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STRUT Isn't the "Trans Top Model" but It's Addictive Nonetheless

Strut, a show about transgender models, is entertainment and activism.

Malcolm Venable

Say "reality show about models" and the first thing that'll rightfully come to mind is America's Next Top Model-- the cultural juggernaut that spawned thousands of copycats and even more gifs. But Oxygen's new stab at the genre, STRUT (Sept. 20 at 9/8c), is a modeling reality show that's very, very unlike ANTM -- not least because all the models are transgender.

If that comes as a huge shock, it shouldn't; many leading fashion designers and luxury brands have been using trans people in runway shows or campaigns in recent years, and there's at least one trans model who was in magazines and on a Clairol box in the 1970s. What makes this modeling show really different -- and entertaining -- is that the trans models aren't competing with each other, and it offers intimate glimpses into their lives that are as educational as they are compelling.

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Another thing about the show that may be shocking (but shouldn't be): Whoopi Goldberg is an executive producer on the show. Of course, Whoopi is about as progressive as they come, and she says that when her production partners, 44 Blue and One Hoe, offered her a chance to be a part of the show, she jumped at the chance. "Yes, of course. Immediately," she tells of how she responded. "There wasn't any lag."

Whoopi says STRUT will be eye-opening because it'll allow people to see trans people up close and personal, and make these individuals people with goals, struggles, families and hopes like everybody else.

"It's like everything else in the world -- people weren't ready for [black people] to be free from slavery," she says. "They weren't ready for integration. They weren't ready for gay people to get married. And yet, here we are. Times are moving forward. Whether you like it or understand it is not the point. It's getting to know trans people, not in a sensational way, but here's my talking to my mom, my family."

STRUT feels much more like a campy documentary with heart than it does a reality show, with fully defined characters supporting each other and yes, waiting to scratch each other's eyes out. It's a simple enough premise: Cecilio "Cece" Asuncion runs Slay Model Management, an exclusively trans modeling agency, with the help of Cassandra Cass, his assistant. (Cece is a cis-gender male; Cassandra is a trans female.) Together, they're working to make their year-old agency a serious contender in the fashion world -- a mission made even more challenging because of Slay's unique and not-always-polished talent pool.

Some characters are more likable than others. There's Arisce Wanzer, (@ariscestocrat) whose confidence and experience can spill over into obnoxiousness when she reminds everyone, again and again, she's been in Vogue. Isis King, (@msisisking) demure and focused, actually was on ANTM, although it seems she was slightly scarred by it; and there's Ren Spriggs, (@renbeep) a tomboy in a model's body.

The breakout stars of the show, though, are bound to be Dominique Jackson, (@tyraaross) a stunning model from Tobago with over 20 years experience, and Laith de la Cruz (@laith_ashley), the only male model in the on the show. Both have rich backstories and roles. Dominique is married to a cis-gender working-class man, reminding us that the world is full of all kinds of love, and is a de facto mentor to Laith, who boxes in a ring with his accepting father but is longing for the approval of his religious mother. Watching the gorgeous Laith, who's done New York Fashion Week and magazine covers, learn to have confidence in his own body tugs at the heartstrings, but seeing him tearfully seek his mother's love is powerful TV that comes at just the right cultural moment.

Whoopi says she loves them all for different reasons. "I love Dominique. She's amazing. Isis is fun; she's fierce and strong and funny. I love Laith; he's trying to find his way," Whoopi says. "They're all trying to make a little money and find their way. It's not easy for trans people, to stand as yourself and say, 'This is who I am.' They don't need you dumping on them."

At a time when trans people still face very real discrimination -- sometimes sanctioned by local governments -- STRUT just may be a bridge between transphobia and compassion. Though Whoopi says she didn't go into it intentionally to convey a message, her show may very well be an agent of change. "Some entertainment is activism," she says. "That wasn't what we were trying to do, but perhaps we did."

STRUT premieres Tuesday Sept. 20 at 9/8c on Oxygen.