With models, as with clothing, trends come and go. Tastes change. What makes someone “beautiful” at any given time is highly subjective. Take the ’90s, which popularized the term “supermodel,” as the all-American Cindy Crawfords and Christy Turlingtons bled into the waify Kate Mosses. By the time the Brazilian bombshell Giseles came around, followed by the millennial wave of stars like Karlie, Kendall, and Gigi, the notion that models are more than just mannequins was firmly established.
These days, as fashion continues to merge with politics, and women as a whole resist traditional standards of beauty and perfection, those tasked with modeling the clothes have increasingly embraced what is a powerful, if unlikely, platform for challenging the beauty status quo. Most who have agitated for diversity in fashion agree we’re not where we need to be yet, but in recent seasons, designers have shown signs of embracing inclusion — nearly 32 percent of the models on the fall 2016 collection runways in New York last spring were women of color — while the pressure for models to be underweight has been challenged in Paris and Milan. There is no longer just one “look.” Which is perhaps why, among this sea of relative “otherness,” one particular quality that makes a model an “it girl” is that she’s got something to say and is compelled to say it. As model Hari Nef told Vogue last year, “It’s not enough to be cute in a magazine. You have to talk.”
Nef, who is from Newton, parlayed some renown within the downtown New York club scene to make her runway debut in fall 2014 during New York Fashion Week. She was just days out of college (she earned a degree in drama and theater arts from Columbia) in the spring of 2015 when she was signed to mega-agency IMG Worldwide, which also lists Gisele Bundchen and Gigi Hadid on its roster. Nef has since walked runways for Gucci and graced a cover of Elle UK, in an issue themed “Rise of the Rebel.” She’s not coming up quietly. “I would absolutely describe myself as an activist,” says Nef. “An activist is someone who is visible and who makes a concentrated effort to fight and advocate for positive change.” Her particular cause is transgender equality and awareness. Before a recent Chanel dinner honoring Keira Knightley at the start of New York Fashion Week, Nef posted to Instagram a selfie from inside a conference room at LGBT health center Callen-Lorde. This is what the new Fashion Week looks like.
Nef is a transgender woman. As such, she says, her cause is literally her life. She has discussed transgender rights on Lena Dunham’s podcast, visited the White House as part of a Champions of Change tribute to LGBT artists, and called out Caitlyn Jenner for her support of the Republican Party. But transgender is not all she is, and that’s part of her message. “I’m trans. But I’m also an actor, a daughter, a big sister, a really good friend, a New Yorker, a doer,” she says. “Sometimes I’m a whiner. And I’m a thinker and a talker.” She acknowledges that some of her success has been tied to a demand for models who inherently break beauty ideals and to pop culture’s embrace of “trans-ness,” furthered by the success of shows like the acclaimed Amazon TV drama Transparent, in which Nef was cast last season. “The stories I’m invited to tell in fashion and in general as a person oftentimes are a story about identity and boundary pushing and bravery and nonconformity,” she says. “It’s a statement. I never intended to wave a flag or disrupt anyone, but unfortunately my existence depends on disruption.” She hopes that, with time, her presence becomes less of a statement; that, one day, she and others like her aren’t defined primarily by their gender identity.
Social media has enabled models, like everyone else, to brand themselves, and they do. For Nef, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter have been an important way to capitalize on what makes her different. This is what gets her booked, but it’s also something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, bringing differences to light helps people who also feel different to feel less alone. On the other, she says, “it feeds into the idea that [transgender people] are different. So I like to ask: How do you embrace difference while opening yourself up to a unified vision of beauty? How can we get to a place where I, or anyone, can be a trans model and a model at the same time?” Participating in fashion isn’t exactly a political statement, but it is political, and she hopes that one day she can be recognized for being a great model, period.
