The titans of business aren't just straight, white, and cisgender. There are innumerable BIPOC and queer people changing the game — and opening doors — in corporate America, especially in the beauty and fashion businesses. Here are some of those LGBTQ+ trailblazers.
Sex worker, educator
When the pandemic started, sex workers were one of the hardest hit demographics. Strip clubs and in-person events were no longer safe, and the government banned relief funds from going to “businesses of a prurient sexual nature.” In the face of this, Andre Shakti hosts and produces a weekly LGBTQ+ virtual strip club called Sanctuary, found at sanctuarytheclub.com, which provides essential income and community to marginalized sex workers impacted by the pandemic.
“We launched right at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and during the pre-vaccine quarantine period people were reliably hungry for work, hungry for human connection, and hungry for any distraction from the world at large,” she says. When things started changing again, she didn’t know how that would affect Sanctuary and was worried it might put the club in danger. Instead, the club continues to flourish. “I feel extraordinarily grateful for our fan base as well as our incredible team of gorgeous, resilient, exceptionally talented dancers,” she says.
Shakti has a lot on her plate, but she’s undaunted by the work. “I’m an active sex educator, sex worker, and veterinary technician in Baltimore…and I keep myself busy with work, multiple partners, and a large menagerie of both domestic and exotic animals,” she says. “It takes a ton of time, labor, and dedication to keep myself afloat, but every single day is different, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” — Mey Rude, Photo Oscar Merrida IV
Cesar DeLeon Ramirez learned the fundamentals of being a hairstylist while growing up in New York City and “amidst hairspray and rollers” in his family’s salon in Puerto Rico. He is now one of the biggest names in his field, with a celebrity clientele list that includes Beyoncé, Kehlani, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, and Demi Lovato.
But for Ramirez, who is also a creative director, the job isn’t just about hair. “I’ve always looked at it as a way of influencing pop culture — the world sees my creativity when they see their favorite music artists and then they follow the trends,” he says. “It is my responsibility to always deliver good work that stands for something and that is fun and sexy.”
Despite the pandemic, it’s been a busy year for the gay and vegan creative. Ramirez worked as a brand ambassador for Paul Mitchell promoting cruelty-free hairstyling. He’s also preparing to launch his own beauty and lifestyle brand next year, Wildform (thewildform.com), and even started his own management company for other artists in the beauty biz.
This success was not always promised. He recounted “only obstacles” in his youth, as he was raised by a single mother who divorced an abusive dad.
Ramirez became an NYC club kid in his early 20s, which was “fun but dangerous,” and ultimately, it was a path he left. “I woke up one day and didn’t recognize myself,” he says. “I knew my life had a purpose — that was the moment I felt my spirituality and faith.... Balancing life with spiritual practices and self-love truly helps me feel like I can overcome anything.” — Daniel Reynolds, Photo Gerson Lopes
Matthew Herman and David Kien, both out gay men, cofounded Boy Smells in 2016 to break the gender binary in the candle industry. What began as a “side hustle” — the pair experimented with matching masculine and feminine notes in their Los Angeles kitchen — has expanded into an award-winning empire of what they call “genderful” products, ranging from fragrances to underwear.
And of course, there’s the candles themselves; creative scents include “Cowboy Kush” and “Les.” The pink-labeled products, which colorfully push against “boy” stereotypes, can be found in international retail spaces extending from Bloomingdale’s to the Tom of Finland Store.
After some difficult times during the pandemic, Boy Smells continues to expand. It launched its Fantôme collection with three new scents and there’s new holiday-themed products on the way. “We can’t share too much just yet,” they say, “but we can say that, as always, they will be focused on radical self-acceptance, fluidity, and iconic genderfulness.”
“The success has been awesome — it shows us that the world is changing,” says the pair. “It is an opportunity for us to stand for more than just personal products. We get to amplify values and push the conversation forward, and hopefully inspire people to see identity in a new way.” — D.R., Photo Isabella Behravan
Dungeons & Dragons may be a classic game with an established fan base, but that doesn’t mean new life can’t be brought to it. Thanks to creators like Jeremy Crawford, a game architect with Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s parent company), it’s also becoming more inclusive for queer fans.
“I work on the game’s rules and stories,” Crawford says. “In that work, I’m constantly listening: heeding D&D’s players and discerning ways both to preserve what they love about the game’s past and to build D&D’s future. I believe that the future requires D&D to become an even bigger tent than it already is — with room for players from many different walks of life — while preserving the inspiring aspects of fantasy storytelling that have resonated for decades.”
“At the end of 2020, we released a book I led, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the game’s biggest rules expansion in years,” he says. “I moved immediately to exciting new projects, while continuing to help increase LGBTQ+ characters and perspectives in our books.”
“When I was a kid playing D&D, it felt too much to dream I’d get to work on this game someday, but even more, I didn’t imagine I’d eventually help those books feature queer folks.” — Raffy Ermac, Photo Phillip Lienau
Lucas Keller is one of the music industry’s most powerful players. With his Los Angeles-based management company Milk & Honey, the gay Wisconsin native represents the writing talent behind megahits for Normani, Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, and Drake, to name a few. Keller’s company also represents artists and DJs; his clients have sold over 400 million records worldwide.
