On the surface, the idea of a 30-year-old with no business background taking out loans to start a venture with the end goal of putting itself out of business—that is, after years of giving away all of its earnings—sounds like a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. But in the case of New Pandemics, a casting and management agency dedicated to increasing LGBTQ+ visibility that launched a few weeks ago, just in time for Pride Month, it's working. The hunger for proper queer representation has already led to thousands of Instagram followers and so many potential clients that the founder, Cody Chandler, hasn’t even had to seek much publicity for the 17 models he represents so far. (He doesn't have—and currently has no plans for—a PR team.)
On a recent afternoon, eight of the 17 could be found camped out on a couple of couches and comfy chairs in an office tower in lower Manhattan. And while it felt "like it’s the first week of college and we all live in the same dorm” to 23-year-old Isaac Powell, it turned out they'd already gotten the icebreakers out of the way after following one another on social media. Earlier this month, for example, some were already “fangirling” when the Broadway musical Once on This Island, which currently features Powell, won a Tony Award. And within 10 minutes of admiring the ink on Dylan Camp, many were ready to give their bodies over to the model–slash–tattoo artist. ("Soon you're all going to be covered,” Camp said.)
It’s no wonder that they all got on so well—and not just the models among them who grew up in the South, a subset one described as “all the people who were like, ‘There’s nowhere for us here, let’s go!’” Before he founded New Pandemics, Chandler suspected that his own experience growing up in South Carolina, unable to come out until years after he’d left it behind, with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket, was a common one—and one that still doesn't see enough representation. What’s more, when he set out searching for models via Instagram and word of mouth, he already had plans to assemble a group that cares more about art and activism than, well, modeling. In fact, he's “reimagined the whole essence of an agency” along those lines—as primarily a means to financially support models in their outside endeavors. (Chandler also plans to donate 10 percent of the agency’s earnings to groups serving the LGBTQ+ community.)
Back in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, Chandler worked on casting in film, which is how he stumbled upon casting in fashion when he moved to New York, working with the likes of Barbara Pfister, a casting director and industry force for decades. But over the years of freelancing, Chandler found himself on too many sets that still indulged, say, tokenism and treating models like coat hangers. Eventually, around the beginning of 2017, Chandler made up his mind to either “quit or do it on my own.” A year and a half and a few loans later, he’s now built a roster of names that he can confidently say he genuinely cares about—a number of whom Marc Jacobs has already tapped for his latest campaign. And while Chandler always lists the models' pronouns and screens companies’ track records with the LGBTQ+ community, companies willing to change their practices will get a fair shake. (And if those companies are not acting genuinely, well, “advertising is a vehicle for change, so the joke's on them,” Chandler said.)
Eventually, Chandler hopes to make models like the ones he’s working with the new normal—which is why the agency’s demise may be the ultimate sign of its success. Of course, for there to be no need for an LGBTQ+ agency, there needs to be a shift in the landscape first. Meet 10 models who've already broken ground.
Pronouns: he/him or they/them
Hometown: Syracuse, New York
Model slash: Artist. “I literally just graduated. I did this program at Parsons called Integrated Design, basically focusing on painting and photography and fine art. I like a lot of mediums—I think it’s the Gemini in me, honestly. I’m still trying to figure what’s next, but since graduation I have gotten signed to New Pandemics, so I feel like that was a sign of some sort.”
Model since: "I met Cody at a shoot for Gayletter mad long ago; he was like, 'I have a project I want you to be a part of,' and I was like, 'Okay, I’ve heard people say that before.' But then he actually got back to me. A lot of the portraits that I paint are of queer and black people, so I guess I was thinking that this was another way to maximize that kind of visibility—just with myself as the subject matter this time around. I feel like I’ve reached a balance between art and fashion now, but I remember being so inspired as a teen on tumblr and being like, 'What’s the code? How do I get to be in that position?' I feel like, slowly but surely, I’ve kind of cracked the code."
Hometown: Syracuse, New York
Model slash: Mental health advocate. “I have a mental health movement, which is pretty much bringing people who suffer from mental illnesses together for comfort and information through events and a website with the information I’ve learned from my journey with mental health. That’s normally what I do upstate, but it’s not just for my community—I try to reach out as I can through social media as well.”
Model since: “My cousin Rahm put Cody in touch with me. He told me that everyone involved with New Pandemics was queer. I was really interested because I’ve never witnessed the queer community being represented by queer individuals, so I thought it was a great opportunity. It kind of made me feel like I was joining a new family. This is my first time officially modeling, but I’m comfortable in front of the camera—Rahm kind of forced me into modeling. [Laughs] I remember the first shoot we ever had was in his bathroom, with a lamp and his real small digital camera. Young and bored…”
“She’s kind of been my muse since I’ve been taking pictures," said Rahm. "We’d plan photo shoots when we were 13 or 14 years old, when we’d get the Urban Outfitters newsletter. But it’s so funny, because we’ve always been close, but we didn’t know either one of us was queer or vocalize it until we were 18. I remember we did a shoot once where I dressed her in a men’s pants and a bowtie, and she was so down for it, but I was already like, Of course she would be. Now that I think about it, I’m like, We were so queer and we didn’t even know it. [Laughs]”
Hometown: Central Pennsylvania. “The area I grew up in is very small-minded and conservative; I always sum it up by saying my high school had Trump come speak before the election, and everyone was all for it—there were Trump stickers all over the lockers. I didn’t want to go near the building, so I was outside protesting for, like, nine hours.”
