How Trans Model Leyna Bloom Went From Homelessness to the Pages of Vogue

Updated 11/17/17
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@marcusezell / @leynabloom

A simple hello from Leyna Bloom is enough to give you a sense of her aura. Her vibrant energy is immediately apparent.

In fact, Bloom effortlessly embodies what you’d imagine of a fashion model. Maybe it’s the way she moves so fluidly in front of the camera that confirms her unspoken star quality, but in watching her instinctive gestures and infinite poses, it’s clear that modeling is simply second nature for her. Beyond her strikingly gorgeous features and her delicately coiled curls is an undeniable sense of self that shines through within seconds of meeting her.

When I first met her a few months ago, I was working on a feature about how women of color should go about finding the right foundation shade for their skin tone. One minute into my conversation with Bloom, an Afro-Filipina woman from Chicago, I knew that beneath her breathtaking face is a shield of strength and passion. Her story represents one grounded in resilience. Swimming through the oversaturated sea of the fashion industry she entered at the age of 18, Bloom is constantly inspiring her 77,000 Instagram followers to unapologetically own every single inch of who they are.

All while gracing the glossy pages of magazines, becoming the first openly transgender woman of color to be featured in Vogue India, and walking the runways of New York Fashion Week, Bloom has stayed in tune with spreading the message of diversity and inclusivity.

On a chilly day in New York City this week, Bloom and I met up again. Walking out the sacred doors of Sephora in her leopard-print fur coat, she greets me with a big hug. “I am just so proud of you and all that you’re doing with your writing,” she immediately says to me. Taken aback (I’m usually the one flooding my interviewees with compliments), I’m reminded of the authentic spirit that’s served her so well. Despite the headlines that merely label Bloom as a woman to watch, she’s much more than a “model on the rise.” We all can learn something from her. Keep reading for her unfiltered thoughts on navigating the industry as a transgender model of color, self-love, and finding beauty in your pain.

@anastasiagphoto /@leynabloom

BYRDIE: How does it feel to be the first openly transgender model of color to be featured in Vogue India?

LEYNA BLOOM: It was a surreal moment for me. And I was just like, okay, this is happening. But you know when something like that happens, you kind of just see what happens. And then it broke the Internet. It was a happy moment for me, all trans women, and women of color. When these big brands give women of color and trans people an opportunity like this, they begin to connect the missing links in society, and it just works. So many young girls from all over the world reach out to me and thank me for inspiring them.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and it’s much bigger than me. There was an issue with the editing aspect of Vogue. They miscredited my name as Geena Rocero, who is another trans Filipina model. I had to look at the bigger picture, which was the fact that I’m in Vogue. It’s just funny because the name of the editorial was called “Celebrating the Differences.” Yes, we are both trans women of color, and our stories and our fights may be the same, but our journey is different.

BYRDIE: Was that your first encounter with that kind of experience?

LB: I think it’s so funny because these big brands are like we’ve done the white model, we’ve done the Asian model, okay now let’s work with a black model. Just pick one. They’re all the same. Don’t make me an accessory to your product—really celebrate me. Like, be liberated in that decision. There have been times when I’ve been on set and obviously the main model would be a white woman. And they would, like, have a bag or an accessory. The director would say, “Oh, no, take the bag away. Oh, maybe you should add earrings.

You know what, fuck it, just put a black model in.” It’s the business I’m in. You have to be aggressive, though. Congresswoman Maxine Waters said you can’t be afraid to speak up. I recently went to the CFDA Gala with one of my favorite designers, Becca McCharen of Chromat. I saw Anna Wintour was right in front of me. She wasn’t talking to anyone; she was just sitting there on her phone. I went right up to her ass and tapped her on the shoulder.

BYRDIE: And what did you say?

LB: “Hi, I’m Leyna. I really wanted to formally introduce myself and say that I’m just so happy that Vogue is taking this next step into the future of fashion and really capitalizing on our beauty. I’m the first trans woman of color to be featured in Vogue India, which came out last month. I don’t know if you had anything to do with that, but I just wanted to say thank you that my name will forever be affiliated with Vogue.” And she was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. You’re very bold and courageous to just come up and tap me.

I respect that.” It was a starstruck moment for me since many consider her to be one of the most important women in fashion.

BYRDIE: When it comes to the level of inclusivity in the industry, do you think there’s been enough progression?

LB: I think there’s so much work to be done. A lot of these brands are using women of different racial backgrounds of different sizes and all walks of life in their campaigns. But they’re just putting us in there. When we have something important to say, let us talk about it. Don’t put rules on our beauty when our beauty breaks all the rules. We stand out—our personalities, ideas, food, spirits, and fashion. When you try to take away the authenticity, it’s just so wrong, We’re definitely getting somewhere and progressing at a good pace.

