One "ANTM" Star’s Journey From the Shelter to the Runway
Transgender designer and model Isis King was living in New York City's Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth when she first heard about a photo shoot being held for the 10th cycle of the popular reality TV show "America's Next Top Mode"l that would use real homeless youth. Producer Tyra Banks was impressed by King's work and asked her to audition to be a contestant for the show's 11th season.
King was accepted, became the first transgender contestant and came in 10th place. Post-ANTM, King became a role model to trans youth when she appeared in the 2007 MSNBC documentary Born in the Wrong Body. And in 2009, after appearing on "The Tyra Banks Show", she received an all-expenses-paid gender-reassignment surgery courtesy of Dr. Marci Bowers.
King returned to ANTM: All-Stars in 2011, and in 2012 became the first-ever transgender American Apparel model. While none of the gigs have made her "supermodel rich," they have made her a household name -- and an inspiration to LGBTQ youth across the country.
EDGE spoke with King about her humble beginnings, career heights and the TV show that made it all happen.
EDGE: When did you realize that you were "born in the wrong body," and how did your family and friends respond?
KING: I realized very early, and my family is now very supportive of me through all of my decisions I've made. Whether it took them a while to come around to or not, they are supportive now and happy with my journey to womanhood.
EDGE: Can you talk about your time living at the Ali Forney Center and how they helped you?
KING: I stayed in the Ali Forney Center for a year, but when I went into [the shelter], I already had a vision of what I wanted out of the experience, and I think that's very important for kids who are homeless. I went to work and used every aspect of help they offered. They gave me safe haven, a very clean home -- we had chores, so you have to keep it clean -- but they also helped give me a foundation to feel comfortable, and I was able to get on my feet from there.
They also gave me structure, which a lot of kids coming from broken homes or who have been kicked out of their homes might not have. They gave me the structure I needed to be able to save money, so when I left the program, I wouldn't be back in the same situation.
I left because I went to do "Top Model," and I didn't know how my life would be different after the show started airing. I wanted things to be a little bit more private, so I went back home. I wish I would have stayed at the Ali Forney Center for another year; and if I could have balanced that, I would have.
EDGE: When you landed on "America's Next Top Model," where did you initially think it would take you?
KING: Honestly I didn't know. I thought it would bring in a lot of good-paying gigs, so I could take care of my mom and just be way better off. It made me a household name, but it didn't necessarily bring in any money. That made it especially tough because I came from family that didn't have money, so I was sad that I couldn't help my mom out. I put a lot of energy into that, and it was not what I expected financially. But it was definitely a great experience and helped a lot of other people with their own truth and journey, which was a fulfilling thing that I never expected.
EDGE: What was your top achievement on the show?
KING: I think my top achievement was saying to myself, "This opportunity is here and I'm going to take it." I was terrified, and when people are given this kind of opportunity, some chicken out. I had never got on a plane before, and that I had these experiences, considering what I was going through at the time, I think I had a lot of courage at that age. That's what I take away from it: Whenever I get scared and nervous, I think back to my 22-year-old self not being afraid. I think if I did that at 22, I can do whatever this is now.
EDGE: Did your time walking in the ball scene help you on ANTM?
KING: I did the ballroom scene for a little over a year, and it definitely helped me with the competition aspect of the show. I went into the show able to do runway and pose; I was battle ready. That gave me a little extra courage, because even if you’re nervous you get into character, get on the floor and you are completely fearless. That I was ready to take on competitors definitely came from the ballroom scene.
EDGE: What is a memory from that time that most resonates with you?
KING: When I did the MSNBC documentary Born in the Wrong Body, the film crew followed me in 2007, while I was getting ready for the Latex Ball. I remember that I was living in the program and using my designing talents to make this crazy outfit for the ball, like something Lady Gaga would wear before she was even on the scene. Then I walked the ball and they were filming, and I felt pretty -- I felt like a model, like an awesome designer - and all of these aspects came together. And then I won, and it was all documented!
EDGE: How has your work with Tyra Banks help raise your profile? How has she influenced you since ANTM?
It was an amazing experience, once in a lifetime, and I was so glad to be able to do it again [on the "All-Star" show] a few years later, when I was more experienced. That was an opportunity to oversee designs, and it is something I will never forget because she believed in me.
The surgery and everything that came along with that journey with Banks was amazing. But the thing is, I was going to stay in the Ali Forney Center for the full two years, and at that time I was saving $1,000 a month for that surgery. By the time I would have aged out of AFC, I would have had the money. My goal was 25, and I ended up getting [the surgery] at 23. It happened quicker and way different than I had planned, and it was definitely a blessing. But it would have happened eventually: I was on a mission, living in the program, going to work and coming home on time, and not spending money on anything -- not clothes, not going out, nothing. I was a machine.
EDGE: That led you to become the first transgender model for American Apparel. Tell us a bit about that experience.
KING: It was an awesome opportunity. GLAAD had me in mind for this, and when they asked me if I wanted to be part, I snapped some pictures and submitted them to American Apparel. They wanted me, and I was really excited to work with a campaign that was so big. The funny thing is, I didn’t think it would be as big as it was or I would have renegotiated! There was some controversy and some groups didn’t like the shoot, but some people find the negative in anything, and I impacted so many things by doing this. I will always remember that.
EDGE: How do you feel about being the poster girl for transgender women?
KING: At some points it was hard for me, because I try to be the best person I can for myself, and I was pressured to be perfect. But I had to follow my own guidelines. On ANTM I wanted to win, and people looked at me and my morals and who I was, and they liked that, so it just happened. After that, I took the pressure of being perfect away and just lived my life. Now I’m a role model not because I’m anything but me, my true self.
EDGE: Have LGBT youth approached you about being a role model?
KING: This guy sent me an online message that said he was about to commit suicide, but seeing my story helped him. If I can potentially help someone -- I do my best to live my truth, and that helps some people with their life. When people come up to me, they share really touching stories.
Sometimes I can get clouded by not knowing what I want to do, but by having hope and faith and putting my best foot forward, everything just fell on my plate. I didn’t look for the documentary or ANTM, but I put my best foot forward and they fell into place. Having a good outlook on life and staying a positive person are key. All these blessings happened when I just tried to be my best person.
King just created a gold-infused presentation for Fashion Week’s Fall 2013 Collection called "The Goldest Winter Ever." She volunteers her time and life experiences to other youth, delivering motivational speeches to college kids on the fashion industry, reality TV, LGBT issues, following your dreams, bullying and abusive relationships. She has expanded her repertoire to include acting, and recently filmed a movie in the Philippines.
For more information, visit www.kingisis.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/isisking or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MsIsisKing
For information about the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth, visit aliforneycenter.org