Indigo, an 18-year-old trans man and aspiring model, is tired of being expected to shop in certain departments of stores. The North Carolina native, who also identifies as bisexual and has been living in New York for roughly two months, has found that gender binaries have followed him even after assuming what he knows to be his true identity. "If you identify as a certain gender, usually people expect you to adhere to stereotypes," he says. "It's like, 'Hey, if you're a trans guy, why aren't you wearing basketball shorts?' And then it's like you're stuck there, because people tend to believe you don't really want to be the gender you are because you're not following those set rules. There's a double standard, and I'd like to break that down. Because in my personal style, I don't even pay attention to gender labels. If I see something and I like wearing it, I'm going to wear it."
Related | Gallery: Meet the Queer Models of Zandwagon
Impossible to tightly categorize, Indigo falls among the spectrum of nonconforming, nontraditional people who've recently been signed to Zandwagon, a model management and talent casting company that's quite arguably unlike any other. Representing individuals of all gender identities, sexual orientations, sizes, races, religions, and ages, the company was founded by Kayvon Zand, a longtime figure in New York's arts, culture, and nightlife scenes, and a firm believer that what the world needs now is anything but more of the same.
"I think what separates us from other agencies, model management groups, and talent management groups is that there is a heartbeat to this," Zand says. "It's not just about making money. There is a goal to overcome something, which is the prejudice that a lot of these people may face on a regular basis. And the most common thing I've heard when talking to the talent we've signed has been, 'This is a great idea. Why hasn't this happened before?' I think we're all still kind of dumbfounded by that."
Incidentally, Zand, like Indigo, is also from North Carolina. The Iranian American says he "grew up very eclectic," surrounded by "a lot of cultural influences that were out of the box; a lot of different backgrounds; and a lot of different religions, like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism." In his teen years, Zand began modeling. Leaving home, he was working in London, Milan, and Madrid, and while exploring those markets, he began to notice quickly that he didn't fit the norm of what the industry wanted. "I was dropped several times because of how I expressed myself when I went to castings or arrived at jobs," Zand says. "I was getting in so much trouble with the agencies I was with because I was wearing makeup, and I wasn't presenting myself how they wanted male models to present themselves. I was fed up--I didn't understand why what I valued about myself was being used against me."
Within a year, Zand relocated to New York City, and after encountering similar constraints in the U.S. modeling scene, he eventually segued into nightlife, a world where he and anyone else can express themselves fully without dismissal. Through the course of roughly a decade of being on the scene, Zand has since curated and hosted events at The Box, The Museum of Sex, and Webster Hall, among other venues, all the while keeping his eyes open to the vibrant personalities crossing his path. "To me, it was the equivalent of what I would say being starstruck is for most people," he says. "I was just enamored. It was so exciting and inspiring. And it felt genuine. From there, I gravitated more and more toward environments where people were able to be themselves, and it eventually led me to where I am now."
Among the models on Zandwagon's roster is adult film star, activist, and trans icon Buck Angel, who met Zand via his performances at The Box. He was initially taken aback by Zand's offer to sign him. "At first I was like 'You want an old tran-pa in your agency?'" Angel quips. "And Kayvon was so kind to say, 'Of course--we want to represent all aspects, and older is just as important.' I thought to myself that he is totally correct and I should just be a part of something that I believe is needed for many reasons, the most important one being that it will be able to create visibility."
And Angel, 45, isn't the only model of a certain age whom Zand has signed. Another is Constance, a 72-year-old woman, who, like Indigo, found Zandwagon via a Craigslist ad that very specifically requested models who stray from the status quo, be they queer, Muslim, trans men, or virtually anyone else who falls into a category of otherness. Cracking the norms of both age and waistline, for example, is Contessa, a plus-size woman in her 30s. "This agency immediately raises awareness," Angel adds. "That in turn starts a conversation and that in turn educates. I come from the head space of survivor and not a victim. I feel that now, in 2017, in the trans community and beyond, we are creating a lot of victim energy. This does not move us forward. Zandwagon will give more people an opportunity for something they might not have thought was possible. It exists because there was a need for it--and it filled that need."
