Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: provided
When Isis King became the first contestant who was out as trans on America's Next Top Model back in 2008, little did she know the seismic changes in trans representation that would follow.
From Legendary to Pose to Laverne Cox's breakout role on Orange Is the New Black (and subsequent TIME cover), not to mention Sam Feder's hit documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen - TV and film have righted some historic wrongs.
It's fitting, then, that model and actress Isis has come up with a fantastic idea - 13 years after her TV debut - that could take trans storytelling to the next level: cinematic retellings of trans pioneer Lucy Hicks Anderson, and also the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. (A documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, was released in 2005).
"Most people haven’t heard about it, so that would be awesome - so long as I’m a part of it!" opines the star. The pre-Stonewall trans uprising of 1966 in San Francisco is also the subject of her episode in 2020 HBO show Equal, a four-part docuseries celebrating LGBTQ+ activists.
“I’m a composite of different trans people from [a specific era]” she explains. “There are people you never hear about, and this series shows those unsung heroes. I liked that I was part of a project that educates you and gets you thinking.
"Also, so many people of the next generation will have it easier, so it’s cool to look back at where we came from to appreciate what we have now.”
Isis’s screen credits also include modeling show Strut, executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg (“always so sweet and kind, and gave the best hugs!”) and a breakthrough acting turn on Netflix’s 2019 drama When They See Us, “a groundbreaking miniseries about the Central Park five, now known as the exonerated five."
“It was life-changing,” she says of the show. “It includes the story of Korey [Wise], one of the five, and his older sister who is trans [who Isis plays]. It documented her pre-transition - it was awesome that I got to show some range.
“To see this story of this Black trans woman, ostracised in a way for wanting to be who she is, going out into the world, and her brother who loves her dearly – [...] it showed the effects of not fully supporting your trans child or sibling. Especially in a world where black trans women have the highest murder rate in America.”
Coronavirus naturally upended some professional plans. “At the beginning of last year I had so many general meetings with networks,” the 35-year-old explains.
“I was looking forward to pilot season. I was finally on so many people’s radars after such a long acting career that most people don’t know about. Then COVID happened. But I look at the blessings - two guest spots, two commercials, social media campaigns – I’ve made the most of it. And as far as being in the house, I’m already introverted. I’m pretty much in my room or making food!”
The last year has given us all time to reflect - and in the case of America's Next Top Model and host Tyra Banks, re-evaluate. Both have faced retrospective accusations of problematic output.
"I've talked a lot about this - who'd have guessed it would be one of the most-watched shows through the pandemic!" says Isis.
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"People drag Tyra for it and the show, but I can't speak for anything but my cycle,” she adds.
“The reality is, nobody ever asks me, they just give their opinion. What I would say is I received pretty much the first wave of cyberbullying when I came off the show. Hate, death threats, horrible comments.
"Now people say 'that was horrible, they shouldn't have allowed that!' I'm thinking: 'That's nice you feel like that, but guess what? In that era, that doesn't seem that long ago, that was a reflection of the time. It's how people felt'.
"That hurt me more than anybody, but you can't be mad at [Tyra] for putting something out or for how the girls were acting. And honestly, people still act like that. It makes people uncomfortable that it was filmed. But you can't be mad at them [show creators] for how these girls acted, because that was how they were raised."
If 2020 was a time for looking back, 2021 is for looking forward – especially after the inauguration of US President and Democrat Joe Biden. “I hope Biden and [VP] Kamala Harris continue to bring back all the things Trump tried to take away from LGBT people and expand on it,” says Isis. “I have faith in them.”
Isis then reveals she’s actually met the pair. “The end of 2019, GLAAD asked me to be social media correspondent for the Iowa LGBTQ Presidential Forum," she explains.
"Politics always freaked me out, so to be there and learn was awesome. I was most excited about meeting Kamala. People say, ‘what about her track record with trans women, and putting trans women in prison‘ – I remember Angelica Ross asking her about that and I do believe she sees the error in it, and she’s grown. All we can do is grow.”
Reflecting on her life and career, Isis has a realisation. Without a hint of ego, she says: “Tyra gave me my start. Gabrielle Union got me to be a part of her campaign with New York & Company. Whoopi, Ava (DuVernay, creator of When They See Us], Oprah was an EP… When I think about it, all these powerful Black women that I grew up watching, most of them I have rubbed shoulders with at this point.”
But her biggest ‘wow’ moment? Meeting Rihanna after modelling for her 2019 Savage x Fenty show. “I got off the runway and she was like ‘Isis, you killed it!’ Literally the only person left is Beyoncé!”