Women’s fashion and lifestyle brands have long sought to earn that highly-coveted pink dollar, but rarely have they cared to cater to those who might not want to wear feminine cuts and silhouettes. Instead, how about a fitted three-piece suit? A pair of joggers? Jeans that aren’t “borrowed from your boyfriend,” but instead, created for women and nonbinary people’s bodies, and a concentrated effort to reach an audience ignored by traditional advertising.
Some fashion houses have become less gendered and more accessible in sizing and what they consider womenswear vs. menswear, but fewer have created more options and fostered more goodwill than Wildfang. The Portland, Oregon-based brand (named after the German translation for “tomboy”) launched in 2012 after co-founder, CEO, and CMO Emma McIlroy left a cushy job at Nike with her then business partner and co-founder Julia Parsley to launch what would become a highly-successful queer-owned and inclusive feminist-leaning company peddling clothing, accessories, and other wares. (Parsley has since left amicably, no longer looking to work in fashion.) Their online shop and early investments helped to create their flagship shop in Portland, which was followed by a second and just this year, New York and Los Angeles locations (Soho and Silver Lake, respectively.)
Their Wild Feminist slogan Ts, The Future is Fluid campaign with Tegan and Sara, and campaigns with the likes of Kim Gordon, Evan Rachel Wood, Sara Bareilles, and Riley Keough, to name just a few, have helped to spawn a cult-like following among queers and feminists. But outside of making feminism and tomboy fashion accessible and on trend, they’ve also raised a ton of money for charitable causes. In 2018 alone, Wildfang has raised $450,000 for non-profits — $300,000 of that went to RAICES after the brand responded to Melania Trump’s highly-politicized Zara coat reading “I Really Don’t Care Do U?” by turning a similar green jacket into “I Really Do Care Don’t U?” all benefitting the organization that paid for legal services for refugees and immigrants.
“The whole team was like just wrecked in the office,” McIlroy tells INTO of the campaign. “We’d been completely depressed all week watching those kids in cages and then she wore that jacket and it was like ‘Fuck this. We got to do something about that.’ It just felt like insult to injury, so the entire team felt a collective outrage.”
McIlroy credits her team (many of whom have been part of Wildfang from the beginning, including Creative Director Taralyn Thuot) for the kinds of causes the brand aligns itself with, and also for what McIlroy sees as walking the walk. Over the last few years, feminism has become more fashionable, and big box brands like Forever 21 and Top Shop have attempted to profit off of regurgitated original ideas from the likes of Wildfang and Otherwild, another queer woman-owned shop whose Future is Female shirts became popularized after being spotted on celebrities like St. Vincent and Cara Delevingne.
“I’ve always said that it’s not my space,” McIlroy says. “We didn’t create it; we stand on the shoulders, so I welcome people into that space. I think it would be fucking great if every company in the Fortune 500 identified as a feminist company. So I welcome people into the space. I think the deal is are you walking the walk as well as talking the talk? Are you giving back? Are you representing your community? Are you here representing an entire population of women? Are you giving women a platform? Are you standing up and fighting for gender equality? Are you standing up and fighting for trans women?”
Walking that walk includes expanded sizing and utilizing models of size as well, McIlroy says. Some models are first-timers, trainees who learn on the job but often get booked by agencies and other brands after working for Wildfang.
“[Representation of our community] is built into the core of our model, and therefore we hope that our community trusts us to authentically represent a really wide spectrum of individuals,” McIlroy says. “We show our clothing on three different body types. We are a small business — that means we triple our production costs, right? But at the end of the day, if you’re a size 20, you can’t buy off a size 2 model. That’s just a joke. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Right now, Wildfang originals and collaborations go up to size 20, but the brand has plans to offer up to 26 in the near future.
“Is that good enough? No. Is there still room to go? Yes,” McIlroy says. “But for the size of our business, it’s not a bad effort and when we have size 18 or 20s, it’s very specifically built. It’s not like some crappy fit, like these pants fit on a ton of people who have those sizes. We’ve redone the pattern, we’ve redone the grading, so when we put that expanded sizing on the market, we want to make sure it’s going to be fucking good and we want to make sure we’re shooting it on people who identify as that size so it’s a much easier buying process.”
Since launching in 2012, Wildfang has seen some competitors in the feminist/androgynous clothing space close up shop. The big box stores and brands move on to the next trend they can bite off, and yet, Wildfang is opening shops in two of the hippest shopping areas on both coasts. McIlroy attributes that kind of success to letting their values guide them — to working collaboratively as a diverse team that decides where the effort is being placed.
“We wear our hearts on our sleeve,” McIlroy says. “We take every conversation with the same values in place. It’s not like we make decisions for business reasons or commercial reasons — we make decisions for brand reasons. We come back to the same set of values on every major decision, which keeps us putting it in a very clear direction.”
Their current collaboration with Refinery29 is a mid-term election push encouraging women to vote. The Just F*cking Vote Collection features T-shirts that read “She came, she saw, she f*cking voted” and “On the left side of history,” among other items, all benefitting She Should Run, an organization helping to fund women looking to run for political office.
“The intention is to change the state of our beautiful planet,” McIlroy says. “We’re trying to get more women to get into leadership, local and national level in politics, and yeah, we’re trying to use direct communications and platforms to get first time voters right to the polls — because I read some really depressing stats about…I think it’s like 40 percent of young women in America say they might not vote and 30 percent aren’t sure if they’re registered or not. So we felt like whatever we could do to just continue to remind or hit them over the head it’s completely critical that they vote on November 6th. If there’s anything else they fucking do for the rest of the year, it is vote.”
With so much of Wildfang’s efforts going into philanthropic efforts, McIlroy finds it amusing when people assume she and her team are personally profiting from their own community. In fact, most of the time, they are putting money into their efforts and, in effect, losing money.
“It’s super simple math and I only care about the people [who benefit],” McIlroy says. “Because I got to write a $300,000 check for the lawyers who are trying to get the kids out of the cages.”
