On an overcast Wednesday morning in late July, Janet Mock sat on location in a New York City highrise, pensively analyzing a major scene for Pose’s season two finale. Her conventional director’s chair — black and emblazoned with her name in pearly white — sat in a corner, abandoned for a far less commanding office chair at a long conference table. It was here that she was proverbially getting her hands in the weeds, vigilantly observing a monitor with the script supervisor, Claire Cowperthwaite. Mock gracefully swirls the retractable tip of a black pen towards the illuminated screen, around Indya Moore (one of the breakout stars of Pose who plays Angel Evangelista) and Trudie Styler (who plays modeling magnate Eileen Ford) — asking for a tighter camera shot on their faces.
“I remember my first day on the Pose set when we were shooting the pilot and we saw all of the House of Abundance together,” Mock says. “I was sitting at the monitors having that feeling — like I am that kid again, because I hadn’t seen it before.” That far-off dream of seeing a fuller version of herself has now become the budding television maven’s responsibility.
Previous: Dress by Nina Ricci. Above: Dress, earring, and belt by Louis Vuitton.
For the last hour on set, Moore (one of the figures who makes this mission possible) has been running through a highly choreographed scene requiring them to relive — with each take —the feeling of learning that they’ve been outed as transgender by a prominent fashion director.
This narrative is a familiar one for many trans women of color, largely because it pulls on our collective history. In the most recent Pose season, Angel’s plotline blended elements of the real-life stories of Tracey Africa Norman (who found success as the face of Clairol in the 1970s before being outed on the set of an Essence shoot) and Octavia St. Laurent (who placed a hopeful bid for one of Ford’s casting calls in the seminal queer documentary Paris Is Burning). And for Moore — a young Black nonbinary trans person who has recently ascended to fame, in a world that Mock, in her own regard, has made more inviting for trans people throughout her career — the scene must have felt overwhelming.
During one of the takes, Moore fumbles a few lines and exclaims, “I’m sorry, Janet” before mechanically restarting the scripted moment. But this time, Mock is summoned out of a more esoteric frame of mind. She darts from behind the screen, almost like one of the house mothers depicted in the show, to console Moore, whisking them from in front of the camera to another room and ostensibly imparting words of encouragement. After a few minutes, Mock returns to her chair to resume the more technical role as director and a measured Moore pops back into the cycle of the scene, delivering their lines with more confidence than before.
The actor would later tell me that working with Mock has been “incredibly affirming and synergistic,” and that her leadership and emotional insight “offers holistic support to me as someone who shares the identity and experiences of my character.” Though they haven’t had an official conversation with Mock about being their mentor, Moore is inspired by how she approaches her multifaceted role on set and her career in general.
It’s clear that whatever Mock told them on set that day contained a wisdom that could only be imparted from a Black trans woman in the driver’s seat. Perhaps this is Mock’s greatest gift, weaving in a technical prowess with empathy and her lived experience. After all, this scene—with its layers of vulnerability and fear around identity—isn’t unfamiliar to the burgeoning auteur.
Flexin’ Her Complexion
Above: Top, skirt, shoes, and scarf by Salvatore Ferragamo. Earrings by BVLGARI.
The world first met Janet Mock in May 2011, when journalist Kierna Mayo published an as-told-to piece in Marie Claire. With the now infamous headline, “I Was Born a Boy,” one that Mock felt never rang true as she contends she was always a girl despite what doctors proclaimed at birth. Upon relinquishing her story, she ignited a new trajectory after spending her early career — including more than five years at People — in the closet about her identity.
Mock channeled her newfound acclaim into publishing her first memoir, the New York Times best-selling Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, which chronicles her gender nonconforming childhood in Hawaii, living in poverty with a single mother, coming of age during her teen years, her medical transition, and the budding romance with her eventual husband, Aaron Tredwell. But to an unassuming public, she also foreshadows the next chapter of her career by highlighting how formative the small screen was to her life.
Above: Dress and bodysuit by Fendi.
“Some of my most pivotal moments rose from pop culture. As a child who grew up in front of the television, I spent my adolescence blanketed in images from the late-nineties pop boom,” Mock remembers in her first memoir. As a precocious mixed Black and native Hawaiian trans girl, she gleaned empowering slivers of her identity from films (Waiting to Exhale and Soul Food), music videos, and TV shows like Living Single, Family Matters, and MTV’s Total Request Live — when Black women were on the screen. (Yes, this über stan religiously taped Destiny’s Child performances for review later.) But while there was space for her gender and race in popular media, there still wasn’t representation of her full identity, particularly her transness.
