Laith Ashley: In His Own Words by Ty Chen

Model, actor, singer-songwriter, and activist—Laith Ashley can truly do it all. From gracing the covers of magazines to being on national television, he seems unstoppable. Our Editor-in-Chief photographs this multi-talented model and chats with him about his journey and what's ahead.

photography by TY CHEN @tychenphotography @alittlebitazn

styling by XAVIER LE BRON @xavierlebron

hair JAYCEE MNIRAJD @jayceemnirajd

makeup HENDRA NASRIL @makeupbyhendra

View the full story in the Summer 2019 Issue of Desnudo Italia, available here.

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I FIRST SAW LAITH on the cover of Attitude Magazine in 2016. I had no idea back then that I would be sitting down with him 3 years later, interviewing him for a cover story of my own magazine. He has now been featured in the likes of Vogue and GQ, and starred in campaigns for DIESEL and Barney’s. We got in contact through our mutual friend, Arisce Wanzer, covergirl from the debut issue of Desnudo Italia. When Laith stepped on set, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I didn’t know too much about his personality—I watched a few episodes of Strut, produced by Whoopi Goldberg, in which he co-starred with Arisce, but I didn’t want to be too intrusive of their lives. I was worried fame might have gotten to his head, but I was pleasantly surprised by how down-to-earth he still is. He did everything with a smile with a can-do attitude. A few weeks later, I sat down with him in his apartment to get to know him a little better.

Laith lives only a few minutes away from me. I was running a little late to our interview, but so was he—he was getting his wall fixed by some contractors. After arriving on a gorgeous sunny day, he showed me his quaint apartment in the heart of Hollywood, decorated with his many magazine covers, fanart, and surprisingly, the entire collection of Harry Potter novels. It was just a few days before LA Pride, and Laith’s schedule was packed, so we didn’t have too much time. I quickly sat down and asked him to tell me a little bit about his story.

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Originally from New York, Laith describes himself as a singer, songwriter, dancer, model, actor, and activist. He chuckles, “I do a little bit of everything.” He had gone to school for psychology, with plans to get some work experience before getting a master’s degree before figuring out where he wanted to go. He says, “I started working at Callen-Lorde, which is a community health center in New York that kind of focuses on LGBT healthcare, mostly HIV care and trans care. So I worked there for 3 years and that’s also where I started my transition.” Although Laith says he wasn’t always sure about transitioning, it seems like his job at Callen-Lorde became a pivotal moment towards making the decision. “For a long time, I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be able to transition or if I was going to be confident enough to do it. But when I got there and saw other trans people just living their lives and being able to make a living, being themselves, and being really happy, I was like, ‘Okay, this is an opportunity to do it as well.’ Because I didn’t think that I would ever be able to get there,” he says.

Laith started his transition on January 22, 2014. He says it wasn’t until a year later and after having top surgery and changes started happening that his modeling career started taking off. Recalling the start of his modeling career, Laith says, “So I start my transition and everything was going really, really well. Next thing you know, I have a photographer come in and ask to take some portraits. So I went to his home studio, his name is Nelson Castillo, and I brought some underwear with me as well. I just figured, why not. So initially, he was going to take some portraits of me from the waist up and after we took those photos, I ask him, ‘Hey, I brought these Calvin Klein underwear. Do you want to take some more photos?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah sure.’ And those were the ones that ended up kind of going viral online.” I guess it was a good thing Laith came to the photoshoot prepared and took the initiative to ask for the photos that changed his life.

I had asked him if modeling was something he had always wanted to pursue when he was younger. He says he doesn’t quite recall, but his high school classmates tell him he used to say he would be a model some day, so it must be true. He says a friend had approached him at 19, asking him to be her subject for a project. The photos turned out well, but afterwards, Laith says he went on with his life and didn’t think much until he was approached by Castillo.

"For a long time, I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be able to transition or if I was going to be confident enough to do it."

He says Castillo edited 2 photos from the shoot that same night, which Laith posted the very next day, and he instantly went from about 500 Instagram followers to 100,000 followers. But it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Laith—not everyone was pleased with Laith’s photos. He explains, “It was put up on some really nasty blog site. I can’t remember the name of it right now, but they were like ‘Oh, men aren’t the only ones who have to be careful. Ladies, watch out.’” Sometimes we live in such a bubble, we forget a lot of people are still not accepting of who we are as LGBTQ people. He says regarding the comments, “Because it was such a negative thing, it scared me and it made me want to run back in the closet and basically disappear and get off Instagram for a while.” Luckily for Laith, even though there were naysayers, there were also many people who supported him and gave him the praise he deserved. A week later, famed actress and trans activist Laverne Cox reposted his photo. “And that’s when everything kind of changed,” he says.

Regarding the fame he has achieved as a model, Laith says, “It’s not something I ever looked at as a goal. I didn’t looked to become this well-known anything. I’m mostly well-known within the LGBT community but that’s not what I was seeking necessarily because I didn’t know any of this would happen. In my mind, it was something if one of my friends wanted to take photos, I would say sure, but I wasn’t going to quit my job and do that for a living. Obviously still with modeling, you need to support your income with other things, so I’m always working.” What modeling did do for him, though, is open more doors for him. He is now able to expand into the entertainment industry, working in television and able to produce his own music, which he has always wanted to do since he was young. Laith comes from a very traditional family, in which the arts wasn’t seen as a viable means of making a living. However, he’s grateful that he’s able to now make a living doing what he loves instead of being confined to a 9-to-5 desk job.

