Now that Ryley Pogensky and I are the best of bros, we set aside some time to chat about their career. Ryley, owner of queergrub is a freelance writer, model, and MC, hailing from New York with a gumption for all things queer and Brooklyn. Yesterday, over sandwiches by our favorite coffee shop in my neighborhood, we spoke about about their experiences navigating the gender normative spaces of the mainstream fashion world.
How did you get into modeling?
I was on the subway, and this woman comes up to me, and she was like, “Do you model?” And I was like, “noooo.” It’s a city, and people come up to you all the time and ask you weird questions, so I was kind of brushing her off. I started laughing, and she turned to the girl I was with, cause we were both laughing, and she was like, “Wait, you don’t think he’s attractive?” And then we started laughing even more and I was like, “Oh, actually I’m not a guy.” And she was like, “AH! I must have you!” She just gave me her card, and I realized that she was a kind of famous top model. So then she took me under her wing, and we made my book with a bunch of really dope and famous photographers in the city. And then a bunch of queer magazines and websites like yours started asking for features, and I did some shows with them. It’s been really hard though, after my book was finished, convincing agencies to take a chance on a genderqueer model.
So okay, the first thing you did was make a book?
Yeah, so anyone who’s a graphic designer or illustrator knows that you compile all your shit together like a portfolio so you can then present that to like jobs, agencies. Models do the same thing, but we call it a book. It’s just a collection of shoots that you’ve put together yourself, different shows that you’ve done. If you’re looking at Tyra Bank’s book for example, it would be like magazine covers that she’s been on – it’s like a visual resumé.
Got it. So this model got you a bunch of photoshoots for free?
So it was just like, all of a sudden you were going to photoshoots every day?
Yeah. But the payoff is that the photos belong to me and them, and they could technically use them. Because the person I was working with knew these people I was okay with it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend just going to random photographers and getting your picture taken, because they can then use your likeness for whatever the fuck they want – because you didn’t sign a contract. And not pay you for it. They can sell it to a magazine and not say shit to you. For example, I did a shoot for dapperQ and they used my photo in The New York Times, and I didn’t get paid for that. But I’m happy about it because of the exposure, and I love dapperQ.
Okay, so you put together your book and started presenting it to people, and what did that look like? Was this person kind of your agent while this was happening?
Yeah, she isn’t any longer, but we’d go to agencies and she’d speak for me. Now I’m doing that on my own.
So what would it look like when you’d go places?
If you were going to an agency to get signed, like an agency that would then represent you, you’d probably make an appointment. A lot of agencies in New York have open castings on certain days. You would sit in a room with a ton of models, and then you would be seen. They’d usually take a Polaroid of you and then call whomever they are interested in. Or, if you knew someone - like I knew this model, and she is friends with the head of this one particular agency. So she called them and made an appointment. And then I went in and spoke with everyone. So it really depends on the agency and if you have someone gunning for you, versus if you are on your own. If you are on your own a lot of agencies will see you, but you might get dismissed quickly.
You mentioned before that convincing people to hire a genderqueer model was difficult. What did that look like? Did they make you choose a gender when you went in?
Yeah. Because every modeling agency has a men’s division and a women’s division. They don’t have like a third space yet. So you would have to sign as one of the other. Because they’re literally different departments. But that’s not to say that they haven’t signed really androgynous females – like Casey Legler – to the male side of things. But one agency told me that I should get into more commercial stuff rather than editorial.
What’s the difference between commercial and editorial?
Editorial is like Vogue, Elle. High fashion magazines. Versus Levi’s, or Rayban. More edgy commercial stuff where you could possibly play more with gender.
So which gender did you choose with these agencies?
I didn’t. I was just like, what do you guys want from me? And ultimately that agency was like, “we don’t know how to use you.” They were like, “We love you, we love your look. But we don’t know what the fuck to do with you.”
So you didn’t end up doing anything with the particular agency you’re talking about?
Correct. Which is why I’m just doing freelance stuff right now. Just because after speaking to two difference agencies, and hearing the same things, of “I don’t know what to do with you,” I was like, cool. I’m going to work with my friends that are queer designers. There are tons of queer fashion designers now and tons of websites and blogs. I was like, I’ll just freelance this until I can build that part of my resumé go back to these same agencies and be like, “Look: There is a huge market for this. And you guys are wrong. Just because you’re not used to this yet, doesn’t mean this won’t sell. This can sell! This is selling. It’s just not mainstream yet.”
