12 transgender models who are changing the industry

Valentina Sampaio is a transgender model. Tommaso Boddi/ Getty
  • Transgender models are changing the modelling industry, making it more inclusive.
  • Transgender women like Hunter Schafer, Valentina Sampaio, Hari Nef, and MiMi Tao are making waves in the world of modelling.
  • Similarly, transgender men like Nathan Westling, Chella Man, and Laith Ashley are also game-changing models.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Transgender people have had a long, complicated history in the modelling industry. In the ’60s, April Ashley, for example, was a popular underwear model in Vogue, but when a British newspaper revealed she was a transgender woman, she never modelled in the country again.

Today, the modelling industry is starting to be more open and accepting of the idea that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes — no matter the gender.

Here are some of the top transgender models in the industry today.

Hunter Schafer made a name for herself as a transgender model before starring in HBO’s “Euphoria.”

Hunter Schafer. Jeff Kravitz/ Getty

Hunter Schafer’s career began when she was 18 and was signed to Elite Model Management. In just a few years, Schafer was walking the runways for Dior, Helmut Lang, and Miu Miu. Eventually, she broke into the mainstream when she was cast in HBO’s hit series “Euphoria” opposite Zendaya.

“It’s really wild to be at this new level of visibility,” Schafer told Marie Claire 2019. “It’s something I’m still adjusting to and trying to understand. I’ve received quite a few messages from trans people who are excited about the representation on the show.”

Valentina Sampaio is Victoria’s Secret’s first transgender model.

Valentina Sampaio. Tommaso Boddi/ Getty

In 2017, Valentina Sampaio made headlines when she became the first openly transgender model to be on the cover of Vogue Paris. She followed up the historic moment by also appearing on the covers of Brazilian Vogue and German Vogue.

“The world has taken huge steps for transgender people in recent years,” Sampaio told Buzzfeed in 2017. “My cover is another small step – an important step that shows we have the force to be Vogue cover girls. The fashion industry is an instrument to raise flags promoting diversity, where things are more fluid and beauty evolves. Fashion is a world that’s freer.”

In 2019, Sampaio revealed she was working with Victoria’s Secret, less than a year after the CMO said the company wouldn’t hire a trans model.

Nathan Westling is one of the most high-profile transgender male models in the industry.

Nathan Westling. Yuchen Liao/ Getty

In 2015, Nathan Westling started his modelling career, quickly becoming one of the top female models in the industry, working with Marc Jacobs, Versace, Prada, and Chanel. In 2019, it was announced that Westling would be transitioning.

“It feels like I’ve been wearing like a mask my whole life,” Westling told CNN in 2019. “Once I removed that mask, it was like I was finally … I don’t know. I’m not wearing a skin that I don’t feel I am anymore. I’m not playing a persona; I’m not trying to be something I’m not anymore. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in this weird moment of having to be in-between.”

Andreja Pejic was known as an androgynous model before coming out as transgender in 2014.

Andreja Pejic. Maria Moratti/Contigo/ Getty

Prior to 2014, Andreja Pejic was famous for her androgynous look, appearing on runways and even gracing the cover of Elle. The Bosnian-Australian model eventually announced that she had gender reassignment surgery and identified as a woman.

“As a transgender woman I hope to show that after transition (a life-saving process) one can be happy and successful in their new chapter without having to alienate their past,” Pejic wrote on Facebook after coming out in 2014. “Most importantly differences should not equal divisions, let’s all stand together in union.”

Since then, Pejic has become the first trans model to book a major cosmetic campaign and she has become the first trans model to be profiled by Vogue.

Leyna Bloom was one of the first trans models at New York Fashion Week in 2017.

Leyna Bloom. Francois Durand/ Getty

Leyna Bloom’s modelling career began at the same time she came out as trans. It was 2014, and she graced a Candy magazine cover highlighting trans women. Since then, she walked in 2017’s New York Fashion Week – the first time the event welcomed such diversity. That same year, the Filipino and African American model was the first trans woman of colour to grace the cover of Vogue India.

“Everything that we want, need, and seek is inside of us,” Bloom told Essence in 2019. “We need to find things inside us that we don’t see in the world and then go out and create them. We are in a world where we don’t fit in, so we need to create one where we do. That’s our responsibility, the gift we need to pass on.”

Chella Man is the first deaf, transgender person to sign to a major modelling agency.

Chella Man. John Lamparski/ Getty

Chella Man made a name for himself in 2017 when he chronicled his gender transition, deafness, and other aspects of his personal life on YouTube. He was eventually signed to a modelling contract with IMG Models.

