You might know Geena Rocero from her 2014 TED Talk, her long modeling career, her unflagging trans advocacy, or any combination of the above—but you’re guaranteed to feel like you’ve seen a whole new side of her after you finish Horse Barbie, her debut memoir. The book chronicles Rocero’s journey from winning trans beauty pageants in the Philippines to working as a model in the US while “stealth” (or not publicly out as trans), telling the story of one woman’s life with enough heart and candor to make it accessible to all.
Vogue recently spoke to Rocero about working on her memoir during the early days of the pandemic, living a “dual identity” as a model before publicly coming out, paying homage to the trans women in fashion who came before her, and more.
Vogue: When did you start thinking there might be a memoir in your life and experiences?
Geena Rocero: I think in 2015, when I started a production company called Gender Proud. That’s when I started thinking, Oh, this is how you put together a story, and that was the beginning of the idea to write a book. Since 2015, I’ve just been collecting stories, whether on a notepad or in my Notes app; whenever there’s a story that I know will be a pivotal moment in my life, I write it down. I also started reading a lot of memoirs, and just before the pandemic, my team was like, “It’s time to write a book.” But I got really busy, so there was no way for me to actually sit down and write it. Then, when the pandemic happened and I obviously wasn’t able to go anywhere, I was able to work on it.
I was so fascinated by the parts of your book that discuss working in the fashion industry as a model before publicly coming out as trans. How does it feel to be looking back on that journey now?
When it comes to the modeling part, when I was first sitting down and writing the book, the first thing I asked myself was, Okay, what do I tackle first? I decided to tackle the most difficult and complicated of many triggering moments in my life, which is the time when I was modeling and living this dual reality and having to calculate everything that I was saying, because, you know, I chose a career that is all about being visible and front-and-center. It was a complicated life that I was living; I was visible and invisible at the same time, and the bigger the job I would do, whether it was the cover of magazines or a fashion campaign or a cosmetics campaign, the [greater] my paranoia and mental anguish and emotional turmoil got. I think this book is my way to really figure out what happened in that process; everything they say about writing a book is true, it’s all of that catharsis, but it’s also been really healing for me. I now know how much of a burden I was carrying while modeling, but at the same time being playful. I was in the “sexy” market, I was doing lingerie and swimsuit modeling and sexy stuff in editorials, so some part of me enjoyed doing that, but managing that reality was complicated. I was 21 and new to New York, and not a lot of people knew me or my story; I was young and having fun and being playful and feeling affirmed in my femininity, even within the context of a difficult existence.
How does it feel to be releasing this memoir as things are getting exponentially harder for so many queer and trans people?
In 2014, when I did my TED Talk, I was part of that wave of that mainstream visibility of trans people; in June of that year, the Laverne Cox Time magazine came out. Hopefully, we now know that visibility is part of claiming justice in society, but it’s not the only part; that notion that you just have to be visible and come out and things will be fine doesn’t always apply to trans people. I grew up in the Philippines, where it’s all about the community—you know, it’s a communal culture, and it’s almost like you don’t exist as an individual person. So when I moved to America, all this talk of individualism felt very tied to the notion of visibility and being a representative. There should be a constant evolution of both cultural visibility and political recognition for trans people, along with—obviously—the most basic and equitable access to care for trans people, and particularly trans youth.
Is there anyone you’re particularly hoping this book makes it to?
People know me in the media and the public through my TED Talk and my advocacy, but when I was writing this book, I truly wanted to honor the fullness of my experience and my lived reality that is so vast. This book has been described as a “saga,” and I wanted to speak to the complicated fullness of the life that I live and start by writing unapologetically about love and career ambition and family and chosen family and migration and assimilation and decolonizing my mind. All these topics are covered, and I think this book has everything, because that’s really what I was going for. It’s for anyone who’s wrestling with that inner desire to pursue something you’ve been longing for, and forgetting about what your family or society tells you about how to dress, or who you should love, or what kind of career is expected of you. If you’re questioning any of that, I hope this book will resonate in your pursuit of your authentic self. But also, I hope it reflects a young, trans, Filipina immigrant who doesn’t often find her own stories and inner thoughts reflected in media or literature or art. There are so many trans woman fashion models who have paved the way for me; unfortunately, our community is littered with stories of people pursuing their career in fashion and disappearing the moment they got outed. I’ve lived that life, and I was certainly very lucky to be able to make it to the point that I was able to own my story, because so many women’s stories were taken from them by media and culture’s very limited understanding of trans people in fashion at the time. So this is also dedicated to them.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com
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