Metro Weekly

Trans model Isis King blazes a trail from fashion to acting

"With Love" star Isis King opens up about her acting career, her trans activism, and why dating isn't a high priority

Isis King -- Photo: Diana Ragland
Isis King — Photo: Diana Ragland

Isis King is going places — literally. At the moment she’s off to shoot a project as we wrap up a candid conversation encompassing far more than just her latest acting role. “The hustle never stops,” she says, adding that she’s grateful to keep moving with the momentum she’s built steadily since breaking out a decade ago as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, the first transgender model to compete on the show. Hailed as a pioneer, King might have finished the season in tenth place, but she gained the confidence to believe that “anything is possible.”

She brought that moxie to a second stint catwalking for prizes on ANTM: All-Stars, before turning her focus to acting. King still slays on the occasional fashion runway — like walking in Rihanna’s first Savage X Fenty fashion show — but she’s more likely these days to be seen slaying supporting roles on The L Word: Generation Q and in Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning mini-series When They See Us. As medical resident Sol Perez on Amazon’s upcoming romantic comedy series With Love, King is set for her most demanding and high profile role to date. Life keeps progressing in the right direction, but it’s been a long road.

“It’s been 14 years,” she says. “People always assume it’s always been easy-breezy. It’s like, ‘No. Actually, the last few years, it’s finally starting to happen for me.’ Before that, I was just keeping my head afloat, and staying positive.” Confessing that she’s also worked on herself in therapy, King appears at peace with her work-life balance, a quality she shares with her With Love character Sol.

“This is the first time I ever read a character that was so similar to me. Even to the point of trying to give someone a chance, and friends trying to push me to date, and just focusing on career, and family, and my friends — that is me.”

Created and executive produced by Gloria Calderón Kellett, who was also behind the recent One Day at a Time reboot, With Love explores the lives and loves of a large, tight-knit Latino family, including queer cousins Sol and Jorge, Jr., played by Ugly Betty and Hacks fave Mark Indelicato. King credits the astute characterizations to the diverse writers’ room Kellett assembled.

“You could tell that someone queer was in the writers’ room,” says King. “It just felt honest and real. I think that made it so familiar for me. Some of the conversations I had with my friends on the show are real conversations I’ve had with my friends. Like, ‘Bitch, everybody’s not going to like you. Stop focusing on that.’ I was reading that, and at the time, I was literally going through that when we were about to film it. I was like, ‘How do they know my life like this?’ I’ve never seen that. It’s just crazy.”

The sharp perspective applies to all the characters, King notes, regardless of orientation, from the younger generation to the family’s groovy grandma, played by Renee Victor.

“Everyone has a perspective,” King says. “Even if you’re not trans, or not queer, there’s something in the show for everybody. There’s a character that you will relate to in the show, no matter what your perspective is going in.”

With Love
Isis King in With Love

METRO WEEKLY: Coming out stories are important and nice, but something refreshing about this show is that the queer characters are already living their queer lives. How psyched were you to play a love story that is not a coming out story?

ISIS KING: It’s refreshing, to be honest. With Sol, the family already accepts them. They have a booming career. They have amazing friends. They’re possibly open to love, with a little nudging. It’s refreshing, because it’s so similar to me. In your everyday life, it’s not a coming out episode every single day. So it’s like, what happens after that? We barely ever get to that point. It’s nice because there is no trauma related to the character on the show. I think it’s just nice and refreshing, and also good for trans and non-binary people to see that we deserve these type of storylines, too. It’s not a forced storyline. It’s just a person who is just living their life.

And even the conflict that comes up with Sol, it’s not about Sol and being trans. It’s refreshing to know that Sol is the one that has their shit together.

You never see that. A trans person is always disheveled, or lost, or whatever. Nope. Sol is the one that has their shit together, and that’s it. That’s okay. That’s what we deserve.

It’s okay to have the crazy, chaotic stories, but it’s nice to finally see a strong story that’s in the complete opposite direction, because I’ve never had a character I related so much to at this phase in my life — even with being nervous to date, down to that aspect. Sol is such a well-rounded character. It has nothing to do with them being trans.

MW: What we do see is that Sol is loved and accepted by their family, specifically a religious Latino family. Do you imagine that Sol, or their family, struggled to reach that point?

KING: I feel that because Sol’s parents passed away years before, and that’s what pushed Sol to be an oncologist, they grew up, in my mind, away from the family. So, the family had time to deal with it. By the time Sol is here with the family, they already accept them.

