Every day, we're confronted with unfathomable, disconcerting news headlines, so when we come across inspiring individuals who punctuate the world with an original spirit, fresh energy, and unstoppable ambition to create positive change, we are filled with hope. And once we're done feeling awestruck, we set out to expand the conversation and hear more from them. So today we're spotlighting fashion model Teddy Quinlivan, a woman who lives up to the aforementioned set of qualities and then some. In fact, when we caught up with the creative about everything from her career trajectory to gender equality and mysterious food allergies, one thing was clear: This is a woman who knows who she is and does what she loves while using her talent and celebrity to create a liberating culture that celebrates beauty and individuality in all its forms.
Although she's only 23 years old, Quinlivan exudes an impressive level of self-awareness and genuine passion that's only matched by her approachable, down-to-earth attitude and kind nature. In other words, she's hard to miss, whether she's walking the runway for Marc Jacobs, Monse, Jason Wu, Tory Burch, or Dior or chatting on the phone from a park bench. To get a glimpse of her striking sense of style, learn how to be an ally to the trans community, gain some valuable career advice, and hear radical yet practical tips on how to practice self-love, read through our conversation with Quinlivan below.
TEDDY QUINLIVAN: I'm outside in a park just because I wanted to get some fresh air because I had an allergic reaction. It was the most random thing. I literally was walking down the street, and my face started to blow up like a balloon. I'm still mega puffy today.
HADLEY MENDELSOHN: Oh, I'm in the exact same boat. Whenever I go to a vegan restaurant, I get hives. So don't worry about it. I get it. I'm glad that you are, at least, a little better than you were.
TQ: Okay, cool. [Laughs.]
HM: So what inspired you to become a model and pursue a career in fashion? Is it something that you fell into, or have you always wanted that?
TQ: I've always had a really deep connection with fashion. But when you're 10, you don't know that you're going to grow up to be tall and skinny. There were so many strange factors that played into me becoming a model. I got this amazing scholarship to go to Parsons, and then I was scouted, and the opportunity to model came up, so I deferred for a year from Parsons to go to Paris and pursue this.
TQ: I thought it would be a really great way to learn about the industry. It's five years later, and I have to say I really am so blessed that I made the decision to model and took the risk. I never returned to Parsons, which is a little unfortunate. But being able to work with designers like Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada, just the best of the best, it's been a really incredible learning experience. I've gotten really acquainted with the industry and the process of creating a collection and all the behind-the-scenes stuff that I wouldn't have learned in school. So for me, modeling was really just a stepping stone in my life to get to the next platform in my creative career.
HM: And the connections we make are so random, so you never know what's going to happen and where it'll lead.
TQ: Totally. I could fall into something completely different. I've been offered roles in big Hollywood movies, and so far, I've turned them down. But I never knew that'd be a possibility for me, and I'd also be curious about exploring acting. Fashion and modeling have really opened up my world to so many types of creative careers.
HM: That's awesome. How have you gotten to know and understand your own identity over time?
TQ: I think your path to discovery is something you have to pave for yourself. I've always respected intellect, and then I somehow wound up in an industry that rewards people for shutting the fuck up, sitting there and doing nothing, and not having an opinion. When I was younger, I was always extremely outspoken and honest because I had to be with myself, especially as a transgender person. I was told I was selfish. I'm too straightforward, too opinionated, too whatever. And I reached this conclusion that if people believe that, they don't need to spend time with me. "May the bridges I've burned light the way." Finding that balance has been an interesting learning experience. So through experience and education, I've been able to create this identity for myself in the way that anybody does, really.
Coming out as transgender has given me this incredible platform to share my thoughts about the industry and about being transgender but also being a model and woman in a world that treats us like second-class citizens. Women are treated abysmally. I lived my life in stealth mode, which means I was living as a passable cisgender woman. And having people see and treat me as a cisgender woman was also really fucked up. It doesn't matter if you're transgender, as just being female is hard. People are extremely dismissive and don't want to hear what you have to say. I didn't just come out for transgender people. I came out for women and to show we exist in all different shapes and sizes, with different genitalia, and we're all fighting for the same thing: to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality.
