As the first trans member of the pit crew in RuPaul’s Drag Race and appearing in fashion campaigns for Barney’s and Diesel, breaking ground is nothing new for Laith Ashley.
It was recently announced that the model, actor, singer-songwriter, and activist has joined the cast of My Divorce Party, set to be directed by Heidi Weitzer. Playing the role of Ajax, an alluring but insightful male stripper, Ashley is beyond excited to make his feature film debut.
In the comedy, Xan, played by Desiree Staples, blows through her savings with her friends in an extravagant weekend to ensure her soon to be ex-husband cannot seize any of the money in a settlement. She encounters Ajax in a seedy, desert strip club, where the undeniably attractive exotic dancer stands out amongst the eclectic locals.
The role of Ajax is also written as a cisgender character, which is not a common occurrence for a trans person to play in film and television.
Instinct had the pleasure of connecting with Ashley to talk more about the film, why he is pursuing an entertainment career, and being a representative voice for the trans community.
Hi, Laith! Thank you for taking some time to chat with me. How excited are you to be cast in your first feature film?
I am very excited! Every time I have been asked that before when it comes to jobs, I am not like, whoa, yeah! It’s just like, yes, I got this, this is what I wanted, now onto the next one. That is usually my reaction to things [laughs]. But, I am very happy to be able to showcase what I can do and learn. I have been at this for a few years now, and I know that, at least for me, compared to a lot of young people that have come to Los Angeles looking for a career in the entertainment industry, it takes a while. I have been fortunate because of the support that I have from my community, the LGBTQ community. We rock. We really support our people. That has helped me live, even before I started working in entertainment. I worked at a LGBTQ community health center, so I feel like I have been surrounded by my community and have been able to thrive within that.
Can you tell us more about My Divorce Party and your character, Ajax?
My character Ajax is a stripper, but he is the nice guy stripper. Desiree is the main character, and she plays the divorcee. I don’t want to say too much, but she and her friends say, let’s go to a strip club, and it’s this rinky dink strip club in the desert. I am supposed to be the heartthrob stripper guy who comes out and consoles her. There are some sexy moments, but it is more so trying to get her head right. She is dealing with a lot of emotional stress. So, I am excited to play this character.
It is written as a cis character, so as a trans guy playing a cis character, I think that is a pretty big deal. Especially as someone who is not assumed to be trans because of my appearance. If someone does not know who I am, they do not automatically assume that I am transgender. So, I think playing a cis character is major. I have been auditioning for so long, and a lot of times, when it comes to trans specific roles, they are looking for someone that is visibility trans.
There needs to be more diversity in the roles that are being written. There needs to be trans people in the writing rooms for a lot of these TV shows and films, just to make them more accurate if the character, themselves, are going to be transgender. Also, if you are a trans person that’s a creative, you should make your own content. I think LGBTQ people are the most talented and most intelligent people in the world. We have faced so many things that have made us stronger and more capable of doing so many more things. Our stories are just so much more entertaining. So, create your own content, and I think people will want to watch it. There is a space for us.
Hollywood has been known to drag its feet when it comes to diversity, hiring, and casting trans creatives, even allowing them into the room. Do you believe this is still the case, or is it getting better?
I think it is getting better. I don’t want to drag the entertainment industry, but right now, it kind of feels like tokenism. They are trying to get queer folks in their projects, but it’s not necessarily authentic. It’s like, we wrote this story, we want to sell it, we need diversity. Oh, put a trans person in there. That’s a hot topic right now. Yes, we need the visibility, but I want it to be authentic and the story needs to make sense.
How are you preparing for your role of Ajax? Do you have any experience being a stripper or exotic dancer?
[Laughs] I had a short two days as a go-go dancer in West Hollywood, but with preparing, I want to get a little more muscle. I have not been working out the way that I used to, especially in the beginning of my transition. I feel like being bulky, muscular, and strong was very important to me. Obviously, for aesthetic appearance, but also for safety. I’m in my 30s now, and I am tired. I need a break. Also, COVID happened, and I was like, I tried my best with what I had, but I feel like a lost a lot of motivation. This movie is definitely motivation to get back in there and get myself in shape so that I look the part.
What do you hope to take away from this experience?
I just want to learn and showcase my talent. I think that I am very capable of playing any character, whether it’s a stripper, dad, teacher, athlete, or bad guy. I remember auditioning for the role of Caliban, the Prince of Hell, for Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I slayed that audition, but I didn’t get it. It’s okay, but I was like, a part like this, I can feel it. I do not always have to be the good guy. I can be the bad guy.
I want to be able to do it all, so it is kind of stepping into that. When people asked what I wanted to do when I grow up, I used to say all sorts of different things. I wanted to be any occupation under the sun. I wanted to be exceptional. Anything I did, I wanted to be the best. As an actor, whatever the character is and whatever occupation that character holds, I get to play that, and I get to be the best at that character. So, I would love to have an array of characters to play and just have fun with it.
