Stefanie Lin (@ali3ns0up) is a 30-year-old independent model and former Fullerton College student.
Stefanie Lin (@ali3ns0up) is a 30-year-old independent model and former Fullerton College student.
Richard Flores

Stefanie Lin: Former America’s Next Top Model Contestant Tells All

America’s Next Top Model contestant and Fullerton College alumna Stefanie Lin talks about her modeling career as a transgender model, her roots in OC and her experience behind the scenes of the hit reality TV show.

In 2013, the semi-finalists of the first “Guys and Girls” cycle of “America’s Next Top Model” were anxiously sitting in the production bus as they waited to find out which of them would be moving into the model house as an official member of the line-up. It was sure to be another day of chaos on the set of the reality competition show when 19-year-old contestant Stefanie Lin, known as Virgg on the show, asked producers if she could privately speak to host and executive producer Tyra Banks. Stefanie had made it this far in the casting process and quickly solidified herself as a front-runner in the first episode by smearing her red lipstick on the runway and catching the judges’ attention. However, she began to have doubts about continuing with the competition.

(Richard Flores)

Stefanie was a transgender model competing on the show and was going through the medical journey of hormone replacement therapy, on top of already handling the stressful climate of the competition. She began to feel overwhelmed about her health and well-being. Before the cast of ANTM cycle 20 was announced, Stefanie looked visibly nervous as she sat on the bus, contemplating telling Banks that she wanted to leave the competition early.

Stefanie Lin wasn’t the first trans model to be on mainstream media, nor would she be the last. In 2023, trans models have been taking over fashion weeks all around the globe. Alex Consani, a 20-year-old TikTok creator and model signed to IMG, is taking over the runway as fashion’s newest it girl. Stefanie says Consani has what it takes to be the first American trans supermodel. As for her own modeling journey, it hasn’t always been a straight path for Stefanie.

Since appearing on ANTM in 2013, Stefanie has been on a road to self-discovery. Now 30 years old, she’s an artist, an aspiring actor, and has even been a student at Fullerton College. Modeling will always be a part of her, and she still does it on the side, but she’s discovered recently that modeling isn’t really her main passion in life—creating art is. The toxicity in the industry is what keeps pushing Stefanie away from the industry. 

Back on the set of ANTM in 2013, Stefanie walked into Banks’ on-set trailer and sat next to her. Banks wore a white robe, getting ready for filming. Stefanie tearfully told Banks, “I’m sorry… I just didn’t realize how stressful it was gonna be, and I just don’t want you guys to be pissed at me. I wanna leave, like, on a positive note.” In response, Banks supportively told her, “I’m proud of you because you’re taking [care of] your health first.” Banks even said she hoped to one day photograph Stefanie and see her again on Top Model, to which she replied, “You will, I promise.”

I don’t want Tyra to be upset with me. I don’t want to let her down, because she hand-picked me, and I don’t want her to think it’s a slap in the face.

— Stefanie Lin

(Richard Flores)

Stefanie told Banks that she was leaving the show because of the added stress she was under from her gender transition and hormone therapy. But now, years later, she explained to Inside Fullerton that this was not the real reason she left. Stefanie had actually been taking hormones years prior to the show. The hormone reasoning behind her leaving was just a scapegoat so she could get the hell out of there. She knew it would be a good excuse.

“I don’t want Tyra to be upset with me. I don’t want to let her down, because she hand-picked me and I don’t want her to think it’s a slap in the face,” she said in her confessionals on the show. Although she wishes she could have lasted longer in the competition, she says she’s proud of herself for having the courage to leave a situation she knew wasn’t right for her. When she walked off the show, Stefanie was taking a stand against the toxic nature of reality TV.

Stefanie first developed her interest in modeling in 2009 when she was scouted at age 16 while shopping at the Irvine Spectrum Center. Her parents were unsure about the scout and were overprotective at the time, so her first real foot in the door didn’t come until her appearance on the 20th season of America’s Next Top Model. She explains that her passion for modeling stems from her interests in makeup and fashion and her love for becoming a character. Modeling is the way she expresses her creative self. A lot of her inspiration comes from anime, particularly Sailor Moon, which she grew up watching. She literally just wants to be an anime girl in the real world.

“I feel like that inner child in you never dies. It’s like no matter what happens on the outside shell, you have to keep that little spirit alive. Heal it and then let that bitch free,” says Stefanie.

In December 2012, Stefanie submitted her picture to the Red Lip Smize contest, where aspiring Top Model participants would submit their selfies taken from the “Smize Yourself” app to Instagram. To smize means to smile with your eyes, a term coined by Banks. In one week’s time, Banks announced the winners of the contest who would have a chance to attend the cycle 20 casting in LA. Stefanie says she was sitting on her bed with her ex-boyfriend in the room when her picture was revealed after five other girls.

“I remember when my picture got revealed, I screamed like bloody murder from my room and my sister came running thinking that my ex-boyfriend was beating me. And I was like, oh my god, I got on, I got on, and she was just gagged for me,” she says. 

