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Interview: Elite Model Carmen Carrera On Fighting For Trans Rights In "Trump's America"

Carrera weighs in on Gavin Grimm, contention between hip-hop and the LGBT community and the common ground between the fight for equal rights overseas and in the United States.

The moment she shot out of obscurity on the third season of RuPaul's Drag Race, Carmen Carrera committed to using her fame as a vessel for change. Thanks to a newfound tribe of supporters, the Puerto Rican-Peruvian model pulled back the curtain on her transition from man to woman and hasn't minced words on transgender rights since.

No longer in hiding, the lionhearted advocate challenged the use of "shemale" on the show that introduced her to millions across the nation to prevail. "[It's] an incredibly offensive term, and this whole business about if you can tell whether a woman is biological or not is getting kind of old," she wrote in a statement. "We live in a new world where understanding and acceptance are on the rise."

And from that vantage point, the fashion muse landed in the center of a campaign to become Victoria Secret's first trans angel with the support of almost 50,000 fans. The world-class brand hasn't publicly addressed the call, but the Elite model isn't deterred by hurdles on the path to inclusivity—a point she makes clear in the face of the Trump administration.

Carrera doesn't deny the sting of the 45th president's assault on bathroom rights for transgender students. After all, she had just cleared her female gender on paper when the news swooped in this February. In a position of influence, however, the Couples Therapy's alumna swats at the temptation to wallow in fear. "As someone who’s visible, I feel it’s part of my responsibility to have a voice for trans people because the fight is not necessarily on television," she tells VIBE Viva over the phone. "The fight is every day."

Below, Carrera weighs in on the Supreme Court's letdown in the case of Gavin Grimm, contention between hip-hop and the LGBT community, and the common ground between the fight for equal rights overseas and in the United States.

VIBE Viva: When America was introduced to you on season three of RuPaul's Drag Race, you were a self-identified gay man. Unknown to viewers at home, you started your transition shortly after filming. How did you know it was time?
Carrera: I knew it was time before I went on RuPaul's Drag Race. In my early 20s, I set out to kind of find myself. At that time, if you were different or if you ever questioned your gender identity or sexual orientation, society kind of put you in the gay club. That's where you ended up, but my generation was a mix of all these different people from different walks of life, so I was exposed to a lot of the drag performers, a lot of the trans performers, the competitions, the pageants, and I was fascinated.

About five years later when I got the call for [the show], I had already been questioning what I wanted in the future, and I decided, “If I get on Drag Race, that will be my time capsule. I'll be able to go back and watch myself before I take this journey.” Literally the day after filming, I started my transition. The show aired six months later, and we started to tour six months after that so I was already a year into my transition as people got to see me in person. I wasn't really too open about it because I was afraid I was going to be judged by the other performers. I was afraid that people might not love me anymore or think I was losing that transformation aspect of my performance art so it took me a long time before I opened up on Facebook and YouTube.

What inspired you to come out on social media?
It was basically all the love that I was receiving from fans. I was doing about five or six different cities a week where I had to do one or two-hour long meet and greets, and let me tell you girlfriend, I met every single fan. I didn't turn anybody away. If you've ever met me, I would give you so much love, and the stories they would tell me about how empowered I made them feel—I started to have a sense of responsibility. I felt I needed to be honest because they were being so honest with me, and it wasn't something I was used to. Coming into the gay scene and going out to the gay clubs, you're almost not allowed to be vulnerable because of the social stigma and the abuse you put yourself through, feeling like you don't belong and you're not allowed. Having all of that openness, I felt like I had to give something back by being honest about what I was going through, and I was afraid that I was going to lose a lot of that admiration, but the truth will set you free. I received an outpouring of love and understanding, and it's gotten me a modeling contract with Elite Models, which is super difficult to get into, and my career basically took off from there. 

Epic day 😋💜 #shoutouttomyhaters #sorrythatyoucouldntphaseme 🖕🏻💋 #AskMeForMyBirthCertificate

A post shared by Carmen Carrera | Model•Actress (@carmen_carrera) on

Days after you received your birth certificate reflecting your female gender, the Donald Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender students established under Barack Obama. What was that week like for you?
It was a really difficult week for me. First of all, I had no idea the Trump administration was going to—rescind is the word, but for me it’s like they’re actually turning their back on us. At the same time, I was so privileged to have my birth certificate changed because there are so many people that don’t have the same opportunities as me. It was a very bittersweet moment. I went through hell and high water to get my birth certificate. Every single time that I would get one inch closer, somebody would push me back whether it was the court saying that I didn’t have enough paperwork yet or the State of New Jersey sending back my birth certificate twice with the wrong information, so it was a lot of running around, a lot of BS I had to put up with that I couldn’t believe I had to go through. Then the very same week that I get it, the Trump administration decides to not support us anymore. It was a difficult time for me, but honestly, I’m the kind of person that’s extremely resilient. I had to just get up and say, “I’m not going to let this get me down.”

