Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Olimpia Dior
On a cold Sunday afternoon in February, Gia Garison and I meet at photographer Olimpia Dior’s cozy Chinatown apartment to discuss the ups and downs of life as a young creative in New York City. This is the first time we’ve met, but Gia delves directly into conversation, as though we’ve known each other for years. Introductions come later; they are almost unnecessary. She’s dressed in an oversized mustard-colored sweatshirt adorned with nail polish and sharpie doodles, which Gia drew with her roommate. She talks about a rave she went to a few nights before; how she’s still elated from meeting so many new, inspiring and loving people. Gia has a near uncanny way of making you feel effortlessly comfortable and open. It’s raining, almost sleeting outside, but her energy is warm; her skin glowing in the dim light.
Upon meeting her, it’s clear that Gia has all of the qualities of an icon on the rise. A staple of New York nightlife, Gia’s flawless looks have recently garnered a great deal of attention in the fashion industry. What is so striking about Gia is that she is unabashedly herself; she doesn’t play by anybody’s rules. The young actress, model, DJ, and musician speaks frankly about her experience as a trans model in the today’s hyper-commercialized industry; and is not afraid to address the dark side of things. Her honesty is supplemented with the hope for a more enlightened future. She envisions a world in which beauty isn’t all about what you look like; and where there is no fear of being completely yourself. Here she discusses why she’s shifting from Nightlife to DJing and composing her own music; why she’s over glamming up every day to appeal to society’s standards of what a woman should be; and the importance of finding a solid group of friends who support you no matter what.
Hi Gia! Why don’t we start by discussing what’s going on in your life currently. What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m really just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I’m in the process of shedding my old skin; which seems fitting, because I’m about to turn 21. At one point in time I thought I wanted to be a model. I had a couple of meetings with agencies and didn’t get signed, so I thought “maybe now’s just not the time.”
I was doing a lot of modeling stuff on my own, getting work through platforms like instagram, but most of those gigs are unpaid editorial jobs. At this point, I feel like I’ve done so many of those types of shoots that I can’t bring myself to do many more, unless it’s something really huge. So at the moment I’ve kind of decided that maybe that’s not what I want to do. I have to continually remind myself it’s ok that I’m not perfect. I still have so much to learn.
So you’re not with an agency right now?
Mhm, all of the work I’ve gotten so far has been freelance, mostly by word of mouth.
That’s surprising to me, considering how you’ve worked on a lot of major campaigns.
A lot of people nowadays just do street casting, or they’ll reach out to people through instagram and invite them to casting calls. A lot of new models come from the nightlife scene. So the industry is really changing a lot. But to get paid work, you really have to have an agent fighting for your value.
I’ve also recently realized that I don’t know if I really want to be in the public eye. When I was growing up, it was my dream to be a household name. Right now I’m in the public eye more than I ever thought I would be, and it can be really scary. I don’t know if I can handle that for the rest of my life.
That’s why I’m switching it up these days and trying out different things. I’ve gotten really into DJing. It’s a lot more low key and exciting because it’s not about your image, it’s about your art.
The modeling industry is frustrating to be because the most successful people pretty much just had it handed to them, without having to work for it or prove themselves. Success is so reliant on your family name and where you come from. I don’t want to be associated with that. I don’t want to be just a pretty face with no talent or substance.
How long have you been DJing?
I’ve been DJing for a little over a year now. Before I learned to use CDJ, I was just using my laptop; doing some random things here and there. Someone would ask me to come and do a gig at some bar or DIY space, usually in the East Village or Brooklyn. This past December I went to Miami to DJ a party for Art Basel at Superchief Gallery put together by this collective called Internet Friends. Superchief had just opened up their new gallery down there and it was super fun. They pulled a van into the space and one of my friends did tooth gems in the back of the van; it was really cute.
I’m an artist; I’m not just a pretty face with no substance.
Was that your first time at Basel? What did you think of it?
It was okay. It’s really just an excuse for New Yorkers to go to Miami in the winter and go to the beach. [laughs] I love Miami. It’s a really nice getaway. But I prefer it when it’s not Basel.
In addition to DJing, you are also a singer and musician. Can you talk a bit about your music?
I make all of the components myself; the beats, the music, and the lyrics. People have offered to make beats for me, but I really like to do it myself. I took a hiatus for a bit—I just couldn’t find the mindset or energy to make music, but I just recently started making a new track. Sometimes it’s good to make art when you’re going through a shitty time, so I am just trying to force myself to create, and let my emotions out through my art. This new track I’m working on is pretty dark; it kind of sounds like Doomsday. The beginning is experimental/ambient and then the beat comes in and it’s more of a classic techno-electronic track with a lot of space and sonar sounds throughout on top of the pounding beat, with two different bass lines. I’m still working on it but I think it has potential; I just have to keep refining it.
