“This is who I feel, this is what I feel, and I’m going to collect pieces of this world to create a beautiful picture of how I see myself,” says the model.
Filipino-American model and actress Leyna Bloom knows the power of an image. In a busy café in Makati, she sits down for an intimate conversation with Vogue Philippines on her career milestones, being a mentor to a young community of queer and trans Filipinos, and understanding visibility within the fashion industry.
Vogue Philippines: Your name is decorated with ‘firsts.’ What does visibility mean to you, especially since you’re one of the few that are the first to break those barriers?
Leyna Bloom: We’re in a time right now where things are moving really fast. They’re rushing in this idea of diversity and body positivity: people being disabled, people with skin conditions, people with alopecia. For so many years, we’ve been celebrating this white image. But in the last five years, we’ve celebrated so many people who don’t necessarily fit that image. So, I don’t know if it’s a celebration or just ‘Let’s just do it because we gotta do it,’ but now we have platforms. We have the weapons we can use to speak up.
Once you have one person talking about it, you’ll have a whole community talking about it. You’re not just fighting one person but a whole group of people, so being the ‘first’ is scary. Like Tyra Banks told me, there’s no rule book for being the first. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. I can understand how to fight for what I want, but when I received that hate for being that first, it was extremely painful.
I get the punches so that the next generation of trans women, or the new queer people, or the new people that have never been seen before don’t have to. I was raised by a soldier that taught me how to survive, so I was the perfect person to take it. I still am equipped to handle it in my own special way, understanding that even though I’ve accomplished something, I’m still just surviving.
How do you feel, then, being that person that the younger generation can look up to today?
It’s amazing. I recently got to teach a class about having confidence in yourself. I used Ballroom culture as the backdrop of the class because I’ve been walking balls since I was 15 years old—that was how I learned confidence. That was how I learned the power of imagination.
I got to work with twenty young queer and trans Filipinos from all parts of the Philippines, and I taught them about loving themselves and their uniqueness—how to take that into school, work, their love lives, their personal lives, and their families. The fact that I got to teach them and be a student of them is very rewarding. That’s what it’s really about, connecting with people who need representation, leadership, and guidance.
Is this your first time taking up the role of a mentor?
No, I’ve been a mentor my whole life. I have three sisters and three brothers. Some live in the Philippines, and some live in the States. I’m often the person that is “the healer.” I’m constantly in a position to be a voice of refuge, of guidance.
Remember when the Black Lives Matter movement and the Asian hate happened within the same year? I represent both of those people—both communities that were being policed, brutalized, and ostracised—along with being queer and trans.
2021 was a pivotal year for me because I had received the accomplishment of being the first trans woman of color to be in Sports Illustrated, but it was the same year as Black Lives Matter. It was the same year as the Asian hate. It was the same year that the number of trans women murdered was at its highest. So, I tried to find that balance between being a mentor and a leader, as well as going out in the world and handling the responsibilities of the gift I’ve been given.
As a mentor, all I have to do is just create. There are people out in the world who cannot create or haven’t been given an opportunity to create. If I’m continually moving as a mentor and artist, then there is change still happening. That’s how I could be a mentor in many different ways, not only just through being in the class and teaching but also by following my dreams.
How do you take care of yourself in those moments of adversity?
That year, I went to Paris. Hawaii is the island of love, but Paris is the city of love. I remember protesting that whole summer, and then the Sports Illustrated launch happened. Right after, I did the Met Gala. And then, literally the next day, I packed my bags, arrived in Paris, and started looking for an apartment. That’s how I heal myself. It’s to go to the city of love, sit down, have a croissant, and be at peace. There’s this peacefulness in Paris. When it’s not protesting, Paris is incredibly peaceful. It’s the city of fashion, which is what I’m rooted in and what I’ve studied, so I felt safe there. To answer your question, that’s what I did.
But to go a bit backward, my dad met my mom while he was stationed in Boracay. They fell in love and got married, then had my older brother and me. But in looking back, I realized that I am a product of war. I was around guns, and I was around military bases. Being a byproduct of this pain, you must find the balance, and that is love.
