photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

When transgender models started walking the runways it was a groundbreaking moment for the fashion community. Just a few years ago seeing a transgender woman model for high fashion brands would have been inconceivable. "When I was growing up you never heard of transgender women modeling or being part of any fashion campaigns," says model Gisele Alicea. Despite the many challenges she's faced, this Puerto Rican–Dominican has managed to make her mark in an industry that didn't always accept women who looked like her and she's doing it while gracefully redefining the boundaries of beauty.

Alicea grew up in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, New York City with her single mom and her three sisters. At a young age, Alicea recognized she wasn't like other little boys. She knew she was gay and had a unique feminine energy that set her apart. "I started transitioning at 17 by taking hormone therapy," she says. "It was difficult, it was fun, it was amazing and it was liberating. I felt like I was finally able to express myself the way that I wanted to express myself." But dealing with the bullying that came with transitioning to a trans woman wasn't easy.

"Boy did I go through a lot," she says. “Not only did I go through a lot with the straight community but I also went through a lot with the gay and trans community." She faced bullying from all sides, even from other trans women. Alicea and the boyfriends who supported her were constantly harassed.

"It was a competition thing. People used to just come up to me and say that I looked horrible. That I wasn't cute. But I never believed them because when I walked down the street the attention I got was the complete opposite."

The support and blessings from her loving mother combined with her admirable bravery kept Alicea strong during this pivotal time. "My mother never threw me out into the streets," she says. "She actually praised me. That helped me a lot because my mother would always say, 'You're so beautiful. Don't worry about what others say about you. They're just jealous.'"
photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

In person, Alicea is gorgeous. Her features are soft, her cheekbones perfectly defined, and her 5'11 figure is long, lean, and perfectly toned. Those stunning looks, contagious confidence, and energetic spirit made her the perfect fit for the modeling world and in 2000, Alicea was discovered by a scouting agent name Naomi McDonald.

"She stopped me and asked me if I was a model and I told her no," she says. "She wanted to shoot me but I let her know immediately that I was transgender. She was like, 'I'll shoot you anyway.'" It was around that same time that Alicea got involved with The House of Extravaganza, the most recognized house in the New York City's underground ballroom scene (a subculture in the LGBT scene where men and women dress in drag and compete for prizes). "It was an environment where there were other trans women that were beautiful and praised, so I felt comfortable there."
photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

Though she's not yet signed with an agency, Alicea has continued to model and even landed a mega-mainstream gig in 2014 for Barney's New York Brothers Sisters Sons and Daughters campaign that included 16 other transgender models shot by iconic photographer Bruce Weber. Alicea's success demonstrates the strides being made in the fashion industry today when it comes to gender fluidity. But she'll be the first to say we still have a long way to go. “I would like to see more transgender people doing just regular campaigns that don't necessarily highlight that person as transgender. I think it's important to have every kind of model in the fashion industry to represent all types of beauty."

Alicea  just wants everyone to be accepted for who they are. "Everyone is beautiful in their own way," says Alicea. “Nobody considered me a model before. It's up to you to be comfortable with yourself and love you for who you are."

photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala