Model Teddy Quinlivan Would Like You to Know That Fashion Is “Kind of Like the Mafia”

The top model and transgender activist gets real about taking a stand against sexual assault—and shares a few beauty tips while she’s at it because “being politically active doesn’t have a specific aesthetic.”

Since Nicolas Ghesquière discovered her in 2015, the Boston-born model Teddy Quinlivan has seemed to exist in public only to do the absolute most, whether it’s on the catwalk (she’s already dominated dozens of them this year) or on her Instagram (she enjoys a heart-shaped nipple pasty), or sounding off at length on the modeling industry.

Quinlivan is most known for, as she repeatedly put it on the phone last week, her “strong personality,” though she also has quite the strong, no-nonsense work ethic. When she cuts to the chase, as she so often does, the two can combine to make her equal parts snappy and sassy. (Take, for example, the makeup tutorial she filmed for W above; before she’d even finished shooting, she’d already come up with a list of title suggestions for the video, from “How to Conceal the Fact That You’re Actually a Hag” to “How to Look Like a Dewy B—-.”)

Between the bleeps, and in the two images she creative-directed below, though, you’ll find that Quinlivan is actually quite a pro when it comes to makeup. That might be for the same reason that she gained more Instagram followers than any other model last fall, when she came out about growing up as and being transgender. Just as she predicted, the topic has followed her ever since, along with, as of this spring, her story of sexual assault—not that she minds at all. On the contrary, she’s happy to discuss both, as well as her current mission to only work with those who haven’t been accused of sexual assault, and to reminisce on her days wearing black lipstick and strategically baggy sweatpants so that she could shoplift skinny jeans. She was even game to do so on the morning of her 24th birthday—after a quick yawn and recap of the “fabulous” time she’d had wearing pretty much only SPF at Rockaway Beach, in New York, the day before, that is.

It’s not uncommon for people committed to clothes and makeup to say it all started when they were a kid, but from the photo you Instagrammed the other day, it looks like for you it goes back to when you were in diapers. What came next after that?

I started wearing makeup whenever I could get my hands on it, which later meant when I could break into my mom’s closet or medicine cabinet. I didn’t start doing it publicly, though, until middle school, where one of my best friends was this emo girl. She loved Hot Topic and would get all this cheap black makeup there—black lipstick, black eyeliner, black everything—and because she was wearing it, I wanted to wear it, too. Of course my parents never would have let me, so every day I’d show up to school, head to the bathroom to change out of my boy clothes and into something more feminine, and then go to her locker, where I’d stick her black eyeliner in my eyeballs and put on this Maybelline foundation that I thought was major but was way too tan for me. I shoplifted it as quickly as possible and also had no idea what shade I was. I put it on my lips too, so 13-year-old me had superblack eyes with tan, orangey skin and ultra-nude lips. It’s only now I realize how crazy I looked.

I was all about the fishnet arm warmers from Hot Topic, so I can imagine.

Same. I wanted to wear all of that too. I’d buy it in secret and wear it to school, but then it’d go missing, because my parents would find out and throw it away. My parents wouldn’t let me buy girl clothes or anything like that, and since they didn’t give me money for the clothes I wanted and I didn’t have a job, I’d just shoplift things. I was a bad kid. I’m not going to name the store, because God forbid they find out how much I actually stole and sue me, but I’d go into the fitting room wearing these baggy sweatpants and walk out wearing the skinny jeans that my mom wouldn’t let me buy underneath. My mom would ask where I was getting it all from and why they’d still have the tags on, because I’d even go to school sometimes with the security tags still on the f—ing pants. I was horrible.

Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini top; the Kooples top; MM6 Maison Margiela turtleneck; Chopard earring (worn as brooch); Beauty note: For soft-focus lips that catch the light, try Lancôme L’Absolu Gloss in Sur Les Toits.

Photograph by Richard Burbridge; Styled by Clare Byrne; Hair by Ward; Makeup by Yadim

When did you finally branch out from all black?

