Md. native Isis King steps into new reality show 'Strut'

Isis King returns. The transgender 'ANTM' alum appears on reality-show "Strut" on Oxygen starting Tuesday.

Isis King was all but done with reality shows after her appearance on "America's Next Top Model: All Stars."

The Prince George's County native was tired of the social media attacks telling her to die, threatening to kill her or saying she would burn in hell because of her transgender identity.

She wanted to focus on other passions: creating art, designing clothes and acting.

But then "Strut" came along. The reality show on Oxygen, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday and is executive-produced by Whoopi Goldberg's One Hoe Productions and 44 Blue Productions, follows the lives of a group of transgender models who are signed to Slay Model Management, a Los Angeles-based agency promoting itself as the first to exclusively represent transgender talent.

Initially, she resisted going on the show.

"I didn't know if I would want to do a show based on me being trans," said King, who had been focusing on her acting — last year, she appeared on episodes of "The Bold and the Beautiful" soap opera.

But "Strut" was different. King said she quickly discovered that the show was more about the stories of the transgender models and less about their identities.

"This is a dreamers' show," said Cecilio Asuncion, director of scouting and development for Slay Model Management. "These women are models first and trans folks second."

Telling the stories about the realities of modeling drew King to the project.

The producers have "warm hearts, and their vision for helping us is so genuine," she said. "I thought it would be a missed opportunity. And people have wondered what I've been up to. My 'Top Model' fans can see me do more."

The trailblazing King — the first transgender model to become a finalist on "America's Next Top Model" who was later named to an "All Stars" season — was a natural choice for the show, Asuncion said.

"Isis being one of the first people in media was very important," he said. "Her appearance on 'Top Model' changed the landscape."

A lot has changed since King appeared in 2008 on "America's Next Top Model" and in 2011 when she appeared on the "All Stars" season.

Television shows like the critically acclaimed "Transparent" and personalities such as Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner have made the transgender community more visible than ever.

King says she believes she can further the cause and bring a different perspective than, for instance, Jenner does.

"For me, I've had to accept the fact that I came onto the TV when nobody understood," she said. "I was a homeless girl who was thrown into the spotlight. … It was honestly a different time. I was a little black girl. Caitlyn is a woman of privilege. She comes from the extreme Kardashian/Jenner empire. It's just different."

Jenner has at time made statements that have roiled the trans community. Witnessing that solidified King's desire to return to a national platform like reality television.

"It reminded me that I needed to sit up straight and come back out," she said. "My story was so impactful. I want to continue to touch the younger generation of kids who look up to me."

She added: "I'm a 30-year-old woman now. I have a voice. I have an opinion. [The audience] will see that growth. I've gone from a young woman to a grown woman."

Bethann Hardison welcomes transgender models among the fashion industry ranks.

Hardison, a casting director and supermodel during the 1970s, has been a leading voice in urging more diversity among models. And while her efforts have been focused on ethnic diversity, she likes the energy and flair that transgender models bring to the catwalk.

Ultimately, the decision to use transgender models in shows and in ad campaigns depends on what the client wants, she said.

"When it comes down to transgender: Yay, team! It's a great thing," she said. "You still have to have the prerequisite of offering what [clients] want. Do they fit the criteria? It's not what sex you were and what sex you are, it's who you are at the end of the day and what you look like."

Asuncion thinks his models have the right stuff.

"They are just as good as cis gender models," he said, using the term used to describe people who identify with their biological sex. "If they can do the job, let them do the job. I'm not trying to change the landscape of fashion. We just want fair real estate."

The show will have a healthy dose of reality-show drama, he said.

"When you put a group of very attractive people together, there will be some drama. There's light shade," Asuncion said.

Is King wrapped up in that drama?

"You're going to have to watch," he said.

King promises the usual ingredients that make for reality-show magic will be there.

"You'll see love, shade and maybe a hookup. But not from me," said King, adding that she's been celibate for the past year. "You'll see triumph. You'll see tears. You'll see family. You'll see life from all of us.

"The underlying message of this show is that we're all human. No matter which one of us you relate to, you'll relate to one of us. You'll find something in one of us that you can relate to. You'll find the normality of us."

Another Maryland native, designer Stevie Boi, will appear on several episodes as a mentor-type for the cast.

"It's extremely important to have trans models in fashion," said Boi, born Steven Cordell Strawder, who is primarily known for his flashy eyewear designs and bold sense of style. "Trans people have been in our lives for a very long time. Now we are just realizing it."

Boi said he has always featured transgender models in his projects and fashion shows.

Meanwhile, King has her eyes set on life beyond New York Fashion Week.

"I've been invited to walk for a designer in Milan," said King, who recently moved from New York City to Los Angeles. "I just need to make sure the dates work."

And then there's the important matter of her hair.

"I can't decide whether I want a pixie cut or a Naomi Campbell weave," she said with a laugh. "I love my Naomi Campbell weave."

Regardless of hair length, she said, we haven't seen the last of King.

"'Top Model' was just the beginning of my career. Not the end."

johnjwilliams@baltsun.com

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On TV

"Strut" premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Oxygen.

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