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Carmen Carrera Did It First

It was the “shhhhh” heard round the world. And if you know, you know. 

Being trans in this culture is never easy, but before 2015, it was really, really hard. Even if you happened to be Carmen Carrera, Drag Race star, supermodel, and all-around icon.

Especially if you happened to be Carmen Carrera, a trailblazer in a world that still didn’t really understand–or care to learn–how to talk to and about trans people, despite a growing fascination. 

If you’re trans, you might not remember where you were when the Twin Towers fell or when Kanye interrupted Taylor at the VMAs, but there’s a special place in your heart for the moment in 2014 when Carrera shushed Katie Couric after the talk show host veered into an exploitative, insulting line of questioning. Interviewing Carrera on the fan bid to make her Victoria’s Secret’s first transgender angel, Couric didn’t take long to ask Carrera the same, tired questions about transness and transition. And Carrera, in a moment of unparalleled bravery, shushed that woman right up. 

“I would rather talk about my modeling stuff,” she said, “I’d rather talk about being at W, being in Italian Vogue. And showing people that after their transition, there’s still life to live.”

She was absolutely right. During a moment where cis interviewers felt it was fine to ask incredibly inappropriate questions of trans guests on air, Carrera stood up for herself in no uncertain terms. And we, watching breathlessly, were absolutely living. 

That wasn’t all. After a 2012 episode of “Cake Boss” in which Carrera was set up to be the butt of a transphobic joke, she took to social media to explain exactly how and why trans folks never deserve that kind of treatment. And it was Carrera who took RuPaul to task for his continued use of the term “she-male” on the show. 

Today, about seven years later, the world is finally catching up to Carrera. She’s blazed a trail as an outspoken advocate for better trans representation, as well as using her platform to spread HIV awareness and raise funds for the cause. But being caught in that in-between moment of trans representation has been hard. In 2015, Carrera’s private life was put on display when she joined the cast of the reality show Couples Therapy. Viewers could peek into Carrera’s private life with now ex-husband Adrian Torres, in which Carrera, sadly, had to put up with a lot of the same conversations she’d been initiating in public. Anyone can tell you how exhausting it gets. But Carrera has been doing this for years. 

Now, she’s absolutely thriving. She slayed at Miami beach week and scored a starring role in Kase Peña’s upcoming anthology film, Trans Los Angeles. She’s also set to star in a comedy special and a sitcom reboot. Over some truly spotty WiFi, we connected to talk about Carrera’s legendary status in the community, and her very bright future. 

INTO: So, how’s your pandemic going?  

Carmen Carrera: For most of the pandemic, I was okay, thank god. And then I moved in October. I moved to another part of LA. And so I had to, through the pandemic, I had to readjust to life, and a lot of things were shut down, like, just normal things. I’d gotten a few adjunct jobs that I had to wait for this March to start filming. And then, just lately since everything has opened up, it’s just been picking up. And also, out of the blue, Miami Swim Week was like, “We’re open now, and we’re doing shows!” I’m like, “I need to go back to the gym! I need to hustle right now!” The pandemic, for the most part, up until about April, was a lot of just gnarly, like, “what is going on” vibes. Because I was like, for the first time in my life and in my career, I was just stationary, just by myself. And it really taught me how to be alone with myself, but also how to take care of myself, besides working really hard and going out to eat all the time and always running on airport food and whatever, and rushing to the gym, whatever it is — it was like time to just slow down completely, and just reevaluate everything that means a lot to me. So it was great! I had a chance to reconnect to my family, cooking a lot more for myself, and really learning how to save money and be a big girl, and just be completely self-sufficient. I’m really happy and I’m thankful that things are picking up right now, ‘cause I miss traveling. I kind of feel so grateful for the smallest things.

It must be a relief!

I’m really happy. I’m just trying to get back on it, and I know a lot of people are sort of feeling the same way, from being at home and not knowing what was going to happen next to finally being released to the world, and able to go back to the gym. What I’m observing is a lot of people are  trying to get back into that gym groove and now taking their wellness more seriously. So it’s actually really inspiring. Because before, 100% honest with you, the gym was more of an intimidating sort of environment. There was a lot of microaggressions and weird misogyny and dude ego, stuff like that. Now it’s not like that. We’re just like, “Drop the BS, we’ve got to get back on it.” 

I feel like you’re such a trailblazer, and people are sort of starting to understand the very very basics of what you’ve been trying to say about trans lives and representation from the start. How does it feel to see the world kind of catch up to you like that? 