Laith Ashley "In His Own Words" from Desnudo Italia's Summer 2019 issue, available in digital and premium print at http://www.desnudomagazine.it/shop director TY CHEN styling by XAVIER LE BRON hair JAYCEE MNIRAJD makeup HENDRA NASRIL

As far as his family goes, I had asked Laith if they were supportive of his sexuality. I asked him what it was like growing up, to which he replied, “They kind of didn’t ask about it. It was kind of obvious because of the way that I looked, the way that I dressed.” Whenever his family, particularly his aunt, would ask him about the prospect of bringing home a boyfriend, he would play coy and say, “You know, I’m just focusing on my schoolwork.” He chuckles as he reminisces about the times where he had to fib. However, his aunt had found out Laith was dating someone his senior year of high school and once his parents found out, they were not happy. He says, “My dad’s side of the family isn’t super conservative but it’s all about the family name and putting shame to the family and what that would mean if you had a kid that was gay or lesbian. At the time, I didn’t even know the language to describe who I was. I didn’t like being called a lesbian either, I just used ‘gay’ as an umbrella term and even now, people use ‘queer’ and I identify more with that than anything else. My mom is Pentecostal Christian so for her, it was very difficult because especially in her mind, this is a oneway ticket to hell. She was trying to make me repent and be saved so it was very difficult. It made it very hard for me during my college years. She still has her views but now that she sees I’m independent and can take care of myself, and because of what happened with the media and all the attention I got and being okay at that level, it kind of put her at ease at well. Because her kid is kind of famous for being themselves and it’s like ‘Oh, it’s okay? Then fine, I’m okay with it.’ And it’s not just for her but for the entire family.”

I would assume because of Laith’s own struggles growing up, and what inspired his transition, he has now become an activist for the LGBTQ community. He wants to be a voice for not only marginalized groups, but also marginalized members within the groups. He states, “Obviously, I can only speak on my own experiences, but I’ve worked with the community for a long time, I hear a lot of stories, I’m kind of at an intersectional point anyway. I’m of color, I’m trans, I’ve had a lot of experience, I’ve spoken to a lot of different people so I know a lot of the issues that different groups face. And I wouldn’t necessarily say this is what it is because I say so, it’s more of a broad understanding of the community and the needs within the community.” He recognizes that although he is trans, he has certain privileges because he is a man. On that topic, he says, “We live in a world that kind of hates femininity and women, so had I been going the other way around, I’m sure it would of been a huge problem going from male to female instead of female to male. So that’s why I always try to talk about that and, I wouldn’t say on behalf of trans women, but if I’m able to, I want to say my piece on that. Because unfortunately, we live in a world where a guy’s voice a lot of the time resonates a little bit more.” He wants to use his male privilege to lift those within the community who may not be heard otherwise. Currently, Laith is working with FLUX, a division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation dedicated to raising awareness, increase visibility, and provide support for the trans community. He hopes to start conversations and break down misconceptions people may have.

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Going back to his career, I asked Laith about his time being on-camera for the short-lived reality series Strut. Originally aired in 2016, the short-lived show produced by Whoopi Goldberg followed the lives of a select-few trans models, including Desnudo Italia’s covergirl Arisce Wanzer. It seems like being catapulted into that kind of reality show environment was quite a bit of shellshock for Laith. He says, “For someone that came from having a regular job to being on television, it was a huge rollercoaster because you didn’t know where it was going to go. There was a lot of highs, a lot of lows.” Laith recognizes this acclaimed show was another stepping stone that catapulted his career. Of course with a national television show as your platform, Strut helped increase Laith’s following, which lead to future work opportunities. Regarding his co-stars, “I’m sure it’s the same thing for other girls, especially Dominique. She blew up on Pose. I’m so happy for her. I remember she saying she was the oldest cast member and wasn’t sure where we were going.”

However, the year after Strut ended was a particularly difficult struggle for Laith to navigate. He felt a heavy need to stay on peoples’ radars, and his contacts had gone with Strut. Without any bookings, he felt stuck and had to work hard to keep on his feet. Through Instagram, the platform which helped catapult his career, he was able to monetize fame and keep himself afloat. Pride season, as well, is a major money-maker for Laith. “I work all the Prides. They have these Pride campaigns and different organizations will reach out to me to post ads on my page or do TV shows and it paid really well,” he says.

After navigating a particularly rough year for Laith, he had the opportunity to work with legendary photographer David LaChapelle on a DIESEL campaign. Recalling the experience, “That was a lot of fun. We were in the middle of the desert, it was hot as hell, they had all this stuff going on, we were jumping over walls, doing all sorts of stuff. It was really fun. They had explosions, it was cool. It was probably one of the most fun projects.” Recently, Laith was also able to join his Strut co- star in an episode of the hit TV show Pose. Though he wishes he had a bigger role, he is ultimately very grateful for the opportunity and remembers it fondly.

Aside from acting, modeling, and his activism work, Laith has been working diligently on his music career since he moved to LA 2 years ago. His latest single, “Like Me,” released on May 31st, is an ode to trans men and is available on all digital platforms. We can look forward to a music video for the song sometime in the near future too. “Right now, it’s very hard for me to break out of the model thing,” he says. It seems people have defined him as “the trans model,” he Laith wants to expand his horizons. Regarding what his ultimate goal is, he says he would like to become a billionaire. “ I want to own my own business, I want to invest in properties and all different companies. I want to be all that and I would love to be a pop star and a movie star, and be on every single TV show,” he explains. Laith loves to be in front of the camera, so he knows modeling will always be there for him. However, at this point in his life, he wants to take risks and venture into new territory. He says, “If you believe in it, it can take you somewhere,” and I wish him well in all his future projects.