“I never foresaw myself modelling,” Man told Teen Vogue in 2018. “Growing up in narrow-minded Central Pennsylvania, I did not consider myself beautiful. This was before testosterone and top surgery, when I identified as a cisgender girl. Now, I realise the conservative culture and lack of representation clouded my perceptions of beauty as well as my struggles with identity and gender dysphoria. True beauty is defined by confidence, pure hearts, and strength.”

Man joined DC’s “Titans” TV series as the deaf superhero, Jericho, in 2019.

Teddy Quinlivan worked as a model on some of the biggest runways for two years before coming out.

Teddy Quinlivan. Edward Berthelot/ Getty

In 2015, Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière discovered Teddy Quinlivan, and her career boomed. She appeared on the runway for Diane Von Furstenberg and Jeremy Scott. Two years after starting in modelling, Quinlivan came out as transgender.

“I’m definitely a little bit nervous because I’ve been presenting as cisgender (a person who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth) for so long,” Quinlivan told CNN in 2017. “Since I transitioned when I was 16, I’ve been living as a cis female … I was very lucky because I won the genetic lottery – I looked a certain way and my voice hadn’t dropped. That privilege gave me a lot of confidence to walk down the street, date and [work] in the fashion industry, where people I would presume I was a ‘normal’ girl.”

Laith Ashley has been out as transgender since his career began.

Laith Ashley. Santiago Felipe/ Getty

Laith Ashley’s modelling career began when he posted pictures of himself on Instagram, modelling Calvin Klein underwear. He eventually broke into the mainstream, modelling on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and appearing in a Diesel campaign.

“For a long time, we were taught that femininity for men was something that could be degrading or decreases what it means to be a man,” Ashley told British GQ in 2018. “And I think it actually makes you a more rounded, a more complete person. Just be yourself; own who you are.”

Hari Nef is one of the first transgender people to be signed to a modelling agency.

Hari Nef. Santiago Felipe/ Getty

Shortly after graduating college, Hari Nef signed with IMG Worldwide, becoming the agency’s first trans model. Her modelling career began when she started sharing her transitioning process.

“I could have hid in Boston and lived at home for three years, gone through my transition, taken voice lessons to make my voice more feminine, gotten gender reassignment surgery, and spent time to complete my transition before I made my debut in fashion or film, but I didn’t want to wait,” Nef told Vogue in 2015. “I wanted to be in the world. I’m not trying to self-aggrandize, but it’s more than a job to me. It is political.”

Since coming out and becoming a model, Nef has walked the runway for Eckhaus Latta and Adam Selman. She also developed an acting career, starring in “You” and “Assassination Nation.”

Kenny Ethan Jones made a name for himself when he became the first transgender man to star in a campaign about menstruation.

Kenny Ethan Jones. David M. Benett/ Getty

In 2018, Kenny Ethan Jones was featured in the “I’m On” campaign by Pink Parcel, which aimed to destigmatize periods.

“It’s something that’s not talked about,” Jones told the Daily Mail at the time. “I’ve never had a discussion with another trans man about periods and it’s quite weird to think that considering it’s a normal thing to go through at the end of the day.”

Since then, Jones has stayed in the public eye, becoming a trans activist.

MiMi Tao was the first openly transgender model on “Project Runway.”

MiMi Tao. JP Yim/ Getty

In 2019, “Project Runway’s” 17th season welcomed its first transgender model to the show.

“I have been working so hard to get here, especially for the transgender people, they need to work harder than other people,” Tao said on the show. “I’m so glad I’m here. I’m the first transgender model in ‘Project Runway.'”

Tao was born in Thailand and grew up training to be a Buddhist monk when she started putting on makeup and blurring genders. She moved to the US and signed a modelling contract that eventually led to her casting on the reality competition show.

“I want to change the industry,” Tao said on “Project Runway” in 2019. “I want to inspire all the transgender young generation who have a dream. Keep knocking the door. If they don’t open, the door is going to break one day.”

Lea T was the first transgender woman to be the face of a global beauty campaign.

Lea T. Rosdiana Ciaravolo/ Getty

Lea T began became the face of Givenchy as an openly trans woman. Her career took off, and she posed for French Vogue and LOVE magazine. In 2014, the Brazilian model made history when she became the face of Redken, which is the first time a transgender woman ever fronted a global beauty campaign.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but I have to admit that society in recent years has started to have a different approach towards the transgender community,” Lea T told Vice in 2014. “Compared to years ago, some societies are starting to believe in and acknowledge us. We live in a new era where societies are starting to believe in us. I think this will happen more frequently and as I said, this fills my heart with joy.”