Life & Culture

‘I want to show people it’s fine to be trans’

Israeli transgender model Stav Strashko hopes her move to acting will send a positive message to society


A coffee date with Stav Strashko goes something like this: we arrange to meet at The Norman, Tel Aviv’s most exclusive boutique hotel, but there’s no space at the bar. The first rains have just descended on the city so the outdoor terrace is closed. But Strashko wants to sit out there, so she takes control of the situation, politely speaking with staff. Within minutes, a table is found, coffee is brewed, wet chairs are wiped and we begin our interview. All the while, heads are turning in our direction and I can tell you they’re not looking at me.

At 5 foot 10 inches tall with razor sharp cheekbones and flawless skin, Strashko cuts a noticeable figure, but she’s also very famous in Israel. As the country’s most successful transgender model and actress, her profile is on the rise. She takes all the attention on the chin, not flinching when people come closer to listen in on our conversation and to soak up some of her ever increasing star power.

But life wasn’t always like this for the 27 year-old. Born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, Stav moved to Israel aged two, when her parents decided the time was right for a new life in the Jewish state.

“It was two years after the Soviet Union broke apart,” Strashko explains. “My family was looking for an excuse to move out and run away as fast as possible. My grandfather moved here first and a year later he sent the message “come here,” so we came. I was a little child so I had no say in it.”

The family settled in Ramat Gan. “I’m lucky,” she says. “A lot of Russian immigrants went very far away to the north or south, but we were lucky to start our lives here close to Tel Aviv.”

Strashko attended local schools, but when her teenage years hit, she realised life wasn’t going to follow a clear-cut path.

“I studied programming and physics when what I really wanted to do was acting or film-making, and it was not me. I didn’t connect to the subjects, nor to the kids at school. I always knew that I was different, but nobody ever told me what it was. I was already very feminine but I didn’t know that there is such as thing as transgender, so I grew up very confused and I didn’t really know where to start.”

This led her to rebel against school, family and fashion.

“At 14, I ran away; I got myself pierced; I became this goth kid that disappears from home for days and runs around the streets of Tel Aviv. I became a goth because that was the closest thing to what I wanted to be. I was very confused.”

Things changed dramatically when Strashko was 16.

“I was sitting on the floor in Dizengoff Square, drawing in my notebook, when an Israeli stylist passed by me. He came over and said ‘I don’t know what I just saw, but I knew I had to stop.’ He had never scouted anyone in the street before, but he said ‘I had to drop my shopping bags and give you my card. Call me.”

Soon after Strashko began working part-time as a model. “Stylists immediately put me in unisex, androgynous fashion; you’d look at the picture and wonder is that a boy or a girl? I realised that it was hard for the Israeli market to see somebody like me in a big campaign or on a billboard. So I realised I had to get out of Israel to make my career start.”

In 2008, Strashko started her own blog where she would write and post photos about her fashion shoots and life experiences.

“Slowly it started going viral,” she explains. “I got a fan base and then I got more interest from abroad. I was invited to walk for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. They paid for my ticket and my hotel but in the end it didn’t happen. In the fitting they gave me shoes that were a bit small. They like this very cold, soldier-like walk in the fashion shows and I couldn’t do it; I walked like a Victoria’s Secret model with my hips swinging everywhere and they were like ‘OK, that’s nice, but it’s not what we’re looking for,’ so they sent me back to the hotel. But they sent me an invitation to the show. I saw Selma Hayek and Katy Perry and for me as a 17- year-old that was amazing.”

Her big break came soon after when she was cast in a Toyota campaign in Japan. The resultant ad, which features a flat-chested, pre-transitioned Strashko posing in nothing but red underpants made a stir, particularly online, and the salary paid for her to spend a year in Japan.

“Every penny I earned I wasted on good living,” she says. “Sushi; fried Japanese food, clothes, cabs, clubs — and then I ran out of money and I came back to Israel.” Modelling work for Diesel followed and soon, Strashko began acting.

“I had a two minute role in an Israeli show; I played a male prostitute,” she laughs. She was in New York when she was invited by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit to audition for their new film, Flawless.

Flawless tells the story of a teenage transgender girl, Eden, who battles bullies, body-image worries and — in a surprisingly dark twist — an organ trafficker, during the course of her final year at a Jerusalem high school.

“They really wanted the role of Eden to be played by a transgender actress. They’d been seeing actresses for a year and they hadn’t found what they wanted. Then Sharon read an article about me in Teen Vogue, the article where I came out as transgender. They immediately contacted me and we did the audition over Skype.

“When I read the script I literally started crying,” she says. “I really wished I had had something like this to watch as a kid. When I was young, there were a few movies where the main character was LGBT, but mostly they had tragic endings. Flawless doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending but it’s realistic. I knew that if I wanted to start my acting career, I had to get this role.”

The directors were impressed, but as Strashko had never studied acting, they weren’t sure she could carry the weight of an entire film on her shoulders.

“I came to Israel to rehearse with them, and after that they knew I was the one. I went back to NYC, stated working with an acting coach, then had three months rehearsing and two months of filming.”

Evidently Strashko is proud of the film. “There are a lot of really important subjects in it,” she says. “Not only my character; there’s also an Ethiopian girl who experiences racism. Then there’s the way girls see themselves. A lot of girls want to alter their bodies from a very young age and it’s wrong. They should be playing and studying — not worrying.”

She shot the movie in 2017 before she started hormone therapy for her transition. “I am very privileged,” she says. “Because I grew up wanting to be a girl and luckily, even before my transition, people would mistake me as a girl all the time, even before I came out as transgender. I was lucky to be born like that. A lot of other transgender people have to go through a lot of changes and rough things to get closer to what they wanna be and I never felt like I needed that. But I do feel different now. The hormones changed me a lot - my face and hips became a little more round. But I don’t like plastic surgery. Maybe one day when I’ll need it, but not now.”

The movie was highly acclaimed in Israel, and she was nominated for Best Actress at the Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards. “I am the first transgender actress to be nominated for this award, so I think I’ve proved myself quite a bit.”

Strashko is ready to fight for other meaningful acting roles. “I want to play a tragic role, someone going through rough stuff. Or a very strong woman, but I’m open to everything. I’m every woman!”

She would love to play a woman who was born a woman and not be confined to transgender roles.

“I really want to get roles of a cisgender woman. I think it could be a great message to society. Although saying that, playing trans roles helps to spread the word. In 2019, almost 2020, there are a still a lot of people who don’t know anything about transgender and they have a lot of backwards thinking.

“I’ve been touring the movie around Israel. I meet kids who have watched the movie. I now have a big hope for the younger generation. I meet wonderful kids. They ask smart questions. They care about what it was like for me to go through what I went through. And the more representation we have in cinema – the more transgender roles that have depth to them — the better it’s going to be.”

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