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With one coltish leg crossed over the other, Lolita is an Apple Model Management rookie, when she poses for the camera, her pointy cheekbones glide across her heart-shaped face. Lolita was born male and is one of 50 trans models that Apple Model Management has on its books since the world’s first transgender division opened in 2014.

Lolita’s flippant smile belies the decades of turmoil that accompanied the growing realization that she was transgender. Dressed in skinny jeans and a tank top, the 24-year-old explains bouts of rage as a child, frustrated by her inability to express why she felt different. Her introverted and academic childhood evolved into a troubled adolescence when her father, determined to “fix” his child’s visible signs of femininity, enrolled her in military school. Years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her classmates followed. “It was a very difficult time,” she recalls.

“We were the first agency in Thailand to offer models, catwalk models, blondes, blue eyes, black girls, everything Thailand didn’t have,” says Noam Lev, one of the founders. from Apple. Lev is an Israeli national but has made Thailand his home for the past two decades. In 2007, Lev and his former lover-turned-business partner Siwaporn “Apple” Hotarapawanond, worked with a transgender model in a television commercial for Sappé, a local drink. “It was such a good job…we continued to work with [transgender models]”, Noam said with a shrug.

In 2014, Lev and Hotarapawanond made another bold move: they added a permanent transgender division to their roster. At first glance, the decision appeared to be driven by strong business acumen. After all, 2015 was the year of Caitlyn Jenner’s triumphant transition from former Olympian and reality TV star Bruce to the vixen gracing the cover of Vanity Fair in a corset. Meanwhile, actress Laverne Cox of Orange is the new black fame was reaching milestones as the first transgender woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Introducing a transgender division seemed like a shrewd way to capitalize on a wave of public interest, especially when news broke that Apple Model Management was expanding to open a second US outpost.

It was a bold move – and yet, “from a business perspective [was] It’s not a good decision,” admits Lev. Despite the media’s timely love affair with transgender celebrities, Lev and Hotarapawanond knew they would encounter resistance from their conservative clients every step of the way. “No matter how beautiful she is, they’ll say no,” Hotarapawanond says. “When we started, we knew we weren’t going to make any money, at least not for a very long time.”

Walk down any street in Bangkok and you’ll likely see a member of the city’s gendered community. But despite its high number of transgender citizens per capita — not to mention Miss Tiffany’s annual transgender beauty pageant — the country has a divisive attitude.

In early 2015, Thailand drew international attention for its decision to include a “third gender” in its constitution, intended to protect the rights of those whose identity does not match the body they were born into. Months later, the country made headlines again when Bangkok University released new uniform guidelines that gave transgender students the freedom to dress in clothing that reflected their chosen gender.

But despite these gestures of progress, everyday life can be filled with entrenched discrimination; many transgender people are excluded from white-collar professions and shunned by family members. And, for the women represented by Apple Model Management, the reluctance of Thai clients to cast them in lucrative commercial shoots means most are confined to magazines and fashion shows that often don’t pay at all.

It’s “the land of contradictions,” Lev says, with the tired look of a man who’s spent years battling a culture that will always feel foreign. “One thing about Thailand is that they accept everything. They accept everyone and don’t accept them at the same time.”

Undeterred, Lev and Hotarapawanond began researching potential role models a year before opening the new division. The same criteria were applied to all the other girls in their books. “They have to look like models, we’re a model agency,” Lev says abruptly. They announced the launch with a photo shoot in a local magazine that featured their new talent group and acknowledged that they were transgender.

Now standing at 5’8″, Lolita has ignored her shyness and looks to model, wild child and industry darling Cara Delevingne for career inspiration. “She’s like my character – a crazy girl , natural and naughty,” Lolita laughs. She hopes exploiting her long limbs for the fashion industry will encourage others in the same situation to persevere. Certainly, her own resilience has paid off. many years of painful denial, her father finally welcomed her as his daughter, who now lives with him in the family home, when her first magazine shoot came out, he proudly showed it off to friends.

Can the fashion industry display the same desire for change? Robbie Sinclair, womenswear editor at WGSN, thinks so. He considers the high-profile career of Andrej Pejic, the Serbian-Australian supermodel whose androgynous look quickly propelled her onto the catwalks of Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, as proof that the industry is beginning to celebrate the gender diversity. Since Pejic came out as a transgender woman in 2014, undergoing gender confirmation surgery, her career has shown no signs of slowing down: she recently landed a commercial deal with the cosmetics brand Make Up For Ever which takes her out of the golden world of haute couture. in the mainstream.

Sinclair hopes this gradual inclusion of transgender faces will encourage mainstream brands to accept a wider range of models for their campaigns. “A new breed of consumer is emerging with a more tolerant, exploratory and individual view of what the ‘norm’ is,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time in fashion that will hopefully reverberate and have a huge effect on society and people’s views on gender.”

Change is certainly on the horizon for Apple Model Management. After signing a deal with Departure Films, a New York-based production company, a reality show about the agency, focusing on its transgender division, is in the works. And, since news of their US office broke, the founders have been thrilled to see a wave of agencies with a similar agenda suddenly follow suit. Could their small business be the tipping point for transgender role models around the world?

“As far as the trans community is concerned, it’s very interesting,” Lev says, his shod feet barely visible under his desk. “If it’s just Apple, it’s us who have to fight, keep fighting, keep pushing, keep investing. With other people opening up, that’s a lot of help. ” He pauses to think, then continues with a smile. “We welcome competition.”