This year at the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles, supermodel Naomi Campbell acknowledged the work of Carmen Carrera, a transgender model who is turning heads in the spheres of fashion and entertainment. It was a watershed moment for Carrera, who only a few years earlier was a drag performer at clubs in New Jersey and has gone on to appear in the pages of W magazine and ItalianVogue.
"I know Carmen is in the house tonight," Campbell said. "The truth is LGBT culture and fashion go hand in hand. They flourish in light of making bold and brave statements."
Carrera is certainly no stranger to "making bold and brave statements." An alum of RuPaul's Drag Race, Carrera became a lightning rod for controversy after she spoke out against transphobic language on the show's most recent season. She also publicly disagreed with RuPaul over the acceptability of the word "tranny," and, in a backlash, many LGBT people accused her of disrespecting her former mentor as well as leveraging a hot-button issue for fame.
But Carrera stuck to her guns, lambasting through interviews and social media what in her view is a word intended to demean transgender people. Looking back at the firestorm, Carrera is glad she spoke her mind, while also acknowleding that she still has much to learn in being a public figure with a strong opinion.
"I've learned that my word carries weight, and that's something I have to always have to keep in mind," Carrera says. "People misinterpreted what I was trying to do and what I was trying to say. ... [But] I refuse to think that society is never going to understand me, and that's what keeps me going."
"I don't have any regrets," she concludes. "I'm going to figure out the way to get through to people."
Carrera continued to break down barriers at the Life Ball, one of the world's largest HIV and AIDS fundraisers. Photographer David LaChapelle chose Carrera as his muse, and she appeared naked on the billboards and posters advertising the event
. In an artistic twist, the images depicted Carrera with both male and female genitalia, which Carrera says represents the "idea that beauty doesn't have a gender."
This bold symbolism incited protests as well as the defacing of her image. On the plane ride to Vienna, where the event was held, Carrera was terrified of the reception she would receive because of the controversy surrounding the posters. But a fellow passenger gave her some unexpected wisdom that helped give her courage.
"Courtney Love gave me advice on how to stay focused," Carrera said of the rock musician, who was one of the passengers on the flight to the star-studded event. "She told me I have a lot of positivity and I have a lot of light and to just stay on that path, because it's easy to become affected by the negativity. ... She told me to not let it bother me and to continue to be that same person."
Carrera took Love's advice to heart and walked the streets of Vienna with her head held high. In fact, the event was a huge success. Carrera received nothing but praise from those she encountered. And her image sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars, which was donated to HIV and AIDS research.
There are also bright lights ahead. Carrera is set to star in a reality docuseries about aspiring trans models on VH1, TransAmerica, which will debut in late 2014 or early 2015.
"Everything has happened in a short period of time once I started living my truth," says Carrera, who came out as a trans woman in 2012 after appearing on Drag Race. "Not to say it's been easy, but it's been eye-opening and awakening for me. And it's been fun!"
"There are times when I step back and I look back at what I've done in the past month or in the past year, and I feel happy and I feel blessed," Carrera adds. "But I always think I can do better. Whatever it is I'm meant to do or be, I'm not there yet."
Currently, Carrera is continuing her campaign to become the first transgender Victoria's Secret model, which began last year when a Change.org petition that gained nearly 50,000 names sparked headlines as well as an appearance on Katie Couric, where she and Laverne Cox instructed the talk show host on how to have a respectful conversation with transgender women. She is working hard to train her mind and body to achieve this goal.
"I'm not going to sit around and expect this opportunity to just be given to me," Carrera asserts. "I'm going to put in my work so that when I do walk on that runway, people are going to be like, 'Carmen was meant to do that.'... I have all these people who believe in me, and I'm not going to let them down. I refuse to let them down."
Her dream, she says, is to show the world that a transgender woman is worthy of a successful career and an authentic and fulfilled life.
"I want to be a successful model," she says. "I want to be a successful trans woman burlesque performer. I want to be a mom. I want to be a wife. ... And I just want to be me."