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From ‘Top Model’ To ‘When They See Us’: Isis King Talks Acceptance Of Trans Community In Hollywood

In one of the first episodes of the eleventh cycle of America’s Next Top Model, the supermodel hopefuls were all buzzing and talking about one particular contestant by the name of Isis King. In one particular moment, amidst all the curiosity, when they were gossiping with shifty eyes, one girl called over the woman in question and asked her, “Are you all…female?” With nothing to hide, she answered, “Physically was I born female? No.” This apparently triggered a mix of reactions from the girls. One of them seemed offended and said, “Ain’t this supposed to be a girl competition — how did you get through the door?” Meanwhile, another contestant commended Isis for standing in her truth. But the support was nearly eclipsed by the shock that came off as playground mockery from the other girls with one contestant named Clark saying, “If I have to get along with Isis I will, but if it becomes me and my goal, I’ll stomp that man right out of the competition.” Sure, Isis was eliminated right before Clark kicked rocks, but Isis, a woman, is now featured in the Emmy-nominated When They See Us and has become a modern trailblazer for the trans community.

King’s appearance on America’s Next Top Model in 2008 was a watershed moment for the LGTBQ community. She, along with Laverne Cox, was one of the first openly trans women to be on TV during the time and it was the start of a subtle movement when it came to representation  — specifically for the trans community. Even so, King didn’t realize the impact she was having by just living her life publicly and authentically on TV. It wasn’t until after her stint on America’s Next Top Model, that she realized she was serving as an inspiration to so many people.

“Someone told me one time they came all the way from Asia and moved to the United States to pursue a career in modeling and transition because of me,” King told Deadline. “It was the first time I realized this was bigger than me.

She continued, “It was December of 2008 and somebody reached out to me on Myspace. It was a young gay guy, and he told me that he was going to commit suicide. He said seeing my story helped him realize there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I remember when I saw it, just got chills and I cried.”

King’s road to America’s Next Top Model (she was also on an all-stars season) and eventually Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us was a journey that she persevered. After being homeless and transitioning, she was told that the only work she would be able to do as a Black trans woman was escort. “Someone literally told me after I transitioned that all I would be able to do was be a streetwalker,” she said.

It took a while for King to fully pursue her career as a model and actress. Despite her drive, those naysaying words aimed at trans people of color made her think that she would never become a fashion designer or actress. It wasn’t until a trans woman by the name of Connie Sophia, a manager of Bumble and Bumble salons, pointed her towards America’s Next Top Model. A fire lit under King after she appeared on the show. She said that America’s Next Top Model “unlocked all the possibilities” for her. She went to star in off-Broadway plays and then went on to the Philippines to shoot the indie feature Hello Forever. The ball started rolling for King and after she returned stateside from the Philippines she was hungry for more — but Hollywood wasn’t feeding her.

“Auditions weren’t really happening,” admitted King. “Usually one or two came once in a while — but a lot of the times they told me ‘You’re too petite, you’re too small’.” This may sound like a compliment, but back then it was coded language meaning she was “too passable.” King points out, “Now they just say ‘you’re too pretty’.”

King has felt that she has done well with fashion design, modeling, but when it came to acting she was determined. “I feel like acting is the only thing that really constantly pushes you,” she said.

Things started to pick up for King. She landed a recurring role on The Bold and Beautiful and was featured in Whoopi Goldberg’s Strut, a docuseries on Oxygen that followed transgender models in the fashion industry. She also appeared in the Showtime series Shameless. Having been typecast in “pretty model-type” roles, King was yearning for a role that she could sink her teeth into. She told her manager that she wanted opportunities that would allow her to play characters and challenge her as an actress. That’s when the role of Marci Wise in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us came along.

Wise’s place in the story of the Central Park Five — now called the Exonerated Five — is an often overlooked narrative that was brought to life by King in the Netflix limited series. Marci Wise was the Korey Wise’s transgender sister who was murdered while he was imprisoned. In the series, she only appears in one episode but is fully fleshed out as a three-dimensional character that is not only a mentor to Korey but a touchstone that illustrates the loving nature of his character and reflects the sad, all-too-familiar story about violence against trans women of color.

