PHOTOGRAPHY AMINA GINGOLD @aminagingold
INTERVIEW VALENTINE ALVAREZ @b1tchiest
STYLING CAITLAN HICKEY @chiefchiefnyc using only her personal archive and sustainable designers
HAIR BEN JONES @benjoneshair @bridgeartists
MAKEUP ASAMI MATSUDA @asamimatsuda @saintlukeartists using Tata Harper Skincare
STYLING ASSISTANT CASSIE JEKANOSKI @jardnassac
HAIR ASSISTANT DAVEY MATTHEW @daveydidmyhair
MAKEUP ASSISTANT TOMOMI GONZALES @to_mo_s_
Hi Cici, how are you?
Doing great, starting my day here – it’s 2.30PM but I wake up at noon every day so this is kind of my morning. Having my breakfast pepperoni… I just came back from a shoot upstate with my friend Richie. I met him at the airport and it turned out he’s kind of a gaggy, cunty photographer and we’ve been shooting things here and there which has been fun!
Wait, you met him at the airport?
Yeah, we were on the same flight coming back from Paris. He’s got this kind of macho look, big beard and bald with a cap and shit and these mean looking eyebrows.. He kept staring at me and I thought I was gonna get hate-crimed at the airport in Paris. But then he comes up to me and tells me how he likes my bag. I just thought “God, you’ve sent me an angel! Thank you God for this not being what I thought it was” So he turned out to be super cool and we’ve been shooting a lot together now.
It seems to me like you’ve been really busy lately.. Lots of campaigns coming out and stuff…?
Most of what’s come out are actually shoots I did last year…
Yeah, it takes a while for these things. Do you have anything coming out this next year then ?
Fingers crossed ! I like to say that I model mainly for fun, but more than that I model to keep dropping these little grains in the mix for us. You know? Brown and trans people like us. I often want to quit this job because of all the not-nice things involved, but then I get messages from these little trans girls in Mexico saying “Thanks to you, I know I can be myself” and “thanks to you I didn’t do something stupid” and it makes me remember – this is why I do this. I have a lot of doors open to me, I might as well keep showing us. The more of us out there, the better. I think it would be a little selfish of me to stop right now.
A lot of people look up to you, you’re one of the big visible trans people right now. And it feels like you’ve managed to build a community around you in the industry. How do you feel about that?
I feel that it’s very important, it’s necessary to have a sense of community between us models and the creatives who are the key artists. In this industry, models are left in the dark about a lot of things. Having a connection gives us a chance to express ourselves and voice our concerns or questions to the artists, who then can ask whoever is higher in the “pyramid” about these things. We dont always communicate with whoever is on top, making the decisions, so that bond helps in the work space. On the other hand, finding that feeling of community amongst other models is important too, to know that you are not alone. A lot of times this can be a very lonely and not sustainable lifestyle, all the traveling and uncertainty… And the money struggles – we still all wait 3-6 months to get paid. It’s important to lean on your community going through all those things.
I think one of the funny things about you and I, we met and gravitated towards each other so quick because we had such similar backgrounds, being Mexican and not cis, we meshed…
Yeah we formed a little Hermandad real quick…
Exactly, I feel like that happens when you meet people in this industry who have the same pathway as you, you want to form a community with them, you know?
Of course. We often think of community in terms of activism and the like, but sometimes we just need someone to talk to, straight up. I think that’s the most important part of community, being able to lend a hand for very normal things. “Hey, I’m lost in the subway in Paris, how do I get out?” or “My Airbnb in Milan canceled on me last minute, can I stay with you?!” That is the community I think I have been better at building. I don’t think that my activism has gone much further than showing that we have a face and that our faces aren’t always what is expected of us. For me it’s been about being open and out there as a trans woman. Beyond that I don’t think I’ve done anything too political or socially aware at this point. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s more that I don’t want to speak out of turn..
I get that. I feel like we’re often expected to do a lot of that work too, when already existing is kind of a lot of work..
It’ hard to get out of bed, you guys! I don’t mean that in a huevona kind of way, I mean that there is a pressure on us that you can’t see all the time.
On the flip side of that, what is something that has made you want to get out of bed and got you excited about doing what you do?
I honestly do love the job of modeling. I love being in front of the camera, I enjoy it so much. Modeling has been such a refuge for me because I am a showgirl – I just don’t have a talent for singing or dancing! SO what I do have is my talent as a model, posing, conveying emotion or you know – serving a character in a silent way. So that’s been my gateway. I consider myself a silent artist.
