Teddy Quinlivan is not here to fuck around. Since being scouted in 2015 by Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, the 23-year-old model has made a career on the catwalk, strutting for the likes of Jeremy Scott, Miu Miu, Gucci and Diane Von Furstenberg among others. Yet, for all of her dominating appearances at fashion weeks across the globe, Quinlivan's career-defining moment didn't come on the runway, but through CNN Style.
In the final days of New York Fashion Week this September, Quinlivan came out at transgender—a story that sent celebratory shockwaves through the industry, particularly because she’d been passing as a cisgender woman since transitioning at 16. “I was very lucky, because I won the genetic lottery,” she says. “That privilege gave me a lot of confidence to walk down the street, date and work in the fashion industry, where people I would presume I was a 'normal' girl.”
Related | Gallery: Teddy Quinlivan
Although her coming out went viral and publications applauded her internationally for becoming a voice for the marginalized community, Quinlivan immediately went back to work, traveling to Milan and Paris to walk their respective fashion weeks. This is the new normal for Quinlivan, who's one of the modeling industry's biggest stars, but with coming out, she has also stepped into a new role as an activist—and she’s got a lot to say.
As she shakes off the “coming out journey” narrative she’s told (and retold) since September, we sat down with Quinlivan to talk about everything from her Carrie Bradshaw-like dating struggles and the responsibility she’s taking on as an advocate to her unapologetic call-out of the fashion's secret sexual harassment epidemic. Through all the noise, however, one thing is clear: Teddy Quinlivan is just getting started.
Top: Collina Strada
OUT: How has fashion helped you shape your identity?
Teddy Quinlivan: When I was growing up and living as boy (because everyone told me I had to live as a boy), clothing was really my only outlet for gender expression at the time. I could put on a dress and become the girl I wanted to be. I realized that clothing has this extreme power in terms of how we’re perceived. Wearing clothes was a way for me to become a new person and adopt a new character or identity. Clothing has always been about the fantasy. Unfortunately, I feel like Carrie Bradshaw every day of my life and that’s fabulous in some ways and then I’m like, "Oh my god I’m going to be single forever."
I saw that you’d deleted your dating apps, right?
Honestly, I don’t know how long that’ll last.
Don’t you think that, as a society, we’ve forgotten how to meet people in real life?
We have! It’s impossible to really establish those connections with people but I think coming out has really changed my perception. If I can come out to the world publicly on CNN, I can go up to a guy I think is hot and introduce myself. I’ve done the hardest thing that I could possibly do in my life. Plus, I’m sure they’d be thrilled to have a girl come up to them in general—regardless of her birth gender.
Also, for me, dating as a trans woman is already so hard. If you’re smart and funny, guys already don’t like you, but if you’re beautiful, smart and funny, guys really don’t like you. Then, if you’re trans on top of that, you’re just fucked. Also, straight boys are basic as fuck, so I’ve got to serve them the basic fantasy to get what I want.
Have you had any serious relationships in the past?
Yeah, I’ve had really beautiful, serious relationships with incredible men who knew I was trans and were so okay with it. At the time, those boys wanted a lot a little too soon for me. I wasn’t ready to be so committed. My longest relationship was a year, and I lived with this guy and he was so incredible and supportive, but I was 20 and just wasn’t ready.
We’re just young and dumb.
We’re young, dumb and full of cum! [Laughs]
It’s hard because straight people, especially men, tend to suck.
Honestly, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they don’t necessarily suck, but we as a community have had so much more to go through. They’re born and they’re chill. They don’t have to go through a sexual or gender expression revolution. We’ve had to struggle with our identities, and being ostracized by our families and our communities. They’ll never have to experience that.
Suit: Helmut Lang
In coming out, you’ve talked about your role as an activist...
Yeah, but I don’t think coming out necessarily means you have to be an activist. I came out because I wanted to be an activist. I wanted to talk about it, educate people and stand up for my community, but I don’t think every single trans person who is out in the public eye needs to do that necessarily.
