A Trans Model Fleeing the ‘Trap of Respectability’
Geena Rocero can stop traffic. This is more than a metaphor.
On a recent Saturday in Manhattan, she confidently stomped into West 34th Street, giving a shrug and a wave to a braking car before getting into a Lyft.
“I’ve counted: I can stop three lanes,” she said. “Not four.”
Ms. Rocero, 39, has honed the skill of attracting and deflecting attention throughout her extraordinary career, recounted in her new memoir, “Horse Barbie,” out on Tuesday. The book boasts blurbs from Gabrielle Union-Wade, Ronan Farrow, America Ferrera and Jia Tolentino.
In the late 1990s, beginning at 15, Ms. Rocero was a beauty queen working the transgender pageant circuit in the Philippines, where shows are broadcast on national television. Her victories earned her both money and fame. She said her signature wig style — a side bang and a flipped end — became a trend unto itself among fellow beauty contestants.
At 17, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked at the Benefit Cosmetics makeup counter at Macy’s. “Almost every single counter has a trans Filipino working there,” Ms. Rocero said. “That’s where I found my trans Filipino family.”
It’s also where she met a model who brought her along for a gig at an Armani store. The experience provided Ms. Rocero’s entree into the industry. Modeling eventually brought her to New York, where she booked commercial jobs and lingerie shoots, appeared in a John Legend music video and became a habitué of the early-2000s, bottles-and-models scene at clubs like Marquee, BED and Cain.
In the Philippines, Ms. Rocero lived openly as a transgender woman with the support of both her relatives and chosen family, but she could not legally change her sex marker. In the United States, on the other hand, she was legally recognized as a woman on her documents, but she worked “stealth” in the fashion industry, passing as a cisgender woman while living in constant fear that her trans identity would tank her career.
She went to great lengths to work undetected in the modeling industry. On sets, she sometimes feigned a neck injury to avoid exposing her Adam’s apple. Surgical scars were explained away as botched bikini waxes. She carried tampons in her bag.
After eight years of modeling, the hiding had taken a toll on her emotional and physical health, she said. She was tired and anxious, and had developed a bad case of eczema.
After the financial crash of 2008, Ms. Rocero explored careers in other fields — magazine publishing, sustainable garbage bags, hydroponic gardening. Nothing quite stuck.
“She was always ambitious and always willing to hustle,” said Ilka Robertson, 46, who has been a close friend of Ms. Rocero’s since 2009. “But I do think she lacked that focus and lacked that calling.”
While celebrating her 30th birthday in Tulum, Mexico, she told her boyfriend that she was ready to come out publicly. At that very moment, hundreds of newborn turtles suddenly appeared on the beach. She took it as a sign.
“I was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it in the biggest possible way,’” she said. “‘I’m going to do it as a TED Talk.’”
She delivered her speech, “Why I Must Come Out,” on March 19, 2014. The first TED Talk that focused on transgender issues, it has been watched over 3.6 million times.
Her TED appearance started Ms. Rocero’s career as a public speaker. Beautiful and eloquent, she became a sought-after guest at high-profile gatherings like the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and the Milken Institute Global Conference.
In the back seat of a car en route to the West Village, she reflected on her shift from model to advocate. “I was in a trap being stealth,” she said. “And then I felt like I entered a new trap, which is respectability politics.”
Ms. Rocero said she never felt fully comfortable in the role of trans role model. At first she was excited to assume what she called an Angelina Jolie persona — a beautiful, world-trotting champion of social issues. But then she realized maybe she would rather be a Tyra Banks.
For her, that meant starting a production company and trying her hand at directing. It also meant posing for Playboy in 2019, only the second openly trans Playmate.
“Ines was the first one,” Ms. Rocero said, referring to the French model Ines Rau. “I’m the first trans Asian Pacific Islander and the first trans Playmate of the Year.” She proudly added that she had brought a Playboy reporter along to a speaking engagement at the United Nations.
In the West Village, Ms. Rocero once again jaywalked while approaching Rosecrans, a combination florist and coffee shop. When I caught up to her, I said that while she could stop traffic, I certainly could not. “Sure you can,” she said with a hair toss. “You just have to believe it.”
She sniffed flowers and sang along to “Weak” by SWV before tucking into a carrot cake muffin and soy latte. She was enjoying a few days in New York before heading to Miami for Summit at Sea, a symposium aboard a Virgin cruise ship, whose mix of lectures and parties has earned it the nickname “Learning Man.”
Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder, whom Ms. Rocero counts as a friend, was aboard for the summit. In an email, Mr. Branson praised Ms. Rocero, writing, “In addition to what she’s brought to these important conversations, she was always the first to get everyone up and dancing during our gatherings!”
Was Ms. Rocero worried about getting seasick while aboard the cruise ship? “No, I’m Moana, darling,” she said with a laugh.
The topic of “Moana” sent her down a conversational rabbit hole about precolonial languages, early Pacific trade routes that influenced the Indigenous population of Madagascar and the preponderance of gender-fluid identities among Polynesian cultures.
“I’m a closet anthropologist,” Ms. Rocero said. “There was a moment when my IG handle was called ‘NatGeena.’”
Looking at her phone, Ms. Rocero realized she was running late for a scheduled appearance at the PEN America World Voices Festival. Walking briskly toward Washington Square Park, she tried jaywalking once more, this time stopping short as a car took the right of way.
“It doesn’t always work,” she said with a giggle. She arrived at the festival just moments before the event started.
Speaking on a panel titled “Politicized: Writing Trans Narratives Today,” she described the two-year process of writing “Horse Barbie,” citing Anthony Bourdain and Cathy Park Hong as literary inspirations.
According to Ms. Rocero, the title of her memoir is a reclamation of an insult hurled at her during her pageant days. Other girls called her “Horse” because of her dark skin, protruding upper lip and long neck. Ms. Rocero’s mentor and, as she put it, “trans mother,” Tigerlily Garcia Temporosa, lovingly modified the epithet to “Horse Barbie.”
Ms. Garcia Temporosa, 46, who works as a stage manager for a live variety show in the Philippines, remains close with Ms. Rocero. The font used for the cover and chapter headings of “Horse Barbie” was created from Ms. Garcia Temporosa’s handwriting.
For years, Ms. Garcia Temporosa had to hide Ms. Rocero’s modeling success from her friends in the Philippines for fear of someone leaking her trans identity. “When she sent a magazine from the U.S., I hide it in my closet,” Ms. Garcia Temporosa said during a recent video call.
Now, Ms. Garcia Temporosa has pulled the magazines from their hiding place.
Ms. Rocero is also no longer hiding. Her memoir does not shy away from topics like colorism, gender disclosure, sex work and the nuts and bolts of medical transition.
During the panel at the literary festival, Ms. Rocero recounted an explicit passage in the book in which she demonstrates the mechanics of post-surgery orgasm for a fellow trans woman.
“It’s pleasure that I wanted to share between trans sisters,” she said. “It’s something that we were not allowed to access for so long and to be able to share that and to speak about it. …” Ms. Rocero choked up as she trailed off. She took a breath.
“I’m crying out of happiness,” she said. “These are happy tears.”
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