I didn’t really think about that other aspect, because I have religious people in my family who love and accept me. Me and my grandmother go to church every weekend. She calls me by my middle name, and she loves me. Even if it was a conflict, I didn’t know about it from her, which I was surprised about. So, I just looked at it like they were fine. They are a really, really close-knit, loving family. Just as much as there are families who disown or can’t accept a trans person, there should be just as many families who are, “Oh, okay. We get it,” and it’s okay. I think they just love each other so much that it’s okay.

Also, Sol transitioned a little later. You go to school. You get your education, which is very on-par with me. I went to college first. Then I did it. So, I think it’s also different when you’re an adult, and they’re like, “Okay.” Sometimes people have conflicts when the person is younger. “Are you sure?” “Yes. I’m sure.” But as an adult, it’s like, “This is me. Boom. Accept it or not. I don’t need your financial help. I don’t need anything. Are you going to accept me?” When you leave it there, it makes it easier to either “yes” or clean break. I believe that the family is so strong, it was like, “Okay.” Then you move on. You shouldn’t be stuck. I feel like family, either you can deal with it or you can’t. But you’re not really lingering for too long, at least in my eyes, you shouldn’t. Because it’s like, “This is my life to live.” So if it’s a conflict, or an issue, it’s like, “I don’t have to be around. Would you rather not see me?” It’s different rules when you’re strong enough to take care of yourself, in life in general, versus someone thinking they have the power over you to put you out.

In my head, that’s how it went. The family is so strong, so loving, so supporting, and because Sol did it later, it’s like, “Okay. Are you going to love me? Yes? Okay. So, let’s keep moving.” You just really see the love. There’s a part in it with the grandparents that I love, that I’m obsessed with. It’s just so warm. They had so much warmth on set. It was just really fun and refreshing to see, because I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a trans person being loved and getting advice from their grandparents. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.

MW: When Sol’s abuela is asked about how she reconciles her LGBTQ acceptance with her faith, she says that she believes that God is for everyone. I’m not religious, but that sounds like solid wisdom to me.

KING: I completely agree. Whether you believe in the universe, or karma, or Buddha, whatever you call that thing that just lights you up, that just helps you to be a great person, for me, it’s all good. I just think that the simple laws of being a good person and karma just really push you in the right direction. For me, when she said that, even though I know it was acting, hearing those words from the matriarch, it always just touches you differently than someone else. You have more wisdom than any of us, and for you to say that, I know it, but you just confirmed it in a way that I didn’t know I needed. It’s just so beautiful. That saying made me emotional. It’s an emotional saying. It was such a positive and warm scene.

Isis -- Photo: Diana Ragland
Isis King — Photo: Diana Ragland

MW: The tone of the show is loving and sweet, even when the characters are struggling. Do you attribute that to your showrunner, Gloria Calderón Kellett? Is it the writing and direction? Is it the collective chemistry?

KING: Yes. All of it. Gloria — I said recently that I worked with Ava [DuVernay] on When They See Us, and the environment there, in front of and behind the scenes, was just so breathtakingly amazing. I was like, “Wow. I really lucked out. I don’t know if I’m going to get this again.” Then Gloria stepped in, and Gloria just really creates a very warm environment, where it’s honest, and hopeful, and positive. It goes to casting but it also goes behind the scenes. We had four directors who were all women, who were all equally beautiful and amazing.

So, it really was in front of the camera, the cast really had good chemistry, but also, behind the scenes, everyone was just amazing. Even the writer’s room, it was very diverse. All the way around, I think it definitely started with the leader, and Gloria knew exactly what she wanted in the environment. I remember talking to my screen partner, Todd [Grinnell]. He even told me he had that on One Day at a Time, and he didn’t think he would get that back. He was a lead on Gloria’s show. So, he said he came here, and it feels just like that. I’m like, “Okay. It really does start with Gloria.”

To have someone who is just that passionate about creating a safe, and kind, and gentle environment, where everyone wants to come to work, and work together, and enjoy it, I feel like every set should feel like that. I feel so bad for anyone who hasn’t had that experience.

Years ago, I did a project that I’m like, “Ooh, this is tough. Do I want to do this?” So, I always have something to compare it to, but I just really lucked out with the last couple of projects I’ve been on, with strong women who really just created amazing environments. Not to say that men can’t do that, too, but I lucked out with Gloria and Ava.

