My phone started going off on February 17th, 2017 with friends texting me photos of singer-songwriter Joy Villa wearing a pro-Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” dress on the Grammy Awards red carpet. With my wonderfully strange and varied group of friends, I was only mildly surprised to soon find out that the designer was someone I had not only profiled for magazines before, but who I also considered a friend: Andre Soriano.
I consider myself incredibly wealthy when it comes to my friends. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, and everything in between make up a collage that surprises even me at times. If “six degrees of separation” was a contest or game, I would be someone who accidentally won all the time. Call it bragging, but it has its downsides. I have close friends on both sides of the political spectrum. This wasn’t necessarily by choice, but it has worked out pretty well when it comes to understanding the current political mood. This can be a gift or a curse. In the case of knowing the designer behind the “Make America Great Again” dress, it has proved to be an almost numbing experience. It is a very strange feeling when half of the people you know are yelling for a friend’s head on a platter and the other half are suddenly praising him like a God. Like I said: it made me feel numb and, frankly, it paralyzed me for a few months.
It’s been almost five months since the “MAGA-dress” made its debut. I still find it fascinating that it is a continued point of discussion on both sides of the aisle. This may have to do with the fact that, in general, there has been a lack of protest art against Trump. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, but it is startlingly low in volume when compared to other “anti” periods in history. I think the dress is such a hot-button topic because here was an artist not doing protest art, but instead pro-Trump art.
Like most things with the election, people’s response to Soriano’s dress was extreme on both sides. People hated it. People loved it. The positives were extremely positive for Villa and Soriano: Villa’s album skyrocketed to become number one on the music charts. The negatives were ugly: Soriano and Villa both received death threats. It was bizarre for me to watch, as someone who knows Soriano. We hadn’t spoken too much in the year prior to the election, save for the obligatory “Happy Birthday” and fill-in-the-blank holiday greeting. But that’s not to say that my exchanges with Soriano were just rote. With kiss emojis and hearts, Soriano’s effervescent and loving personality always shines through his communications—even through text and email.
Andre Soriano and my fiancé, Solly Hemus at the 2015 Catalina Film Festival
As someone who writes about entertainment and politics, Soriano was already a fascinating subject to me. He is, unlike me, an immigrant and, like me, he happens to be a gay man. But that isn’t what interested me in him when we were originally introduced. We first met at the 2015 Catalina Film Festival, where he was dressing many of the women in some of the most eye-popping gowns I’ve ever seen. We immediately clicked upon being introduced. My fiancé, Solly, was with me, and along with Soriano’s assistant, we all spent the following five nights hanging out and having a great time. You are, quite literally, trapped on a small island during the Catalina Island Film Festival (and it’s wonderful), so fast bonding is quite common.
Soriano is one of those people who everyone wants to be friends with: he’s kind, warm, and welcoming. I found it fascinating that, the first week we ever spent time together, a group of people would always form around him. He has that indescribable warmth and glow about him, yet he is incredibly down to earth. As a writer, it fascinated me that people from every walk of life were drawn to him. He has an effervescent charm and his artistic eye and fashion designs appeal to many people. He blasted onto the fashion scene during a stint on Rihanna’s “Styled To Rock” television series. Since then, he has been an in demand designer, creating clothes for some of Hollywood’s bigger stars. By the end of the festival, I found myself doing an unplanned profile of Soriano for another outlet I write for—he was, truly, that interesting and magnetic.
We remained friends, but in the absolute chaos that was the 18-month-long election season, we never discussed politics. I didn’t really question who most of my LGBTQ friends from Hollywood were voting for—silly me. I now know my assumption that Donald Trump’s noncommittal stance on LGBT issues, combined with his appointments to his cabinet who are seriously anti-LGBT, did not necessarily mean that all who identify as such, would be anti-Trump. When I first became aware that Soriano was behind the Make America Great Again dress, I didn’t want to write about the dress, mostly because everyone else already had. Everyone was so divided. He was getting covered in every outlet imaginable. Then, he told me that he had begun receiving death threats—this bothered me. He is a storyteller. An artist. My friend Tyler Lyle recently said “The problem with being an academic is that you can’t publicly disagree with yourself whereas the artist is defined by his contradictions.”
