"In my head I’m like ‘I have no experience in walking, but I’m gonna kill this.’"
“I always wanted to model,” Toya Robert tells me.
We’re in a tiny café adjacent to Port Authority, and taxis squeal by on the street outside. She’s about to grab a bus back to New Jersey, but is kind enough to spare me a bit of her time. I first met Toya at the VERGE agender fashion event that took place at Brooklyn Museum this past September. I was there to “volunqueer.” She was there to walk.
“Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to model,” she remembers, “but as I got older, you know, sometimes people closest to you can be your worst critic. Like, ‘naw, you gotta be tall though, you’re too short.’ So I just looked at it, liked it, and never really jumped into it.”
Toya assumed she was a bad fit for modeling. But one day, something on YouTube changed her mind.
“Then one day I happen to be surfing the web,” she says, “and I came across that show, Nikki Eason Presents the Androgynous Model. That was the first season, and I think by the fifth episode…what really made me call her was she was talking to the girls and she was really on the verge of breaking down. And she was basically letting them know, like, ‘I don’t have nothing. I’m broke doing this right now. I’m broke doing this for you guys. And I need you guys to understand how serious it is for me, and what we’re trying to do.’ And I ended up reaching out to her via email. And I watched all the episodes. And then she had a casting call for the finale. So honestly, I said a prayer, I really did. And when I said that prayer, I got cast for that show. That’s where it all started.”
It wasn’t easy. That didn’t stop Toya.
“Now this is in North Carolina. I had to take whatever little savings I had and to go on a flight. I had to come up with outfits, because they’re not providing us stuff, because again, she’s doing this from the ground up as well. Everything that we had to put together for that show, I did it, and when I went there, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. I missed my flight. Her never knowing me, never seeing me, ever in person, she ended up renting my hotel room. I remember her asking us, ‘has anyone had any experience runway walking?’ And everyone raised their hand, and I raised my hand. And in my head I’m like ‘I have no experience in walking, but I’m gonna kill this.’ And then the show came on, and we walked in all of our outfits, and I tell you, the crowd went wild. Every time I walked, every pose I did, they went wild.”
Toya’s next big fashion show was for What Is Butch? That was in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Nikki Eason actually suggested that I go to their show. She was like ‘you’ll learn everything you need to know as far as the basics of modeling from these girls.’ And I went there, and I learned. And then I went on to do the Rainbow Fashion Week, which was actually here last year.” She walked for Jag & Co.
“VERGE” was billed as the largest queer New York Fashion Week 2015 show, and featured eight up-and-coming designers whose work is rooted in notions of gender nonconformity and its intersections with race, ethnicity and culture. Toya walked the VERGE runways in both New York and Boston. She walked for the fashion label NotEqual by designer Fabio Costa of Project Runway (season 10).
She’d previously walked at Brooklyn Museum in 2014 for the (un)Heeled fashion show sponsored by dapperQ, a website dedicated to “the unconventionally masculine.” For that show, she walked for the headliner, Sir New York, alongside some big names.
How did she get selected by Sir New York?
“You know what’s so crazy? He was having a grand opening, and he was doing the casting call and that grand opening on the same day. So when we went, it looked like it was a party. He just had this backdrop that came down, and we had to stand in there and pose. I literally just tilted the hat to the side, and then dropped my head and posed, and that just went bonkers, bonkers, bonkers.”
“When I was younger I used to get bullied for being different,” Toya confides, “looking different, wearing different stuff. Being an adolescent you want to fit in, you want to be a part of the cool, cool. But I think by the time I hit, like tenth, eleventh grade I just had it in my head that, okay, if I’ve gotten this far and people still don’t like me, uh, I’m not gonna graduate. It doesn’t make any sense for me to continue on with the foolishness. So I started being me. And what do you know, people started appreciating that. I just started to embrace being the outcast.”
What about her made her an outcast?
“Sometimes people see things in you,” she guesses, “and there’s some that fear it. And there’s some that embrace it. And I think those people, they feared it.”
Toya’s mother died of lymphoma and leukemia in 2009. Toya suffered from anxiety and depression after losing her mom.
“It was after me and her relationship built back. When I left home, we didn’t have a good relationship. I don’t even think we spoke for two years. And then we started to speak again. And I remember one day she called me, and she was like ‘yeah, I’m in the hospital.’ And I’m like ‘why are you in the hospital, Mom?’”
Toya was not ready to lose her mom. She flew to Atlanta every weekend to see her. Her mom died a year later, and Toya went downhill.
“When I say downhill,” Toya assures me, “downhill.”
But she’s rebuilding. Toya’s a born-again Christian. She went back to church, found a spiritual family. At first she got some looks from the congregation there, but the minister embraced her, and soon everyone else did too.
Changing The Game
And when possibility ignites, people get up, brush themselves off, and walk.
