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In the spotlight: Carmen Carrera

updated 10:29 AM EST, Thu February 6, 2014
  • Transgender model Carmen Carrera recently shot a spread for Glamour Magazine UK
  • Fans petitioned for Carrera to be Victoria's Secret's first transgender Angel
  • Carrera wants to be labeled as a model, not just a trans model

(CNN) -- "A little more light!"

It's an early morning photo shoot for Glamour Magazine UK. There's a blizzard outside the window of Jack Studios in New York as the crew sets up in a flurry: Photographers meticulously adjust the lighting, makeup and hair artists arrange their bounty of brushes and stylists hang up racks upon racks of familiar names -- Ralph Lauren, DSquared2, Zac Posen, Helmut Lang, Agent Provocateur, Vivienne Westwood.

They're all here for one person.

"Hi, I'm Carmen."

The woman in an unassuming black tank top, jeans, simple ponytail and hoop earrings (a staple she would later credit to growing up in New Jersey) introduces herself to the crew -- but everybody in the room already knows who she is.

See all of CNN Living's New York Fashion Week coverage

"People know me from a lot of places," she tells CNN later at her Perth Amboy, New Jersey, home. "Google-dot-com Carmen Carrera!" she laughs.

Carrera first caught a glimpse of the spotlight on the third season of the cult favorite and gif-ready reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race." The day after she finished the show, she decided to begin her transition into the Carmen Carrera we know today -- a proud transgender fashion personality.

Carmen Carrera gets her hair done for a photo shoot with Glamour Magazine UK..
Carmen Carrera gets her hair done for a photo shoot with Glamour Magazine UK..
Brandon Ancil/CNN

Carrera says she has known since she was in kindergarten. She went to a Catholic school and had a crush on a fellow classmate, Anthony; she would get in trouble for running up to him and kissing him on the cheek every day.

"I knew that it wasn't me, as a boy having a crush on a boy. It was me, wanting to be a pretty girl, having a crush on a boy," she says. After a parent-teacher conference, she was transferred to a public school and put two and two together: She shouldn't express her femininity outside the home.

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"My parents, thank God, never forced me to act any other kind of way but myself, so I was really lucky," she says. "But when I was in school or outside the house, it was always an act, it was always a cover-up -- and I grew up with a lot of frustration."

At 18, she got her first car and left some of that frustration in the rearview mirror. She drove to New York and became immersed in the drag club scene, where she began to "live freely and happily."

Then came "Drag Race." Since appearing on the show, Carrera has gained more than 66,000 followers on Twitter, 90,000 on Instagram and 215,000 on Facebook.

Carrera became a part of the mainstream media conversation when she received more than 46,000 signatures on a petition to become Victoria's Secret's first transgender "angel." The petition gained a significant amount of traction only a few days before the 2013 fashion show was set to tape in November, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. (The company has not responded to the petition.)

Victoria's Secret petitioned to hire first transgender model

Transgender Victoria's Secret Angel?
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Even so, she says, the support from fans has motivated her to try out for the over-the-top lingerie show in 2014.

"It's kind of like validation," she says. "No matter how insecure I might be, no matter how un-pretty I might feel, there are people out there who look to me to be strong and to keep going and to keep proving people wrong."

Carrera's not the first transgender model -- and certainly not the last -- but in the fashion world, where cutting edge androgyny is often en vogue, the industry has been criticized for its sluggishness to embrace the transgender sector, different body shapes and diversity overall.

Naomi Campbell, Iman call for an end to runway racism

There has been some progress. Legendary fashion photographer Bruce Weber captured 17 transgender models -- many of them nonprofessionals -- for luxury retailer Barneys New York's latest catalog and magazine campaign.

High-profile transgender community members, such as actress Laverne Cox and writer Janet Mock, are also speaking more openly about their experiences navigating a world that can be ignorant and even hostile about these issues.

What not to say to a transgender person

In an autobiographical essay in W Magazine, Carrera said: "I want to leave something behind so people can look back one day and say, 'Wow, remember when transpeople were discriminated against the most? This person was like, Screw everybody! I'm going to parade around half-naked and be superproud, because that's how everyone should be!' "

Which leads her to today on set: She's represented by Elite Model Management, one of the world's leading model agencies. She's an unconventional choice, not only because of her gender: She's 28 amid a portfolio of girls in their late teens to early 20s, and she's admittedly a bit curvier than her runway counterparts. She's also a stepmother to her domestic partner's 9-year-old daughter.

"...Nor winter storm can't stop me baby," she mouths along to Diana Ross as the makeup artist finishes a decidedly fresh and natural look.

Carrera poses in a DSquared2 ensemble..
Carrera poses in a DSquared2 ensemble.
Brandon Ancil/CNN

Robin Page is the stylist coordinating the looks. While many designers sent pieces fit for Carrera's burlesque persona, Page went for more subdued offerings, like a Ralph Lauren pure white jumpsuit or a Dsquared2 A-line, knee-length skirt.

"I wanted you to be able to see her spirit, and her face and her eyes, as opposed to just body, just big hair, just tons of makeup," she says. "We wanted to kind of make everything very sparse and very simple, just to get the essence of her."

"Wow, I look like a grown-up," Carrera says. "I'm used to wearing so much more makeup."

For the next six hours, Carrera will pose for frame after frame, every now and then stopping to change outfits and loosen up her facial muscles after holding a pose.

There's a mirror behind the photographer that she occasionally glances in to try out a new pose, almost in awe of what's looking back at her.

"When you go through a transition like this, your body, your face is always changing. So, in an industry where you're being paid to sell either a product or take a photo, you know you have to learn your angles," she says.

What about the question that every woman dreads: Do you think you're pretty?

"I'm very happy with myself," she says. "It's not even about being pretty or being beautiful, it's just that I'm very happy with myself."

"And I can't change, even if I tried," Carrera sings along to Mary Lambert while striking a pose.

"All of the designers were super excited we were shooting her. They flew in clothing for her," says Page, who added that she hopes the shoot in an international glossy legitimizes Carrera's career beyond the transgender realm.

Carrera wants that level of success, too. She says she looks up to the supermodels of the '90s: the Christy Turlingtons, Naomi Campbells and Linda Evangelistas. The ones who were on a first-name basis with the world.

Casting the outcast at Fashion Week

"I want to be like those girls," she says. "I don't want to just be labeled as a transgender model. ...Why do I have to be separated? It's the modeling industry -- one industry."

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