There’s still some designers and brands that need to really step up to the plate. I personally know a story of designer who asked another designer, “Why are you not using any trans women or any curve models in your shows?” And the guy was like, “I don’t want to be a trend. It’s such a trend.”

This is not a trend. This is what fashion is about. If it doesn’t include everyone, it’s not working.

That’s what I want the whole fashion world to know that this is a necessity to society and especially being in the mecca of New York City, when you’re at the fingertips of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds. I pity these directors of these movies and TV shows with a whole cast that’s white. It’s just like, where’s the color at? Where’s the diversity? Where are the stories? And it’s just like, you can’t keep writing these stories, over and over again, and not get our stories right.

I’m a really big fan of Fenty Beauty. I love the fact that they use women of color of all different shapes and sizes, but women are not the only ones who are wearing makeup. Men are wearing makeup too. Put a beautiful fucking boy, male influencer, or trans person in your ads. I was a little taken back when Rihanna didn’t choose to go that route. You can’t just put out makeup and say it’s for all shades when every single person, regardless of gender, is using it.

Yeah, you used curve models and you used every shade of brown, but don’t forget about trans women. That’s how you really make an impact, when everyone is taken care of. Male actors rappers, singers, and entertainers all get their makeup done. These male motherfuckers are getting their faces beat down. Everyone is using makeup. Makeup should not just be for one gender—it should be for every form of the human race.

@leynabloom

BYRDIE: I love that you spread the message of resilience and hope. You’ve really built a community that’s not just for trans women but for all people. Do you feel a sense of responsibility?

LB: I think any person who gets up every single day and is dealing with everyone pointing their fingers at them has a responsibility to prove that yes, they can do it. People see my glow and my confidence, and that’s something that I have no control over. That’s something that’s kind of rooted inside of me and exudes out. I’m just living my life and loving every moment, and it’s attracting people’s attention. It’s my own personal superpower. I always tell people all the answers that you need are inside of you.

People always ask me, “How do I get into modeling?” If you want it, you will go and get it. They ask for advice, and I tell them, Baby, you have all of the answers, you just have to want it. What you put it out in the world, you get back. Every single day I wake up and tell myself, Yes, you’re doing to do it. Yes, I love you. Yes, your hair looks good. Yes, your body looks good. I love every single inch of you. It’s fine—don’t try to be picture perfect; there’s no such thing. Just love what you are.

I just wanted to love myself first. When I did that, people showed up, and opportunities came.

@leynabloom

BYRDIE: What makes you come alive?

LB: My past. When I think about everything I went through, all of the heartbreaks, people saying I couldn’t do it, and the struggles I had to get to where I am right now in this conversation, I know it’s all worth it. This pushes me every single day. And when I feel like, Oh my gosh, give up. I tell myself, Girl, you were homeless. Get up and do something with your life. And that’s what keeps me going, keeps a smile on my face, and makes me want to put makeup on my face to make me feel beautiful.

Every person who is going after something needs to understand where that seed was planted and where it all started. Remember that people died so that you can be right here. Your ancestry came across islands, countries, drowned, starved, were raped, stabbed, and killed just for you to be right here pursuing your dreams. That’s what keeps me going every single day because there are so many people of color and trans women just wishing they had this opportunity.

A lot of older trans women who have been in the game the longest thank me for spreading representation: Thank you for doing what you’re doing. I recently reached out to one of my favorite trans roles models to pay my dues and thank her. She said, “Girl, everything I did was for a reason. Because what you’re doing right now means that I did it. That’s what I was doing it for.” It means so much to me to be recognized and understood by women who have paved the way for me and probably didn’t get the same opportunities as me.

That touches my soul. The fact that no one on this earth can do what I can do gives me power.

BYRDIE: How has your relationship with your body shifted over time?

LB: Growing up, I was as skinny as a toothpick. I wanted to look like the women that I loved on television and in movies. I’ve seen my body grow, change, and mold. I’ve seen it get smaller, bigger, wider, and skinnier again. I love all of that. I love those transformations of what my body can do. I love my stretch marks and don’t mind if I gain a little weight. I appreciate all aspects of myself. I want other women and men to love their bodies. If they feel there’s something they want to fix, then be okay with that.

You have that right to transform. You’re in constant [transformation]. Humans are always evolving; we’re always mutating. That’s the most beautiful thing about us. Right now, we’re in a place right now where there are so many shapes and sizes being celebrated, and that’s a beautiful thing. People always ask my agent and other models, are like, Girl, you’re gaining weight, and I’m like, I don’t give a fuck. They’re going to accept me for who I am, or fuck it—there’s going to be another opportunity.

You know what I mean? I’m not going to change my body. I’m going to love it. I know my limits, I know what’s healthy and what’s not healthy, and that’s just what it is. It’s all about loving myself.

BYRDIE: The rights of the LGBTQ+ community aren’t always upheld. How are you working against a limiting society that’s working against you?

