By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Johnathan Reis, Elena Kosharny, Kim Geronimo, and Momentum Pictures
Leyna Bloom made a splash this year for being the first Black and Asian openly trans woman to be featured in the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, out in July. But even before reaching that historical milestone, the 27-year-old Chicago native was changing the game both on the runway and on the screen.
In 2019, Bloom was the only transgender woman of color to walk Paris Fashion Week in 2019 at the Tommy Hilfiger x Zendaya fashion show as part of an all-Black female runway. Then there’s her drama “Port Authority,” which features Bloom making her major movie debut in a prominent role, positioning the model, actress and activist as the first trans woman of color to lead a feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in the festival’s 72-year history. After first premiering at Cannes in 2019, “Port Authority” will expand to VOD on June 1.
In writer-director Danielle Lessovitz’s romantic drama, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Bloom plays Wye, a trans woman of color and “femme queen” who encounters Paul (Fionn Whitehead) after he’s kicked out of his home in central Pennsylvania. Set against the backdrop of New York’s vogue houses and kiki ballrooms is their blossoming love. Bloom’s next film, “Asking For It,” a film focused on sexism that stars Kiersey Clemons, Ezra Miller, Vanessa Hudgens and Gabourey Sidibe, will premiere this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival. The actress can also be seen as ballroom figure Pretentia Khan in the third and (allegedly) final season of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose.”
During our recent conversation, the rising trans vanguard got emotional reflecting on making Cannes Film Festival history with “Port Authority.” Bloom also talked about drawing on legendary house mother Carmen Xtravaganza for her role on “Pose,” her dashed dreams of being in the Navy like her father, and being celebrated for her groundbreaking Sports Illustrated shoot.
When were you first interested in acting and modeling?
My great-grandmother was a model. My grandmother and my auntie, her daughters were both models. And my auntie was a dancer; she danced for Sammy Davis Jr. So dance and performing have always been in my blood. I come from two backgrounds, Nigerian and Filipino, which has a very rich background full of dance. So my ancestry and my creativity is all inside my body asking to be released constantly.
Acting has kind of always been kind of part of the plan, just like, “When am I gonna get there, and what script and what project will be the best project for that opportunity?” When “Port Authority” arrived, it was right on time because it was just a dream opportunity to play that character because it is literally the voice and the story of so many trans bodies. So, I’m glad that that was the first opportunity given to me to show the world the future.
“Port Authority” is the first film in Cannes Film Festival’s 72-year history to feature a trans woman of color in a lead role. How do you feel knowing that?
To be able to do something like this, which is my ancestors’ wildest dreams, is truly monumental. Why has it taken so long? And what can we do with this moment to make sure that it doesn’t take that long for the next person? That’s where my mind is always going to be wrapped up in. Because I may be the first, but I will not be the last. I think it’s just powerful because just 72 years ago, Black and brown bodies and queer bodies were nonexistent in this space. I think it’s just… I don’t know. I’m getting so emotional thinking about this.
Who are some of the people who paved the way for you to feel comfortable to be who you are?
A lot of beautiful women. Carmen Xtravaganza. Halle Berry. Tyra Banks. Tracey “Africa” (Norman). You know, Tyra Banks was the first woman of color to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so I’m standing on her shoulders. It’s very powerful and I’m so happy that (“Port Authority,” a story about) love was the first reason why we made history. It wasn’t about war, it wasn’t about pain. It was about love. It was a love story that made history about two people, (featuring a) trans woman, that has been missing in society. That is why it is so important, and that is why we need to continue having more moments like this.
How much of your own ballroom experience is the experience of your character, Wye, in “Port Authority”?
My experience is very similar. Wye’s character comes from a ballroom family where she is getting ready for balls and she is helping her family get ready for balls. Paul’s character is actually helping her get ready for balls, so that is very familiar to my lifestyle over the years. I’ve been (doing) ballroom since I was 15 years old, so I’ve gotten ready for many balls and prepared myself for many different competitions through the circuit. It’s very real, it’s very raw, and I love that Danielle wanted to just bring that authenticity to the film.
I chuckled at the line, “I mean, you could be a model or something,” which Paul says to Wye after she tells him that she was in the Navy. Was that based on your own real-life experience?
My dad was actually in the military. He was a Marine. I was raised in that environment, I was raised around my dad and us living on base, and us traveling to many different bases around the world, and officially being a Marine brat. That was something that we wanted to add to the character. I also wanted to be in the Navy at one point in my life, but because I am trans and because the system is not set up for me to serve my country, I could not do that. So I thought that was a beautiful little piece of nuance.
How did ballroom culture shape who you are today?
