Nomi Ruiz isn’t trying to cause trouble — most of the time.
Over her now 15-year-career, the performing artist-turned-actress has made international headlines for being herself.
“I think when I see people sort of resist, that it makes me want to do it more,” she says. She’s not being cheeky—although she’s great at that, too — she’s being honest. “I don’t know if that’s a rebellious thing or — I mean it is me.”
Take, for instance, the time she performed on live television in Greece. She’d been living there for several months, writing music, engaging in “Greek soap opera” love affairs, including a short-lived marriage (“I was married less time than Kim Kardashian was. 77 days? I didn’t even make it that far.”), when she was invited to perform with one of the country’s biggest male pop stars, Sakis Rouvas.
“We were singing a duet together on stage and we had this kiss at the end that was unexpected,” Ruiz says. “I was just having fun and then the next day, it was this huge thing — a trans woman kissed this famous guy on TV and the whole country was in a debate. We were in every newspaper and every talk show and it was sort of a scandal.”
Her friend told her not to leave her apartment.
“I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that,’” Ruiz recalls. “But then I was like ‘That is awesome — people needed to be shaken up.”
Ruiz is ultimately happy to be making headlines, even if she doesn’t personally find it so radical for her to have received a peck on stage. But as a Latinx trans woman, she’s long dealt with others politicizing her body and identity, especially gatekeepers of the music industry.
“I’ve been told time and time again — maybe because I’m Latin and a woman of trans experience — they’re like, ‘You need to tone down your sexuality because a lot of people don’t process.’ I’m like ‘What?’ I’m not gonna change because I’m trying to attain a certain level of success and it may be easier to wear a sweatshirt and sneakers. It’s easier for people to absorb something that’s not so femme or female or not supposed to be, I guess?”
Even in a sweatsuit, Nomi Ruiz would exude sex, though — it’s just what comes natural to her. Sitting casually comfortable in a No Sesso denim mini-skirt jumper that hugs at her hips after posing in several different looks throughout the cover shoot, Ruiz isn’t apologizing for being what some have told her comes off as “sexually threatening.”
“I’ve been told I can’t be sexy and be a feminist — ‘You can’t dress that way and be provocative and feed into misogyny’ or something,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I own my body. I own my sexuality. I’m proud of my body. I’m proud of my sex. And I love having sex with men, and that doesn’t affect my stance of empowerment.”
Ruiz says she’s channeling this furor into a new song for a forthcoming solo album, a song called “Feminist.”
“It’s funny when women say that to other women — that’s the extreme opposite of feminism. You’re being misogynist because you’re telling a woman what she can and cannot do,” she says. “For me, the whole point of feminism is we do whatever the fuck we want with whoever we want however we want while wearing whatever we want.”
Ruiz grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a New York neighborhood the Times deemed “not quite trendy” two years ago, but has seen some gentrification since, which means it’s suddenly “cool and still affordable.” A largely Latinx and Asian population calls the neighborhood home, and Ruiz says she was raised on a steady diet of R&B and hip-hop and her Puerto Rican parents. Her mom and brother were her earliest encouragers, she says, as was Anohni, the Grammy-nominated artist who introduced a young Ruiz to Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair after Anohni’s collaboration with the project spawned the hit disco-pop single “Blind” and other tracks that ended up on Hercules’s debut album.
“Over the years, Anohni has really been someone who has been pushing me to elevate myself and also give me an example of an artist who was so sure to their own identity,” Ruiz says. “And their own sound, too — a really unique sound and when I saw that become so successful, it really gave me hope that ‘Oh yeah, believe in yourself — don’t try to conform. Do what you do. Be the realest you can be.’ That’s what people really honor.”
Ruiz’s first big break came touring with Hercules, of which Andy Butler is the only consistent member. She took on Anohni’s vocal parts (Anohni wasn’t interested in touring), becoming recognizable as part of the ensemble that, at the time, also included DJ Kim Ann Foxman, Morgan Wiley, and Andrew Raposo. The press for the self-titled debut was exciting — Ruiz was photographed and interviewed by the likes of Vogue for the first time. Still, it was all-too-clear to Ruiz that she had no ownership over Hercules, and was ultimately disappointed when she returned home from tour broke.