That doesn’t mean Wildfang has any plans of slowing down. Instead, they’re looking to create more physical connections with their current and future fans, which is why their stores will also host regular feminist events. Last night, their Portland store hosted a panel called “Women Who Lead: A Discussion and Celebration of Leadership” with Adrienne Nelson, the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and Rukaiyah Adams (Chief Investment Officer at Meyer Memorial Trust), Joy Davis (CEO and Founding Partner of Design and Culture Lab), and politician Margaret Carter. (One hundred percent of donations collected at the door and bar tips, as well as 10 percent of sales were given to Justice Nelson’s campaign.) Tonight, the L.A. location will host its launch party and, every weekend this month, offers free feminist tattoos and tarot card readings.
“I think it was first and foremost the ability to bring Wildfang to life in person and to build a community,” McIlroy says. “So much of the cool stuff we do happens in a physical environment, and so for me, it’s all about that community. It’s all about Wildfang being so much more than a place where you buy shit. It’s a place that you connect, it’s a place that you feel safe, it’s a place that you feel at home.”
At a time where women-centric spaces are shuttering and under attack by men’s rights activists, Wildfang has become that virtual and physical manifestation of a space for wild feminists and their supporters. (Wildfang collaborates with and sources from menswear brands like Publish, Volcom, RVCA, and Obey who share their brand values and missions.)
“It’s our community and whatever they believe it to be it is,” McIlroy says. “I know at the end of the day that we’re making a massive impact in people’s lives. And I know that we’re doing our best to represent it and conversations around gender, conversations around representation, conversations around gender labels, social norms, all that stuff and we do a huge job of giving back and we do it in the right way. So whatever people think about us is their perception and I have no problem with it.”
On a cold rainy New York City night, I walked into Vanity Projects, a nail salon in Chinatown where my friend and renowned art curator Tim Goossens, invited me to view a curated series of music videos on display which patrons viewed while getting art deco designs painted onto acrylic talons. When the polish dried, we stood around, clawing plastic cups, sipping white wine while swimming in the nostalgia of a Cher video being projected on the wall.
Suddenly, the lights dimmed and the sounds streaming through surrounding speakers shifted from familiar to foreign. A sea of long, dark hair began emerging onto a carefully lit platform in the corner of the salon as a warm and tropical soundscape took over the room. A spell was cast upon us as Martine Gutierrez spun around enchanting us as each follicle of her jet black hair swung merely inches past our noses. She stared into us with a steady, somber gleam in her eyes as she slowly raised a microphone up to her lips. We were pulled even deeper into the mood as a soothing voice escaped her, a sound undulating between whisper and moan, and like a rising tide, she held us captive the rest of the night in metaphors of eager and idol love.
Discovering Martine and her majestic self-produced music was a breath of fresh air for me. I had been looking for an artist who represented what my label Park Side Records stood for, a ruthless creative who was independent in their ideas and passions, yet spoke directly to the hearts of listeners who may not realize what music beyond the mainstream could offer. I immediately felt a responsibility as well as a need to share the emotive beauty of her and her music with the world so I asked if I could re-release her debut EP, Blame The Rain. Much to my delight, she obliged, and this summer I also got to release two of her singles, “Head 2 Toe” and “Origin,”the latter of which I am featured on and whose video, directed by Martine as well, is part fantasy, part documentary as it contains footage of our first collaborative live performance art piece which took place on the streets of the Dallas Aurora Festival, also curated by Tim Goossens.
Martine is a force to be reckoned with, and getting to know her has felt similar to Alice falling deeper into Wonderland, where just when you thought you found your way out, behind the door is another endless pool of wonders.
For Martine, music is sort of a secondary effort when it comes to creative priorities. The first being her work as a photographer who focuses on conceptual self-portraiture. Here is where she really takes center stage, voicing her public opinion through the time-consuming details of her works. After her solo exhibition Indigenous Women, a self-produced 146 page glossy fashion magazine, debuted at the Ryan Lee Gallery this past September in New York City and was met with praise by the New York Times, she secured her spot as one of New York’s newest art elites while simultaneously proving she exists beyond labels and pronouns.
She’s a revolutionary artist who manages to boldly take ownership of her narrative while leaving herself open and vulnerable to prying eyes. She motions between innocence and mistress, empathy and revenge all while continuing to evolve as her own divine muse and once you dive in there’s no easy way out. So with fair warning, I dare you all to fall into Martine.
NOMI: I refer to you as a multimedia artist. How would you describe yourself in a way that encompasses all the things that you do?
MARTINE: I’m a star. [laughs]
NOMI: Yes, you are!
MARTINE: I’m a star that just discovered herself opposed to waiting for that muse moment that every good movie with a makeover scene has where you know, the man finds her in the dark nightclub and he’s like “Wow, look at this potential!” I just beat him to the punch and I said: “Let me do it myself!” [laughs]
NOMI: Genius. So you take control of your own narrative. I feel like that’s a throughline through all your work, where you’re sort of like ‘This is something usually seen through the male gaze, but I’m gonna do this in a way where you’re seeing it through my perspective.”
MARTINE: I think making things has always been a huge conduit for me to discover how I want to identify and how I want to evolve as a person. And it just so happens that everyone’s watching right now. I’ve been doing this a long time, which is the gag, I guess, because right now everyone’s saying “How are these things so glossy? How are you doing everything yourself? How are you XYZ?” And it’s just time. It’s just taken a long time.
NOMI: Yes, actually I was going to ask you this later on but I think we’re on it now. In your work, you sort of objectify yourself in a way that feels really empowering because you’re taking control of something that is usually in the male gaze and you sort of use it to mix yourself with pop culture and what people usually consider to be mainstream. Is that sort of like an act of vengeance?
MARTINE: Oh my god, love vengeance! Love vengeance! I think that’s more your narrative than mine though. [laughs]
NOMI: [laughs] I love revenge!
MARTINE: You love a revenge. You love returning like a storm.
