are doing, I just get added attention because I am the one doing it. To me, that perception is off somehow”
I ask her if she wants to set the record straight, what’s something that’s important to her, something she doesn’t get asked about enough? The answer is surprising. “People never ask me about fashion or disability! It may sound odd, but it rarely ever comes up. For the longest time people really only asked me questions pertaining to my identity as a trans person and my experience with that. It’s like they lost me being equally as disabled as I am trans. It’s surprising to me that for the majority of my career I have been reduced to a buzzword, “Aaron Phillip – the black/trans/disabled model ”, sure I am those things, but at the end of the day, I’d like people to realize that I’m also just a normal girl. Its also just something as simple as this: I am a fashion model, shooting images for your fashion magazine – why not just ask me some questions about fashion?”
I ask Aaron if she thinks it’s easier for people to ask her questions about being trans because we as a society have developed a much better language around that. The conversation has been ongoing and open for a while, but I agree: to me it seems like we don’t seem to be sure how to speak about disability yet. Aaron nods her head as I’m thinking out loud and jumps in at the first chance. “I think that is one hundred percent it. Speaking about being trans is a discussion that is being had, but disability is still so taboo, people are afraid to even touch the conversation. I speak about my dream of doing runways all over the world, but I understand why it hasn’t happened yet – moving around in the everyday world in my hometown is still so complicated for me…I can’t imagine how I would navigate a day of fashion week in Europe. Just being out on the cobblestone streets is impossible, my wheels won’t even move on those. Much less going up and down narrow staircases, runway shows in old buildings with tight spaces – it’s fully inaccessible for me right now.”
I tell Aaron how I have long been a fan of her work from afar, but it was when I was on set with her that I fully understood her starpower – the light and energy that surrounds her. Her personality is very giving and positive, so I want to know – what makes her really pissed off and angry? Her whole face lights up and she laughs. “Transphobia, ableism, not being understood and listened to, ignorant cisgendered men. Ignorance and bigotry disables people from living their lives or getting the things they deserve because of them, that’s what makes me really angry. These two things are extremely nuanced and branch out to every single part of life, they exist everywhere in some form whether it’s perpetrated or being perceived. Ignorance gets really boring real fast, but it’s when ignorance turns into violence that I get really mad.”
I ask her if this anger is part of what translates into her activism and she elegantly puts me in my place. She wants me and everyone else to understand: Aaron does not consider herself an activist. “I don’t consider what I do to be activism at all. This is something I get asked a lot about, and I’m really on the fence about this ‘activist’ title. When I was first signed and started modelling, I was called an activist just for being a model and I never understood that. I always have found that to feel kind of inaccurate and patronizing, because to me, activists are people like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were actually fighting and constantly in the street doing the work. I am a model, and I think it’s very possible to enable change and improve someone’s situation. I can help with that through highlighting their struggle on my page, but that does not make me an activist. I work with an organization that’s run by a close friend. I do not consider that activism either. You know why though? The reason is quite simple; I was homeless. I lived in a homeless shelter in Harlem with my dad for probably around two-three years, I know what it’s like to be poor and struggling. So while it makes me happy that people recognize that I have been able to help someone who needed me, I don’t want the attention for that. That’s me being a human.”
I ask her if what she does is closer to mutual aid then. The way I see it, her social media posts are almost split 50/50 between outreach and fashion accomplishments – it has to be called something, because it is not what I am used to seeing from other models. “I try to help allocate resources within my community, so I guess that is mutual aid. We help each other with resources and time sensitive money issues, in the moment when people need it. Being in a position where you are able to help others, you just have to make that a part of your life. I want my recognition to be coming from my achievements in fashion, and the inherent change that comes from that, someone like me being a model.”
We talk about her motivations, her childhood making a lasting impression of what she finds important in life, and it leads us to speak about religion. For the first time, I feel a slight hesitance. It’s clear that this is personal, and maybe even something slightly taboo for Aaron to speak about. “My Antiguan upbringing means that I am Christian, and I still have faith.
It’s not something I speak about a lot, it’s important to me but I don’t need to convince anyone else to believe the same as me. I also feel like I don’t always have a lot in common with the Christian community; to me they are very focused on presenting an air of “perfect”, and I am anything but. So it means a lot to me, but in my own special way. I think my religion has and will continue to influence the way I approach my work. I pray for things constantly for instance, and I think it has shaped my attitude in life and work. What has happened in my life and career so far is beyond me, and I am so grateful for it, and remain humble and kind, how God wanted us all to be. Kind and loving. That’s what it is all about.”
Our talk eventually leads us to speaking about future goals, and while Aaron still has a lot to accomplish as a model, she has some pretty clear ideas. With the pandemic enabling her to finally slow down and assess what has happened in her career until this point, it’s been driving her to think of what’s ahead “I’ve only now begun to grasp how young I really was when I started and how lucky I was to get signed early on, because it’s been really nonstop for 4 years now. I knew it was a unique opportunity to get signed so quickly, but one thing I think is even more fortunate and quite special to my situation is that the right person picked me. I really lucked out connecting with my agent Richie, he is such an amazing mentor to me. Beyond all the requirements of his job, he’s really taken me under his wing and has shown me all aspects of what goes on at an agency, so I’ve really learned so much. The love is special. It fills me up, it’s everything. Being a fly on the wall at the agency, made me realize I’m really passionate about casting. It just wouldn’t make sense for me not to go into that eventually, I’m quite excited about it actually. Casting is something that has been very exclusive for so long – and I want to change it to be inclusive, to many people, for the right reasons. I realize how narrow minded castings have affected me, my friends and my community and it’s time to give that back I think. I’ve soaked up so much knowledge that it’s not something that’s unattainable to me. I just want to be a little bit older before I start, but I have laser eyes when it comes to casting, I want to do that.”