When I became a day student at my boarding school, which was after I’d come out as trans and all of that stuff. That was the point where I really started to invest heavily in war paint. I’d spend the full hour it took to get to school doing my makeup, and then redoing it before going into the cafeteria for dinner because I didn’t know about powder and I wanted to impress my crush, who was like the hottest guy in school. I think I’m too cute for him now, but he played the flute, too, so everyone knew that he had magic fingers. Anyway, I was buying tons and tons of makeup and going on to try to re-create all of these Pat McGrath looks for shows like Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and John Galliano at Dior. I still had absolutely no idea how to do it, so it was tragic. But I thought it was fabulous.

So when did you finally learn to make it look…

Not totally disgusting? I started going on YouTube, where I learned that there were actually steps and techniques, but mostly I learned a lot backstage at shows and on shoots. But I don’t think I was actually a good makeup artist until I was in my twenties.

What looks have you been into these days?

For whatever reason, J.Lo’s kind of dewy, glowing, sultry, traditionally sexy makeup aesthetic has really been on my mind lately. It’s my go-to look for summer, and for knowing that boys are going to hit on me if I go out, because sometimes you want to be hit on. When I’m wearing a full fantasy, all the queens gag for it, but at the end of the night, you’re not going to go home with a hottie. But coming out as trans has given me a lot more room to be more eccentric in how I style myself without people rolling their eyes. For me, coming out explained a lot to people in the LGBTQ community, because being a part of or not being a part of it has differences, which definitely includes things you have license to say. Like, if you show up somewhere and you’re like, “Yas hunty, slay, I’m gagging,” you know, people are going to be like, What’s up with this cisgender girl? I’m so lucky to be part of a community that has a history with beauty and fashion, and that’s so culturally artistic and open and eccentric and fun and flamboyant and fabulous and contoured and glittery. After I came out, it felt like I could run with it as far as it could possibly take me. When people suddenly find out you’re not what they think you are, you kind of get a bit more license to be crazy. So when I moved to New York, I was like, I’m going to wear whatever I want and be fabulous, and no one’s going to stop me.

When you came out, you also made a point to say how fortunate of a position you were in, which also gave you the platform to draw attention to the many trans people who are so often subjected to violence. Especially as you’ve gained even more of a following, have you come to think of your Instagram as a similar platform?

I try to make the message of my Instagram the same as the core of the one I tried to make when I came out as transgender: that you can be and do whatever you want, create your own rules, and still be really successful. Hopefully, it’s a window into how it’s possible to have gone through a lot of hard s— and not only come out of it, but also be able say that you don’t care what people think, and do what makes you happy. It’s also a platform I can use to express how my moods range, and how I don’t decide to be, like, a full-blown fashion queen every day. There’s a lot of days where I just want to be like, average cis queen, you know what I mean? It can be the debutante, the spy, the average girl, the sporty girl, whatever. I just decide when I wake up.

On the other hand, you’re very consistent when it comes to being outspoken. Have you always been so comfortable with saying what’s on your mind?

I’m one of the very few fashion models who very openly voices whether they like or dislike something. For models to have an opinion, and especially to publicize it, it really rubs people the wrong way, because they don’t think that you’re entitled to it. I think people get the impression that I’m a b— or a negative person, but I love this industry—and I also love that Instagram gives me a place to throw out ideas and see if people disagree, or go so far in agreeing with me that they thank me.

Paco Rabanne dress. Maria Tash earrings. Beauty note: Make a future-forward statement with Sephora Collection Cream Lip Stain Liquid Lipstick in Dark Forest.