NOMI: Do you feel like you’re not allowed in mainstream spaces for whatever reasons? And so you create them yourself and, like you said, instead of waiting for someone to discover you, do you feel like you haven’t been allowed into certain venues but you took control of it?
MARTINE: I used to think that I didn’t have access to those platforms until I guess I started modeling and I got to have my runway moment, I got to have you know, work with some like high-end fashion people and I guess that’s what I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to work with the best of the best because that would make me feel better about myself. Or that would somehow validate me and it just made me feel so much more other. It made me feel, you know, objectified because of my identity, if that makes sense. For minorities who sit at the often isolating crux of intersectionality, how do we ensure that our voices are not jeopardized by “opportunity.” And how can we work against the very power structures that propagate beauty and normalcy to the masses, and I think in the pursuit of personal gain, we look at collaborations as positive opportunities, but for those of us who are minorities, we’re almost always objectified, tokenized, or used to diversify or assume allyship, and that’s how I was in the campaign, right? I was the check off the box — “Oh we have a Latin girl, oh we have a trans girl.” The brand is like “Look at how open, look at how progressive we are?” But never posts my name or practice as an artist.
NOMI: It’s like they’re operating under a cloak of allyship. They’re like “OK, we’ve done this thing in the past where we objectify people so we’re going to diversify so we feel like we’re on the up and up, but we’re doing the same thing but through this idea of working as an ally, working with our community.” You’re like this is being done by men and the male gaze—
MARTINE: Absolutely, because the male gaze is at the center of everything. It’s also the heteronormative gaze, sexual — what would you call it? — narratives within advertising. The girl is always sexualized within the narrative, but she’s not sexualized for girls to look at her. She’s sexualized for a dude to look at her, or for a dude to fetishize lesbianism. Does that make sense?
NOMI: I also sometimes feel like even queer people and even women — sometimes we’re approached by women or the queer community and it’s safer to be a part of these things, but they’re also operating in a way that they’re trying to use the male gaze as well.
MARTINE: Mhm. It’s hard because using it is also a tool to dismantle it because how else are you going to get to that audience if you don’t get their attention?
NOMI: I wanted to know — the video for “Origin,” which deals with gaze in a very different way from different perspectives. I feel like it touches on voyeurism and self-obsession when it comes to the video. So that being said, do you prefer being a voyeur or a subject?
MARTINE: I love being a voyeur. I love being a voyeur. I love watching. [laughs]
NOMI: [laughs] You’re a spy.
MARTINE: I’m a spy! I think that’s why I like — I like changing my identity or changing my appearance because it means I get to have a certain amount of anonymity so I get to watch. I get to watch without being watched, which is so funny—
NOMI: Within that, you also like watching yourself.
MARTINE: I do. I mean, I love a mirror, as you well know.
NOMI: I mean, yes. There was a mirror literallyon the bed—
MARTINE: There was a double-sided mirror that had to be on the bed. Even the gaze into our phones — a selfie is a mirror, in a way.
NOMI: A selfie is a mirror. And I feel like the mirror in the middle kind of insinuates us also seeing ourselves within each other. Do you sort of feel like you’re drawn to people in ways where you see yourself in them?
MARTINE: Yeah, I think that was a huge part of—I mean, there’s the physicality of it, right, we both have dark hair, we both have brown eyes, caramel skin, long legs, plump lips. But then there’s the other side where because of our backgrounds, whether that means we’re Latina or being exoticized for being, you know, mysteriously looking women, we have similar experiences, and so I think I’ve always — I guess I’m hoped to learn something about myself, like in someone else. I don’t know if that’s unhealthy or not.
NOMI: Right. It’s a little bit — I guess it’s different when you try to validate yourself instead of learning. There’s a difference. In the video, there’s a few dimensions where there’s us watching ourselves. It kind of turns into this whole cyber world. It kind of insinuates a little bit of sex in a way, or lust. Do you enjoy cybersex?
MARTINE: Oh, it’ sex talk? We’re having a sex talk?
NOMI: [laughs] How did that turn to — I feel like it started with a performance, and then you added, and it kind of turned voyeuristic into a very lustful place. So I feel like it turned very cyber-sexy.
MARTINE: Yeah, it’s very cyber-sexy. It’s nod to the platforms in which we meet people now. Whether it’s Tinder or What’s App or Grindr or, like, OKCupid or, I don’t know. What’s that elitist artsy one I wanna be on?
MARTINE: Someone invite me. Invite me on, because I’m curious!
NOMI: No, it’s bottles and models — you’re gonna hate it!
MARTINE: I still need to see. But I think because the performance started as this public exhibitionism of our own bodies and our own sensuality, right? Because yes we took footage and yes I edited it down to moments that I liked the most, but people that were there weren’t extras — they were strangers; they were voyeurs! They were people who chose to stay and watch, chose to take pictures, chose to touch us, which was totally inappropriate and remember we had to leave and get ushered away. They got security. I think the second part of it was, you were also streaming onto Periscope.
NOMI: Periscope, yeah.
MARTINE: And that was the part I wanted to incorporate at the end, like this other side of the audience that doesn’t have to visit in real life and get to have, I don’t know, experience in seedy privacy.
NOMI: Yeah, and I think it was interesting to show footage of people watching, logging in and watching something that becomes lusted for online, because that’s usually very private. And to actually see that perspective added this level of loneliness. I feel like we use the internet, not only to connect with people, but in reality, you’re alone and you’re just so isolated and not even connecting whatsoever.
MARTINE: Right, if anything, it’s a large opportunity to invent what it is that you’re interacting with. Whether you’re IMing with someone, sending pictures or Skyping, like, you can put more on that person or on that experience than is actually happening because you’re not actually there. Through our phones, it was a total fantasy, and yet, in the real space, people were drunk and talking — the bed was stopping and going because our weight wasn’t evenly distributed. [laughs]
NOMI: Oh my god, it was scandalous.
MARTINE: It was crazy.
