Popularity is relative, and especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet Yves, the NYC-based model, activist, singer, dancer, and artist you need to know.
Tell me about all of the things you do.
My full-time job-job is modeling, and my part-time job-job is music. I make a lot of music. But besides that my passion in life is people and I do a lot of volunteer work with senior citizens, LGBT youth, and also with inner-city kids, and also with pitbulls. I rescue pitbulls from fights and pitbulls that are strays and pitbulls that are just roaming the street and foster them to good health and train them, and then get them placed into homes that they belong to.
There's a lot going on all the time, and I fly a lot for work and also for my volunteering. There's a few high schools in LA that I work with, and here in New York as well, but we give them shoes and buy them pizza and we draw and make music. That's the most important to me because I feel like we should be investing in our youth. This path that we adults create is for them to exist in, so if we're not building them up and encouraging them while creating this path, then it's pointless. So this is very important to me.
Where are you from?
I was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in Florida.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
I feel like you take an extreme approach to life, whether it's your extreme dedication to causes you believe in or also the way you present yourself with your tattoos. And those two things in themselves present an interesting dichotomy. What is living both of those realities like?
Almost everyday I have some sort of interaction or eye exchange with some human, where there is some sort of fear or judgement of who they think I am, what they think I am, or what they assume I've done.
I was having this talk the other day with my friend about how I am so appreciative of in my face racism, because I would rather someone be racist to my face than someone be friendly to my face and then behind my back and go into their place of living and freely use the N-word. Like say something to my face so I can be very sure to steer clear of you and keep your energy away from me.
Being that I look this way, I feel like it's more of a blessing for my lifestyle and the way I live my life because it allows me to right off the bat know who I have to keep out of my life. But of course, I'm a human being too. I have knee-jerk reactions and I say things that are really out of pocket whenever people come at me a certain way, because who do you think you are? We don't know each other? Why are you telling me I'm going to burn in hell? What are you doing with your life. And I'm genuinely asking what are you doing with your life because to feel the need to walk out of your space and into my space and tell me these negative words — I just need to know what you gain from this. What trophy are you getting? Who's signing your checks? I would love to meet them.
Now it's become more of a comical thing because the hate has gotten so creative that people are running out of things to say, and so they say the first thing that comes to their mind with the intention to hurt, and they just end up looking stupid.
Either way, I'm going to go home — thank God I have a mattress and a roof and clothes — and I'm going to wake up tomorrow and do the same shit I did today and help whoever I can, regardless of how you feel.
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I saw you recently completed a huge project with RedBull, can you tell me more about that?
First off, I love their whole team. Like the whole staff of people assigned to me — beautiful humans. And I'm borderline emotional right now because I still can't believe that they trusted me to do something like this, that they invested in me to do something like this.
Basically, RedBull was investing in doing a series of installations in New York (and they've done some in other cities), involving artists, creatives, innovators, influencers. And I'm not one of those people who if someone is like, "Wow, you're so good at this," that I'm like, "What?! I'm not good at this." I take the compliment and I'm like, "Thank you. I appreciate it." And it's taken me a long time to get to the point where I'm not self-hating the things I love to do.
Something that I really, really enjoy is art through community and community through art. So, RedBull came to me and they were doing these installations and [were like], we could focus on your music or dance or we could go this route. And me being the curious cat I am I was like, "Well, what's the other route?" And they were like, "We could do something more communal." And I was like, "That's exactly what I want."
At first my idea was to do something with the kids I volunteer with because they're so fucking talented. Their potential is endless. But then they were like, "Well there's going to be RedBull cans there so we can't do kids." And I was like, "Oh fuck! That didn't even cross my mind!"
Photo by Megan Walschlager
OMG! Does it have a drinking age on it?
I have no idea. I was so confused. And I was like, "Okay, I guess we need to nix that idea then cause we can't give children RedBull." So then, I was like, "Well, the most important part of the LGBT community to me is the trans community because they founded the community and pride is literally built on the back of trans women — and they get the least amount of respect and the least amount of proper representation within the LGBT community. You go to any Pride festival or any kind of Pride event and you see a 6'4" blonde guy, with blue eyes and a white body on this poster. Like that is not us. And our community is so much more than that. We should be uplifting those who struggle and those who aren't given the proper amount of face.
