"It Feels Like You're Hanging on by a Thread": Trans Model Maxim Magnus on Working in Fashion

Erin Cunningham

Last September, transgender models occupied a record 91 runway spots across New York, London, and Paris Fashion Weeks, The Fashion Spot noted in its seasonal diversity report. That breaks down to 83 openly trans and eight non-binary models who walked in 52 shows, compared to 45 and 4, respectively, in 47 shows just a year earlier. Impressive as that 100 percent increase may be, it doesn’t mean problem solved, representation complete. Trans models now have a place on (certain) runways, but they still do not receive the same treatment, job opportunities, and exposure as their cisgender peers.

As a trans woman, model Maxim Magnus never anticipated becoming one of the faces of an industry known for its exclusivity and homogeneity. “Modeling was never something I thought I could pursue," she tells InStyle. "And even today I have doubts about my career, even when I?m doing really well," she says. "I never thought it would be a realistic goal for me to obtain, so I chose to work behind the scenes, which is why I studied fashion.”

Indeed it was a professor at the Conde Nast College of Fashion & Design, where Magnus was getting her Bachelor’s degree, who encouraged her to start modeling. Now, the 20-year-old is on her way to becoming one of fashion’s most in-demand names — and one of its most outspoken critics.

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Though she’s seen success — she’s walked London and Paris fashion weeks, landed a Gucci campaign, and been featured in i-D and Wonderland — she’ll be the first to admit how difficult navigating the industry as a trans woman can be. Getting passed over for jobs, learning how to handle rejection … it’s part of what makes Magnus’s rise so impressive, and how she’s become a necessary advocate and role model for trans women within and beyond the fashion industry. It hasn’t come easy, and she’s the first to admit the struggle can get her down. Sometimes she feels like she’s “hanging on by a thread,” she says.

What was your experience like growing up as a trans woman?
“My childhood was fun and I was a very happy child until I started to get bullied for being ‘different.’ My doctor explained to me what being ‘transgender’ means, and, for the first time in my life, I felt comfortable identifying with a label. I always went to Catholic school, and grew up in Belgium and in Spain, in very closed-minded small towns. It definitely has not been easy, especially because society treats you differently. It?s very rare that people — even those who say they are accepting — are actually fully accepting of it.”

What is something you wish more people knew about your experience?
“The medical part was awful, but it?s also not over. It?s not something you grow out of. It’s not something that has happened — it?s something that’s always happening. There are moments when you think you?re on top of the world and you?ve overcome everything, and then life knocks you down and it feels like you?re hanging on by a thread. [It can be hard on] your mental health because you can’t just say ‘it?s going to be okay.’ You have to learn how to cope with it and how to power through.”

What is the biggest misconception about trans models?
“That we are harder to work with. And if this isn?t one, then why aren’t we booked on the same jobs as cis people?”

What has been one of your most difficult experiences in the industry?
“Dealing with rejection and the lengths people will go to to screw you over. It?s such a competitive industry, and finding your people in it, those who are sincere, is very difficult."

What about one of your most proud?
“I think I?m most proud of the fact that I?ve always stayed true to myself and did what I thought was right for my career.”

Diversity and inclusivity have become such buzzwords for the industry. Do you think there is any real truth and substance behind it, or do you think brands are just using these topics for publicity?
“It is very easy to use these words, but I think with social media we have created such transparency that it has become quite easy to tell when brands are being disingenuous or using token diversity.”

Have you had to walk away from a job because of the brand?s approach to diversity?
“I have, and I would do it again.”

Let?s talk about your ‘Trans Is Not A Trend’ video. Where did that idea come from?
“The idea came from me rebelling against my teachers? brief in university, when they told us to do a project on subcultures, and included the LGBTQ+ community as a subculture. This really upset me, because a subculture is a reaction to a political situation; it?s something that?s trendy in a certain period of time. Being a part of our community is not a trend, it?s not fashionable, and it?s definitely not a choice.”

How have you seen the industry change since you first started modeling — for better and for worse?
“That?s a very hard question because, to me, it always seems that the industry progresses a lot, and at the same time takes 10 steps backwards. There are never really slight or subtle changes — it?s always very drastic. We have seen it with the use of models of color, who one season will be used for everything and the next they won?t be used at all. The same goes for trans individuals. But there are editors and casting directors like [Business of Fashion editor-in-chief] Katie Grand and [casting director] Anita Bitton, who cast trans models and empower us in so many ways. I think in London it has definitely changed because of the rules the British Fashion Council has put in place, but in Paris there is still a lot of work to do.”

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How does social media play a role in modeling?
“I think, for casting directors and editors, social media is an absolute dream, but it must also get so overwhelming. People are now able to be scouted and booked on jobs from across the world, and you can connect with everyone so easily. I have been booked on countless jobs through Instagram, so I think social media is great (if used with caution, of course). Through social media I am able to share my story and just my life in general. I?m very proud of the honest platform I have created.”

Do you ever receive backlash and criticism?
“All the time, especially because I speak out on controversial topics. Sometimes it can be very hard to deal with all the criticism and the backlash, but I just have to remember that I?m doing this because I want to make the world a better place for me, but also for everyone who doesn?t feel like they have a place in society. People comment a lot on my voice or my fake boobs, and that can get to me sometimes, but I?m much more hurt when something is said about the people I love.”

You recently livestreamed shaving your head. Why?
“It was a very spontaneous thing to livestream it. I had talked about doing a shoot with a magazine, but I then decided to do it with my boyfriend so people would realize it was a genuine thing, and it wasn?t something I was doing for publicity. It was such an important move for me and it?s a part of my story. I think the industry has embraced me more now that I have cut my hair, [in part] because it?s obvious that I feel better and more confident in my body.”