LB: My dad was a heterosexual man, and he was in the military. So he never really let me around too many colorful people until I moved to the North Side of Chicago. This is called Boystown in Chicago, where all of the gay people go, and I was immediately thrown into the LGBTQ+ community. I found a home. A lot of people in my community get turned away from their families and have to find refuge in these communities. The ballroom scene was a safe haven for me since it’s a place where everyone is welcome.

I feel like it’s my responsibility to take up, speak up, and represent my community. I see a lot of trans people who are getting these opportunities, and they’re like, Oh, I don’t want to talk about being trans. And I'm like, Baby, do you know how many people would love to be in your position? And right now you’re denying your superpower and your uniqueness? You really need to love yourself and be free with that. People come up to me and they’re shocked about me being trans. I'm like, And what? Yes, I’m bad as fuck, and you can’t tell, but you know what? That’s who I am.

I’m so happy that I’m unique and different. I’m so happy that I live and breathe in that.

BYRDIE: What’s your advice to people still searching for confidence?

LB: I recently saw Tracee Ellis Ross at Pat McGrath’s Mothership Ball. I went up to her and said, “We come from kings and queens,” and her response was, “You are a queen. I’m a queen. Know that.” And that’s what I have to say to everyone—we’re all kings and queens. You have to really surround yourself with like-minded individuals and educate yourself on your history, no matter what anybody says to you. Be confident in the talent that you possess. Everyone in Hollywood is already trying to steal it from us.

They literally want to be us. They want our voices, our songs, rhythm, and more. But they can’t do it like us. Our culture is the blueprint. We are where the sea started.

You just honestly have to show up and show out. Every single day, remember that you are innovative and know that there are people all over the world literally rooting for you. I understand your black-girl magic. I understand your black-boy joy. And I love it.

We’re so needed, especially right now because pop culture is getting bored, so they’re looking for people of color. You can’t put rules on our beauty; our beauty breaks all of the rules. My dad educated me on this because he comes from an era of racism in the South Side of Chicago, so I was raised in that atmosphere. I was raised in that conjunction of just tension, especially being a biracial woman. So anytime I feel that I’m trying to find inspiration or I’m trying to find some love for myself, I go and revisit iconic people like Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X.

Our sisterhood needs to be a lot stronger, especially in the trans community. Laverne Cox is an amazing person, but I feel like she really holds a lot on her shoulders because she has a big responsibility. We need more of that.

BYRDIE: Are there specific beauty rituals you do that make you feel beautiful?

LB: A five-minute meditation goes a long way for me. I used to be a professional dancer, so I stretch at least once a day. I move around and stretch out my ligaments to make sure that everything is working properly. It’s a full-body euphoria for me. I’m minimal when it comes to products. I love a good moisturizer because when my skin is clear, I feel beautiful. I love coconut oil for healthy hair and skin. I go to Sephora all the time, and I’m always looking for the newest skincare products. I love things that just feel good and smell good.

I want to know that what I’m putting on my body is healthy.

BYRDIE: What are your fave beauty products of the moment?

LB: At the moment, I’m loving Fenty Beauty and Make Up For Ever. I use Make Up For Ever Ultra HD Foundation ($43) and Fenty Beauty Invisimatte Blotting Powder ($32) on top. I use this to mattify my foundation—it literally lasts all day, and it works on every skin tone. Then I go in with Nars Blush in Dolce Vita ($30). I love this shade. I’m into this Make Up For Ever Smoky Stretch Lengthening and Defining Mascara ($24) because a few coats make my eyelashes look so thick and long. I’m also obsessed with Trophy Wife ($34) and her Gloss Bomb Lip Luminizer ($18) because they’re both universal products that everyone can wear.

BYRDIE: Who is your role model?

LB: My dad is my superhero. He is literally like my rock. I love my father so much. I remember when I was a little kid, anytime I had to go to an audition or a casting, he would always take me. Every time I had a performance, he would always be there with flowers. My whole trans transition period, he was there front and center paying for all of my insurance. When I got my surgeries, we took a plane together to Thailand, and he took care of me. When woke up from surgery, he was right there holding my hand.

He’s going to be the first person I walk the red carpet with for my upcoming movie. It’s in post-production right now. It’s about 10 millennials living in New York City and how we’re all connected. It’s about love, sex, fashion, music, and connection. It’s directed by Linda Yellen, who is an amazing, Emmy Award–winning director.

BYRDIE: What do you want to be remembered for?

LB: That I did everything with a smile. The money and opportunities are going to come, but at the end of the day, I’m so fulfilled and spoiled by my abundance of love. All I pray for is love—it’s what I live by. I have “love” tattooed on both of my wrists: love in English and I love you in Philippians.

While we’re talking inclusivity, see what four makeup-loving men have to say about the beauty industry.

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