So you like being able to transform yourself in front of a camera, depending on the photoshoot and what they do to your appearance .. ?
Yeah I certainly do like to transform a lot. Sometimes it gives me some perspective too, how different my life would be if I looked a certain way. Maybe my life would be a little harder if I had tattoos on my face, like what they drew on me right now? Maybe I’d be ostracized more if that were the case? I guess that’s some insight I get when being able to change characters. It’s always so much fun. I do love being a blonde, but only wig blonde!
It’s good that you’ve been able to get used to your face in different perspectives. I feel like one thing that was really jarring for me was to see myself with shorter hair. You know, the little wigs they gave us all for Moschino?
OH yes ! To be honest, for me I like to always have my hair at least down to my shoulders. Short hair starts the dysphoria..
I was about to say ! Does it ever make you feel dysphoric when they change your features like that?
Anything that’s uncovering my neck makes me dysphoric. Cover it, leave the hair down. I need the hair down, make it pretty, make it sexy! But also, that is very eurocentric of me to think about in this way: my neck doesn’t have to be a fucking twig! It’s okay for it not to be, although in reality it probably is, I just don’t think of it like that because, dysphoria, you know? But yeah, it was nice to wear those little wigs because when I saw the finished product, not only did I not feel dysphoric, I was like – I’m kinda that bitch, like maybe I need this little 20’s haircut?
That was the day we met and I remember, you were in line before me and the photographer told you “Cici, you’re such a good model!” And I was snapping my fingers, it’s so true, tell her !
It’s because I grew up performing in front of themirror in my room. I was lypsyncing all these little songs, putting on make-believe wigs that were just rags and medias on my head – I’ve been wearing the wigs you know..
– Cici Tamez
Did you see yourself becoming a supermodel when you were a child?
Certainly not. Certainly not, no. I always thought that this side of me that liked to be seen was going to have to be hidden. To a certain age I was raised to believe how girls don’t do this, boys certainly don’t show off like that. If you’re gonna be a girl, you’re gonna be a “good girl” I was told women don’t behave like that… Inside, I always knew women can behave however the fuck we want. Your idea of womanhood or femininity doesn’t have to be mine, whatever my parental unit thinks that means. By the way; I’m saying it like that because I was raised by more than just two people, my grandparents were very active in raising me and we had nannies also. Everyone who was around raised me in different ways. My grandmother always said, ‘you’re gonna be a star’, and my dad would put me in singing competitions, recognizing that I was creative, but always as a boy. They all believed in me going somewhere different, but never with a sense of reality. Thank God I don’t have any singing skills, who knows where I would be now – imagine if I had ended up in ‘Rebelde’? But as a boy? I’m happy that didn’t happen.
How did you make modelling a reality then, and make them believe that was the path?
I stumbled into modeling sort of by accident. After I finished high school in Texas, we moved back to Monterey. When we were there, I was the skinniest tallest person in almost every space I was in, towering over everyone in the bus, prompting strangers to tell me I needed to eat! And I’ve never been shy around food.
Our classic story…
Totally, I never shied away from eating from eating but I guess I’m just naturally tall and skinny. So because of that, people always told me I should model, which I was not sure about at all. A friend of mine was studying photography and asked to take some photos of me. A small agency saw the images on Facebook and asked if I wanted to model. I was 17, didn’t have a job and they were saying I could make some money doing that, so I started doing some small local jobs. I enjoyed it, but seeing the final images I wasn’t really into them so much, so I just thought of it as a fun way to make a little money. It wasn’t until Nylon Mexico reached out to me for an editorial that I really felt like I wanted to pursue this for real. When I saw those pictures, I felt something, they were sick. They gave me a character to play and had me boxing against myself, I loved it. Posting them to my socials, a local designer reached out to me and I did his campaign, which led my now mother agent Pablo to reach out to me and ask if I wanted to move to Mexico City to do this full time. I actually told him no, so when I came crawling back to accept his offer a year later, the conditions had kind of changed and he asked me to find my own place, come with a bit of cash to get by and he warned me that it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s a tough market, you’re trans so you might not do well economically, maybe find a job on the side… I ended up selling my car and had enough money stashed away to pay for a place 9 months upfront
Wow, good for you!
Yeah I just figured, let me pay for a place upfront and if modeling doesn’t work out for a while I can just eat cornnuts to survive, living off Maruchan and tuna is fine…Pablo and I ended up becoming really close and falling in love – platonically – so we were shooting so much and I ended up building a strong book which landed me bigger jobs.