The idea I gave them was to have transwomen of color who I personally know, design these stations reflecting their childhood bedrooms to explain their heritage and their culture and their upbringing through them. Through their mouths.
I'm a cisgender gay male, and I can stand on top of a mountain for 500 years and scream, "TRANS LIVES MATTER," but hearing it from the mouth of someone who lives this every day and every waking moment is better. I feel like a lot of times the only time people want to listen to a marginalized group, is when that group is dying. So I wanted to make it more than a hashtag or a post you see online. I want to make this a real experience — human to human and eye to eye — where it's safe and people feel comfortable talking, expressing themselves and talking about the bias, because when do they ever get the chance to do this?
So RedBull — we were back and forth on emails — because I was flying between LA, NY and London a few times every month for work and it was a lot. Because in between me getting ready for this event, I still have to have a job. So I was working, volunteering and filming a music video with these kids in LA, and there was just so much going on. While we were filming this music video in LA — there's this center that the kids were staying at and it was demolished and turned into a parking garage, so these kids had nowhere to go. And then one of the kids in the neighborhood was killed.
I'm one of those people that when I'm really stressed out, I get physically sick. I get a stuffy nose, coughing, headache, and when I'm sick I google my symptoms which doesn't help. So all of this was going on while I was working with RedBull and they were so patient and understanding with the whole process.
I remember when I first saw the space I was stunned. It was so beautiful. And I saw the pieces coming together and the rooms being made and the shrines being put together and I was like, "This is it." Seeing it all come together was really overwhelming. And even the night before I didn't sleep. I got there 2 hours early just to see everything. Then all the girls flew in, and seeing them reacting to the space and having us all be there and feeling safe all at the same time. The fact that people came out just to hear them speak was amazing. And walking around the space and seeing people sitting on the floor criss-cross-applesauce like they were in school, watching these powerful women that I know speak was just beyond what I ever imagined and expected it to be.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
That's so amazing.
I think this sinks more into what do we want our future to look like — what do we want our lives to look like when we're not here. I think the people around you now should be an inclination of how you see your future. So if you're not around people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, different walks of life, you should definitely reevaluate where you are putting yourself and if you are putting yourself in uncomfortable social situations to grow.
A lot of my friends that were at the event, they know how much I advocate for trans people — specifically trans women of color — but then seeing them getting the chance to have a one-on-one with someone who's not me and is trans is amazing. These things are so, so important.
A lot of times our society tries to create this terrible cloud that these people don't exist. But here's someone talking to you, standing in front of you in the flesh, saying, "I'm fucking here. I have a fucking job. I have a fucking boyfriend. I have a fucking mom who loves me and I'm fucking trans." And that's beautiful and I'm glad I was able to be a small part of that.
It's great that Red Bull sees the vision.
A lot of times you feel like it's just you and you're fucking crazy. You feel like it's only you who thinks that people are people and it's only you who believes in equality and social justice. Then to have a brand be like, "We saw what you were doing here," and I'm like "You fucking saw?!" That's incredible. It was above and beyond. And then we had a huge party for this other amazing human named Richie Shazam and I danced way harder than I should.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
I really admire that you do a lot of different things — you're a model, a singer, a dancer — even with your philanthropic efforts you work with multiple different causes. What sort of advice would you give to someone who also has a lot of varied interests, but feels like they don't necessarily make sense together?
Someone is always going to have something to say no matter what. You could win the lottery tomorrow and give all the money to help people who don't have water in Flint, Michigan and it's going to be someone in Kansas who's like, "Oh you couldn't donate one dollar to the Salvation Army?!" So you just always have to do you. There's people out there watching, there's little kids watching, there's people you don't even know who are watching you and they find you inspiring. You never know.
