"We need to stay vibrant. It's part of us being alive"
Where are you from initially?
I'm originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but I currently live in New York.
When you were growing up, what did your parents do and how did they influence you?
My parents were actually very into music. In fact that's how they met. Their respective cultures were at odds because they were an interracial couple at a time where that was actually quite difficult. My mom is African American. She was a soul singer, she sang in church. And my dad, who is white, used to play guitar on the church steps. He was like a hippie. So she had more of a conservative upbringing than he did. His family was a little more liberal, but they both had rebel spirits. They used to make music outside of the church when my mom's service would get out, then members of my mom's congregation would like, shoo him away. That story was really inspiring to me from the jump. My parents instilled values within me that I carry today: to seek spiritual truths on my own terms and to live in my truth and authenticity. They pushed me to explore the arts because I expressed to them that that was what I loved. They were very accepting. Gayness is also very inherent in my family. When I was about 7 years old my dad's grandmother came out of the closet and she divorced her husband at 60. She remarried to the woman of her dreams and I was the ring bearer at their wedding. I was indoctrinated into this kind of free spirited upbringing which was pretty rare at the time.
What kind of music was played around your house growing up?
Mariah Carey, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, my dad was a guitarist as I told you, Jethro Tull, Madonna. All of the diva singers who I'm mentioning are from my mom. It was a very eclectic musical atmosphere.
What was the audition process like for America's Next Top Model?
It was like one of those cattle calls where they heard thousands of people. I had to wait in line for 12 hours to be seen for all of 12 minutes. It was at a hotel in New York and I took the bus up there because I was living in Philly. At that time I was auditioning for everything under the sun. I went to theater school before that and they sort of taught us to put ourselves out there constantly and to be numb to the inevitable reductions and failures that you're going to receive along the way. That was me, I was that go-getter. They put us in front of the camera when it was our time to go. We did our runway walk, they took our measurements, and it was cut based on that alone. Then the remaining people for that day were asked to speak on camera about why they were right for America's Next Top Model. A PA was on the other side of the camera asking us questions and stuff like that. It was very rapid fire. And that was that. I wrote it off. As we make our way in the art world, we go to different auditions and we learn to write things off after. You forget about it. Then 3 months went by before I actually got a call. I remember my roommate at the time was sitting with me on the couch and I got the phone call from a producer. It was very cryptic. They told me to set up my phone and film myself because I was about to get very exciting news. Then Tyra Banks calls me. Just cold calls me like straight up. It was crazy! That was the most exciting thing that had happened to me up to that point in my life.
How did Tyra influence you throughout the show and what kind of an impact did she have on you?
Seeing her as an entity when I was on the show was very nerve wracking. I was kind of terrified of her. She was very enigmatic and seeing her in person almost surpassed reality. I had actually been inspired by Tyra long before the experience. I was a little gay boy watching her talk show, and then I was watching America's Next Top model seeing queer icons like Miss Jay Alexander being put on TV. That was inspiring. I remember she brought gay people on her television show and talked to them in a really open and honest way that gave them an ability to really tell their stories. I didn't really know that I was gay at that point. I was like 15 years old. I just remember the way that she talked to queer people put me at ease. There was one interview in particular with Meghan Phelps Roper who is the granddaughter of the infamous pastor Fred Phelps. He used to lead this crusade of extreme homophobic protesters. They used to go to gay funerals and protest outside. They're called The Westboro Baptist Church. It was public knowledge and it made queer people feel very afraid and of course devalued. I remember Tyra having this interview with Meghan, her mother and her sister and she stood up against them in the most fierce and protective way. It was very motherly just watching her through the TV as a young queer boy, just looking for someone to defend that part about me. It just really stuck with me. It was such a short moment in time, but I didn't realize how impactful that was for me until I actually met her in person. I was very afraid of her, but when we continued on our relationship became more natural and now I'd like to call her a friend. Of course we don't talk everyday haha, but she's so amazing. Everything she does to stand for authentic beauty and to promote that is so amazing. Tearing down the beauty standards.
