Emira D’Spain’s rose-colored glasses are both a fashion accessory and a way of life
“If there’s a glowup challenge, I’m gonna slay,” writes Emira D’Spain in the caption(Opens in a new tab) of one of her glimmeringly saturated TikTok posts. Her page is full of makeup recommendations, beauty tutorials, and plastic surgery vlogs, but this post stands out, a quick montage of childhood photos showing pre-transition D’Spain. It’s tagged #TransAndProud🏳️⚧️.
With more than a million followers on the app, D’Spain has solidified a place in the culture. Her buzz online largely falls within three main areas: her popular social pages, news about her being the first Black transgender model signed to Victoria’s Secret(Opens in a new tab), or coverage about her recent gender confirmation surgery(Opens in a new tab).
The 26-year-old is either a “TikTokker turned model” or a “viral beauty influencer” — both of which are true — but she told Mashable those simplified titles are a little bit misleading.
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“I went to NYU on a merit-based scholarship, and I was top of my class in marketing and communications,” she said. D’Spain studied in Paris and wrote her thesis on forms of anonymity in online spaces. “I was a very studious girlboss. I was working for a marketing agency, so I was booking influencers for campaigns and coming up with campaign concepts for brands. I have such a broad, 360 understanding of this whole industry. I went from marketing to editorial to talent.”
Descriptions of D’Spain’s rise to popularity often leave out her career before TikTok, which was already well on its way toward fashion prominence. D’Spain had led editorial content at Paper(Opens in a new tab) magazine since her beginnings as a college intern, and curated a following with the magazine’s first YouTube beauty series, Snatchural(Opens in a new tab). By 2021, she was the magazine’s beauty director and her TikTok page(Opens in a new tab), started as a cross-posting effort amid pandemic lockdown fever, was gaining numbers, as well.
Part of this was due in part to D’Spain’s bubbly, bare-it-all openness about her identity as a trans woman, which became the guiding perspective for the publication’s beauty coverage.
“I’ve never once been questioned for who I am,” she reflected on her personal and professional support system. “Everyone has let me blossom and let me be me. It’s really paid off.”
On Oct. 3, 2021, D’Spain officially announced her name change(Opens in a new tab) to the magazine’s readers, taking to the site that had cemented her place in the online fashion canon. The Paper article, written by D’Spain in her quintessential “bestie” voice to the readers who had followed her beauty career, cited other openly trans celebs like YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous, actor and model Hunter Schafer, and actor Elliot Page as inspiration.
“This past weekend I threw a literal BIRTH day for myself and my new name — debuting as Emira D’Spain. There are few transgender women who have the platform I do (let alone trans women of color) and this birthday served as an opportunity to introduce myself but also to leverage my platform for the greater health and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community,” she wrote. “Of course, I started preparing all my looks months in advance to look perfect for this pivotal moment.”
From there, it all took off.
I’m not just like every other beauty bitch. There’s so much more to the story.
D’Spain became the trailblazing pioneer of TikTok’s iteration of Get Ready With Me (GRWM) videos — the app’s #GRWM tag now has more than 85 billion videos. Her community of so-called “C*nty Barbies” delighted in her daily content about the beauty industry, her routine and product recommendations, and her gradual shift from behind-the-scenes to the talent side of the beauty industry.
Ushering in magazine covers and a wave of runway work (culminating in her walking at New York Fashion Week this year), D’Spain became a history-making addition to the Victoria’s Secret lineup of models in 2022, which, she says, wasn’t presented to her as a diversity or representational push from a company facing its own controversy(Opens in a new tab) and rebrand(Opens in a new tab).
“It was more so, ‘We love your look.’ It was not a really crazy PR push from there. We didn’t really expect it to pop off and become a whole thing,” D’Spain remembers. Instead, her followers and the larger beauty community celebrated the deal as an inclusivity win, following a long battle for trans inclusion that gained traction years prior, as the world clamored for model Carmen Carrera to become the first trans woman to sport the angel wings(Opens in a new tab).
This beauty-first mentality is at the heart of D’Spain’s online posting ethic. Mashable asked her where she feels her place is on an app like TikTok, which has become a community-building and organizing space for young, LGBTQ people(Opens in a new tab).
“I think my brand is very fun, big-sister energy. I never had a big sister, so I’ve always wanted to be that for other people,” she said. Presenting her expertise and growing popularity in the beauty industry is a form of visibility in and of itself, she says, and her broad commitment to authenticity often means trans identity is also folded into the glittery mix.
“Simply existing on TikTok and sharing my life as a trans woman of color in New York City — living the life that I do, having the friends and experiences and education that I have, all these things that are so unique to me — gives people a broader understanding of what a trans person looks like,” D’Spain explained. “We’re just people. [My identity] is not some weird thing, something that they have these preconceived notions about in their head, especially with older generations.”
Credit: Emira D’Spain
Unlike many other LGBTQ creators on TikTok, though, D’Spain explained that she decided to step away from using her page as an educational or organizing tool.
“I chose to build my platform that way because I didn’t want to center my identity around being trans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it didn’t feel authentic to my personality and who I am,” she explained. “I don’t see my account sitting within the queer creator community, because I don’t want to take away from the content that they’re creating. I feel like for a lot of queer creators that focus their platforms around their identity, they’re talking about activism and they’re talking about politics — things that matter, things that are changing our world and that we have to fight for. And while, yes, I try to talk about those things in a light-hearted, funny way, it’s not what I came on the app to do.”