To many, the fact that this dress was designed by Soriano: a gay, (legal) immigrant was, in many ways the ultimate artistic contradiction. How could he justify supporting Donald Trump? Why was this dress still such a topic of discussion? I set out to answer these questions and get the definitive story behind what is quite literally one of the most controversial political and entertainment fashion statements in recent history. What I learned in the end was enlightening. But, what I was surprised to learn in the beginning, was that this dress design started because of Madonna. Well, Madonna said something at the record-shattering Women’s March that greatly upset one of her ardent fans—Andre Soriano.
“Yes: I’m angry. Yes: I am an outraged. Yes: I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won’t change anything. We cannot fall into despair. As the poet W.H. Auden once wrote on the eve of World War II: ‘We must love one another or die’. I choose love.”
Madonna spoke these words, often quoted without the full context provided above, at the Women’s March the day after the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington D.C. On the other side of the country, Soriano, a longtime fan of Madonna and other celebrities speaking at the march, was distraught at what he was hearing and seeing.
“At the Women’s March in Washington, there [were] a lot of iconic people [who were] also my role models ever since I was [living] in the Philippines before I migrated here (to the United States). When I was a teenager…younger, actually, before I was a teenager… I looked up to a lot of celebrities like Madonna, Meryl Streep, Ashely Judd, Robert DeNiro and they were totally, instead of being a good role model, they were creating hostility and hatred towards the new President.”
It was 22 days before the 59th Annual Grammy Awards Show and Soriano had already been hard at work on a dress for singer-songwriter Joy Villa, who was out of the country at the time.
“I was overseas, and we had been talking back and forth on different looks for my Grammy’s 2017 dress, and after sending him my The Static Remixes album and my ideas, we settled on a fiery, phoenix-like look.” Villa explained.
Soriano said that, as he watched the speeches at the Women’s March, he eventually had enough. He picked up the phone and called Villa.
“I was sobbing. I said, ‘Oh my God, Joy, how come everyone is so full of hatred? Why are they dividing this beautiful country?’ Andre explains of his call: “I [asked Joy] ‘Hey did you vote for Donald Trump?’ And she’s like ‘Yes, silly, of course I have! I’m one of those hidden, closet Trump [supporters] that never really spoke about it because of Hollywood’. I told her, ‘Joy: I’m changing the design for your gown.’ So, I went to the front porch of my house, and took the Trump campaign flag and bedazzled it. She came down here for a fitting and viola, it fit her like a glove!”
Soriano and Villa have been friends since 2015 when her old stylist introduced them and she considers him a great friend. “Every Grammys I go to only one designer: Andre Soriano. He listens to my music, knows my taste and my body and always comes up with something exciting and perfect for the moment.
“He called about 3 weeks before the Grammys with a wild idea, a “Trump Dress”. I had no idea what it would look like in it’s final stage. Was it Trump’s face? Golden like the Trump Towers? But I knew I trusted Andre. [W]e both had a firm belief that we need[ed] to show love towards our President after the gruesome hate directed at him from the Women’s March and other news hits. (When he called) I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and history was made.”
In the days before their history was made, both Soriano and Villa were aware that the dress might cause some backlash. Andre’s own neighbor, visiting his house to see what he was making, pointed out a potential problem: “We have a neighbor, Lynne, who lives down the street. [T]his is like, at least 3 days or 4 days before the Grammys, and Joy came over and Lynne [said] ‘Oh My God, Andre, this gown is not gonna make it through the parking lot in Hollywood!’ And, I’m like ‘You’re right, Lynne’ so I made a cape [to] cover it so that that once she got in there she wouldn’t get booted out….”
When many of his friends in the fashion industry asked him what he was designing for this year’s Grammy Awards, Soriano would deflect. He laughs about it now. “I was so silly, so I said (joking) ‘She gained a lot of weight’ so I texted them [a photo of] the cape gown… no one really knew that there was a dress underneath. And then, before she even made it to the main carpet, MTV News said she was the worst dressed of the Grammy’s. Then, when she revealed the dress underneath, everyone was like, you could hear the people’s reactions—I was like “Oh my God, here it is…”
Villa had originally not planned to wear the cape for as long as she initially did: “It was added as a last minute addition just for the limo ride over, but I decided why not wear it through all the interviews and only reveal it at the last spot of the Grammy’s carpet.”
“I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. I rehearsed that moment in my mind in Andre’s studio and we both knew it would be a shocker, we just didn’t know how much. I did think that it could potentially be dangerous for me, but I was willing to take the risk. In the end the cape protected me from any attacks and was a fitting touch to the big reveal. I love seeing the video footage of me smiling and hearing the photographers cheer me on!” Villa explained.
