When people in my village finish school they try to go to Kathmandu. In my village, Nuwakot, there’s no tourism—you can’t see the Himalayas. People farm corn, wheat, mustard, and rice to make their money. When I came to Kathmandu from Nuwakot for higher education I went to school for two years and then had to drop out because it was financially and emotionally difficult; everyone was making fun of me for speaking like a girl.
For people who come from the village it’s very difficult to live in Kathmandu, even if you’re not transgender. I missed the kindness of the villagers, who sometimes let people borrow food. People are more selfish here and money is tight. I worked in a restaurant where customers would always tell me that I looked like a model. I am five feet and nine inches tall, and they told me I was tall enough. I only thought, What is this modeling?
At that time I dressed like a boy and presented as a boy. Yet, when I walked in the road if a mannequin was wearing a beautiful dress in a window, I would think to myself, Oh, God, if I was a female I could wear that beautiful dress. Why can’t I wear that beautiful dress? Why didn’t you make me a girl? Every shop front tempted me with its big flowing gowns and saris.
One day I was watching TV in my neighbor’s room in Kathmandu, and a program showed transgender people in Kathmandu doing sex work in the street. My neighbors were saying, “Look! Look! They are chakka1Chakka is a derogatory word that is directed at many sexual and gender minorities, particularly transgender women and gay or bisexual men who don’t conform to traditional codes of masculinity. and hijra!”2Found across South Asia, hijras are commonly understood as transgender women, traditionally male-bodied, who often (but not always) undergo a ritual castration and play a role in various religious and cultural ceremonies and rites. Hijra is a complex subject category, however, and cannot be reduced to simplistic stereotypes. The word can often be used derogatorily to refer to transgender women. Those are such bad words! From inside, I felt I belonged with the people on TV. I didn’t tell my neighbors because I knew they would start to hate me and call me the same names. I thought if only I could meet the transgender people, I would share my feelings with them. I wanted to say, “I am just like you!”
Once, while I was coming back from the restaurant at night, I saw two transgender women in the street. I saw them from behind, and I saw that they were wearing jingly bracelets on their ankles and enjoying themselves. I ran past them. Then I turned around to examine them. They were all dressed up, but I was in a boy’s clothes.
I called, “Excuse me, sister, excuse me?”
They played with their hair, asking, “Yes, what do you need?”
I was bursting with excitement. “I am like you. I also want to dress like you and walk with you.”
They were so shocked and excited too, and said, “Oh my God, you are also like us? How brave you are for saying that in public and revealing yourself.” Usually, people try to hide these things, but from that point on I always expressed myself.
They said, “This is the phone number of our office and you can join.” They had part-time jobs at the Blue Diamond Society, an NGO supporting sexual and gender minorities. They told me to call on Saturday at 10 a.m. That day was Tuesday. All week I was waiting, thinking, Oh my God, please, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday! Finally, Saturday morning came, and I was thinking, Oh my God, please, what time is it? Ten, ten, ten! I woke up so early. I didn’t even eat. Finally, when the clock struck 10 a.m. I called the office immediately, and they said to wait at the main road.
When I got there, two other boys with very dark skin came by and said, “Hi! How are you?” I had no idea who they were. In the daytime, they were dressed like boys. At night, they had make-up and very white skin from the cosmetic products they used. I thought, It’s impossible! Finally, I recognized them. When we reached the office I met many transgender friends like me.
Every week the Blue Diamond Society gave an awareness training about what we are—what is gay, what is transgender, what is safe sex… I was so happy to receive that type of training because it’s very important for us to stay safe, healthy, and informed. I thought I was in another world. That was 2005. In 2006, I got a job at the Blue Diamond Society as an outreach educator. In Kathmandu, there are many secret public places to meet lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, like parks and what not. My job was to find those people, teach them how to use condoms, inform them about what our community is, and provide services for people with sexually transmitted diseases. Again, during this work, my transgender friends told me, “You look like a French model. You should be a model! Such damn good height! What a figure!” I knew about figure and height, but I thought, What is a French model? I was too shy to ask. I would just smile like a fool and say, “Thank you.” It was funny.