My biggest thing is if you can do it all. But there has to be some sort of "you time." I do this thing — it's really cheesy, but it really helps me — it's called a self-date. I get really dressed up and I go to a really nice dinner with just me. I go to a movie and get a large popcorn and a large soda. It is intentional me-time. My phone is on airplane mode. And it's that one day of month where I can be on a date with myself and I can appreciate that time and that silence. Because it really can get draining, and it really can take a lot out of your spirit.
And maybe it doesn't come the first year or the second year, but there will come a point where you kind of lose track of why you're doing these things. And these self-dates remind me that I care about myself this much, and I want people to care about themselves this much. And if someone can show them that they're worthy and they matter, then maybe something inside of them will change to remind them that they matter and they are important.
It's really important to me. I read a lot about old activists, old poetry books, proper old history, and I also read a lot about crimes and cases that have been overlooked. And that's where I find a lot of the stories I post on Mondays and Wednesday. And when you come across trans people, it takes longer to find their stories because they're often misgendered in the reports, but thank God those reports exist somewhere where they can even be read.
My favorite part about those posts are including things their friends and family had to say about them and learning the things that were personal to them — like so and so liked this song by Bruno Mars. It just adds more humanity to the situation. It makes you realize this was a person that was living. I just love those little details because to me they're not little.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
What advice would you give to people who say they want to volunteer or do good, but they don't have the time or the money to spare? Is there something you think everyone should be doing to make the world a better place?
I fully stand by the belief that you don't have to be rich to help people. I am not rich and I help people. When it comes to activism and volunteering, something that really helps is going to a community event. A march is a great place to meet people. A rally is a great place to meet people.
Also, google is your friend. When I first started getting really hands on with volunteering, something that really helped me was simply googling, "Where can I get involved with such and such."
I even got involved in rescuing pitbulls by googling places where people needed to get their dogs walked or just going to shelters to help the dogs. Basically, I just wanted to pet puppies. And I went to one shelter and I was like, "Are there any pitbulls here?" Because I used to have a pitbull in the past and I've always known the stigma around them is completely false.
And the woman working was like, "Yes, there's one here and she's the oldest dog." And I was like, "How old is she?" And she was like, "She's 9 and her name is Gucci. Do you want to meet her?" Of course I wanted to meet her. So I went over and she is paws down, head down in the corner like a frog. In the corner of this room, by herself, alone. And I was like, "What in the world is going on here? Why is she not out there with the other dogs?" And they were like, "Oh, she's aged out." And I'm like, "Aged out of what? Cuteness?"
And they told me she'd been there the longest and they were having trouble finding someone to foster her. So I went back the next day and talked to the people at the shelter about what fostering means and what that does. Then I went to an actual meeting with people who actually foster dogs to find out what it was actually like.
I remember it was the winter and I wanted a puppy, but I didn't want a puppy to just have a puppy — I wanted to have a puppy that I could nurture and take care of so they could be adopted. and I think it was fashion week because I was going to a lot of castings, but after fashion week I got my first foster and since that moment I've had 26 fosters and they've all been adopted. Every single one.
It's sad every time they have to go because I develop a huge love for them. I just love seeing growth in any capacity. They enter my life so scared — some of them are cut, some had cigarette burns on them, some had their ears cut - whatever it may be. But they leave my house like a firework — so bright and so friendly with everyone, compared to me having to walk them at 3 AM because they're afraid of humans and loud noises and buses. The growth is tremendous. And all the families that take these dogs keep in contact and send me photos of the dogs. It's amazing to see them grow into their true potential.
And that's how I feel about people too and why I volunteer. Because of the way I look, I can already tell a lot of times people associate it with one kind of thing. But when I volunteer and ask, "How can I serve you?" It's amazing. I can ask you what you want to eat and make it for you and I'm wearing an apron, piercing and a face tattoo. Even in those few minutes in exchanging words, I can see the walls breaking down and them changing the way they think. My hope is that when they go out in the world and they see someone that looks like me, they'll think of this interaction and change the way they interact with the world to be kinder.
Follow Yves on Instagram (@the_yvesdropper).