Jari Jones didn’t mean to be a part of history—she just meant to be herself. The actress, artist, and model has served as an influential and essential creative within New York’s vibrant queer community for years now. But earlier this summer, Jones became a bona fide star when her likeness—in all its skin-glowing, red lip-wearing, big hoop-donning glory—graced a massive billboard in Manhattan as one of the latest faces of Calvin Klein’s 2020 Pride campaign.
For once, it wasn’t a Hadid sister or adjacent celeb being “the face” for a legacy fashion brand. Instead, the starring subject was a proud Black trans woman being wholly, authentically, and unapologetically herself. The scenario shouldn’t be a revelation in the year 2020, but if the last few weeks in America and beyond have proven anything, oftentimes simply being a Black woman daring to exist is a revolutionary act in itself.
Jones took to Instagram to share her joy over the moment, with candid snapshots showing her popping a bottle of champagne in front of her biggest accomplishment yet, beaming with joy, posing alongside masked-up friends, and FaceTiming loved ones so they, too, could celebrate the occasion.
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There are moments that I heard about, that help you forget when the world told you “Never” !!! . . There are these moments I heard about about that help you heal when the society has tried to beat you down , over and over again. . . There are these very real moments that I heard about that help you feel affirmed even when you don’t see yourself. . . I’ve been searching my whole life for those moments, I got tired of looking for those moments. . . So I decided to create them. Not for me but for the next dreamer, outcast, queer, trans, disabled, fat, beautiful black, piece of starlight waiting for their moment to shine. . . It has been such an honor and pleasure to sit in my most authentic self and present imagery of a body that far to often has been demonized, harassed , made to feel ugly and unworthy and even killed. . . I present this image ,myself and all that my body stands for to my community and chosen family, in hope that they see themselves more clearly than ever and further realize that they are worthy of celebration , of compassion , of love and gratitude. . . – Thank you to @ryanmcginleystudios and the @calvinklein family for a collaboration that will hopefully be a symbol of hope and love during these moments. BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER!! . . . . #calvinklein #blacklivesmatter #blacktranslivesmatter #transisbeautiful #queer #celebratemysize #actress #honormycurves #pride? #bodydiversity #soho #effyourbeautystandards #curvygirl #curvemodel #influencer #billboard #plussize #plusmodel #influencer #plussizemodel #bodypositive #swimwear #campaign #newyork #melanin #model #ad #sponsored
“It has been such an honor and pleasure to sit in my most authentic self and present imagery of a body that far to often has been demonized, harassed , made to feel ugly and unworthy and even killed,” wrote Jones in her celebratory post. “I present this image ,myself and all that my body stands for to my community and chosen family, in hope that they see themselves more clearly than ever and further realize that they are worthy of celebration , of compassion , of love and gratitude.”
But Jones’s standout campaign is just the beginning. At a time when Black trans women are finally being included within the conversations fueling the fight for equality and justice in America, she knows that her voice, her image, and her influence are more important than ever. Ahead, we speak with the boundary-breaking model about how her campaign came to be, what it means for the queer community, and why Black trans women finally have the floor amid the Black Lives Matter movement.
Take us back to when you first got the call, the email, the message that Calvin Klein wanted you to be part of this campaign and what bringing it to life was like.
It’s actually a very interesting story. Let’s put this on a Tuesday, right? So on a Tuesday, I got booked for another huge campaign. And it was supposed to be one of those game changers, that, one, I was in it, and, two, what they were doing for plus-size models, bringing a more editorial style for this brand, right? So Tuesday, they were excited. They were like, “We’re going to confirm with you on Wednesday and everything.” So I’m excited—it’s one of those big moments in my career, where I’m like, holy shoot. So on Wednesday morning, I was doing a show in New York with one of my friends, and I get an email during rehearsal that the shoot was being canceled and that the producers dropped out.
They didn’t think it was going to be the right move for them right now, and basically, it was done. I was so upset, and it was one of those things where it’s like, I’m finally getting to where I worked so hard to get to, and this is pulled from right under the rug.
So I was on my way to the train, and I get this email, and it said in the subject, “Jari Jones” with a little x sign, “Calvin Klein,” and I’m like, “Wait, what?” I’m reading this email, and it’s basically saying, “We’d love for you to be part of the Calvin Klein family. We’ve been watching you and your work and your group throughout a couple of months now. We want you to basically be like a brand ambassador kind of thing.” And then at the end, it’s like, “And we have this campaign, if you want to be a part of it,” right? “It’s just this little Pride campaign that we’re doing.” And I’m like, “Of course.”