In the series, Marci is shown before and after her transition and King wanted to remain authentic — even in her audition. During the audition process for DuVernay and her team, she wanted to make sure she would give it her all. She donned different wigs on top of cornrows and outfits to portray the character as both a female and a male — as she is in the series. She even did a chemistry read with Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey. She said they clicked and he really felt like a little brother to her. King’s commitment and dedication paid off because she booked the part and before she knew it she was back to New York to shoot.

The character of Marci was familiar to King. She is the older sibling of two brothers and she immediately connected with how she was a mentor to Korey and how her role in the Central Park Five narrative is important. King said that Marci reminded Korey about things in life that were important and those who will always be there for him. She points out that Black characters, and Black trans characters for that matter, are portrayed in a certain light — they are often vilified. Marci changed all that in a story that was so heavy and tragic.

“We’re never the heroes,” said King. So to see that Korey had a moment where his older black, trans sister was just there to help him, and there to love him, and there to just tell him to hold on. I just think it’s awesome.”

King didn’t have the opportunity to meet with Korey before filming, but she knew Marci’s story too well. In one pivotal, emotionally charged scene with King, Jerome and Niecy Nash (who plays her mother), she is kicked out of the house and it is one of the last time Korey sees his big sister. She wasn’t kicked out of her home, but she did move to New York to transition and lived in a homeless shelter. She said that Marci’s story is “really common” and that she pulled from her own experiences in New York as a trans woman to fuel her performance.

When she met Korey for the first time at the When They See Us wrap party, and when she was introduced to him as the woman who would be playing Marci, all he could say was “Wow.” Their paths crossed again at the Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now special. At this point, they all have seen King’s performance and on their second meeting, he gave her a kiss on the cheek and called her performance “beautiful”.

“He just looked really thankful,” she remembered. “He didn’t even have to say much but I felt so good.”

With her moving performance in When They See Us, King is determined to continue this streak of performances, but she wants to show her range. As a huge fan of sci-fi, comic book films and action pics, is dying to do a film in the vein of Charlie’s Angels or X-men. She wants to do a physically demanding film where she might have to do don prosthetics or be unbelievably sore after a tough day of training. She admits that she would love to play Poison Ivy from the Batman universe or test her skills in martial arts as Kitana from Mortal Combat.

She may want to kick some ass as an action hero, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t want to show her lighter side. “Give me a nice Maid in Manhattan-type of J. Lo rom-com!” she laughs. She references Cameron Diaz as one of her favorite types of actresses. “I used to model myself after her,” she said. “She always was positive and looked like she was having fun — people like her have been my inspiration because I didn’t see anyone that was like me.” King said that people like Diaz and Octavia St. Laurent in Paris is Burning were people who were who they wanted to be and held their head high — and that motivates her.

From America’s Next Top Model to When They See Us, King’s journey has seen a lot of changes…and the culture and industry, slowly yet surely, has changed with her. With actresses like her, Laverne Cox and a show like Pose (King actually auditioned for the role of Elektra), King points out that trans women of color are more visible and there is positive imagery on TV, but the struggles haven’t changed as much as when she started.

“I still don’t really see that much change in the Black trans community,” she said. “It’s hard to really gauge how much it’s changed because I still hear stories of trans women being murdered. That could also be because, for the most part, we are being identified as trans women.”

She adds, “We’re still not being considered equals. To be a trans woman and a trans woman of color — it’s like the bottom of the bottom. Look at what’s happening with our president and how black people are being treated, and the police. It’s like a no-win for us. It’s just tough. I do see more strides but we need more support for trans women — but especially trans women of color.”

Still, King retains hope because compared to 10 years ago, things are better. Trans people are making strides because there are more opportunities — something that wasn’t given before.

“I always say that the road for me has been the one less traveled, and it’s going to take me longer but I’m thankful for every single moment,” she said. “I think that everything I accomplish, each time I feel like there’s more out there. I feel like there’s more I’m supposed to do and I haven’t gotten there yet. There’s just so much more I want. I have to just be more confident. I just want to continue to bring positivity into my environment and say, ‘This is where I belong.’”

 

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