The first time Anjali Lama made the international headlines was in 2017; she had been the first transgender model to walk for Lakmé Fashion Week, 8 years after her foray into the fashion world. Fast-forward to 5 years later, her name emerged onto the scene once again, as she made her New York Fashion Week debut with Nepali-American designer, Prabal Gurung. Whilst these were undoubtedly moments to hallmark, a closer look beyond the limelight might cast a shadow over the nuanced realities of a queer individual—and more so of a transgender woman—in the industry.
Growing up in a rural village one day away from Kathmandu, Lama had faced years of discrimination throughout her childhood. “I was bullied everywhere; I had really difficult times in my school years and was criticised by both friends and family for my femininity.,” she shares, on her own experience growing up before the transition. Yet perhaps this held nothing against her initial years as an aspiring model. Lama recalls the times she encountered rejection after rejection because of the gender she identified with, despite her evident potential. And had she not persevered through it all? Perhaps this conversation might have taken on another shape entirely.
The Nepali-born model’s afflictions are but part of a bigger picture to be concerned with. To a tangential degree, one cannot deny that the industry has made headway in becoming a more open space for diverse body types. Fashion’s seasonal shows as of late have witnessed attempts at being more age or size-inclusive: Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino ran a runway of models of all ages for his fall/winter 2022 show in Paris earlier this year while plus-sized models such as Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser have made runways their stomping ground—but this is not to be confused for true inclusion, with many luxury houses still refusing to offer curve-friendly sizing in their collections. Add Lama’s experiences to the mix, and therein lies yet another question: have we even begun to account for this whole other gap in which transgender individuals occupy?
People used to say to my face that I wasn’t getting any modelling jobs because I am transgender. I went for every audition and every casting, but was rejected everywhere for two years.
As a model, Lama faces discrimination for the gender she chooses to identify with. But as a transgender, she faces the issues that any other transgender individual might face in the sartorial sphere: of ill-fitted wearables and a complete lack of access to clothing that is catered to their transitioning body types. Below, Anjali Lama shares more of her two-fold experience with the fashion world—one as an emerging transgender model who walks the runway and the other, as the woman she identifies as, but is not provided for.
Growing up in Nepal, what was your experience like as a child?
It was very tough. Growing up in a rural village with a family from a farming background, I was bullied everywhere. I had really difficult times in my school years and was criticised by both friends and family for my ‘femininity’.
When did you first decide to make the transition?
I decided to fully transition at the age of 18. I felt that my body was different from what I felt in my soul and mind—and I felt trapped in the wrong body. So transitioning made sense; I felt like I finally understood myself and inner feelings more.
How did you decide to become a model?
I think it was back in 2005, when I went to Kathmandu for higher studies that I also disclosed my identity. That was when people started telling me that I looked like a model and that I should try it out. Initially, I had zero knowledge about the fashion or modelling world because I had lived so far away, but in 2009, one of the magazines—Vow Magazine—in Nepal discovered me and casted me as their cover girl. I decided to pursue becoming a model after that.
Over the years of your transition, how did your personal style change?
It was a learning process for me in the early stages of my transition. At that time, I would follow whatever was a trend in fashion. People will say ‘This is in trend, this is in fashion,’ and everyone would be buying it, so I’d also buy them. But it ended up being a waste, because I realised that not everything works for everyone.
After getting into fashion and modelling however, I slowly gained more experience and knowledge about fashion and how to wear clothes. It’s really about being more comfortable with yourself, and what or where you’re wearing it for. But firstly, it has to feel comfortable on your body.
During your transition, was it difficult to find clothes that could fit you well?
Yes I did struggle to find the perfect undergarments especially. Even up till now, it’s sometimes still difficult to find the right garments. I always shopped at different places. Whenever I saw undergarment shops, I would go in to give it a chance. But the difficult thing is that wherever you go, certain clothes—especially underwear—cannot be tried on.
For transgenders who have not done the sex change operation, it’s difficult to wear small, narrow underwear because we still have a bulge. The underwear designed for women are usually quite narrow and make it not only difficult to hide the bulge, but are also very uncomfortable.
So I end up spending a lot of money on undergarments, since I couldn’t try them in the shops. When I bring them home to try, only some of them are actually comfortable and easy for use; the rest would simply go to waste. And even when I do find a design that works, sometimes the brand might end up discontinuing the product and I’m back to square one.
You’re now a model who’s walked the runway at New York Fashion Week for Prabal Gurung. But what was your journey like when you first decided to do modelling?
It wasn’t easy at all. I had to knock on various doors and reach out to various people but I simply didn’t have many opportunities to showcase myself. I almost lost all hope and ambition but I knew I had to be focused on my goals. Usually after you’re featured in a magazine as a cover girl—like I was in 2009—you would be able to get a job or find modelling work easily. For me, it was the total opposite. I couldn’t get a job and nobody called me.
In hopes of continuing my journey as a model, I went to do some photoshoots for my portfolio. The photographer there told me that because of my height, I might get more chances as a fashion model. So I went to the modelling agency in Nepal and started training there for a while. But even then, I didn’t get cast for any job. People used to say to my face that I wasn’t getting any modelling jobs because I am transgender. I went for every audition and every casting, but was rejected everywhere for two years. In 2011, I finally walked for a fashion show—but I did it for free. I was happy nonetheless, because I was finally walking as a runway model.
Gradually from there, people started recognising me as a runway model and as a transgender model from Nepal. Up till 2016, I was doing work in Nepal before moving to Mumbai in 2017 when I finally got cast for Lakmé Fashion Week. My passion, dedication and hard work was what took me to this stage.
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How did you land yourself a runway walk for Prabal Gurung?
For Prabal Gurung, I had actually gone to New York for another programme entirely. And coincidentally, New York Fashion Week was happening at the same time. So I called Prabal Gurung himself and he told me that if I was already going to be in New York, of course I could walk for his show, but I still had to go down for the audition.
So I went for the casting and got selected to walk. I couldn’t describe my happiness. Even though I didn’t get paid for it, it was important to me that I build up my portfolio and confidence first. It was an amazing experience because I had always wanted to walk for New York Fashion Week and my dream finally came true.
Afterwards, when I told Prabal that I was looking for an opportunity to sign with an agency in New York, he hooked me up with an agency, Kev Mgmt. I met them, they liked me—and eventually got signed. Soon, I’ll be moving to New York.
Tell us more about your go-to look, how would you describe it?
For me, comfort comes first. I like to keep it easy and chic.
What do you hope to inspire in other transgender or LGBTQIA+ individuals?
I would love to see all transgenders and LGBTQIA+ individuals be happy and authentic to themselves. Keep trying and chasing after your dreams. Success won’t happen overnight; it takes time.
As someone who is working in the fashion industry, has it become a more inclusive space for people like you? What do you hope to see in the future?
Yes, definitely. Nowadays, the industry itself is changing. You’re seeing more people of every ethnicity, every colour and every size on the runway and everyone is able to get casted for a job. It’s more inclusive nowadays, and I’m also personally getting more chances to showcase my talent. In the future, I would like to see equal opportunities and equal pay rights regardless of one’s gender identity.