But that thrill of being picked by Tyra didn’t last long. Stefanie says that she was treated poorly by the show’s production team while on set. On one occasion, while getting her hair and makeup done backstage before the first episode’s masquerade ball fashion show, production planted a sign with Stefanie’s dead name, her birth name, on the racks with all the other girls’ names. One of the girls in the room shouted, “There’s a boy in here?!” And a camera immediately panned over to where she was seated. She says this scenario was staged to cause a reaction out of her.

(Richard Flores)

Despite her tumultuous exit from the show, Stefanie says she still has a lot of respect for Tyra Banks because she feels that the show has helped a lot of young people who felt different see a version of themselves on TV. However, she is not happy with the way she was treated by the production team, and she feels that as a producer Banks had to be aware of what was going on behind the scenes. Inside Fullerton attempted to reach Banks and network VH-1 for comment but could not get in contact with them. When she first stopped filming and went back home, she says she didn’t regret it—it was after, when the show aired, that it took a toll on her.

“I regretted it because I felt like I lost my chance at fame. I felt like I had this shot of, like, the world kind of in my hands. And then I let it go. And that fucked me up for years,” she says. Stefanie was invited by producers to apply again for cycle 21, but at the time she declined.

Hypothetically, if the show were to be renewed after being canceled by network VH-1 in 2018, Stefanie says that she would do the show again.  Still, she thinks Banks needs to come back and “properly apologize for her sins”—not just to her, but in regard to the controversies that have been brought to light since the show has been off the air for five years. 

Stefanie isn’t the first ANTM contestant to publicly speak out against the show. Jeana Turner, Alopecia-disease model/advocate and runner-up of cycle 24, has uploaded videos to YouTube in which she dishes her heavy criticism and bad experiences on set. Before filming cycle 24 in 2018, Turner had begun her career as a Playboy model. Turner told Banks at the panel, “Sex sells and you’ve said that on the show, and I just found out that that worked for my career.” In response, Banks allegedly crossed her arms and told Turner, “I don’t like that. You sound like a fucking prostitute,” then turned to the side and wouldn’t look at Turner for the entire time. Turner says she bawled her eyes out after this.

In cycle four from 2005 and cycle 13 from 2009, there were photoshoot challenges involving darkening girls’ skin to portray them as a different race than their own. Viewers today find these challenges to be racist, and these episodes would never be aired today.

Still, Stefanie credits the show for helping break barriers for trans models. During her stint on ANTM, Stefanie emotionally talks about her admiration for Isis King of 2008’s cycle 11 and 2011’s cycle 17, another transgender contestant who appeared on the show.

King had been living at the Ali Forney Transitional Living Program when she learned about an opportunity to be a background model in a photoshoot about homeless youth for cycle 10. King asked the creative director of the shoot, Jay Manuel, whether she would be considered for the show as she was a girl “born in the wrong body.” After that, Banks told her team to encourage King to apply based on her incredible work in the photoshoot. Stefanie remembers watching the show air when she was 14 or 15.

“For me, seeing Isis on cycle 11 really made it clear to me, like I need to get on hormones right away. I need to live my life authentically,” she says. “There’s no more fucking around. Like, I know what I am.”

Like, you guys want me to pretend to be a boy. But I don’t relate to boys. I don’t feel like a boy. Like, I don’t feel like a human, honestly, in this body.

— Stefanie Lin

(Richard Flores)

Knowing who she was from as early as she can remember, Stefanie says she couldn’t come up with the language for being trans—she just was. She recalls a memory her parents used to share with her from when she was 18 months old.

“If we were walking through Toys ‘R’ Us or they took me shopping or something, I would always grab for girl toys and girl stuff,” she says. “And they were a little confused but they thought, oh, she’s young, like let her get what she wants. So yeah, I guess it was just from birth, honestly, like something was wrong.” 

The earliest Stefanie could communicate her gender dysphoria was when she was about two years old, bathing with her younger sister. “My mom was doing bath time, and it’s like I was just confused. Like, wait, why does mine not look like hers? And my mom was like, oh, ’cause you know, boys have penises. Girls have vaginas. And I’m like… something’s off. Something’s not clicking,” she says.

It wasn’t until Stefanie was 14 or 15 that she had the language to articulate her identity and explain who she was to her family, but she was always honest with them about who she was. “I feel like I’m walking around in a costume,” she says, recalling her early years. “Like, you guys want me to pretend to be a boy. But I don’t relate to boys. I don’t feel like a boy. Like, I don’t feel like a human, honestly, in this body.”

(Richard Flores)

Stefanie, now 30 years old, grew up in La Habra, California, with a loving and accepting family. Growing up, Stefanie and her sister were raised mostly by their grandma and grandpa, because her parents were usually busy at work. Although her mom’s side of the family leans more conservative, Stefanie says they had no choice but to learn to accept who she was.