I’m freaking out on this train, I’m in tears. I’m like, “Oh, my God, how the universe just works, give you something that you thought you wanted, completely wipes your table off, and then gives you something you never expected.” So it was amazing. What was funny about that is I was talking to my partner on that Tuesday, and they asked me if the campaign I was previously going to do, was it my dream, right? And I said, “Well, it’s one of my dreams.” And they asked me what was my biggest. I was like, “I would love to do Calvin Klein.”
This is my first huge, huge, like, monumental campaign. I’ve done other ones in New York, but this was a big one.
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“#Pride started for me when I decided to rebel against everything I was wrongly taught about myself.” – Jari Jones . . So excited to share with my community and the world the Calvin Klein Pride Campaign 2020 shot by the incomparable @ryanmcginleystudios , in support of @outrightintl !! Donation Link in IG Story !!! #proudinmycalvins @calvinklein . . . . #calvinklein #blacktranslivesmatter #transisbeautiful #queer #celebratemysize #actress #honormycurves #pride? #bodydiversity #effyourbeautystandards #curvygirl #curvemodel #influencer #visiblyplussize #plussize #plusmodel #influencer #plussizemodel #bodypositive #swimwear #campaign #newyork #melanin #model #ad #sponsored
Tell us what you want others to feel when they see that giant billboard. And what did this campaign as a whole represent for you on a larger scale?
The photographer I’ve shot with many times, Ryan [McGinley], is a dear friend of mine. So even going into that, knowing that he was going to shoot, it was amazing. And there were so many … so much diversity on staff. A lot of queer people, a lot of people of color … . It was great. So to see that image and to see it gave me—for me at least, it was a symbol of what community can do, right? When you put beautiful people together that are like-spirited or like-minded and what art you can create. And I think for the outside people who don’t necessarily identify with the identities that I align with, it gives them a sense of possibilities of what our society can look like.
I’ve gotten so many images of people taking pictures by it. But I think the images that really strike me are the ones of Black Lives Matter protests happening right in front of it. I think they correlate so much together. The idea that we’re fighting out for our lives and for survival and even subgroups of Black Lives Matter, like Black Trans Lives Matter, to see a Black trans woman on a billboard that big being celebrated and being respected, it’s something other worldly, right? And it almost gives this idea, this visual blueprint of where we can head to, where we can see our future heading to. So it’s like a symbol of hope, a symbol of the future. It’s right there in front of you, of where we can push forward to. So I think when a lot of LGBT youth or plus-size youth or Black youth, see those possibility models, it allows them to know that their dreams are still possible, to know that their work is not for nothing, that they can push forward and get to success like that.
When you think of the Black Lives Matter movement and how it’s evolved throughout the years, we know that Black trans women were not initially a part of that narrative in the beginning. So we would love to hear why you think right now, in 2020, people are starting to really give the trans community the attention it deserves as we fight for equality and we fight for justice in America.
I think when Black Lives Matter came out, I think the idea of really trying to push forward the idea of all Black lives matter was really the initial idea. When you’re dealing with an oppressed community, right, you try to group us all together, right? We’re trying to group ourselves together, like we’re all Black, right? No matter what. But there are these things where subculture does play a big key part, especially with the rate of trans women being murdered in the United States. So I think this year, because of the conversation that’s happening around trans women, especially Black trans women, it’s inevitable that that wouldn’t be a focus or wouldn’t be centered, right? It has to be, because without the liberation of Black queer people, there is no liberation of Black queer people and Black people in general, right? Because we’re all Black, we all … hold identity, and when we go into these rooms, people are going to see my Blackness before they see anything else, right? So I have to be included in this conversation.
So with that, I think there is power in centering the most marginalized in your community. And I think people are seeing that. They’re also seeing that Black trans women or Black queer people have been at the forefront of a lot of these movements, right? Have started them, have created them, have nurtured them, right? And when you have a movement like Black Lives Matter, you have to keep your organizers, your soldiers, the way you want to say it, safe, right? Because who’s going to do the work if we’re being killed?