MW: One thing I’d say about this show, and romantic comedies in general, is that they like to pair everybody off, and maybe sometimes leave out the fact that people also can be happily single. Would you describe yourself as paired up, or happily single? I mean, unhappily is also an option.

KING: I’m happily single. My last relationship, geez, was seven years. I dated back-to-back from 18 to 28. I was in relationships back-to-back — abusive relationships, bad relationships, all types of relationships that weren’t good for me. I literally took some time right when I moved to L.A. five years ago, I was like, “I’m just going to focus on me, and then we’ll just see what happens.” The more I focused on me, the harder it was for me to date, because I told myself, “You accept what you think you deserve.” I always thought I deserved more, so I always thought, “If you think you deserve more, then [don’t date] people, consistently, that make you feel like crap, or that treat you a certain way, or that physically harm you.” So, I’ve really had to go on a journey within myself in therapy, and really just learn how to put my feelings first.

But with doing that, and also moving to L.A., it got harder because L.A. is already hard for anybody to date. Let alone I’m in the industry. That, and then I have boundaries, and standards, and morals. I don’t just hook up. So, it put me at a really big disadvantage. So, then I started dating different. “Let me just try to date a whole different type of guy.” But then I started dating, and then it’s like, “But is this my type of person? I could just get with somebody who will make me happy, or who’s nice, but is it somebody I want to be with?”

I’m at a phase where if it’s not my person, I don’t want to be with them. Because of that, I really haven’t dated that much. Just like my character, my friends are always talking like, “Give somebody a chance. Go on a date.” I don’t know. I mean, hopefully, there’s somebody out there for me, but the me that used to need it or crave it, is not there anymore, to be honest. I’m demisexual. So, I need a strong emotional connection anyway.

Like I said, I’m not out there just hooking up because of that, and it makes it interesting with dating. Just like my character, I have my career. It’s starting to finally boom. I have my friends. Then I have a puppy who drives me crazy. If it’s in my cards, it’s in my cards, but nonetheless, I try to put myself first, and focus on my happiness, which is something that I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing, and that’s what continuously led me into horrible situations. But not just that, I stayed in them. I stayed in those horrible situations to try to make someone else happy. So, now I’m just making myself happy.

With Love
With Love

MW: I had another Sol question, but first I want to ask you about being demisexual, which is not something I know a lot about. How did you come to identify that way?

KING: Well, at first, I was like, “Am I an alien? What is going on?” All my friends are just hooking up or meeting people. Being younger, first starting my transition, I would put myself out there, and maybe not in the best ways, trying to get approval of who I was with someone. So, I learned that just hooking up wasn’t for me. I wouldn’t have those urges to just hook up, or to really have sex with anyone. Then I learned a few years ago about being demisexual. You need a strong emotional connection to somebody to want to be intimate with them. That’s when I just read up about it, and learned about people like that. I was like, “Oh, it’s a thing!”

Trans people, especially trans women, tend to be over-sexualized. I’m not really that person. I mean, I could dress the part, like it’s a red carpet, and in my head, I’m like, “Ooh, I’m going to look sexy.” It’s a character, but I’m not that person. I’m really pretty awkward. It’s fun to play sexy, but I’m just not that person. I’m not a sexual person like that, I guess. I’ve realized through a lot of research, and through talking to other people who also identify as demisexual, or even being on the asexual spectrum, that I was normal. So many people feel like this, and it’s okay. It just means that I don’t want to just jump into bed with somebody. I want to get to know them. I want to see if we have a strong connection, and then from there, I guess we’ll figure it out. But also, because I’m in L.A. trying to date, it also makes it easier to weed people out, because most people don’t want to wait or get to know you. It’s just like, “I want to hook up.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that person. If you don’t want to get to know me, and you just want to hook up, I’m sorry. So, it makes it really easy to wean people off, because sorry, it’s not happening. Sorry.

MW: If there is a season two of With Love, what else would you like to see happen for Sol?

KING: I would love to see Sol spend more time with [Indelicato’s character] Jorge, Jr. Because we’re really close, and we’re really close in real life. But also, he’s Sol’s gay cousin, and I know personally — my aunt is a lesbian — those family members who are both queer, that relationship is always different. Because we just have so much fun together, I would love to see us together, spending time and doing stuff, because I just think it would be so amazing. And just Sol having fun more. I feel like if you watched the season, you could see Sol started out really conservative, and a little uptight and shy.