Of course, for all the enthusiasm that pours from people like Indigo, Angel, and Zand himself, the question amid our tradition-bound society remains: Will Zandwagon work? "People have confronted me with that," Zand says. "The first was an actor friend who said she definitely doesn't see how this will make money and doesn't really think it makes sense. But I told her that wasn't really for her to say. I'm gonna be the one putting the legwork behind it, along with [Zandwagon's creative director] Debora Spencer, and realistically, I've always faced naysayers. If I listened to what people said then I wouldn't even be doing what I'm doing today as an individual, let alone what I'm doing with Zandwagon. So, you know--onward and upward."
With the many contacts and friends he's accrued over the years, from coast to coast, Zand does seem to be taking Zandwagon in an upward direction. The first model he signed was Dakota, a bearded, plus-size woman he discovered through a Los Angeles casting director, and a subject on MTV's True Life. (Zandwagon also coordinated an editorial for Dakota with photographer Paul Brickman). Another model, Merlot, a queer person of color who eschews gender pronouns, was recently featured in i-D VICE and modeled new products from Milk makeup. Renowned queer photographer Mike Ruiz shot Zandwagon models for L'Offiicial Singapore. Julia, a cis female drag queen and paraplegic, is bolstering visibility for a whole community of oft-shunned women like her. And Ammo, an ex-Mormom who's newly out as gender non-binary, has appeared on MTV's The Real World and just finished shooting its upcoming season.
"Kayvon is attempting to create a community of talent that pushes against prescribed standards of beauty, encourages racial and sexual inclusion, and, most importantly, promotes change and acceptance through diversity," Ammo says. "Change is impossible without diversity. Without it, we never have the opportunity to see the world through any other lens than our own. Two years ago, I left the Mormon church. It was then that I decided that I was going to say what I wanted to say, be who I wanted to be, and love who I wanted to love. I'm exceptionally grateful to have found representation that not only celebrates where I've been, but is also anxiously engaged in helping me find where I'd like to go next."
According to Airik, a gay black model on the panel, another thing Zand is attempting to do is wildly accelerate the trickling trend of brands and magazines looking beyond the standard model pool and casting, say, club kids and drag queens. Zand's eyes remain peeled, looking behind the scenes in his glittery after-hours world. He's found gems like Benji, a self-described "queirdo" with uncanny makeup skills, and Grisel, an asexual fetish-wear designer who only now is shifting from dressing models to being a model herself. "I'm not the norm," Grisel says. "I'm a woman of color. I'm in my 30s. But I think Kayvon can grasp energy, and he's always appreciated mine. One day, he was just like, 'You.' And I was like, 'Yeah, let's do it.' I have model measurements, I think I've reached a point where I feel like I've expressed myself as a designer, and I work with models all the time. It feels really interesting to mix it up." Grisel is also compelled to get the word out on queer culture. "I feel like a lot of my friends are hearing their parents use the word 'queer' for the first time, but not really grasping what the word means, or how to use it. The more we use these terms, and the more we can teach people, the better it will be. We have to let people know what we're about."
And what is queer about? Anyone curious might want to start by taking a look at Zand, the man from whom this enterprise sprung. Zand has a wife, Anna, and a daughter, Zara, yet he identifies as queer, which might surprise those outside of the uninhibited world he champions. Zand's first relationship as a teenager was with a male, and he says that was "monumental to his life," but now he's with a woman and life partner whom he loves and is fully attracted to. "I don't think a relationship should ever label you for who you are," Zand says. "I think queer and sexuality are two different things. Queer is freedom. It's openness. It's real. And I think that's what we want from society. We don't want people to play dress-up anymore. We don't want appropriation. We want the real deal. And that's what Zandwagon is going to provide. We're going to break beauty standards--one booking at a time."
Visit Zandwagon online at zandwagonnyc.com.
Photographed on location for OUT at the Lovage Rooftop and Lounge in New York City.