We have such a short amount of time on Earth and I felt a strong responsibility to change the world if I had the ability to do that. I never in a million years thought I was going to model and never thought I was going to be good at it. I knew I was trans, but never in a million years thought this was something I was going to have to live through and go through. When you’re sitting there at night and smoking your joint and thinking, "Why me?" it’s kind of like... why the fuck not you?
Especially in this tense political climate where we’re dealing with everything from overlooked murder to what bathroom you can use.
I doubt that anybody would feel comfortable pissing next to me at a urinal. If I go into a men’s restroom, they’re obviously going to be a little bit shook. Not all transgender people look like they’re going through a transition and I have so much passing privilege and understand that. You shouldn’t have to look like me to be safe.
You have to define gender for yourself. Being female for me meant presenting as a female. I am the way I am and I didn’t feel like I had to change myself a lot to be feminine but there are some people who do and we need to give them the space to do that. You can still be a woman and have a beard. Gender comes in a variety of colors and shades and sizes—the way you choose to express it is your choice and everyone need to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Bottom line.
Have you ever considered a career in politics or nonprofit work?
Yeah, honestly I feel a really strong calling to speak up. I never thought that, living in America, I would have to deal with a president like Donald Trump. It’s been a real wakeup call because before, I knew presidents could get as bad as George Bush. We thought that was bottom of the barrel. If we can elect Trump, who else are we capable of electing?
It is fucked. The country is in a fucked place right now and I need to do whatever I can to help. I grew up thinking we were supposed to lead by example and our country is taking seven steps backward. Everyone who wants to hold onto their rights needs to speak up and I’m doing the best I can to spread awareness.
We’re all trying and you’re doing great. As you’ve seen, every day it seems like there’s a new sexual assault scandal erupting. What has your experience been with this kind of predatory behavior in the fashion industry?
I’m glad you brought that up because this is one of the things I wanted to talk about when I came out. I’ve lived on both sides of the spectrum. My first nearly 5 years of modeling, I was modeling as a passing, cisgender-presenting woman and that comes with a lot of consequences. You’re put in these positions with these stylists and photographers who have so much power over you.
My first Paris Fashion Week when I’d just moved there, this casting director asked me to come back for a fitting and at what I thought was the fitting, he asked me to go on a walk with him. I thought it was very strange, but it was my first season and I didn’t know any better. Then we were in Tuileries Garden, and he grabbed me and forced himself upon me and kissed me. I had no idea what to do and didn’t kiss him back, but didn’t know what to do because you’re put in these positions and you’re like, "Shit I want the job." Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as being like "fuck off" because, at the end of the day, you have to pay your bills and have to make money.
You’re put in a position where someone is offering to give you a career, but in return they’re asking for something sexual. I was 19 at that time and this happens to girls who are 15 and 16 years old. I can’t imagine how they would’ve handled it.
Some people think they can do whatever they want.
Exactly! Recently, there was this boy who is a male model slash photographer who’s friends with my friends. I’m not particularly close with him, but I was out at Spectrum [in Brooklyn] actually and we were outside. He said "hello" to me and groped me. A real grope—a “grab her by the pussy” grope. That had never happened to me before and later he pinched my nipple. I’ve been sexually assaulted in this business multiple times but this time, after coming out, I have this new wave of confidence so I spoke up for myself. I said to him, "I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing thinking you can touch me like that." I really went off on him and nearly all of his friends excused his behavior. They defended him, and said I was overreacting and said that he didn’t mean it.
I ended up sharing the story. I didn’t name him because I don’t want to get into any legal problems and he’s young enough that he can learn and doesn’t need to have his life ruined over this but honestly, he’s an adult and didn’t know it wasn’t okay to touch me. Then his excuse was that he was gay and wasn’t even attracted to me. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay. You came into my space and aggressively touched me. It was inappropriate and you violated me.
Suit & Shoes: Collina Strada
It’s fucked up.