NOMI: That moment on the bed you mention how someone tried to touch us and it got a little dangerous and I remember someone in the crowd was going around and telling other people that we were trans — they were also trans and they wanted the audience to somehow know that they were watching trans people because they themselves were actually living a stealth life and they wanted to sort of gauge people’s reactions to trans people for their own weird benefit. I don’t know. It was a strange thing that added a sense of danger that we were not aware was going to happen. It was just strange because the whole performance had nothing to do with gender or transformation. It was just like, for me, it was about we took voyeurism and self-obsession —
MARTINE: It was a social commentary as opposed to a commentary about our bodies as individuals, you know what I mean? And unfortunately once people know, they want it to be a thing, right? Because it makes them uncomfortable. So that’s what they focus on.
NOMI: Right. So do you find that you’re constantly pushed to present your art from an angle so that it makes a statement about gender or transition and that whole world even though the focus of the work at hand has nothing to do with that?
MARTINE: Press pushes it to be the topic. I get to write the statement at this point because I’m not dead yet. [laughs] Like I’m still writing, like “This is what the work’s about.”
NOMI: So it’s not reinterpreted.
MARTINE: Right. Once I’m not around, who knows what they’re gonna say. But I already have this feeling my work is going to represent something that I didn’t intend for it because it already happens when I’m alive through press. She’s already a token.
NOMI: Yeah. Crazy. So music for you—was music something you fell into an extension of your art, or how did music come into play? Was it just a whole separate world for you or did it also come to pass as you were creating your photography and producing art?
MARTINE: It became like a skill I had to develop because I was making a lot of video and it was before the videos were kind of like taking on a music video structure or length. Some of them were really long, and it can be taxing to watch silent. It’s elevating to have sound or some kind of score.
MARTINE: It brings everything to life. I was in a band in art school with two cuties and it kind of like fizzled out, which also gave me more time to take control — because I was just the vocalist. I wasn’t producing, I wasn’t coming up with really the melodies or the beats, and I realized “Oh, there’s so much to choose from. Why use those?” Why were we using those references when I like these sounds so much more?
NOMI: Again, you were taking control of your narrative.
MARTINE: Right, right. And then, yeah, I guess —
NOMI: What state of mind were you in when you were writing “Origin.”
MARTINE: Um, I was in the state of mind of Nomi Ruiz because we had, like, just met through Tim. Because he brought you to my show in China Town, and you were gagged and you were like “I’m gonna say hi to her.” You tell your side! I feel like Tim just told me “Nomi Ruiz is coming to your show.” And I was like “Cool, who’s that?”
NOMI: You were like “Who’s this bitch? Why do I care?”
MARTINE: “Why are you so gagged by her? I thought I was your star!” I’m like “She’s coming for me!” [laughs] No, I didn’t think that. I thought, “Cool, I’m gonna meet a celebutante.” But also I was so nervous and anxious about the performance that honestly it didn’t really stay in my mind long. And after the show, the space was so small, that it was packed and I remember having to weave through people to even shake your hand and be like “Hello, nice to meet you!”
NOMI: I was just about to leave and I was like “I have to meet this girl.” Like it was the first time — because I can be nervous and anxious and something just drew me to you. I was like “I have to know this person. We have to be in each other’s lives.” Tim introduced us and I was like “Hi, I’m a nerd, let’s know each other!”
MARTINE: And I was like “OK, great!” And later, Tim was like “That was Nomi.” And I was like “Oh, cool, oh I like her!”
NOMI: That’s what I love about watching the “Origin” video because I feel like it takes me back to that whole process — we got to know each other on such a deep level. It kind of forced us to spend more time together and really got to know what was behind your ideas and know you as an artist and as a friend. It brings me back to that time.
MARTINE: I remember once Tim told us that there was this performance and that he wanted us to perform together — it was posed as a question really. And we were like “Obviously, that would be amazing — what are we performing? We don’t have a song together.” And so it was obvious that I had to write one! So I remember going — remember, was it Williamsburg? I don’t remember where it was. We got, like, tea.
NOMI: We met in Williamsburg.
MARTINE: We sat at this cafe and I had like that little notepad and I was just writing down words. Writing down words like “Cats. Milk. Collars. Purring.” It made absolutely no sense and you were probably like “This girl is crazy.” But I remember being just so inspired by you and your energy and your confidence and your sexuality. You ooze sexuality and I felt like — I have to do a song that will do her justice. I can’t have her sing some sad love song like I’m always singing. It has to be something sexy!
NOMI: I think you really blended the two, which is something I love and I also express in my music. There’s this sexy confidence and there’s this underlying sort of somber pessimistic idea of what love is.
MARTINE: Right, and it’s always just out of reach — at least for me. It’s always just around the river bend. [laughs]
NOMI: Right so, do you believe in love?
MARTINE: Um. [laughs] Dot dot dot. I want to believe in love. I believe in a deep, deep love, but I don’t think I’ve experienced it.
NOMI: So what is your perception of what love is?
MARTINE: I don’t know. I don’t know! Because in some ways I’ve never really seen a successful relationship, whether it was in my family or —
NOMI: So you think love is a successful relationship?
MARTINE: I think love is having passion for finding someone that is passionate about what you’re doing, who you are, and your passion for them circles this swirling magnificent energy of like acceptance and intimacy and laughter and, I don’t know — it’s funny because, in some ways, I’ve had that with really close friends, that openness and safety and intimacy, it’s just not sexual. And then I have the other side, which is like sooo sexual. It’s like just sex — it’s just about the physicality of the other person.
NOMI: Why can’t you have it all in one?
MARTINE: Tea. It’s like, where’s that guy with the duality of both? I don’t know. And I don’t know if it’s like an age thing and the age that I’m at, the people around me are just immature, or, I don’t know.
NOMI: I also feel like we’re pressured to have that in one person, and that’s not so realistic. For me, I’m in a phase where I’m starting to question why can’t I have love for my friends and sex from a lover and have all these different desires within me fulfilled and be OK with the fact that it comes from different places. Like why can’t that be a version of love?
