"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?