So I think a lot of people are starting to realize that now. And you also see this uprising of allyship, right? And how it’s modeled within protest, having people who are not flagged on the outside protecting against police. Having people offer up their platforms to allow Black, queer, especially Black trans women, speak their minds. We are going to lead a lot of this revolution. So I think the importance of your most marginalized person, because we have the least, or the most, but we have the least to lose, because we’re at the bottom at this point. And so it’s like we’re fighting out of survival, fighting out of love, and fighting out of respect for our community.
You’re someone who actively speaks about the importance of self-love and acceptance to the people in your audience and your followers. What led you to now? How did you learn to practice this importance of loving yourself as you’ve gone through life? Because regardless of identity, that’s something that everyone struggles with too.
Absolutely. It’s funny that it almost came out of all the negative impact, or policing, that has been happening in my life since I was young. There’s something to being a kid who doesn’t fit into the mold that everybody wants them to. So if I wasn’t getting that type of support and love from my environment, I had to do it myself, right? And it took me a long time to get there, most definitely, but I almost had to do it to protect myself. So I have to think about this idea all the time. Of self-love, I had to fake it ’til I make—’til I made it, right? I had to say I was beautiful, or say I was worthy, or say I was loved, even if I didn’t feel that, right?
So I had to make that a practice in my everyday until it became true, until I was able to fully recognize that I was worthy of all that, that I was being loved, that I was being supported. So the self-love part came out of something that I was having a lack of, and then just built on from there and kind of had stayed my center and my message, no matter what I do. Whether it’s in relationship, whether it’s in transition, whether it’s in body positivity, the idea of having to do that work, that inner work, is so important.
You mentioned kind of having a support system and a community around you. Who are some of the other people in your life who you’ve look to for inspiration to keep going on a daily basis?
It’s hard to single people out, but I guess one side would be the group of women that raised me. I come from a very strong group of women in my family who, excuse my French, took no shit, took no shit. So I had that kind of power instilled in me, and I’m very grateful for it because people were going to try me, and everybody knew that. Everybody knew that I was different growing up, right? So for them to recognize that and not try to heavily police me—giving me the tools to be able to handle those kinds of interactions were really great.
And my community here, the queer community here, especially the youth, they inspired me to the tens. Especially queer youth of color, they really have instilled such a different kind of confidence in me. Because they look up to me, it’s almost weird. For me to be their possibility model, I spoke about this with Calvin, but I have my group of kids that I call my kids and they called me their mother, who are really these kids who are creating out of nothing, right? Who are not given the resources or tools to be their best selves, but still, they’re finding a way to do it.
And I feel like somebody who’s been privileged and blessed to be able to gain those resources. I wanted to make space or environments for them to be able to do that in the future, even if they have to use their own resources or even if they have to work really hard to get there. I know that there’ll be a place for them to finally get to a spot or environment where they can create their best work. And I guess the love in my family, my wife and my partner, they support me so much. They really called me to a high standard, but also are very warm and inspiring and encouraging. They really make sure that I’m taking care of myself while I’m doing this. So those are the people that really hold me together.
How do you want to continue to keep the conversation going in the years to come? When it comes to the queer community and the Black trans community in the fashion and art space, how do you want to make sure that this push forward continues?
I think for me, my biggest thing is I always tell people I don’t really consider myself a model, right? I think I’ve been blessed to be put in these positions to be part of campaigns like this. But my biggest thing is not just taking a picture, or not just being in the campaign, I want to get to know the casting directors. I want to get to know the executives, because I want to be able to put people in positions where they can be celebrated and they can be made to be the representation that needs to be out there. I think I see the privilege in myself that I fit certain beauty standards, right? And I don’t represent all of what the trans community is, right? I think I fit a very niche normative, like even if I am plus size, I’m very curvaceous, I have a lot of the facial features of what beauty is right now, right?
But I want to expand past that. I think when we extend past that, we give more representation to people who are … the wide spectrum of transness, right? Or queerness or Blackness. And I think that’s how we start to better humanize people. I think people have one kind of image in media of what transness is or what plus size is, and it leaves a lot of people out. So I think my job is to get into these rooms, to make connections with these people, and then plant in people who want to do this work as well. I hope I’m not the only Black trans woman to be on a billboard this year. I hope there are other variations of transness and journey within gender or Blackness that are going to be celebrated and uplifted as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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