MARTINE: It can. I guess that’s what life is — inventing the narrative that works for you. Like there is no normal, that’s the bottom line. There’s average. There’s the majority, and you can choose to be a lemming or you can make your own life.
I guess that’s what life is—inventing the narrative that works for you. Like there is no normal, that’s the bottom line. There’s average. There’s the majority, and you can choose to be a lemming or you can make your own life.
NOMI: How much of your songwriting is based on real-life experiences?
MARTINE: It’s hard because I honestly don’t know if I actually live in reality most of the time.
NOMI: That’s why I love you.
MARTINE: Oh, and I love you! Because you’re so willing to — to take the glamour of — I don’t know, invention. You’re fully on board, always! I can’t even explain it. When we’re together, whenever we hang out, it always becomes a cruise collection editorial video in like the strangest way where everything is paid for, everything is easy, everything is chic, there’s drugs everywhere! We materialize fantasy.
NOMI: [laughs] I’m like whatever you want, whatever you desire, I’ll make it happen.
MARTINE: There’s boys everywhere. It’s just like beach and ocean and skin and late nights, late mornings. I don’t know! It’s just so luxurious, and it’s not real, which is why when you ask about making songs about reality, but I don’t know if that’s actually reality — or just a dream.
NOMI: Yeah, totally. When you say in “Origin,” “Forget about my origin,” what are you saying?
MARTINE: I’m saying forget about — as trans girls to cis straight boys who often play this game of flirtatious tug-of-war, don’t get hung up on where the journey began. The beginning was then.
NOMI: Like this is who I am now.
MARTINE: Yeah. Like, take me now for what I am right now. And I think it could also speak to not putting pressure on this ideal of what an ideal gender or body is. There is no right way to be a woman or man, it’s all gray.
NOMI: You also say what’s your flavor, what’s your type.
MARTINE: Isn’t that obvious?
NOMI: Yeah, but what’s your flavor, what’s your type?
MARTINE:Ohhh! Mmmm. Well, last night I had a good flavor. [laughs] And a good type. He was Serbian. He was a martial arts teacher in Queens, athletic build, scruffy with a buzzed head, gorgeous skin. There’s a celebrity he looks like, I just can’t put my finger on it. So handsome, smelled a little — had a little B.O. because he was coming from practice so still in his sweats and a T-shirt — and you know, the sweats that kind of cling the right way. His cute little sneakers. He was checking me out, the L was down, so a bunch of people around us —and I noticed him, and then I don’t know what it was. I was feeling my oats and I went over and started talking to him and he had this thick accent and I was like “Where you from?” I’m like “America. Obviously, you’re from somewhere else.” So hot, kind of shy but wouldn’t admit it. When we were on the train, for no reason at all, he had to hold the rod across the ceiling with both hands so his arms were above his head and he kept swaying back and forth in and out of my space. Because of course once the train came, we stood next to each other and it was so awkward because everyone on the train could tell we had just met and we’re flirting.
NOMI: I love that, when there’s an audience.
MARTINE: There was a real audience and there were like other guys that were interested in me just because of the proxy of this other dude. It really felt like I was hitting on him until halfway when I convinced him to get off at my spot and we went to a park — because we were gonna go dancing. He was like “I love the disco”— I was like “I love to disco.” He was like “Let’s find one.” I was like “It’s a Wednesday night.”
NOMI: I love it — a New York moment!
NOMI: I wanted to talk about the concept of chosen family. I feel like there’s this concept that exists in queer culture, gang culture, biker culture, etc. Do you feel you belong to a chosen family that you’ve sort of curated?
MARTINE: Absolutely, but I think I have several families. It’s not like Pose. [laughs]
MARTINE: I’m just letting everyone know the trans narrative is not just like Pose. [laughs]
NOMI: Right, exactly.
MARTINE:I don’t represent a house, I have several groups of friends that are all family in different ways. Some people I turn to to laugh, and there’s certain communities that I know will always lift me up, you know, and release my self-doubt. Everybody has a different experience and hopefully loves themselves enough to be able to share it with others. In a city like New York you gotta build a community for yourself where you feel supported to thrive and survive.
NOMI: Yeah. Totally. I wanted to talk about your solo show where you displayed a 146-page “fashion” magazine called Indigenous Woman. In the letter from the editor, which is also written by you, you posed an interesting question that I wanted to ask back to you. You said, “As artists, how do we tell our own stories?” So how do we tell our own stories?
MARTINE: We have to make our own gags. It’s the same thing I was saying at the beginning. We have to be our own distributors, our own photographers, our own CEOs, you know? Make a magazine. Make your own magazine, gurl!
NOMI: Make a magazine, girl! [laughs] Oh my god, looking at that magazine stresses me out because I was thinking I know you did everything — produced the whole thing entirely on your own. What kind of work went into bringing Indigenous Woman to life?
MARTINE:What kind of work? That’s a crazy question. Every possible kind of work you can imagine. I had to learn InDesign, I had to download fonts, things that had never felt important to be before. I was looking at so many other publications to see what I was drawn to in terms of how they layout text, how you break up a page. It was crazy — I made so much work for myself because I wasn’t just contributing the images, I was creating an umbrella of a brand for other brands to then contribute to. I wanted to project different mental head spaces. I wanted you to feel like legitimate fashion photographers and top models and top stylists and trendy writers all came together for this one issue.
NOMI:I think work like this is so important, to talk about all the things that go into it because for so long as women and marginalized people we’re constantly —there’s this illusion that we have to wait to be discovered, or we have to wait to sort of prove that there’s sitting at the table we want to be a part of. I think we need to push each other and encourage each other to dismantle that narrative and take ownership of our own work and not wait around for someone to give us permission to exist as an artist. Just make your own shit.
MARTINE: Completely and I just saw A Star is Born.
NOMI: Me too, I saw it yesterday.
MARTINE: Oh my God, what’d you think?
NOMI: Is it a good movie? I enjoyed it. I feel like I was judging it because I saw the version with Barbara Streisand.
