LEYNA BLOOM: RIOT GIRL
Leyna Bloom is writing a story that is all her own. Whether forging a path for herself as a trans model of colour, campaigning for her community or flexing her muscles as an emerging actor, she is interested in doing things her own way.
For Bloom, right now is a moment to reflect. “A lot has been happening this year,” she says on the phone from New York, having just come from a photoshoot. “I think as humans, we go through these stages in our lives that redefine us. I keep having these moments to like, really, really challenge myself.”
Of course, redefinition and rewriting the rules are all part of her process. Bloom’s now infamous tweet from back in April 2018 went viral and started a storm of conversation and praise as well as ignorance and vitriol – but looking back now, many of the more controversial replies to Bloom’s tweet have been deleted or removed.
“It’s a very rewarding feeling, and I’m lucky to have that conversation” Bloom explains. “Even the people who didn’t agree and said, ‘You’ll never make it,’ and ‘It will never happen,’ I needed that also, because it humbled me. I know that this is what I’m fighting for and that’s why it’s so important.”
Bloom, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, born to a Filipina mother and African-American father, has always been ambitious. And while some goals have yet to be realised, Bloom’s ambition wasn’t going to stop at a conversation on social media. Soon, bigger dreams started to emerge.
I have a slight obsession with wanting to be seen as a respectable, creative individual, and acting has always been something that seemed very, very far from reach for me.LEYNA BLOOM WEARING DITA NIGHTBIRD-THREE
Growing up, there were no people like me, or who shared my experience, on TV or in movies. I thought it was so hard for us to get on those television shows or those movies that it would never happen for me.
Bloom’s first major moment of validation came when she landed a Vogue India cover in late 2017 — the first trans model of colour to do so. Then came recognition on screen last year, as Bloom was cast in her debut movie role as the lead in Port Authority, directed by Danielle Lessovitz and executive-produced by none other than Martin Scorsese. Port Authority sees a young man named Paul who arrives into New York fresh from the Midwest and meets Wye, played by Bloom. It’s a love story in classic NYC fashion: two kids from very different worlds collide headlong, with dramatic consequences.
Bloom’s character Wye is part of the kiki scene, a subculture of New York’s broader ballroom scene, which has been vital to LGBT youth coming of age in the turbulent city. Off-screen, it’s something that Bloom has her own experience of, too.
The ballroom scene was my original platform.
She tells me with enthusiasm. “I started ballroom when I was in my teenage years in Chicago, from around 15 or 16.” Ballroom offered Bloom a sense of kinship that wasn’t on offer elsewhere in the culture she lived in, and it helped her overcome challenges she faced as she found her way to transitioning.
“Ballroom is a self-made form of community outreach, it’s an extracurricular activity with a healthy competitive environment. I was lucky to find that, because I couldn’t go and join cheerleading in school, and I couldn’t be on the soccer team, you know what I mean? So my way to have healthy competition was to be in a ballroom and meet other people that were like me, that were going through what I was going through, and create an organic relationship with the past and the present and the future of ballroom.”LEYNA BLOOM WEARING DITA NIGHTBIRD-THREE
There’s a sense, then, that something of Bloom’s story has come full-circle now. “To do a movie about the community where I started my strength and found my courage, it’s very rewarding.” The friendships Bloom formed then with her fellow house members have become lifelines that have lasted the years, and several of Bloom’s ballroom friends also feature in the film, creating a bridge between her present and the past that propelled her to where she is today. “They prepared me for it all, you know. I wanted to learn about who I am, and I was educated by people who’d walked in my shoes and could have those conversations.”
The making of any modern American star requires a backstory that sees them overcoming adversity. For Bloom, the challenges she faced growing up have given her the strength she now has to speak her mind. “I’d gotten into a lot of trouble growing up, from being a very young child living on the South Side of Chicago in the suburbs, with teachers that didn’t agree with the way I dressed or how I looked or my level of education or intelligence. I can really, really go after what I believe in if I set my mind to it, and all the things you tell me that I lack or that I’m poor at, or that I could never imagine being capable of – that’s my superpower, that’s what gives me my power to go after all of it.”
Now, when Bloom is asked for advice by younger trans kids and people of colour, she knows exactly what to say. “Ask as many questions as you want to anyone and everyone,” she says. “I think we need to find love in ourselves, we need to trace back through our ancestry, whether it’s having moments with our grandparents or going through time capsules to find out where we come from. Really get connected with your roots. In order to find out who you are and where you’re going, you have to find out where you came from.”LEYNA BLOOM WEARING DITA NIGHTBIRD-THREE
For Bloom, the support of family and friends along her journey has been so important. “Growing up, I was living in a world where I didn’t fit in, and so it was important for me to create one where I did. In doing that, I had to really look at people that had paved the way in my community and not just trans people – the silent heroes in our community, they’re our aunties, our uncles, our cousins, our teachers, our nannies.” It must be interesting, I say, to experience success at a time when trans representation is increasing and our ideas of beauty are changing.
Honestly, people are at a place where we’re tired of the BS. There are so many unique points of view and experiences that are not being explored.
There are people now, that are putting out so much so much stuff to represent everyone and letting the fashion world know that we are not a trend, we are here and we will be represented.
Having her story and identity validated by the industry has been important for Bloom’s own sense of self. “I’ve had to challenge society to prove to them that I am able,” she states. She describes working with Scorsese and Lessovitz as an honour, and days after our conversation, news breaks that Port Authority will premiere at Cannes later this spring. This makes Bloom the first trans woman of colour to lead a premiere at Cannes, a point that feels crucial considering the festival’s prestige and its illustrious 72-year history.
What did this news mean to her? “Port Authority equals visibility and representation for me,” she explains several days after our interview. “From the beginning, during the casting process, until the last day of the shoot, I knew we were telling a story that made space for authentic representation of my ball culture. I’m so excited and humbled for the opportunity to represent and show face for all trans women of colour.” The queer community who influenced and mentored Leyna also taught her the value of always paying it forward, making changes for the next generation.
"This is the moment my queer ancestors have fought and died for,” she continues. “I am going to represent them the best way I can - by showing face at Cannes as the first trans woman of colour to lead a film in the festival’s 72-year history.”
Text: Ana Kinsella
Photos: Hao Zeng
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