Geena Rocero: Defying Beauty Standards and Embracing Authenticity
Geena Rocero is a Filipina transgender model and activist who has made significant strides in advocating for trans rights on a global stage. Born in Manila, Philippines in 1983, Geena started competing in local beauty pageants at the age of 15 and quickly became a national sensation. Despite facing discrimination as a young adult, Geena persevered and eventually became a successful model, writer, director, and producer.
Geena’s upcoming memoir, titled “Horse Barbie,” is set to release on May 30, 2023, and chronicles her unique life journey from pageant queen to American model to transgender activist. The book’s title was inspired by a nickname given to her by envious competitors during her pageant years, but Geena embraced it as a source of empowerment, embodying the “Horse Barbie” spirit with grace and poise.
Geena’s modeling career in New York City was a double-edged sword, as it brought her success and financial stability, but also forced her to hide her transgender identity for safety reasons. Eventually, Geena reached a breaking point and decided to come out publicly as transgender at the TED Conference in 2014. Her inspiring talk has since been viewed close to 5 million times and translated into 32 languages. Geena’s achievements have not gone unnoticed, as she is a four-time Emmy-nominated and award-winning producer, writer, and director. She is also a co-host of the Webby Awards honoree TV show “ASPIREist,” which is broadcasted on HLN/CNN. In 2023, Geena will receive The A1 Award in Gold House’s A100 List of the most impactful AAPIs, alongside Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria and Vanity Fair’s Editor in Chief Radhika Jones.
Geena’s story is a reminder of the importance of living authentically and being true to oneself, despite the obstacles that may arise. Her memoir is sure to inspire readers to embrace their unique identities and stand up for what they believe in, no matter the cost.
Your memoir “Horse Barbie” chronicles your journey from pageant queen to trans activist and model. What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote this book to honor my Horse Barbie spirit, which is one of the meanings of the title. I wanted to share my global saga of a life. I’ve lived half of my life in Philippines, and the other here in America. I wanted to expand on those perspectives and my lived experiences. In a way, it’s a healing journey too. When I started joining pageants in the Philippines at 15, I was out and proud. But when I moved to America to pursue modeling, I had to go back ‘in the closet’, stealth as we call it, because at that time, being an out and proud trans fashion model in 2005, in NYC was not allowed. My memoir is my way to trace the thread of my journey.
You’ve had a successful career as a model, producer, and writer. How have you balanced these different roles and found success in multiple areas?
For me, storytelling is at the core of everything that I do. As an artist who’s now directing and producing, I’m all about the collaboration but with a central focus on the perspectives and stories of people that are not usually heard. But I’m also drawn to stories and characters in my projects that are complicated and fully realized. In a way that’s actually what I’m looking for. I want to serve the story and character first.
Bodysuit by The Blonds NY
Can you tell us more about the nickname “Horse Barbie” and how it became a source of empowerment for you?
At 15, I arrived at the trans pageant world in the Philippines with a bang! I became the most prominent so quickly, and won titles after titles. I wrote in the book “I was a flower that bloomed out of nowhere”. So you can imagine the jealous divas and pageant fans, they started calling me that I looked like a horse because of my protruding mouth, long deck and dark skin. It was painful to hear that. But one day when my trans mom and pageant manager Tigerlily saw me on stage with an aura of elegance I emanated on stage, she said “you look like a Horse Barbie”. Since then, Horse Barbie became my name and reclamation.
You came out publicly as transgender during your TED Talk in 2014. Can you tell us more about the experience of sharing your story on such a public platform? How has this platform helped you to amplify your message and advocate for transgender rights?
I can’t think of a bigger public speaking platform than TED. In 2014, to come out for me was still considered a risk in my career. So I just thought, go big or go home. With my pageant panache, I’m certainly not afraid of a stage 😉 When my talk was released online on March 31, 2014 to coincide with International Trans Day of Visibility, the talk went viral. I launched Gender Proud with my co-founder Allie Hoffman to advocate for trans rights globally and to produce stories centering trans and non-binary lives. We’ve worked from the UN, spoke at The White House to the Viacom’s of the world.
The fashion industry has been criticized for its lack of diversity, both in terms of race and gender. How do you think the industry can become more inclusive?
Visibility for diverse models and specifically trans models are very recent. Putting one trans poc in a fashion campaign, usually only during Pride is one small part of the equation. We need to continuously create a dynamic symbiotic convo about equity. We need more trans and poc people with decision making power positions.
Dress and gloves by The Blonds NY
Your work as a trans rights advocate has brought attention to the challenges faced by transgender and gender nonconforming people in indigenous cultures. What do you think can be done to better support these communities?
I speak a lot about my pre-colonial gender fluid ancestors that are spiritual leaders in the Philippines. I want to always be speaking about it because there’s so much power in knowing that trans people have always had powerful positions in society. I think learning all of our history, decolonizing our understanding of history and how it’s been told is a great starting place.
What does this recognition that you’ve achieved mean to you, and how do you hope to continue making an impact in your community?
As an artist, I honestly just want to keep producing stories and to direct more projects. I think showing trans and non binary babies that living fully as yourself is the best eff you to the people keen to misunderstand us.
What advice would you give to other young people who may be struggling to embrace their authentic selves and find their place in the world?
My advice is to live fully, find the fullness in your journey, the good and the bad. Find and nurture relationships that want the best for you. It doesn’t have to be a big community. Sometimes it takes one person. Tigerlily was that person to me at 15.
What’s the most surreal moment you’ve experienced in your career as a model and activist?
Making President Obama laugh after we both spoke at an event and then for it to be captured in a photo!
What’s your favorite fashion item that you own and why?
Currently, wearing my ‘Breaking Bad’ merch sweatshirt that says “University of American Samoa Law School” has been a uniform lately. IYKYK
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had with your chosen family in the queer community?
The image of me traveling all over the Philippines with my trans family to join pageants. I joined pageants where stages are next to rice fields, or volcano, by the river or traversing mountains, those adventures with them will always make me grin. In Horse Barbie, I was able to share a lot of that.
Skirt, top, hat and gloves by Chocheng
What’s the most memorable look you’ve ever worn on a runway or in a photoshoot?
This Galore Cover Story! Have you seen it? You’ll GAG!
How would you describe your personal style, and how has it evolved over time?
I go between Vintage, Punk, boyfriend jeans and shirts, deconstructed, high fashion glam…depending how I’m feeling.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Binging the TV Shows like Vikings and my fav spy TV series, The Bureau.
Do you have a signature scent?
Vanilla oil.. You’ll know I’m around when you smell it.
What are your beauty products must haves?
Deep moisturizer, serum serum, eye cream… YSL touche eclat, NARS foundations, exfoliators, face mask…and I’m always making and drinking Ginger Root tea. It’s ancestral and one of the best anti inflammatory.
Photography and Creative Direction: Jacob DeKat
Stylist: Erika Golcher
Make up: Mark De Los Reyes
Hair: Lizzie Arnesson