I wasn’t even going to post up my birth certificate, but I decided to because not a lot of trans people even know they have the option to do this. You have to be able to give people some light in the darkness, and I know this gives people hope because now it’s, “Fine, if you want me to use the bathroom that correlates with my birth certificate, well I’ll get my birth certificate changed.” In these times, there’s so much ignorance. There's so much adversity, and I want to be able to give my community options, so I just put it out there that this is what you could also do.

Did the news take you back to your childhood in any way?

It did. When I was a kid, I was really quiet. I didn’t really share a lot of the things I was going through, and I feel like, nowadays, there are so many more kids that are brave enough to open up. When you open up, you open up yourself to the good and the bad. To be honest with you, I felt like fighting because you have these kids who are so honest, so vulnerable, who are so brave—braver than me because in school, I made sure that I kept my mouth shut. I made sure that I didn’t walk or talk differently than anyone else, and I really pushed myself down to a point that I stopped developing my own character, so I started to think back to that. For me, [the ruling] made me want to really go out there and fight the good fight. It breaks my heart for kids to have to go through this, but there's so much support right now, and I’m not going to stop fighting. I want to be able to use my platform wisely. I want to be able to use my career and use all of the tools and resources that I have, I want to be able to pass that down to them as well. They deserve to thrive. They deserve to feel safe.

In the wake of the president's ruling, the Supreme Court has now backed out of its decision to hear the landmark case of Gavin Grimm, whom you've met before. Have you shared any words with him since?
We talk on social [media], and I try my best to send him positive messages. This process is going to be a lengthy one. The Supreme Court isn’t hearing the case now, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to hear it later. We just hope that the Court of Appeals does the right thing. I just want to send my support to Gavin Grimm and let him know that he’s doing an amazing job telling his story. I’ve watched so many of his videos, and to have the courage to go out there in front of the camera and all of the lights and be vocal about this issue is huge. He’s become the voice of trans youth on this whole bathroom issue and not even unwillingly.

I don’t know if you’ve seen his profile on the Gender Revolution documentary with Katie Couric, but there’s footage of parents speaking out against Gavin, and it was so heartbreaking because I feel they’re missing the point. Everyone is so concerned about children’s safety, but why isn’t anyone concerned about Gavin’s safety? Why be isolated just because of who he is? He spent weeks and weeks using the restroom without incident, and all it took was one person saying they were uncomfortable. I really hope that justice comes out of this, and that this issue goes to the Supreme Court because it is a federal issue. I can’t stand the fact that the Trump administration says this is a state issue. It’s basically throwing off the responsibility of the highest power. It’s so ridiculous, but I just wish [Gavin] all the best, and I’ll continue to share updates on his story on my platform, and I hope that will motivate the rest of my community to be an ally for this cause.

According to reports, at least seven trans people have been murdered in 2017 so far. At the end of February, Chyna Gibson and Ciara McElveen were killed within 48 hours of each other in New Orleans. How does your work as a transgender advocate, especially one of color, shift in the era of "Trump's America"?
As far as my advocacy works, I kind of focus my efforts within the hip-hop community. I was on VH1’s Couples Therapy along with Joe Budden and Janice Dickinson. It was a great season. I actually got married on the finale. In the house, we had a lot of conversations about being trans and what that means, and I was faced with a lot of the ignorance within that space. I did a project with Complex – a Transgender 101 – and we got like five thumbs up and like 1,000 thumbs down for something that was very friendly and informative, so that really pushed me to continue to work. Trans women of color are often targeted, and I really don’t know why. The same thing happens in Brazil. I just did a documentary with HBO and Fusion about the conditions there. Brazil is the deadliest place to be trans, so we wanted to focus on what exactly is the problem. It’s really sad.