“Overall, they saw who I was when I was like three or four years old and they were like, there’s no stopping this girl. We just got to let her blossom,” she says. She is grateful for the people who helped raise her because they were “free spirits” who helped guide her to be her unapologetic self. 

Although Stefanie’s family was accepting, life wasn’t always easy outside of the home. She looks back to her upbringing in the 1990s to 2000s as a trans youth and thinks that growing up in North OC was “decent” compared to other environments. However, she faced a lot of bullying growing up from preschool to high school. Stefanie thinks that growing up elsewhere could have made a difference in school for her.

She believes that if she went to a school in LA or a city with a more diverse group of kids, she might have felt more accepted. “OC is definitely more conservative, but on top of that La Habra is such a tiny town with a heavy religious influence,” says Stefanie. “It made it a lot harder for me.” 

It was the great support system she had in her family and love from her friends that has helped Stefanie get through the tough times. She calls her friend Izzy Zoriki “bodyguard” because she’ll be scoping out every room that they walk into. Stefanie and Izzy have been friends for 10 years now, after meeting in high school through Stefanie’s sister, Danielle.

“Stef and I have a special bond because we both know what it’s like to battle with anxiety, especially in social settings,” says Zoriki. “There’s been times when we go out and get people who stare or judge which is normal. I know how much shit she’s gone through in her life, and I’m always trying to make her feel comfortable in any situation, because she deserves that.”

Besides modeling, Stefanie says that making art and acting are things that she wants to explore more. Stefanie has always drawn her own anime-related characters. She says she was good at making art when she was younger, but she also associates it with a difficult time. When she hit puberty, Stefanie says she became “so depressed,” but that was also when she was creating the artwork that she most loved.

“I loved the work I was making, but it made me feel really sad when I would look back at it,” says Stefanie. So, she stopped art altogether from ages 11 to 19, until she courageously decided to pick it back up again. “I think my mind became so preoccupied with the fear of puberty and all the shit I was dealing with in school, I turned inward and lost my passion for art. Where I’m at now is trying to rekindle that passion.” 

(Richard Flores)

More recently, she’s tried to make deeper paintings about dysphoria and how debilitating the condition is. Stefanie thinks transferring ideas onto paper can be difficult, so she’s still trying to find the right medium. She’d love to get into tattoo art or sell a clothing line someday, featuring her designs. On her left arm, she has a distinct tattoo of a shooting star that she got when she was 29. When she was a teen, she would always wish upon a shooting star for a happier life. Even though she thinks it’s corny now, it’s something that helped her get through those hard times.

After leaving America’s Next Top Model in 2013, Stefanie took a hiatus from her modeling career on a journey to self-discovery. During that time, she attended Fullerton College from 2017 to 2019 as a sociology major. At first, she was doing prerequisites for nursing, occasionally stopping by Made Coffee for a lavender matcha latte between classes. But that wasn’t the right path for her. During her first organic chemistry class, she says she cried and ran out minutes into the first class session. She’s considered going back to school, but she’s never been a fan of the education system.

“Bitch, I don’t like school. I don’t work with school. It ain’t right. I feel like a caged animal. Like, I can’t do it. Homework, tests, essays—no, I’m good,” she says.

In the fall of 2019, Stefanie left her abusive ex and was starting her life over when a casting agent contacted her. This casting agent was from the first and only trans-exclusive modeling agency based in LA. He invited her to participate in a weeklong modeling competition with 19 other trans women from all over the world. Stefanie was excited to finally make her modeling comeback at age 26, signing to the agency in March of 2020.

She admits the first year of work was good—she did an intimates campaign for Esra the Label, a Pride campaign for Hot Topic, and appeared on a Ricky Martin music video for his song “Qué Rico Fuera.” By the end of 2021, she and the other girls were in disagreement with the agency and left together. In September 2021, Stefanie broke her two-year contract with the agency. Stefanie publicly trashed the agency on her Instagram stories, breaking her non-disclosure agreement, and says she received a cease and desist order. Since then, she’s been working independently without an agent. In 2022, Stefanie did two campaigns for Halsey’s beauty brand, About-Face Beauty. 

(Richard Flores)

For the aspiring models hungry to get into the industry, Stefanie says a common mistake newbies make is accepting any job they get. She explains that taking any job might make you less appealing to clients. “If there’s images of you out there doing something that really isn’t your brand or your vibe, it can deter a lot of clients. It’s not every client—but it does happen,” she says. She also thinks that the modeling industry needs to have less tokenism when it comes to inclusion.

Although a decade has passed since Stefanie Lin graced our TV screens on America’s Next Top Model, she hasn’t let that creative and captivating spark in her die just yet. Stefanie is constantly evolving like the Pokemon she’s inspired by, and she’s frequently strengthening her passions and talents, too. She’s not afraid to fight for what she wants, even if it means getting a little messy. Just like Top Model and her signature shooting star tattoo, the sky’s the limit for Stefanie—and she plans to test that limit by staying “on top.”

 

Taken from the Fall 2023 print issue of Inside Fullerton. Read it here.

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