MARTINE: Oh, I haven’t seen that version — is it better?
NOMI: I mean, yes, it’s gorgeous. It’s flawless.
MARTINE: Maybe I’ll watch that.
NOMI: The pop moment kind of threw me off when she went full electro-pop. Because I thought it was going to stay in this rock singer-songwriter world.
MARTINE: Interesting. I thought it worked because it felt like Gaga’s memoir. And I cried. I thought it was so good.
NOMI: Yeah, I cried!
MARTINE:Very “Do’en it for the fame, fame.” I thought it was so good. But at first, I had trouble getting into Gaga’s character, because I was just like “That’s Gaga — no you are not working for a catering business.” And then I don’t know, I guess her chemistry with what’s his face, I was like “Oh, hot. I believe it now” I see sparks of something. But I guess I brought it up because it’s the same narrative. It’s the same narrative! Like she is stuck until he pulls her out of the mud.
NOMI: Right, it’s like someone has to give her the opportunity, which does exist, but I feel like she should be empowered to take it.
MARTINE: Like cute as a representation of reality, but why not give us something that’s aspirational?
NOMI: Yeah, totally!
MARTINE: I guess in some ways they are like “It is aspirational! She wants to be a star! And she becomes one!” But no, let’s look at the way in which it happens.
NOMI: Right. She’s discovered. It’s that same narrative. Redoing it, brainwashing us again in a way.
MARTINE: What’s the actor’s name?
NOMI: Bradley Cooper.
MARTINE:Oh my god, imagine A Star is Born comes out and the twist is Bradley Cooper plays Gaga’s role and Gaga plays Bradley’s. Gaga is already the famous rock drunk who comes into this drag bar and here’s this straight guy performing “La Vie En Rose” and she’s like “Gag, like, this guy has balls to be performing at a drag club, I’m in love.” And then she’s like “Come to my concert,” and he’s like “No, I have to take care of my mom.” It’d be major! MAJOR.
NOMI: It would be major, oh my god.
MARTINE: And then she props him up to become this star and then she kills herself. It would be such a gag!
NOMI: It would be a gag. I would watch that movie over and over again.
MARTINE: That’s the movie we should make now. Hollywood, write this down. This one’s free.
NOMI: In Indigenous Woman, you make a few statements about white privilege. Like in the CovertGirl ad and the whitewash soap ad. As a biracial person whose father is Guatemalan and whose mother is white, do you feel you experience both ends of a spectrum privilege?
MARTINE: I have passing privilege, but I don’t know about both ends. I guess — if anything my family can feel polarizing because I’m such a mut lingering in between.
NOMI: For me, I often think about on the spectrum of people of color, we are viewed as more privileged because of the color of our skin, because we are sometimes viewed as racially ambiguous. For me, I think it’s harder to acknowledge that privilege in a wider scheme of when I talk about people of color in general and I think in order to dismantle classicism and racism I need to acknowledge that I’m operating from that perspective in certain situations, like “OK, this is not cool, I need to check others and check myself some of the time.” Do you know what I’m saying?
MARTINE: Totally. I believe we all negotiate who we are by trying on labels, and sometimes that means you fumble, you know?
NOMI: Yeah. Well, that’s what I loved about Indigenous Woman, because I felt like you were sort of using privilege as a way to make statements about being marginalized at the same time as you have this gorgeous ad and you make this whole statement of white privilege. It was being sort of used an image that could have been “Look at this gorgeous girl. Of course she’s a supermodel, I wish I could be one,” and at the same time, you’re doing this thing you don’t even realize at first — and then it’s like boom, it sits with you because your mind is right away like — just thinking about this beautiful person you created there.
MARTINE: And then you’re like, wait, is she a white girl? Is she a — ?
NOMI: Then it moves to you and you’re saying “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s white privilege.” It really stayed with me and it really opened my eyes to that conversation. I thought it was well done.
MARTINE: Thanks, Mama!
NOMI: I love you. That’s all the questions I have.
Filmmakers and co-directors Angela Jude and Lo Calsada’s House of Mamis docu-series premieres on INTO today, with our first episode of seven taking you inside the lives of the family members in a Mexico City-based voguing house. Calsada describes the Mamis as “a group of queer folks, bois, femmes, chicxs, womxn and everything in between.”
“I lived in Mexico City for a month shooting everything that inspired me, immersing myself in the queer scene there,” Jude said of discovering the House of Mamis. “While filming a small documentary about a trans woman opera singer with Lo, we ate lunch one evening and she spoke about houses in Mexico City.”
“What drew me to the Mamis is their way of sustaining each other, loving each other and working together, whether it be voicing transphobia in a queer space or taking the midnight train. It is done together,” Calsada says. “House is Mamis is a family that happens to vogue.”
The debut episode invites you home to meet the Mamis, who introduce themselves and explain how they came to be part of this colorful chosen family.
Check back for new episodes every Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. PST.
Nomi Ruiz isn’t trying to cause trouble — most of the time.
Over her now 15-year-career, the performing artist-turned-actress has made international headlines for being herself.
“I think when I see people sort of resist, that it makes me want to do it more,” she says. She’s not being cheeky—although she’s great at that, too — she’s being honest. “I don’t know if that’s a rebellious thing or — I mean it is me.”
Take, for instance, the time she performed on live television in Greece. She’d been living there for several months, writing music, engaging in “Greek soap opera” love affairs, including a short-lived marriage (“I was married less time than Kim Kardashian was. 77 days? I didn’t even make it that far.”), when she was invited to perform with one of the country’s biggest male pop stars, Sakis Rouvas.
“We were singing a duet together on stage and we had this kiss at the end that was unexpected,” Ruiz says. “I was just having fun and then the next day, it was this huge thing — a trans woman kissed this famous guy on TV and the whole country was in a debate. We were in every newspaper and every talk show and it was sort of a scandal.”
Her friend told her not to leave her apartment.
