Have you ever met a woman in her twenties who unabashedly described herself as beautiful? Doubtful, sadly, but if you have, might you have reacted less-than-positively, even if you kept those feelings to yourself? Riley Minford is a trans model, influencer and activist who is proudly disrupting all sorts of outmoded notions, including the one that women shouldn’t celebrate themselves. Despite her undeniably striking looks, when she speaks about her own beauty, it doesn’t produce an ounce of tall poppy syndrome in her audience; rather, she has the somewhat startling effect of making other women wonder why they spend so much time being so hard on themselves. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult elements of her experience, and yet she is also funny, cheeky and filled with contagious excitement about what is still to come. She sat down with us to talk about the ups and downs of her transition journey, how fashion and beauty have become her beloved creative outlets, and how, while she was becoming an aesthetically beautiful woman, she was also building herself a beautiful life.
“It is really hard growing up being trans, but I still think of my childhood as a beautiful time.
I am the middle child with an older brother and younger sister, and I was so close with my sister. She’d let me share all of her Barbies and Bratz dolls. I had to force her to let me do her makeup and get her all dressed up; I so wished I could have done it on myself, but back then I couldn’t. I lived vicariously through my sister, in a way.
Our parents fought a lot. I think they should have just separated back then, but our mum is Filipino, and so her life motto is pretty much ‘if you keep the family together then everything will be fine’. Sometimes that just doesn’t work, though. My siblings and I have spent the last few years trying to put ourselves back together after those traumatic early years.
Now that I am living a really beautiful and happy life, it’s easy to forget just how hard things were when I was younger. It’s painful to remember it.
Primary school was rough. I always felt so uncomfortable, particularly at every sports day or swimming carnival, or even those activities in class where the teacher would say something like ‘boys to the left, girls to the right’. I didn’t want to sit with the boys, but I wasn’t allowed to go with the girls, even though I knew that was the side I was meant to be on. It wasn’t even so much the response from the other kids, as it was how awful I felt within myself, and not being able to express my own identity. I didn’t experience significant bullying – the nasty kids usually just called me gay or a girl, and left me alone after that. Compared to the experience other trans kids have, I know I am lucky to have avoided that, but even still, my experience wasn’t easy.
My mum knew I was trans right from the start. She knew! So that was the most frustrating part – that she could have helped me from so early on, and she didn’t, she just tried to ignore it.
She’d say to me, ‘Riley, I knew if you were gay or trans, you’d die sad and alone’. Or she’d tell me that she was worried I’d get AIDS and die with just a cat for company. So I knew from a young age where she stood, and I knew I couldn’t rely on her at that time to open up to about my feelings on transitioning. Dad was out of picture from pretty early on in my childhood, so even though he provided for us financially, he wasn’t there as a parent. My sister was great, and my friends were super supportive, but in terms of my parents, it meant I was pretty much alone in my process of discovering who I was. I struggled so much with identity until high school, and then I really switched things up. I went to a private, Christian co-ed school and that’s when I started to became a lot more comfortable with myself.
I would have loved to transition while I was at school, but I also know that would have been really hard. If I had transitioned so young, I don’t think my parents would have supported me the way I needed them to, so it was better for me to wait.
My mum and I have a whole different vibe now; she’s is my biggest cheerleader. She was so excited for my move to Sydney, and when I started working with OPI. She calls me every morning and every night – she’s always up in my grill now that I’m the most successful bitch in my family! Even my dad is so supportive now. He called me when I was in the middle of a nail appointment yesterday, and gave me some colour advice. I roast him all the time, so we have this really comfortable relationship now. I am so happy with where we are all at now, because it makes the whole twisty path we took to get here so worth it. Everything in my life so far, good and bad, has led me to where I am now and to being the person I am today, so I am grateful for all of it.
I am 25 now, and it’s been almost six years since I started transitioning. I feel like I am who I want to be.
I had hidden from my trans self for so many years, that before I started this journey, I didn’t know whether or not I would be open about being trans. I thought the physical process of transitioning would be the hardest part, but for me it wasn’t at all. I transitioned so flawlessly that now I could fly under the radar if I wanted to, so it made me want to be out and open and proud. I wanted to take the high road for others who don’t have it so easy.
Also, if I wasn’t open about it, I would feel like I wasn’t being honest or truthful. It’s going to make life tricky sometimes, but I know I have already done it hard in my life, so I know I can handle it. Jill, who is Influencer & Partnerships Director at my agency, worded it perfectly, when she said to me, ‘Riley, there are so many beautiful girls in this industry and all over the world, but how many have your story and have been through your journey?’ I have this difference and uniqueness, which I used to hide from, but now I almost want people to be more shocked when they find out I’m trans, haha. It’s really not a huge reveal in some parts of the world these days – which is obviously an amazing thing. I love it being at the forefront of my identity. I am having a good time, which you can when you have fun with it. There’s a saying I like that’s along the lines of ‘you can get to the end of the tunnel, but you might have to run or push to make it through’ and that sums it up for me.