My friend actually just ask me to start a band too, and I think that could be really fun. I’m also a percussionist—though I haven’t played since high school. I was a concert drummer and was also in a marching band; I played the bass drum that you have to carry on your back. It was so heavy but it was a really fun experience. That’s really where I got my refined sense of rhythm, and I’m thankful for that. I would really like to go back to drumming. Maybe in this band that we’re forming I could be a drummer and a singer. It’s pretty uncommon, because it’s so hard to do. It’s definitely harder than singing and playing the piano.
One thing I’m learning how to do is to consistently remind myself that things aren’t always going to be perfect the first time around. This is a really hard thing for me to come to terms with. I’ve always been the type of person who has to get it right the first time. I hate making mistakes. I’m just beginning to realize and take into account that I am human and I just have to keep working.
The hardest part of being an artist is getting past the fact that you have to fail so many times.
Each time it feels harder to recover from it. But I think it’s a good lesson to be learned. Something very important that I’ve learned about art is that its interdisciplinary, it’s not just limiting yourself to just dancing or just singing or just DJing or just painting or whatever it is. I like finding ways to move between them all and find the ways that these support one another. Who knows if I’ll ever be satisfied, but I like to keep my options open.
I love that you were a drummer in a marching band. Can you tell me a bit more about your background, and where you grew up?
I grew up in Texas, in a small town called San Angelo. There were only like a hundred thousand people. A lot of people from Texas have never even heard of it; it’s just a tiny blip on the map. For the first 15 years of my life I actually grew up in an even smaller town outside of San Angelo that was literally just called Wall. How sad is that. There were 80 kids in my grade from kindergarten through freshman year. The school was so focused around sports and masculinity, so I was always the black sheep. I didn’t mind it though; I loved doing what I did and wouldn’t have had it any other way. That’s really what shaped me into who I am now and what I’m interested in.
I grew up dancing; doing ballet and tap and hip hop. Musical theater was also a huge thing for me when I was young. I went to this theater summer camp in the Catskills in New York called Stagedoor Manor. It was there that I realized that it was ok to be whoever I wanted to be, which was a beautiful learning experience for me. I never really felt like I could be comfortable in my own skin before, so that helped me a lot. I met some of my closest friends there.
After Stagedoor I went to a boarding school just outside of Boston that I’d heard about from some of the people in the camp. I was there for my junior and senior years of high school, and then I moved to New York City to attend NYU Tisch for acting. I studied there for two years before I realized that it wasn’t for me. I learned a lot and had some good classes and teachers, but for the most part I was really disappointed in their treatment of the students. As a progressive school, you would think that they would be up to date and aware of contemporary issues regarding oppression and marginalized communities, but that wasn’t my experience. I was one of the first trans people that a lot of teachers had had in their classes. At the time i identified as gender-non conforming, so I went by they/them; and that was really hard for a lot of my teachers. Some of them had never even heard of the they/them pronoun before. It was frustrating to teach them over and over when they were supposed to be educating and mentoring me. It really hurt.
By the end of my first year, I decided to fully transition and started going by she/her. That was a lot easier for them then because they’re so used to the binaries that they could understand it. It was sad and disappointing. It was also such a time dedication; having class all day and rehearsals all night. It was a lot more time than I was willing to give while I was doing a lot of outside stuff, and I really wanted to travel. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do that since I made the decision to leave school.
Where have you traveled to since you decided to leave Tisch?
I had a really life changing trip to Europe last fashion week. I went to London, Milan, and Paris. I met some really amazing people there and went to some fantastic raves and parties. Everything there is so different—the music and the clubs are so amazing. I went to this incredible rave under a bridge in the middle of East London in this forested canal. They gave you the post-code to get dropped off at, and then you had to follow the map and walk down the canal for about 20 minutes where there was a boat that took you to the other side of the bridge. And then you’re just at this rave. It was beautiful.
One thing that is kind of uncomfortable for me to deal with as I’m getting more into the rave scene is that most techno fans are straight cis dudes. Obviously that’s not my preferred type of people to be around, because they tend to not understand or respect me. I’ve built up a thick skin for that sort of stuff but I’d definitely rather be around a bunch of crazy queers or punks on the dance floor.
Do you find that in New York as well?
It really depends what event you’re going to, but there are a lot of spots that are pretty diverse. All that really matters is finding your clique. Something that I’ve discovered in the rave community is that people have these tribes, and they always go to the events together. But its not exclusive; all of the cliques interact with each other. It’s just nice to have that community and to know that there’s someone there for you. I’m still very new to the scene, but I’ve met such beautiful people. It’s amazing to see how sharing and loving everyone is. I met some amazing people just this past weekend and really connected with them. These connections are coming at the perfect time for me, because I’m figuring out a lot of stuff in my life and I really need that support and family. I’ve always felt that I’ve had a family in New York, especially with my trans sisters and the queer community, but I love meeting new people and new friends. I love opening my mind to new things and expanding my knowledge. There’s something different to learn from every scene. I got to taste the nightlife scene for two years, and I’m ready to try something new.
