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Leyna Bloom, the 1st trans model of color in Sports Illustrated swimsuit's issue, on breaking barriers

For TODAY's Pride Series, model and activist Leyna Bloom reflects on learning to go after what she deserves and the milestones she's accomplished since.
This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.
This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

When Leyna Bloom started her modeling career, she knew that being a trans woman who's half Black and half Filipino meant she'd have to work harder and develop an even broader arsenal of skills than most. She thought if she failed, maybe that would fuel the trans women of color who followed.

But she didn't fail, and the milestones have come in droves.

"I knew that I was born with certain gifts," she told TODAY. "There's people in this world that are born to do certain things, and they just go and see if they get any luck. I always say (it's) 10% luck."

She also credits her success with "knowing that there's things in this world that have not been accomplished yet for someone like me" and her mindset of, "If it's meant to be, it will happen."

Bloom was the first trans woman of color to appear in Vogue India in 2017, and she claimed the same title this year for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. In 2019, she became the first trans woman to star in a movie that premiered at Cannes Film Festival, "Port Authority." She also campaigned in 2018 to be the first trans model in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, kicking off a conversation that led to boycotts of the lingerie brand for refusing to allow trans and plus-size models in the show.

“Leyna Bloom is taking Hollywood by storm and showing the entertainment industry that transgender women should be given ‘leading lady’ opportunities," Anthony Ramos, head of talent at the LGBTQ media monitoring organization GLAAD, told TODAY via email. "She is inspiring real change in an industry that desperately needs more inclusivity.”

"If there's a door that's not open for me, I have to find a window and fall."

LEYNA BLOOM

But Bloom is used to people like her being told no, even today.

"We can't just rely on just being beautiful," she said. "We have to be able to sing, dance. You have to be funny. You have to do your own hair and makeup and styling. A lot of people that are Caucasian, they can do this, but the business is set up for them to win."

Poster for the film "Port Authority" starring Leyna Bloom and Fionn Whitehead.Momentum Pictures

A very radical child

Bloom grew up in Chicago with a Black father who worked in law enforcement. She learned all about racial and gender discrimination early on, she said.

"Friends who are just not raised with the familiarities of my lifestyle, they had to just figure it out in the process of me figuring out," she recalled. "Just knowing that I was born in a world where I didn't fit in, I had to create one that I do. ... If there's a door that's not open for me, I have to find a window and fall."

Sticking the landing often requires explaining why she's in the room in the first place.

"I have to find how to communicate why (doors) should be open to me, why they should keep them open for other people like me," she said. "I constantly have to fight for my power, fight for my voice."

"I go into spaces, and I'm the first, but it's like, 'Oh, you should just be lucky the first,' and, 'No, you're not going to get this opportunity because you're still Black, you're still a woman, you're still trans.' I've heard that my entire life. 'You should just be quiet and lucky you're in the room.'"

Bloom walks the runway for Chromat spring/summer 2020 during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 07, 2019.Mike Coppola / Getty Images for Chromat

At the same time, though, early life lessons showed Bloom that she merits her own spot. As a self-described "very radical child," she was raised on Malcom X, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and other "huge people of color that just were like, 'I'm not going to sit on the back of the bus. I deserve to sit here.'"

"I've developed this courage and confidence that was passed down to me. It's a privilege to be alive, and while you're alive, you have to pay homage to people that paved the way for you," she added.

Many of the LGBTQ figures that Bloom looks up to she knows through the ballroom scene, in which she competed in events called balls that award trophies and prizes for modeling, dancing and more. For example, Carmen Xtravanganza mentored Bloom, and she's writing a book about her. Bloom also pointed to Tanay Pendavis and Onjenae Milan as ballroom role models. (Bloom had a guest role on FX's "Pose," about ballroom culture in New York City.)

"For me, in the ballroom culture and in the trans culture, these are our ... Halle Berrys," she said. "I have to stay true to who I am (for) those women who did not give up on themselves and had these dreams of being these amazing beauties and stars but were born in the wrong time."

Leyna Bloom prepares backstage for TRESemme x Chromat during NYFW on Sept. 07, 2019 in New York City. Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images for TRESemme

"They had the nerve to just want more for themselves," she continued. "Every time I get opportunities, I go back to them, and I say, 'Hey, I'd love to work for Sports Illustrated. You are a trans woman who did tons of photos on the beach, and you wore the bikinis and had to smile, and you had the sand on your skin and the sea salt in your hair, and you took those photos and they inspired me.'

"'Even though Sports Illustrated didn't put you in magazines or other outlets didn't give you the praise that you deserve, I'm going to do Sports Illustrated, and the first thing I thought about is you, and I want you to know that I'm doing this for us. I'm doing this for you.'"

The first of many

Photographer Yu Tsai, who shot Bloom for Sports Illustrated, sees her as the "first of many," he told TODAY via email. "(Her inclusion) gives our society ... a better understanding of humanity as a whole."

"As an Asian American LGBTQIA photographer, it was an honor and an amazing paring to capture her and celebrate her story," Tsai added. "Representation ... is not just about the images we see, but the creator behind the lens, as well. We still have a lot of work to do. This is just the beginning."

Beyond her inner circle, Bloom feels one of her biggest impacts is helping put queer culture "front and center," she said.

DEAUVILLE, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 13: Leyna Bloom attends the Tribute to Kristen Stewart during the 45th Deauville American Film Festival on September 13, 2019 in Deauville, France. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)Francois Durand / Getty Images

"The last 10 years, from fashion to film, has really ignited this whole new energy. ... I just want to continue taking our stories into spaces in the world where people need to see this type of love and energy. ... Once they see it, they realize who they are inside deserves to be seen and heard."

This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.