You put out your first single in 2017, and I know you grew up in a musical family. Have you always wanted to pursue music or did you almost want to depart from your family and that's why you pursued modeling?
I think I've just always wanted to do music. I really wanted to be famous, I was that girl. I was like "I wanna see my name in lights" you know the deal. I was seeing a lot of people break through by way of reality television and I knew the show America's Next Top Model of course. I loved it. It's still one of my favorite reality shows of all time. It's really over the top and ridiculous. I knew the formula and I knew how to work it to my advantage. Also I love Tyra. So the fandom that I had built up around Tyra and the show, and my desire for fame, was what made me pursue the show. But I'm a musician at heart and a performer. I guess I'm just a multi medium artist. There really is no limit to my creativity and I'm not gonna box myself up in any way. I know that's so cliche, but it's really true. We're so complex. How are you going to say you'll do one thing and just live by that? It's just unrealistic.
You've been outwardly labeled as a model because of your uprise through the show, but do you wish you were more often labeled as a musician and a songwriter?
That's an interesting question. I think at one point I used to bear some frustration because I wasn't getting recognition for my music in the same way that I was for my modeling, but now I just don't care. I've realized it's all so fluid. It's all me. I genuinely love the career trajectory I've had. My career in modeling has given me the opportunity to find my voice in other important things. I wasn't an activist before America's Next Top Model. Through my experience on the show I was able to find my voice to speak out for LGBT equality and 5 years later I'm doing college talks about the same subject matter. I work with a nonprofit that teaches queer based sex education. It's really turned into something much bigger than my "quest for fame.” Now it's more about finding what I can give and put out into the world and what's actually meaningful and going to inspire people.
That's really admirable because many people get famous and they just enjoy the perks of free items and specialty treatment but they don't do anything with the platform and the power that they have.
I would say one way or another the truth is always gonna find you. It might start that way for a lot of people, and it very well might still be that way for a lot of big artists, but the truth will always find you because we're all really connected here. No matter what you're always gonna be called on to speak truth to power in whatever way, and then it's up to you to decide how you're gonna use that power. The most recent example I saw this with was Taylor Swift. For years we saw this girl who was always so quiet and the world loved her and hung onto every word she had to say. Now, she's speaking out politically. Now she's standing up for what she believes in. It took a few years for her to toughen up and for her to feel brave enough to do that. The truth will set you free and it's important for us to give into that, to lean into that, to listen to our hearts and to listen to the call and then put our passion into action and change the world. That's what I hope for. I think every artist has to figure that out for themselves.
You're an outspoken advocate for the queer community and for queer individuals, but what was your personal coming out story like as you did grow up in a more conservative and religious household?
I came out at 17 and my household was relig-ish because both of my parents went to church but I didn't and they didn't put that on me. I could have come out as soon as I knew that I was gay, but I think it was the rebellious teen in me that made me want to hold on to it because I didn't want my parents to be right. My mom was like... it's okay if you're gay... cause I was such a dead giveaway. I played with barbies, I dressed up as a girl, I played in my mom's heels, I experimented with makeup and all of that. I'm just very flamboyant. I just wanted my parents to be wrong, I think as we all do growing up. When I came out it wasn't really by choice. There was this guy that I was crushing on in high school and he was very out and confident. I think that's why I was crushing on him because he had the nerve that I wanted so badly. I had a dial up internet at that time, these were the dark ages, so I dialed up and I private messaged this boy on AOL to tell him that I was gay and I wanted to hang out with him to talk with him about it. He was so warm and receptive. One day I went over to his house and it was just us alone in his room... and I was trying to explain what I was going through to him. I was trying to learn from him, but he made a pass at me. I guess he got the wrong impression. I told him I wasn't interested in him in that way and that I just admired his confidence and wanted to talk to someone about being gay. The next day in school everybody knew. He had just told the whole damn school because he was embarrassed and he was mad. So I guess that's my coming out story!"
So you've dabbled in drag before in different photoshoots and you've really pushed the boundaries of "gender.” You even have a highlight on your Instagram called drag. I really enjoyed the recent photoshoot you did with Thomas Evans. Was the idea for that photoshoot collaborative and how was that concept created?