Yeah, and then there are stylists who are crazy, too. It’s every—it’s photographers, casting directors, and stylists. These people are in positions of power, and offering you a way to the top and a chance, but the cost is you have to let them touch you inappropriately or allow them to abuse you. If you speak up and tell them "no," you’re not going to get the job. That’s how it works.
That’s so mentally damaging.
It is! One time, a stylist tried to pull down my underwear on a closed set. I went to my agency and everyone in the industry knows this person is a creeper. Everyone says to watch out for him because he’ll touch you. He has a reputation. It’s very similar to Harvey Weinstein because everyone knows that this is happening, but nobody will say his name because he’s a powerful stylist for big brands. He’s abused countless girls and treated countless models inappropriately—whether it’s by being extremely mean or by being sexual. I remember being on the shoot and I was taped because I hadn’t had surgery and he pulled down my underwear. I showed up and had no idea it was supposed to be a nude shoot so I get on set and they tell me to take off my clothes and put on this tiny piece of underwear. So, I’m in my tape and he comes up to me and literally without asking me anything, he looked in my eyes, breathed down my neck, got on his knees, and ripped down my underwear. I was clinging on to it with a finger.
I went to my agency afterward and they said it was so horrible, but there was nothing they could do to help me. There’s a network of people protecting each other and the agencies don’t want to get involved because it would jeopardize their chances of having their models work with these brands. I don’t want to call these people out either because of my relationships with the designers. I want to be able to walk for these shows, but if I call out the stylist and embarrass the brand publicly, I’ll never walk with that show again. People in this business love their secrets and as soon as they know you can’t keep a secret, you’re gone.
Yeah, and it creates a culture of fear.
Now I don’t really give a shit because I’ve realized that yeah, I’ve worked with some really shitty abusive people but I’m willing to lose those clients. It’s not worth it to me because the best ones—the John Galliano’s and Alessandro Michele’s—that shit doesn’t happen. People who really take their job seriously and really give a shit about the clothes and fashion and creating something beautiful don’t try to abuse you. It’s the bullshit artists who are in the business because it’s an easy way to take advantage of people. I show up and do my job and there is no reason you should be interfering with that.
I think we’re getting to this breaking point where models have more power than they’ve ever had because of social media. I’m ready to start seeing the dominoes fall. We need to have a safe forum to name these people because they do not deserve to be in positions of power. I will stop at nothing to make sure that I’m not abused anymore and neither are the other young girls and boys. This happens on both sides—to male models, too.
Top & Pants: Collina Strada
There are so many vulture photographers who prey on the pretty young boys who just moved here.
Totally. I hear about that too and I fight for the girls because I’m more familiar with that side, but I know that there are a lot of predators in this business who think it’s hot to overpower someone. It’s not hard to treat people with respect and not be a fucking creep. Just don’t be a fucking creep. Sit down and take the picture. You don’t need to whisper some creepy thing in my ear or tell me how big your dick is. I don’t care how big your dick is, sweetie. I don’t find you attractive. We’re all in this together, though. The bottom line is that at the end of the day, models will start standing up for each other in a big way—me especially. I won’t work with specific people on projects if I know I’ll be alone with them.
But you shouldn’t even have to do that.
Nobody should have to do that. This isn’t just fashion, this is every industry. There are people being taken advantage of in the workplace anywhere and women should not have to put up with that to get a paycheck. I will do whatever I can to fight for us.
The thing is, people don’t just come forward and say you sexually assaulted them. That doesn’t just happen. If I wasn’t abused, why would I come forward and say I was abused by someone? Nobody wants to be put in those compromising situations.
You’ve got everything to lose.
Yeah! If I came out and named the people who’ve abused me, I would be in serious shit and might never work again so when people come out and name the people who’ve abused them, they’re putting themselves in really compromising situations. They’re willing to risk everything for justice and the safety of other boys and girls.
I’ve had enough, sister. I’m done with the bullshit. It’s 2017. Stop saying fucked up shit. Stop touching people inappropriately. Stop being homophobic and racist and transphobic. Get the fuck over it, be chill, and live your life.