Millions of people have seen actress and model Carmen Carrera become the woman she is today — quite literally. On RuPaul’s Drag Race, MTV viewers watched Carrera — then identifying publicly as a gay man — pull off some of the fiercest femme drag ever seen on TV. Except it wasn’t drag, not for Carrera. That was the real her, the woman Carrera had dreamed of being since she was a precocious toddler trying on maxi pads — because she’d seen her mom using them.
The transgender model now says she was living “between genders” while filming Drag Race; feeling like she was in boy drag during the day and her real self at night. Carrera didn’t know how to tell her husband Adrian Torres the truth, so she didn’t say anything. She just began taking hormones and eventually her body said everything for her: when she grew breasts, Torres figured it out.
Fans of VH1’s Couples Therapy know all about that — and the transition, their infidelities, the immense pressure Carrera feels being one of the most high-profile transgender models in the world (signed by Elite). The couple appeared on the sixth season of the reality show, the first trans-inclusive couple to spill their guts to Dr. Jenn Mann and the viewing public. By showing the ordinary challenges trans (Carrera) and pansexual (Torres) individuals face, it became groundbreaking, culminating in Carrera becoming the first transgender person to wed on cable TV.
Carrera and Torres, who starred on Couples Therapy, have been together nearly a decade.
“It definitely made us stronger and closer as far as seeing each other’s points of view…to have an understanding of each other [with] fewer expectations,” says Carrera. “But going through the process on television and letting everyone in was a little scary at first.”
Carrera, an HIV and LGBT activist in her own right, says she and her quiet, press-shy husband decided being on the show was “a great opportunity” for trans visibility. “I wasn’t going to do it right away, because who wants to put their personal business out there? I did it anyway, because it was going to be valuable to my community, and to the acceptance of us. I wanted to drive home that me and Adrian are just a boy and a girl trying to figure it out.”
Her initial qualms were eased after she watched previous episodes. “Couple’s Therapy is not the kind of show that’s sensationalized drama.” But, she admits, “the experience was very intense,” and she worried about “the judgment of other people, the people that are watching and the people that I’m opening up to — and how I’m going to be perceived. But there was a part of me that was comforted by the idea that I was doing something for my community — and it was good therapy.”
Overall Carrera feels she “was pretty successful,” in reaching her goals and says, “I’m happy that I did it.”
The model, who has been featured in W, Elle, Glamour and a big Orbitz campaign, stands out on screen and in magazines as well as she does in person, coming across as relatable and approaching others as though the “majority of people” aren’t transphobic, they just need to be given real information in, well, a relatable way.
“If I’m trying to educate them, it’s not going to work,” she says. “I knew that I had to make it a casual conversation. I had my boundaries, but tried not to be overly Laverne Cox about the situation, because it wouldn’t sink in.”
In addition to Couples Therapy, Carrera had a role last year in the film Ricki and the Flash and she was photographed by the legendary David LaChapelle (whose runway show she walked), Mark Seliger, and Steven Meisel to name a few. NARS, a luxury makeup brand, recently named a lipstick after Carrera as part of its new Audacious Lipstick Collection. But closer to her heart is a project many advised her against: representing New York City’s new HIV prevention campaign in a safer sex ad called “Play Sure.” Her face now graces the sides of buses and greets subway riders as they travel through the veins of our nation’s busiest city.
HIV has been a personal cause for Carrera ever since she learned her father, a former injection drug user, died of complications from AIDS.
“My mom told me that he had died from an epileptic seizure,” she recalls. “He did suffer from epilepsy, and that was actually the second cause of death. My mom dealt with a lot of the judgment [my father experienced]. He was sick for about a year. I was 2 when he passed away. She had to take him to the clinic, because his family wasn’t around. He was living on his own. She was trying to take care of me, have a career, and take care of him — and keep him off of the streets and out of doing drugs.”
Her mother felt all the stigma attached to an AIDS diagnosis and was “freaked out at the time, because it was so new. They didn’t know how to treat it. My mom carried a lot of that with her after he passed away.”
Carmen Carrera models a dress featuring characters by the artist Keith Haring during an event on World AIDS Day at the Apollo Theater in New York. The state of New York will dedicate $200 million more to its $2.5 billion effort to end the AIDS epidemic by 2020. It’s already reporting significant milestones: for the first time since the epidemic began, no new cases of mother-to-child transmission were reported in the past year.
Fearing what Carrera might say to others, or that she would “think that my dad was a bad person,” her mother never shared his HIV status. But the model-to-be was tenacious. “I started investigating when I was 16. That’s when I found out.”
