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In ‘Horse Barbie,’ Geena Rocero Recounts a Modeling Life Like No Other


Geena Rocero can stop traffic. This is not just a metaphor.

On a recent Saturday in Manhattan, she confidently walked into West 34th Street, shrugging and waving a car on brakes before boarding a Lyft.

“I counted: I can block three lanes,” she said. “Not four.”

Miss Rocero, 39, has honed her skills of attracting and deflecting attention throughout her extraordinary career, as recounted in her new memoir, “Barbie Horse,” out on Tuesday. The book boasts recommendations from Gabrielle Union-Wade, Ronan Farrow, America Ferrera and Jia Tolentino.

In the late 1990s, at the age of 15, Ms. Rocero was working for the transgender beauty pageant in the Philippines, where the programs were broadcast on national television. Her win earns both money and reputation. She said her signature wig – side-swept bangs and side-swept bangs – has become a trend among fellow beauty contestants.

At the age of 17, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked at the Benefit Cosmetics makeup counter at Macy’s. “Almost every stall has a transgender Filipino working there,” Ms. Rocero said. “That’s where I found my transgender Filipino family.”

That’s also where she met a model who took her to perform at an Armani store. Her experience has given Ms. Rockero the opportunity to enter the industry. Modeling eventually brought her to New York, where she applied for commercial and lingerie jobs, appearing in a Legendary John’s Music Video and became routine in the early 2000s, the bottle and model scene at clubs like Marquee, BED and Cain.

In the Philippines, Ms. Rocero lives openly as a transgender woman with the support of both relatives and her chosen family, but she cannot legally change her gender. On the other hand, in the United States, she is legally recognized as a woman on her own terms, but she works “undercover” in the fashion industry, transitioning into a transgender woman while always living in the United States. fear that her transgender identity would hinder her career. .

She tried her best to work undetected in the modeling industry. On set, she sometimes pretends to have injured her neck to avoid revealing her Adam’s apple. The surgical scars are explained by broken bikini wax. She carries tampons in her bag.

She said that after eight years as a model, hiding has taken a toll on her mental and physical health. She was tired and anxious, and developed a severe case of eczema.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Ms. Rocero explored careers in other fields – magazine publishing, sustainable trash bags, hydroponic gardening. Nothing quite stuck.

Ilka Gregory, 46, who has been Miss Rocero’s best friend since 2009, said: ‘She was always ambitious and always ready to hustle. “But I think she lacks focus and that calling.”

While celebrating her 30th birthday in Tulum, Mexico, she told her boyfriend she was ready to go public. At that moment, hundreds of baby turtles suddenly appeared on the beach. She took it as a sign.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it in the biggest way possible,’” she said. “’I’ll do it like a TED talk.’”

She gave her speech,”Why I Have to Go Out,” on March 19, 2014. The first TED talk to focus on transgender issues, it has been viewed more than 3.6 million times.

Her TED appearance kicked off her career as a public speaker. Beautiful and eloquent, she became a sought-after guest at high-profile gatherings such as the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the Milken Institute Global Conference.

In the back seat of a car on her way to the West Village, she was thinking about switching from model to advocate. “I was in a stealth trap,” she said. “And then I felt like I had stepped into a new trap, which is the politics of respect.”

Ms. Rocero said she has never felt completely comfortable with her role as a transgender model. At first, she was excited to take on what she calls the character of Angelina Jolie – a beautiful, world sprinter champion of social issues. But then she realized maybe she’d rather be Tyra Banks.

For her, that meant starting a production company and trying her hand at directing. It also means posing for Playboy in 2019, just the second openly transgender Playmate.

“Ines was the first,” said Miss Rocero, referring to the French model vegetable ines. “I am the first trans-Asia Pacific islander and the first transgender playmate of the year.” She proudly added that she brought a Playboy reporter with her to a speech at the United Nations.

In the West Village, Miss Rocero once again blundered as she approached Rosecrans, a florist and coffee shop. When I caught up with her, I said she could stop the traffic, but I certainly couldn’t. “Sure you can,” she said, tossing her hair. “You just have to believe it.”

She smelled the flowers and sang along “Weak” of SWV before tucking into a carrot muffin and soy latte. She is enjoying a few days in New York before going to Miami to Sea Summita symposium aboard a Virgin cruise ship, whose combination of lectures and parties has earned it the nickname “The Learner”.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whom Ms. Rocero considers a friend, attended the summit. In an email, Mr Branson praised Ms. Rocero, writing: “Beyond what she brings to these important conversations, she’s always been the first to get people up and dancing during meetings. our face!”

Is Miss Rocero worried about getting seasick while on a cruise ship? “No, I’m Moana, honey,” she said with a smile.

The subject of “Moana” brought her into a dialogue hole about pre-colonial languages, early Pacific trade routes that affected Madagascar’s indigenous population, and its predominance. Flexible gender identity in Polynesian cultures.

“I am a discreet anthropologist,” Ms. Rocero said. “There was a time when my IG account was called ‘NatGeena.’”

Looking at her phone, Miss Rocero realized that she was late for her schedule at World Voices Festival PEN America. Walking briskly toward Washington Square Park, she tried again carelessly, this time stopping just as a car veered to the right of the road.

“It doesn’t always work,” she said with a chuckle. She arrived at the festival just minutes before the event started.

Speaking on a panel titled “Politicizing: Writing Trans Narratives Today,” she described the two-year process of writing “Horse Barbie,” citing Anthony Bourdain and Cathy Park Hong as literary inspirations.

According to Ms. Rocero, the title of her memoir is a retelling of insults thrown at her during her pageant days. The other girls called her “Horse” because of her dark complexion, protruding upper lip, and long neck. Her mentor Rocero and, as she puts it, “trans mom,” Tigerlily Garcia Temporosa, lovingly modified the nickname to “Horse Barbie.”

Ms. Garcia Temporosa, 46, who works as a stage manager for a live variety show in the Philippines, remains close to Ms. Rocero. The font used for the cover and chapter title of “Horse Barbie” was created from the handwriting of Ms. Garcia Temporosa.

For years, Ms. Garcia Temporosa had to successfully hide Miss Rocero’s model from friends in the Philippines for fear that someone would reveal her transgender identity. “When she sent a magazine from the US, I hid it in my locker,” Ms. Garcia Temporosa said in a recent video call.

Now, Ms. Garcia Temporosa has taken the magazines out of their hiding place.

Miss Rocero is no longer hiding. Her memoir doesn’t shy away from themes like colorism, gender disclosure, prostitution, and the dilemmas of medical transition.

During a panel at the literary festival, Ms. Rocero recounted a clear passage in her book in which she presented the mechanism of post-surgery orgasm to a transgender woman.

“It’s fun that I want to share it with transgender women,” she said. “It’s something we haven’t had access to for a long time so we can share and talk about it. …” Miss Rocero choked as she paused. She took a breath.

“I am crying with happiness,” she said. “These are tears of happiness.”

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