HM: So it sounds like you've always been really outspoken about what's right and been a very vocal person about what you believe in from a young age, but do you think that you've had a different response being more vocal publicly than, say, on more personal levels, like with family and friends? Has it been different speaking and opening up about this in public?
TQ: Yeah, honestly, I think it's really interesting because I've been revered by a lot of people. A lot of people really look up to me now because of my coming out and because of what I have to say. At the end of the day, I wanted to destigmatize what it meant to be transgender in 2017. And I've just wanted to prove to people that we are capable of living meaningful, productive lives despite the fact that we're different and that our differences don't necessarily separate us. They don't make us any less beautiful. They don't make us any less talented or any less worthy of the same treatment as other people.
I think a lot of people agree, especially in my world. I work in fashion. It's a type of art. There are a lot of liberal people who support the way I feel and want to lift each other up.
One thing I will say, though, is that I've started to get to this point where models, in general, not just women, are just extremely mistreated in fashion. And I've been quite vocal recently about that, especially in light of all the Harvey Weinstein stuff that's come out. I've been abused in the fashion industry by multiple people, whether it's sexually or physically or emotionally, and I've been very vocal about sharing those stories recently. And I've gotten a lot of backlash from that. But I honestly feel like it's important to expose.
I want to be successful, but at what cost? How much abuse am I willing to take to get to the top? For the beginning portion of my career, I was willing to take a lot of abuse.
TQ: We live in this time where women have a voice we never had before. We're starting to say, "listen, we're going to come forward and talk about this, and we're not letting you abuse us anymore. If you want to, be prepared to read your name in the headlines," which I think is great. It sends a message to the world that we're done being fucked around with and being treated terribly. I've been treated so unexceptionally in my business that people made me cry. Just having to put up with sexual assault, people touching me inappropriately.
Even when I was living as a passable cisgender woman, that happened multiple times. Photographers try to take advantage of me; stylists, men and women in positions of power thinking they can get away with treating you horribly because you want to book the job and show. And oftentimes, if you stand up for yourself, you don't book the job. So I've been put in this really difficult situation where I want to have this career and success, but at what cost to myself? How much abuse am I willing to take to get to the top? At the beginning of my career, I was willing to take a lot of abuse. I think every single model has.
HM: Is there something that continues to motivate and inspire you despite those obstacles? Is it sheer passion or is there something else that drives you to keep working, let alone fighting?
TQ: I think because this industry and the fantasy of fashion have meant so much to me. This idea that, even on my worst day, I can put on beautiful makeup and a beautiful outfit and walk out the door and feel confident and feel uplifted and feel beautiful and desirable. And I've noticed my whole life that fashion has given me this really strong power. For me, clothing has been kind of my armor.
I remember when I was being bullied in school, I would have teachers and principles tell me, "Well, you know what? If you don't want people calling you faggot, then you should stop dressing like a woman and start dressing like the man that you are." And I would just say, obviously, "Screw you; I'm going to do what I want. I'm going to put on what I want to wear." And if I received backlash for that, they can just kiss my ass because this is who I am. So I've just understood the power of fashion.
TQ: And it's is extremely corporate now. There's a lot of copying, a real stifling of creativity in fashion, and I'd love to be a part of the catalyst of change that makes the fashion industry more open, accepting, beautiful, creative, and inspiring. I want people to watch fashion shows and feel the fantasy the way I felt the fantasy as a 12-year-old, as a 13-year-old, and as a 14-year-old growing up in Massachusetts in the middle of nowhere.
I know the power of this industry can make you dream and inspire you to strive to be a better version of yourself. But first, we need to make it better. We have to make it a safer environment for people to create, to express themselves, and not be abused. And I'm ready to sacrifice losing jobs and relationships with clients to make it a better place because I think, at the end of the day, the people in the industry who are truly creative geniuses are going to support me no matter what because they think the same way I do, whether it's John Galliano at Margiela, Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton, or Marc Jacobs. They're a group of designers, but they're a really small group.
