Fashion Can be a Thought: A Conversation with Iman Chanel

We begin the interview with besos at the Colectivo on Humboldt Ave. She is just as beautiful as I remember, I am glad to see her so happy. I admire Iman so much because she just makes it happen. She knew what she wanted before I ever had a chance to help her figure it out.

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First Time Modeling

“I think I was 13 and one of my caseworkers knew the photographer. I was so excited thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is my first shoot!’ We went down by UWM. I began to submit them to agencies and no one hit me back, but I really liked them, and I thought, “I could do something with this.”

Preparing for this interview was not difficult at all. Iman Chanel is one of my former students. I still remember the first time that she showed me her modeling photos. When Iman came to our school, I wanted to be a place, or rather, a person with which this student could feel safe. I wasn’t sure how my other students would react to a transgender peer. We had a sizable Gay population in our school and a few female students who dressed, what would be considered by many, more masculine, but there were no male students who identified as female.

But back to modeling photos, I remember shouting a proud, “Yaaasssss honey!” These weren’t just any pics, eyes bulging out of my head. There were outstanding. These pics were, as she stated, photos that she “could do something with.”

This past Friday, I sat down with Iman & there wasn’t a quiet moment between us. Beautifully, poised, animated, she clarified things that I thought I knew and filled me in on some I did not.


“Everyone thought I was crazy. Especially my dad. He just said, ‘This is crazy. You need a long term goal. It’s impossible. Only one person did it, and that was Rupal.’ Who isn’t technically a model, but ok. There are so many trans models and no one knows.”

In general, social media connects people from cultures more frequently than if we did not have it. As we discussed this, I thought of @FaceBossBeats (IG), who has done Iman’s makeup on various occasions, and who is a master of his craft.

She talked about needing to feel different when makeup gets done. I gestured to my face, as I was rushing this morning and had NO Mascara on, which is tragic because I have no eyelashes. Iman said when she gets her makeup done by this local artist that she “feel like an angel.”

“After my initial shoot [13], I just stopped because I didn’t have the resources. I was just a fashion person on FB. My first big gig was through one of my former teachers, LuLu, who tagged me in a casting call. I was in a group home & I went to them, and told them: Guys, we all have to get in the car and go to this. [All the kids in the group home.] When the time came around, I tried out. All the kids, they were so happy for me & were all clapping while I walked back and forth and, for talent, I sung. I got the email back that I was casted, and that was my first big break. It was for a Lupus Awareness show.”

Group Homes

Iman found herself in group homes during her adolescence as she and her parents’ learned their ways through being trans and having a transgender child. She told me about how hectic life was when she was coming out at home and about the solace that she found at Pathfinders a Youth Shelter on Milwaukee’s Eastside where the maximum stay was two weeks at at time.

“I felt really comfortable there, and they let me be myself. I felt everyday, I could just come out more and more. Every two weeks I was there, but I wound up getting into some trouble there. You know when you get somewhere and you get too comfortable. You start feeling like this is your house and you get to talking crazy and thinking you run the place! They were like: You got to go, and I was like: What do you mean? They called my mom, and she was like  (she used to call me him at the time): Since y’all always want him all the time, you can keep him. They had to call Child Protective Services [CPS].”

“When they [CPS] came, I didn’t know who they were. I was crying and upset, but I knew my mom would pick me up or so I thought. They took me to emergency housing in the hood. They were shooting the day I got there. It was crazy!”

Soon after that, I ended up in the court system with a case from a huge altercation. I had to go to court everyday for something, and I got caught up in being in those sorts of places (group homes) and being in there for years. Until I was 16.”

As you might imagine, living in the system can be hard for any adolescent. That age is filled with moments of trying to discover who you are, which from our discussion Iman felt the distance from her family was necessary to grow into the confident person that she is. The other side of this story of discovery is that Iman was emotionally and sexually abused while living in group homes.

At this point, I chose to share with Iman one of the other moments that I remember most.  One day, she was telling a friend that she was looking for a new school. I wanted to keep her with us. I asked, “Everything’s ok here? No one is messing with you? You are staying here?” And Iman responded, “I never stay anywhere for long.” I told her to stay, but she ended up leaving anyways, and so I followed her.

