In September 2012, 31-year-old model Elliott Sailors went in for a haircut. Not the usual trim, but a full-on blond lock-shearing sweep. She didn’t tell her agency. She didn’t tell her clients. She just brought her husband along, video camera in hand. When Sailors re-emerged, short hair and all, she aligned herself as a male model. Since then, she’s has created a verifiable media storm. The Post came calling, Vogue UK chimed in, and a very vocal Slate editor accused the model of carelessly appropriating a trans identity. But what does Sailors have to say about all the fuss? We sat down with the brand-savvy chameleon to talk gender-bending inspiration, why she isn’t much of a tomboy, and what she really misses about female modeling.
When did you first start thinking about the possibility of male modeling?
It was when I saw pictures of Andrej [Pejić]. He’s amazing – I love his pictures and the way he can move between the masculine and feminine. I tried it first with my long blond hair and it didn’t work. People still saw me as too feminine. So it was the last weekend in September 2012 when I did Landmark Forum and that’s when I was like, ‘Ok. I’m really connected now with how I want this to look for people and not just for myself, not just for my career, but I want it to be for people an opportunity to really accept something that they didn’t before. To look for where we can be open minded and really creative.’ So I went the next morning and I cut it all off.
What was that experience like?
I was super excited! My husband and I went to the hairdresser – he brought the video camera – but when I was walking into the barber shop I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’
It’s a commitment – even though the hair grows back, of course.
It’s not even that the hair grows back. But what I had always done – I couldn’t do that anymore. It was ending that. Also, I hadn’t talked to my agency beforehand. No clients knew. Nobody knew. I only had my own commitment and own excitement about it. The second after that first buzz, I was like, ‘Wow. This is so awesome.’ I actually went the very next day and cut it again, even shorter.
After that – what happened next?
I reached out to photographers I knew to get pictures first.
When did you first start modeling initially?
When I was 10. My dad tells the story that I was interested. The way it occurs to me is that I didn’t even know what modeling was! How would I even know to be like, ‘I want to do that?’ It was in high school that I was actually found in Tuscan, Arizona. I moved here permanently when I was 19.
So, this [transition to male modeling] was a big change. You said Andrej was an influence, but was this something you had considered before then?
I hadn’t thought about working as a male model until Andre, but in terms of my appreciation for androgyny—it was in 2003 when I first saw Omahyra Mota when I was in Paris and I was like, ‘That’s hot.’ It was the first time I saw how beautiful androgyny was and knew what it was. Also—Tilda Swinton is amazing. What she represents in the world is so much more than just her beauty. It’s clearly an appreciation of open-mindedness in all of how she lives. Greta Garbo wearing tuxedos way back in the day – I think that’s amazing. Coco Chanel bringing menswear to women’s fashion. Grace Jones. Jenny Shimizu! And of course, Andrej…sometimes, I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I was the first!’ Because it would be so cool to be the first. But at the same time, so much work has been done to make it easier.
What’s the experience been like with photographers and how they approach you as a male model?
Well, everyone knows I’m a female ahead of time. It’s not like I ever show up and they’re like, ‘what?!’ Everyone’s responded really well to it. Sometimes, people will be like, ‘I don’t quite get it. What do you mean?’ Other times — I was shooting with Antoine Verglas and while he was shooting he was like, ‘Ok, that looks more masculine…’ Then, the pictures came up on the screen and he was like, ‘Holy cow! That’s incredible! You really look like a man.’ That’s usually how it goes.
What’s cool – specifically with Antoine – is that he is very much an appreciator of feminine beauty. Lots of sexy, voluptuous girls and that whole kind of thing. So being able to create with him a total new way of creating beauty and a masculine femininity has been really cool. It’s cool for people in general to be able to appreciate more than they did before.
Did you always identify with a more masculine aesthetic?
In terms of experiencing myself inside of gender fluidity—for sure. I’ve never thought of myself as a super girly, girl. Growing up, I was always expected to wear dresses to church which I was fine with doing, but in my day to day life I didn’t wear dresses often. Certainly not lacy, frilly things. Often times, hanging out in groups of girls, I didn’t really always know how to be a part of the conversation when it was a really ‘girly’ conversation. I always felt a little bit on the outside. Whereas when I was hanging out with the boys, I always felt like, ‘I feel comfortable here. I know how to have these conversations.’ I’m not super athletic, so when people ask me if I’m a tomboy, I’m like, ‘I think you have to be athletic to be a tomboy!’
So was it always political?
The idea first occurred to me inside the career that I have—inside of the fashion community. I see it as an opportunity for people to be able to see and enjoy something new. I do want it to be something bigger than fashion, and even bigger than just about gender. I want it to be about acceptance across the board. People come up to me on the street and are like, ‘Thank you for being so brave.’ I’m so honored that people got to experience something that gave them courage to do something else. It’s still amazing to me that I am the one that inspired them.
What are most of the responses you’re getting?
What’s been the most surprising is I can’t tell you how many straight older white men with long hair! It’s like all these Hell’s Angels kinds of dudes. I’ll be with friends and they’ll be like, ‘that was just another one!’ It’s also cool for me to then look at – ok, why do I think that was unexpected?
What do you want to do next? How do you envision your career taking shape?
There’s a lot of opportunity inside of modeling that isn’t ‘this’ much in the public.
What were the kinds of jobs that you were doing?
Where it ended up going was that I was doing a lot of catalogue and a lot of commercial work. I really missed the different kind of artistry that exists in high fashion. I really want to get back to that – to be a part of a creative team that tells a wild story that’s risk taking and has people look at themselves and see something they didn’t see before. I’ll be doing the shows in Europe in the next year.
Is there anyone you would really want to work with?
Is there anything that you miss from female modeling now?
You know what’s funny? I was talking to a photographer the other day and he was like, ‘I guess you’re not going to be getting a lot of jobs on islands anymore.’ I used to do a lot of swimwear, things where I used to go to Hawaii or the Caribbean. I’m probably not going to be doing a lot of mens swimwear.
People would be really embracing…
Yeah, I’ll miss that. But in terms of actually wearing women’s fashions, I haven’t actually stopped modeling women’s wear. This is really an expansion. I want to keep doing it all.