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Peche Di, a Thai beauty queen who studied at New York University, spent five years booking occasional modeling gigs and looking for an agency to represent her. “They didn’t understand me,” she says, “so I had a hard time finding work.”

Finally, last May, she decided to do something about the lack of opportunities for her and other transgender models. The 26-year-old walked into the downtown county clerk’s office and filed the paperwork for Trans Models, establishing New York’s first transgender modeling agency and one of only three in the country, and maybe in the world.

Now, four months later, her agency has signed 19 models – 10 men and nine women – and has done shoots for Budweiser and Smirnoff. Consultations are underway with a network executive about a possible reality TV series.

Di, who grew up in Bangkok and whose first name is Pitchadapha Phasi, is starting an agency at a time when the media is changing many Americans’ understanding of gender identity. The rising prominence of former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, television actress Laverne Cox, model Andreja Pejić, and dozens of other transgender people has made the transgender community much more visible.

Although transgender people in Thailand do not enjoy equal status by any means, Di did not experience the level of discrimination growing up that many Western transgender people describe. It’s hard to say exactly how many people born biologically male in Thailand end up living as women – estimates range from 1 in 180 to 1 in 3,000 – but it’s generally accepted that the country has an unusually high number. . (The data is stronger but still fragile in the United States, where an estimated 700,000 people are transgender, or 1 in 450 citizens.) Different cultural norms, inexpensive hormone therapies, and an abundance of inexpensive cosmetic surgery facilitate the physical transition in Thailand than in Thailand. other countries. Di has his own theory: “Thailand is a Buddhist country. With meditation, we connect with who we are and realize our gender faster than others,” she explains.

Peche Di at military school in Thailand at age 15 (Peche Di)

Still, growing up wasn’t easy. Di went to an all-boys school from grades 1 to 12 and attended a part-time military school from age 15. “I was bullied by all the boys at school because I’m different,” she recalled. “But I was very athletic, especially Muay Thai and tae kwon do. So I let them know that you can’t hurt me, because I’m going to hurt you too.

At 16, she began taking estrogen, which is available without a prescription in Thailand, and sneaking out of her parents’ house, secretly dressing in long wigs and short skirts and hanging out with a group of girls. other trans girls. Eventually his parents found out. They supported her but didn’t really discuss it with her.

As her body changed, her confidence grew. She grew her hair out after high school, found work as a cabaret dancer, and participated in several popular transgender pageants in Thailand. “I did the pageants to prove to myself and others around me that I’m beautiful,” says Di. “Sometimes I won and sometimes I didn’t, but they helped me to be disciplined and to know myself.”

These pageant victories fueled her desire for success, and she soon set her sights on New York City and dreamed of competing on America’s Next Top Model. In 2010, at age 21, she arrived in the United States on a student visa to study English and film at NYU. A month later, she won Miss Asia NYC, an annual beauty pageant in midtown Manhattan for transgender Asian women, which she entered while still in Thailand.

Through this competition, she met Dorothy Palmer, an illustrator, interior designer and jewelry designer who was looking for an “exotic” model to be the face of her new jewelry line. “I didn’t want the typical blond, blue-eyed Ralph Lauren guy,” Palmer explains. “So I found Peche, went out to dinner with her and thought she was amazing, just perfect.” Palmer quickly became a mentor to Di. She now helps run the agency and provides the spacious, high-ceilinged loft in Greenwich Village where Trans Models is headquartered.

Only two other transgender modeling agencies currently operate in the United States: Transcendence Icon in Boise, Idaho, and the fledgling Los Angeles branch of Thai company Apple Model Management. Traditional agencies are also increasingly representing transgender models, but these opportunities remain rare. “It’s very limited,” says Vikki Le, a 26-year-old New Yorker from Vietnam who signed with Trans Models in July. “It’s like the 80s when they had a black model on every runway and that was it.”

Even with models such as Hari Nef, Valentijn de Hingh and Lea T at the forefront of major fashion and beauty campaigns, Le says it will take more to change industry and societal perceptions. : “Seeing more trans people in print and in the media makes it a little bit easier because now people know what it is. But have mentalities changed? I don’t think “Not as much. It will take a lot more.”

Rhyan Hamilton, a 22-year-old transplant from Monterey, Calif., also signed with Trans Models this summer. A male contestant on America’s Next Top Model in 2013, Hamilton was uncomfortable with the pressure to act hyper-masculine and quit the show after the first episode. She began her transition soon after. “I never thought I would do modeling again,” she says. “Then Trans Models reached out to me, and now I have this second wave of modeling, but this time as an authentic me as a trans woman.”

Laith-Ashley de la Cruz, a muscular 25-year-old with a designer beard and emerald green eyes, isn’t sure how many modeling gigs await him, but he sees Trans Models as a humanizing opportunity. “I want to show the world that there’s no one way to be trans, just like there’s no one way to be anything,” he says.

What is the real demand for transgender models? “The pie chart is not that big for [transgender models], but I feel like it’s about to get bigger,” says Christian Alexander, director of Front Management, a boutique fashion agency in Miami that once represented a transgender model. “I think any company looking to expand their customer base while making a bold statement would be right.”

“It’s never easy, in my experience, to bring a transgender [model] work,” says Harold Mindel, the former manager of Click Models in Manhattan. Mindel has portrayed transgender models for most of her three-decade career. In 1991, he signed Caroline Cossey, who became the first transgender model to appear nude in Playboy, and Click Models also represented famous trans model Teri Toye. “We are in a time”, continues Mindel, “where the acceptance of [transgender people] has reached the public more than ever, and what is really important is the diversity in the world of fashion and on the catwalks.

This lack of diversity, in fact, led Bethann Hardison, a former modeling agent, along with models Naomi Campbell and Iman, to form the Diversity Coalition, an organization aimed at bringing attention to designers who regularly use only one or no color model. . Gender, in addition to race, has become part of this conversation, and design houses such as IMG, H&M and Givenchy have responded by featuring transgender models and diversifying their casting calls. Peche Di, in fact, was one of 17 transgender models featured last year in a Barneys spring campaign photographed by Bruce Weber – one of his few local hits before founding Trans Models.

But it remains to be seen whether the opportunities for transgender models are abundant enough to support businesses like hers. “It’s easy to get templates and build a list, but it’s not as easy to get them to work,” says Mindel.

Peche Di, meanwhile, doesn’t dwell on what could go wrong. She’s been busy planning an all-trans fashion show for New York Fashion Week in February 2016. She’s also laying the groundwork for a conglomerate called Trans Media which she hopes will encompass Trans Models, a television network and many more to come. to be created subsidiaries. There’s also an official Trans Models launch party to plan, scheduled for next month.

“Every day I get emails and phone calls from transgender people around the world who want me to represent them,” she says. “But for now, I want to focus on local models. These are the most interesting.