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.
If anything, Tilberg’s new appearance seemed to increase her cachet. She booked ads for Louis Vuitton and Burberry and was cast in a steady stream of glossy magazine stories, some shot by megaphotographers like Steven Meisel. Surely her angular splendor outshone the ink and hardware. But more important, in transforming her body into something hard and less susceptible to the disguises of makeup and wardrobe, Tilberg found a more permanent identity and a form of modeling she could live with.
“I needed to express the freedom of my own body,” she explains. “I didn’t want to be a blank canvas for somebody else. I wanted to own myself and to say, ‘This is me. If you want me, fine.’ ”
These days Tilberg works only when she wants to. The rest of the time she retreats to her country house near Vancouver, Canada (she likes to knit and can shear her own lamb, thank you), or to her apartment in Manhattan, where she’s working on her music (she sings and plays guitar) and lives with her wife, talent agent Laura Wilson.
“The fashion industry used to be much more closeted for girls,” she says, noting that ascension of lesbian models is a good thing not only for fashion but for culture. “I think it’s great for people to realize that we are everywhere and not a stereotype,” she says. “We are everywhere, and we look like everybody else.”
But part of her beauty is that she doesn’t act like she might appear—genetically superior to 99.9 % of humanity. And hers isn’t false modesty; it’s based largely in Tilberg’s refusal to be defined by the image her industry often projects.
“It took me years to come to terms with the business and to realize it’s an art form in itself,” she says. “But I finally accepted that I’m a great person aside from what I can do in front of a camera. That’s just my day job.”