Later, she also met her father’s family. “I got to meet them while I was transitioning, so, it was a lot to take in. It was really weird, but they were very accepting. I still have a relationship with them to this day. I have two aunts and I have a bunch of cousins…they treat me with a lot of love.”
Her father’s memory may have helped fuel her HIV activism, but Carrera says, as a trans woman of color, she’s also painfully aware of how disproportionately HIV impacts her community. Trans women of color have the highest HIV rates in the country and little is being done to change that.
“So many of my friends from the club scene would like get [HIV] and not take care of themselves, and it was so sad to see these things happen right before my eyes — and there was nothing I could do because they wouldn’t want to listen. They didn’t want to care about themselves anymore, as though [they thought] their life was over.”
She says now that marriage equality is the law of the land, the LGBT community should turn its attention back to HIV and AIDS. “If we take control of it, we can really end AIDS sooner,” she argues. “If we take the treatment serious; if we take our [medication]; if we talk about it so it’s not so taboo. It’s not something to fear. That’s part of the reason why I decided to work with New York City Department of Health and to target the nightlife scene, because I experienced it first hand. ... [there is] a “don’t ask, don’t tell” around HIV status. Nobody talks about it. It took me to educate myself, and I learned it first hand to be able to speak back to my community.”
There are other topics she thinks we need to talk more about too, like sex work and the high percentage of trans women of color who are forced into survival sex when other economic avenues are closed. Or about trans women who seek love at all costs, even if it means not requesting to use a condom or questioning their partner’s status.
“The majority, maybe all, of my friends who influenced me to make some decisions as far as my transition goes…my support group, really, they were all sex workers,” says Carrera. “That’s what they did. I’m not surprised to hear that these numbers are so high, because I definitely can understand that completely. You just want that love. You want to feel that intimacy…a part of you that wants to feel like you are completely desirable.”
What she doesn’t understand is why she gets “a lot of flak from the trans community for doing HIV stuff. A lot of trans women…have reached out to me and said, ‘Oh, people are going to think that you have HIV,’ or ‘People are going to think that being intimate with trans women means you have a higher risk of getting HIV.’ ‘You have a mainstream platform like VH1, you have a lot of heterosexual people that are learning from you, and the first thing you want to talk about is HIV stuff? It’s not a good look.’”
In an effort to counter the myth that all trans women are sex workers, Carrera fears activists have left behind the women who are. “The way I look at it is, facts are facts,” Carrera insists. “And in order for us to be above it, to actually be in control, is to talk about it and to not be afraid of it. Because, these are the facts. It is what it is. I don’t want to be someone who is smoke and mirrors, and just about glamour and fame, and not deal with the real issues, because I’m going to feel some kind of responsibility about it. AIDS doesn’t just affect gay people or trans people — it affects the human race. Period.”
Of course she still recognizes the weighty impact HIV has on transgender women, in particular, and she sees a unique way to engage trans people around that: recognizing healthcare as part of transitioning and embracing their true selves. “We have to keep ourselves healthy. We need to be able to live a full, fulfilling life after the transition and how are we going to do that if we’re not taking care of ourselves? …if you keep avoiding it, you’re just cutting your life shorter. What’s the point, if you’re going to live your life unhealthy, in going through this transition? To just not take care of yourself after that is foolish.”
She sees unhealthy people as being “examples for the younger generation to not make these decisions, and to not choose to avoid dealing with things. Some people will last longer than others, and it’s something that’s sad to say, but it’s honest, and it’s something that maybe people do need to hear.”
Carrera believes HIV-positive trans people have worked too hard to become their true selves to just throw it away by not getting treatment. But Carrera also sees how “you can get lost in your transition sometimes. I’ve seen it with my friends, girls who are solely focused on looking 100 percent biological and [not trans]. Everything else goes out the window, and they triple up on their estrogen, or they triple up on their testosterone blockers, or whatever they need to do to look the way they need to look so that they can go out and have interactions with people that don’t know they’re trans — just to feel better, just to fit in. But it’s delusional. It’s not really dealing with the truth, and not really creating stability for yourself as a trans person.”
As a model, taking care of her own body is among Carrera’s top priorities. It needs to be, especially if she hopes to reach her goal of appearing in Sports Illustrated or becoming a Victoria’s Secret model. Her fans certainly want that; around 50,000 signed a petition urging Victoria’s Secret to hire her. Carrera makes that goal seem plausible. You get the feeling she’s on the cusp of even bigger acclaim.