By episode five, you’re going to see a big transformation with Sol, once they just let loose a little bit and open up. You see it through the wardrobe. You see it through the makeup. You see it through the interactions with, maybe, somebody who they may or may not be dating. I just think that progression is so beautiful, because I also go through those phases, where I want to be covered, or maybe in a relationship you do get a little bit more relaxed, or you do get a little bit more sexy, and I just think it’s beautiful. So, I want to see that continue to happen. I just want to see Sol continue to be happy, and maybe go on a trip with her cousin or something.

The thing is, it’s only five episodes for season one, and I think that Gloria did such a good job with developing these characters so that in season two, we can just relax. The characters can do whatever, because we all have our own love stories. There’s so much to cover in such a little time. I’m happy with where it went, and I’m just excited to see where it can go.

Isis -- Photo: Diana Ragland
Isis King — Photo: Diana Ragland

MW: I actually didn’t really catch that, that you and Mark’s character don’t have that many scenes together. You said that you’re good friends. Did you meet on this show or prior?

KING: We met on the show. We just clicked. We really, really bonded. It was really fun, really nice. He’s like a little brother. I love him. In the summer, he had a birthday party, and I went. He was the one that actually pushed me to watch the episodes, because we just got them two days ago. I was like, “I’m not going to watch them.” We all have a big group chain with the cast and with Gloria, all together. Then everybody started watching it, and then Mark texted me. He was like, “Sis, you pulled at my heartstrings in this episode.” I was like, “You’re watching it?” So, then I just called him right away. “Oh, my God. You’re watching?” He’s like, “Yeah. I’m watching it. Oh, my God.” He just started telling me about it. I was like, “Shit. Okay. I have to watch it, too.” The whole cast is watching it to get ready for our press junket next week. I wanted to wait until everybody watched it, to be surprised, but I guess it wasn’t really realistic. I think in my head, I just assumed that would be how we do it. I’m so glad I watched it, because it’s so many beautiful storylines in the show.

MW: Do you have any hesitation or nervousness about watching yourself?

KING: I’m really big on, “What did I do wrong?” I’m just really analytical. I just was ready, especially because I’m in a show with so many heavy-hitters, who have such extensive on-screen time. They were all so amazing and beautiful, and I loved my scenes. I was watching, I was like, “Awww.” And just to see my character get to have vulnerable, googly eyes, it’s so nice. Different things made me cry. Different things made me laugh. It’s just so warm. Even though each episode takes place over a different holiday, the show is not just a holiday show. It’s a show about love and family. Everyone can relate to it. It was just really nice. I’m like, “Wow. I’m a part of such a beautiful show. I’m just so honored.” But I did take a few notes.

MW: You talked about dressing sexy — I watched the Savage X Fenty fashion show you modeled in. I think that those are the hottest shows on TV. The production, the choreography, they do such a fantastic job with them.

KING: Definitely.

MW: Opening the show, Rihanna talks about casting, saying that she wanted people who aren’t usually highlighted in fashion. You are highlighted in the show. Laverne Cox is highlighted. Do you feel that fashion and modeling, outside of Savage X Fenty, have made more room for inclusion like that?

KING: I definitely think that Rihanna shook it up. Everybody’s like, “Oh, wow. We should have done this.” It doesn’t really happen, I feel like — especially in America, it wasn’t really happening that much, with trans models. But I still think we’re behind. A lot of what we would see, representation, is because of Rihanna giving everybody a chance.

When I was backstage at that show, I’ve never been at a fashion show where I was like, “Wow. There’s so much of everything here. Everybody’s so different.” I felt celebrated. I really did feel celebrated. I saw curvy models. I saw models who had disabilities. I saw everybody, trans models, non-binary models. It was just beautiful. Everybody was just backstage in their lingerie, laughing and dancing. I’m like, “This is like a whole show back here.” It definitely represented the world, and what’s really happening in the world. It’s just unfortunate that it took so long. Runways are not as diverse as they should be, the way that Rihanna’s show is.

MW: Before Savage X Fenty, you were on America’s Next Top Model, which also has had an impact in terms of broadening people’s ideas about what beautiful is, and can be. Do you still feel reverberations of that show’s impact in your life, and in the world?