HM: I think it also goes to your point earlier about a lot of a woman or a model's value coming from aesthetics and the physical body, when there's actually so much more that defines success, like the story they have to tell, how creative they can be, and what kind of ideas and energy they can bring with them. Okay, so I'm wondering if you had any role models growing up who supported you along the way. Can you think of any public figures or mentors who helped you harness your confidence?
TQ: One story jumps out at me. It was right after I had come out to my parents. I came out to my mom that I was transgender and was switching schools from the public school where I was completely bullied and harassed to this private art school in Massachusetts called Walnut Hill. Being transgender was so new to me and my mom. My mom asked me to present as male so I'd fit in, be normal, and make friends… so I wouldn't be controversial. And so I did that.
People didn't know if I was transgender or if I was just cisgender and was just dressing femininely. And of course, I was transgender, but I was so scared to come out and talk about it, even in this new school. And then I had this teacher. He was incredible. He was my painting teacher. And he came up to me one day in class and took me aside. I think it was in my first month or two of school, and he said, "Teddy, do you want to be referred to as he or she?" It was the first time ever, in my whole life, somebody had asked me what I wanted, what I felt comfortable with. When he first asked me, I was like, "Oh, you can just call me whatever you want. I don't care." And then he was like, "No, what do you want? What makes you comfortable?" And I said, "You know what? You refer to me as she."
That was the first time somebody had given me the power to make that decision. That was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. It was the first time I started to think to myself, "wow. People want to treat me the way I want to be treated. People want to refer to me and respect me the way I feel like I deserve to be referred to and respected." That was a really eye-opening experience for me.
This industry can make you dream and make you inspired and make you strive to be a better version of yourself. But first we need to make it better."
TQ: Also, I have to give a lot of credit to my mom. She was really the one who pushed me to get on hormones, and she made the doctor appointments, and she sacrificed a lot to make sure that I was going to transition smoothly and comfortably. We've had our rough patches, and we've had our disagreements, but she's just been the most incredible person in my transition. She's been so supportive of me every step of the way, and to be a part of a family that gives a shit about their child being happy is just a privilege because there aren't a lot of families out there that care.
We deserve to be treated equally. We deserve the same rights as everybody else, and I want those things right now because we're capable of educating ourselves and understanding. But there are some people who are really stuck in the past, really stuck in tradition, and it's time for our generation to pave the way and say, "No, this is how it has to be." And I think the millennial generation is doing a really good job with that, despite people calling us entitled.
Well, we are entitled. We're entitled to be treated the way we desire to be treated, to go to the bathroom that makes us feel comfortable, and to receive equal pay for equal work. It's okay to feel entitled to be treated respectfully and to be treated like a member of society. That's the thing previous generations haven't asked for and fought for in the same way we have. If you're not okay with it, you need to get with the program because the world is changing and the world is progressing whether you like it or not, and it's going to happen.
And it's better to start educating yourself and being supportive. What's the worse thing that happens if the world is a more equal and free place? When these people try to oppress us, it's just like, "Why are you trying to do that? Why are you so scared of people living happier lives?"
TQ: My skin color shouldn't be a status. My birth gender shouldn't be a status. Those are things that were out of my control, and therefore, they're out of my favor to everyone around me. It just happened, and we need to be more open-minded, and we have to start to understand that we're all different, but we're all the same.
HM: So if someone didn't have the resources you had, like a supportive mom and a teacher who encouraged you, do you know where trans people can find other services or resources?
TQ: There are resources out there for transgender people, but they're not easy to find and there aren't enough. So I think it's our job as humans to create those resources and opportunities and also to educate ourselves and come in with open hearts and minds to accept people who feel like they weren't in the right body. And it's our job as transgender people to educate those who don't understand, which is a big piece of why I came out when I saw Donald Trump stripping my rights and the rights of my community away right before my eyes. First, it was the bathrooms, then it was protections for transgender students, and then it was banning us in the military, and then it was this, and then it was that.
