Geena Rocero on Writing Horse Barbie to Process Her Transition
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
Today, we sit with model, writer, and activist Geena Rocero! At the top, we discuss transgender visibility in the US, her “magical” upbringing in the Philippines, and a ceremony that helped her find her true self. Then, she describes the influence of her trans mother Tigerlily, her rapid ascent in the pageant circuit, and memories of the fabled transgender bar Divas.
On the back-half, Rocero walks through her pivot to modeling in New York City, feeling like a James Bond-like spy, making history on the TED stage, the power of community, and to close, a powerful passage from her new memoir Horse Barbie.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: When you were working and finding your way in San Francisco, did that period embolden you to try modeling in New York?
Geena Rocero: Not necessarily, but I felt I could do it once I had my surgery.
Sam Fragoso: You felt you needed to have the surgery before you could move?
Geena Rocero: Yes, it completed my sense of feeling and connectedness. But this was in 2005, and it was a very different time when I moved to New York City. My model agent did not know I was trans. The modeling industry did not know I was trans. Nobody knew about my history of pageantry. Making that conscious choice was what I had to do.
Sam Fragoso: You’ve called this chapter in your life your stealth period. I thought maybe we would read a passage from this section of Horse Barbie where you’re becoming this successful model—in which you became, as you write, “a blank canvas of a face that makeup artists loved, especially because of my small, almond-shaped eyes.” In this section, you’re kind of explaining the interiority of how you felt in that time.
Geena Rocero: Sure.
I could look like thirty different women in the same day. And the affirmation I got in return was incredible. I felt as if I had infiltrated the inner sanctum of the gender binary, like James Bond slinking through a secret underground facility, not in a tuxedo but in a thousand dollars’ worth of puffy chiffon. My mission was working.
Back on the streets of New York, though, that high faded, and my self-doubt surfaced. Because as much as I felt destined to change things, I couldn’t escape the mental toll of all my covert maneuvering.
I was living two lives at once. Every moment held split realities, even in the most mundane conversations. Around fellow models or my agent, I was constantly on guard. Could they see the pain behind my smiles? Did they notice the fear flashing across my eyes between casual sips of coffee? Sitting across from them, I often felt as if they could peer into me, as if they could feel my longing to be seen as I was. But I was too good at hiding for them to notice.
When I was writing my book, this is the section of my life that I tackled first because it felt like this moment in my life was the most difficult. Writing this book was my process to figure out really what happened. When I made the decision to come out and share my story, I never processed what was the in-between.
I remember always feeling so exhausted—having to juggle so many stories, editing everything that I have to say to one person. Having to always analyze what this person is to me, what box I was going to put them in, and how I was going to manage the relationship that we have. It’s that constant maneuvering. I think now it makes sense why I love spy genres because I felt like I was a spy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I certainly had to protect my cover. I couldn’t have relationships, I couldn’t date. It was exhausting to always have those multiple realities I had to balance.
Sam Fragoso: You’ve said that, in writing this, it was your way of figuring out what happened. Now that you’ve written about it, how do you make sense of it?
Geena Rocero: There was a sense of this is what I have to do at the time, but writing about it now, there’s a sense of healing on acknowledging how much I put myself into in pursuit of a dream.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Geena Rocero is an award-winning producer, director, model, public speaker, trans rights advocate, and television host, and was named one of Gold House’s 2020 #A100 most impactful Asians and Pacific Islanders. Her directorial debut Caretakers (PBS), a docuseries about Filipinos in care work, received four Emmy nominations.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.