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Zhenya Kizaki: A Transgender Model at New York Fashion Week

Saturday Sep 26, 2015

At the fashion shows by Uomo Moderno magazine, you may not find what many would consider the typical model. Once a Frisbee team walked for their event at New York Fashion Week; for another swimwear show, they called on the local gay swim team!

The reason: Uomo Moderno celebrates diversity in every sense of the word, searching out models that may be as exotic as from Uzbekistan or someone who looks like the guy or gal next door.

At the most recent edition of New York Fashion Week, the Uomo Moderno Fashion Show from Italy casted what most would consider a very atypical model: A transgender. So meet Zhenya Kizaki, a glamorous mix of Japanese and Kazakh androgynous beauty.

So, Zhenya, where are you from?

I was originally born in Tokyo, Japan, on August 8th.

Tell us a bit about your parents.

My mother and her family are from Kazakhstan, so they are Eurasian. My mother was studying Japanese in Tokyo and she landed a job as receptionist at a local TV station. Born in San Jose, California, my father was a Japanese American model pursuing his career in Japan. He began working as a TV director at the same station where the two met and fell in love, finally getting married.

How would you describe your childhood?

I grew up mostly in Tokyo, being educated in an international school until the age of fourteen. About that time I started letting my hair grow long and putting on my mother's makeup; I sensed that I was an effeminate boy. I wasn't really able to socialize at school. The other boys called me "sissy."

What was your reaction?

Since I was interested in American culture, I told my parents that I wanted to go to America and finish my education. They were worried about me and asked why. I told them that I didn't really fit into Japanese society and, for my appearance, America would be more suitable.

You were very courageous at a young age.... Then what?

I packed two suitcases and departed for San Diego, first, to study my high school education program. While I was in the airport going from Los Angeles to San Diego, there was a Caucasian guy who was a photographer. As I was plucking my eyebrows, he approached me to ask if I were interested in being a model. At the moment, I was sixteen and didn't know who I was, so I told him that I had to finish my education first, and if I were ever interested I would call him.

And did you ever make that call?

Two years later I did call him, telling him that I was looking for a part-time job and I was interested in modeling.

How did he respond?

He said that there was a magazine, which was well known in the '80s and '90s, that he was looking for an androgynous model, and his vision was me. He actually flew from New York City to San Diego to shoot me. I did one photo shoot with him, my first, but I still had to continue my high school.

What transpired after this initial shoot?

After I finished high school, I transferred to a community college in New York State. There, I started taking acting classes. In the meantime I had to improve my English. People approached me randomly with a vision to do more photo shoots when I was seventeen. My hair was blond at the time, and a photographer called me to her studio to do a shoot in women's dress. That was when I first desired to find an agency to become a model.

Was it easy?

No, I forgot about modeling and wanted to go back to Japan. But finally an agency invited me for an interview. They asked me about my gender and I explained my story. My first campaign was a for a jewelry designer. Things seemed to go slow afterwards; but all of a sudden, some people from Italy saw me on the agency's website. I did a TV short movie for an Italian designer in Milan last year. This was a big campaign for me with 12 different looks. I also did an editorial campaign for a magazine in Italy. After I finished my work I flew back to New York, but I had to look for an agency again. An agency in Boston accepted me, and some more shoots followed.

How do you compare to other transgender models?

My doctor once told me "You are naturally androgynous without hormones. It's in your DNA." I'm naturally androgynous. I don't shave my hair, I'm hairless.

Do you feel accepted in New York?

In Japan I always got rejected for ordinary jobs, so it's way better here. But I still have a difficult time, because I've tried to get a regular job. Plus, sometimes people give me a hard time on the train for my appearance.

How about as a model?

When I go for Tokyo Fashion Week I never get accepted; they only want Caucasian models. New York Fashion Week seems to be changing, accepting Blacks and Asians more. But the problem is the predominance of Caucasians. I am Kazakh and Japanese, and do sense some discrimination against Asians at New York Fashion Week.

Do you sense a change towards transgender models?

I feel that designers at New York Fashion Week are opening up to transgender models this year. I was very happy at the Uomo Moderno Show because I was the only real Asian and, of course, transgender.

Why do you think transgender models are more accepted this year?

I think Andreja Peji?, who transitioned from a guy to woman last year, is a popular androgynous model that became a woman. Then, Kaitlin became a woman. In America, so many states approved same-sex marriage... Probably these combined opened the doors to more diversity and transgender, transsexual, and androgynous models

What are your future plans?

I really need representation in New York City to be a print and runway model. I know I can do it. Designers and photographers like me, so why not?

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