In addition to acting, you are also a model and singer. Is there one area you would like to focus more over the other, or continue to dabble in everything?
I do want to keep my toes dipped in all three, but I do want to focus more on acting. I love music and I love performing, but it is very time consuming. Obviously, I am not a big artist, but I can imagine if things were to get big and I started touring, it would be fun at first, but super exhausting. I remember an interview with Michael Jackson, and he was asked how he felt about touring. He was like, ‘man, I hate touring.’ They wanted him to be more positive, and he just sort of sank in. He was like, ‘I was trying to be honest with you in that moment, but you’re now telling me to say something else.’ He gave them what they wanted and said, ‘I love to tour!’ Like, poor guy. So, I want to focus more on my acting. As far as modeling gigs go, I think they are going to happen more so as my acting career grows.
You originally studied psychology. What made you want to pursue a career in entertainment?
It was after my photographs kind of went viral on Instagram. I was contacted by NBC Universal and Oxygen to be on that reality TV show, Strut, in 2015. After airing in 2016, it grew my following even more, and I started to get a lot more opportunities. I was like, let’s continue this. It was rewarding work, but I always felt that there was a cap on how far you can go.
I knew that working at the health center, financially thinking, I would only be able to make a certain amount of money. If I wanted to make more, I would have to either get a PhD, go back to school, or do something else. My dad always wanted me to be a doctor or go into medicine, but even if I went back to school or became an RN, there is still a cap. I have always wanted more, and within entertainment, I think that is possible, but you can also get nothing. There is always that risk, but the possibilities are unlimited.
You have stated before that you sometimes hate having the trans title over ahead. Can you talk more about that?
When I said that, I meant the pressure of having to represent a community. Now, there are more people, especially transmasculine folks, who are out in the entertainment industry and making their own way. So, it doesn’t feel like it is all on me. There was this sense that if I said anything wrong, I would be canceled. There are all these things because we were not allowed to have these opportunities. The doors were not open to us for a very, very long time. I just tried to talk about my own personal experience and help open the doors for young people who are looking to do the same.
What more needs to be done to increase trans visibility and normalize trans folks in the queer community?
With more visibility, more people are beginning to understand. Within our community, it can be very driven by the visual beauty aesthetic, and I have found that the people who are considered beautiful are given a pass. A lot of folks who are not conventional beauty are the ones that are still receiving the slack.
The queer community needs to remember that, depending on where you are in the world, if you are in a safe space or place, that is a huge privilege. Being LGBTQ in general can still be very dangerous. If someone does not like who you are, they can be violent towards you. If you are a gay man who has the rights and privileges to walk with your chosen partner and do not have comments or looked directed towards you, why would you do that to someone else? Especially to people who are going through an experience you just don’t understand.
When you think about it, we are all humans. We are all having this human experience. We are all trying to figure out what we want in life, where we are going, who we are, and you just need to respect people. I don’t understand why people’s opinions about someone else and their bodies is anyone else’s business.
One of your more recent projects was appearing in Ezra Michel’s music video for “Girl Baby.” How much fun was that?
That was a lot of fun! Ezra is a friend of mine and I had been in touch with Gottmik only through social media, so I got to meet him in person while filming and shooting that music video. I thought it was very beautiful. Ezra is like my little brother; he is the sweetest. He played me the song and asked me to be his dad in the video, and I was like, absolutely. I asked who was going to play the mom, and he said Gottmik. Like, fuck yes! So, Gottmik was in drag playing his mom, and it was just a transmasculine, queer video, which was so creative and necessary. I loved it.
You are also the first transgender pit crew member on RuPaul’s Drag Race. What was that experience like?
I was asked to be on it because I had done an underwear campaign for Rounderbum, but when I was on there, I remember RuPaul spotting me on the line. We were about to start filming, and she took me out of line and was like, thank you for all the things that you do. I was looking up at her, like, oh my God. You are RuPaul! That was amazing, and the experience was a great time. The Pit Crew members were just the skin on there shaking their butts in little underwear, but it was a good time for sure.
What more do you hope to accomplish with your platform?
I want to help people, and I have always wanted to help homeless folks. Especially those who live in L.A. It is very heartbreaking. I walk down my street sometimes, and you see folks that do not have a place to go. I just want everyone to have access to what they need to live. If I can help in any way, I would like to do that. Hopefully, maybe one day, I can start some sort of foundation or organization that helps folks get housing, jobs, necessities, and things like that.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug at this time?
I just shot a series. I don’t know how much I can talk about it, but I will be in a television show that is being directed and starred by Kit Williamson, the writer and director of EastSiders. We wrapped up shooting the other week, so that is very exciting.
Stay up-to-date with Ashley by following him on Instagram.