Modeling is a slow, unsteady path that can follow a linear trajectory of sterilized representations of beauty. For decades, the rigid boundaries around representation have corralled our conceptions of what is considered attractive into just a handful of bodies, skin colors, facial types, and identities.
People from unique backgrounds have been unfortunately excluded from walking runways or lining our magazines. As we’ve seen, media and pop culture have come to tinge our lives seemingly limitlessly, and a culture that deliberately chooses to overlook or undervalue anyone who “doesn’t fit into” the fixed borders of today’s markets can have grave consequences.
Enter Jovel Ramos, the 19-year-old from Massachusetts whose ascent into the world of modeling has been an expansion on many levels — for him personally, for the fashion market, and for the thousands of viewers consuming his images. Aside from being a “non-conformist, in your face, red-headed little boy” — whose ruby-red head sports a tiara more often than not — Ramos, who identifies as a boy, has discovered that his presence has been a crucial step towards more inclusion in fashion. Demure and sharp in his manner, Ramos and I discuss the implications of a media culture that fails to embrace diversity. Ramos’s journey through fashion is a reminder that in this media-fueled world, representation means encouraging people to explore, express and celebrate themselves in all their singular complexities.
Teen Vogue: So, you moved to New York in the summer of 2015. What did you notice coming from your hometown to a so-called “fashion capital” of the world?
Jovel Ramos: Personally, I grew up in this small reserved town in Massachusetts, and I didn’t identify with anything I saw in magazines and publications. I didn’t see, like, boys wearing girls clothes, I didn’t see boys wearing makeup, and I’m sure on the other [side of the] spectrum of it, like, for other kids, they don’t really get to see that.
TV: Seeing the predictable black-and white binaries of what is considered beautiful or ugly; or masculine or feminine, did you feel the need to conform?
JR: When I first moved in the summer of 2015, I got asked to do a shoot and then after that I just was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m gonna do this.’ So then I started to go to castings, and I tried so hard to kind of conform to what I thought everybody wanted. Like, I wore boy clothes, I had a shaved head, I had brown hair — I didn’t dye my hair. I tried so hard to, like, look masculine, and I would wear tall shoes to like try and be a little bit taller. And I was just being so disingenuous and not myself. At the time, I had just gotten here [and] I wasn’t really getting anything. I would go to castings and I was kind of just doing what I thought people wanted.
TV: So, you found that abiding by these rigid restrictions actually hindered your ability to find work?
JR: Looking back at it now I’m like, the last 6 months I’ve been like most authentically myself and it’s where I’ve gotten the most work and the most appreciation. When I started working with Hood By Air [in 2016], I kind of realized who I was and, like, what my identity was, and I started getting more comfortable with the idea of wearing whatever I want. Like, I felt more empowered wearing womens and mens clothes, and then I kind of came into myself. And then after that it was kind of just like I found myself and then, I don’t know, I guess the fashion world kinda started finding me too, and I started getting jobs after that.
TV: Hell yeah, you did! You’ve worked with Sephora, HBA, VFiles, and numerous other publications and brands. Beyond the brands, what did having the freedom to to explore and express yourself in fashion do for you?
JR: Now I have the chance to put media like this out into the world. Like, I get to be in a magazine interviewed wearing a tiara and a tutu, and people are kind of saying, ‘This is cool.’ That’s, like, the greatest thing ever for me, just to be able to do that. And I’m glad that things are going this direction, because things were black and white for a while and shoots for male models are masculine and shoots for female models are feminine, and like, provocative. And now it’s kind of this thing where there’s a lot of kids like me that kind of fit in the middle and are just kind of stepping to their own beat in a sense. And people are kind of responding positive[ly] to it.
TV: Is there a real shift happening in what and who our media celebrates collectively?
JR: There’s a certain extent of some things [being] kind of celebrated, but some things are kind of not. People like me are almost used as tokens, like, ‘Oh you guys are a little weird-looking, so we're gonna throw you into this with a couple other models that are normal-looking cause it’s just gonna balance this.’ But, I think I’m definitely grateful that I’m working in an industry where people like me are slowly being celebrated. And I know me, being a male, or identifying as male, wearing a skirt [isn’t] saving lives, but I think it’s a step in the right direction as far as representation and things for queer kids out there, like, they get to see things like this in magazines and be like, ‘Wow, there is life outside of this.’
TV:: Your presence in the fashion world is for you and others “in the middle,” as you say, an encouraging message to be their most authentic selves. Knowing that parts of your identity are not only represented, but celebrated shouldn’t but a luxury, but unfortunately, it still is for many folks. What’s been one of the ultimate lessons you’ve learned in your journey as a model thus far?
JR: Not everything is black and white — there's so much more in between. You should do what you feel empowered doing, or you should wear what you feel empowered wearing, and you shouldn't let anybody tell you otherwise. For so long I was doing things to make other people happy, and I think a lot of kids are doing that. Whether you're in middle school, or high school, or even out in the real world, you're kind of doing things for other people. And I didn't come into myself until my late teens, and I found myself, and that’s when I was the happiest and when I've been the most successful. I think I've done a lot of things [as] somebody with so many odds against them and I've kinda done that just by being 100% genuinely myself. And that's kind of the message I have… and I hope that helps people come into themselves.
All photos taken by Maya McHenry, and all clothes designed and contributed by Nico Panda.