“This androgyny in fashion,” I speculate, “it changes things up a bit, right? I mean as far as your prospects to model?”
“These people have a vision,” Toya answers, referring to the VERGE and (un)Heeled sponsors, visionaries like Anita Dolce Vita of dapperQ and Winter Mendelson of Posture Magazine. She includes boundary-breaking designers like Auston Björkman and Fabio Costa, and media innovators like Nikki Eason.
“But their vision can’t even begin…” Toya goes on to say, and then she’s out of words.
She continues: “They still can’t even comprehend how much opportunity and how much help and how much inspiration and how much they’re really helping our community. I don’t even think that they understand it. I think they’re more just on the inside trying to put everything together, so I don’t think they’ve taken the time to really grasp how much they are helping our community. They’re doing a big thing.”
“It sort of opens up a universe of opportunity that didn’t exist at all.”
“Definitely. And you’re gonna get people that are gonna look at you like ‘you’re not a model.’ Just like back in the day when you had rappers turn actors. Everything is bound to take a different turn. There has to be someone that’s thinking outside of the box.”
“I’m not really a person who’s into fashion much,” I confess. “At the VERGE show what got me was just the incredible diversity in the room, and just …all these people.”
“Who were so interesting.”
And here’s where we start finishing each other’s sentences.
“Like, I never thought of modeling like that,” I say. “It was an explosion of just, like, everything.”
“It’s kind of like someone just took all the rules and…”
“You got frikkin Rain,” Toya elaborates, referring to androgynous model Rain Dove, “doing a photo shoot with hair under her arms!”
“You’ve what’s-her-name with a genetic condition,” I throw in. “Melanie Gaydos?”
“She’s literally got, like…”
“And fierce! She killed that shot! She murdered that shot!”
“She’s so cool looking.”
“Oh my god, she killed that shot. Just her fierceness was bananas. And that’s what we need. I mean, not everybody is six feet tall. I’m five-four.”
“Yeah, you’re only five-four, so you already don’t work as a model, right?”
“Straight off the bat. You know what I mean?”
“This trend seems to me to go further than sexual orientation or gender presentation,” I offer. “Because we’re then basically throwing out the rules to do with height, and weight, and ability. It seems really much bigger.”
“Like I said,” Toya agrees, “I don’t think these people understand what they’re doing. I think they know where they wanna go, but I don’t think they understand the magnitude of what they’re really doing, because they are breaking barriers.”
Did they change the game? Toya’s answer is unequivocal:
“They bulldozed the game.”
The Silent Killer
“And I saw an older woman,” I continue to gush. “I did see a woman my age.”
“Oh yeah, that model for Jag & Co. It was two, two middle aged women. Yes. And beautiful. In this day and age, people have to be different. You know, people have to be different because everything is just so stagnant.”
“Yeah, a bore,” I agree. “Do I understand correctly about Rainbow Fashion Week that they’re also providing opportunities for, you know, queer photographers and stylists and…”
“Oh my god. Everything. You know, we’ve dealt with rejection in our community for a long time. So all we have is each other, you know what I mean? I’ve never felt so comfortable. I go to, like, a straight bar or a straight club, and you can see the stares and ‘sir, I mean, m’am’, you get a lot of that. But in our community, you go in and you get love. It’s like people that can relate to being rejected all coming together, like, we’re a family, let’s rock.”
But Toya’s not a fan of labels. She wouldn’t call herself “gender-fluid.”
“Okay, I’m gonna tell you this,” she tells me, lowering her voice. “And people may agree or may not agree. I don’t have a clue what any of these newfound words are. I identify with ‘androgynous’ because I am a female. I’m still very, you know, feminine, although I do have that boyish swag. I may look like a boy from behind or whatever, but I still have that very soft, you know, sensitivity.”
Toya thinks people sometimes come up with labels to make themselves feel comfortable. But the way she sees it, they’re already breaking the rules.
“So what is the problem with there being a rule-less, genderless type of energy?” she wonders. “I know what I like. I’m very secure in my position and what I am, and who I am.”
“So you just sort of see yourself as an androgynous woman.”
“Yeah, and I love women.”
What’s next on Toya’s list?
“I’m like the silent killer,” she hedges with a laugh. “I got a lot of stuff coming up. It’ll definitely be revealed. And I wanna do something different.”
She’s feeling herself, and she fully intends to run with it. She already has a few fans.
“Surprisingly enough, I had somebody run backstage,” she marvels. “I think this is when I was doing Rainbow Fashion Week, someone was like on the verge of tears, like ‘can I take a picture of you? You’re my favorite model.’ I’m like ‘oh my gosh, this is so different.’”
“What do you aspire to?”
“Just inspiring people. Continuing to break barriers. Like, it’s okay to be different. Yeah, you get bullied, but look where I’m at now. You could do this. All this is here for you.”
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