My questions were finally answered when my friend said, “Wow, what beautiful models!” They were on a runway on TV. I thought, How tall they are! From that day on, I wanted to be a model. Even in my dreams, I walked down the runway and imagined people watching me on TV. I started learning from Fashion TV every day. In 2007, Blue Diamond Society organized a beauty pageant for transgender women. The title was “Ms. Pink.” Through that event, I learned how to do a catwalk, how to do a pose, and so on, but I didn’t win the title. I didn’t even place in the top ten. I won “Ms. Charming.” Everyone said this prize was very suitable for me.
That same year, our director, Sunil Babu Pant, told me that a beauty pageant for transgender people has been happening in Thailand since 2004, called Ms. International Queen. People come from all over the world to participate. I had to pay $200 US dollars for my application. I used most of my savings to pay for this. Three people from Nepal, including me, applied, and we were all selected.
We were so surprised by how big the airport was in Bangkok! A very big airport! We got lost in the big roads and underground tunnels. It was a very developed city compared to Kathmandu. Most people didn’t speak English. But I loved the street food; they would mix fruits and package them. I will always remember how sweet and clean those fruits were. The weather was so hot, as if the sun was so near I could almost touch it. They had no motorbikes like those that cover the streets in Kathmandu, only scooters. That was my first time outside my country.
Pattaya City was where the pageant was held. First of all, we saw that we were very unlucky. All the participants came professionally prepared with very good catwalks, dresses, make-up, and skills. They had sex change operations. They had big boobs and real vaginas while none of us from Nepal had any sex changes: no boobs, no make-up, no costumes. We were very unfortunate. Even now in our country, we have no doctors or facilities for the sex change procedures; it’s too expensive for most people in Nepal. We thought, if only we were from Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, the US, or the UK, or Australia—they were all so professionally beautiful. But in our country, nothing. Still, it was the first time Nepal sent people to that pageant. The stage in Thailand was so damn good, and even if we won nothing, walking across the stage like Miss Universe or Miss World made us feel like a part of that world.
When I came back, I started work again in the Blue Diamond Society office. Every day I still watched Fashion TV. It was like a drug for me. In 2009, one of Nepal’s most renowned English-language magazines, VOW, which means “voice of women,” offered me and one of my transgender friends the chance to be the covergirls. They wanted to do a transgender cover. That was the first photo shoot in my life. We were both wearing three or four casual dresses for the photo shoot. I was quite nervous, but also excited. The photographer said, “Wow, your face is very photogenic.” From that day on, I wanted more. I knew that this could be a kind of awareness program for the transgender community. If people came to know me as a model they might open their minds and begin asking, “What is transgender?”
My family, neighbors, and friends live very far away, in the village of Nuwakot. If they read, they can only read in Nepali, but VOW is in English. But I wasn’t trying to keep it secret; I would have happily been published in a Nepali magazine too. I wanted to be in every magazine, in every newspaper, and I wanted to walk on the runway. My mind was rolling over and over again like a wheel, What to do? How do I start?
That same year, I got an opportunity to do a photo shoot for a renowned Nepali fashion website www.cybersansaar.com.3“Cyber world” I wore saris and around six dresses. That was my second photo shoot. I was so excited. The beautiful make-up was done by my transgender friend who is now a very famous make-up artist in Nepal. Everyone responded, “So beautiful, so gorgeous!” And then I thought again, It’s not enough for me! I was hunting for more jobs, but no one, no one, no one called me.
During my search, I took a training course at a modeling agency called Ramp for one month. I learned about catwalks, poses, and all the different types of modeling available. I learned so much from that training, and I said, “Now I will get a job easily.” I went to many auditions at the same agency, Ramp, but I was never selected. I was the only transgender person out of everyone in all the auditions. The owner of that agency was a lady. I asked her, “Ma’am, why am I always rejected? Is it because of my identity?” And she said, “Yes, they didn’t want to select you because you are transgender.” She was supportive but honest. I had no idea what to do. I felt so down and had low, such low spirits that I thought modeling wasn’t for me, so I quit.