The reaction, regardless of which political side you sit on, was immediate and deafening. Piecing together the 24 hours immediately following the moment Villa pulled off the cape and revealed the dress can be both intimidating and confusing. Villa took to Instagram the night of the Grammy Awards to write “Go big, or go home. You can either stand for what you believe or fall for what you don’t. Above all make a choice for tolerance and love. Agree to disagree. See the person over the politics, carry yourself with dignity, always. Life is made to be lived, so go boldly and give no effs (sic).”
Not all of her fans were happy, with fans commenting things like “..so sad when you support your own oppressors…” Comments like that flooded Villa’s Instagram following the dress reveal. However, for any fans Villa may have lost, she appeared to gain legions of Trump-supporting fans overnight. By some estimates, her Twitter followers climbed from 20,000 to 100,000 people overnight.
Within less than 24 hours of pulling the cape off of her body to reveal the bedazzled-campaign-flag dress that once hung on Soriano’s front porch, Villa’s album skyrocketed to number one on iTunes and Amazon. Her album, “I Make The Static” beat Bruno Mars, Adele, and Beyonce’s record-shattering “Lemonade” album. Villa’s February 13th Instagram post stated to her fans: “We did it! iTunes #1!! Your support and love have changed the nation’s dialogue from one of hate to that of love and acceptance.” Comments accusing Villa of using Trump for her own personal gain were not uncommon. That didn’t seem to matter. The real question was, regardless of what Villa said, did the dress change the dialogue from hate to love?
Both Villa and Soriano were suddenly the unexpected darlings of the conservative media. Villa and Soriano—a multiracial (African American, Native American, and Italian) woman and a gay immigrant—were suddenly front and center on conservative-leaning programs like FOX and Friends and Alex Jones’ Infowars.
Soriano appeared on Fox and Friends with Villa wearing a pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” red hat. The article that still accompanies the video on FOX Insider’s website reads “Joy Villa: Trump-themed Grammys Gown Was a ‘Statement of Love’”
One thing that has remained consistent is Villa and Soriano’s insistence on the messaging of the reason for not only the dress, but the act of wearing the dress to the Grammy Awards.
Villa tells me the dress represents: “Hope. Unity. Love for Country and genuine respect for our President, who Andre and I believe is truly a great leader for our nation. It represents American pride and a desire to really forward this country to greatness through love, not hate. It doesn’t attack anyone else, there is room for all of our beliefs. It merely praises President Trump and his fight for the American people.”
When speaking to Soriano, he is, like Villa, insisting that the message of the dress was unity and love. “Regardless of who the President is, we have to be behind the pilot of our country. I think it’s just like solidarity, at least give him four years.”
Not everyone bought the idea that the dress was a message of unity, peace, or love. Former Congressional candidate, current medical researcher and wife of former Congressman Alan Grayson, Dr. Dena Grayson, believes there were other options:
“Soriano put Trump’s campaign slogan—not a national slogan—on his dress. ’MAGA’ is not a national slogan of our country…instead, that is a political slogan on the dress. By definition it’s not going to be a unifying message. It’s just not.”
Grayson continued: “If the true stated goal was—‘I am a gay immigrant [and a] pro-Trump voter, and I wanted to send a message that brings people together by designing an amazing dress’—[then] instead of designing a dress that had Trump’s campaign slogan on it—Make America Great Again—“MAGA” – [you have to see that] a lot of non-Trump supporters view that as a divisive statement. Instead, if [Soriano] had come up with a beautiful rendition of our amazing American flag as a dress—that would have been a unifying message. [T]hen, if he said ‘I did this because I’m a pro-Trump gay immigrant, and I wanted to show [it] in a way that we can all come together as a country with our new President’, I think that probably would have been a more powerful message.”
Conservative radio host Alex Jones had a completely different take on the situation. When Villa appeared on his daily program, Jones himself seemed starstruck: “Joy Villa, a few weeks ago, went from being a popular star, who was on the charts, to being number one on the Billboard Rock—above the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica right now—her new album is out—and number twelve on the Billboard 200—and I gotta say she is the ‘MAGA Monroe’ make America Great Again—she’s got that Marilyn Monroe figure, I really like it, I will, uh, say that right now, I like that dress, obviously, I guess I’m a married man, I can’t say that. Make America Great Again… she is the ‘MAGA Monroe.’”
Watching the video, it is clear Villa loved the new monicker. For those on the conservative side of the spectrum, they only see positivity.
