Welcome to Teddy Quinlivan's TED Talk: "I'm Very Unapologetically the Way I Am"

The model and activist gets real.

Updated 09/10/19
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There was a time when Art Deco charm was synonymous with South Beach’s kitschy appeal. That time has passed. Wander down the Miami strip today and you’ll be greeted by rows of sleek, shiny hotels enticing vacationers with stark-white rooms, resplendent lobbies, and the low, ever-present hum of thumping bass reverberating throughout the halls (and your body, and soul). Which might explain why, as I walk into Teddy Quinlivan’s suite at the decidedly modern Hotel Delano in South Beach, I have to blink twice. Perched on a window seat and swathed only in a pristine, fluffy white robe, ribbons of mid-afternoon sun reflecting off the tops of her shoulders, Quinlivan looks like an ethereal statue; or perhaps a hologram projected from another era—a Grecian cast of Athena that’s been misplaced in the Modern Art wing.

The only giveaway that she’s definitely of our current world is her e-cigarette—a Juul, obviously—which she twirls in her hand as she unfurls to greet me. At 5’11”, with amber pools for eyes and magnificent cheekbones, Teddy Quinlivan makes for an imposing figure. She was discovered at age 21 by Nicolas Ghesquière himself, after all, and has already walked for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Chloé, and more in the three years since. Regardless of what her intimidating bone structure might convey, I realize very quickly that Quinlivan is not one for airs or false pretenses. In the one minute it takes for me to sit down across from her in the window nook, she’s already filled me in about her (mis)adventures from the night before that involved running into an old NYC flame, generously offered me one of her Juul pods when I mention I’ve run out, and explained why she prefers 3% Virginia Tobacco-flavored Juul pods over 5% (a reason she’ll have tell you if you ever meet her, but, trust me, will make you laugh).

Once upon a time, supermodels existed in another realm—glittering icons to be admired and doted upon from afar. You never felt like you knew  Carla Bruni or Naomi Campbell—their likes, dislikes, what kept them up at night—but that was okay, because they were beautiful and glamorous, and you could fill in the blanks of everything else with your own secret dreams and desires. Social media has given the modern-day model an opportunity to be more real, more human—and Quinlivan is one in particular who’s shattered the notion of the vapid, voiceless ingénue. As a transgender woman (she came out publicly in September 2017), she’s become an outspoken activist in both the fashion and queer communities, whether through speaking out against our current president’s xenophobia or refusing to work with photographers who have a history of sexual assault. Though her journey as a trans woman may be uniquely hers (“I don’t know how to be anyone other than Teddy,” she remarks), her perspective—that of an outsider finding herself in a world that contests her every move—is universal, and she actively uses her platform to fight for and speak her truth.

Which would explain why John Galliano recently tapped her to front the campaign for Margiela Mutiny ($115), a sultry, tuberose-and-leather-infused scent that’s all about defying convention and gender norms. “I think when it comes to fragrance, there’s always been kind of this standard of a thin, pretty Eastern European girl selling you a perfume,” Quinlivan muses. “She’s typically not wearing any clothes, there’s a romantic song in the background…a lot of times sexuality is used to sell a fragrance.” Ever the rulebreaker, Galliano chose women who represent a more modern idea of empowered sexuality to be the faces of his defiant new scent: singers Willow Smith and Princess Nokia, actress Sasha Lane, intersex model Hanne Gaby Odiele, and, of course, Quinlivan. The ad campaign, shot in black and white, feels alluring and sexy without veering into subversive, or catering to the male gaze. All of the women are clothed. 

Speaking of rule-breaking, we’re now discussing Quinlivan’s own rebellious streak. Unlike her peers in Boston, 13-year-old Teddy’s defiance was less about typical moody teenage angst and more about the precarious, emotionally-wrought journey of discovering and expressing her true identity. “When I was in middle school, I would shoplift girls clothes and hide them in my backpack,” she recalls. “I would get to school and go into the bathroom, put on my femme clothes, and do my makeup. Then I would come home and take it all off so my mom wouldn’t see me like that. I was living a double life.” She laughs as she remembers her days of glittery bronzer and smudged Hot Topic eyeliner. (These days, she prefers a more subtle approach when it comes to makeup. “I kind of go for the same look nowadays…I love a smoky eye and a nude lip,” she says. “Donatella by Pat McGrath is the perfect nude lipstick. Then I just do lots of contour, lots of highlight…I love to break out my Pat McGrath shadows—my bougie makeup. I just sit there and I glam; it’s very ritualistic and therapeutic.”)

I ask her what it was like to be exploring her gender identity in the notoriously uninviting environment of middle school. “Oh, I was bullied the entire time,” she says matter-of-factly. “Kids would scream ‘tranny’ and ‘faggot’ to me. I didn’t care what the kids at school thought of me, though. I was going to get bullied either way. But I was terrified of what my parents would think of me, so I hid it from them.” Quinlivan officially came out to her mother when she was 16, who then did everything in her power to help her daughter live a happy, healthy life. The confession happened after a night when her mother caught her sneaking out. “I wasn’t sneaking out to party or meet boys," Quinlivan clarifies. "I was sneaking out because I was bullied so much that I couldn’t leave the house during the day; because kids would drive by and throw things and threaten to kill me. I really felt like my safety was in jeopardy by being even seen in public. So, I really had to hide who I was. And hide myself in general.”