Model slash: Student, studying virtual reality programming at Parsons; writer, with a column about being a “19-year-old deaf, genderqueer, queer artist currently transitioning on testosterone” for them.; and activist, “I guess just by living and breathing. I could tell there were so many things that were wrong where I was growing up, and I as never okay with them, so without realizing it was even activism, I always wanted to fight back. It started with things like getting half of my school, which was over 2,000 kids, to sign a petition when I then identified as a cis girl and was taken out of all of my AP and IB classes to be yelled at for not covering up my shoulders. Now, I’m always at every protest, because if you support part of one minority—like transgender people, women of color, and disabled [people]—you have to show up for the other minorities. I’m trying to make sure that’s what I do, even if I don’t personally identify with that community.”
Model since: “I met Cody through a shoot with Gayletter, and when we met up a few months later to talk about New Pandemics, I agreed that so many large corporations capitalize off of queer youth—not even just youth, but queer anything. So it obviously caught my eye that he was kind of risking his career and starting this organization just to support queer individuals—not just as a trend, but really respecting and acknowledging us as people. But actually apart from New Pandemics, I did a campaign for American Eagle with [his partner and fellow model] MaryV. We’ve gotten very good at doing our research on the companies that we work for, and they were definitely genuine and knew what they were talking about; they even went a little behind deadline to remove a part of the video that I told them I wasn’t comfortable with, which shows that same kind of complete respect that Cody has.”
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
Model slash: Artist, with a focus on photography and performance art; and student, studying photography at Parsons. “I’m still getting into it, but one thing I do know so far about my performance art is I like tying it to my photography, so it’s more documentary. My only real public performance so far was in a show I had at this gallery called Space 776, where I laid on this gold sheet for three hours. Chella painted my entire body gold, but I was completely nude, and I told people they could lay down with or touch me. The gold came from how I documented five different couples and their stories, then gold-leafed their hands and photographed them.”
Model since: "Cody just emailed me, after he found me through Chella, and I thought it was really cool; it’s really important that he wants to do this and dedicate so much time to it, getting to know each one of us and making sure we're not taken advantage of or anything like that. And I have a lot of respect for him for letting us not only model and represent ourselves and our community, but also share our stories, the things we’ve had to deal with and overcome. I definitely want to represent more queer people, because that’s how I identify. But actually, before I met Chella, I identified as straight and thought I would for the rest of my life. I’m learning how to be more honest with myself and how to talk about things—even just within my family, but also now with a bigger group of people. If we talk about things like sexuality openly and honestly, then we can move forward together to normalize them and make it okay.”
Hometown: Greensboro, North Carolina
Model slash: Actor. “I moved here in October because I’m in a show that’s on Broadway, Once on This Island—we just won a Tony Award. I performed at the ceremony, which was crazy; everyone in the front row—like, Kerry Washington, Denzel Washington, Amy Schumer, Bernadette Peters, Zachary Quinto, Tina Fey, everybody—was there watching me shake my ass."
Model since: I've been acting seriously since high school, but modeling is a new thing. I thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t something that I was actively pursuing. Then Cody found me on Instagram, and I also thought what he had to say and was going to do was really interesting. So I was like, Okay, let’s see what happens. [Laughs] I didn’t exactly know what that was going to look like, but I trusted him, because he seemed like he knew what he was doing and had good intentions. And it’s been awesome—I’ve been basically been shooting all the gay publications, which is really, really great."
Hometown: Columbus, Georgia. "I’m glad I got out when I did. [Laughs] Then I moved to Atlanta, which was sort of my introduction to ‘city life’ and living on my own before I moved to New York three years ago.”
Model slash: Well, model. “I was dealing with a bunch of creepy photographers and agents in Atlanta, but I was mostly doing extra work for movie and TV shows, because the model industry there is very commercial or bridal and they were not looking for someone like me. [Laughs] So I bought a one-way ticket and came here to model, really just winging it, because I didn’t know anyone here and had never visited. I moved to Brooklyn, as most people do—first to this illegally rented hostel. I had like $400, and I literally had no idea what I was doing. I’d go eat $1 pizza in the middle of the day so that I wouldn’t be starving, even though I still was. After two weeks, I just started working in retail at Urban Outfitters, but I was really pursuing modeling.”
