Cecilio Asuncion (or Cece Asuncion) has always been a true ally to trans people. The Filipino-American documentary film director/producer/ model director/ activist has nothing else to prove when it comes to harvesting the talents of transgender and making them stars. His sharp business mind, his laid-back but serious attitude in taking action, and his straightforward approach have made him become one of the most influential Filipino Americans in Hollywood.
With his trusted expertise in the field, Mr. Asuncion was entrusted to be a judge of significant beauty and modeling contests including the Miss Universe 2017 pageant, and several state pageants under the Miss USA system. He was even tasked with hosting Miss Teen USA 2018. Most recently, he served as a producer and on-cam talent on the reality television series “The People’s Queen” on TFC television. But his biggest and long-term devotion will always be Slay Model Management – an exclusive trans model agency that he founded that has branches in Los Angeles, New York, Manila, and soon in other regions.
In April, he successfully produced Slay Model Search Asia – the very first trans-focused modeling competition in Asia. It is the first trans-exclusive model search that aired on ABS-CBN, MyxTV, and Metro Channel – the national television of the Philippines. With his experience, Cece Asuncion is building Slay Model Management to become a leading agency representing transgender fashion talents globally. He hopes to work with the best trans models around the world, and together, leave behind the legacies to inspire the world.
Nowadays, many TV shows focus on showcasing new talents. As a program producer such as STRUT, Slay Model Search, or The People’s Queen, what is your take on this?
From my perspective, tv shows are very popular because they’re all media based. I’m a model director and an owner of the model agency, but I’m also an executive producer. The reason why, if you take out all the politics of that, television is a very strong medium, which is a platform to be seen.
And that platform is for influence. And the fact that if you’re on TV, whether it’s Slay Model Search or other projects, they just validate that if you’re on it, the people who created it saw something special in you and that’s why you were in it. But take the opportunity as it’s just one stop, a platform for the people who were in it to grow. Don’t hang on to it for too long.
What are the initial motivations for you to build your now-career working and supporting trans talent?
It all started with “What’s The T?” – the documentary that I directed and produced which focuses on 5 transgender women’s lives in San Francisco and New York. I got to meet a lot of trans people and I sat down with a pioneer in the non-profit community and her name is Tita Aida. Tita Aida is a Filipina trans advocate and she’s the director of a nonprofit organization in San Francisco (where I used to live) called, Trans: Thrice. And I was starting to produce, What’s the T and I cast the documentary not by way of putting out a casting call. I put myself in trans spaces. I went to the trans restaurants, the clubs, and where the community was at. I just met everyone and became friends with them and that was it. I love the 90’s supermodels, and a lot of the girls had very similar features to the supermodels. That was when I decided to open my model agency to represent trans people.
What else do you do apart from running a model agency?
Well, I’m a TV producer, which I love. And I always come from a place I call Edutainment. I get to educate people while I’m entertaining them with whatever I create because I think that’s the best way. Don’t you learn lessons when you watch something? I think when you come from a place where you’re telling stories and not lecturing, people get into it more. Because if people aren’t entertained, they’re not going to stay. Especially since we’re in the streaming era now, right? Everybody’s streaming.
As an agency, how can you find work for trans talent? When there is tokenism and it’s more of a trend to hire trans talents for special reasons?
As the world changes by way of media and positive stories out there, that’s when ethical companies come into play. I always try to come from a place of kindness and forgiveness because If a company was guilty of tokenism and trust me, I’ve been there, I always had to come from a place of gratitude that’s like, oh, thank God they hired at least one girl. I think that Tokenism is terrible, but it is a necessary evil that we have had to pass through as agency owners and educate. And it’s not just gender, orientation, color, size, and age too. So the only solution to that is to keep going until further younger generations understand what is the right thing to do.
What are your future goals for yourself?
I want to think I reach a certain point in my career in what I want is balance. I want balance in the sense that I have to create something sustainable mentally for myself and to start collaborating and creating allyships with the right people.
What is next for Slay Model Search Asia?
I want to continue with Slay Model Search, but I want to scale it worldwide and I want to have a base of Slay model management all over the world because Slay is a tangible thing that the trans community is not going away. And now there’s a home for them to be seen. My goal with Slay Model Search Asia is to keep on doing it every year, but also to grow the agency within key countries.
What are the most challenging things to represent trans talents?
I think I’ve learned as an agent and I’ve grown. Sometimes people are there for a season and sometimes people are there for the long haul and it goes back to having genuine connections with people. The relationship between an agency and a model needs to have its balance. You are friends, but not too casual. That is still a business relationship. But yes, the relationship between the two must have a concrete foundation for it to work long-term.
Looking back, what are the three most proud achievements you have done for your agency and the trans talents that you are presenting?
I remember how challenging it was for me to open Slay Model Management in 2016. I had to drive all the way to Sacramento, California for the business registration. While I was driving, I realized that I had no name for my agency. There were a few names that came up but then I chose Slay (after I learned that my first pick was already taken). It was my thing to always say to the model on set “Slay girl slay!”. I used to say it a long time ago, before “slay” became popular. I should have trademarked it. *laugh out loud*
Then, I won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Series for “Strut” – the show that I co-produced with Whoopi Goldberg. That was my second achievement that changed my career for the better.
The third one, of course, all of the clients that Slay had, whether they’re big or small, the joy I feel, whether it’s for a smaller brand versus Macy’s or a M.A.C or Savage X Fenty or Oprah Magazine. I’m still proud because, to me, it’s a testament that my girls are working. And that means we’ve done something good. And even if the world is changing slowly and not at the pace we want, the world is changing, and I’d like to think we had something to do with it.
Here is another memory that I would love to share. I remember Arisce and Ren – two of my first signed models at Slay got booked for a runway show for Eva Mendes by New York & Company. And it was one of those shows where agents were invited. Usually, agents aren’t invited to shows like this. I went backstage to say hello to the girls. This is like the second year of Slay. And when I looked on the board, where everybody’s photos and names and their agencies. And on that wall, I saw a lot of models that came from the big agencies in New York, then I saw my girls’ photos that read from Slay Model Management. And I still get very emotional about that because I’m this brown gay man. I’m an immigrant. It was a tough time to move here. But, my God, the joy that I’ve been given, and that’s because of this community. And I will always be loyal. I will always say thank you. Thank you to the community who’s done so much for me.
What is your advice to young transgender out there?
Keep being yourself, love your parents, continuously educate yourself and find your family. Finding your family is very important. Sometimes family isn’t exactly the place you specifically were born with. A lot of times family is a chosen one.
Thank you, Cecilio Asuncion. We salute you for all the great things you have been doing for the trans community and we hope to see you achieve many great things in the near future.