And I was just like, "What the fuck?" Transgender people have existed forever, but our generation's the first one in the history of the world that's had this exposure. And I think it's just extremely important to respect that and to understand that we're not a joke. This isn't a phase. This isn't trying to be cool. We are ready to make our voices heard, and we're ready to come out, but we've always been there. Transgender people have existed throughout history. Whether we had the resources to come out or not, we've always existed.
HM: Yeah. I think it's really frustrating to encounter people who are just so intolerant, and it's a hard conversation to have because when you and I are talking about this, it's like, yeah, we agree 100%. It's harder to have these conversations with people who don't agree.
TQ: Yeah, and there are people in our own generation who are actively trying to prevent progress.
HM: Totally. And who want to protect their own privileges at the expense of others. It's hard to imagine that some people don't believe in equality. Do you have any advice for anyone who's just struggling with coming out as trans and is not sure how to or how to feel safe doing so?
TQ: I would just say you have to just do some deep soul-searching, you have to find an environment that's safe, and you have to educate people. My dad is a perfect example of this. When I came out as transgender, I'm pretty sure he was ready to disown me. I could tell he was so ashamed, but I proved him wrong because I became this successful model. And I basically explained to him, "You are either going to have me as your child in your life and you are going to have a relationship with me, or you aren't."
I know that's not easy, and that comes with a lot of backlash and loss, but you have to decide for yourself what's worth it. You really have to decide what's more important. And you have to be ready to lose a lot, which is so unfortunate. Are you going to be happier without your family but with your true identity? I mean, I don't know. I wish I had the answers, but I really don't.
TQ: I just know it's a harsh reality for transgender people to decide that. I had to go through that. Coming out as transgender was the difference between—or at the time, what I thought was the difference between—having a family, being accepted, and having a bed to go home to or living openly and authentically but having nothing. And I was willing to lose it all to be open and free. I was willing to lose everything.
HM: Wow, especially as a kid.
TQ: They're big decisions to make as a kid, and that's why so many people waited so long to come out. That's why we see people like Caitlyn Jenner. You have to be ready for the backlash, and it's not easy.
HM: Is there anything you've discovered recently you wish you knew when you were younger? Or if not a realization, how would you support yourself if you could?
TQ: If anything, I probably would've said come out sooner. Just do it for yourself sooner, and live freely and authentically. I've lived a very interesting life. I've lived a life that literally nobody else to my knowledge has lived. And I don't know because I'm at this place of deep happiness and I'm at this place of deep understanding and my experiences have shaped the person who I am. So I think, if anything, I would've gone back and just told myself, Don't worry. Everything will fall into place. And be prepared. The road ahead is really long, and it's really hard, but it's worth fighting for.
Transgender people have existed throughout history. Whether we had the resources to come out or not, we've always existed.
HM: What do you do on a normal basis to practice self-care? It can be something as simple as taking a bath or whatever that means to you.
TQ: To practice self-care, I go out. When I lived in Paris for two and a half years, and before, in Boston, as a presenting cisgender woman, I hadn't been exposed to it. Then I came to New York City, and I met this fabulous group of gay, lesbian, transgender, drag queens, you name it, straight people, whoever—just this community I never experienced anywhere else. They took me in, despite not knowing I was transgender, and it made me feel like I was home. Like, wow, these nightclubs, these places where we all come together, we dance, and we don't know each other's names, but we've all fought to get here and we're all in New York City doing this together.
Self-love and care are also dressing up. For me, the process of going out is so therapeutic. This process of, Oh, I've worked so hard, and now I'm going out with my closest friends. I'm going to put on an outfit, put on my makeup, and look fabulous. And I'm going to dance with them and get out my energy and my frustration in a nonviolent way, and I'm going to do it in a way where I can be with people who love, respect, and judge me, not because I'm transgender or because I'm a part of this community, but because of who I am as a person and my character.