“I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that,’” Ruiz recalls. “But then I was like ‘That is awesome — people needed to be shaken up.”
Ruiz is ultimately happy to be making headlines, even if she doesn’t personally find it so radical for her to have received a peck on stage. But as a Latinx trans woman, she’s long dealt with others politicizing her body and identity, especially gatekeepers of the music industry.
“I’ve been told time and time again — maybe because I’m Latin and a woman of trans experience — they’re like, ‘You need to tone down your sexuality because a lot of people don’t process.’ I’m like ‘What?’ I’m not gonna change because I’m trying to attain a certain level of success and it may be easier to wear a sweatshirt and sneakers. It’s easier for people to absorb something that’s not so femme or female or not supposed to be, I guess?”
Even in a sweatsuit, Nomi Ruiz would exude sex, though — it’s just what comes natural to her. Sitting casually comfortable in a No Sesso denim mini-skirt jumper that hugs at her hips after posing in several different looks throughout the cover shoot, Ruiz isn’t apologizing for being what some have told her comes off as “sexually threatening.”
“I’ve been told I can’t be sexy and be a feminist — ‘You can’t dress that way and be provocative and feed into misogyny’ or something,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I own my body. I own my sexuality. I’m proud of my body. I’m proud of my sex. And I love having sex with men, and that doesn’t affect my stance of empowerment.”
Ruiz says she’s channeling this furor into a new song for a forthcoming solo album, a song called “Feminist.”
“It’s funny when women say that to other women — that’s the extreme opposite of feminism. You’re being misogynist because you’re telling a woman what she can and cannot do,” she says. “For me, the whole point of feminism is we do whatever the fuck we want with whoever we want however we want while wearing whatever we want.”
Ruiz grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a New York neighborhood the Times deemed “not quite trendy” two years ago, but has seen some gentrification since, which means it’s suddenly “cool and still affordable.” A largely Latinx and Asian population calls the neighborhood home, and Ruiz says she was raised on a steady diet of R&B and hip-hop and her Puerto Rican parents. Her mom and brother were her earliest encouragers, she says, as was Anohni, the Grammy-nominated artist who introduced a young Ruiz to Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair after Anohni’s collaboration with the project spawned the hit disco-pop single “Blind” and other tracks that ended up on Hercules’s debut album.
“Over the years, Anohni has really been someone who has been pushing me to elevate myself and also give me an example of an artist who was so sure to their own identity,” Ruiz says. “And their own sound, too — a really unique sound and when I saw that become so successful, it really gave me hope that ‘Oh yeah, believe in yourself — don’t try to conform. Do what you do. Be the realest you can be.’ That’s what people really honor.”
Ruiz’s first big break came touring with Hercules, of which Andy Butler is the only consistent member. She took on Anohni’s vocal parts (Anohni wasn’t interested in touring), becoming recognizable as part of the ensemble that, at the time, also included DJ Kim Ann Foxman, Morgan Wiley, and Andrew Raposo. The press for the self-titled debut was exciting — Ruiz was photographed and interviewed by the likes of Vogue for the first time. Still, it was all-too-clear to Ruiz that she had no ownership over Hercules, and was ultimately disappointed when she returned home from tour broke.
“With Hercules, even though it was successful, it didn’t turn out to be what I hoped it would be,” she says. “It was something that I thought I would get more support, feel more supported and feel more like a family vibe. It was my first real taste of what the industry could be like — ‘Oh, this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.’ But I guess that was a good hard lesson, and it also taught me to once again believe in myself and my own talents because it was so easy to depend on that machine — I’m playing the biggest shows, I’m on every magazine, everything seems great but within my soul, I was feeling bad and not fulfilled as an artist, not what I’d worked so hard for to feel this way. “
Trans and gender nonconforming musicians have fought to elevate their profiles and prove their talent in a more public way, but are often relegated to the background. In some cases, they’re heard and not seen. Earlier this year, Drake sampled Big Freedia in his ode-to-women “Nice for What” but, despite casting several prominent performers for the music video, the New Orleans bounce artist was oddly MIA. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to Big Freedia either — Beyonce employed Freedia’s voice in her “Formation” music video, and later, for her Lemonade tour, but didn’t include her in any of the visual elements. Later, Drake would invite Freedia to appear in his “In My Feelings” video and Beyonce brought Freedia to the stage on a tour stop in New Orleans, but, as Myles Johnson pointed out in his piece “The Ghost of Big Freedia,” “Big Freedia has been continuously used for her voice, words, and energy, but her body is always abstracted from the visual element of these mainstream moments.”
Ruiz has experienced a similar phenomenon, though, in her experience, her invite has been reliant on being a guest of the white cis men accompanying her.
“I don’t know if I was doing it intentionally, but I was realizing I was being accepted because of Hercules,” she says. “Everyone is allowing me now finally into the industry because I was working behind this white boy. I’m like ‘OK, I see what’s going on here.’”
After Hercules, she started her own electro-pop group, Jessica 6, the name inspired partly by a character in the dystopian novel-turned-film Logan’s Run and Prince’s girl groups featuring Apollonia, including Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6. But in the early iteration of that group, she also worked with two other men.
“I was like ‘OK, if I put myself in a place where I’m showing people two guys, it’s easier to absorb than just this sexually threatening trans woman,’” she explains. “I noticed over time that on the features I’ve been on — I’ve worked with a lot of male DJs and producers over my career, labels are quick to flock to those if it’s just a feature, if it’s not really me. It’s easier for them to sort of absorb and promote and market — they feel more comfortable in that way. So I’ve done a lot of that but now I think I’m getting to the point where I’m like ‘You know what? Now it’s time to write my own.’”
On her new Jessica 6 album, The Eliot Sessions, Ruiz is the undisputed focus. The album is an eight-song collection of party-perfect grooves with Ruiz emoting and harmonizing over synthesizers and sensual beats, at times demanding, others pleading. On oceanic opener “The Storm Inside,” she sings about the tsunami threatening to spill out of her: “Can you feel the weather inside me, crashing into the shore/Can you see the storm inside my eyes/Crying out for more?”
