Fashion model Theodora “Teddy” Quinlivan, 24, was born and raised in Boston. After attending the Walnut Hill School, she launched her modeling career at the age of 17. She was discovered in 2015 by Nicolas Ghesquiere of Louis Vuitton, and she has walked for many of the world’s top designers, including Carolina Herrera, Jeremy Scott and Jason Wu. Last year, she came out as transgender. She lives in Paris.
Jonathan Soroff: What gave you the confidence to pursue modeling?
Teddy Quinlivan: I think it was that a bunch of people told me I should do it. I had a painting teacher named Ken Tighe at Walnut Hill, and I had a really close relationship with him in high school. We had a homeroom meeting once a week, and I really valued his opinion. He said, “Maybe you should try modeling.” Whenever your peers or friends suggest something like that, you’re like, “Whatever.” But that was the first time that an adult who I trusted gave me the confidence to pursue it.
So what happened next? I signed with Maggie, Inc. They were my first agency, ever. Casey [who runs the agency] is an industry icon. Everyone knows him, even in Paris. They’ll say, “You’re from Boston? We know Casey. We’ve never seen him, but we’ve spoken on the phone a million times.” He’s a modeling industry legend. And he signed me.
Fashion trend you’re most sick of? [Deep sigh.] I think oversized sweatshirts. All of that Vetements aesthetic I totally despise. Wearing cheap thrift store clothes as a fashion statement, trying to be alternative, selling a sweatshirt that looks like it was your uncle’s for $3,000—I hate that kind of thing. It takes all the creativity out of fashion. It’s too easy, and I like very classic designers: People who push the limit in terms of silhouette and cut and fabric. I don’t like when designers take the easy way out. I’m also so done with sneakers and the flat shoe trend that should have ended after a year but looks like it’s here to stay. I’m a high-heel everyday girl.
One thing you’d never be caught dead wearing? I’m going to be real and say, “Never say never.” My personal taste changes a lot. So if I say I’ll never wear it when I’m 24, I might be wearing it when I’m 44. That would just come back to bite me in the ass.
Fur—yes or no? Yes, honey. It’s warm. If you’re gonna eat cows, or consume the meat of an animal, I have no problem wearing it. I have a lot of respect for vegans. I could never do it. But I love my steak and I’m not giving it up, and I love my fur and I’m not giving it up. Come at me.
Your biggest runway disaster? You’re asking me all the questions I wish everyone asked. These are such good questions. I’ve never fallen. I’ve tripped up a little. But if something bad happens before or after a show, you just put up with it. I haven’t had many runway disasters, unless you count getting into a fight with a makeup artist. The first time I walked for Proenza Schouler, I messed up. But as long as you look good on camera, even if you fuck up, nobody knows.
Wardrobe: Dion Lee dress, Modern Weaving earrings and Proenza Schouler cuff at All Too Human
New York, Paris or Milan? Always Paris. I was living in New York for three years, but I had to come back to Paris. I live here. This is my town. I’m with my people. I love me some French boys.
How’s your French? I can get through my day and order my coffee. But I’m not fluent. I’m working on it, but with my dyslexia, it’s probably not gonna happen.
Favorite designer? Well, there are two, and they represent very different aesthetics. Nicolas Ghesquiere, the creative designer of Louis Vuitton, gave me my start. I wear his clothes every single day. His sensibility and mine are the most aligned. That’s what I wear the most, and he’s so inspiring. And then there’s John Galliano. I’m really close to him, and he’s just a legend. He’ll go down in history as one of the best designers of all time. He’s right up there with Coco Chanel in terms of how revolutionary his designs are and how he’s influenced fashion. He’s a huge game changer.
Anything about women’s clothing that bugs you? Not really. I like the shoes. There’s nothing about women’s clothing that I would personally change.
Funniest thing you’ve ever seen backstage at a fashion show? I was backstage at Paco Rabanne, and the shoes were so tight and so fragile that the girls couldn’t get their feet into them. So they went out and bought lubricant, like K-Y Jelly, to put on our feet, so we could slip into the shoes. It worked.
Best swag you ever got? That’s a hard one. At Louis Vuitton, I’ve been doing the show forever and I never really got anything for free except a few pair of shoes. But this season they gave me a clutch called the Petite Malle. It’s like a piece of luggage, and they’re very limited edition. That’s a down payment on a house, and I’ll treasure it for the rest of my life. But even better, after I shot the fragrance campaign for Margiela with John Galliano, they let me borrow this one-of-a-kind custom coat with feathers. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I asked John if I could keep it. The PR people were beside themselves. It’s a museum piece. But John let me keep it. It’s the original runway sample. It was just so personal, and really the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten.
Teddy Quinlivan on the cover of the New Year’s issue. Wardrobe: Galvan London jumpsuit at All Too Human and Joseph Gann Jewelers accessories
Does being trans make you a better model? No.
A better person? Yes. It makes me a more real person. When you’ve had the kind of struggle I had with just being different, the minority of minorities, you develop a lot of empathy. I was really heavily bullied. Kids were threatening to kill me. I went through a lot and I had to really find myself at a young age, so because of all of the trials and tribulations, I’ve seen the world at its best and most accepting and at its worst and most hateful. Having that experience makes you a better person. Most people don’t wake up wondering why they were born in the body they were born in. It hasn’t made me a nice person, but I’m more empathetic and strong. I’ve had to have a very strong sense of self from a very young age just to survive.