“With Hercules, even though it was successful, it didn’t turn out to be what I hoped it would be,” she says. “It was something that I thought I would get more support, feel more supported and feel more like a family vibe. It was my first real taste of what the industry could be like — ‘Oh, this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.’ But I guess that was a good hard lesson, and it also taught me to once again believe in myself and my own talents because it was so easy to depend on that machine — I’m playing the biggest shows, I’m on every magazine, everything seems great but within my soul, I was feeling bad and not fulfilled as an artist, not what I’d worked so hard for to feel this way. “
Trans and gender nonconforming musicians have fought to elevate their profiles and prove their talent in a more public way, but are often relegated to the background. In some cases, they’re heard and not seen. Earlier this year, Drake sampled Big Freedia in his ode-to-women “Nice for What” but, despite casting several prominent performers for the music video, the New Orleans bounce artist was oddly MIA. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to Big Freedia either — Beyonce employed Freedia’s voice in her “Formation” music video, and later, for her Lemonade tour, but didn’t include her in any of the visual elements. Later, Drake would invite Freedia to appear in his “In My Feelings” video and Beyonce brought Freedia to the stage on a tour stop in New Orleans, but, as Myles Johnson pointed out in his piece “The Ghost of Big Freedia,” “Big Freedia has been continuously used for her voice, words, and energy, but her body is always abstracted from the visual element of these mainstream moments.”
Ruiz has experienced a similar phenomenon, though, in her experience, her invite has been reliant on being a guest of the white cis men accompanying her.
“I don’t know if I was doing it intentionally, but I was realizing I was being accepted because of Hercules,” she says. “Everyone is allowing me now finally into the industry because I was working behind this white boy. I’m like ‘OK, I see what’s going on here.’”
After Hercules, she started her own electro-pop group, Jessica 6, the name inspired partly by a character in the dystopian novel-turned-film Logan’s Run and Prince’s girl groups featuring Apollonia, including Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6. But in the early iteration of that group, she also worked with two other men.
“I was like ‘OK, if I put myself in a place where I’m showing people two guys, it’s easier to absorb than just this sexually threatening trans woman,’” she explains. “I noticed over time that on the features I’ve been on — I’ve worked with a lot of male DJs and producers over my career, labels are quick to flock to those if it’s just a feature, if it’s not really me. It’s easier for them to sort of absorb and promote and market — they feel more comfortable in that way. So I’ve done a lot of that but now I think I’m getting to the point where I’m like ‘You know what? Now it’s time to write my own.’”
On her new Jessica 6 album, The Eliot Sessions, Ruiz is the undisputed focus. The album is an eight-song collection of party-perfect grooves with Ruiz emoting and harmonizing over synthesizers and sensual beats, at times demanding, others pleading. On oceanic opener “The Storm Inside,” she sings about the tsunami threatening to spill out of her: “Can you feel the weather inside me, crashing into the shore/Can you see the storm inside my eyes/Crying out for more?”
“‘The Storm Inside’ is about facing your fear and diving into love which is what I’ve been like — which is not always the best idea, but I’ve always been that way with everything in my life,” Ruiz says. “I try not to let my fear guide me, even with my relationships. I take risks. I’m not afraid to go deep and if it goes left, it can always go right.”
“Get Loaded” is a double-entendre but, instead of focusing on the inebriation one might assume, Ruiz sings about wanting white picket fences, marriage, a baby carriage: “Beautiful girls of the world deserve it all /We have the right to get loaded/We want the good life too!/We have the right to get loaded.”
“There’s a lot of beautiful, heartbreaking love songs on there, too, like there’s one called ‘Drunk On Your Love’ which is really cool — which is about fucking to forget someone, which doesn’t work,” she laments.
“Drunk On Your Love” is a sad plea for her lover to return and replenish her “liquid high.” “Do You Love Me?” has her professing her need for her love “like a rose needs water.” “Dance For Your Love” ends with the upbeat club-fit “toast to life”: “Don’t you want to live your truth and always survive?”
“It’s a really colorful record,” she says. “It goes in a lot of different places.”
I mention to Ruiz that some of her work is an interesting juxtaposition, successfully pairing club with some of the saddest ruminations on the record — and past records as well.
“I think there’s something cool about having music you can move to — it subliminally gets into your system, you know? When you’re dancing and you’re in a club — when we go out we’re trying to escape the day or the pressures of just moving along in society. We go out and listen to music and we’re dancing. The work I do is more escapist. So I think to put these elements of real deep emotion while you’re just sort of letting go helps the spiritual aspect of shaking off the demons in a way.”