I always try to think about what I can do to let people know that I’m just like everyone else. I have two girls here at home I’m trying to raise. I’m trying to be a good stepmom. I’m trying to stay fit and be a good model and break ground in the acting world. I’m working that same struggle every other woman is trying to work. I’m not here to fool no man. I’m not here to play a character. I’m not trying to do none of that stuff that we’re often stereotyped with as if that’s our purpose. I don't get it. I always try to make the best decisions that I can to help open up people’s eyes.

You touched on the dichotomy of Brazil, a country that hosts one of the largest gay pride parades, yet sees the highest rates of violence against LGBT people in the world. What was your biggest takeaway when you were filming Outpost?
My biggest takeaway is that our issues are issues that are happening across the globe, but what I can say is that America kind of sets the tone for a lot of countries that have decided not to support equal rights, so I do feel there is a certain responsibility as far as the rest of the world goes. What was really surprising to me about Brazil was seeing how we go a few steps forward to take a few steps back, and I think we need to be aware of how we perceive and embrace one another. This same exact situation is also happening in Spain. There was an LGBT organization that put out a campaign saying some boys have vaginas, and some girls have penises – basically to embrace people from all walks of life – and [a Catholic group] plastered it all over their buses [in Madrid] saying, “Don’t [let them fool you],” so there’s this battle going on, and it’s really hard to educate people when they’re not open to listening. As someone who’s visible, I feel it’s part of my responsibility to have a voice for trans people because the fight is not necessarily on television. The fight is every day. People feel like they can’t even use the restroom. Transgender people should be allowed to function in public spaces, period, and it is the responsibility of the government to protect everyone’s equal rights. That’s something that is so basic, and I wish that people would understand that.

As a Puerto Rican-Peruvian model, you were among 81 of fashion's biggest names that joined W Magazine's "I Am An Immigrant" campaign last month. Tell us why that collaboration was important to you.
I decided to be a part of the campaign because my parents are immigrants. I’m first-generation American so the hopes and dreams of my parents rest on my shoulders, and my success is really important to them. It’s a sense of pride to stand up and say, “I come from immigrants.” This whole country was founded on the idea to leave a horrible situation and make a new life among people with equal rights so when this came up, I absolutely wanted to do it because there are so many people who come from the same exact situation that I do. My parents came here poor, no education, and I grew up around the idea that we have to hustle and work hard. That's why I decided to do it. I carry that with me every single day.

How do you plan to use your work as a vehicle for change moving forward? Is there anything we should keep an eye out for that you’re working on this year?
[Outpost] airs on May 7 on Fusion. I’m also working with an organization in Massachusetts where we’re trying to bring LGBT history into schools. It’s called “History Unerased,” and we’re hosting a series of events to raise money for that. I really would love to normalize the idea of LBGT history, so we’re putting together that curriculum. That’s what I’m really focused on. Aside from that, I have Miami Swim Week that’s coming up in July that I’ll be participating in as well as Fashion Week in September. I’m also working on a feature film that I can’t really talk about. That’s pretty much it for now.

And is becoming Victoria Secret's first trans angel still on your wish list?

Absolutely. To be a Victoria Secret’s angel would be a dream. I would love to parade on a runway and show my pride and be a positive representation for my community, but the question is would "Trump’s America" allow it to happen? And that’s really on them, but I’m here. I’m fit, I’m sexy, I’m young and I’m available.

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Derrel Todd

Music Sermon: Forget The King of R&B, Raphael Saadiq Is The Son Of Soul

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

This week, Cash Money artist Jacquees set off an internet firestorm when he proclaimed himself to be the “King” of R&B “for (his) generation.” The comment led artists, executives, music fans and #BlackTwitter in general to debate: who is the King of R&B? (Spoiler alert - it’s not Jacquees.)

While a consensus was never reached, the heated discussion illustrated how much the definitions and ideas of R&B and R&B stars varies between age groups. Ironically, one name that seldom appeared in the convo belongs to one of the most consistent and prolific presences in soul and R&B music for the last 30 years: Raphael Saadiq.

Saadiq has become like a stealth superhero of soul for the last several years of his career, moving to the background as more writer/composer/musician, so the impulse for many might be to label him as an “old school” artist. But that’d be a misnomer, as he’s still had his hand in some of the most influential music for the current generation. Perhaps he transcends a simple R&B conversation as a self-identified Son of Soul (the difference between R&B and Soul is a topic for another day), but however you want to categorize him, he is not widely-enough acknowledged for how he’s kept us jamming, constantly, for three decades.