It’s complicated. On social media now, people have more chill. When I was first starting out in the public eye, just with my transition, there was a lot of that Jerry Springer mindset, and it was scary. It was really scary because I was still traveling a lot, and I was dealing with people that were recognizing me from the television and who didn’t see my humanity, just saw me as a thing. But now I think — and socially too, like, on my social media and stuff. I remember I used to have to constantly just deal with stuff. I really pushed myself throughout the past five years to re-socialize. To not be fearful of going out in public, or be fearful of being who I am. It really took me a couple of years to develop that level of confidence. So it feels good now that I’m able to feel respected, because I feel like that’s really what was lacking. It was a respect issue, with people just dismissing my humanity completely as if I’m just not even human.

It feels good, definitely, but I think that there is still a lot within social settings, like at clubs and bars and stuff. Honestly, I kind of have, I don’t want to say two lives, but I have my public persona, and I have my mission, I have my driving force, which is educating people by being visible. I still feel like I need to prove myself and my talent, like any artist. But then when I’m not being “Carmen Carrera,” when I’m home with my girlfriends and I’m going back home to Miami, just as a regular single woman in the world, it’s a very different scene than it is from within the safety of the LGBT community and doing drag shows. When I used to do that, it was a very different, more creative space. Now when I’m not in that setting and I’m in more cis-normative settings, I’m really learning firsthand how women are treated, how women are perceived, and what the truth is really about out there. Being trans is still not accepted and embraced and respected. It’s still something that’s an iffy topic. It’s still a taboo, it’s still hidden, it’s still behind closed doors. And I think that more than anything, I think the reason why I pushed myself to continue to do more in my career is because — I kind of feel like Cardi B in a sense: I wanted to succeed so that I could prove to men that I deserve respect.

I have my mission, I have my driving force, which is educating people by being visible.

And I think that, unfortunately, you have to come from a place of ego, you have to come from a material place, because that’s really how you gain that respect. You could be a great, sweet, beautiful person, but that’s not going to matter so much to that misogynistic mindset, of like, “You don’t matter, and you don’t belong here.” With women it’s different. Women have a lot more empathy. It’s not about the ego, you know what I mean? I have a more spiritual connection,the vibe is totally different. I think that there’s more respect with women, and so that’s great. I think that there are so many amazing women in my life that really have given me a sense of belonging, which is so special to me. But I think that, considering how much violence there is out there and considering the fact that, I think it’s 80 or 90% of the men who sleep with trans women are also ones that commit these crimes against trans women, ot’s really the men that I have to do the most work on, and it’s hard when you’re perceived as a desirable woman, it gets intertwined. It’s very complex, and it’s very complicated, especially for me now that I’m single.

I do want to be loved and appreciated, and I do have vulnerability as well. So I walk a fine line trying to get that respect. And so, yeah, that’s kind of where we’re at right now. It’s pretty interesting. But at least people know that it’s not cool to be transphobic. So that’s a good starting point.

 That’s a big leap. Because, yeah, five, six, even four years ago, people felt a lot more emboldened to be transphobic.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Carmen Carrera (@carmen_carrera)

It was acceptable then to be transphobic. Now I see stuff get taken away from people, they know it’s not right. 

It’s so fascinating what you’re saying about the difference in empathy between men and women, because I feel like, yeah, these men are so violent because they feel it a personal threat. 

You know what it is? It’s because most men are competing with each other just to be given a space to exist and be themselves. It’s all about material things. It’s like, “Well, I’ve got the job, I’ve got the money, I’ve got the car and I’ve got the women, so now you’re gonna give me the space to be a douchebag,” I guess. They’re just going to be celebrated for that because that’s how men are.  I think it probably comes from what society deems to be a “powerful man.” Like, “this man is powerful because of what he has,” or whatever it is. It’s always like a — I guess there’s levels. It’s like a hierarchy or whatever it is. It’s just weird. And so, when a trans woman comes into the picture, it’s reason to degrade a guy, because there’s another guy that wants to have power over him. So it’s not going to be cool to be with a trans person. It’s gonna be like, “Oh, actually you’re less than, and now I can feel good in my ego and I feel like I’m better than you and you have to be like you’re less than.” It’s fucking trippy, but that’s literally all it comes from, I think, because I don’t think it’s necessarily about the trans person. The trans person could be absolutely stunning, it’s not about that. It’s just about, “How many points do you have so I can feel better than you or I can make you feel less than me?” 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Carmen Carrera (@carmen_carrera)

Yeah, like a weird status thing. And it’s interesting because I feel like men in our culture, all that’s expected of you as a man is to make money, and maybe have a wife and family. No one is expecting you to be emotionally mature, or in touch, or empathetic.