I had so much help from the YouTubers who paved the way for trans people, and I 100% want to pay that forward. Thank god I grew up in the days of YouTube! So many girls had put themselves out there, and shared their entire trans journey from start to finish, which gave the rest of us almost like a rulebook or roadmap to follow. I would not have transitioned so well without all that help, or done it so quickly. I absolutely want to give back to the community that helped me so much, and add to the voices already out there.
Talking about how much I had always wanted to look like and feel like a traditionally feminine woman is the one thing that makes me feel like a boomer, haha.
While I was transitioning, I was pushing against the idea that there were trans people, because to me we were all just girls or boys, and we were fighting to be seen as that. I had longed to be a girl my whole life, and to grow up to be a glamorous woman, so it felt obvious to me that what I know now is a binary approach was the one everyone took. Gender fluidity is so important these days, so as part of this whole process, I have had to learn new things about other people and myself, because everything is changing all the time. It seems so obvious to me now that there are so many different identities, and you can be whatever or whoever you want to be. Everyone’s different! For myself, I wanted the hair and the nails and the whole thing, but that’s not for everyone. People are getting a lot more comfortable being exactly who they are, which is great to see. It can be very hard to navigate, and it can be disheartening. People have fought hard for their rights and ultimately everyone just wants to be respected.
I wish more cis people realised that trans people are, in terms of human beings, at the bottom of the food chain; the very bottom. Our struggle is real.
Sometimes you may see fully developed or ‘done’ trans people and think, oh, maybe it’s not so hard, but so many people out there are rough and aggressive and have preconceived ideas. If I could say one thing to cis people, it would be to please be more open, and to stop closing off your mind so much. We are everywhere, and you have to realise that. It’s extremely likely that someone in your personal life is trans and you may not know it. I hope that people can become be a bit more compassionate and kind.
I get a lot of messages on my social media from young girls who have just come out as trans and want help and clarity. I don’t like to sugar-coat it – I like to be super honest and open, so I tell them, ‘this is going to be a wild ride, it’s going to be rough, there will be pain and heartbreak, tears, sleepless nights, but it is worth it. Remember, you do have to run and push to get to that end of that tunnel, though.’
I love that my career includes being a model, an influencer and an activist. All three sound so bougie!
A lot of people have come up to me and asked if I’m a model, and I always shied away from it. Now, I consider myself a full-time baddie! I owe a lot of credit for opening my eyes to this world to one of my best friends, Emily, who I have known since kindergarten. After high school, we became much closer and even back then she was already right into the Instagram world. We started going to places like Byron and just taking photos and seeing what happened, so it all evolved pretty naturally. We’d do day trips, get some gorgeous shots, tag the brands, and they took notice. It took a few years for me to really get into, because I was transitioning at same time. My friend was sure of herself and knew who she was, and she skyrocketed, whereas I was still figuring out who I was, what my style was, and taking breaks here and there to focus on myself.
Emily was with my now-agency, and Jill, who I like to call the mummy agent, called me two years ago. At that time I hadn’t even really started my influencer work. Jill was like, ‘Riley, I see a bright future, we want you here in Sydney, we see you doing incredible things’. Hearing her say that was such a huge boost for my confidence, which I didn’t even realise I needed. And I knew I was ready to make big changes, so I broke up with my now-ex and moved to Sydney.
So many opportunities come my way now. The more open I am to what’s possible, the more good things come to me. As soon as I transitioned, everything came together – I am pretty, and I look pretty in clothes, and I was so ready for it all. There was no calming me down once I got here… I am so hyper excited about finally getting my life and my work started. This industry is super competitive, but a great thing about that is now I am able to see really quickly who is in my life for the right reasons, whether it’s friends or guys. People show you their true colours so easily by whether or not they’re happy for your success, so now I don’t need to waste any time figuring out who the good ones are.
My approach to fashion when I was male versus now is totally night and day.
When I was male, I would only ever wear the same shorts and basic white shirt. I feel bad for guys because it’s so much harder for them to be creative with fashion. Women get to express ourselves in so many ways, from makeup and hair to clothing and shoes, which is so fun. I had always had an idea of what sort of woman I wanted to be, but it was only after I let go of this crazily specific idea, that I allowed myself to find what I really like, what suits me, and what I gravitate towards.
I just got a fresh set of nails, in pink and blue, which is the trans flag. Nothing makes me feel better than having fresh nails.
I am always making click-clacking noises, tapping them on everything. Having my nails done makes me feel my most beautiful, so I am so excited to work with OPI. They have so many gorgeous colours! I do tend to stick to what I know, and if I had my way I would only ever do Bubble Bath, but life is about experiencing new things, right? And I am learning that I do actually like to be able to express myself through bold colour, with their recent Power of Hue collection. Having my nails done make me feel so feminine, and like the best version of myself.
I have pretty normal skin, although it gets much drier in winter. As soon as I wake up, I make myself some green tea, and then while I drink that I put frozen cucumber slices all over my face. (I wake up puffy, what can I say?)
