For our FW’19 campaign, UNFORMAT FEMININITY, we were inspired by a notion of femininity that is non-literal: a process of self-exploration and fluid expression. Each of the models in the campaign encapsulates this by rejecting types, norms, and standards, and being unapologetically themselves.

We talked with these individuals: trans model and activist Casil McArthur, multi-disciplinary artist and musician Annahstasia, and choreographer, actress, and single-mother advocate Mela Murder (photographed with her daughter, Manifest) behind the scenes at the UNFORMAT FEMININITY shoot about their careers, inspirations, and trailblazing a more inclusive path in their industries.

PERFECT NUMBER: As a brand, we love to explore Los Angeles culture/subcultures. What do you find inspiring about Los Angeles, and how do you relate to it?

MELA MURDER: I’m from and live in New York. I came to Los Angeles for the first time in 2008 when I was 18. I think I was really drawn to the fact that it’s related a lot to New York City, but there are huge differences, like the weather, for instance. And the weed, sorry, seriously. I was super drawn to that. In New York, it’s always this idea that LA is a paradise version of New York. There is still strong, creative, artistic energy here, but it doesn’t have to be so aggressive to happen or exist. So I’m like, I need to be there, I need to experience it. Beautiful people here as well. I feel like the sun does that.

MELA MURDER

CASIL MCARTHUR: I definitely prefer LA over New York, any day. I live in Colorado but am based out of LA for modeling. There is a small fashion community in Colorado. It’s pretty cool. I lived in LA with my mom from ages ten to thirteen. I did acting, modeling, singing, everything. I mean, I think every kid wants that but it’s a better career for an older person than it is a child. That’s how I feel.

PN: You relate to it differently now?

CM: Yes, when I came out here from Colorado, it was really freeing for me in a sense of being able to build friendships. Just meeting new people, being in diversity which is very rare from the small white town that I am from. So actually being able to live in something that wasn’t Colorado at a young age, I believe is very healthy for me as far as growing as a person. We moved back when I was thirteen just cause it was cost-effective. My mother still owned her house in Colorado. And then it was literally, it felt like the end of my world when we moved back to Colorado just because you know. LA is everything you want, especially when you are a young person trying to get out of your hometown.

CASIL MCARTHUR

PN: And you were building your career at such a young age, too.

CM: Yes, I was just worried that I would never be able to do anything again. I wouldn’t be able to do acting or modeling or singing because I was like, it doesn’t exist in Colorado. Then obviously, since I’ve gotten back home, I have grown a huge respect for Colorado on a sense of solitude and nature which doesn’t exist very much in cities like LA and New York. So I will forever love and appreciate the diversity and artwork that comes out of LA —  it’s completely inspiring. I have said it before: I prefer LA over New York, honestly just because there are plants here! I really enjoy driving through the Malibu mountains. I love the winding roads. I think that New York is going to be completely blindsided with what LA has to bring to the table as far as fashion goes.

PN: Because they don’t expect it?

CM: They don’t! LA is trendsetting. A lot of people in fashion in New York, think that LA is really like dinky and doesn’t, you know, they’re not like high fashion. But there’s soul and personality that comes out of California that does not come out of other places.

PN: Annahstasia, you’re from LA and still live here. How do you relate to it now as opposed to when you were a child?

Annahstasia: LA is strange for me because I feel like it’s not like being from New York where you can feel “I’m from New York.” I have pride in being from LA, but there’s not a huge sense of community here. It’s harder to find. My parents’ community and the people that they surrounded us with were artists and designers and fashion people and musicians. My parents were both designers, so we were always around creatives. But I lived a really isolated life, because they were so strict and because the city was so spread out, I really didn’t even get to live in LA.

I came back after college because before then, I just existed in my family home and in my neighborhood. And then like, everything else, I didn’t have a huge group of friends; I didn’t really have a community because I wasn’t finding people who challenge or inspire me. Now that I’m an adult and I have my own communities and have my own spaces. I enjoy the freedom of movement that LA has. LA is a bunch of hubs of cities all put together.

PN: How do you perceive societal shifts in how we think of beauty?

MM: I think the biggest example of the shift is a person like Aaron Philip. People are realizing individuals like her need to be represented. There are two sides to this wave of social media; the upside is now all people, however they identity, are getting opportunities to have a platform to speak from and be a part of different cultures.

A: There’s so much value in the combination of having a voice outside of the traditional structures of fashion and being able to create an image online, along with putting your own content out – without having to get past a gatekeeper.

PN: When you first started pursuing your various industries, did you feel like there was already a space for you? Or were you still an outlier?

MM: I think what helped me find my space was motherhood. When I got pregnant, I wasn’t happy. I thought I wasn’t going to be cast in anything. And I was dancing. While in my first acting role, I was afraid to “come out” with my pregnancy. But something came over me and I thought, do I want my daughter to feel voiceless, afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed in the world? No, I want her to feel strong and confident, and she’ll feel that if I step into my truth and own myself. I am a creative, an artist, and a mother.

CASIL MCARTHUR

CM: I started modeling at ten [as a girl] and transitioned at sixteen. I didn’t realize anything until I was thirteen, but I still lived a few years in a lie. Dipping my toes into the New York modeling world as a woman when I was sixteen, I realized I couldn’t live this lie. And I actually realized that I was a gay man before I realized I was transgender; that was hard.

