“It was a great homecoming,” Cecilio “Cece” Asuncion tells us a couple days after sitting as judge at the Binibining Pilipinas 2022 pageant and going viral for wearing a barong with what looked like boxer shorts in a rather formal, highly covered event. What a warm welcome indeed it was for the modeling director and founder of Slay Model Management, the world’s first and only trans-exclusive model agency.
Asuncion is a beauty pageant Henry Higgins who’s been based in the US for over two decades. He’s judged and hosted a number of major beauty pageants and model searches including the 2017 Miss Universe Pageant, Global Beauty Awards, Miss Teen USA 2018, and the annual Slay Model Search. He’s also the national director of Miss Supranational USA and co-host of the reality show on The Filipino Channel (TFC), “The People’s Queen.”
He is in the country for a couple of weeks to take a much-anticipated break, spend time with family and friends, and also meet for projects and possible collaborations. When ANCX sits down with him for a chat, he’s just landed in Boracay. “I'm excited because I’m looking at the Philippines with a different set of eyes,” he tells us, smiling. “I'm happy that there’s so much progress.”
But while some things have changed from his perspective, some have no doubt stayed the same. “We [still] find ways to laugh at things—yun ang mahal ko sa pagiging Filipino,” he says, while bringing up his controversial choice of bottoms for Binibini’s pageant night. “If you really think about it, there's a war in the Ukraine. President [Fidel] Ramos just died. There was just an earthquake. And we're talking about my shorts.”
But the guy laughs it off. Asuncion says he did not expect his fashion statement to make such a huge buzz. “No, it was not deliberate,” he tells us. “I really just wanted to support a Filipino designer who in turn wanted to support me by dressing me. I didn't think much about it, to be honest.”
His shorts, made by Filipino fashion designer Avel Bacudio, was fashioned from piña fabric crafted by a tribe in Mindanao. “I wanted to wear shorts because let's not deny it—mainit. And those were not boxer shorts, just to be clear,” he says, smiling. “I don't think anyone in the right frame of mind would wear boxer shorts in public.” He completed his barong and shorts ensemble with knee-high socks, leather boots, and a funky bag by Zarah Juan.
While attracting the Filipino public’s attention for his fashion choices was not intentional, Asuncion says he’s “very happy because conversation needs to happen.”
“Do we stick to being traditionalists?” he says. “Or do we go with the changing times in order to attract the younger generations to make wearing a barong acceptable in a way that you should be able to interpret it the way you want to?”
Smile and apologize
Asuncion finished grade school and high school at Ateneo de Manila University. In his teens, he had his first exposure to video production thru her cousin Gayl Vicente, a production designer working with clients such as Johnson’s Baby Powder, Hallmark Cards, and San Miguel Beer.
“After high school, I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I assisted [Gayl]. That was the first time I was on set and I fell in love with it,” he recalls. He was tasked to iron costumes and take on other production errands, but “I was learning, so I was having fun.”
It was in the year 2000 when Asuncion migrated to the United States. He took up hospitality management and eventually worked in hotels. “I was good at it. But then I really hated it,” he says, laughing. “You know, I was making a living out of smiling and apologizing.”
Asuncion began his involvement with the transgender community when he directed the documentary “What’s the T?” which explored the challenges, successes and lives of five transgender women. The documentary made the rounds of film festivals including the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco, the Vegas Indie Film Fest, SoHo International Film Festival, Pensacola Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and Palm Springs LGBT International Film Festival where it was voted Festival Favorite Cinema Diverse. For his work, Asuncion became the recipient of the outstanding Filipino American award for LGBT advocacy in 2012.
These recognitions were followed by a reality series called “Strut,” which Asuncion co-produced with American actress and TV personality Whoopi Goldberg. He was also a cast participant in “Strut,” which follows the life of transgender models. The show won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Series in 2017.
Slaying the groundwork
Slay Model Management was born because he met so many amazing trans people while making “What’s the T?”
The 46-year-old modeling director recalls following the careers of supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Shalom Harlow, Eva Herzigova, and Tyra Banks during his growing up years back in the ‘90s. These women possess features usually acknowledged as masculine—long neck, a squarish jaw—and they are deemed beautiful. “I thought, trans people almost have the same characteristics. How come they're not seen that way? And really that was how [Slay Model Management] started,” says Asuncion.
He opened Slay at his then-studio apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles in 2016 with nothing but an old laptop. “In the beginning of Slay, there were no opportunities for trans models,” he shares in the agency website. “A lot of education had to happen, many awkward conversations, inter-community discourse, and the daily urge to school people on social media that trans is beautiful.”
Thus, he considers the first time two of his trans models walked alongside Eva Mendes for American fashion brand New York & Company as one of the proudest moments of his career. “I remember going to the backstage and on the wall there’s a list of the models and their agencies. I remember seeing Elite, Wilhelmina and Ford [with Slay]—and that made me feel really good. That was a milestone,” he says.
The trans community has given a deeper meaning to his life, says Asuncion. “I remember when I started there was like a voice telling me you should do this. And I did, and it has somehow magically done so many good things for me, and I love this community. I always come from a place of… if you're in a position to help, why not?”
‘Bitbit mo buntot mo’
He knew for a fact it’s never going to be easy to start something new, especially one that’s never been done before. What helped him get to where he is now, he says, is focus, discipline, and nurturing relationships.
“Focus will enable you to keep going with every door that's closed and it will teach you how to pivot,” he says. “When you move to America, the culture and the lifestyle are different. Culturally mag isa ka, bitbit mo buntot mo. And you have to adapt. You have to unlearn, learn, and relearn things.”
Discipline, on the other hand, is very important on days when he just feels down from the number of shut doors he encounters. He also puts a premium on kindness. “What's important is that people want to work with you again because mabuti kang tao,” he says.
When he chanced upon Herlene Nicole Budol at the Binibining Pilipinas 2022 pageant, her answer struck a chord with him. “I think that was fate. She said something that made me very emotional. When she said, ‘Ang sarap palang mangarap. Walang imposible.’ That's what's happened to my life,” shares Asuncion. Budol won first runner-up and a slew of special awards in the pageant.
“Beauty pageant contestants already go through so much scrutiny, and I think as judges, it's our job to help make them feel more comfortable while they're on stage,” he says. “I don't believe in shaming women, or making the Q&A segment scary because it's just a conversation. Hindi kasi porket nagi-English, intelihente ka na. And I don't understand why speaking in Filipino is deemed as less.”
Trans is not a fad
For now, Asuncion is enjoying his homecoming. But once vacation is over, he’ll once more hit the ground running. He’ll be doing Slay Model Search Latin America, and afterwards will meet his partner in the Big Apple for New York Fashion Week. He’s also busy preparing for Slay Models Search Asia, which will be done in the Philippines in March 2023.
Asuncion has made it a part of his mission to let people know that trans is beautiful. “I want people and brands and designers and all of that to understand that this community is here. It's not a fad,” he says. “They've been around for many years. I want to help in the advancement of that community in every region of the planet.”