Being an artist requires you to have a vision. Sure, you need talent, but in order to achieve that vision, you really need courage. Fortunately, Cory Wade has vision and courage in spades. Still, his journey to the top has been anything but smooth. After starting in the theater, he moved into the drag scene, which quickly transitioned into a successful modeling career -- and led him to become the first out gay male contestant on America's Next Top Model (on Cycle 20, billed as Cory Wade Hindorff).
Although he was criticized for being too effeminate, his androgyny and gender-fluidity set him apart from the other male models on the competition, and led to gigs modeling both men's and women's fashions after the series ended. He took advantage of the Top Model visibility, releasing a single -- "I'm Sorry," a track he wrote and also played guitar on -- and landing a role in a New Jersey rendition of the musical Rent.
Since then, Wade has become a designer whose recent collaboration with the luxury brand Balitello is merging the worlds of fashion and activism. It's the kind of partnership Wade has crafted his whole life, even though he hasn't always been aware of it.
By middle school, Wade already knew he wanted to make a positive impact on the world, he just didn't know how. Fortunately, he found a role model right in his living room -- supermodel Tyra Banks.
"I remember watching TheTyra [Banks] Show," Wade shares. "She was one of the celebrities who used her persona to advocate for equality before it was hip to do it. She was talking about LGBT equality on her talk show before it was trendy, and I remember watching her, and [knowing] she was referring to me."
That awareness gave him new insight into his family dynamics. Wade says his brothers "didn't understand me because I was very different. They all played sports and were into the same things, and I was the one who was playing with dolls, who was dressing up like a girl, dancing around the house." Still, he acknowledges, "They always made me feel like I was one of them. They never once shut me out or made me feel bad about who I was."
"Maybe that's why I have so much nerve now," he reflects. "Maybe that's why I'm so unafraid to be myself. It's because I was brought up around love."
For Wade, that support from his brothers -- and "very liberal" parents -- taught him an important lesson: to truly live authentically, you must first commit to living fearlessly. It took being fearless to embrace his identity as a "gender-fluid man," Wade says, "because I have always been one to transcend societal expectations with regards to gender roles."
Living fearless isn't just about choosing one's own clothes or having a fierce runway walk. It's also how you carry yourself as a business person. Wade's partnership with Balitello is a perfect example of what happens when passion meets opportunity.
Balitello is a sock-of-the-month club that features high performance dress socks. The company's cofounder, Robert Baldino, reached out to Wade shortly after the massacre at Pulse, the LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded, most of them Latino.
"Balitello was founded and is run by a group of forward-thinking cisgender men who were affected by [the Pulse massacre]," Wade says. "They wanted to make a gesture of solidarity in working with me. That in itself is powerful and inspiring."
Baldino and his colleagues wanted to create a custom sock design to fund charitable causes within the LGBT community.
"I've always been invested in advocating for equality in every possible way because of my personal experience navigating my sexuality and fighting to get to a place of self-acceptance," Wade says. "Because of the way we are trained to perceive [traditional] gender roles from a young age, it makes it impossible for me not to." As someone who didn't conform to traditional expectations around gender, Wade is an automatic supporter of LGBT rights, "But," he adds about Baldino's involvement, "it means something else when a cisgender man decides to take that stance."
"I remember wanting to do something to help the cause beyond posting relief donation links on my social media channels," Wade recalls about that post-Pulse period. "And I was really touched by Robert's desire to use his brand to take a firm stance against such a senseless act of hatred targeting my community."
"Working with [Balitello] on this reminded me of what it felt like when I first told my three straight brothers I was gay," Wade says. "I was 17, I was terrified, but they accepted me for it right away. We decided to name the [sock] design 'Valor' to represent the courage it takes to stay true to yourself, and fight for what you believe in. The design itself is inspired by the labyrinth of life -- and how there's always an open path to find once you're lost."
As far as maintaining his brand, Wade has no desire to veer away from the path he's worked so hard to keep. In fact, when it comes to being an out queer person working with a group of cisgender, straight men -- or trying to please a straight clientele -- he says the secret is all about honesty.
"The people I'm supposed to be working with are the people who share in my values." he says. "I'm not too concerned with pleasing clients because my clients always know what they are getting themselves into when they are working with me."
"When it comes to advocating for LGBT equality and authentic self-expression," Wade explains, "I wear my heart on my sleeve. Beyond the idea of business branding, to really feel fulfilled, I think it's important in whatever you decide to do that you hold true to your values and that you do whatever you can to use your power for good. That in and of itself, will brand you beautifully."
In a sense, one's brand is their life's imprint. It's what people think of when they think of you, and as Wade says, it's worth more when the decisions you make are authentic and honest.
"If you're afraid what you know in your heart to be right could have a negative impact on the success of your business, or if you're too concerned with your branding, it will be hard to leave behind something of value," Wade adds. "I'm truly proud of every move that I made, where I fell short, and where things didn't necessarily work out in worldly terms of success [because] at the very least, my efforts were put towards making the world a better place."
It's been three years since Wade appeared on Top Model, but the impact is still palpable, as reruns air in 186 countries around the world. "Young people around the world [have] been affected by what I've done -- that just blows my mind." His visibility has come with a certain responsibility too, one that Wade says weighs "heavy on my heart." One of the LGBT youth who reached out to Wade was a boy from Russia. He sent Wade a private Twitter message from a computer at his public library.
"[He] had just been thrown out of his home for being gay," Wade shares. "He was considering suicide, because he couldn't get through to his parents. They didn't even want to acknowledge [him]. I still get choked up even talking about it. I was able to refer him to a youth center in Russia and we still keep in contact and still talk."
"When I first signed on to do Top Model," Wade admits, "I never saw myself being forced into the role of representative and becoming such an advocate for LGBT equality and general authentic self-expression. That was never my aim. At that time, I was in it for myself."
"But it blossomed into something so much more," Wade acknowledges. "That activist spirit now is what drives everything I do. I'm writing music again, and it's all driven by how I feel about the way differences are perceived. And how we don't allow ourselves to really love ourselves the way we should, because of how we are trained to perceive gender roles. It's this identity crisis a lot of young people battle with."
Wade hopes to share his love of music and artistry with a world that could still use a lot more LGBT visibility.
"Over the years there has been an increase in LGBT visibility in the media, and I think there are so many great, great, great role models for young people out there now, and it's beautiful to see," he says. "But I don't think that there could ever be enough because there are so many different types of people out there, and everybody needs to be able to see themselves."
"We're here, we're all here," Wade says, as though imagining himself in a crowd, looking to the future. "We're going to rise up in a way that we never have before. When I think about the next four years, I see us just coming together. We're not alone, it's becoming more and more apparent. And I feel like our union is going to grow so strongly over the next four years that when [Donald Trump's out of office]? Ain't nothing gonna stop us."