I see so much pain for my Filipino people. I see so much pain for my African people, for my African-American people. I live in a country that is rooted in colonization and free labor. The Philippines has dealt with this, too. I understood that as a child and learned to move a bit differently. I didn’t get to move with privilege. While I’ve been very blessed with my Filipino and African roots, I had to understand the power of my communities to go into the world to represent them in both spaces.
It’s all about perseverance. It’s all about leaving this world a better place than we have found it. I always say that I was born in a world where I didn’t fit in, so I create a world where I do. I can take that with me on a trip to Paris or Hawaii and heal. But after healing, it’s back to war: war on the mind, on the body, in fashion, in culture, in entertainment. To tell stories—authentic stories—there’s pain in that. Some people try to control those narratives and say that your stories and my story don’t matter. We are fighting to dismantle that. We need this understanding that every person is in a position to tell stories and make the change. It’s really, really important that I can come to the Philippines to be part of that and tell my story.
Do you have a message for Filipinos struggling with finding acceptance within their communities?
They need to realize that we are just like the rest of the world. Filipino people come in so many different shapes, sizes, colors, and hair textures. Just be authentic in that. Celebrate that.
I started in Elite Model Management Manila, the agency I’m still signed to today. Photographer BJ Pascual, my brother—I love him to death—introduced me to them in 2016, and I was the first. Now, there are so many Afro-Filipinos working. There are so many trans women working. There’s representation happening now. We just have to keep talking about it and keep it moving.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book right now. It’s a different type of memoir: a conversation with my younger self about patting myself on the back and surviving. It’s a conversation with myself where I say, ‘You made the right move. You went there for it.’ It’s to help inspire people and let them know that those conversations you have with yourself are powerful; those conversations get you places if you believe in yourself and don’t give up.
I also would love to establish myself here in the Philippines. Being a celebrity in America, I can bring the Philippines and America closer together because I represent that duality. I want to be in both places to bring them equal amounts of representation. I feel like who I am and what I represent can help a lot of people here in the Philippines and allow us not to just be here, but everywhere. I want to continue to work on representation.
Looking back on your career, what has your journey with modeling been like? How did you fall in love with using imagery to push your message?
When I was growing up, I used to watch ballroom tapes—the old school tapes, like VHS tapes—and I always saw beautiful women who were trans live their truth unapologetically. In the real world, we couldn’t apply to the soccer team. We couldn’t go to college. We couldn’t have normal jobs. But we were still beautiful. We were still there. We still existed. I saw this level of freedom in them that I also saw in Madonna, Beyoncé, Liza Minelli, and Diana Ross. And I asked myself, where did they get that from? Where did they come from? I’m not going to say everybody, but every trans and every queer person I have ever met creates their own identity.
In society, we’re taught to suppress one or the other. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this before: ‘Oh, don’t be too masculine,’ or ‘Don’t be feminine.’ Trans women find the balance of masculinity and femininity in one body, and they master it. And they create their own identity, starting with their name. They say, ‘This is who I was born as, but I don’t identify as that. This is who I feel, this is what I feel, and I’m going to collect pieces of this world to create a beautiful picture of how I see myself.’ That, to me, is the source of art. The fact that you can persevere, walk on the streets, and be your most authentic self is art.
At the time, I didn’t see that in fashion. So I told myself, ‘This is a space for me to do something, to be in this space, to make a change, and to say that we are here. We’ve always been here.’ Fashion is the biggest art distributor in the world. Why were we not there? Why were we not on the cover of magazines? And if we were, why are they just white? Why are they just skinny? Why are they not the shape of humanity?
I wanted to do something even though I knew it was going to be scary and difficult. I knew that there were going to be a lot of doors closed in my face. But you know what? I’m still beautiful, I’m still powerful, and I still have peace of mind. I still have myself. In some parts of the world, a lot of people don’t even have that. So I told myself, I’m going to go into fashion. And I’m going to create wonder. I’m not doing it for today, but for the future, because the rest of the world—they have to catch up to where the fuck it’s going to be.
Right now, this is the work we are capable of doing. The future is when we will really be celebrated. When I’m gone, my work will still be here. We will still be in the history books. And that is something to live for.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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