It was really Thomas' idea. He's a very seasoned drag photographer. He's been in that industry for years and I think he's shot all the drag race girls and more. So I let him kind of direct and do what he wanted. It was very in my wheelhouse and it supported everything that I want to put out into the world. It deconstructs the expectations around gender or "sexpectations" as I like to call them. I like that mine was kind of a nod to the era of Marie Antoinette because that was a time where very gender roles were all too prevalent. Then we just added elements to make it a tad bit more twisted and dark. I think it was just made to express the inner turmoil that everyone who is sort of at odds with or struggling to come to terms with their own identity. I love drag I mean it's always been a part of my life. I was so excited about turning 21 so I could perform in drag in bars more than I was to be able drink legally. I've admired drag culture for a long time and I think it came through in that photo.
How has the pandemic affected you personally? Were you performing live beforehand and have you been experimenting with virtual shows and photoshoots?
I actually was performing live. I work with an entertainment company called Hank Lane and this time of year is normally very lucrative for me so it's been kind of a bummer and a financial stress to have to miss out on those gigs. My work in the fashion industry obviously requires in person activity. It's been really hard. My boyfriend who I live with is a healthcare professional and he's been so brave about the pandemic. He shows up every day working so hard to make sure that we're all safe and healthy. That's inspiring for me and now I can shift my focus into making sure that he's all right during this time, because it can be very emotionally stressful. I've found creative ways to make money through working at home. Most recently I hosted an online benefit for a Broadway performers show that was featured on Playbill.com. A lot of people showed support. I'm a sex educator, so that's another way I've been making money. I work with a nonprofit called STAR. It's an acronym for “serving teens through arts and resources” and it's been around since the 80s. It used to serve as an education platform during the HIV and AIDS epidemic. They were there in the height of that and they were tirelessly working to teach about the epidemic in schools. Now they've shifted their focus to talk to kids about gender identity, sexuality, safe sex, gay sex, etc. That's a part of sex education that you normally don't hear about, leaving a lot of us in the dark as you can imagine. I'm very passionate about that work and we found a way to do that remotely from home.
How have you seen the pandemic affect people and performers in your inner circle?
The stories range from person to person. It's so different for each and every artist that I talk to. But none of it is easy. We're all doing all that we can to stay afloat. I've been seeing so many creative online initiatives like digital shows and online cabarets, but I'm curious how long funds for those things are going to last. I have a friend who is just so fiercely talented and she works at one of the nightlife bars out here. It's called “The Box,” and she's had to let go of all that because they're not doing anything right now. It’s so crazy.
How do you feel like the high school health system is flawed and what changes would you wish to see?
Oh that's a good question. I just think that it's a very easy fix. I wanna see sex educators import really really basic fundamental values. To listen to your feelings. Honor your feelings and listen to your truth. Don't fear your feelings. Lean into that and find someone who you can talk to about that. We as sex educators are supposed to be those people, and if it's not going to be us we want to encourage them to talk to their adults. That line of communication needs to be open. Otherwise, so many kids are going to be left in the dark about critical information that will change their lives forever. Honor your truest feelings about yourself. I like to encourage kids to listen to your inner dialogue and to really get to know yourself. Everybody goes through puberty and everybody goes through like their spring awakening of sexual discovery. And everybody, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, has to come to terms with their own identity. The open and honest conversation that needs to happen with ourselves is something that we don't all have, and that's scary."
Why do you think it's so pivotal and so important for us to support drag artists and performers right now?
It's absolutely important for us to support underground artists right now. They are so much of our culture. They are truth tellers. They are the people who let us feel deeply and let us explore the deep parts of our mind. The deepest facets of our being. Those stories need to be told. We need to stay vibrant. It's a part of us staying alive. Every cog in the wheel is so important. I just feel that if it was only essential workers in a regular world where the pandemic didn't exist life would actually be quite dull. We need those people who are going to heal us emotionally and mentally when we need to unplug from all the stress of the world. We need to laugh together. We need to dance together. We need to cry together. That's a part of the human experience that is so valuable and life is nothing without it. I think that's why this has been especially hard.