When she was 11-years-old, fashion model Mimi Tao was sent to a temple school in Thailand. Six months after arriving, she was ordained as a monk and slowly began adjusting to the monastic life. She says she had a lot of time to discover who she was and get in touch with her femininity. Sometimes, she and her friends would put on makeup in secret. After six years as a monk, she decided to leave the monastery and work to help her family pay off their debts. Tao worked multiple jobs, but her dream was to become a model and to feel accepted for who she was stayed with her.
Tao saw a documentary on TV about Thailand’s most famous international supermodel, Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha, and decided that she must meet her. Tao followed Phetkanha to events and asked her to teach her how to be a model. The supermodel finally agreed to train Tao until she was ready to embark on her own journey.
Tao says her eventual debut on Bravo’s “Project Runway” was the biggest breakthrough in her career. She’s now signed with Slay Model Management in Los Angeles, an all-transgender agency, and spends her time between New York and Los Angeles. In September 2018 alone she booked 24 runway shows at New York Fashion Week. Tao’s goal is to make the fashion industry more trans-inclusive.
Tao opened up to The Lily about harassment in the fashion industry and about her journey to where she is today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Demi Vitkute: Mimi, we are living in a very strange time right now. How have you been during the pandemic?
Mimi Tao: I went to L.A. for L.A. Fashion Week in March, but it was canceled. The situation was getting really bad in New York, so I decided to stay in California, in this small city called Ojai, about one and a half hours away from L.A. I was on my own for three months. It was lonely and quiet, but it was very good for me to be there. I think I am used to being alone because I was a monk for six years. In the midst of the pandemic, I was thinking about dying my hair blonde but decided it was a bad idea. In March, it was also my birthday and obviously no one would come to celebrate with me, so I went to the supermarket and bought a small cake, lit one candle, and said happy birthday to myself. Right now I’m back in New York and just worked my first job after months — had a photo shoot for designer Layana Aguilar, also a “Project Runway” alum.
DV: As an immigrant and trans woman of color, how are you feeling about the Black Lives Matter protests and the news about many trans women of color being killed in the U.S.?
MT: I feel sorry for the innocent people who died, their families and everyone who is going through a difficult time right now. I am sad. Trans people are being killed everywhere, not just in the U.S. I don’t feel safe. I’m also currently stuck in limbo. My work visa is expiring in two months and right now would be a very difficult time to renew it. My lawyer said I’d have to leave the country, renew it and come back. I truly don’t know what I will do.
DV: Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
MT: I grew up in Khon Kaen, Thailand. When I was little, my family sent me to the best school in town, which was a Catholic school. But I grew up really close to the temple and every time I went there, I’d feel so peaceful. So at 11-years-old, I decided to leave home and enroll in the temple school. Six months later, I was ordained and became a monk. At the temple, I spent a lot of time alone, thinking about who I am, what I want, and that’s how I found my true self. At first, I didn’t accept myself. I was like, “I’m a boy, I’m not trans,” but I was so unhappy. I started experimenting a little bit. I tried applying some natural makeup, like powder and lip balm. Some of my friends joined. The other monks were accepting, I was not bullied. But only after I accepted myself, I became more confident and felt happy every day.
At some point, while I was at the school, the financial crisis hit my family and they went bankrupt. I was devastated and at 17, left the temple to work and help my family pay off their debts. I also knew that if I wanted to be a woman, I had to leave the temple.
DV: I read that Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha became your role model. Was this one of the turning points in your career?
MT: Yes. I convinced her to teach me how to become a model and she trained me for a few months. She used to say to me, “If you want to be famous, if you want to be successful, you have to stay strong and work harder than anybody else because you are different.” Whenever I was at my lowest point, I remembered her words and kept moving.
DV: What was the hardest moment of your life?
MT: The first time I came to Singapore was the lowest of the low. I was 17, I came with 20 dollars in my pocket. The first night I slept in a public bathroom because I had no money to stay in a hotel. Thankfully, a friend whose mom lived in Singapore gave me her phone number in case of an emergency. She took me in and saved me. Even though it was the worst time in my life, I had this inner peace with me — probably because I grew up in the temple, I learned how to control my mind and put myself together. The six years as a monk made me who I am now.
DV: How did you decide to come to the U.S.?
MT: The image of transgender people was still very negative in the media in Thailand. They’d think the worst of you. I wanted to change that. That’s why I put myself out there on social media to show other people that we can do better, we can have that job, we can be models. People aren’t fair to the things they don’t understand — they’re concerned and afraid. It won’t change overnight. We need time for change.
DV: Tell me about the moment you found out you were cast for “Project Runway.”
MT: I had actually auditioned for “Project Runway” before and didn’t get it. People told me, “Don’t waste your time, don’t audition again.” But I was like no way, I’m auditioning anyway. I was in L.A. in a car with my close friend and we were on our way to L.A. Fashion Week to see Michael Costello’s collection, also a “Project Runway” alum. My agent called me and told me I was cast for “Project Runway.” I screamed so loudly.
DV: Since you’ve worked as a model for a decade now, you have probably noticed that some of the same problems plague the industry globally. I’m sure you have an insightful perspective on this. What do you think needs to change in the fashion industry?
MT: Some people think that the fashion world is really beautiful, but everything has two sides. Sexual harassment and abuse are very common in the fashion industry. This problem applies not only to transgender models, but all models — male or female.
DV: What can we do to help make a change in the industry?
MT: I cannot change the industry by myself. If I say, for example, this photographer harassed me, people might say that I’m crazy, I’m seeking attention. But if multiple models speak out about that photographer, it makes a difference, people are more likely to believe it. I’m brave enough to talk about this and if other people also do, we can change the industry together. We cannot be quiet anymore — we need to let people know what’s going on.
DV: As a trans model, have you found more acceptance in the industry in the past couple of years?
MT: Yes, I find more acceptance right now, compared to 10 years ago. I’d go to 10 castings and get 10 nos. Right now it’s more open-minded and an opportunity depends on whether you’re ready or not. But still, the market is not big for transgender models so we have to work with many different agents. Sometimes they want a transgender model, but they won’t hire 10 of them, maybe just one or two — so how do you make sure that you’re the one selected? You need to not only work on your body, skin, your catwalk, but also on your mind, and prepare for rejection.
DV: What would you say to your younger self 10 years ago?
MT: I would say to come to New York earlier, like 10 years ago. Because when I came here, everything moved so fast for me and my life changed entirely. New York is so much more open-minded than anywhere else.
DV: Are you still a Buddhist and would you ever go back to Thailand to be a monk?
MT: Yes, I’m still a Buddhist. I frequently go to the temple. And I still meditate once in a while, especially when I’m not feeling well. However, because I spent six years as a monk, I still carry that inner peace with me and am in control of my everyday life. In the future, nobody knows. Maybe when I’m older and I’ve had enough of my career, I’d go back.
DV: Finally, what’s one thing that people in the U.S. could apply to their lives from the Buddhist philosophy?
MT: I think the most important thing is to find time to be alone with yourself and meditate. Meditation gives you time to think again and again about who you are and what you want to do.