After they’re on for a while, I take them off, massage in what’s left, rinse, then it’s face oil, moisturiser and SPF. I switch up the exact products a lot, because I get sent a lot of stuff, but they’re the steps in the routine. The one thing I don’t really change out is my main girl I have been using for years, Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+. My old boss, who was in her fifties and looked great, used to use it, so I started to and I’ve never looked back. I can feel it soaking in, it keeps me moisturised for the whole day, and it doesn’t make me break out.
Every day I will have on concealer, blush and powder, at a minimum. That way when I walk out the door I feel super confident. I put that extra effort in, so I can have that bad bitch energy. I am HERE for that!
When I lived on the Gold Coast, I barely wore makeup, whereas in Sydney I honestly feel unable to walk down the street unless I am snatched, haha. I am filming or shooting most days, so at the very least I will have a mild glam, but usually it’s a full-on snatch. So because of all the makeup, now I am not just a double cleanse girl, I am a triple cleanse girl! I remove everything with Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water on a cotton pad, which melts it all off easily so I don’t have to tug at my skin. Then in the shower, I do two cleanses with the Mecca Max FOAM-O Gentle Gel Cleanser, which is so nice. It is a gel, but it has aloe in it, so it’s not drying. Then I take the Dermalogica UltraCalming Cleanser and I go in with a little spin brush. I like the way it spins, which is really slow and light, and I just use that for a couple of seconds so it’s never too much. I don’t like scrubs, and this way I still do some manual exfoliation, and it gives me beautiful results. Then I go straight in with Sunday Riley Good Genes, probably every second day, and finish up with my Clinique moisturiser and the Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask. I have two at all times, the Berry flavour in my car, and Vanilla on my beside.
I like everything from drugstore to high end makeup. I mean, who doesn’t like splurging on Chanel and Dior?
Some product categories I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing on, though. I will always choose high end foundation, and I like Too Faced Born This Way and NARS Light Reflecting Foundation. I have tried the famous Radiant Creamy Concealer from NARS, and I do like it, but to this day my favourite concealer is the Maybelline Fit Me Natural Coverage Concealer, which is so creamy and so affordable. I use so much concealer that I don’t want to splurge on it, because I am always replacing it. I use two shades, a medium one for concealing and then a darker one for contour. Everyone always asks me how I get a bronzey look, and that’s the secret.
I am such a believer in blush. It just makes you look alive, and is one of my all-time faves. I used to use just lipstick as my blush for ages, so it would be the same tone as my lips. Now I like Kylie Beauty Pressed Blush Powder and the Mecca Max Off Duty Blush Stick… actually, I use about four different products to get my perfect colour and finish. At the moment, I go in with the Mecca stick first, then Benefit Benetint Lip & Cheek Tint, then Dior Diorskin Rouge Blush. Then I finish by dabbing a little of whichever lip colour i am wearing on top.
On a normal day, I won’t do four blushes… probably just three. And no foundation. It really depends on how I am feeling.
During Fashion Week, I got to experiment with different looks every day, which was so fun. On one of the days I did a full matte look, which I don’t normally love on me but was so beautiful. I loved waking up every day of that whole week. My roommate was away, so I took over our whole place with a makeup station and clothes rack. It was my very own Fashion Week HQ.
I could not live without Laura Mercier Translucent Pressed Setting Powder. I have never used another powder that makes me look so flawless. Thinking back to Fashion Week, when I was doing twelve hour days and had to look on point the whole time, I would bake every morning with that and it locked everything in like cement. On those sorts of long days, I know I can always bring my face back to life with a few spritzes of MAC Cosmetics Prep + Prime Fix+.
I am so basic with my eyes and lips. I like MAC Cosmetics Mineralize Skinfinish Natural in Give Me Sun! on my eyes, and I have lash extensions, so I don’t really need to do anything else. I already do so much with other makeup that I don’t feel like I need to bring it there. It’s sort of the same with lips – I have experimented so much, but nothing suits me better or looks nicer than a rosy red or pink lip tint, or a lip oil. I am all about picking my battles, and I just can’t emotionally commit to a full major matte lip. I have been through enough in my life already to have deal with that on top of it all!
I have never been majorly into makeup trends, as a lot of them are catered to cis women. Even though I am beautiful, my face has some masculine features which certain trends bring out more (for instance, it makes me look super hectic to have brushed out brows; it doesn’t work for me at all). I know my face so well that I know what works for me, which is more ‘pretty’, fresh makeup.
I am obsessed with my hairdressers, Edwards & Co. Sometimes I am there twice a week.
There is no place on earth I love being more than the hair salon (well, it’s a tie between the beach and the hair salon). Hair is the thing I struggle with the most in the beauty world. I have made it my resolution to get better at doing it nicely myself, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I love hair products, and always have a few different hair oils and masks in rotation, but even then I feel like I can’t even take care of it properly, let alone style it. I guess that’s another demon to slay another time!”
Interview and story by Zoe Briggs. Photography by Camilla Quiddington. Riley has a paid relationship with OPI.