Transgender Model Mimi Tao On Buddhism, Beauty Standards And Self-Acceptance

By Chong Seow Wei

The first transgender model to appear on US reality TV show Project Runway, Mimi Tao describes how six years as a monk made her who she is today

Tatler Asia

In 2019, Mimi Tao made history when she became the first transgender model to appear on the American reality TV show Project Runway.

“It was a really positive experience and I received a lot of support from the people around me—from the designers on the show to the crew working on set,” she recalls. But she also reveals that it took three years of auditioning before she was selected for the show. 

“Each time I failed the audition my friends and modelling agency would dissuade me from trying again. But I continued to go every year until I made it,” says the 27-year-old Thai native. Some may call this stubbornness, but she prefers to call it optimism. “It’s my personality to keep trying until I get what I want.”

At the same time, she was fighting for a cause greater than her. “I think I was also driven by the fact that it wasn’t usual for a transgender person to be on a popular TV show like Project Runway,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself that if I go for the auditions and the judges don’t like me, they’ll at least be aware that I exist. I think that’s better than staying at home and waiting for opportunities to fall on my lap, or for other people to speak up on my behalf.”

Tao says her positive outlook on life is very much a result of the time she spent at temple school in Thailand. Having grown up living near temples, she developed an early interest in Buddhism and the monastic life. At 11 years old, she chose to join the monastery and was ordained as a monk after six months.

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She left the monastery six years later, when she decided to work in order to support her family. By this point, she says she had had the time to discover who she was and make peace with herself. 

“My years as a monk has made me who I am today. In Buddhism, we’re taught that nothing lasts forever, so we must learn to let go, especially of negative feelings. This showed me that if I didn’t accept myself first, I can’t expect others to accept me.”

With renewed confidence in herself, Tao was ready to take on the world. A TV documentary about Thai supermodel Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha that she came across while working at the Calypso Cabaret Show sparked her interest in modelling. “[Phetkanha]’s story was what touched me and made me want to become a model. She came from a poor family and, like me, had tanned skin, high cheekbones and a squarish face—all of which weren’t features that Thai people would traditionally consider beautiful—yet she was still able to make it and become so famous. That’s when I decided I wanted to be like her, and I set out looking for her, hoping that she would teach me to model.”

The two did eventually meet and after some persuasion, Phetkanha agreed to become Tao’s mentor, teaching her how to model and letting her join her at events until she was ready to begin her own journey.

Tao’s early modelling days saw several failed attempts to break into the Thai and Singapore markets, but each time she faced a setback, she says she would recall a piece of advice that Phetkanha had given her for strength to keep going: “She once told me that if I wanted to be like her, to succeed, I had to work harder than everyone else because I was different. Even now, when I think about what she told me, I feel energised.”

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Some people might think that being different is a weakness, but I choose to see it in a positive light and gain motivation from it
Mimi Tao

For Tao, being different is something to embrace. “Some people might think that being different is a weakness, but I choose to see it in a positive light and gain motivation from it.”     

Since her big break on Project Runway, she has gone on to walk for numerous brands at New York Fashion Week and signed with all-transgender agency Slay Model Management in Los Angeles. 

Her mission today is to help make the fashion industry more inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly. In addition to making herself seen in magazine pages and on fashion runways, she also uses her influence to spread awareness about transgender issues and discrimination to her 30,000-plus followers on Instagram

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but what we can do right now is to educate and also support each other, especially when it comes to speaking out together about an important issue.”

Tackling the subject of tokenism in the industry, Tao says, “I’m conscious of the fact that sometimes people might want to hire me to take advantage of my transgender image, and not because they truly accept me for who I am. But I believe that what is not authentic or real will eventually be revealed one day. And I believe in karma as well; if you do good, good will come to you, and if you do bad, bad will come to you.” 

For now, Tao is embracing the opportunities she gets to pave the way for other transgender people to make it in fashion. In the near future, she also hopes to try her hand at acting. In the long-run, however, she dreams of returning to a simpler, more peaceful life away from the city; one, she says, that might not be too different from her life as a monk.

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