So are you hoping they’ll build a third department for you, or do something that allows you to get into both departments at the same time?
Ideally, yes. I don’t want to sacrifice who I am, but to a certain extent I’d be totally down with an agency being like, alright we’re going to play around with this outfit. As long as I was okay with it, I’d do either. I think that’s what’s so cool about fashion in general. You’re not necessarily portraying yourself. You’re portraying something else. I’m not gonna wear a dress every day. But there might be a photographer who wants to play around with gender expression. That’s what makes it really interesting.
What’s the farthest you’ve gone from yourself in a photoshoot?
My headshots are half masculine and half feminine. Doing the really feminine headshots was super different. Because when I was doing my male headshots I was told to be aggressive, clench my jaw line to show off more masculine attributes. Where as, the flip of that, just, smile! Be lighter! Be airy and youthful, and jubilant. So it’s totally different.
[Ry was kind enough to include one photo from each shoot right now. PREPARE YOURSELVES!]
(Masculine) Photo by Jun Crame
(Feminine) Photo by Charles Tracy
What projects coming up soon are you excited about?
I’m part of an organization called Werk Those Pecs that throws parties for trans people’s surgery costs. And that’s coming up in August. [See Facebook event] So that’s my main focus right now. But right before that, Posture Mag is having their black tie kickoff event at The Dalloway. Posture is such an amazing online magazine. And it’s gonna shed a lot of light on queer fashion. And then in September, one of my good friends and favorite DJS, Whitney Day, is throwing a queer fashion week event [See Qwear post]. Being a New Yorker, fashion week is such a big deal. As a model, it’s one of my goals in life to say that I walked the runway in fashion week. But with the way the mainstream is right now, there isn’t really a huge space for trans* or genderqueer models to do that. I think it’s really great that dapperQ and Whitney Day are getting together and throwing a party for the LGBTQ community. The brands that they have, like Wildfang, Saint Harridan, Androgyny, Tomboy Tailors – are amazing queer brands. It’s gonna be important for us to have a place to showcase that and have a place to celebrate that aspect of fashion and our lives and to feel like we’re included in something that’s such a huge deal in New York.
Say there are other gendernonconforming and trans* folks reading this who want to get into modeling. Do you have any advice for them?
Find likeminded photographers and people. One of the best things about the queer community is that it’s a community. Being rejected is something you just have to get used to in life, but more so in fashion. Because people do not care about your feelings. And even if you get selected for something, a photographer or makeup artist or someone is going to say something that might offend you. So you really just have to put your armer on. And understand that it is really just a business to these people. I would say to reach out to the queer companies who would be really interested in having you model. Make your own path. It’s great that there are tons of agencies, but they probably don’t want you. And you just have to deal with that.
So you said that people have said really hurtful things. What’s the most offensive thing you’ve heard from an agency?
Agencies actually have been really nice. A makeup artist once told me “You need to stop going out in the sun. Because it’s a lot harder to do your make up. I have to match the differences in shades all over your body.” Because you don’t tan fully one shade. You become like 3 different shades. So that make up artist has to blend together 3 different colors.
Do you think that being in a major city is important to start a career in modeling?
If you have a strong community of people who are photographers and makeup artists and videographers, and with the internet, there’s no reason why someone in a smaller town can’t become notable. They might have to move once they become bigger just because your resources become so limited. Whereas in a city like New York, you have the world at your fingertips.
Any other advice you want to share as a last thought?
With anything, if you have a passion, do it yourself. There are so many outlets for creativity to happen without having an agent or someone leading you around. Plus if you don’t have that, you’re free to do whatever you want. You’re free to make mistakes and fall on your face without the pressure of someone above you being like, you suck. When I started my website Queergrub, I knew I wanted a website where I could do whatever the fuck I wanted, and not have to deal with the restrictions of deadlines, or you can’t curse, or that’s a run-on, or that’s fragment, or you can’t talk about this. And if you’re producing something that people like and identify with, you will find that support. Sometimes you just have to pave it for yourself. Truckin truckin.
As Qwear's Founding Editor, Sonny’s work centers around envisioning a future in which the clothing people wear does not dictate their chances of survival. Sonny was awarded 2015 dapperQ of the Year and was the first trans blogger to be sponsored by Topman. In March 2016, Sonny spoke at South by South West's first official queer fashion panel.