The world was first introduced to model, actress and activist, Isis King when she appeared as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). King had dreams of stardom, just like all the other girls on the show that season. However, her journey was made more spectacular by the fact that Tyra Banks had initially discovered King in the background of a photo.
It really is the stuff of legend; a modern-day Cinderella story of sorts in which, “America’s Next Top Model” was arranging a photoshoot for Cycle 10. Show producers wanted to bring a level of realness to a photoshoot that aimed to address homelessness. So they partnered with the Ali Forney Center – an organization that offers a range of support for at-risk LGBTQ youth. Many of those youth are homeless due to societal or family rejection, and they live at the center. Isis King was among them, living in the center’s Transitional living program, for transgender youth.
Through the Reciprocity Foundation – a resource that helps at-risk and homeless youth find employment, King was hired along with other young adults to be background models for the shoot. To Isis, as someone who was an avid fashion lover and aspiring designer, this moment had to count, and so she served up poses in the background that rivaled any contestant on the show. The show’s art director, Jay Manuel, and the iconic Tyra Banks noticed a girl in the background, serving supermodel realness. Banks inquired as to who that girl was?
The following season of ANTM, Cycle 11, King was thrust into the international spotlight as the show’s first transgender contestant.
King’s initial run on the show was not easy because of the physical limitations she faced in the fashion challenges. This was before her transition surgery so you can quickly assess the self-consciousness she endured among all the cisgender female contestants. Then too, some of the other girls were not very kind to her. No matter what, at that point, the Isis King train had left the station, and it was NEVER going back.
So much has happened for Isis King since then; from personal accomplishments such as full transition surgery and appearing on national news networks to discuss her story, to national advocacy campaigns, returning to ANTM All-stars, and the Whoopie Goldberg-produced reality show about transgender models, “Strut.”
Many would have rested on their laurels and simply ridden the wave of just being a recognized face … but Isis wanted more. For her, that meant taking her passion for acting seriously, studying the craft, moving to Los Angeles and giving it her all at auditions. In essence, this translated to thriving and living in her truth, and Hollywood clearly took notice. She landed roles on Shameless and The Bold and the Beautiful. Her arrival as leading LGBTQ voice is timely and prolific.
Months ago, Isis told me she had completed filming a pivotal role in an upcoming Netflix movie, based on the infamous Central Park 5 rape case. In the film, she portrays real-life, murdered trans woman Marci Wise. She then mentioned it would be directed by Ava DuVernay, and I remember thinking, “Oh sh*t! This girl was SERIOUS about this acting thing.” Not that I ever doubted her, because as cliche as it may sound, I always knew she would be a star.
You see, I met Isis way before her fame when we worked together in a dreaded retail job. From day one, I assessed something special about her. She was pretty, classy, funny, and talented. I remember her always sketching amazing fashion illustrations in her spare time. I also still remember us goofing around doing runway through the aisles as we organized the store. Honey, that girl can WALK! We spoke about her posing for me in a photoshoot at the pool in my complex. She agreed, and I procrastinated. It never happened. So yes, I’m still kicking myself!
With her riveting role in the critically acclaimed “When they see us,” Isis literally hit the big time. The film has become one of the most talked-about projects of the year, earning 16 Emmy nominations.
A few days ago Isis sent out a Tweet, revealing she had landed on the cover of The Advocate Magazine. In an emotive feature story, she sheds even more light on her meteoric rise and hopes for the future. She’s come along way since the days of being in the background. What remains, however, is her humility, which was on full display when I asked her to reflect on the role Ali Forney has played in her journey,
“Ali Forney took me in at the beginning of my transition. They gave me a safe haven, and resources that allowed me to flourish into the person I knew I could become.”
And flourish did she ever. Well done, Isis King. Well done!
Learn more about the Ali Forney Center
Read The Full Interview With Isis King at The Advocate