When you consider the biggest trends, your favorite celebrity, or the
greatest works of art, the common thread that connects them all is that they're
largely inescapable. You see their image reproduced again and again, and begin
to recognize them. Unwittingly, that recognition imprints them on our
consciousness and societally, we accept them. Even if you felt entirely at odds
with wearing white jeans, but then saw an image of a famous model online, or
even a billboard, wearing white jeans, you might re-consider. Humans may be
stubborn, but photographer Lissa Rivera says we're also highly adaptable, and of
course, no one wants to be left behind.
Herein lies the genius of Rivera's work, which explores the way femininity
been shaped through images using her gender-queer boyfriend, BJ Lillis, as her
model. For her new series, Beautiful Boy, Rivera is art director, costume
designer, make-up artist and photographer, traveling around the country with
Lillis who dons womenswear and poses sensually in locations scouted by Rivera –
from seedy motels to gaudy mansions. Rivera is determined for photos like these
to move beyond anomaly, instead becoming so ubiquitous that audiences can't help
but recognize and appreciate the beauty in gender-fluidity. We sat down with the
couple to talk the dimensions of gender, the male muse and how photography
The whole progression of this project is fascinating, how did BJ become your
Rivera: Well we were friends and I was at a turning point in my life where I
didn't feel like I was fully expressing myself, I didn't feel like I was in the
right place and able to be open with people. The whole time I was telling BJ
about it and such a good listener. Then one day we were taking the subway home
from a film screening and he told me he likes to wear women's clothing but he
was working in a conservative office so he was struggling to find a place to
express himself. BJ doesn't really like to rock the boat as well, he's very
sensitive to other people. I thought that maybe we could do a little experiment
together, then we ended up really connecting and falling in love.
We started out in my apartment, we were just using the kitchen and then
buying all these discount fabrics and dragging them home. Then we started going
on adventures. I would location scout and then we would take a trip. I would
prepare like you prepared for a film you know, I would sketch out scenes and
come up with costumes and coming up with the script. It's been a lot of fun,
especially working with BJ on this. He would wear my clothes that look so much
better on him. Like my swimsuit, I'm like, how can I wear that again?
What's your favorite type of clothing, BJ? What do you feel most comfortable
Lillis: In my life I wear pretty simple dresses, but depending on what I'm
doing and where I'm going I'll move from more androgynous to more feminine.
When you say it's based on where you're going, does that mean sensitivity to
a particular situation? Is it a self-preservation thing?
Rivera: You know, it's not that I'm a super feminine person and in my ideal
world I'd be wearing pink sundresses all the time and I compromise. It's that
I'm a genderfluid person and I want to present in a more androgynous or more
What pronouns do you use?
Lillis: I use male pronouns, but female get thrown at me in public all the
time and I'm fine with that. I thought about they/them but it's hard.
Misgendering someone is a really serious thing, but for me as a genderqueer
person, if I'm presenting in a more masculine way then I get being addressed
with masculine pronouns. I don't feel like I have one gender identity, it's not
Gender and sex is confused all the time. What I love about this project is
that it's not an expose, it's not "BJ's secret life." It's a fantasy world and
BJ is the protagonist. That's what makes it so pure.
Rivera: Right, they're all based off how you construct your gender based on
what you see, whether that be a beauty tutorial or a film or a fashion
photograph. So a lot of this is looking at the DNA of femininity in America.
Is it confronting for you at all, BJ?
Lillis: Well the project was never about showing me...and I never wanted it
to be about that. It's more focused on both of our relationships to
Rivera: I feel like we use fashion to time travel to understand the roots of
femininity and how it felt in the past, as well as the roles women played. The
pressure of it as well.
Are you making any kind of judgment regarding how constraining the standards
of femininity can be?
Rivera: Not a judgment per se, we found pleasure in the beauty. Pleasure in
the textures and the fabrics. We're exploring the ambiguity and the grey areas
of the feminine roles. It's so great to be with someone who so loves being in
the photos and working with me. There are so many men whose wives were their
muses and many don't understand the importance of the muse. What I wanted to do
was highlight that contribution.
It is seen as such a passive role, isn't it?
Rivera: Right, but BJ is always so present and so open. BJ enjoys his beauty
and is open about that, but he will always try things other people might be
afraid to do.
How collaborative is it in a directorial sense? How much creative input do
you have, BJ?
Lillis: So it's a collaboration in the sense that we discuss a lot together
as to what we're trying to do and accomplish and my role is bringing it to life
as the muse. In terms of artistic decision-making, it's all Lissa. I have ideas
sometimes and we can try them but they don't always work.
Rivera: I think I've always been addicted to photos, even the colors I use
reference images from 30s or 40s, so everything is steeped in this obsession I
have. So BJ it's like BJ is stepping into the past with me. The way something is
photographed really changes how things are viewed in society.
They're all very nostalgic.
Rivera: Yeah, I'm really interested in those early days of Vogue – those
vintage images that people re-do over and over again – and exploring how they've
Right, as is, why are we attracted to them?
Rivera: Exactly, and I love to look at my partner in this light. Most men are
so afraid of being pretty.
Of course, they don't get to be vulnerable like this.
Rivera: I know, I'm hoping the attitudes are changing now.
How do you find your locations?
Rivera: I mean, we don't even like taking trips anymore unless we're planning
to do a shoot. I will look at thousands of real estate listings and read Yelp
reviews. The first time it was so scary, we just went outside in our
neighborhood and we were like, "What if people notice!" But no one ever
Are there still times where you worry what people might think?
Rivera: I definitely get protective over BJ when we go out.
How much of your own wardrobe goes into it?
Rivera: Now we have a whole rack of clothes, but it used to be only my
clothes earlier on – that was during the honeymoon stage of our
Exactly! You must look back at that and see every stage of your relationship
Lillis: It's very sentimental.
Rivera: It's so sentimental, I look back like, "Baby BJ!"
I love how the whole series is really dissecting trends, instead on this like
obsession with originality that so many artists have, you really pay homage to
different artists and eras and styles.
Rivera: Oh yeah, I had this big obsession with Old Hollywood and Priscilla
Presley. The idea of the surreal interiors of the 60s, I think you can still
find it in California.
Is it intimidating for you both to have the series viewed publicly?
Lillis: For me the press is more intimidating than the gallery wall, because
everything is on the Internet. It's really fun to have people see it.
Rivera: Through it I've connected with photographers all over the world and
people that are like , "Oh my husband wears nail polish, or I'm a man and I wear
dresses at home."
I think we're finally realizing that just because you enjoy crossdressing
does not mean you are closeted transgender.
Rivera: I honestly think about in terms of the Mona Lisa. It was stolen in
the early 1900s, and there weren't a lot of famous paintings, but because the
image of it was repeated in papers over and over again, it became known through
the process of reproduction. Now people take their own photos of it. Humans are
so susceptible to repetition. Even fashion styles get introduced that are really
unusual, but then people will see it and they'll start wearing it, because they
see everyone wear it. So it's so important to put images like this out in the
world and keep doing it, because when people see it presented in a positive
light, the more they will feel comfortable with it. Seeing and assimilating.Read
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