This Trans Model Is Working to Make Fashion More Inclusive
It’s been over a year since Mimi Tao made Project Runway history as the show’s first transgender model. Since then, she has become well-known in her industry, following in the footsteps of trans models before her, and campaigning for social justice causes on top of her success. CircleAround took a deeper look at how Tao is paving the way for a new generation of models, and how she is helping to create more visibility for trans folks in the fashion industry.
Tao was born in Thailand and went to school at a Buddhist temple, where she was eventually ordained as a monk. Even at a young age, she knew she was trans. According to the Bangkok Post, she would put on makeup and host “fashion shows” with an intimate group of friends in the temple. Her family did not approve, and she left home at 17 to pursue her career in modeling. She was able to navigate the modeling scene in Asia for several years, but she made her official U.S. debut in 2018 during New York Fashion week, booking 24 runway shows that season.
Her demand was large enough to land her a spot on Project Runway, breaking ground as the show’s first-ever model who is transgender. It can’t be ignored, however, that it took the show 17 seasons before casting a person who is transgender. While it was a step toward a more progressive, inclusive world for models (the show also cast its first-ever nonbinary model, DD Smith, in season 18), the truth is that transgender models have been around for a very long time. It’s only recently, however, that they’ve become publicly celebrated members of the fashion industry.
Roots can be traced back as early as the mid-1930s, when April Ashley — one of the first British citizens to undergo gender confirmation surgery — went on to have a successful modeling career until she was outed in the 1960s. Sadly, this was, and still is, the case for many trans models. According to a BBC News article, transgender models kept their true selves a secret, and most never got the chance to come out on their own terms. Many of their fans didn’t realize their favorite models were trans until a news program or publication outed them.
While much has evolved in the fashion industry since, Tao still struggles with intolerance despite her acclaim. In an interview for Fox News, she explained that she didn’t have issues getting bookings because she presented female to many casting agents. However, more than once a booking was canceled after the job “found out” about her. This same struggle was highlighted in the popular Netflix series Pose in season 2, for the character Angel, and the person who plays her in real life, Indya Moore.
Tao also speaks publicly about sexual harassment and abuse in the fashion industry, which continues to be a critical issue despite more voices calling for action. “Some people think that the fashion world is really beautiful,” she said, in an interview for The Lily. “But everything has two sides. Sexual harassment and abuse are very common in the fashion industry. This problem applies not only to transgender models, but all models — male or female.”
Tao has used her platform to raise awareness for transgender and other humanitarian causes. She is a brand ambassador for #TogetherBand, an organization that creates colorful bracelets that coincide with the 17 Global Goals (SDGs) and was part of Christian Siriano’s PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE clothing campaign. She was the 2020 recipient of the Unstoppable Luminary Artist award, hosted by Fashion for a Cause, which helps support at-risk youth through self-esteem and empowerment programs.
She's gained a swift fandom since making U.S. headlines, inspiring multiple groups of people, including former Project Runway participants, emerging designers, and others within the fashion industry. Many have found strength and positivity from her story and career.
Currently residing in New York City, Tao is navigating a world where runways are virtual, and many photoshoots are on hold. She is keeping things cheery on her Instagram account though. “Be proud of yourself darlings,” she captioned an image of the transgender flag. “It's the most powerful energy inside you.”