And before, if people knew I was transgender, they were automatically turned off by that because they just weren't educated and didn't know what it was. So it was like I found this community where me being transgender was seen as a positive. I celebrate my friends. I celebrate my community. I celebrate myself.
HM: I love that answer. It's a lot more than the typical like, "I put on a face mask [laughter]." I mean, that can be great on some nights, but I think it's cool to practice self-care by celebrating yourself and your community too.
TQ: Another thing is dating guys and getting dumped because I'm transgender and being like, "Wow. We had something so strong. And now, because of something I never chose, you're not going to want to chill with me anymore?" which happens all of the time with every transgender person, and getting to this place where it's like, You know what? I don't care if you love me or not.
I think the biggest form of self-care is looking in the mirror and seeing the eyes staring back at you no matter how you look, whether you want to be skinnier or have bigger cheekbones or have bigger lips or have a vagina or have a penis or have tits, and reaching this place of acceptance and self-love. And I think self-care really has to do with loving yourself. And it is the hardest thing to do. But loving yourself will set you free, and it will make you stop giving a shit about what people think about you. You won't be so insecure anymore.
Even on the days where I'm fighting with my friends and I feel so lonely, I always have myself and love myself. And I'm so happy that I do because sometimes just being with myself has been the best thing I can possibly do. I take a walk and I feel blessed to be on the earth and I feel blessed to be alive. Even if I've been getting cancels from a job or I've been sexually assaulted or I've been dumped or whatever's happened, I love myself, and that's the most important thing. And I go to bed every night and I just feel comfortable with who I am.
HM: When you love yourself, think about how much more you can give back to your community and what kind of work you can produce when you're in a good place and when you're confident. Were there any other obstacles you overcame?
TQ: One thing I want to talk about is outing transgender people. As much as I feel it's a really important thing to discuss, there were some people—even my best friend I told in confidence—who didn't respect my privacy and started telling people I was transgender. it's a rumor that spreads like wildfire. But I didn't come out because everyone knew, I came out because I felt a responsibility to, but it was my secret. It was for me to be private about.
Outing somebody as transgender when they're not ready to be outed, when they've asked you to keep it private, or whether they haven't asked you to keep it private, it's just not your story to tell. And I think it's really important that people know that you respect people's privacy because that could be the difference between life and death for some people or having a home and not having a home or having a job and not having a job.
I remember when people were like, "Oh, Lady Gaga's transgender. She has a bulge in her leotard." I was like, "Well, what if she is? What does that matter? And why are you talking about it, because obviously it has nothing to fucking do with you? So why are you going to go around and spread rumors about this?"
HM: Well, even just turning somebody's body into this spectacle and saying there's a bulge in their leotard is so disrespectful.
TQ: It's so low, and it's so disrespectful. Transgender surgery is another thing that's really private for people. It's not anyone's business to discuss. I personally haven't had any surgery, but now I've noticed I'll put my name into Google, and the first thing that comes up is "Teddy surgery." People want to know if I've gotten procedures done on my face to make me look more feminine. And I haven't, but it's really important for people to know that those things don't matter.
For some people, getting surgery is the difference between them being able to walk down the street and be a normal person and to not be harassed. And for other people, it's completely cosmetic, but it's their own personal business as well. I want to make sure that people know that you don't necessarily need surgery. But if somebody has it, that's their choice, and that's their decision. And it's not something that they should be judged for.
If somebody's had liposuction or if somebody's had a nose job and it makes them feel better about themselves and it makes them feel more comfortable, then more power to them. I want to make it clear that it's not bad. I think surgery for some people is necessary, if not just empowering for them, and we need to be respectful of those decisions that they make.
Photography: Amar Daved
Graphic Designer: Viviana Duron
Stylist: Kate Carnegie
Styling Assistant: Ava Ferguson
Creative Director: Cassandra Lear
Booking Director: Jessica Baker
Makeup Artist: Rommy Najor
Hairstylist: Charles McNair
Photo Producer: Hillary Comstock
Assoc. Photo Producer: Nikole Guzman