Like Nef, Boston-born Teddy Quinlivan’s runway debut (in her case, with Louis Vuitton in the fall of 2015) put her on the map, but it’s her personality that’s kept her there. Quinlivan’s got a pretty face — but what defines her talent, and makes her unforgettable, say those in the industry, is “her amazing personality and her energy.” And she plays that up. Her social media accounts are jam-packed with witticisms, social commentary, stories of failed Tinder dates, and selfies featuring bangs that often look as if she cut them herself — statements that challenge expectations of beauty and femininity. “As I arrive home from Paris haute couture I am reminded of the luxury of being white,” she recently captioned a post to Instagram. “. . . To my fellow black American citizens, friends, and colleagues: I can’t stop the bullets, I can’t protect you from crazy racist people, but I will stand with you in your fight for equality.” In a recent relay of a relationship gone awry, meanwhile, she encouraged girls to “know your worth.”
Back in 2013, before Quinlivan had even booked runway gigs for big-name brands like Miu Miu, Versace, and Jason Wu, she earned Internet fame when a clip of her performance art while at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick went viral, a staged “freak out” following a negative review in which she smashed her painting. It was an early hint at an Internet savvy that would help lead her to runways that, this season, included Prabal Gurung, Victoria Beckham, Dior Haute Couture, and more. But it’s about more than just furthering her career. “I want to be able [to] educate and get people of the new generation interested in current events and things that actually matter, and not how many Instagram followers they have,” she recently told Harper’s Bazaar.
Being smart is a necessary part of the new model package — fashion is a business, after all — and it’s perhaps one reason Boston-raised talent like Nef and Quinlivan, who moved to Paris right after graduating from Walnut Hill, have thrived. “I always like to brag a little bit that our model base is more educated,” says Robert Casey, the owner of Maggie Inc., the Back Bay modeling agency where Quinlivan got her start. “I probably have the highest number of Harvard-educated women and men on my roster than anywhere else in the country.” Even in Boston, where the taste for models skews more traditional — more “lifestyle” versus “high fashion” — Casey says that the idea of the model just wearing the clothes is going away and more clients are requesting women who exude a specific style and personality. (It’s worth noting that the agency has two transgender women on the roster, and Casey says they’re both getting regular work.) “Being ‘model material’ is not necessarily about being pretty,” he says. “I’m always firm with girls that it’s not a beauty contest — who is the prettiest or has the best body.”
And that’s why he knew Quinlivan would make it big: Besides her distinct look, she was a very smart kid. “At heart, she’s a little geek,” he says. “She worked hard and put a great value on studying and history and intelligently harnessing her passion.” Quinlivan has said that, in fact, she often looks to model Cameron Russell as evidence that “you can be successful in fashion without having to compromise your personality and beliefs.”
Russell, who was raised in Cambridge and scouted while on a visit to New York City, earned fame as a Victoria’s Secret “angel,” walking in hundreds of runway shows. But in recent years, she’s taken on the role of fashion activist, using her platform as a model to tackle such weighty topics as campaign finance reform and the gender pay gap. In 2012, she famously gave a TED talk that’s since been viewed more than 15 million times titled “Looks Aren’t Everything: Believe Me, I’m a Model.” Modeling, says Russell, is one of the few professions where women outearn men. On one hand, that’s empowering. But it also serves as evidence that women are at their most valuable when they’re ornamental and that we’re still living in a society where how women look is worth more than what they say or do or the ideas they have.
But thanks to models like Russell, Nef, and Quinlivan, who aim to spark conversation and keep it going — and who challenge ideals just by being themselves — that’s changing. And, more than ever, it’s personal. “Constructing myself as a trans model is an oversimplification of who I am that accentuates a specific aspect of my identity,” says Nef. “But being trans is something people get killed for, die alone for, lose jobs and housing opportunities over. It doesn’t interface with health care systems, it prevents travel; I could go on and on. It sucks for a lot of people. So if I can paint in this broad stroke that ‘Hey, I’m trans, and I am also a model and on the cover of magazines, and a couple really cool people who make clothes actually think I’m cool or pretty,’ maybe that can help someone. It helps me sometimes.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.