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Jari Jones, face of Calvin Klein's Pride campaign, celebrates massive billboard: 'a Fat Black Trans Woman Looks over New York'

As New York City heads into its traditional LGBTQ Pride weekend — virtual this year save for the still-happening Queer Liberation March, with its expanded Black Lives Matter message — a “Fat Black Trans Woman Looks over New York.”

That’s according to a proud tweet from the woman herself, Jari Jones, a fast-rising star who is fronting Calvin Klein's 2020 Pride campaign, #PROUDINMYCALVINS, which also features a cast of eight other LGBTQ models.

Jones further celebrated her coveted spot on the massive CK billboard in downtown Manhattan with an Instagram photo of herself standing beneath it, popping a bottle of bubbly, captioned, in part, “It has been such an honor and pleasure to sit in my most authentic self and present imagery of a body that far too often has been demonized, harassed, made to feel ugly and unworthy and even killed.”

And seeing herself up there on the billboard for the first time last week, she tells Yahoo Life, was nothing short of “overwhelming.”

“A lot of reflection and history,” she says. “Never have I seen a Black trans woman put on such a public platform to be celebrated, and it was overwhelming … like an out-of-body experience. … It was huge for me. Flooding with so many emotions of my own history of trying to break into the fashion industry, and all the ‘nos’ and ‘you can’ts’ and the ‘you’ll nevers’ all kind of dissipated in that moment. It was really, really empowering.”

In a video of Jones’s initial, thrilled reaction, posted on Facebook and Instagram, she can be seen marveling over the billboard with friends and, at one point, FaceTiming her mother, who later came and saw the massive display in person. “We went yesterday and she just wept,” Jones says, adding that it was a proud full-circle moment, as her maternal grandfather, Billy Jones, was a successful Ford and Elite model in the 1970s and ’80s.

“My mom is one of my best friends,” she says. “And a lot of the reason why I was able to come out and be proud is because she instilled that kind of confidence in me since I was younger. … Once I came out to her, nobody else mattered. … She’s been on board since day one.”

Calvin Klein has often pushed boundaries in its campaigns. Just recently, the same billboard spot was graced with an image of plus-size hip-hop artist Chika, who spoke out about being fat-shamed as a result; in years past, the spot has featured two men about to kiss and a young woman in a ménage à trois; trans star Indya Moore, known for her lead role in the FX series Pose, was the face of its Pride campaign in 2019. But this year’s Pride push features the biggest LGBTQ cast yet, including Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar, genderqueer YouTube star Chella Man and queer pop artist Gia Woods.

For Jones, 29, the prominent role has been a career highlight, coming after years of childhood modeling and acting, a brief foray into photography as she says she was “trying to find myself,” and then, after transitioning and feeling at ease in her skin, finding more roles — on stage and on television, in the series Pose and Transparent, and in a Dove campaign.

“Once you are so sure and aware and settled in yourself, people can see that,” she says. “These casting agents are good at their job for a reason … and once I believed I was in my most authentic skin, I guess they saw that, and the bookings started.”

Cars drive past a New York City billboard featuring Black trans model Jari Jones in a Calvin Klein ad. When Jones' mother saw it, she says, "she wept." (Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A New York City billboard featuring Black trans model Jari Jones in a Calvin Klein ad. When her mother saw it, Jones says, "she just wept." (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

Staying true to herself was not an easy path, though, as those in the industry sometimes pressured her to have more gender-affirming surgeries or to lose weight. She held her ground, which was part of why wording her initial tweet the way she did — “Fat Black Trans Woman” — was important to her.

“It’s taken me a long time to take back that word [‘fat’] — for so long I was a plus-sized kid, a fat kid, and everybody always told me I was fat. … If you’re fat you won’t be able to get jobs, if you’re fat you won’t be able to find love,” Jones explains. Eventually, she felt empowered by New York’s plus-size community, “how they were owning it,” and was inspired to work through “my own fatphobia.”

“It was important for me to put ‘fat’ up there … so people know a fat body is worthy of celebration, it’s worthy of love, it’s worthy of respect. … All those intersections, of being fat, of being trans, of being Black, it needs to be seen and named directly,” she says. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything.”

She’s even opted to highlight some of the nastiness that’s been thrown her way on social media in response to the billboard, quoting some of the hate in a Thursday Instagram post.

But sharing the negativity, Jones says, felt necessary. “I’ve done a lot of self-love work … to help me gain a thicker skin and armor,” she says. And while seeing such comments still hurts a bit, “I want people to know that you can be on a billboard, you can be on TV shows, and the bigotry and hatred is still there … so they know campaigns are not just a handout that comes with just luxury. They come with a lot of responsibility, too. I wanted people to see … the ugly, and the love that was coming in as well.”

Sending that message out to young queer and trans and fat and Black kids, she says, takes on an even heavier significance because of the moment we’re in, from the swelling, trans-inclusive Black Lives Matter movement to the stubborn reality that Black trans women are killed at disproportionately high rates — and she says the confluence of social events goes “hand in hand” with her successful, visible moment.

“I think me being visible and being put on a platform as big as that is an act of activism, for a company that is trying to be seen more as an ally,” she says. “I think it’s important, because as the fashion and media industry we dictate a lot of how society will run.” And for people in middle America, or anywhere, “seeing trans people worthy or publicly loved,” she says, can change hearts and minds.

With Black Lives Matter, she adds, “I think it’s so important to see the rage and fight, but also see imagery of what the possibilities can be — imagery of Black joy, trans joy, because often all we see is the negative imagery. … We need some kind of blueprint of what we want out of this.”

And what the campaign provides is “a symbol of hope, and also what the future can be,” Jones believes. “I feel like that humanizes us, and once you’re humanized, people will think twice before killing you or discriminating against you. I think that when people are being killed in the streets, it’s because they don’t see us as human.”

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