When Leyna Bloom walked the 25th annual Latex Ball, one of the most anticipated fashion and dance competitions among transgender women and gay men in New York City, the crowd went wild. Wearing a sexy little sculptural number embellished with faux foliage, she was greeted by shouts of “Miyake!” and “Mugler!”—a nod to her newly minted status as “mother” of the house named for iconic designers Issey Miyake and Thierry Mugler.
“Ballroom hadn’t seen her in five years,” recalls Yusef Williams, house “father” and celebrity hairstylist. “No one saw her transition. She came back as this beautiful blossomed woman. That was probably one of the most memorable moments in ballroom history because it was her return in a new house. It was a very big deal.”
Indeed, Bloom’s return was much bigger than the trophy she would win for the good face and flair she brought to the stage. During her time away she had matured, become more confident in her talents and started to set her sights on opportunities beyond the balls. Her determination paid off. This year, as lead actress in the Martin Scorsese–produced film Port Authority, Bloom made history as the first trans woman of color to star in a movie that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Born on Chicago’s South Side to an African-American military man and a woman from the Philippines—the two met while he was on active duty—Bloom was destined for an unconventional life. When Bloom was two years old, her mother was deported to her home country, leaving a gender-nonconforming child to be raised primarily by her father with the help of her paternal grandmother and aunt. “Being a military man and raising a feminine energy from birth into adulthood was truly a challenge for him,” Bloom says, “but he did the best he could, and he gave me nothing but love. And that’s all I needed.”
Inspired by her talented lineage, which included a great-grandmother who owned a dance studio, an aunt who danced with Sammy Davis, Jr., and a cousin, Lee Howard, who is a famed tap dancer, Bloom embraced dance as her go-to form of expression. After performing in productions like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, a 15-year-old Bloom was approached to join the ballroom circuit. She quickly began snatching trophies for her showstopping presence. At 18, after coming to terms with her gender identity, she dropped out of the Chicago Academy for the Arts because it wouldn’t allow her to continue the scholarship she had won as a male while presenting as female. She decided to move to New York City.
Bloom’s earliest days in the Big Apple weren’t glamorous by any means, especially since she didn’t have a survival plan. She was homeless, scraping together money for cheap pizza and sleeping on subway seats. One day, Bloom met the owner of a SoHo boutique while perusing its coffee-table books. She was married to photographer Antoine Verglas. After an introductory call, Bloom secured a photo shoot and a ticket to major exposure.
“He was asking me, ‘Why are you not signed to an agency? Why are you not working?’ ” Bloom recalls. “And next thing you know I was shooting with this photographer had worked with Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz.” Her fortuitous session with Verglas led to her gracing the winter 2014 cover of Candy magazine with 13 other trans women of note, including Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Geena Rocero and Carmen Carrera, positioning her as a role model for the larger LGBTQ+ community. “I was like, ‘This is that historical moment I want to be a part of,’ ” Bloom says.
A few years later she made a splash at New York Fashion Week, walking the runway for brands like Chromat, LaQuan Smith and The Blonds. Shortly after, she became the second trans woman of color to be featured in an international edition of Vogue—Vogue India—following in the footsteps of Tracy Norman, a Black trans model who appeared in Vogue Italia in 1975 and 2017.
By then the fashion world was taking real notice of Bloom, and she was constantly flooded with modeling requests. But an acting career also beckoned. “I was looking for ways to tell my story or tell stories of people I have loved over the years, that I have looked up to,” she explains. “I was looking for that right role, and then the opportunity presented itself.”
“We need to find things inside us that we don’t see in the world and then go out and create them. “
That opportunity came when Bloom nabbed the lead role in Port Authority, in which she plays Wye, a transgender woman from the kiki scene (a subgenre of ball culture), who meets Paul (played by Fionn Whitehead), an ostensibly straight cisgender man. A passionate romance develops between the two. Written and directed by Danielle Lessovitz, the film has been lauded by critics and was selected for the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes.
Once again Bloom turned heads, this time at the movie’s premiere. Jari Jones, Bloom’s friend, acting coach and an associate producer on the film, recalled feeling the significance of the moment when, during the cast and crew’s walk pn the red carpet, some of the film’s costars vogued in front of the crowd. “The head of Cannes came up to us the next day at a lunch,” Jones remembers. “He said, ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time, and this is a huge weekend for photographers to make money. I have never in my time doing this seen them put their cameras down and applaud like they did after y’all performed.’”
In an increasingly inclusive world, Bloom is confident that she will continue to break down barriers that have plagued Black trans women. And with hard-earned wisdom, she’s calling for people to join her in this fight. “Everything that we want, need and seek is inside of us,” she says. “We need to find things inside us that we don’t see in the world and then go out and create them. We are in a world where we don’t fit in, so we need to create one where we do. That’s our responsibility, the gift we need to pass on.”
Raquel Willis is a writer and activist dedicated to elevating the voices of tansgender women of color.Share :