Soon after releasing her first book, Mock found herself in front of cameras, sharing her unique perspective on social justice and pop culture. She racked up TV-hosting opportunities on Shift by MSNBC’s TakePart Live, Entertainment Tonight, and SoPOPular!, an original pop culture digest digital series styled similarly to The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, which for its own part afforded her a breakout guest-hosting moment for a trans person in broadcast.
However, Mock’s climb didn’t occur without controversy, which perhaps fueled her desire to share trans narratives unfiltered through a cisgender lens. Take her row with British regressive Piers Morgan, who mischaracterized her childhood as a “boyhood” and, in her words, sensationalized her experiences when she appeared on his live CNN show during the press tour of her first book. Morgan later invited her back to the show to resolve the conflict.
Two years later, she suffered a similar, yet more egregious, mishap after appearing on Hot 97’s radio show The Breakfast Club to promote her second memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me — in which she discusses her first marriage, her time in college, and her experiences as a stripper and sexual assault survivor. The interview, though cringeworthy in its own right — given the probing questions about her medical transition — served as a powerful primer on trans issues for the show’s mostly Black and brown audience. But it was an interview released on YouTube days later with comedian Lil Duval — wherein The Breakfast Club hosts use her book as a prop to goad him into saying he might kill a woman if he found out that she were trans—that may have further signaled how necessary it is for trans people to be in the driver’s seat in all aspects of their narratives.
By the end of 2016, Mock made a gradual pivot from subject to producer. She was enlisted in the latter role on the HBO special, The Trans List, which featured her in a lineup of prominent trans figures, including one of her social-justice inspirations (and Out’s March cover star) Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, relaying their personal journeys through identity, love, and life. This feat gave audiences a glimpse of her next act.
Two weeks before visiting the Pose set, I met Janet Mock at the dimly lit Ludlow House in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. She was fresh-faced, though a bit weary, with her signature auburn locks pulled up into a messy bun. It was refreshing to witness her outside of the glamorous couture that has, thanks to star stylist Jason Bolden, become interwoven into her Instagram baddie persona. And on this summery Saturday, she wasn’t in the billowy-armed onyx Peter Pilotto dress she wore to the Imagen Awards or the sheer ruffled vermillion frock featured in her Valentino campaign for the fashion house’s recent VSling bag campaign. Here, she was nondescript in a black Victoria Beckham button-down (a staple uniform piece for her filming days), denim Levi’s shorts, Rag and Bone flats she swears she’s “worn to death,” and diamond earrings that her new boyfriend, Angel Bismark Curiel gifted her. She’s certainly living a new season in the series of her life.
It began in 2017 when powerhouse screenwriter and director Ryan Murphy tapped Mock to join the Pose writers’ room to help craft narratives for the largest cast of openly trans series regulars in TV history. When I ask if she ever imagined that she would dive into this particular industry, she initially says no, but then, as if revealing the truth to herself for the first time, retracts her statement. It turns out that she’d always imagined an adaptation of her first memoir to be her small screen introduction. So, she was initially caught off guard by Murphy’s request to join his new production.
“When I got the call for Pose to meet with Ryan, I was like, ‘This is a different way to come in. I can learn on the job on a show that has the potential to be important to my community,’” Mock says. “At that point, I think [the production team was] just about to start the casting process, so I didn’t know who had been cast.”
After Mock settled into a groove with the TV-writer workflow, Murphy urged her to try her hand at directing. The television industry novice would end season one of Pose with acclaim as the first trans woman of color to write or direct in TV history. For Murphy, her metoeric ascent was inevitable. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, “What I always tell people is: Just bring someone else up who’s not like you, but shares your worldview. Give them their first chance. That’s how you change the world.”
Sweater by LOEWE. Swimwear by Fendi.
His cosign proved beneficial for all those involved with Pose. Nominations (Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards) and wins (Peabody Awards and Dorian Awards) clung to the groundbreaking show like glittering butterflies. And this year, the show is up for six Primetime Emmys including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (for Billy Porter in “Love is the Message,” the episode Mock directed). For her, the wins are laudable, but more important has been showing what’s possible when trans women are behind the camera, as well as in front of the lens.