Ballroom just allowed me to see myself in my rawest state and understand that if I wanted to change, it’s up to me; it’s not up to anyone else. Ballroom is a place where you can find harmony in yourself, in your community. Where you can feel the vibrations of the people that are feeling the pain that you’re feeling and can heal together because of that. So ballroom holds lots of raw energy and power that the world has been exploring at a very small rate. But now ballroom is going to homes around the world, and people are redefining the ideas about themselves and what’s around them.
As for “Pose,” were you a fan of the series before you starred in it?
I actually auditioned for “Pose,” and a lot of my friends on the show auditioned and got the part. I was a huge fan of any project that was about Black and brown trans women being the centerpiece of the glory of television. So, I’m a huge fan of that show, and I’m so happy I got a chance to be a part of (this) last season.
How would you describe your character, Pretentia, and what was it like embodying her?
I have so many ideas about her character. Pretentia is kind of like Carmen Xtravaganza, this amazing ballroom icon woman that is Spanish and Black African, and she just inspired me growing up. I wanted to just really bring Carmen back to life through Pretentia. She’s just a combination of a lot of different strong women that I just grew up loving. She reminds me a lot of Sharon Stone. She had a lot of really strong alpha characters, and I wanted to bring that to Pretentia.
Tyra Banks has been such a huge supporter of yours. How important is it to have prominent cis people, like Tyra Banks, lift up the trans community? And what does it mean for you to have people like Tyra in your corner?
Honestly, it’s full circle for me. I was that kid that was watching “America’s Next Top Model” first season, jotting notes to use in my everyday life. Tyra was this woman that was giving us access to free information about her lived experience. And, to one day be aligned in some way, shape or form — aligned to what she has created — is truly powerful. And for her to acknowledge that is even more powerful.
I grew up reading Sports Illustrated, and knowing that Tyra was on the cover many times was truly powerful for me as a young trans woman. Seeing a beautiful Black woman that was full bust — big smile, beautiful personality, in tune with her femininity — was really powerful for me to see. When I did Sports Illustrated and it was announced, I immediately hit her up to acknowledge her as like, “I would not be here if it wasn’t for you,” like I did when I did “Pose.” I hit up those women that I told you (about): Carmen, Tracey “Africa.” I hit up these women to acknowledge that, “I’m doing this because you allowed me to see something that changed my life, that now I can be a part of, and I would not be able to do it if it wasn’t for you.” And (Tyra) acknowledged me. We’re texting here and there, and she’s sending me words of affirmation, and I’m moving to Paris soon. She’s like, “Oh, that’s where I was at; my career started in Paris.” So she’s a huge inspiration of mine, but she’s also a mentor, and you know, like a mommy also. I’m one of her babies. (Laughs.)
Who else reached out to you acknowledging how big of a deal your Sports Illustrated shoot was?
So many people hit me up. People from all different walks of life. A lot of white men reached out to me, and not fetishizing or sexualizing me but acknowledging the fact that the world is changing and the decisions that Sports Illustrated is making allow me to not only just be a part of Sports Illustrated but to tell my story through them. (It) was truly monumental for them. They acknowledge that the world needs to change, and why has it taken so long? A huge, prominent person in sports, (NBA star Dwyane) Wade, who is also from Chicago, reached out to me and congratulated me, sent me some bottles of wine — shout out to D-Wade! He’s raising a young trans daughter, and it was just truly powerful to know that the world is really changing in this moment.
What do you think it will feel like when you get your hands on a physical copy of the magazine?
I just… I honestly, oh my… even seeing a billboard of me anywhere just gives me chills. Because that was part of my vision board, you know? I would go to these places and see these billboards and just dream that one day that could be me. So the idea that there’s a magazine that’s on the level of Sports Illustrated that is acknowledging my life and what I do in this world with my life, wants me to be something, or sees something inside of me, that’s just truly powerful to me. This new generation of people, you ask them the names, you tell them the stories, and it doesn’t really click with them. But for me, who comes from that era of understanding before social media how powerful these spaces are, it’s just out of this world. I just pinch myself every time.
When it comes to trans women of color leveling the playing field both in and out of Hollywood, what’s next? What do you want to see leveled up next for trans women of color?
I want to see education level up. I think it’s important for me to pass on information just like information was passed onto me. Since we are in a time when education is always going to be a powerful tool, I definitely want to see how I can work in that environment, whether it’s me opening my own school or building a curriculum in a school to develop some type of information and data so people like me can have resources that I didn’t have when I was growing up.
What’s next for you?
One of my mentors, Carmen Xtravaganza, I’m writing her story. That was one thing she wants to leave on this Earth: just information and ideas and wisdom, and I want to put it in a book. After I write her book, I’m going to be writing my own book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.