Dr. Gina Loudon is a psychology and behavioral expert who hosts America Trends with Dr. Gina. Her political and psychological analysis and conservative-leaning views are frequently featured on multiple national TV news networks such as CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC. Dr. Loudon is a close friend of Soriano and was a Trump surrogate during the 2016 Presidential campaign.
When Dr. Loudon and I discussed the impact of the dress, I asked her why she believes voices like Soriano’s, a gay, legal immigrant, are important in the current political climate.
“The Trump dress that Andre designed had so much impact because America loves our right to speak out minds, to express our beliefs. The First Amendment is totally unique to America, and it guarantees our right to say what we think. Some who say they believe in freedom would shut people like Andre down for his own creative expression. That isn’t right, it isn’t who we are, and it isn’t where we are going in America.”
Andre and I talked about his many friends who are democrats and/or Clinton supporters. I asked him if there had been any backlash.
Andre Soriano with Rumiko McCarthy, Producer and Owner of Chess Knight Productions, at the 2015 Catalina Film Festival
“I have most of my friends who are civil. Because I have my political opinions doesn’t mean they would disown me, though there are some friends that did. However in my social media, when someone would not agree with President Trump, my Democratic friends are the ones saying things to people bashing me like ‘you really don’t know Andre to say these things’ [and], ‘I may not agree with Trump, but I don’t agree with you bashing Andre.’”
During our talk, he talked about his friend, Daphna Edwards Ziman. Ziman is famously close with the Clintons and even referred to Hillary Clinton as a “mentor and dear friend” in an LA Times article during the 2016 election season. Ziman and her ex-husband Richard Ziman, are well-known Clinton mega-donators and supporters.
One thing that many reporters questioned after the MAGA dress was unveiled was whether or not the support for Trump was genuine or a stunt. Less than nine months before the election, in February of 2016, Ziman held a much-publicized gala benefit and Academy Awards viewing party in support of Children Uniting Nations (“CUN”). CUN was founded by Ziman in 1999 along with honorary chairs Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton to connect mentors with foster children.
Soriano attended the gala event, which, in and of itself doesn’t automatically imply he supports Clinton. But, it has drawn more than a few raised eyebrows from his Democrat friends in Hollywood—including Ziman. When I contacted Ziman about her relationship with Soriano and her thoughts on the MAGA dress, she sent me the following statement:
“Andre Soriano is a very talented designer. I personally believe that art, music, film and fashion is the universal language of global unity. I do not believe that politics has any room in such creativity. Andre obviously wanted to gain attention with the Trump dress. Negative or positive, he managed to get attention.”
Openly gay and famed character actor Jasper Cole (“The Purge: Anarchy”, “American Horror Story”, and a million other projects) echoed Ziman as well as many others I spoke with in the LGBTQ community I talked with about the dress.
“First of all, I had never heard of Joy Villa or the designer, so it seems to me both only used the MAGA dress to get press. So, I’m sure they think it was a positive impact for them. In fact, Joy has been quoted as saying how much her social media following increased two fold after she wore it. However, I think it had a negative impact on THEM from the LGBTQ community and made both of them look the opportunists they are.
They spouted some BS how this dress was all about love and unity and yet they supposedly support a sexist, racist, unqualified hate monger for president. I think our community is too smart to be bamboozled by these nobodies because quite frankly, I don’t believe either truly have a shit about the election, one way or the other.”
Villa herself was called out by other outlets for deleting old pro-Bernie Sanders tweets once the MAGA dress became part of the national conversation. Regardless of whether or not Democrats believe Villa and Soriano are truly Trump supporters, Republicans, and even Trump’s own family have embraced both of them.
Sara Galliano, an avid Trump supporter and volunteer from New Orleans, Louisiana, believes Soriano’s voice is important for Trump supporters who identify as LGBTQ.
“Andre’s voice is important as a citizen first and foremost. But to have a gay, minority citizen express his voice for Trump makes it even more important in my opinion. Many believe Trump is against immigrants and gays but they are incorrect. Andre’s voice shows support that legal citizenship is appreciated by Americans of all races, and the fact he is gay and supports Trump really isn’t that surprising to me.”
“Lots of gay men and women I know support Trump because they know he is about equality across the board, and he can care less who you love, but rather how you contribute to society. Responsible people are supporting Trump who want to see America flourish and Andre’s voice is one standing out because liberals feel he shouldn’t be on the conservative side. I think it’s time to look beyond politics and look at people. Andre isn’t being politically correct or incorrect, he is being human and expressing his interest in being a leader in his community instead of a sheep following the path.”