It’s important to find ways to get rid of fear and negativity—anything that’s holding you back from being your best self.
Can you talk a bit about your experience with nightlife? How do rave and nightlife differ?
I used to host for Ladyfag or one off parties or magazine launches. The first nightlife hosting gig I had was with Nicky Ottav, when he was doing his event at Flash Factory during the summer on Fridays and Saturdays. Before that I had been going out to parties; but that was when it became a job and a bigger part of my life. I put all of my energy into slaying the look. I have really good memories of the earlier days because I was so open and carefree and didn’t have any anxiety or stress.
Anxiety and stress has creeped into my life recently, which I’ve never had before. I don’t know if it’s just the new year or trying to figure out what I want to do with my life but I’ve been combatting that more. That’s why I love the rave community, because it’s all about just letting it out and dancing and nobody cares what you look like, who you are, what you’re doing. You can do whatever you want on the dance floor and no one judges you. You can be whoever you are and no one’s going to judge you from that.
Did you find that your anxiety stemmed from people expecting you to be a certain way? Or was it just a general feeling?
I think it’s a combination of our society, and the way that the government continually oppresses so many people. Going deeper into my transition, the hormones really play a role too because I get mood swings. In this day and age you always have to be on top of your game and aware of what you say and put out there. It sucks that it’s just now becoming a thing, but now there’s a lot less tolerance for bullshit. It’s good but it’s also hard—now you make one mistake and you could blow your whole career. I’m just trying to regroup myself and work on finding ways to relinquish the negativity from my body. I guess you could say it’s like getting rid of my demons. I’ve been trying to go to yoga more and have been doing guided meditations. It could even be as simple as taking deep breaths.
It’s important to find ways to get rid of fear and negativity and anything that’s holding you back from being your best self. You also have to realize that you’re human and mistakes happen and that’s just part of the journey. It’s what shapes you into being a better person. I’ve been trying to worry less about what people think of me, and forget about the ideals that have been placed upon us when it comes to presentation and what a woman should be. I’ve been trying to be more comfortable with wearing less makeup all the time. I don’t feel like wearing makeup every day.
I used to beat my face every day. I am trying to break down those barriers for myself and be more comfortable just being myself. Of course I love to get done up every once in a while, but I’ve done so much of that. I’m trying something new. It’s really beautiful when you’re not wearing any makeup and you still find someone who thinks youre beautiful. I didn’t wear any makeup to the rave this weekend because I knew I would sweat it all off anyway, and I still felt beautiful. I want to be with someone who’s open minded and couldn’t care less about beauty ideals. I don’t want to fear being bare-faced around someone. It’s hard to let that guard down sometimes when you don’t know what they will think of you.
It sucks that there’s such a stigma about imperfection when we’re all human and we all have imperfections. I wish that people could just drop that. I always wonder how to change it but it takes time and a whole new way of living and a generation dying off. I hope in the future that changes.
At the same time, when it becomes a trend–like when people draw acne on their models—that’s not the way to go about it either. People already feel the pressures to have flawless skin—and when they see that it just makes them feel even worse about it–why are you using something that I’ve been told was wrong my whole life to market your brand? People can’t change or control how they look.
What is your take on social media, and how it’s affected the way we perceive ourselves and others?
I’ve been really wanting to do a social media cleanse because it consumes so much of my time, and I hate that. I don’t want to be sitting there on my phone all the time. It leads to unnecessary anxiety. I’ve been seeing this post going around that says “if instagram didn’t exist you wouldn’t be a model anymore.” Call out culture is just really awful. I don’t think that people should be bringing light to negative energy and passing it around to more people. It’s obviously good to call out certain harmful companies or people, but spreading general negativity is counterproductive.
I also really dislike the new algorithm. I’m tired of scrolling and seeing all of these Vogue shoots and covers—it’s all the same shit all the time. It’s depressing because people who deserve to be heard aren’t getting it and they’re fighting the hardest to. I just want to use it less, but it’s difficult because a lot of the jobs that I get are from instagram. It’s also so much pressure to keep it going. I feel like I can only post the most amazing photo of myself or people will unfollow me. I feel like I always have to be perfect. That’s something that I’m struggling with in myself.
My instagram got very selfish and commercial recently and it was just not me. Before that my instagram was very sporadic and a mixture of photos of me and my friends and random things that I would take pictures of that I thought were cute. I stopped doing that and was only posting modeling photos. I want to get back into my old way of posting because I think that’s more me and the way I want to be perceived.