Let’s explore the iterations through which “Ray Ray” has blessed us over the years.

TONY! TONI! TONÉ!

During the birth and rise of New Jack Swing and then the subsequent evolution to Hip-Hop Soul, Tony! Toni! Toné! was one of the last of a dying R&B breed: the band. They – and a few years later Mint Condition - were standouts as live musicians in an R&B landscape turning to sample-based production. This set both groups apart, establishing them early on as serious soul acts, and making them forerunners of the neo soul sound to come in the late ‘90s.

Like almost every black musician and/or producer of note in his peer group, Saadiq developed and honed his musical chops in the church. Exposure to Motown and Stax by his blues singer father led him to the bass and served as inspiration for his future style. But he, brother Dwayne and cousin Timothy Christian received their formal Tony! Toni! Toné! training on the road: Raphael and Christian toured as part of Sheila E’s band on Prince’s Parade Tour and Dwayne with gospel great Tramaine Hawkins.

Having been properly trained, educated and tested in blues, soul, gospel, and funk, the three formed Tony! Toni! Toné!. Their first album was a modest success, achieving gold status from the RIAA, but wasn’t a standout. The trio started taking the reins on writing and production on their sophomore effort, and the Tonys as we now know them showed up. They announced both their musical background and intentions with their album titles: The Revival, Sons of Soul, House of Music. They were not there for catchy, formulaic R&B. They developed a signature blues, soul, gospel and funk hybrid, rolled up in modern R&B and hip-hop fusion.

The Revival is arguably a new jack swing album – “Feels Good” is a must-have on any new jack playlist – but they were taking the existing marriage of R&B and hip-hop and adding an even deeper soul element, reaching back to ‘70s sonic roots. It was the sonic equivalent of taking new jack swing chicken and shaking it in a paper bag of old-school musically-seasoned flour.

The group still had the kind of jammin’ uptempos found on their debut, Who?, but started to establish themselves as producers of some of the greatest R&B ballads of the ‘90s.

When you think of the Tonys’ music, aside from “Feels Good,” the first song that comes to mind is probably a slow jam. Most acts are fortunate to get one true signature song in their career. Tony! Toni! Toné! has several, and they’re timeless. Put them on today and see if you don’t hit a body roll.

They also established themselves as formidable soundtrack players (as any 90s act worth their salt did. Remember soundtracks, by the way?). They had cuts on the House Party II and Boyz in the Hood albums.

By Sons of Soul they’d found their pocket, and they pushed the sonic limits of contemporary R&B to the extent that some outlets classified the album as jazz, it was such an outlier. Saadiq recognized that they were doing something important for genre. Something that was connecting old style and new. In an interview about the album in 1994, he expressed what he saw as the group’s role in music. "We've been very blessed to be able to be a group that writes our own songs and people have accepted us from both sides, hip-hop and the R&B…I feel very fortunate to be able to do that here in 1993-94, because like you know, it was starting to be a dying thing that was happening. But I guess we were like the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.”

Going back to the aforementioned King of R&B discussion, Diddy chimed in the conversation (he knows a little something about the topic) to run down some criterion to even be considered. His list included vulnerability and adoration in the lyrics and subject matter, the ability to sing a woman’s “draws” off, and the pen game to write hits. Check, check and check. Sons of Soul deservedly landed at or near the top of a gang of 1994 year-end lists and the Tonys continued to raise the bar for the ballad game. Real talk, the last four and a half minutes of the “Anniversary” album cut are better than some entire R&B albums.

With House of Music, the group sought to even more fully showcase all their influences and inspirations: the Al Green-esque “Thinking of You;” the Stylistics-inspired “Holy Smokes & Gee Wiz;” the Bay Area connect with DJ Quik for some G-Funk with “Let’s Get Down;” the straight-up church moment of the “Lovin’ You” reprise closing out the album, with Christian putting all that good anointing on the Hammond B3 organ. This was our clearest glimpse what Saadiq had in store for the future.

LUCY PEARL

When Tony! Toni! Toné! broke up and Saadiq put together supergroup Lucy Pearl, we realized he was on some other sh*t. First, the very idea to bring En Vogue’s Dawn Lewis, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Saadiq together was genius. Then, oh…what’s this sound? Tony! Toni! Toné! with a little somethin’ extra on it? Saadiq revealed his ability to reinvent himself, stylistically and sonically, and play in different music spaces. Successfully. Hits, check.

