Before Geena Rocero was a successful model, she was a child in the Philippines who was interested in feminine clothes. The country’s popular transgender beauty pageants drew her in first as a viewer and then as a competitor. It was in those pageants that she picked up the nickname “Horse Barbie”—a reference to both her stupendous manelike wig and her tall stature. Rocero dominated pageants throughout the late 1990s alongside a sisterhood of supportive trans beauty queens; she also began to take off-label estrogen to DIY her own medical transition. A move as a teenager to San Francisco enabled a social transition and subsequently a medical transition under a doctor’s care.
The discrimination Rocero experienced as an Asian and Pacific Islander woman with a dark complexion made life in America difficult. But soon the long-legged beauty caught the attention of a fashion photographer in New York City, and her international modeling career took off, landing her on billboards, in music videos and even in a 2005 Complex magazine feature called “The 10 Most Beautiful Women in the World.” Yet Rocero remained closeted—and constantly afraid of being outed and potentially losing her career—for nearly a decade.
Rocero’s life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind. Readers don’t need to have previous knowledge of the colonialist history of the Philippines, gender-affirming care for transgender people or the modeling industry to enjoy Horse Barbie. She explains everything in accessible language, imparted like a trusted friend.
Rocero’s outsider-to-insider perspective as a Filipina immigrant underscores America’s mixed acceptance of transgender people, who, Rocero explains, are “legally recognized here but culturally misunderstood.” In the Philippines, the presence of trans folks in pageants is mainstream, but she found that many Americans only see transgender people depicted negatively or offensively on talk shows such as “Jerry Springer.” Despite her accomplishments, Rocero remained in fear of becoming a statistic of another murdered trans woman. “I had crossed an ocean for recognition,” she writes. “But what good was that recognition without safety?”
Horse Barbie is an emotionally engaging read. Rocero’s pride in her success as both a fashion model and a highly visible trans woman of color is hard won, and having the chance to read about it feels like a privilege.