As a little boy in the Washington suburbs, Darrell Walls liked to pretend to be Lil' Kim or a Pink Power Ranger. He felt different — like a girl mistakenly born a boy.
But Walls eventually embraced that difference and today is living true, as Isis King. Now 22, King is the first transgender contestant on "America's Next Top Model," the CW Television Network reality show hosted by supermodel Tyra Banks.
"I'm just trying to be myself," King said during a telephone interview last week. "If I inspire people, that's a wonderful thing — whether you're trans or not."
While the number of transgender representations on television remains small, activists say in recent years they have seen a movement away from stereotypical roles such as transgender sex workers or villains. Now, the roles are not as marginalized — and some are even portrayed by transgender actors.
Last year, Candis Cayne became the first transgender actress to have a recurring role on ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money." She plays Carmelita, the transgender mistress of Patrick Darling, a New York attorney general played by actor William Baldwin.
And from 2003 to 2006, transgender actress Alexandra Billings guest-starred on three TV shows, including ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." Billings played a married transgender woman about to have sex reassignment surgery. However, as doctors prepare her for surgery, they discover she has breast cancer, and she's told she must stop her female hormone therapy to treat the disease.
"When audiences see real gay and transgender people facing many of the same ups and downs as everybody else, it helps to change perceptions and break down stereotypes," Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said in an e-mail. "The casting of Isis on such a popular show offers a groundbreaking opportunity for a community that is historically underrepresented on television."
Audiences are seeing not only how the very slender, long-legged King fares on photo shoots and before judges, but also behind-the-scenes comments from some of her fellow contestants, including one who called her a man and another who made a "drag queen" reference.
Viewers are also getting glimpses of how she's transitioning from man to woman. A recent episode, for example, shows her injecting female hormones. King began the treatments last year and wants to have the expensive surgery — not undertaken by all transgender people — by her 25th birthday.
"I don't believe the surgery will make me any more of a woman," said King, who has been living as a woman since early last year. "I've always been that woman. But ... it's something I feel will complete me."
Growing up in several communities in Prince George's County, Md., King said she had a "pretty normal childhood." She attended church. She hung out at malls her senior year.
At Charles Herbert Flowers High School, she took honors art classes, studied interior design, sculpture and fashion design. In her senior year, she said she designed and sewed 24 outfits for a fashion show — and taught the models how to strut.
After high school, King attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where she earned an associate's degree in fashion design. While in college, she confided in some female friends that she wanted to dress like a woman.
Just before her 21st birthday in 2006, she did — it was her own creation, a pencil skirt with an off-the-shoulder black blouse. And she decided to move to New York to pursue a fashion career and formally transition into living as a woman. "Mentally, I was ready, and that was the most powerful thing," King said.
She told her mother — who King describes as her best friend — of her plans. "She wasn't for it," King said. "But I was already doing it."
King's mother, through a Top Model representative, declined an interview request.
Once in New York, she legally changed her name, selecting "King" to honor her mother's side of the family. She chose Isis as her first name, after the powerful Egyptian goddess.
But her mother didn't take to it. She instead called her "D," for Darrell.
In New York, King had also had run into obstacles. The $4,500 she had saved to move to the city had dried up, and she needed help getting back on her feet. She moved into an apartment provided by The Ali Forney Center, an organization that serves homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
"Technically, I was homeless," King said. "I just wasn't living literally on the street."
In late 2007, America's Next Top Model filmed an episode in New York to raise awareness about homeless youth. The contestants modeled in street clothes and a handful of homeless youth donned couture, serving as extras in the shoot.
King was one of them.
When Banks later scrutinized models' photos for judging, "she kept on noticing Isis," executive producer Ken Mok said. "And she said, 'Who is that girl?'"
King clearly knew how to pose, understood fashion and was passionate, he said.
Earlier this year, Top Model found King and invited her to audition for the new season.
"I think the one message we always try to get out there, that Tyra always expresses, is you want to widen the spectrum of what is considered beautiful," Mok said.
Top Model was actually shot over the summer, so King and other contestants already know their fates though they are not permitted to discuss them. Fans of the reality show, which airs Wednesday nights, will have to wait until Dec. 10 to learn who wins.
King says her main challenge on Top Model was being so vulnerable in front of millions.
"For the world to see my issues and my struggles as a person, with my whole transition — I think that was probably the toughest thing I had to endure," she said.
But King, who now lives in New Jersey, said she believes she has a future in fashion.
She's hopeful, too, about her family's acceptance of her life.
On a recent visit to Maryland, King was playing with her younger brother when her mother called out to her, she said.
There was no hesitation — she was no longer "D."
For the first time, her mother called her Isis.