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“The Good, The Bad, The Fabulosity, The Ugliness, The Absurdity”: Geena Rocero on Her New Memoir, ‘Horse Barbie’


The mordant irony of her location is not lost on Geena Rocero. When Vanity Fair reaches her by phone, the filmmaker, model, and activist is perched in a guest room on a Virgin Voyages cruise ship idling in the port of Miami, preparing to set sail for the Bahamas; she’s there for the Summit at Sea conference, at which she’ll give a talk about her debut memoir, Horse Barbie, out next week from The Dial Press. But in Florida, in 2023, “Can I get off this ship and scream, I’m a proud trans woman speaking at a convention here?” says Rocero. “Maybe a different story.”

Horse Barbie details Rocero’s childhood and teen years spent with her family in Makati, a city in the Philippines, her subsequent move to San Francisco, and eventually a life modeling in New York. Raised on Hollywood exports and the Catholic Church, Rocero traces major moments of self-discovery to these two juggernauts: as a hand interpreter in the church choir at age 10—a child chosen to stand before the congregation and perform graceful hand movements in sync with the music—Rocero writes of having felt a sudden bolt of understanding. “I am a child, I am Catholic, and I am femme.” 

Rocero was 15 years old when she started modeling in trans pageants, “a national sport” of the Philippines tied to religious celebrations, she writes, and an “amalgamation built through centuries of war and conquest”: pre-colonial heritage, which honored gender-fluid identities; the Spanish institution of Catholic festivals; and American pageant culture. At her first show, Rocero met a young woman named Tigerlily who became her trans mother and gave her the moniker Horse Barbie, a reclamation of the insults hurled by teasing onlookers who called her appearance horsey. It was Tigerlily, too, who introduced her to the story of the woman who would become her Hollywood idol: Caroline Cossey, also known as Tula, who worked as a model throughout the 1970s. When Cossey appeared in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, the British tabloids outed her as trans, an experience that drove her to suicidal ideation. “She was communicated in our community as, Look at this girl who has made it,” Rocero says. “And then the culture and media were not ready for her, and this is what they did to her”—a “complicated model to have.” 

In 2001, following her father’s death, Rocero moved with her mother to San Francisco, a place she had come to know through films like Vertigo and Basic Instinct. After living openly in her trans identity for years, Rocero became closeted again. “Trans people in the Philippines are culturally visible, but not politically recognized,” she says. “And then when I moved to America, it was the other way around. At the time I was politically recognized—I was able to change my name and gender on my legal documents—but there was no mainstream cultural visibility.” 

It’s no surprise, she says, that one of her longtime favorite film genres is the spy thriller. (Particular current favorites are the French series The Bureau, starring Mathieu Kassovitz, and Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman.) When she eventually moved to New York and began working as “a stealth fashion model,” Rocero felt like a spy. “I felt like I was in a covert operation for eight years where I had to protect my cover. I had to be so hypervigilant,” she says. “At the same time, my cover is about being sexy. I have to be sensual. I have to be that girl.” 

Rocero writes with openness and humor (“I’m Filipino,” she says, “everything is funny!”) about exceedingly personal experiences, from undergoing her gender confirmation surgery, to being the focus of a date’s anger after telling him that she’s trans, to her panic while on set, wondering if she’ll be found out. She describes going to a San Francisco sex club called Power Exchange, “the Catholic guilt…surging up,” and praying for orgasms, and overcoming shame. (Rocero no longer subscribes to any organized religion. Nature is her spirituality now—hiking to camp “six hours away from the parking lot, 10,000 feet high.”) The book contains, she says, “the good, the bad, the fabulosity, the ugliness, the absurdity, all of that madness.” Accessing her sensuality after years of repression was a kind of ultimate freedom. Writing the book “in the freest way that I could, in the details that only I could, maybe it will give freedom to somebody else.”

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