Dr. Louden shared similar sentiments, telling me, “The politically elite in this country want to paint some people into victimhood status, to enslave them so that they can control them. But people like Andre expose their plot, because he breaks every mold they want to put him in. That’s what I love about Andre and that’s what I love about America!”
Just a few weeks after the Grammy Awards, a group (that many say breaks stereotypes) called “Gays For Trump” held a rally in Washington D.C. where both Soriano and Villa were keynote speakers.
Soriano is adamant when it comes to the President’s support of the LGBTQ community. Though these interviews were conducted before the President’s announcement he intended to ban trans members of the military. Soriano told me, “[Trump] is the first Presidential candidate (in the GOP) to really support the LGBT community—that’s not reported. There are so many things he supports about the LGBTQ [community].”
Dr. Grayson feels otherwise: “Having a gay immigrant design this dress as a way to show somehow that people in the LGBTQ and immigrant communities suddenly think Trump is for them, I think it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. I think the vast majority of the LGBTQ community know that the Trump regime, including number two—the former Governor of Indiana Mike Pence—are NOT espousing viewpoints and policy positions that are really welcoming the community in this country.”
When I asked Soriano if he has had any pushback from the LGBTQ community originally, he mentioned RuPaul Drag Race Season Three winner Raja Gemini as being vocally opposed to him once she discovered he was the designer of the MAGA Dress.
On a Facebook post, Gemini posted a photo of Villa in the dress with the following caption: “I found out who made this idiotic pile of trash, but I won’t mention it’s(sic) name. Damn… say goodbye to your fashion “career” you whack ass loser. Why does this person keep getting invited? #BOOT”
One thing that struck me as strange was that many of the most outspoken critics of Soriano were unavailable or unwilling to speak for this article, Gemini included. I attempted to contact Gemini eleven different ways over the course of three weeks before I heard back from a representative telling me Gemini was declining to be a part of this story. Soriano noted this phenomenon when we spoke. To him, he expressed wanting to have a dialogue with his detractors, while they seemed to not even want to hear his side of the story.
Fleeing A Real Dictator
One thing I found fascinating when reading most articles about Soriano, Villa, and the dress was that most reporters were missing what may be a crucial key to understanding Soriano’s beliefs: Andre Soriano and his family actually grew up under the oppressive hand of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. His mother escaped with Soriano and his siblings under cover of night.
Many un-informed people like to immediately label President Trump as a dictator without doing much homework on what a real dictator is…something Soriano knows all to well. America, from Soriano’s perspective, regardless of who is in charge, is always America. Throughout our talks, Soriano repeated to me more than once that America is freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America is not a dictatorship, despite what a few ultra-left (and ultra-right) people on social media may want you to believe. To understand Soriano’s support of Trump may be to understand his family fleeing an awful dictatorship. I asked him what it was like growing up under a real dictatorship and how he escaped.
“It’s so crazy because Benigno Aquino (husband of future President Corazon Aquino—who led the opposition against the dictator Marcos) studied here in America. I believe he went to one of the prestigious schools here and wanted to bring that back to the Philippines. So, when he came back to Manila—he wanted to transform the Philippines because of the dictatorship that the Marcos’ did.”
Soriano’s voice quiets when he tells this story. It is an obviously emotional subject for him to discuss.
“So meanwhile, that’s happening because there [was] a civil war [coming] in the country. A friend of my mother’s said ‘Hey, you have to think of your kids’ future.’ That’s why she relocated us here to America: me, my brother and sister. [At this point], there was civil war in the Philippines and you could see tanks and people stopping the tanks to have peace and everything because they assassinated him (Marcos). The [people] wanted better things for the country and were fed up with the corruption.
“It’s always the people’s power. It’s almost like what’s happening in America where there is no civil war or anything. Its all talk, talk, talk—which is great, [but no one] is reporting anything that is right…I’m glad they didn’t go harsh like that (civil war), however, people woke up and said ‘I live in this country and I want the best for this country’ and there is a better chance that Trump is going to change our country for the good.” Soriano’s enthusiasm about being an American is most evident in when he talks about his speech at the Gays For Trump event in Washington D.C.
“I’ve only been to Washington, D.C. once, and after my speech, a lot of Americans were just coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh my God, Andre, now I get it!’ I’ve never felt like such a bonafide American as when I spoke in front of the Washington monument… it’s so moving and then a lot of people said ‘Oh my God, Andre, now I can understand your love for our country.”