“I was always moving, group homes to group homes to foster homes to foster homes, and I was living out my suitcase. My case manager would come, and I would have to get my suitcase. I want to get to the point where I am not living out of my suitcase. I’m still living out of it.”

Just before moving to NYC, Iman walked fashion week! As one of her biggest fans, I knew what this would mean for her career. I was a vocal supporter. About fashion and NYC Fashion Week Iman had the following to say:

“Fashion is whatever you make it. Fashion can be the way you dress. Fashion can be a thought. You don’t have to take it too seriously. Without fashion, I probably wouldn’t have made it through what I got through and that’s the honest truth. Fashion is the only reason that I stayed sane. I can go through anything, and I will always remain fabulous. If I based my appearance on how I really felt, honey, I would’ve been like: ugh. I found something in fashion, and it makes me happy.”

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“Honey, that was the best moment. I have so many best moments, but that was one of them. I did not know I was going until week of. I was like what. There was a designer from Madison showing there. Then I ended up getting there. We actually drove there with him and his three signature models.”

“I walked for all these designers because when I got there, we went to castings and they ended up loving me. It was my first time in New York City and it was everything. I didn’t want to leave. The next month, I moved out there.”

We had some discussion about her Snapchat account, how much fun Iman has in the snaps,  working at American Apparel: “Nice discount, it’s my style of clothing. Best district- Chelsey. The Fashion DIstrict. It’s like the LBGT district now.”

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From NYC to MKE

FullSizeRender 15.jpg“I came back for Pride, but when I first moved to NY, it was like that *snaps fingers*, so I didn’t have anywhere to go or stay. Of course I have friends out there, but NY is hard, I didn’t want to burden them or make them stress out. I had nowhere to stay and I was just calling shelters. I finally found one. I called one of my old teachers, when she dropped me off to the bus station, she promised me, “Whatever you need call me.” I told her, “I only need one thing from you, when I get there pay for my uber to wherever I stay.” I didn’t know anything about Harlem at first. She promised me that ride, which I took to a shelter on 125th; it’s for LBGT. I was there for a couple of weeks. They had transition housing, so I began staying there.”

“I didn’t plan and save well. I was taking my money, and I was shopping. I was living and enjoying it. I felt like I’m here and I was in a place where I could stay for free. They said I could stay here for a year, but I knew it was a lie because I lived in the system so long. I knew that, although, this is something that you put yourself in, and you can take yourself out of, this is just like the group home, you’ll get yourself in trouble and you’ll leave. I was there for a several months, and then I was over it. I didn’t want to be there. I came all the way to NYC not to feel like I’m back in the group home, if that’s the case then, I could be back in Milwaukee.”

“I wound up leaving the transition housing, and, for a whole week, I ended up sleeping on the train. My friends were mad at me because I didn’t tell them. When we spoke about it, I told them, “You guys are going through your own situations.” I couldn’t find another job at all. I was working one job, and I was modeling, but I needed one more job to survive to get my own room. It’s so expensive. I talked to my manager, I said, “Ok. I don’t want to leave, but I’m going to have to go back to Milwaukee to figure something out. She said when I come back I can get my job back. I had to figure something out because I’m tired of sleeping on the train, and being worn out. I took my last little check, and I left all my stuff at a friend’s house in NY. I flew back around Pridefest time in Milwaukee. I live and I learn. I should’ve done better with saving. I was there almost seven months and that was a long time for me not to be saving, but it was the heat of the moment, my first time in NY. I wanted to buy everything. I wanted to be fashionable, but one thing, living in NY, you don’t have to have money to be fashionable. I had to learn that.”

“I have always told people, I’d rather struggle in a place I want to be, than struggle in a place that I don’t want to be.”

Sitting listening to Iman, I am reassured by her continuous smile and laughter, the knowledge that she finds every experience as a lesson to be learned. The past hardships IMG_8240that she’s faced weren’t enough to stop her before, and nothing finding it’s way to her will either. She’s on her way back to New York in a few weeks, and I wish her well. I’ll be watching, and cheering her on via social media.

“Moving forward, I just want to have a place to unpack my suitcase, and a room of my own. I’m not asking for a mansion. I’m not even asking for a house. I just want my own little closet and a room.”

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You can find Iman Chanel on IG @_imanchanel!