Rudest thing anyone’s said to you about being trans? Well, the meanest thing that was ever said to me in the industry was a stylist who works for many brands. I came out to a specific designer before I came out publicly, and this stylist said to me that she’d been gossiping about me being trans for years. She didn’t intend it to be mean, but I was like, “Wow. You’re the type of person who thinks that’s appropriate?” It gave me a lot of insight into the fashion industry’s dark side and how much shit people talk behind your back. Bored, sad people being bored and sad. Just the fact that she was like, “Oh, I’ve been talking about you and your genitalia behind your back for years” kind of floored me. If you’re willing to gossip about someone’s gender identity, are you willing to gossip about their HIV status, or other intensely personal shit?
I’m surprised that was the worst. Well, the other thing is that when I came forward and talked about my sexual assault, people either didn’t believe or didn’t care. They were like, “Well, you weren’t raped, so…” That it has to be the most violent offense in order to be objectionable is really disgusting to me.
Thing you want the whole world to know about being transgender? That it’s just part of my life. To me, being born with a penis is no different than being born with an extra finger, or if I had been missing a kidney. To me, it’s a physical birth defect. My brain doesn’t match my physical body. It’s not something I asked for. It’s not a choice I made. And people treat it like they know everything about you because you’re trans, that it defines you. I’m more than the sum of my parts.
Where do you think modeling will lead you? Hopefully to a better paying job, honey. More money.
Fantasy assignment? I think I’ve fulfilled all my modeling fantasies. I’d love to do a Kill Bill editorial. Or a few editorials based off my favorite movies. But I’ve pretty much realized my modeling dreams. So I’m very grateful for everything I’ve done. But in terms of my life? I’d love to work in politics at some point. If I could wind up the president of the United States, that would be lovely. If you’re going to aim, aim as high as you can.
Is modeling mostly about rejection? Modeling is mostly about selling shit. At the end of the day, it’s about moving product. Rejection is part of it, but for every 100 people who say no to me, the one who says yes pays my rent for the month. I’ve probably pissed off 50 percent of the industry throughout my career, but I don’t need 50 percent. I can be a top model with the other 50 percent.
There’s so much downtime in modeling. Favorite way to kill time? I’m like a YouTube fanatic. I love it so much. My most recent obsession is compilations of Wendy Williams doing double takes and throwing shade. Or I’ll go on Tumblr or Pinterest, anything with great visual imagery. When I’m bored, I go down that rabbit hole.
Fashion or style icon? There are so many. I think characters from movies. Bond girls. Femme fatales. I get really inspired by video game characters. I was a big gamer growing up, and I always loved the costumes. They always pushed the boundaries, but they always made women look powerful and strong and sexy at the same time.
Favorite fashion magazine? None of them. I honestly think they all try to sell a lot of the product, and I think there’s a lack of creativity in fashion editorial right now. There’s no single magazine I go to to find great shit. It’s more like I’ll find a picture I’ll like. That can come from Vogue Italia, and then next month, I might not like anything in Vogue Italia, but I love an editorial in Self Service or i-D Magazine, instead. It just depends. I can like any publication, any image, any photographer. It’s just in that moment.
Wardrobe: Orseund Iris dress, Joseph Gann Jewelers earrings and Proenza Schouler cuff at All Too Human.
Top beauty secret? Moisturize. Honestly, if there’s one thing that I couldn’t live without, it would be moisturizer. It’s the ultimate step in the skin care routine. It makes you look dewy. It makes you look fresh. It plumps you. That’s my one ride or die.
Is beauty only skin deep? To some extent. It’s a combination of things. Personality is really important. You can be the most gorgeous girl in the world, but if you don’t have a personality, people don’t see it as much. Something in the attitude can make someone really sexy. I like swagger in a man. You need a little attitude. But then again, if there’s anything I’ve learned from modeling and the fashion business in general, it’s that you can be not very talented, a horrible, shitty person, but if you look cute and people want to bang you, you’re gonna book the job. I’ve been backstage with girls who you’d have more fun talking to a cardboard cutout. Unfortunately in our society, especially in the age of social media, looks can get you farther now than they ever could.
Thoughts on body image in modeling? Proportions to me don’t matter. If you look good, you look good. I don’t think it comes in one size. Fashion’s been very slow to recognize that, but I think it’s changing. There’s more representation now. I walked the Michael Kors show this season, and Ashley Graham was in it, who’s an incredible plus-size model, and I was in it. Then there’ll be a Victoria’s Secret angel, who’s slightly more voluptuous. So the standards of beauty and body image are evolving. There’s no one way to be gorgeous. They’re infinite.
What would you tell a young person who wants to model? Ugh. Get some new ambitions. Honestly, whenever somebody says they want to model, I’m like, “You must be so fucking vain.” I mean, why? You do it because you can, but it’s not something to aspire to. The world is in a dark place right now. Get yourself a fucking education and run for office. Do something that contributes to society. Being a model isn’t honorable. Being a public servant, or a soldier, or a journalist, contributing positively to humanity is honorable. For me, modeling is something that just happened. It’s not a passion of mine. Growing up, I was this trans kid and I didn’t think I was attractive, and no one was hitting on me. I’m fortunate that I grew into my looks. I’m lucky I have a thin frame, a feminine face and a feminine body.
Are you the model cliche who only eats lettuce and works out nonstop? [Laughs.] Hell, no. I’m just lucky. I’m tall and lean and skinny. I can eat what I want and not gain weight.
I hate you. I’m active. I walk around a lot. I get a lot of exercise, but not at a gym. When I go to a gym, I feel like everybody’s staring at me. The girls are all judgy and saying, “Why is this emaciated woman exercising? She should be eating a cheeseburger.” And the boys look at me like, “Will you suck my dick in the sauna?” It is not my territory.
Fill in the blank: Teddy Quinlivan is ____. Honest. ◆
Teddy Quinlivan, photographed for the Improper by Ashley Soong at Motion Cyc Studio, Boston; Hair: Kashmir / Viselli Salon; Makeup and Styling: Teddy Quinlivan