I asked him if he feels anger when people call Trump a dictator on the level of Hitler.
“Well, I don’t even believe the fake news anymore. I actually like the frog news…however, those are just words. If people are really sane, they will ignore them (The people who say Trump is a dictator) and they know its not true.”
A Problem With A Frog?
Speaking of frogs, Soriano enthusiastically told me about the MAGA Awards, whose website’s background images prominently feature the controversial “Pepe The Frog” meme that was labelled as a white supremacist symbol of hate by Hillary Clinton and the ACLU. A quick peek at the website shows an email address for a woman named Viktoria Colvin, who was recently featured on an episode of “MAGAOneRadio”, hosted by Peter Boykin, President of Gays For Trump.
Soriano explained, “The MAGA Awards—It’s all about Americans who have made a difference in our beautiful nation. The organizers are having a fashion show and also presenting an award to the people that really made a difference. MAGA means “Make America Great Again”—it was used by Ronald Reagan, it was used by Bill Clinton and now it’s being used by Donald Trump. It’s a word (phrase) that’s already been out there, right? It’s not just like it came to the surface because of Trump. It’s about uniting Americans all together… this group is awarding them with something great for doing something great for this country. On top of that I am really grateful and honored to be presented and have my own fashion show!”
For some I spoke with, Soriano and Villa’s enthusiastic support of the MAGA Awards is where the questions begin again.
Dr. Grayson explained, “We have the First Amendment, and it’s critical because it allows people to express views with which we may not agree or we may find offensive. There are First Amendment protections for a reason. All viewpoints are welcome as long as they’re not damaging somebody else. But, when it comes to artistic expression and rewarding that, to me—art—including design and entertainment—should be judged on its merits. [T]his kind of seems like a pushback or reaction to ‘You know Hollywood is so liberal, so we have to have our own awards because they only reward liberal artists’, which is nonsense. Does this mean now that any conservative who won an Academy Award [will have it taken away]? [Will the] Academy say ‘Oops, sorry Clint, we are taking back your Oscars!’ No, that’s crazy.”
So, I hope that our side doesn’t respond with the ‘Leftie Awards’ .. You know ‘I’m a left-handed progressive liberal, we will have the Leftie Liberal Artist Awards!’ I mean WHY? Let’s have awards that value people on the merits for the artistry that they show and the talents that they possess. People have a right to do what they want, but I believe that we have too much of this ‘us and them’ and last time I checked, our flag was red, white, and blue—and we are all Americans.”
In June, Villa attended the Faith and Freedom Coalition where the president spoke. Afterwards, she was invited to the White House by Jennifer Korn, Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director for the Office of Public Liaison. On Villa’s YouTube, in a video she explains how wonderful the visit was, only to be topped of with a one-on-one session with Ivanka Trump. According to Villa, the visit was wonderful. She spent two and half hours in the White House meeting the likes of Andrew Giuliani and she walked out of the West Wing and suddenly Kellyanne Conway stepped out of a black SUV, as Villa puts it, “in all of her fabulousness”.
Conway, according to Villa, loved her tattoos and they talked for awhile. But Conway wasn’t the only Trump-level celebrity Villa was to meet. In Villa’s own words, “On the way out, I hear ‘Joy!’ and guess who comes running up to me? Ivanka Trump! She is so incredible, such an awesome person, she’s just a big, glowing, like the sun. She’s just like sunshine. She throws her hands around me and gives me a big bear hug and she’s like ‘Oh my God, it’s so great to see you! I remember when you wore that dress and we are so happy and we were celebrating! We just loved it and you made us so happy, you made us smile, how are you doing? Did you fly from Los Angeles?’ She’s just so interested and so curious and beautiful and we were just getting together like girlfriends.”
While both Villa and Soriano continue to receive press from the MAGA dress, the LGBTQ community—both against and for the President—are faced with a conundrum. Though the President may have never come against the L’s, the G’s, or the B’s – in recent weeks, remarks about the T’s – the trans members of the LGBTQ community have raised new concerns.
On July 26th, 2017, President Trump said in a series of three tweets (combined for ease of reading):
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow….......Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming…......victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
Peter Boykin, the President of “Gays For Trump” who starred in a March 9th, 2017 video with both Villa and Soriano, hosted a founder of the aforementioned MAGA Awards, Viktoria Colvin, on his July 31st, 2017 “MAGAOneRadio” show. On the show, Boykin calls Colvin on his phone and has a private conversation where he responds to a question, after telling her he wanted to talk about the trans issue, and says “Did I say we have to be nice?” before putting Colvin on speaker phone.