I should mention that Quinlivan is saying all of this as calmly as if she is describing the most mundane, idyllic suburban upbringing. She takes a languid drag of her Juul halfway through. There’s no sign whatsoever that she’s rattled by her past—she may as well be telling me she went to prep school in New England and loved riding her Thoroughbred named Sunflower. Her calmness strikes me as surprising, given the experiences she’s recounting. But Quinlivan is nothing if not frank, and clearly capable of going through the growth trajectory of processing, learning from, and letting go—the three-step requirement of maturity that most people are still figuring out well into their 30s and 40s. 

As Quinlivan continues, the thought crosses my mind that she might be the most self-aware 24-year-old I’ve ever met. It flits across my brain when I ask her how she deals with her haters ("I’ve had to recognize that people act the way they act because it comes from a place of weakness and jealousy and fear, and remember that I was once self-hating growing up, too”). It crosses my mind again when I ask her how she journeyed from self-hate to self-love (“All you can do is be the best version of yourself you can be, and you have to just not give a shit what other people think. Because if you do, it ruins your life").  And it blares in my brain like a flashing-red siren when we start talking about what lessons she’ll be taking into 2019. Of the latter, it’s best, perhaps, to quote Quinlivan verbatim here for full impact: 

“What I’m taking into 2019 is the knowledge that I’m more resilient now. I’m more aware. I trust my gut more than I ever have. I’m listening to my intuition more than ever. I won’t let people take advantage of me; I won’t let people walk all over me. I’m very unapologetically the way I am.” 

She pauses for a beat, as if weighing whether or not to say what she says next. She proceeds. 

“But I’m also receptive to the fact that I can’t just sit there and be like, this is how I feel and if you don’t feel this way then, fuck you. That’s another thing I’ve had to learn. I’ve had to learn that people have a different opinion from me and I don’t have to respect their opinion, but I have to respect them for having an opinion in the first place. And I have to come to a mutual place of understanding with them. I think it’s the only way we’re going to heal. They might think that transgender people don’t deserve to go to the same bathroom, but I’m sure I can find something else about them that I do respect.”

I remark that this is an incredibly understanding, mature thing to say. She shrugs.

“It’s the only way you can evolve. I can’t just stay mad at everyone who doesn’t agree with me. You kind of just have to be like, I don’t fuck with you in this way. But there are other things about you I really respect and really admire. That’s how you bring people over to your side—it’s by being like, I may not like you in this one way, but there are a million other ways we can get along with each other. And slowly but surely, you reveal your humanity to one another.” 

At this point, I realize I’m nodding along and have a disconcerting feeling that I might be tearing up. Quinlivan’s words resonate deeply, given our current political climate, where hatred and fear and bigotry seem to tighten their hold on our nation every passing day. There’s a moment of stillness, as she pauses and takes a drink from her water bottle. I’m struck with the full realization that I’m sitting in front of someone who has had hate spewed at her from a young age for no other reason than being herself. And instead of internalizing, or becoming hardened and bitter, she's somehow emerged from it and reached a place of self-awareness, love, and acceptance—an acceptance, remarkably, that extends even to the grown-up versions of the bullies who tormented her in middle school. It's clear: regardless of her outer appearance, Teddy Quinlivan is not a hologram from the past—she’s our future. She's what our “now” should be.

Meanwhile, Quinlivan's continued on as if she hasn’t just casually shared a potential world-peace-solving paradigm shift. “At the end of the day, we’re all humans,” she says. “When we’re all fighting with each other, it’s like going to a dog park and seeing a Shih Tzu bark at a bulldog.” She laughs for a moment, picturing the scene. “What I’m trying to say is, we’re all the same species, but we’re different—and that’s okay. Just get over it. It's 2019. People just need to get the fuck over it.” What the “it” she’s referring to isn’t exactly clear—bigotry, hatred, fear, most likely—but regardless, I’m in full agreement that if we all got the fuck over it like she says, the world would most definitely be a better place.

Our time is drawing to a close, and I can’t help but feel as if I’ve just had the pleasure of sitting in on Quinlivan's TED Talk—except nothing was scripted, or prepared in advance, and there wasn't a single holier-than-thou moment. No, Quinlivan’s brand of wisdom is peppered with dog analogies and frequent exclamations of “fuck," and honestly, it’s the most inspiring thing I’ve heard in a long time.

As we part, I ask her one more (loaded) question: What's your current emotional state? “I feel great about who I am as a person,” she replies blithely, as if I'd asked her what she had for lunch. “And if people don’t like it—well, kiss my ass. Go find somebody else!” She laughs, then her eyes light up. I feel like I’m about to get hit with another analogy, and sure enough, she doesn’t disappoint. “I've learned that you have to be comfortable with the fact not everybody is going to like you,” she says. “Like, chocolate is delicious, but not everybody wants to eat chocolate. Or coffee, or whatever. Even the best things in life…there will be people who dislike it. So, all you can really do is be your most delicious self.” And with that, she flops back, crosses her limbs, and flashes me a smile. Meanwhile, I realize I've finally found the one thing Quinlivan and I disagree on. Because, honestly—who could dislike chocolate?

Credits:

Graphic Designer: Tomoko Takahashi

Styling: Maison Margiela 

Makeup Artist: Bob Scott

Hairstylist: Nikki Nelms

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