Model since: “When I moved here, I first realized how crazy the industry was, which actually really emboldened me. Early on, I walked into an agency and they basically told me I wouldn’t have a career unless I pretended to be a straight boy from Indiana. The man there told me that I was too feminine and too pretty, and that my eyebrows were too groomed—even though I don’t groom my eyebrows. He ended up getting fired from the agency, so, karma. [Laughs]
"It actually taught me not to listen to opinions like that, because they’re really outdated and out-of-touch and problematic; after that, I was like, I really have to be true to myself. I have to be there as a representation for people coming up after me, so they can actually see a reflection of themselves, and experience what I didn’t have growing up. And then I just kept on getting scouted at parties—even though I’m a Cancer and don’t go out too much, so I gotta say, Instagram’s really helped. It’s been all these different gigs, but I mostly collaborate with up-and-coming people, because we’re all coming up together. But when Cody found me on Instagram, it was so funny, because I’d been talking for so long about how we need a new revolutionary agency that caters to LGBTQIA people. It was like law of attraction.”
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas. "I moved to New York to study art, which has basically always been my passion.”
Model slash: Artist and student, studying painting and art history.
Model since: "I never really considered modeling, but Cody found my Instagram, and I realized he was basically just gathering creative people he thought were interesting and making a very queer-specific space out of that—and I definitely wanted to represent queer people. I think for me and many other people, that starts with a process of learning how to represent yourself in a better way—which then, of course, extends to other people. I’m mostly a painter, but I’m interested in anything that’s collaborative and creative, so I’ve been letting myself expand into what I potentially could do, which this is kind of a part of. In art school, people expect you to go to grad school and go through the academic process, but I have no path for anything—I want to collaborate and try other mediums and keep doing things."
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee. "I’ve been studying visual arts ever since I can remember, and I moved here two years ago to study it at some random school, the only one I applied to. But I wasn’t feeling it—it stunted all of my creative growth—so I left.”
Model slash: Artist. “Now I do art by myself—anything to keep me busy, like curating and drawing on my clothes. In a couple of weeks, I’m reopening my tattoo shop, which I’m very excited about; we just renovated our whole apartment in Bushwick, and it’s in my studio right now, so we can keep it very intimate. I have like 30 tattoos; I’ve done all of them, except [their partner and fellow model] Nali has done a few, like our matching avocado one.”
Model since: “I wasn’t into it, but then there was this one day a month before New Pandemics came around when I decided to go to this modeling agency, and they literally asked me how tall I was [5'10"] and sent me back. I was like, Okay, so maybe this isn’t for me. But then New Pandemics just felt so right. I just felt like I needed to be a representation for younger queer people; social media’s such a big deal right now, and younger people are always looking at me on there. I just remember how I never had that when I was growing up—I'd just be looking anywhere to see people like me.”
Hometown: Stamford, Connecticut
Model slash: “A little bit of everything—I’m still kind of in the exploring phase. My whole life, I thought I could only be a dancer, because I spent most of my life training for it, but when I met [their partner] Dylan, they introduced me to a whole new world of art that I’d never had the confidence to get into. I actually recently dropped out of Parsons, which was more of a time filler—my parents’ suggestion, because the training was so abusive that I stopped dancing after high school. I left because was just a huge expense of tuition and time, but also because Dylan and I just started our own tattoo business—a stick-and-poke salon."
Model since: “This is actually my first time modeling; I just did something with Marc Jacobs, which was really cool, but things are just getting started. Cody found Dylan and me through Instagram, and we immediately wanted to do it. It was the only agency we’d ever heard of that was inclusive of queer people, so that was my main motive, but on top of that, New Pandemics helps showcase our art, since we all have our own sort of artistic endeavors. I really love how there’s an equal amount of attention paid to those as modeling.”
Hometown: Los Angeles, "in the hood around Baldwin Hills—a lot of violence and gangs and lockdowns and race riots, so it was interesting.”
Model slash: Dancer. “I moved here to go to [Alvin] Ailey, which is a conservatory, so I’ve been studying everything—ballet, modern, hip-hop, jazz, musical theater, everything—every day for the past three years. Before that, I wanted to be a lawyer, and then I was in fashion, doing styling. It was fun—the last thing I did was Kim K. for Us Weekly, a long time ago, like when she was with Reggie Bush—but I realized I didn’t want to do it, and started dancing. For four years, I usually woke up at five in the morning and came home at 12 or 1 a.m., because I was working and wasn’t asking my mom for money. It was really hard; usually people train since they’re two or three, but I only started dancing three or four years before Ailey.”
Model since: “It’s funny because for a long time people have always come up to me on the street, even straight men, telling me I’m so beautiful and gorgeous and I should model, but I didn’t really have self-confidence, so I was like, Okay, I don’t see what you’re talking about. Then Gayletter found a photo of me from a long time ago and, I don’t know how, found my email, and hit me up for an editorial, which is how I met Cody. Then he hit me up after that, and at first I had reservations; I didn’t want to be part of anything exclusive or that kept people out, because I grew up in a really religious household and really hid who I was. But then he showed me who else was on the roster, and they were all artists like me. Even from their Instagrams, you could tell that they were all lights, and I want to give that light to a wide audience. I’d met with big agencies before, and it was so sterile; they didn’t really care when they asked what I cared about. But I could just tell that it wasn’t like that with Cody—he actually did care about what I wanted to do and my interests outside of modeling, and it felt warm. It felt like a hug, and I was like, Okay, I could do with a hug. [Laughs] Hugs are good.”