'RuPaul's Drag Race' star Carmen Carrera warns of trans models being tokenized: ‘We need to see the folks that people don't want to look at'

Carmen Carrera talks about progress in trans representation. (Photo: Getty Images)
Carmen Carrera talks about progress in trans representation. (Photo: Getty Images)

Carmen Carrera made a name for herself when she competed on RuPaul's Drag Race in 2011, making history as she came out as transgender while the season aired. But the model and actress continued to trailblaze after her time on the show came to an end. She started speaking out about LGBTQ representation after fans created a petition in 2013 calling for her to be the first transgender model for Victoria's Secret, long before the brand discussed inclusivity on its runways.

"I fought so much for inclusion with Victoria’s Secret because of my fans and how amazing I thought the platform was for women and how groundbreaking it would be to be trans inclusive," Carrera tells Yahoo Life, reflecting on how little she knew about the brand's stance. "That's when I learned about how many women were fighting for not only LGBTQ+ inclusion but also size diversity and ethnic diversity. Those were the sort of things that were always happening with the brand, and I was kind of completely out of the loop. I didn't really even know that was going on. So, the fight for trans inclusivity just kind of added to the laundry list of changes that needed to happen."

At the time, Carrera was already hyper-focused on issues surrounding the transgender community as one of its first public figures fighting for new opportunities. Still, she was struggling with figuring out just who she was after coming out to the world.

"My experience was extremely scary because there weren’t any conversations about trans acceptance and the world had no rule book. There was also no guidebook, so I was meeting the world's ignorance head-on," she explains. "There was no education, there was no understanding. There was no information or even a conversation about how to approach acceptance. So, I was exposed to everyone's blind ignorance and the ugly side of how people treated and perceived us when I was still trying to figure out who I was and still getting comfortable in my transition."

In hindsight, Carrera considers that people likely didn't take her pleas for LGBTQ inclusion seriously, as the topic seemed so far from the biggest brands' radars. Come 2018, she felt outright rejected when Victoria's Secret's former chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue that "no one had any interest" in a runway show that featured trans and plus-size models. Carrera responded with an Instagram post.

"My everyday is a physical manifestation of my childhood fantasy. I am a strong woman with enough charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to bravely move forward in a world that seeks to erase her," she wrote. "I wish certain people would see beyond viewing me as just a 'transsexual'. I am way more than that, @victoriassecret. #EdRazek"

Leyna Bloom, a transgender model of Black and Asian descent, also spoke out on social media.

"They will regret this in the future when they've noticed the huge mistake they have made," Bloom wrote at the time. "When the world comes to change and when it comes to embracing that change you will not be part of it."

Victoria's Secret has since announced a rebrand, which includes new imagery that steers clear of the former "fantasy" and a new VS Collective to replace the infamous "Angels."

Even as Bloom became the first trans woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in 2021, Carrera says there's a way to go when it comes to authentic representation.

"It's great to see trans women, especially trans women of color, get on a global, recognizable platform like SI Swim. I'm so proud of Leyna and all those who made this possible. But I want to remind these shows, publications and corporations of the mission," she says, noting her own role in representing the trans community on runways during Miami Swim Week. "There is also importance in recognizing more than just one or two transgender representatives from the community – and I’ve noticed we have again begun to tokenize 'one special' person of color, 'one special' person from the trans community, et cetera – which puts pressure or feelings of inadequacy on the rest of the community."

Tokenism is something that the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, MJ Day, has told Yahoo Life she is "very, very sensitive to," saying "It's not like, 'Oh, we featured a trans woman last year, so we've checked that box, we can move on. It never is."

Bloom appears in the 2021 issue alongside Valentina Sampaio, who was the magazine's first openly transgender model in 2020 and Victoria's Secret's in 2019. Still, Carrera is pushing for more broad exposure of LGBTQ individuals.

"We should be seeing more trans women that come in all different shapes and sizes, from all different ethnicities who do come from the community and who can really represent the full trans umbrella," Carrera says, who participated in Visible's #ProudlyVisible campaign, which gives a platform for LGBTQ individuals to share their stories. "We need to see the folks that people don't want to look at. They are the ones that we should be seeing in the advertisements too and that goes for within the LGBTQ community and outside of the LGBTQ community. It's the folks that people think don't deserve a place in the world let alone an advertisement. That's what I think of true representation."