“‘The Storm Inside’ is about facing your fear and diving into love which is what I’ve been like — which is not always the best idea, but I’ve always been that way with everything in my life,” Ruiz says. “I try not to let my fear guide me, even with my relationships. I take risks. I’m not afraid to go deep and if it goes left, it can always go right.”
“Get Loaded” is a double-entendre but, instead of focusing on the inebriation one might assume, Ruiz sings about wanting white picket fences, marriage, a baby carriage: “Beautiful girls of the world deserve it all /We have the right to get loaded/We want the good life too!/We have the right to get loaded.”
“There’s a lot of beautiful, heartbreaking love songs on there, too, like there’s one called ‘Drunk On Your Love’ which is really cool — which is about fucking to forget someone, which doesn’t work,” she laments.
“Drunk On Your Love” is a sad plea for her lover to return and replenish her “liquid high.” “Do You Love Me?” has her professing her need for her love “like a rose needs water.” “Dance For Your Love” ends with the upbeat club-fit “toast to life”: “Don’t you want to live your truth and always survive?”
“It’s a really colorful record,” she says. “It goes in a lot of different places.”
I mention to Ruiz that some of her work is an interesting juxtaposition, successfully pairing club with some of the saddest ruminations on the record — and past records as well.
“I think there’s something cool about having music you can move to — it subliminally gets into your system, you know? When you’re dancing and you’re in a club — when we go out we’re trying to escape the day or the pressures of just moving along in society. We go out and listen to music and we’re dancing. The work I do is more escapist. So I think to put these elements of real deep emotion while you’re just sort of letting go helps the spiritual aspect of shaking off the demons in a way.”
Recently, Ruiz has been exploring a new creative pursuit — acting. She appeared on the second episode of FX’s Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C. in September and is starring in the upcoming feature, The Haymaker, from director Nicholas Sasso. Both projects are set in highly-masculine scenarios — Mayans M.C. is about a Latinx biker gang and The Haymaker follows a Muay Thai fighter (Sasso) who meets Ruiz’s character, a trans performer, and becomes her bodyguard, confidant, and lover. While she enjoyed the experiences, Ruiz says she’s been inspired to write roles for herself now — the kind that she wishes had been available for her to see other women like her inhabit when she was coming of age and exploration.
“I wonder what that would be like if I’d grown up seeing images like that on television,” she says. “I would have probably felt a little more normal. I’m hoping that that’s what I can do for other girls.”
Ruiz is always looking out for her sisters. Her friendship with Chilean actress Daniela Vega, star of the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, inspired some international headlines, just like her 2012 moment in Greece. The two met in New York and reconnected when Ruiz went to Chile to play a music festival.
“[Daniela] was like ‘I want to walk the red carpet with you, hand in hand, I want it to be a moment for us,’” Ruiz remembers. “It was really that moment that launched so much — it was another one of these moments where the next day it was in every newspaper and on TV and making history. It’s funny how these things make history just by being present by just being in a space where you’re not supposed to be.”
The excitement spurred anotheridea: a doubleheader with Ruiz and Vega performing together live.
“We’re so strong together you know? It’s such a powerful image to see how people are moved by our connection and seeing us work together and holding hands together,” Ruiz says. “It was really a moment that launched so much.”
Again, there was politicizing and backlash from the conservative right.
“Because of a concert! So intense,” Ruiz says. “We’re like ‘We’re going to call it the Resistance Show. You want to make it political? Fine! It’s called the Resistance Show. You’re only allowed to come if you’re not a bigot and we’re going to change all of the bathrooms to gender neutral, which they’d never done in the country before. We made it a real cool moment for fans there.”
Ruiz speaks about this kind of advocacy proudly but casually. She finds it amusing that some people feel so strongly about her putting on a show, something she’s both born and called to do. Part of that calling is helping to elevate other artists with her record label, Park Side Records. The first is model and multi-media artist Martine, whose debut single, “Origin,” features Ruiz in a collaboration born of their friendship as well as a partnership.
“I think I have a good ear and eye and Martine is pretty bomb,” Ruiz says. “I mean she’s epic and I just want people to see her and hear her the way I have.”
Ruiz says she’s still learning how to run a label because she’s never really worked closely with the “machine” that is that part of the industry, one she says she never trusted. She’s mostly self-released (The Eliot Sessions is on Park Side, too) and so this is the first time she’s utilizing her pull to promote another artist.
“I want artists to feel like their part of a family and trust who they are giving their music to and still own their music,” Ruiz says. “There are so many little nuances in the music industry and record contracts and I think a lot of artists are not even aware of and get trapped in these publishing deals and get caught up in having your face everywhere and performing you don’t really see the cloak of deception that exists in the music industry. I feel like the music industry is even further behind in time than Hollywood — there’s still all this really sleazy stuff going on and that’s something I want to work on with my artists. I want them to really trust me and I want them to feel they’re free to leave if they want to. I just want them to grow and I want the label to give them a little push.”
There’s potential for Vega to also release something on Park Side, though Ruiz can’t confirm anything for her friend just yet.
“It’s been talked about,” she teases. “I’m going to lock her in the studio.”
Vega likely wouldn’t protest — Ruiz has a way of drawing people in, which is maybe why she’s so threatening to opposing forces. She creates an intimacy that’s difficult to emulate; an authenticity that can’t be feigned. Whether it’s through her alter ego as Jessica 6 or a character on screen, she embodies a kind of approachability that invites and inspires everyone around her. It seems that might be intentional, as well as inherent. There’s no separating the art from the artist.
“I feel like when artists — I’ve experienced this with artists who I love that write their own songs—you’re always going to love what they do if they write their own material. I keep that in mind: Whatever I do, I’m writing it, so if I love it, whatever I love my fans will love, so, I feel like that’s what people want from me,” Ruiz says. “They want something authentic, that I really love. They want the truth. They want that realness. I think that’s really my signature — keeping it really real.”