KING: Oh, definitely. Tyra was the first to do a lot of stuff. I know during the pandemic, so many people were like, “Oh, my gosh, I watched it. It’s horrible.” All of that, I get it. Because we were at a different time. We can’t take away the fact that Top Model was ahead of its time with casting. Obviously, I’m here because of that push. That was a thing that made me say, “Oh, wow. If I could do this, I can do anything. Let me act.” Right off the show, I was like, “I really want to act. Let me act.” I didn’t think I could do it. But also watching Top Model, pre-transition, I didn’t think, as a five-foot, seven-and-a-half inch guy that I would ever be on Top Model as the first. So, once that happened, I was like, “Okay. Anything is possible. If I could do that, I can do anything.” Then I started acting right after, and that changed my life. That was the stepping stone for me to be where I am now. I’m always so grateful to Tyra, and to everyone over there, for giving me the chance to strut my stuff.

MW: This issue of the magazine falls during Transgender Awareness Week, and on top of awareness, this week is also a call to action. What actions do you think people who are allies can take to uplift trans people?

KING: I would say listen more. I think that so often, people act like they listen, and then they say what they think should happen. We’re not a monolith. So, we all have different ideas of what we think we need or want. I just think listening, hearing different trans voices, and seeing what we need, or how you can help, and just listening, and letting us say how we feel, and supporting us. Supporting our voice.

MW: We’re seeing a lot more trans and gender-nonconforming people raising their voices by entering politics. People like Danica Roem in Virginia, and Honey Mahogany, who, honestly, I didn’t know had been running and winning political office in San Francisco. Do you see politics as an important venue for trans awareness, or is that system too broken?

KING: I don’t think any system is too broken. I mean, it’s not any more broken than it is for what’s going on with race in politics, and just making everyone in the country feel safe and heard. It’s definitely necessary and needed to have that diversity in office, speaking for us, or the allies in office speaking for us. We always need that. I mean, I feel like the whole system is broken in general, but we do have room to grow and to progress. Even if sometimes it feels like we’re taking steps back, we are doing that. We are progressing. It’s only going to continue to get better, especially with more support in the office.

MW: Would you ever consider running for office?

KING: No, absolutely not. I feel like there’s so many people out there where that’s their calling, and that’s not my calling. I just want to be realistic with myself. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

MW: What do you consider your role as an activist?

KING: I just think that continuing to just speak my mind and be honest, being honest along the way, is what I’m best at. Sharing my story, helping people when I can. I feel like each person has a place, and each person has a different avenue within advocacy that they feel strongly in. I feel like it’s important to do what you think is best, and to speak up when you can, and just work hard and continue to push people forward as much as you can, in however way you see fit for yourself.

MW: What’s next for you? Both immediately, since you’re leaving to film something, and in general?

KING: Hopefully, we get a season two for With Love. That would be ideal. And I’m auditioning. The hustle never stops, auditioning and educating. Right now I’m going to do a little bit of education. It’s just a little bit of everything for me. I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity 14 years later, to finally get roles that can impact lives, but also getting roles that actually show what I can do, beyond a small part, or, oh, the trans character who is the stripper, who has two lines. We’re finally getting somewhere. But even outside of that, even outside of acting, just the opportunity to — how can I word what I’m trying to say? I feel like through most of my career, there were not really that many opportunities. People wanted to book you, but then they also didn’t want to pay you. Do you get what I’m saying? So, I feel like now there’s opportunities to finally make real coins.

People just always assume. People are just like, “Oh, my God. You’ve been working all these years. You’ve been famous for all these years.” It’s like, “Yeah, but I got off the show and I still was homeless. I still was sleeping on couches and stuff.” Through the years, I had to work two and three jobs, or work as a makeup artist, and then go and do a gig once in a while whenever they’re paying. I managed to stay afloat, but then I stayed afloat mainly through having a nine-to-five. To finally be in a position where I can really do it and feel comfortable… Hell, I’ve got a publicist now. I’m moving up. I’m just so grateful. It’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful that, finally, traction is starting to happen, and I’m finally starting to feel seen. That’s something.

Throughout my career, I was there, but I didn’t really feel seen. I feel like, especially since Ava gave me the opportunity, a few years ago, to be on such an impactful project, and now with this, and throughout the little gigs that I’m starting to do, I just feel like people are starting to see me. That’s been a tough journey through all these years. I’m just so grateful that I didn’t give up, to finally, 14 years later, feel like I’m starting to get traction. I’m starting to be seen.

Season 1 of With Love will be available on Dec. 17 for streaming on Prime Video. Visit www.amazon.com.

Follow Isis King on Twitter at @MsIsisKing.

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