WRITER/COMPOSER/PRODUCER/MUSICIAN

After Lucy Pearl, Saadiq embarked on his first solo projects. We’ll get to those, but the more remarkable part of this era was his expansive work as a writer, producer and session musician for others. As mentioned earlier, Tony! Toni! Tone! was an inspiration for neo soul (a term Saadiq loathes), which pulled from ‘60s and ‘70s influences, paired with the return to live instrumentation, mixed with hip-hop swag. Saadiq was a sometime member of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla’s Ummah production collective, but had also been working on outside projects since the Tonys were active. Through either the Ummah or alone, Ray was behind hits you may have attributed to someone else.

-D’Angelo, "Lady:" Saadiq co-wrote, co-arranged and co-produced the still-perfect ode to #WCEs (Women Crush Everydays) with D’Angelo.

-Bilal, "Soul Sista:" Soul and R&B great Mtume on the pen, Saadiq on production.

-Angie Stone, "Brotha:" OK, who’s gonna create the 2018 “Unproblematic” edit of the “Brotha” video?

-Total, "Kissing You:" No, this wasn’t Stevie J. Now, imagine this as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song. You can absolutely hear it, right?

-Erykah Badu and Common, "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop):" Saadiq again proving he’s a master of the perfect fusion of hip-hop and an old soul groove.

-D’Angelo, "Untitled (How Does It Feel):" Saadiq has admitted he later realized he was channeling Jay Dee’s style throughout the D’Angelo session.

SOLO SAADIQ

As a solo artist, Saadiq has accomplished what few can: continuously evolving his sound and aesthetic while yet managing to still always sound like himself. The retro-influence has been a constant in his work, but that influence ranges between decades and musical eras. He’d given us a taste of solo Ray through “Ask of You” from the Higher Learning soundtrack, but that could easily pass as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song.

With Instant Vintage (again letting you know what he came to do with the title), Saadiq expanded on his existing signature sound of soul, funk, gospel and R&B; a sound he coined “Gospaldelic.”

With Ray Ray, he delivered a modern blaxploitation soundtrack. But then, in 2008, he went all the way back to Motown and the purest soul sound for The Way I See It. Saadiq was committed to an authentic return to ‘60s soul for the entire process. He eschewed slick, modern production techniques for old-school practices, including vintage equipment, all live instrumentation and single-take recordings. He donned slim-cut suits and classic frames for his look, and delivered a retro soul package via the 45 inch LP box set. But it still sounded incredibly fresh and modern, and that is his gift.

His last solo album, 2011’s Stone Rolling, was a progression of The Way I See It, staying in the same retro soul pocket, bringing some funk and rock’n’roll back into.

Or did he?

MILLENNIAL RAY

The thing about Saadiq is that he doesn’t just look a perpetual 30 years old (he’s 52. It don’t crack.). Unlike a lot of “old heads,” he keeps his ear current, as well. Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Anderson Paak, and BJ the Chicago Kid are his musical nephews. He praises them and their music often in interviews, heralding them as the current bridge-builders between eras and urban genres. Labelmate Leon Bridges adapted his The Way I See It and Stone Rolling formulas - from the sound to the ‘60s-style dress and imaging - for his own, and had Saadiq’s enthusiastic blessing. He listens to SZA, PJ Morton and Daniel Caesar. And he still has his finger on the pulse of current urban musical movements.

Saadiq was an executive producer on Solange Knowles’ 2016 A Seat at the Table, garnering a Grammy for the anthemic “Cranes in the Sky.”

He’s also helped to bring the full authenticity of the West Coast to Insecure for the past three seasons, serving as the show’s composer.

And he hasn’t abandoned his peers and contemporaries, garnering a “Best Song” Oscar nomination last year with Mary J. Blige for Mudbound’s “Mighty River,” and just recently executive producing John Legend’s first Christmas album, A Legendary Christmas. Only time will tell what he brings on the forthcoming solo album he told VIBE about, titled Jimmy Lee.

Whether his name is included in King of R&B conversations or not, Saadiq has been booked and busy in every area of black music since before 1988, keeping both aunties and nieces grooving, with no signs of slowing or stopping.

RELATED: Raphael Saadiq Talks New Music, 'Insecure,' And Why Tony! Toni! Toné! Won't Reunite

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Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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VIBE / Nick Rice

10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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