Amy Tashiana, 51, a former transgender model who carved out a successful career in the industry, shared with us her journey of self-discovery and experience in the modelling business.
It was ironic that Amy asked to meet in Bugis, a former haven for transgenders between the 1950s and ’80s. Though many of them walked the streets of Bugis during those decades, only a rare few attained commercial success like Amy. Many engaged in prostitution, and some staged bawdy cabaret shows to tease travelling seamen, in the hopes of netting a suitor.
Amy Tashiana in her younger days as a model, seen here in an OG advertisement. Photo by Lynette Lee
“Since young, I’ve always felt different,” began Amy. “When I look at the men around me, I just don’t feel the same.”
“Back then, it was easy to get medication without prescription,” continued Amy. “When I was 14, I met some like-minded friends who were older than me, and they introduced me to hormonal pills. That helped me develop a more feminine physique, including breasts.”
“So at 14 years old, I was already feeling more feminine than usual.” Blessed with good looks, Amy joined Carrie Models at the age of 17 and was soon securing modelling contracts.
When she turned 21 years old, Amy underwent a full sex reassignment operation in Bangkok. The procedures that were available in Singapore then were more physically invasive, while the surgery performed in Thailand employed mostly laser methods, which sat better with Amy. Moreover, Thailand had a culture of acceptance towards transgenders and thus she would be able to experience more freedom after her surgery, free from the claustrophobic prying in Singapore.
“After the operation, I was very excited,” said Amy, her eyes lit as if it had happened just yesterday. “Very, very excited. Very happening. I wanted to change my IC and my passport as soon as possible. I felt like I was reborn, and it felt even better than striking 4D!”
Speaking about her family, Amy shared that she has three sisters, all of whom are married and reside in Malaysia. Her mother passed away when she was just seven years old, and she didn’t get along very well with her late stepmother and father.
She recalled the moment when she returned to her house for the first time after her operation. She had not seen her father nor her stepmother for a while as she had left home for a long period of time before her operation. Despite her happiness with the success of her surgery, she could not help but feel a sense of trepidation. Her family is Muslim after all, and traditions and practices are the bedrock of the community.
“It was Hari Raya. I wore our traditional Malay dress, the baju kurung, and made lontong for [my father],” recounted Amy. “He was shocked to see me in that outfit, because I’d usually just wear pants, a baggy blouse and tie up my long hair.”
“I showed him my new ID, which reflected my gender change,” said Amy. “He just took a look, and didn’t say anything. He only told me to take care of myself.”
“I didn’t see him much after that,” she added wistfully.
Amy is considered very fortunate to have had commercial success as a transgender woman, having graced the pages of fashion magazines and advertisements, and walked for producers, choreographers and fashion designers like Francis Cheong, Daniel Boey and Rizal Ahyar. For a transgender woman to be featured meant two things: She was very attractive, and no one could tell. After her surgery, Amy continued her modelling work and eventually carved out an illustrious modelling career. She shared that she tried as much as possible not to talk when she went for casting shows, as her feminine appearance didn’t match the masculine voice. That arrangement worked out fine for Amy, who managed to shoot for big-name clients in Singapore and even travelled overseas for photo shoots.
“The client only prepares the clothes for you. They’ll ask you to change into the clothes, to see if it works on you. If it doesn’t, they’ll get you to change to other clothes. It wasn’t my job to talk to them,” said Amy with a wide grin. “Isn’t it easy to work like that?”
Amy sharing a portfolio of her work from her days as a model. Photo by Lynette Lee
When she wasn’t working, she would meet her friends at Bugis Street. “When night fell, and after everybody’s gone home, the street would be completely closed,” recalled Amy. “That’s when the coffee shops would bring out their tables and chairs, and suddenly all of us would just come in.”
“We’d come to look for company, or we’d just pose and have beauty pageants of our own,” Amy chuckled. “We’d parade up and down, and people would come just to look at us. It was a very fun place to be at the time, because the law was rather relaxed then. We could wear whatever we want, so when people came into the street to look at us, their jaws would drop to the floor.”
“Some of us would just sit and talk to people who wanted to talk to us,” Amy continued with a smile. “There was a lot going on then, with issues like fighting and drunkards roaming the street. It was a small place with a lot of ‘crocodiles’ just waiting there with their mouths open.”
“I’m part of the last generation that saw the street the way it was, until the day it closed.”
Amy sharing with us picture from a photoshoot that had her stand for four hours as each rope had to be wrapped around her individually. Photo by Lynette Lee
Today, Amy is a friend, mentor and adviser to many members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Singapore. She disclosed that many members of the younger generation have approached her for advice, and that she has even accompanied some of them on their sex reassignment operations.
“I always tell them, better think twice ah, because you cannot come back,” Amy laughed. “Once you chop it off, you cannot put it back!” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
To encourage greater communication between the older and younger generations in Singapore, Amy has created a group chat so that everybody can speak freely and easily, truly living up to the ‘big sister’ figure that she’s become to the LGBT community today. It’s obvious Amy has lost none of her charm from her younger years, and she continues to inspire those who feel troubled by their circumstances.
As we left the interview, Amy waved goodbye to us and we could almost see 17-year-old Amy Tashiana with all her girlish charm.
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign