Peche Di, a Thai beauty queen who studied at New York University, spent five years booking occasional modeling gigs and looking for an agency to represent her. “They didn’t understand me,” she says, “so I struggled to find work.”
Finally, this past May, she decided to do something about the lack of opportunities for her and other transgender models. The 26-year-old walked into the county clerk’s office downtown and filed the paperwork for Trans Models, creating New York City’s first transgender modeling agency—and one of only three in the country, and perhaps the world.
Now, four months later, her agency has signed 19 models—10 men and nine women—and has done shoots for Budweiser and Smirnoff. Consultations are ongoing with a network executive about a possible reality-TV series.
Di, who grew up in Bangkok and whose given name is Pitchadapha Phasi, is starting an agency at a time when media is changing many Americans’ understanding of gender identity. The growing prominence of the former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, the TV actress Laverne Cox, the model Andreja Pejić, and scores of other transgender people has made the transgender community much more visible.
Although Thailand's transgender people by no means enjoy equal status, Di didn’t experience the level of discrimination growing up that many Western transgender people describe. It is hard to say exactly how many people born biologically male in Thailand end up living as women—estimates range from 1 in 180 to 1 in 3,000—but it is generally agreed that the country has an unusually high number who do. (Data is firmer but still shaky in the U.S., where it’s estimated that 700,000 are transgender, or 1 in every 450 citizens.) Different cultural norms, inexpensive hormone therapies, and an abundance of cheap cosmetic surgery make physically transitioning easier in Thailand than in other countries. Di has her own theory: “Thailand is a Buddhist country. With meditation we connect with who we are, and we realize our gender faster than other people,” she explains.
Still, growing up wasn’t easy. Di went to an all-boys school for grades 1 through 12, and attended a military school part-time beginning at age 15. “I was bullied by all the boys in school because I’m different,” she recalls. “But I was very into sports, especially Muay Thai and tae kwon do. So I let them know, you can’t hurt me, because I will hurt you, too.”