Soon I found out about another agency that kept telling me they could get me a job. After some weeks, finally, the agent told me, “You shouldn’t try to be a model; it’s not a good job for you. There are no transgender models in the world.” But I didn’t lose my confidence. I thought in my heart, Look. I will show you. There will be transgender models in the world… And in Nepal. So I left his agency and kept trying. I went for auditions by the hundreds. Finally, slowly, I got a few chances. I did some ramp-walks. I did some photo-shoots. I never tried to hide my identity in the auditions. Every time I was fighting society.
In 2010, I spoke with one writer named Lex Limbu, who lives in the UK and is Nepali, and he offered to feature me on his blog. Because of him, I became known as Nepal’s first transgender model. I’m also the first model from my village Nuwakot, and the first model from the Tamang4Tamangs are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who historically migrated South into the Himalayas from Tibet. They have distinct languages and culture, and under Nepal’s caste system were historically considered “enslavable.” ethnic group. Since that day, people slowly began to know about me. Anjali Lama is Nepal’s first transgender model. I felt so proud. Now in Nepal, many of my friends, neighbors, and family members know that I am a transgender model. I have four brothers, and one really loves and supports me. One day he saw my picture in a famous Nepali magazine and told me he thought this was a famous English actress. Then he realized, Oh, it’s my sister! I’m so proud!
Even now, I’m still being rejected from almost all of my auditions, but I never lose hope. I keep trying. The agencies keep telling me they will provide me with jobs, but it’s only words. Yes, there are some who support us. If those few people didn’t give me a chance, my work wouldn’t be possible. We can’t take everything negatively. We have to think about it in positive ways too. But because of my identity as both a Nepali and transgender person, it’s very difficult still. My parents don’t support me financially or emotionally. They still don’t know what transgender means, even when I describe it to them. Nepal is a very small country, and the combined lack of education and conservative roots makes it very difficult for my parents to understand. Even if people are educated, they’re likely to be very conservative, and the fashion industry here is very small.
Sometimes I feel like I’m going to quit modeling, but every time I see an advertisement for models online or somewhere else, I think, Oh, I’m going to try again! If you want to achieve something in your life, you have to keep trying. A few months ago I applied for a shoot. Finally, I was selected. Again, I was so excited. Since I started my modeling career, this has been my biggest opportunity. The international designer’s name is Bishaal Kapur, and he’s from India. He supports me with all his heart and tells me that I am perfect for modeling. He says, “Whatever your identity, it doesn’t matter. You have that quality to be a model.” Never in my life had I received the opportunity to wear such elegant dresses: beautiful gowns, saris, and lehenga, the Indian dress. I never worked so hard either; we started in the early morning and finished at midnight. Even if he wanted to work with me for the whole night, I would be ready for that. I’ll work anytime, for any duration; it’s my passion. Everyone was looking so tired at the shoot but not me. I always showed them grace. I was always ready to be there. I hope this work will bring me some magic. When I came home at 1 a.m. I saw that Bishaal had given me some money. I counted that money—it smelled of hard work and results.
By Anjali Lama. Anjali Lama identifies as a transgender woman and is from Nuwakot. She is currently earning her Bachelor’s degree in sociology and population from Trichandra College, Kathmandu. She joined in Blue Diamond Society in 2006 as an Outreach Worker and was promoted to Field Supervisor. She often works as a model for South Asian designers.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Chakka is a derogatory word that is directed at many sexual and gender minorities, particularly transgender women and gay or bisexual men who don’t conform to traditional codes of masculinity.|
|2.||↑||Found across South Asia, hijras are commonly understood as transgender women, traditionally male-bodied, who often (but not always) undergo a ritual castration and play a role in various religious and cultural ceremonies and rites. Hijra is a complex subject category, however, and cannot be reduced to simplistic stereotypes. The word can often be used derogatorily to refer to transgender women.|
|4.||↑||Tamangs are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who historically migrated South into the Himalayas from Tibet. They have distinct languages and culture, and under Nepal’s caste system were historically considered “enslavable.”|