Recently, Ruiz has been exploring a new creative pursuit — acting. She appeared on the second episode of FX’s Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C. in September and is starring in the upcoming feature, The Haymaker, from director Nicholas Sasso. Both projects are set in highly-masculine scenarios — Mayans M.C. is about a Latinx biker gang and The Haymaker follows a Muay Thai fighter (Sasso) who meets Ruiz’s character, a trans performer, and becomes her bodyguard, confidant, and lover. While she enjoyed the experiences, Ruiz says she’s been inspired to write roles for herself now — the kind that she wishes had been available for her to see other women like her inhabit when she was coming of age and exploration.
“I wonder what that would be like if I’d grown up seeing images like that on television,” she says. “I would have probably felt a little more normal. I’m hoping that that’s what I can do for other girls.”
Ruiz is always looking out for her sisters. Her friendship with Chilean actress Daniela Vega, star of the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, inspired some international headlines, just like her 2012 moment in Greece. The two met in New York and reconnected when Ruiz went to Chile to play a music festival.
“[Daniela] was like ‘I want to walk the red carpet with you, hand in hand, I want it to be a moment for us,’” Ruiz remembers. “It was really that moment that launched so much — it was another one of these moments where the next day it was in every newspaper and on TV and making history. It’s funny how these things make history just by being present by just being in a space where you’re not supposed to be.”
The excitement spurred another idea: a doubleheader with Ruiz and Vega performing together live.
“We’re so strong together you know? It’s such a powerful image to see how people are moved by our connection and seeing us work together and holding hands together,” Ruiz says. “It was really a moment that launched so much.”
Again, there was politicizing and backlash from the conservative right.
“Because of a concert! So intense,” Ruiz says. “We’re like ‘We’re going to call it the Resistance Show. You want to make it political? Fine! It’s called the Resistance Show. You’re only allowed to come if you’re not a bigot and we’re going to change all of the bathrooms to gender neutral, which they’d never done in the country before. We made it a real cool moment for fans there.”
Ruiz speaks about this kind of advocacy proudly but casually. She finds it amusing that some people feel so strongly about her putting on a show, something she’s both born and called to do. Part of that calling is helping to elevate other artists with her record label, Park Side Records. The first is model and multi-media artist Martine, whose debut single, “Origin,” features Ruiz in a collaboration born of their friendship as well as a partnership.
“I think I have a good ear and eye and Martine is pretty bomb,” Ruiz says. “I mean she’s epic and I just want people to see her and hear her the way I have.”
Ruiz says she’s still learning how to run a label because she’s never really worked closely with the “machine” that is that part of the industry, one she says she never trusted. She’s mostly self-released (The Eliot Sessions is on Park Side, too) and so this is the first time she’s utilizing her pull to promote another artist.
“I want artists to feel like their part of a family and trust who they are giving their music to and still own their music,” Ruiz says. “There are so many little nuances in the music industry and record contracts and I think a lot of artists are not even aware of and get trapped in these publishing deals and get caught up in having your face everywhere and performing you don’t really see the cloak of deception that exists in the music industry. I feel like the music industry is even further behind in time than Hollywood — there’s still all this really sleazy stuff going on and that’s something I want to work on with my artists. I want them to really trust me and I want them to feel they’re free to leave if they want to. I just want them to grow and I want the label to give them a little push.”
There’s potential for Vega to also release something on Park Side, though Ruiz can’t confirm anything for her friend just yet.
“It’s been talked about,” she teases. “I’m going to lock her in the studio.”
Vega likely wouldn’t protest — Ruiz has a way of drawing people in, which is maybe why she’s so threatening to opposing forces. She creates an intimacy that’s difficult to emulate; an authenticity that can’t be feigned. Whether it’s through her alter ego as Jessica 6 or a character on screen, she embodies a kind of approachability that invites and inspires everyone around her. It seems that might be intentional, as well as inherent. There’s no separating the art from the artist.
“I feel like when artists — I’ve experienced this with artists who I love that write their own songs—you’re always going to love what they do if they write their own material. I keep that in mind: Whatever I do, I’m writing it, so if I love it, whatever I love my fans will love, so, I feel like that’s what people want from me,” Ruiz says. “They want something authentic, that I really love. They want the truth. They want that realness. I think that’s really my signature — keeping it really real.”
Photography – Navi
MUA – Gloria Noto
Hair – Moe Alvarez
Styling – Malcolm Robinson