I used to be very insecure, especially at the start of my transition. Nobody had my body or style. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew who I wanted to be. It took a lot of time for people. The fashion industry is a blessing and a curse. You have to be really strong in order to be in it. But, in a way, male modeling has helped my mental health, in the sense of they’re lenient on weight. I feel blessed now that my entire transition has been documented from such a young age. I try to use my platform to make space for others like me. Now, I see the industry changing.

A: It’s crucial that you have a platform to speak from. Before social media, if you were trans in the industry, they got to construct the narrative. That’s what dangerous. That’s what’s going to go against any progress. Now, we’re able to speak from our own mouths to the public.

PN: Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

MM: Junior high school. I had a crush on this boy. He didn’t like me because he said my nose was big. Before that, I never thought about it. And after that, I was like…bring out the ruler! I didn’t want to go to school or be seen. Now, I’ve learned to love it. But moments like that where things like that are being noticed, I’m not being seen for my soul. I’m being looked at for my shell. If there’s anything that I want, it’s that people should be represented not by the shell, but by their spirit.

CM: Word! The first time I remember being aware of my appearance was…I went to public school for a little bit, so I’m going to say third grade. It’s because I started modeling so young. But when you have an opportunity like that when you’re still in school, you talk about it. That’s a big mistake. I would get into fights with these two girls. They’d tell me shit like, “You’re not beautiful enough to be a model. That’s never going to happen” or “You’re ugly, you’re too tall.” I was the tallest girl in my school.

MELA MURDER

CM: [Because of modeling,] I had to start watching my weight at ten. I had to start exercising at ten. I had to look perfect at ten. To be completely honest, I’ve suffered from eating disorders since a young, young age because of it. And now I’m okay, but there are still times when I’m really afraid of relapse.

I wouldn’t eat because I wanted to lose an inch on my hips to get to New York. And I worked out for three years with a personal trainer, three hours a day, six days a week, to get my body in shape, and never got there. I have naturally wide hips. The only thing that got my hips there was taking testosterone. It narrowed me out, and then all of my problems were solved forever. It’s hard growing up as a girl, I’ll tell you that. My life as a man is so much easier. I am so much more at ease now. The testosterone has made me physically stronger. I feel leagues better with myself. But I also feel blessed for that growing up as a girl because I can see both sides of the coin.

A: Man, I feel like it [being conscious of my appearance] was pretty late. I don’t really know. The first time I felt any type of emotion about my appearance was when I was sixteen and I went into my mother’s modeling agency at the time. I said, “Mom, I want to model, like you” and she didn’t see any problem with it. My mom is 6’1″, white, beautifully structured. She’s gorgeous. You’d look at her and think, “Oh, model. Duh.” And I was short, black, curly, frizzy hair, different body type, different body structure, not slender, more athletic. I walked in there and my mom’s agent was so confused. She said, “Oh, I didn’t know you had black kids.”

And that really shook me because I don’t think I was ever very conscious that my mom was white. She’s my mom. It was the first time somebody called it out as being weird…or different, and that because we’re different. I’m not qualified for the job she had. And because I’m black, at that age, I equated it with, “because I’m black, I’m not beautiful like my mom is.”

I never tried to model again after that point; the only reason I got back into modeling was that people kept asking me to. But I never walked into an agency again and said, “I want to model.” Even when I’m invited to agencies and they ask me to take Polaroids, it feels demeaning to me. I come there with all that I am – my talents, my creativity, my soul, my personality – and they just want to take a picture. They determine whether they want you based on that image.

MM:  Yeah. They won’t even talk to you.

A: It makes you feel like a two-dimensional drawing.

CM: You’re a number. You’re just a number.

PN: Do you have any “imperfections” that you love about yourself or are drawn to in other people?

A: I love it when other people don’t stop their mouth from running — people who just like to talk, and say shit. Really organic. I’m always that person at a party who someone will talk to for three hours, and I won’t step away because I really appreciate the fact that they’re sharing themselves with me at that moment. It’s something I struggle with a lot because I feel like I hold a lot back. I make myself small in the process of empathy. So, I respect when people don’t have that kind of empathy.

Annahstasia

CM: When I look at people and see something beautiful, it comes first with personality and the sincerity of their soul. But then my favorite thing is freckles, when people are covered in freckles. I love people that have vitiligo. My best friend has vitiligo and he’s absolutely stunning. I love people with teeth gaps. I love things that aren’t necessarily considered beautiful, or they weren’t, but now they are. I like things that make somebody unique.

My favorite thing (and I always have to apologize to people) is to just stare at them. I’m not staring at them in a mean way; I’m staring at them because I think, “God damn, you’re so beautiful.” I like finding different aspects of people’s faces. I really, really, really enjoy people watching. I enjoy looking at humans, because human nature, and human bodies, and human faces are beautiful. And every single person is unique and there is something there.

MM: I like an effortless vibe. And I can feel it right away. If a person is just authentically who they are, no matter what, if you have a loud personality, if you’re quiet, or whatever, if you are living so authentically in that, I’m down. Give me all of it. I’m obsessed.

CM: Human nature. That’s what’s beautiful.