What was your first big job you landed in CDMX?
It was a global campaign for Urban Decay, which was really reassuring – seeing that I could do something on a bigger scale and in a market outside of Mexico. It’s still quite commercial and small there, transphobic and xenophobic towards itself. It’s strange, if you’re Mexican in Mexico, you’re not going to work as much as anyone else – even if they look the same as you, a non-mexican will get the job before you. I would go to castings and get asked where I was from and I would reply “Soy Mexicana..” and they would just say “Okay, gracias” and wave goodbye immediately.
Did that ever make you feel like you were being set back?
Not really, because I knew the endgame was always moving to a fashion capital. I wasn’t sure if it would be Milan, New York or Paris, but I knew I wanted to be in a fashion capital where I could work with bigger clients. My agent and I planned that from the start, but it took a while for me to change my passport in Mexico because of transphobia. My birth certificate was very easy to change, no questions, no judgment, no – ‘what do you have between your legs’ – and it didn’t cost anything. Mexico is actually very progressive when it comes to that, at least in Mexico City. The lady at the passport office though was a transphobe and didn’t want to change it for me, so it took me 6 months to get it. I had to report her even – it was a big thing. And then the next problem was my work visa, which was denied also at first, but finally I got to New York aaaaaand… the pandemic hit. These things all seem like such setbacks, but it does seem like when it was meant to happen, it happened, because my first big gig in New York was shooting the cover of Italian Vogue. That was always my dream, I never expected it to happen – and I’m not sure that would have happened at another time.
Do you think the standards are still very euro-centric, even when they try to be “inclusive”?
Yeah for sure. If I wasnt sort of racially ambiguous, I don’t think I would have gotten where I am today. And that’s very sad. They take every step to make me look less ethnic, they’ll make my skin lighter in the pictures or put me at an angle where my nose doesn’t look too ethnic.
Have you ever seen pictures of yourself heavily altered where you felt like you didn’t look like yourself?
Not necessarily, it’s more modifications to the tones of things. For example, I have very dark elbows, knuckles, knees etc and trust me – it’s something I am very aware of. I always grew up thinking it was wrong for me to be darker in these areas, and I see that being edited all the time. I’ve noticed that my eyes are made to look lighter too, my skin is edited to not look any tone of brown, things like that. I should say, it’s not always like this… Some shoots are very natural and a lot of clients do have that consciousness and want to show people of color and show that ‘something’. But other clients will want this in a way that is digestible and I just think, “why?”
How do you navigate some of those things that you are already hyper aware of, being altered. How do you stay sure of yourself?
I know that these are all ideas that are based in white supremacy. It’s a colonized ideal of myself that exists and it’s not my idea, it’s not me. When it happens, I ignore it because I know in the end it’s coming from high up, someone’s boss who is probably an old white cis male.
Is this something that ever gets to you even before you see the end result? Like, walking into a set, getting in front of the camera?
Yeah, it often has to do with the white-washing of myself, looking at my hairline and the little wisps of hair “out of place” by my ears, being slightly darker around my mouth, little things like that, which are just so natural to me and where I am from. My mom has it, her mom does and so many generations before me did too. I shouldn’t be hyper fixated on that and I truly don’t – not as much as I think about my dysphoria.
What is your next goal?
My next goal is to get more Vogue covers, of course ! I would love a Mexican Vogue cover, but they’re very transphobic, very xenophobic and they will choose a celebrity or influencer over a model any day… I also want to work for Versace and Mugler, my favorite brands since forever. In my heart I am a Versace girl.
If they did not happen and I quit tomorrow, I’d be very happy: I’ve done a lot more than I ever expected. I don’t know if this comes from an inner sense of insecurity or if it’s because of the reality I live in. I’m not white, I’m not blonde, blueeyed, I’m not a sz 0 person.. I see 80% of the jobs going to white people. And they’re not just white, they’re blueeyed, blonde and very very skinny. It’s like, what happened to the inclusion? It’s sad to say this, but I do go on castings that are trans-specific, and when I show up there’s always a group of blondes with blue eyes and it makes me feel like going home, I’m not gonna waste my time. I will stay and do it because I’m a simp, but… I think I’ve accomplished a lot more than people of my demographic have in the past, and this is something I believe doesn’t start and end with me by the way. I have done some firsts, but I want a whole lineup behind me to do the same and more. I see more and more people getting the opportunities that I never thought were possible for myself, which makes me so happy.