Photograph by Richard Burbridge; Styled by Clare Byrne; Hair by Ward; Makeup by Yadim Model: Teddy Quinlivan; Photography Assistants: Tyler Nevitt, Peter Siskos; Fashion Assistant: Ali Kornhauser; Hair Assistant: Brian Casey; Makeup Assistant: Janessa Pare

I don’t get mean on Instagram; I’ll read a b—- for filth and spill the tea on there, but I’m not just going to be mean and come for somebody. But recently, I’ve been finding out that my account can really upset some people, so now I’m basically trying to balance having such a strong personality and representing it on social media with paying attention to the very sensitive people who’ll call me out for being sassy about my Tinder date. I just think it’d be inauthentic to always only show one side of myself when I’m a multidimensional person, which means that sometimes I’m in a really friendly mood, and sometimes in a sassy mood. And I feel like my fans and the people who are willing to follow my life deserve a level of authenticity, which is also really what sells in 2018. That’s true even if you’re f—ed up and have problems, because just being able to share and discuss them openly is something people really value.

It seems to be particularly valuable in modeling, with so much concern about going too far and jeopardizing your career.

I’ve gotten into a lot of disagreements over how I should be represented, because I’ve always felt comfortable expressing my personality; it’s just that that other people, especially in management, have made me feel really uncomfortable about it. I actually really admire that I have this crazy, out-there, eccentric, outspoken personality and I’m a model; to me, that means I’ve become this fantasy of what I thought a model was when I was a kid, because I always dreamed to see a supermodel with opinions on TV. I did know, though, that it was important for me to make a name for myself and set the groundwork for my career before I could become more politically active and really have an impact, and so that’s what I did; I played the game and kept my mouth shut and was the model that everyone wanted to be for a couple of the years. Which was really difficult because I felt like I was sacrificing a piece of myself and my personality for an industry that really just doesn’t want you to succeed past one or two seasons. They want you to step aside for the next 19-year-old from eastern Europe to take your place.

Well, it’s definitely a testament to how much you love fashion if you knew that from the start.

I love this industry so much, but you can’t take it super seriously, because it’s not a super serious industry. We’re not curing cancer or stopping bombs from going off or saving lives; we’re selling extremely overpriced clothing to the top one percent of the world. I have no illusions about what my position is in this role: to provide a fantasy. Being a model is like being an entertainer; a comedian shows up to a stage and does their stand-up, and a model shows up to a stage and makes clothes look fierce and fabulous so that you want to buy them. At the end of the day, this industry is a business and there are a bunch of people trying to help you appeal to clients as much as possible so that you can make as much money as possible. That also means getting you to stifle your personality as much as possible, so you don’t offend anyone on set because the client is really supposed to be the star of the show. I just disagree that being a good salesperson can’t conflate with having an opinion. All of my favorite artists have had really strong opinions; Marc Jacobs has a very strong political voice, and Steven Meisel always adds an extra timely and controversial layer to his editorials. There’s room in fashion to express yourself and your point of view.

Teddy Quinlivan at Paris Fashion Week spring/summer 2018 .

Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Even if it’s not a serious industry, there are serious things that happen within it, which you’ve been helping draw attention to. Two months ago, for example, you announced on Instagram that going forward, you aren’t going to work with anyone who’ve been accused of assault. As much as I was impressed by that, I was also immediately skeptical—is that even possible?

It is. You just do your research. Because sexual assault and assault in general often happen in private, yes, it can be impossible for me to know for sure. But when a legitimate source accuses someone and their story has been corroborated, I think that that’s an appropriate time to say that maybe this isn’t someone I need to work with or someone who deserves my time. There are a lot of people who can take a beautiful photo, so why would I need this 60-year-old photographer who asked my friend to get naked on set to take mine? I’ll find someone else who doesn’t have those problems to do it, because I would never treat people that way and don’t want my name to be attached to people who do.

Since you put up that post, have you turned down any jobs?

Yeah, a lot. I’ve actually been turning down people privately for a while, and I love doing it. If NFL players can take a knee on the football field, what do models have to make our knee? We have the right to say yes or no to certain jobs, and that’s my method of protest—to say that if you don’t see me in that show anymore, it’s probably because I don’t like the people behind it, or if you don’t see me working with that client, it’s probably because I don’t respect them. And that’s not because they’re not nice people. It’s not about being mean; it’s about putting your hands on somebody in an inappropriate way.

Right—it’s much more complicated than that, like if the person who assaulted you has actually been really good to you in the past.

