Transgender Top Model got local start
16th October 2008
As a student at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Darrell Walls filled the pages of his notebooks with sketches of shoes, handbags and evening gowns. His preoccupation with fashion made him the target of ridicule from his peers, but has more recently brought him into the spotlight in the fashion and modeling industry.
This season, Walls was a contestant on Tyra Banks' reality television show, "America's Next Top Model," which was filmed in New York. If fans of the show don't recall Walls, however, it is an understandable faux pas. The world now knows him as Isis King, the first transgender person to compete in the show's runway walks and photo shoots for a shot at a coveted one-year modeling contract.
Although King didn't make it into the final rounds of the show, eliminated after a poor photo shoot, she said her participation helped validate her decision to change gender.
"People didn't really agree with [my decision]," said King, 23, of when she started dressing as a woman two years ago. "It was hard at the beginning. Now pretty much everybody calls me Isis and they respect me more after the show."
King bounced around the county in her youth, living in Mitchellville, Laurel and District Heights with her two brothers and mother and graduating in 2003 from Flowers. She said she always felt like a girl trapped in a boy's body, but because homosexuality, let alone a transgender lifestyle, was such a taboo topic in the county, she kept her urges under wraps. Her mother declined to be interviewed for this story.
"She has probably done more to educate people on transgendered issues by speaking about her own experiences," said Dan Furmansky, the executive director of Silver Spring-based Equality Maryland, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group.
Before King's television debut, there weren't many positive portrayals of transgender people, said Marilee Lindemann, program director for the University of Maryland, College Park's LGBT studies program. "They've always been played for laughs and been two-dimensional characters," Lindemann said.
Citing a plethora of comedies in which black male actors have donned drag, like in the movie "Big Momma's House," University of Maryland African-American Studies professor Melinda Chateauvert said gender-swapping is widely considered acceptable among the black community, so long as it is done in jest. Serious experimentation, however, has become widely discouraged through preaching against homosexuality, she said.
"Transgendered and gay men and women were accepted in the black community up until the civil rights movement," Chateauvert said. "In the push for civil rights, there almost seemed to be a corrective decision to hide [the black community's] LGBT members and presenting itself as being very heterosexual and very family values."
King said she's seen an outpouring of support from the LGBT community after she was eliminated from the show, receiving e-mails and messages on her Myspace.com Web page praising her for her courage.
King's presence on the show introduced viewers to the catty insults, body insecurities and painful hormone injections that are a part of her life as a transgender person. Other contestants on the show questioned whether King had a right to compete with the rest of the women, citing unfair advantages such as King's less-cellulite-prone legs. But during an in-the-water photo shoot, after which King was eliminated, she was preoccupied with whether or not the body tape underneath her bikini bottoms would peel off, resulting in a whole different kind of wardrobe malfunction than America is used to.
King said it is difficult to watch her struggles with both personal and competitive issues on episodes of the show, but thinks that overall the experience was worth it.
"I never went in trying to be a role model," King said. "Being considered a role model for me being myself makes me happy that people appreciate that."
Even in high school, King had a passionate energy and drive that made her shine. Her former art teacher at Flowers, Gaines Clore Wynn, said that of the hundreds of students she's had in 25 years of teaching, King was easily in the top five in terms of creativity.
She remembered how King would design outfits for a group of five svelte, fashion-conscious female friends to wear to school.
"We could all hardly wait to see what they had on the next day," said Wynn of the group that included Army Sgt. Princess C. Samuels of Mitchellville, who was killed in Iraq last year.
King loved creating bustiers and pencil skirts on a cousin's industrial sewing machine, and despite the negative attention her passion attracted, she excelled above and beyond others in her art and fashion design classes. At an end-of-the-year performing arts gala hosted at Flowers, she designed an entire collection of sports, casual and evening wear for a fashion show.
"He got a standing ovation," Wynn said. "Most kids his age would not have done that, but he followed through and got that accomplished."
But King was painfully modest about her creations, Wynn said. Accompanying a friend to an interview at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, King neglected to show her own portfolio, but at Wynn's urging returned to do so and ended up with a $30,000 scholarship to the school.
There she obtained her associate degree in fashion design and also found the encouragement and support to step into the high-heeled identity she had always kept hidden. On a trip back home, just before her 21st birthday, she went out for the first time as a woman to the Washington, D.C., nightclub Love wearing an outfit she made for herself.
"It made me feel complete in the terms of gender identity," she said.
However, in terms of gender physicality, King is still trying to save the approximately $25,000 she will need for gender reconstructive surgery.
Since the show, King has now moved back to New York City to continue her design work, and hopes her stint on "America's Next Top Model" will lead to more modeling and design opportunities. No contracts have been finalized yet, but in the meantime she will get more air time before the supportive LGBT community as the guest of honor at Equality Maryland's Jazz Brunch and Silent Auction on Nov. 2 in Baltimore.