Redefining gender

Published 12:01 pm Sunday, November 24, 2013


Elliott Sailors.

For being a high-fashion model, Elliott Sailors can’t remember how she got into modeling.

The way her father tells it, Sailors wanted to be a star model at an early age, and so her father took her to a model search when she was 10 years old. She didn’t get any modeling jobs then, but the former Austin resident now has more opportunities than most after the New York Post wrote in October about her decision to model menswear, even though she is a married, straight woman.

That story sparked a huge discussion on gender roles in fashion and what it means to model, and the 31-year-old model is drawing massive amounts of attention for her ambiguous job choices and the potential repercussions it could have on the way society views gender.

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“I definitely never thought that it would become such a public conversation,” Sailors said.

Elliott Sailors modeling mens clohes. Photo provided by Trew Productions

Elliott Sailors modeling mens clohes. Photo provided by Trew Productions

Sailors began her modeling aspirations at beauty pageants in Tucson, Ariz., before she moved to Austin with her family in 1997. She went to Austin High School for three years and graduated in 2000 before moving back to Arizona to attend college.

Yet she still made her mark here, as she became Miss Austin in 2000 before competing at the Miss Minnesota pageant. Sailors said she specifically chose to compete in the Miss America system for its emphasis on academics and volunteerism, as opposed to just the pageant portion of the contest. In addition, she modeled in the Twin Cities area during her high school years, unknowingly practicing for her future profession.

Sailors didn’t intend to pursue modeling at first after high school. She majored in vocal performance and opera while at the University of Arizona, but she left after a year.

“It was during that year, that I was found by a model scout in Tucson, who later took me to New York,” Sailors said.

From 2001 on, Sailors pursued modeling full time and has accomplished much in the fashion industry. She was signed to the women’s division of prestigious agency Ford Models and has appeared in numerous publications — she even starred in a campaign for Bacardi.

Yet a model’s career tends to be short, and Sailors found fewer modeling jobs as she approached her 30s. The work she found was more commercial in nature, and Sailors wanted to continue working in artistic projects.

She saw a photo of Andre Pejic, another model who decided to work in menswear, in 2011 and first got the idea to model another gender. Unlike Pejic and several notable models who decided to portray the opposite gender, however, Sailors is comfortably heterosexual.

“Inside of fashion, androgeny is not new, but at the same time it’s not common to see models working regularly to model the opposite gender,” Sailors said. “But it was never meant as an actual serious career move.”

Sailors tested the waters in October 2012 when she cut short her long blond hair. She soon found jobs modeling suits and other male fashion garb.

Yet despite her success, Sailors was never in the media spotlight until recently, about a year after she started to portray men. That changed as soon as people read about Sailors, and the interviews started to pour in.

Sailors has since appeared all over the media landscape, from interviews in Elle magazine and Vogue to an appearance on “The Today Show” to discuss gender in the workplace. Many writers have focused on her choice to present as male despite the fact she is straight, and she has largely received praise for her business decision.

“It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response,” she said. “I’ve only had people be in favor of it.”

That hasn’t come without its criticisms, however. Sailors has mentioned more than once how people assume she and her husband are a gay couple, based on her hairstyle and the way she normally dresses. Sailors has said numerous times that she doesn’t usually wear dresses, skirts and other such clothing, which has led some people to view her and husband, Adam Santos-Coy, as gay. Furthermore, a Salon article called Sailors out for usurping a typically transgender look despite the fact that she is straight.

Sailors accepts the media scrutiny as necessary, and despite all the attention placed on her (though she hasn’t found any articles invasive, she said there’s “a lot of things on the Internet about me that aren’t true,”) she continues to play down her business decision as a simple career move.

“A lot of people confuse conversations about gender and sexuality,” Sailors said.

Still, Sailors recognizes her choice has made an impact on gender roles, and what gender means in a creative sphere. She sees it as a necessary conversation, and a step in the right direction.

“It’s really a conversation about creativity, acceptance and open-mindedness in general,” she said.

Sailors isn’t planning to slow down modeling, and she still models womenswear as well. She left Ford earlier this year, and she’s currently in talks with top modeling agencies around the world to work in fashion for both genders. She plans on only signing with one agency in the end, and said she expects to sign with an agency soon. She isn’t ruling out a return to the stage as well, as she still wants to do musical theater.

Yet all the attention means she meets at least one person a day who recognizes her. Men and women have walked up to Sailors to thank her for bringing attention to the way we view gender roles, and she hears from various people who tell her they read about her in international publications. One man said he recognized her from a national newspaper in Italy, while a Japanese woman told Sailors she saw her on the news in Japan.

“It’s just amazing that people around the world are having a conversation and being inspired by this, not just in the U.S.,” Sailors said.