We live in a generation wherein representation is important to uphold to properly show the truths of certain people. The LGBTQ community in particular had their fair share in multiple platforms from TV to the Internet. But compared to before, more people are now exposed to the lives of transgender men and women thanks to popular shows like Orange Is the New Black and I Am Cait. As well as personalities like Andreja Pejic and Laverne Cox.
One person who’s been continuing this discussion is Fil-Am Slay Model Management director and producer Cecilio “Cece” Asuncion. Since 2012, he’s created a documentary centered on trans issues and worked with trans models. He would later on start the world’s first transgender-exclusive modeling agency, which would be the subject of Oxygen’s reality show Strut.
Earlier this month, Cece and the rest of the Strut team bagged the GLAAD Award for Outstanding Reality Program. We caught up with him to talk about the experience, as well as his life working at Slay.
When did you start directing and producing content?
I did my first documentary in 2012 which was What’s the T? That was also my first exposure to what challenges the trans community had. To this day, I am still friends with the women in the film.
What inspired you to create LGBTQ films?
When I did my documentaries these were stories that mattered to me. I was simply a vessel to tell their stories. Something would just tell me inside to go and work on a particular topic. Almost like a voice inside.
What were the challenges you faced while shooting the documentary?
At that time, I didn’t see the challenges I had as challenges as I was passionate about learning about them. I think when you’re curious and you come from a place of knowledge and respect, it’s easy to convey their story and let them speak with their own voice.
How did Slay come about? Who encouraged you to start the agency?
I was working with a Thai-based agency who had a board specifically for trans women, because of their budget constraints, I decided to continue the journey myself and open my own agency in Los Angeles. I’ve always loved fashion plus my involvement in the trans community was what pushed me to open the agency. Underemployment is such an issue in the community, this knowledge was also what pushed me to do it.
How would you describe yourself as the head of the company?
The models call me many different names—I can be Tiger mom or Panda. [Laughs] It really depends on the day. For the most part, every relationship with each model is different. What I do know is that we are like a family. A dysfunctional yet happy family and we always have each other’s backs even if we have our own disagreements. I love them all dearly.
So far, how big is the team and model roster since it started?
We are at 17 models right now.
Do models sometimes find it difficult to book projects because they’re transgender?
Yes, it can be difficult sometimes. Because of the stigma, some people don’t even understand the difference between a drag queen and a trans woman. However, changes are slowly but surely being made.
How did it feel when Whoopi Goldberg and Oxygen decided to make a show about Slay’s models?
It felt great when I, along with my partners, Joshua Jones and Brian Anderson, brought the project to 44 Blue Productions and Whoopi’s involvement. It was such an out of body experience when they told me that she loved what I was doing and that Oxygen was brave enough to tell our stories. That was pretty cool because a lot of networks were afraid of the topic.
How involved are you with Strut‘s process? Do you also work behind the camera?
I was very involved because they were there filming our reality. If nothing was going on in the agency, they would have nothing. I am one of the producers of the show so it was a juggling act, being a producer, being the agency director, and being on cam. I don’t know how I survived it but here I am, still standing! [Laughs]
Was it weird to have a camera following you around?
It was odd in the beginning but you get used to it and you would forget—that’s when we would get in trouble. [Laughs]
On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the drama that happens in the show?
It would be a solid 8.
What’s the most intense drama that was seen in the show so far?
It would have to be when there was a confrontation between Cassandra Cass, my assistant and one of the models Claudia at a party. That was a very cut-down version. We do laugh about it now but at that moment, I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to show people.
In terms of showing the realities of the transgender community, how is Strut different from other shows?
It’s very different because these characters are strong and it’s about a pursuit of a dream in a sometimes not-so forgiving industry. What I always remind them is that they’re models first and trans people second. Be there because you’re passionate about the job, not because you’re selling yourself as some sort of a gimmick.
Were you worried about how people would receive the show?
Yes, of course! However, after everything that’s said and done, we were just showing our truth. That in itself was rewarding.
Strut recently won a GLAAD Award. How did it feel to receive the award with the rest of the team?
It felt amazing for all of us to be together and in one room again celebrating each other—with free booze. [Laughs]
Whoopi mentioned in her speech how there’s still discrimination against LGBTQs, especially with the current administration in the US. How do you fight against this?
We fight this by simply existing. They cannot erase us, all we have to do is keep fighting the good fight and working doubly hard.
What do you think needs to be done better for LGBTQ, especially trans, rights everywhere?
Education and positive media exposure. When we highlight the positive stories this wonderful community has, all misconceptions from the past are challenged and a new respect is given. Even in the Philippines, not all trans women have to be funny or a comic. That’s great if you are. However, I know models, head writers of giant networks (Gitri San Diego, I’m looking at you!), even people in congress, Geraldine Roman. (Who I would love to meet!) These are all strong, resilient women.
Throughout your work with the trans community, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
I’ve learned that we are all just people. We all want what’s best for our careers, love, family, and we are not exempt from grieving [and] fear. All of us share the same human experience so why not get out of this worldly plane as better people helping each other out?
What’s next for you? Do you have other projects planned in the future?
I am still working at Slay Model Management and getting work for my models. And yes, I do have some things coming up in the summer. You’re just gonna have to see what we have up our sleeves!
Photo by Irvin Rivera