Carrera along with genderqueer and trans luminaries (from left) Jacob Tobia, Geena Rocero, Isis King, Laverne Cox, and Mila Jam at the premier of the MTV/Logo documentary Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word in 2014.
Her HIV campaign is certainly putting her on the map. “Every single day,” Carrera says, “I get a tweet or two: ‘Oh, you’re on the bus!’ or ‘Sit on the bus with Carmen!’ There was a huge billboard somewhere in Chelsea, somebody sent me a picture of it. I think it’s great. I’m so happy that they used me for it. People want to take photos, want to tweet it out, and want to like it, share it, and stuff like that, just because it’s me, which gets the message out even more. When I see that, I feel proud of myself.”
Does she wonder how her father—the man she never knew and who never had a chance to live a healthy life with HIV — would feel about what she’s done?
“Oh, my dad would be so proud of me,” she gushes. “My mom tells me every day that my dad is smiling down from heaven. I had one experience: I went to an HIV/AIDS rally in Brooklyn and an older gentleman just happened to be standing right next to me…and you can tell that he had to muster up whatever energy he had just to get out of bed and go and be there. I got the feeling that if my dad had been alive, I would have probably been going with him to these rallies. I just kind of felt like, ‘I would’ve been there with him’ and for a second I kind of felt that he was there with me. That made me feel like he’s definitely watching me, he’s really proud of me, and if he would’ve stuck around, we would’ve been going through it together.”
Today Carrera has her own family: Adrian Torres and her two stepdaughters she helps raise, sharing custody with his ex, Stephanie. “[We’re] about the whole family unit. To be able to come home and function as a stepmom and as a wife, is amazing. It definitely gives me strength. We have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old who are going through their changes and coming into awareness of who they are, and I feel so great to have a hand in that. I’m a very active [parent], because their mom goes to school and works full-time, so I have the kids a lot of the time. I have a different style of parenting that is different from Adrian’s and different from Stephanie’s, and I love it. Their support also helps me immensely.”
The girls, Stephanie, and a plethora of friends, family, and fans watched her walk down the aisle last year on Couples Therapy. After nearly a decade together, this wasn’t her and Torres’s first wedding, but it was the first since Carrera came out to the world as a woman. On that day, she was just a girl, marrying a boy, in the dress of her dreams.
“I felt like I was a born again virgin walking down the aisle. That’s how I felt. Even though we had done it right before, there was something about this experience that was way more special to me, and real, and valuable. Before when we got married, the love was real, but everything else was kind of in disarray. Now, it just feels so much more real, and I value that experience so much.”
The wedding episode aired last December, a cap to a phenomenal year in which Carrera seemed to be everywhere. But she says, she couldn’t have gotten there without her husband’s support.
“He gives me the validation that a lot of trans women look for in a relationship,” she says. “And I feel humble because he’s known me for so long. He’s my rock. I think that having someone by my side that has been there for the journey, and has been able to stick around to want to see me succeed gives me that validation and gives me that sense of love. I think that is so priceless to have. With him I can just be myself. He doesn’t love me just because I’m an actress, just because I model, just because I do this. He loves me because he knows me as a person that wants to make things better.”
She’s living the dream—balancing love, family, career — but unwilling to rest on her laurels.
“I would love to be a triple threat,” she admits. “But it’s way too soon. I’m still pretty young, and I still have a long way to go. If J. Lo is a triple threat at 47 years old, well, I have about 17 years to go! But I’ll get there.”
Some day down the line she wants to do a showgirlesque Cirque du Solei type of acrobatic show, with Dita Von Teese influences. That’s long term, she says, because “there is something about the stage and live shows that, for me, is still my first love.”
For now, pursuing those dreams means a lot of hours at the gym so she can “blow it out the water with modeling” in an industry with high standards. “I am trying my best to match them,” she says. “It’s kind of like running a marathon. I’m so in beast mode, training right now. [Audiences] have seen me as a drag performer, they’ve seen me as a showgirl…now it’s the model that needs to emerge. I’m just focused on training and leaning out my body, bringing the supermodel to realization, and then blowing people away. So they’re like, ‘Wow, she looks amazing — she is a supermodel!’”
Not satisfied with being a celebrity because of her visibility as a trans woman, Carrera dreams of becoming “so qualified that people are excited to have me work with them. I’m very hopeful right now. Because I feel like everything is there, and now I just need to put in my effort, and take all of my creative juices, and all of my experience that I’ve picked up going through…my transition and show them something that’s really new, and innovative, and amazing. So, yeah, I’m working on it. It’s all a work in progress.”