“These women deserve to be the heroines. These women deserve to have hair and makeup and costumes. These women deserve to have great lighting. These women deserve to be first, second, and third on the call sheet,” she says of the cast. “What a great gift it has been for me to be a part of the show. It has given me the experience and the résumé to create my own content.”
While Mock’s professional life began thriving in a new way, her personal life stopped matching that energy around the same time she began working on Pose. Though she reveals she was unhappy in her marriage for some time before filing for divorce in February, she felt uncertain about the future of her romantic life now that after becoming a major public figure. The pressure to lead by example for other trans women desiring fulfilling relationships was immense. “It just became this personal battle of how much am I going to stay [married] out of obligation to this person who supported me,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, I can’t live for what others want. That’s not what I’m here for.’”
Leaving her long-term relationship was difficult, but last spring, while her union with her second husband was winding down, Mock met Curiel after he was cast as the heartthrob Lil Papi on Pose. “It began innocently enough. I had just wrapped an episode I was directing and he made me know he was attracted to me in a very jarring way, because I just wasn’t in the [romantic] headspace at all,” she says coolly. “A day later, at one of our first screenings, he asked, ‘Are you happy in your relationship?’ And I just answered, ‘Yeah,’ and then walked away. But it struck me.”
Dress and earrings by Givenchy. Hat by Eric Javits Inc.
The moment urged Mock into accountability, pushing her to evaluate whether she was satisfied in her second marriage. “You have to be vulnerable in that way all the time, and unafraid. That’s something that I’ve learned through this relationship,” she says. “I wanted more of that challenge and that feeling and that connection.”
With a new partner and line of work, everything seems golden for the promising creative. Still, she shares that being the first to accomplish the feats that she has in her field has meant being regularly discounted along the way. Even as a global superstar, some people are remiss to acknowledge how instrumental she is to the production.
“I’ve seen people say, in regards to my work on Pose, ‘Oh, she’s just a consultant.’ And they don’t even want to give me the credit. Or say, ‘Oh, she’s just there a name. She’s not really involved in the day to day,’” Mock says. “Historically, it’s always the same way with Black women and our contributions. It’s like people don’t want to give proper due or just undervalue or underestimate the work that you do.”
Despite these criticisms, Mock has continued to channel her ambition into making trans narratives more accessible and ubiquitous. In July, she achieved another career high, becoming the first openly trans woman to secure an overall deal — to be exclusively hired to produce her own creative ideas and adapt them for TV — with a major content company. It also happens to be with one of the most coveted names in the entertainment industry: Netflix.
“I’m excited that they’re willing to invest in the formation and development of my personal ideas and stories,” Mock exclaims. “I am a woman; I can write women’s stories. I’m a Black person; I can write Black stories. I am a trans person; I can write queer and trans stories. That opens up my world and my perspective more than someone who is just white, cis, and straight.”
Mock will continue playing a major hand in the direction of Pose as a writer, director, and producer, but her agenda has certainly expanded. Murphy has tapped her to direct episodes in his two forthcoming Netflix series, The Politician and Hollywood. And she will begin developing her own projects with her three-year multimillion-dollar studio deal, which includes first-look options on feature films.
Her current slate includes a college drama following the experiences of a young trans woman, a sitcom reboot, and a series on post-slavery New Orleans. The once young Black Hawaiian trans girl who solely consumed narratives crafted by people who didn’t look or live like her is now creating more expansive images for a global audience — and this is only the beginning.
Skirt and cape by Prada. Bra by Fleur du Mal. Shoes by Givenchy. Earring by Louis Vuitton.
“In a selfish way, sometimes I am creating for myself, for that kid who was sitting there hoping to see just a fraction or a shard of a mirror in a show,” Mock says with graceful determination. “The ambition in me is wanting to create something that truly is my own, where I am the creator and showrunner, and it all fully comes from me. That’s why I’m so excited about the possibilities of creating new worlds.”
Photographed by Lia Clay Miller
Styled by Yashua Simmons
Hair by Felicia Burrows.
Makeup by Keita Moore for The Only Agency.
Set Design by Cristina Forestieri.
Production by Select Production.
Fashion assistant: Julian Mack.
Special thanks to The Standard Miami, Secret Garden Miami, and United Airlines.
Janet Mock is part of a double cover for Out’s 2019 Fashion Issue alongside Dan Levy. The issue will be available on newsstands on October 1. To get an advanced look at the issue, preview articles here, or view it on Apple News+, Kindle, Nook, and Zinio beginning September 24. Grab your copy by subscribing now.