“Let me pick your brain” is a played out expression, but I like it. It’s recognition that questions can be the keys we turn in another’s mind to unlock their precious perspectives. This is how I felt when I spoke with 24-year old actor, model, and activist Ava Grey. As she shared how she broke into the modeling and acting worlds, a journey rife with challenges for a trans woman of color, it felt like briefly getting to see what is behind her mind’s door. As she opened up, I asked what she imagined for herself as a child, what excites her, what makes her the most proud. She didn’t have to dig too hard—her resume is robust.
Ava’s acting credits include the Golden Globe-nominated Pose and the forthcoming film, Run, Sweetheart, Run; she has walked for Nike, Adidas, and Willy Chavarria, shot with Gucci and GQ, been featured in OUT Magazine, Playboy, and Vogue. But Ava’s interests extend beyond her own—she’s committed to improving and celebrating trans visibility. She’ll speak this summer at the Trans Wellness Conference and is in conversation with GLAAD to organize educational workshops in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Toward the end of our conversation, when I asked Ava when she feels the most powerful, she paused for a good minute, and then said: “I don’t feel weak anymore. I had to truly evaluate my life and my womanhood and own it. After coming to that with confidence, I feel strong now.”
That strength is the spine of her story, a story with legs—she is clearly on her way. To celebrate this pivotal moment, this cusp between dreams and their fulfillment, Man Repeller styled Ava in an array of stop-and-stare shapes and colors, outfits that embody the power of being seen. Below, in addition to the resulting editorial, her as-told-to story.
On Escaping to New York
This was all in my dreams: Being female, being an entertainer, being on a platform where I can communicate and spread the word.
I remember being six years old watching J Lo and Aaliyah, telling my family, “That is going to be me! I’m going to dance like her, move like her, sing like her, look like her.” In my mind that was how I was going to develop. They said, “That’s not what is going to happen.” It was devastating at that point. But it still didn’t change my view of how I was going to grow up.
I moved to New York at 18. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and had been living in different households where it was much more about being presentable than being free or honest. If you were weird or different, it didn’t work. To me, New York meant freedom. So when I graduated high school, I got on the Megabus and just left. I didn’t know anyone here, I just knew I had to try to make it work. I got on hormones… and that’s what it was.
Being queer, it can feel like you walk outside of everything, like you are not included in society. When the Pose team contacted me they were saying, this show is going to change that. And they were employing people of trans experience, people who have statistically higher amounts of homelessness.
I was homeless before Pose aired. It was really rough, bathing in random clinics, sleeping in train stations. While I knew I wanted to be an entertainer, I also knew I had to find more realistic jobs to sustain living and eating. I started working at Starbucks. When a photo shoot opportunity came, I gave up the job to pursue that. I eventually became homeless, but I was still trying to find photo gigs during that time. I was so inspired by Dior, 80s and 90s Chanel, Virgil Abloh—the androgyny, that is what I was trying to navigate toward.
On Being Outed
Willy Chavarria gave me my very first runway show during fashion week. He did not know I was trans at first, but when it was brought up, he just embraced me. He made sure I was highlighted, encouraged, and supported. I was not out when I first entered the industry because I was incredibly scared. I was outed by another model. That was really painful, but it actually gave me the strength and courage to reevaluate and ask myself, Why am I scared? Why am I seeing being trans as wrong and trying to hide it? It pushed me to be vocal, not just present, and to actually share my story. But I got a lot of backlash, lost a lot of contacts—other models and photographers.
Before Pose, I was a manager at Chipotle and I was also outed there by my store manager. I thought I was going to be fired or the staff wasn’t going to like me anymore and would taunt me. But it was the opposite. The whole staff came up to me and told me how wrong they felt it was that I was outed, that they fully supported me and my dreams, and wanted me to pursue a life in the entertainment industry.
Everyone at that store came from poverty, from deep in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and they were coming together for me. They were saying, “We know your personality, that is what we love, and we want to stand beside you.” That’s when I came to know that being trans is not a burden.
I have noticed that queer people will hold seminars in queer-safe spaces, which is beautiful for us to gain knowledge inside our own communities. But I see a lack of desire to go out to communities that are under-privileged and have less knowledge about queer people. We need to have seminars in Brownsville, not just Soho. The people who are dying are black queer women. We need to be talking in the communities where these women are dying. We can’t shut other communities out and expect them to just understand. Not everyone wants to answer questions, I understand that. But offer a resource. I am excited when I give a talk because I get to see people’s faces change, how their minds are working.
On Manifesting Progress
Through my production company, La Palindrome, I want to tell the truth. I want to partner with women of color and women of trans experience. A lot of the time our stories get told but then we don’t get any of the benefits. We get opportunities, but our bills still won’t be paid. I want to make sure everyone who has a hand in the project gets paid.
My vision is clear. I want to have a cultural imprint, I want to spread knowledge. I don’t want to just play trans characters. I want to play a pregnant woman, a woman with ovarian cancer. I didn’t study being a trans actress. I am an actress of trans experience. Being trans is not a separate part of the human condition. It is not a fantasy. It is a part of life. I want to get to a place where we understand that in some way we are all struggling, we are all navigating, we are all trying to survive.
I know how to get there—by talking to each other. You might not understand everything about my experience, but what you can relate to is my struggle and my success. That’s what we all know, we all know the process. We are trying to work hard, better ourselves, and provide for our families. That’s what I mean by normalizing people of trans experience. I want to put that at the forefront: We are the same, baby. Let’s stop hurting each other. Let’s understand we are all trying to make it.