Boykin explains that he has a special guest on the phone who is going to talk about the “transgender issue with us” and “it’s not going to be so friendly”. He then adds, “We never said our show was going to be friendly”. Boykin and Colvin exchange pleasantries before getting down to Boykin’s main theme. He explains to Colvin that they are going to discuss how there is no right or wrong answer to the transgender people in the military, but they want to talk about elective surgery.
Colvin says: “Yeah, there is no real answer. There is no true answer. There’s no right or wrong. But, um, many people have issues with things that you can’t have: you can’t have flat feet if you go in [to the military]. You can’t be allergic to bees and join the military because it puts you or people around you in harms way should you get stung by a bee. And.. if you’re a transgender and you’re taking hormonal medication and you don’t have access to it, you could potentially have a problem. Um, and, as far as the transgender surgery goes, that’s technically an elective surgery. If you claim that you’re going to kill yourself or you’re going to have some mental breakdown because you don’t have your transgender surgery that’s stating you have a mental problem, and you cannot have a known mental problem and be in the military. And.. elective surgery, you know, I was in the military for the army for eight years and I couldn’t go get a boob job, and have the army pay for it, even if I was a little bit overweight and maybe not the weight standard…”
“You mean you could tell them that you envision yourself as a woman with bigger breasts and that’s what you feel like you want to be—an uber woman?” Boykin asks.
“Yeah, well, yeah, you can’t claim that and say that’s what is going to make me healthy and mentally healthy and fit…” She continues to explain that if you can’t pass your weight standard in the military and want liposuction, the army will, essentially, laugh you out of service. She ends her statement with “Why should we pay for people to have transgender surgery when technically its an elective surgery? You’re choosing not be the sexual format, um, whether it is in your head or its a mental thing or not, but, if you’re gonna claim that hey, you’re gonna have mental problems, Lady Gaga posted that you just singled out, 45% of the people you just singled out commit suicide in that age bracket, and that was exactly, you know, committing suicide is a kind of mental distress, mental disorder, mental problem of some sort…”
The conversation moves on and Boykin has a personal observation: “I would actually truthfully say a lot of the women join the military because they are more on the butchier (sic) side because of the working out.”
Regardless of this conversation, Boykin has a voice on what his supporters call the “Trump Train” from his radio show, support of the MAGA Awards with Colvin, and being the President of Gays For Trump.
When it comes around to the original question about Soriano—how can a gay immigrant justify not only being a Trump supporter, but also design a dress that many say normalizes Trump, the answers vary.
Sometimes, the answers to the harder questions end up coming from the most logical sources. Erin Berg is the co-founder of Kipper Clothiers. Kipper Clothiers was born following the repeal of Proposition 8, out of a need to create clothing that inspires pride and confidence within the LGBTQ community.
Berg was frustrated by the lack of options for transgender men and lesbian women looking for high-quality, custom-fitted suits. So, Berg decided to start Kipper Clothiers to provide a comfortable and safe space that catered to every body type, despite gender identity. As a fellow fashion designer, Soriano’s choice to create the MAGA dress and the implications that followed, were layered.
Berg explained, “I think that all voices need to be raised within the LGBTQ community, but not at the expense of those that are most oppressed within the community—my thoughts are taken right to LGBTQ folks who are on Medicaid and rely on the government assistance. Trying to normalize a Trump administration through this type of over-the-top nationalism is not what the LGBTQ community stands for…”
When I asked Berg about how it made him feel that an LGBT immigrant designed the dress, his response was among the most poignant of everyone I spoke with: “I think that it gave me some pause of the harsh critiques the dress was getting, but my sentiment is still the same. ‘MAGA’ as a concept is racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, anti-immigrant that at its core is against everything America is.
How can a dress glorifying the current administration be a symbol of unity and love? Also, why does a Women’s March critiquing a current administration get seen as harsh and separatist? I think we are running up on an old narrative that women’s voices across the country need to be silenced by the voice of one man. How is that a symbol of unity?”
I think that after Trump’s win, many of his supporters have become emboldened and are starting to show their true colors more, even within the LGBTQ community. However, with this has also come a large spike in hate crimes. If LGBTQ Trump supporters are in the closet, it is because they are ashamed of siding with an administration that is unabashedly holding up their anti-immigrant, racist ideals.”
