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How Leyna Bloom became the first transgender actress of color to star in a film at Cannes

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

CANNES, France -- Leyna Bloom turned up at the Port Authority bus terminal at 17 with one red suitcase and nowhere to put it. She'd saved up a little money working part time at McDonald's and Starbucks on the South Side of Chicago, the place she'd left behind 22 hours before. But it wasn't enough to pay rent, so she spent her first few weeks sleeping on the train, traveling between SoHo and Chelsea and Alphabet City, surviving on $1 slices of pizza.

She'd come to New York City in the hopes of being discovered. She felt she needed to take her life into her own hands after dropping out of the Chicago Academy for the Arts months earlier. When she was granted a scholarship to the prestigious dance program in her sophomore year, she'd already transitioned. But the school would recognize only the gender she was assigned at birth. She wanted to be a dancer, and feared this could be her only shot. So she shaved off all of her hair, bought boy's clothing and started presenting as a male.

"I slowly started to fall into pressure, but I wasn't living my most authentic self," Bloom, now 25, recalled. "I was living my life for people saying, 'You are a boy.' I was like, 'I don't fit this.' I'm gonna do pas de deux as the male? I'm the woman, I'm the soloist, I'm the princess! Life is too short to be someone who someone else wants me to be. I don't want to be stashed away. I want to be living out loud and proud."

So when the academy refused to allow her to dance as a female -- or even transfer departments to, say, musical theater -- she decided to head to the Big Apple. She trusted, she said, that "the universe will never put you in a position you can't handle," and she was right.

Slowly, in between waiting tables, she started to gain traction as a model. In 2017, she appeared on the cover of Vogue India -- the first transgender woman to do so. She landed an international advertising campaign for H&M and Moschino. She strutted on the runway for Tommy Hilfiger during Paris Fashion Week.

And on Saturday, she became the first transgender actress of color to star in a movie at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, Danielle Lessovitz's "Port Authority," bears eerie resemblance to Bloom's own life. Produced by Martin Scorsese, it follows a young Pittsburgh transplant ("Dunkirk's" Fionn Whitehead) who turns up at the bus station with nowhere to stay. He soon crosses paths with Wye (Bloom), a fixture on the Kiki ballroom scene, and starts to fall for her. But when he realizes she's transgender, he becomes unsure of whether he wants to continue their romance.

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Bloom is fully aware of the importance of her presence in the South of France this week.

"A lot of places I go in the world, I'm the first to do something. This is a continuation of having to go through that, and it's a very surreal moment," Bloom said, a few hours after getting off a plane from New York, where she lives in Brooklyn. She was sitting at a crepe restaurant across the street from her hotel, dressed in a minidress and wearing her sunglasses inside.

"Me growing up seeing 'Pretty in Pink' and 'Flashdance' and all these leading females -- you're like, 'I want to do this, I want to have a moment like this,'" she continued. "I want people to look at my movie and have people say: 'Your movie changed my life. It inspired me and gave me the oomph I needed.' I didn't have that with trans women.

"Trans women were completely non-visible in pop culture unless it was on 'Maury' or 'Jerry Springer.' I don't want to be a gimmick or a source of entertainment -- I want to be respected. So when this opportunity came, I was like, 'This is a way to bring respect to my community.' "

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