Photography by Aingeru Zorita
Styling by Julian Antetomaso
Amidst the chaos of a magazine photo shoot, Chella Man is easily spotted by his natural benevolence. Preparing for the camera, he’s arrived in a pair of oversized pants covered with large drawings—demurely cool, yet attentive. The 20-year-old activist and artist is no stranger to backstage haze: he recently joined IMG agency and added modeling to his growing list of occupations, which placed him on the TEDx Talks stage to lecture about trans visibility earlier in May.
“I still can’t grasp being considered on the forefront of a movement,” he explains after we post up in a corner of the studio to chat about his last two years in the spotlight. “This is all about anyone who came before me. There is no way I’d be here without them.”
In an era brimming with YouTube stars and Instagram influencers, Chella stands out by using social media to chronicle his gender re-affirmation process. He is a Deaf, Asian-American, Jewish trans-man, dismantling one stereotype at a time to re-define what it means to be a role model and public figure. “Instead of waiting for big corporations to decide which faces to bring to public attention, we can all represent ourselves by posting a selfie or sharing an experience on Instagram,” he says about the influence of technology on self-expression. “If I only had to rely on faces presented to me, I couldn’t find anyone similar to myself. The freedom to choose who I follow or who appears on my feed is amazing.”
Born in a small Pennsylvania town, Chella knew he had to pave his way to the city when Trump came to his high school during his presidential campaign. He remembers hearing homophobic chantings along the school corridors. “I was motivated to get out of there and start building a chosen family for myself,” he says, comparing having parents as supportive as his own to winning the lottery.
At just 20 years old, Chella has amassed a massive social media presence with Instagram and YouTube accounts that span hundreds of thousands of followers. However, don’t expect him to boast about the last dish he had or vacation he took—Chella is aware of his influence on up-and-coming queer kids and utilizes his platform to make them feel supported.
“I am privileged to be safe and publicly open about my identity at the moment,” he says, aware of the hefty responsibly on his shoulders. “I am able to speak up but I never want to be the voice of anything. If you have a unique story, it’s important to share it.”
Next to his activist work, Chella is a student at Parsons School of Design, focusing on Integrated Design. He has managed to find a way to tie activism in with his choice of academic field. Among his future goals is to become the Artistic Director of a VR project in which participants are put into someone else’s shoes.
“I’d like to tell my story about how I tried to use this bathroom and someone confronted me in a violent and extremely distressing way,” he says. Participants will consent to navigate to find a gender neutral bathroom or order food as a Deaf person. He aims to convey the challenges of living in an often-times unaccommodating society. Between school and social work, Chella has carved out an artistic presence as well, most evidently captured in his drawings of anonymous, gender-defying bodies. His figures are biomorphic and otherworldly, accentuated with traces of love, longing, and perseverance—not unlike the experiences of any individual on a daily basis, including Chella himself. “People create labels to express themselves, but art takes us away from that terminology,” he explains. “We don’t need words or labels to describe ourselves with art. I’ve been making art since my memory existed.”
In the near future, the multi-hyphenated talent plans to push his photography experiments to new heights, and move forward with a series of projects that involve writing. What does he recommend for those struggling to find their voices? “Find people sharing experiences you’re going through on the internet, but make sure to follow those who finish things on a positive note, although they talk about negative things.”
TOP PHOTO: CLOTHING AND SNEAKERS PRADA / SOCKS FALKE. SECOND PHOTO: HARNESS LOUIS VUITTON / SHORTS PRADA / RING CHELLA'S OWN.
Makeup: Tatiana Donaldson using MAC Cosmetics
Hair: Carolyn Riley/De Facto
Producer: Spencer Salley
Photography Assistants: Scott Fitzpatrick, Chris White
Stylist Assistants: Mina Erkli, Emily Drake
Location: Dune Studios