It can be the photographer or stylist with an ultra-big ego who you’ll never shoot with again if you stand up to, or it can be the person who always tries to help you land those big shoots. When I came out about my sexual assault, I actually didn’t provide names because I didn’t want to get these people in trouble—the same people who were putting me up for great jobs and great opportunities, and who were helping me pay my rent. But I had to reconcile what’s more important to me: working with this client, or showing up to work and feeling respected and safe. And while it can be a guessing game when it comes to other people, from having experienced it firsthand and heard from other people who have, I can say that there’s no reason to lie about somebody who’s booking you a lot. I understand due process, and I think it’s very important. But it’s also important to understand that we have a tendency to not believe the victims of these travesties.

And to brush off the idea that subpar working conditions enable them.

This industry has no regulations—particularly when it comes to models, even though there are such young girls involved. I actually think that a lot of times in the fashion industry, assault isn’t always necessarily sexual, but hugely dehumanizing. There are a lot of jobs where you literally just stand there and aren’t allowed to talk. And you know, I don’t care if you’re mean to me—whatever. We work in an industry that’s notoriously mean, and if you hurt my feelings, I can cry in the bathroom and that’s fine. What drives me absolutely crazy, though, is when someone shows up to work and is treated like an object that doesn’t deserve the same rights or treatment as the other people in the room just because they’re a model. All I ask is that you have enough respect to realize that someone is a human being, which means being respectful of their body and their space; realizing that they need to eat, and realizing that they don’t want to be touched on their private parts or hit on on the job, because that’s embarrassing. I don’t see why saying something like that is so shocking.

Have people really seemed shocked?

My taking a stand and being unapologetic about it has rubbed some people in the industry the wrong way, to the point that they’re telling people not to work with me. And since this is a very small, cliquey, almost family-run business—kind of like the mafia—pissing off someone who’s friends with 10 other people can mean that all the sudden you’re not walking these 10 shows. And that’s fine—I don’t need to walk those 10 shows, because at the end of the day, I have what other people don’t have, and that’s integrity, and I’m very proud of it and the fact that I haven’t had to change myself to fit this ideal of what a model is in the industry.

You have to be able to stand up for yourself, and not everybody’s going to like it. I’m noticing the consequences now, but for me it’s worth it, and it’s not going to stop me from continuing to show up to set on time and giving 150 percent and really caring about every project I work on. That also means not compromising, and not taking projects where there’s no respect. The fight I’m fighting is the right fight, both for myself and the industry as a whole, and even if with little friends, I’m going to leave this business knowing that.

You literally just turned 24—are you really already thinking about leaving?

No, I’m really enjoying my time as a model. It’s kind of outrageous at this point; with my personality and attitude, I never thought I’d last this long. And it’s not like I’m only going to talk about being transgender or being sexually assaulted for a few months and move on. Once you come out with these types of things, people always associate you with them, which means you’re always talking about them. But I knew that when I came out, and I was perfectly willing to discuss those topics because I feel like they need to be discussed and they need to have faces to them. Coming out as transgender was really difficult for me to do, but once I did it, I was like, If I’ve already done the hardest thing, why not just be completely honest with the world and come out about my sexual assault as well, especially when it’s the right timing with #MeToo? I’m not ashamed of the fact that I was sexually assaulted—it happens at every class and level of society. I’m not ashamed that I’m transgender—there’s nothing I can do about it. So why not devote time to making people aware and informed of these issues to help destigmatize them?

It sounds silly, but I think it’s really important that you’re not just giving a face to these issues, but giving a really sassy one too. You can still have fun and go out and have a personality and a life if you get into politics or activism.

Yeah, I’m sassy, I dress up, I go out. I don’t spend my whole life wearing, like, suits and black. Being politically active doesn’t necessarily have a specific aesthetic. I mean, for my birthday right now, I’m deciding between wearing some really trendy fashion outfit or wearing something super skanky. Actually, maybe I’ll wear pasties again. Depends on how warm it is.

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