No! None of the things that I feel like women work on the most that I feel like truly matter, men just don’t care. And I think that the more that men can provide and say that they have control over, that they can be free to do what they want, and not do the work, and not talk about the things that matter and [do]  self-development. They want to skip all that stuff, because they make money, and because they just feel like they don’t have to. I mean, I’m sure it’s not all men, but I just feel like for the most part, it’s the men who have the loudest bark or seem to have the most control amongst other men are this type of guy. This is how it works. So I think the guys that commit violence against trans women, it’s mostly because they don’t want people in their world to find out, or something along those lines. It’s like, “Well, I’ll just go kill someone. Then they’re gone.”

I see so many different kinds of beauty in so many different women that I wish Victoria’s Secret saw it that way as well, and had a more diverse lineup so that we can show the world, and inspire so many other women to not just want to fit into one aesthetic.

Yeah, like, “Problem fixed.” It’s just such a hard thing for everyone to deal with, that realization.

It is. Plus, it’s hard to navigate through life. I mean, even for me, it’s not like I’m seeking anything from anyone, but if I do go out to just be normal, like, going out to a bar or to a club or to whatever it is, if someone recognizes me or something, it’s a little bit iffy sometimes. For the most part, it’s mostly love. I’ve never dealt with anything super shady, but there’s been a few moments where it was really weird. Because they’re just like, “Wait, you’re not allowed here! You can’t be here!” It’s like, what? Dude, chill out. It’s rare, though, and it’s usually in a B.S. setting anyway, like, usually at a club or something. That’s what kind of makes me feel like I need to be in my own VIP. I want to be the boss now. I’m gonna have my VIP, and I’m gonna pick the guys that I want my VIP, versus, the guy’s usually like, “Well, we’re gonna pick the girls and we’re gonna take you and not your friend,” type of vibe. I don’t know, it’s just weird.

I wanted to know also, what do you think about the recent Victoria’s Secret news? Because for a long time everyone was like, “We need to get Carmen on the fucking runway! She’s an angel!” 

I know. I did an interview with Entertainment Tonight in 2019, and I try not to be upset. I mean, people that are in my inner circle, they’re like, “Screw them! They put you through so much. You were with your agency and you were told to lose all this weight and whatever. You should not be nice.” And I’m like, “Well, you know what, I don’t want to be that person either.” I’m a peacemaker, not a peacetaker. So I said in my interview, I’m like, “Hey, why don’t we just get some really amazing women that are powerful in their own right, that give diversity, just completely rebrand the entire concept of angels.” Because honestly, I’m an outsider. I didn’t have an upbringing that prepared me for womanhood. You know, in the middle of my 20s I transitioned, and now I’m functioning more predominantly in the female realm, and I just love so many things about so many different women, that it’s not about necessarily their body type or their body shape. I see beauty in all of these types of aesthetics. So, that was my whole thing! These beautiful women who look super strong, and it was inspiring me to want to go to the gym. And then I see people like Ashley Graham, and it’s like, “Wow, being curvy is gorgeous.” I see so many different kinds of beauty in so many different women that I wish Victoria’s Secret saw it that way as well, and had a more diverse lineup so that we can show the world, and inspire so many other women to not just want to fit into one aesthetic. So it seems like they are a bit late, but I’m happy that they’re changing, and who knows? If I could team up with them, I think it would do good by all of the fans that have petitioned for me to be a part of the Victoria’s Secret Angels, and I don’t think there’s ever been someone petitioned to walk their show. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Carmen Carrera (@carmen_carrera)

You have a lot of upcoming projects, too. You’re in a film called “Period” as part of Trans Los Angeles.

Yes, it’s called “Period.” And it’s a short film. Trans Los Angeles is like an anthology, so it’s a bunch of short films that tie in together. So it’s one film but it’s made up of short films. I play Vergara. She is just released out of prison, and she’s trying to transition her life from being a sex worker to kind of aspiring for something else to get out of that lifestyle, and it’s sort of an inspiring sort of tale of how she figures that out while still navigating those demons and stuff. So it’s pretty cool. And also on HBO Max, I have a comedy special. It’s my first time doing stand-up comedy. It’s a comedy special called “Chingonas,” and it’s all Latina women. It’s a pretty dope lineup and that should be coming out soon too. 

I’m just happy to see trans people making films and trans actors getting roles. Nothing is better than that.

I think that the more we tell our stories, the more people can really see what our life is about. ‘Cause I think when people see only a little tidbit, usually it’s ignorant. It’s not necessarily — the story is not told properly. It’s just sort of stereotypical, like, whatever. And so, this was great because it was ran and directed by a trans person, and it had trans people that worked on the set as well as part of the crew, and then of course there was me. And I think in every story there’s a trans person. So yeah, it’s gonna be dope. ♦

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