Breaking barriers: Transsexual supermodels

As the muse of Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci, supermodel Lea T has graced the catwalk at the label’s recent Haute Couture show and stars in their new campaign. However the 28-year-old Brazilian model, and newest fashion rising-star, was actually born Leandro Cerezo and is currently undergoing hormone replacement therapy in preparation for a full sex-change.

While it is rare for a transgender model to break into high fashion as Lea has done, she is not the first to have experienced success in the industry. Last year transgender actress and model Patricia Araujo got a standing ovation at Rio de Janiero Fashion Week and was described as the event’s most spectacular model.

A fan of androgyny, bisexuality and all things that blur the line between gender stereotypes, when I first read about this story I thought that this was the beginning of something special. However, Lea’s career choice, and the success she’s experienced in it, has still provoked the anger of her Catholic family.

Once Leandro had appeared in photoshoots as Lea T, a Rio newspaper’s gossip column revealed she was actually daughter of football hero Toninho Cerezo, the World Cup veteran and contemporary of legendary Brazil players like Falcão, Sócrates and Zico. He had not, the paper said, reacted well to its questions concerning his child’s new existence.

“We got in touch with the former star but, irritated, he limited himself to saying that he had four children, one of them called Leandro,” the newspaper reported. “When asked if the boy had starred in the Givenchy campaign, Cerezo hung up the phone.” The same newspaper, Extra, noted that in a 2007 interview Cerezo, now manager of the second division club Sport, had claimed to have only three children.

Of course, you have to keep in mind how this event could have been twisted by the media. A random phone call from a newspaper gossip column would probably result in most people putting the phone down. Also, Lea’s brother, Gustavo, has denied claims of a family rift, insisting: “It’s Lea’s success, not the family’s. All I will say is that we are on her side and we support her.”

But the model herself has admitted that Toninho is not overjoyed by her transformation. “He doesn’t even like to touch on this matter,” she told Brazilian radio. In a Vanity Fair interview, moreover, she said she “never spoke directly” to her father about undergoing the hormone treatment that will, eventually, give her the body of a woman. Conversation, she said, was limited to trivialities.

This reaction, say observers, may be unfortunate, but it is not surprising. “In a macho, Latin-American, Catholic culture… [a family’s response] is complete denial,” Brazilian transsexual Walkiria la Roche, founder of Belo Horizonte’s transsexual and transvestite association, Asstrav, said. “We are excluded when we go to primary school, but the first institution that excludes us is our family.”

According to Léa, this fact that his young son was different from other boys had not escaped Toninho, even though their time together was limited to sporadic visits by the footballer. “When papa came home he would look at me and say there was something wrong with me. In the years to come, everyone started to pray that I was gay. It would have been the lesser evil for a religious family used to rules and type of colonial, rigid way of life,” she said.

However, in Lea’s hometown reaction has been positive among activists who see her fame as a step towards greater tolerance. “It’s a good, positive example and this is very rare,” said La Roche, who heads a government department fighting for transvestite and transsexual rights and claims to be one of only three transsexuals working in government around the world. “It is important to have Lea in a magazine. All positive press shows society that we are capable of things other than prostitution or being hairdressers.”

The enduring difficulties which people incur when they choose to switch sex are all too familiar to Lea. From the everyday humiliation of being laughed at by strangers to the disorientating effects of sex change drugs – “I would wander the streets, full of hormones, depressed, with people laughing behind my back” – she is proving to be an eloquent ambassador to what remains a globally marginalised and misunderstood community.

Even now, with her education and privileged background, and all the comforts that come from her burgeoning celebrity status, Lea is under no illusions about the emotional challenges that lie ahead —and not only from the intense media interest, which has been relentless since the Givenchy ads were launched.

Lea, who says she “cannot allow [herself] the luxury of being in love”, is pessimistic about her chances of finding happiness with someone else. Those transsexuals who do enter into serious relationships, she says, often do so by keeping their past from their partners.

“They live as hypocrites; it is a variation on solitude,” she said. “We transsexuals are born and grow up alone. After the operation we are born again, but once again alone. And we die alone. It is the price we pay.”

Despite all this, she says, the “war in her head” has been worth fighting. “The choice,” she said in an interview in Italian Vanity Fair, “is between being unhappy forever or trying to be happy.”