PEOPLE chatted with the model and transgender activist about the ways she is working to improve inclusivity for transgender models in the industry

By Katie Intner Brittany Talarico
August 23, 2019 11:35 AM

Geena Rocero has been working in the modeling industry since she was discovered at 21 years old. She’s shot with countless fashion brands, landed a Harpers Bazaar India magazine cover and even made an appearance in the Weeknd’s music video “The Knowing.” But she says her latest achievement is a “dream come true.”

Rocero, 35, was just named Playboy‘s August 2019 Playmate, which makes her the first transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate to appear in the magazine.

“As the first Trans Asian Pacific Islander Playmate, I feel that I’m making it possible for someone to reach for their biggest dreams just like the people who came before me,” Rocero said in a statement. “I also hope that for anyone who’s been deemed ‘other’ to know that what makes you different, is your power, especially the unapologetic expression of your sexuality, gender and the value of your unique perspective.”

Ever since Rocero came out as transgender to a national audience during her TED Talk, which quickly went viral, five years ago, she’s been a leading voice in transgender advocacy, thanks to her platform Gender Proud.

Gender Proud started out focused on transgender rights, specifically gender recognition laws, then branched into a production company to help tell people’s stories of the transgender experience.

Now, she’s hoping this latest achievement spreads her message even further. Below, we chatted exclusively with Rocero about finding her identity as a woman in the modeling industry, the strides she is making for the transgender community and more.

Describe what it means to you to be named the first Transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate?

GR: It’s such a huge honor to be the first Transgender Asian Pacific Islander Playmate. To now be part of the iconic Playboy family is a dream come true, especially to be working with a brand that has long stood for freedom, individuality and unapologetic expression of oneself. I can’t help but think when I was growing up in the Philippines and to now be a Playboy Playmate is truly magical!

Who was the first person that you called when you found out?

GR: I called my best friend, Keo! I was screaming so loud from excitement!

RELATED: Transgender Models Tracey Africa Norman and Geena Rocero Cover Harper’s Bazaar India for the First Time

What has the response been like?

GR: The response has been so amazing. I’ve heard from people who had never bought a Playboy magazine before and to hear that they’re running to the nearest Barnes and Noble to pick up copies puts a smile on my face. I’ve been tagged on Instagram in videos of Filipina Titas (Aunties) looking at my centerfold, to messages from trans people who still can’t come out to their partners, to my friends from childhood in the Philippines, I’ve heard from everybody. But most importantly, people keep telling me that because of my story and the Playmate visibility, they themselves feel seen and validated.

Why do you feel it’s been harder for the transgender community to be accepted in the modeling/fashion industry as compared to film, TV, and stage?

GR: I think there have been great strides of progress for trans and GNC folks in fashion, especially in the recent fashion advertising season. I can only look back to the many years when I had to model (stealth) and couldn’t come out even to my model agent because it was not as accepted during those years. I think the progressive trans inclusion in film and TV that we’re seeing right now is because of the insistence of trans writers, directors, actors, casting director allies, activists, agents, that trans people deserve nuanced storytelling and representation because it can save our lives.

RELATED: Valentina Sampaio Becomes the First Transgender Model to Work with Victoria’s Secret

Why do you think it has taken this long for the industry to become more inclusive?

GR: I think it has taken this long because most people with the decision power didn’t want to take a chance in a different narrative. As a media producer myself, it’s important to surround myself with allies that are willing to listen and use their privilege to share their access. At least give us a chance to show the incredibly talented pool of trans people whether as directors, actors, producers, writers and the whole spectrum of artistic expression. I believe the world is craving stories and characters that have never been seen before.

How do you feel inclusivity is increasing and in what ways can it improve?

GR: I feel that the conversation of media representation doesn’t end in what we see in front of the camera, the bigger question is always to go deeper by asking who’s telling the story and who’s making the decisions to greenlight projects.

What do you think of Victoria’s Secret casting its first transgender model?

GR: As a fashion model I couldn’t be happier for Valentina, it is a dream come true. She’s a trailblazer who inspires millions around the world. But I think at this point it is also important to look at this moment and Victoria’s Secret history in full context when it comes to the conversation about representation, inclusivity, and accountability in making sure that this is not a fleeting trend or a “one-off”. Being trans is not a trend. Given its history and what the customers know on their stance to the lack of diverse plus size and trans inclusion, Victoria’s Secret can choose to use their power for good. For this moment to have a full impact, they can hire people to do year-long, ongoing inclusive training and workshops. They can hire more people of color, body diverse people in decision-making positions. It would be great to learn if they have a trans inclusive policy in their health care for employees. For real impact to be felt by its customers and followers, they can choose to lead by example or at least be open to learning because when companies don’t make a concerted effort to adjust to the constantly changing market and customer demands, they will be left out.

How do you hope the modeling world grows in the next decade?

GR: For the next decade, I hope that we’ve moved beyond the conversation where including a trans person in an adverting campaign will not be questioned or cause a headline. I hope it just becomes a norm. The same holds true for diverse body types and abilities.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

GR: I see myself continuing to produce media in fashion, travel, lifestyle or anything that feeds my curiosity. I just want to keep telling stories.

Tell me more about those swimsuits you make! Would you ever launch your own swim line? What are you working on now?

GR: One of my favorite things to do is making swimsuits out of leaves, fruits or flowers when I’m traveling in the islands. Yes, it would be a dream to launch a swimsuit line and tell stories with it. I’m also currently pitching TV shows and many projects.