When it comes to the MAGA dress, no matter which side you stand on, most people are drawn to a few questions:
1.) Is the dress art?
2.) Is the dress an attempt to normalize someone that progressives feel is radical?
3.) Is a dress, sometimes, just a dress?
When Jasper Cole was asked if the dress was art, he said, “Clearly from my answers so far I don’t consider that dress art. Rather, I think it’s propaganda. But they say, ‘Art is in the eye of the beholder’—but Hitler loved art as did many other hateful horrible people!’
Designer Erin Berg had similar sentiments, telling me, “No—it is a theatrical piece of politics that did nothing to forward any conversation around the LGBTQ community in the days of Trump. I believe it is just another distraction as Trump tries to disenfranchise the weakest among us.”
Yet, one of the most fascinating aspects of working on piecing together what quite possibly is the most interesting pop culture aspect to emerge out of the Trump era was the clear, and surprising, disconnect that both “sides” had with one another.
When I spoke with people who did not support Trump, their anger revealed less of an anger towards the dress and Soriano and Villa, but more towards the fact that Donald Trump is President of the United States.
When I spoke with pro-Trump supporters, the conversation became more about the “bravery” of Villa and Soriano or the fact that they were gay, minorities, immigrants (or some combo therein), and less about the dress.
So, perhaps, the original question isn’t how Soriano can justify being a pro-Trump supporting immigrant and gay man. Instead, perhaps the question is: how can everyone on both sides of the aisle figure out how to start having a proper conversation with each other about Donald Trump being President?
The dress accomplished something, whether Democrats or Republicans want to admit it: it allowed what is already a contentious and heated debate to ground and center itself around something. An object. A dress, of all things.
Cole explained, “The whole idea that Andre says his dress was a sign of ‘love and unity’ is hilarious. It certainly unified our community in protest against the dress and the hate that it really represents. For the designer to even reference something as magnificent as the women’s march in the same breath as this MAGA dress is just ludicrous. It only shows just how uninformed he and Joy Villa are. The thing that really back fired on them was that the majority of the LGBTQ community felt the dress was a slap in the face of all the true activists who have marched and fought and bled for this community against the hate and bigotry that this administration stands for.”
While Dr. Louden, when asked how she deals with hearing negativity about her good friend Soriano, told me “I don’t hear negative things about Andre, honestly. I don’t look for it, but I don’t hear it. As someone in the public eye myself, I know that haters gonna hate. That’s what they do. It says more about them than the target of their intolerance. “
Are either of them incorrect in what they say? The answer is no—what their answers are, however—is revealing of how disconnected we all have become due to what feels like not just the political marathon of our lives, but the Olympic marathon of our time on Earth.
The truth is, Villa gained supporters, but supporters are different than fans. But, more than anything, shocking as it may be, the Trump supporters and non-supporters, at the end of the day, seem to genuinely have common ground.
Galliano (the Trump volunteer and supporter) told me, when asked if she is now a fan of Villa: “I had never heard of Joy before this event. I did look her up afterwards and I’m not a fan of her music, but I do appreciate the individualism she exhibited by stepping out of the comfort zone and I commend her for that. I believe people do become fans based on the trends, but that’s just not who I am. Either I like your music or I don’t, which doesn’t translate to I don’t like you as a person if I don’t. I do support her future ventures because I think everyone should live the American dream: the pursuit of happiness and freedom to succeed. She did a brave thing that others would be scared to do.”
Dr. Grayson, Congressional candidate and wife of a former Congressman, told me: “I respect the First Amendment and definitely respect the freedom of artists to express themselves—that is one of the things that makes our country great, and even if I don’t like the message—I can appreciate art for what it is.”
Whether the world believes Soriano’s dress was art, the point is that it began a discussion. What America is to one person is completely different to another. What the United States means to a gay immigrant who fled a dictator in the Philippines is going to be different from a 7th generation American immigrant. Because, as Dr. Grayson told me, almost everyone here in America is an immigrant. Two quotes from one man, Ronald Reagan, kept running through my mind during the weeks I worked on this article.
The first one is this: “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom, and then lost it, have never known it again.”
And, perhaps more poignantly: “Too often character assassination has replaced debate in principle here in Washington. Destroy someone’s reputation, and you don’t have to talk about what he stands for.”
Perhaps it’s time we all start listening to why we stand for what we do?