This year, Milk & Honey launched a sports division with an initial roster of 15 NFL players. It also opened several satellite offices while Keller was selling over $100 million in publishing assets for his clients — not that it was easy during a pandemic. “I kept my foot on the gas the past two years and [am] probably overworked but was fortunate we grew.”
Keller is working at establishing a more equitable pay structure at the service where 365 million people access music: Spotify. Keller often lobbies for streaming income to go to creators, not just tech companies and executives.
“My job is to protect the creators, and build and preserve value for copyright and art that my clients have created,” Keller says. “Having a company that manages songwriters, producers, artists, and athletes — the gig is the same…creating opportunity, finding the big idea, navigating and instilling faith that I can lead them into battle. I feel a great debt to the American songwriter; it was when I pivoted to representing songwriters that I had a real inflection point and my career changed.” — Neal Broverman, Photo Christine Solomon
Travel was among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic lockdowns. And founder and CEO of queer-focused travel company misterb&b, Matthieu Jost, can certainly attest to this.
The French entrepreneur says perseverance and creativity were necessary to survive the unexpected global crisis. “In particular,” he explains, “we had to adapt our supply to the new demand and move from ‘private rooms only’ to a more diverse offering that includes hotels, entire places, or villas that feel safer to a lot of travelers. To make sure these additional listings stayed true to our LGBTQ DNA, we curated them carefully and added connection features allowing the community to connect through our app....We’re very happy with the results so far.”
Today, Jost is focused on the future and says he expects that travel will make a big comeback in the new year. And for LGBTQ+ travelers looking for friendly accommodations, misterb&b will be an invaluable resource.
“I’m confident 2022 will mark the true rebound of travel. I’ll probably be very busy working at expanding our mission of helping the LGBTQ community better connect while traveling, offering new tools to plan and schedule trips and find travel companions to explore the world together.” — Desiree Guerrero, Photo M. Dedonder
Brian Kelly founded The Points Guy, a blog and website, to help readers “maximize their lives by leveraging loyalty programs,” Kelly attests. The advice gears toward accruing airline points from credit cards, which for Kelly is not just a luxury. “The more people travel, the more understanding and less fearful they become of others,” he says. “‘Otherism’ is a plague on our society.”
For Kelly, who is gay, the goal is not only the education of consumers. The Points Guy raises funds and awareness for groups like the Rainbow Railroad, which assists LGBTQ+ refugees. This past year, the company also launched a fundraiser for Miles4Migrants, a nonprofit helping Afghan families escape the Taliban.
The pandemic posed unique challenges for The Points Guy and its CEO, Kelly, who was rated by Forbes as a leading travel influencer. “When travel was grounded to a near halt because of the pandemic, one of the biggest obstacles we faced was figuring out how to continue to promote travel,” he says. “We began to interview doctors and public health experts and provide up to date information on the industry. We created a ‘Country by Country Reopening Guide’ that we regularly update. I’m proud that we have become a global resource for quality, up-to-date information on all things travel during a time of misinformation and confusion.” — D.R., Photo Jonno Rattman
When LGBTQ+ people want to look great and feel comfortable for a special occasion, they turn to Leon Elias Wu. The trans founder and CEO of Sharpe Suiting is famous for his brand’s gender-inclusive suits, which employ a trademarked technology, Andropometrics, to create measurements tailored to a client’s identity and preferences.
In addition to crafting inclusive clothes, Wu engages in “visual activism,” launching the collective SharpeHaus to support women, BIPOC folks, and the LGBTQ+ community. As Wu describes his work, “I’m a gender-expansive activist who uses fashion and entertainment spaces to showcase subversive art or concepts in order to incite positive change and equality.”
“I envision a world where people from our community — [assigned female at birth], lesbian, transgender, nonbinary individuals, and BIPOC people — will be represented in the zeitgeist or mainstream media with respect, equality, and most importantly, admiration,” he adds. In this vein, Wu’s proudest accomplishment this past year was creating nearly 150 gender-inclusive choir uniforms for the University of Southern California, two of which were nonbinary options, and seeing those students perform in them.
And there’s many awesome things in the pipeline for SharpeHaus. “This spring we will be launching a new athleisure collection,” Wu says. “Adding to this our London expansion and some surprise entertainment projects brewing, 2022 is going to be huge.” — D.R., Photo Kim Geranimo
Is Hedi Slimane the coolest queer person on the planet? Quite possibly. The 53-year-old has served as creative director for French fashion house Celine since early 2018, pushing the label to reflect his passions of androgyny, thin silhouettes, indie rock music, and California culture. Celebrities known for the laidback chic Slimane epitomizes, like Dakota Johnson and Jamie Lee Curtis, don his designs on red carpets. The artful aesthetic he brought to his past employers, including Yves Saint Laurent and Dior Homme, is translating to success for Celine and parent company LVMH, the latter of which reported a 20 percent bump in sales for the third quarter of 2021.
Aside from fashion, the French-born creative is also an accomplished photographer, chronicling rock stars and the cities he lived in and loved, like Paris, Berlin, London, and Los Angeles. His black-and-white images of fans worshipping at the altar of live musical performances and the musicians who enable those transcendent experiences were shown this year at an exhibition in Shanghai. Slimane also recently co-produced an electronica track, “Up N Down,” with upstart singer Izzy Camina, which served as the soundtrack to Cosmic Cruiser, the film promoting Celine’s ‘70s-inspired summer 2022 line. —N.B., Photo Y.R