D’Spain’s honest assessment of her page’s place in the TikTok ecosystem is a refreshing note within an influencer system that often rewards(Opens in a new tab) superficial claims of activism(Opens in a new tab). But she may be selling herself a bit short: Even though LGBTQ politics might not be a specific bullet point in her page’s brand description or a common topic in her daily vlogging, she’s still making an effort to advance the cause.
For instance, D’Spain’s announcement of her XOXOEmira change was paired with a fundraiser for the National Center for Transgender Equality(Opens in a new tab). For TikTok’s 2022 celebration of Transgender Day of Visibility, D’Spain and Paper joined other creators for the app’s #TransVisibility takeover(Opens in a new tab), which recognized TikTok as a “place to give voice and visibility to historically marginalized communities by amplifying their voices.” They also promoted and donated to the It Gets Better Project(Opens in a new tab) and Trans Lifeline(Opens in a new tab).
In February, D’Spain was recognized as a TikTok Visionary Voice, joining other Black creators honored for their significant contributions to the app, and now, on Transgender Day of Visibility, she will be recognized as a leading voice among TikTok’s LGBTQ community.
And although her content is not centered on activism, her Get Ready With Me, big-sister approach has resonated with a massive audience, extending a hand of familiarity and acceptance by sharing huge moments in her life. D’Spain debated joining the public conversation about gender affirmation surgeries — highly politicized, yet life-saving procedures that she ultimately did choose to vlog about, herself.
“My biggest accomplishment is continuing my transition in the public eye,” she said. Her February TikTok video chronicling her gender affirmation surgery(Opens in a new tab) has more than 10 million views.
“I went back and forth for six months, actually, deciding whether or not I was going to talk about it online. I really didn’t want to, but I felt that I had to,” she said. “And I am glad that I did. I want [my audience] to see that I’m not just a pretty face putting on makeup. I’m not just like every other beauty bitch. There’s so much more to the story.”
D’Spain’s comments pose additional questions: Should her worth as a representational force in a highly exclusive, historically problematic industry depend on how much activism we see on her feeds? How much of her personal story needs to be on display? Is her presence enough?
“I don’t know if I ever felt like I was that accepted in the beauty space until now, and even then there are still tables in which there are not seats for me,” she said, quickly transitioning the serious lean of the conversation into her trademarked positive outlook. “But I think it’s fine. It’s like…goals and missions to accomplish. Life would be so boring if I was accepted into every single thing that I wanted. What would be the point? What would I fight for?”
On her extremely upbeat outlook, truly a feat given the challenging social and political environment she’s operating in, D’Spain said, “I’m a very positive person. Sometimes it’s a little much. It gives toxic positivity, even for myself.”
She’s made an intentional effort to avoid negativity, she explained. “We’re all going to die. We’re all going to be eaten by worms one day. So why are we going to be frowning about it?”
My biggest piece of advice to every trans person out there is to take your time. There is no rush.
D’Spain’s positivity isn’t just up against general and politicized negativity toward her life and identity, she’s also choosing to solidify her career in a space that’s facing its own foundation-shaking scrutiny. Traditional beauty content and product marketing, as well as their opponents, have found in TikTok an arena for dialogue and deconstruction. Pro- and anti-aging creators stand opposite each other, selling products or convincing women of their worth beyond their appearance. Advocates for and against plastic surgery discuss the normalization of procedures to young audiences(Opens in a new tab) and the practice of professionals offering unprompted “cosmetic advice.“(Opens in a new tab) Many others are promoting the notion of complete body neutrality.
As she chronicles her various, gender-affirming cosmetic treatments or posts ad spots with beauty brands, what does D’Spain think about it all?
“In terms of preservation,” she explained, noting that she despises both the phrases “anti-aging” and “pro-aging,” “what you want to preserve with your face, or what you want to take care of with your body, it’s such an individual choice. I don’t think anyone should be judging another person for it.”
Gender affirmation also factors into her perspective on the beauty world.
“I think a lot of trans people really heavily focus their identity, and their trans identity, around their external beauty, around ‘passing’ or looking like the gender they identify with,” she explained, noting her experience is just that: her own.
“I feel like you have to do the internal work first. My biggest piece of advice to every trans person out there is to take your time. There is no rush. You don’t have to have all the plastic surgery work done, the hair, lashes, makeup — embrace who you are. Embrace your body. Know that your gender identity is your gender identity. You are already that person. And you will get there over time.”
For decades, trans bodies have been interrogated, socially policed, and made the epicenter of legislative debates about human rights. In many communities, queer or straight, the problematic notion of “passing,” or not being perceived as transgender, (something D’Spain gets comments about a lot) has rendered many complex conversations about gender presentation and social acceptance into superficial conversations on beauty.
But with perspectives like that shared by D’Spain and other strikingly open folks like her, many hope the public perception of trans and gender nonconforming identities will evolve beyond this limited scope and closer to the reality of affirmation and transformation.
“The trans experience is just so special. Over time, your relationship with beauty becomes less toxic. It becomes less about concealing, about hiding, and more about coming into yourself.”