The fashion industry loves lesbians, as long as they are of the oversexed variety. In the 1990s, Versace ran ads featuring sleek fembots getting to second base with each other. And for the past decade porn portraitist Terry Richardson has shot girls making out, spooning, and seductively sharing Twizzlers à la spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp. Even Chanel, a brand not known for prurience, ran ads this fall showing two ladies in Victorian garb in an alluring embrace.

But trafficking in girls-gone-wild provocation is not the same thing as authentic representation. Few know that better than Tasha Tilberg, a 30-year old model who has been at the top of the fashion heap for 15 years, working with the biggest designers and magazines; and she’s been out of the closet for nearly her entire career. “I’d look at those images and think, Hot!” Tilberg says of fashion spreads with girl-on-girl action. “But on another level it’s complete sensationalism.”
As a lesbian working and succeeding in the world of modeling, Tilberg knows there is a gulf between reality and the world advanced by the fashion industry. She’s had to come to terms with that void herself.

Since she first walked into an agency in 1994 at age 14, a lanky, beautiful goth girl hiding behind her hair, Tilberg has been in near-constant demand. In 1996 she landed the cover of W. The next year she walked major shows in New York and Paris, booked the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and inked a multiyear deal with CoverGirl. She was just 17, flush with money, prestige, and her first flirtations with the same sex. She was an “It” girl, but one who was not comfortable with her new role.

“It seemed surreal to be paid for your face or your picture,” she says of her early years. “I didn’t have a lot of self-respect at that time.” She never felt that her sexuality was a liability at work, even though she was one of the few out women in the profession, but she did sense her identity was being subsumed by the bright light of the runway.

So she quit and moved to a farm outside Toronto, and when she returned to modeling in 2000, she decided to do it on her own terms, embarking on a makeover that would become her signature. She cut her hair short, pierced her septum and other body parts, and discovered a penchant for home tattooing—prison tattoos in particular—without the use of a professional tattoo machine. She has lots of those, “20 or 30,” she estimates. Her long, slender hands are stamped with geometric shapes and lines, many of which she gave herself.

Tilberg resumed her career in 2000 with a firmer sense of self. “I got my ears stretched [with gauges in her lobes]. People got pretty freaked about that,” she recalls with a laugh. “But I figured I may lose jobs, but maybe I’ll gain others. At least I can feel good when I wake up in the morning.” She also set some boundaries for the types of jobs she wanted. No lingerie shoots. No assignments where she has to play straight.