“The photo story is with Conrad Vreeland, a former Ford model, diagnosed with cancer at the start of his career, which altered the course of his life as well as some physical attributes from the chemo. It was a major change, coming from an industry that praises external beauty, which led him to create his own definition of beauty.
Along with health challenges, he contends with the daily judgement that comes with being a genderfluid male [..].
I draw strength from his fearlessness to move forward and be himself, unapologetically, and do it with fashion, grace, and an endless love for life.”

Edna Leshowitz

Written: Conrad Vreeland
Photography: Edna Leshowitz www.ednaleshowitz.com @soedna
Models: Conrad Vreeland @conradvreeland w/ his husband, Kelly Bush @kellybusharts

I started modeling with Ford Agency at 18 years old, which, for any teenager who loved fashion, it was a dream come true without knowing how that path would unfold. It was an exciting time for fashion. Gender roles were changing and it was more acceptable for boys to be more feminine. The line of androgyny was becoming looser and it allowed a lot of other gender-fluid models to build a career more than ever before. Everything that I’ve gotten beat up for and made fun of for in the past, now became the fashion norm for men.

The fashion “industry” was all encompassing, a world with its own culture and reality. You’re being flown on red-eyes to London and you’re expected to work that morning at 8 AM. When you show up exhausted, you’re gifted a little pill to make the shoot go easier and it does go easier. Then you’re driven to a hotel and you fall asleep for an unknown amount of time, you wake up dazed and confused, in another country. You look at your Blackberry. You have three different dinners, which start in 45 minutes, so you take another pill. People want you at their table because you’re pretty and you exude whatever the youth hipness is in at that time, being 2004-2005.

My career was exhausting itself and exhausting me. I was running out of energy to put on a smile for some asshole who’d grab my ass and may or may not put money in my bank account at the end of the day. In my heart, my mind and my body, I knew something wasn’t right. I chalked it up to partying too hard, too often and it took me months to get to the doctor. I knew there was a lump that wasn’t there before and even a wardrobe stylist pointed it out to me. I brushed it off, but it began to hurt, so I got myself to Dr. Dave on the Lower East Side, where we all went if we needed discretion and real advice. Upon checking me out, he knew it wasn’t good and sent me for a biopsy. I was on Bedford. Ave, grabbing a coffee w/ my partner, my phone rings and it’s a doctor from Beth Israel, saying that I was going to have to start cancer treatment in a week. It’s like getting on an elevator that’s free falling. It is a terrible thing to hear from an oncologist who you don’t know and who doesn’t know you, who’s giving me news in the same tone that you’d give someone with slightly elevated cholesterol.

And suddenly that’s your life, gungho, cancelling all your jobs, figuring out how to get real insurance and losing bodily autonomy, coming from a place where things were taken care of for me, without my asking or even understanding what I’d be asking for. It was a trial-by-fire education because it really was.

I was at the Henry Street Settlement every other day, trying to get emergency public assistance and figuring out how to turn free swag (clothes, perfume, sunglasses) from modeling, into cash in hand and learning that you don’t take Margiela to Buffalo Exchange.

I was dealing with paying rent, while on a chemo schedule, with few people who understood the gravity of the situation, especially my peer group who were just as uninformed and young as I was. I was on an aggressive rounds of chemo, spending the three day break between cycles at home, vomiting, trying to manage pain. Luckily, I had my now husband, Kelly, who took everything like a champ, who could cry with me, but still be strong and pragmatic in a way that I couldn’t be.

The treatment lasted for about a year before my blood work went back to normal. After the first few months of being off of chemo, you feel super-human. You can eat like a real person again, you have a semblance of being yourself again after being stripped of it. You have it back and it feels amazing until the hammer drops.

No one told me that there’d be after-care forever. It becomes a part of your life that you adapt to. My bone density had become that of an 80-year-old woman in a matter of months, leading to osteopenia, tooth decay and loss and the expense of taking care of that, while trying to maintain the appearance of looking healthy and feeling good. I didn’t want people to worry about me. I didn’t want cancer to be the focus of my life forever, but ultimately, it became a part of my everyday life. And in remission or not, I’m still a cancer survivor forever. And that’s ok.

After coming from a world of being branded as “downtown rocker chic,” at a time when the industry was turning towards skinny, gender ambiguous boys, instead of over-pumped muscly dudes, it was a mind-fuck for me, trying to slip back into my sample-size, Hedi Slimane Dior Homme jeans and they weren’t fitting. People weren’t coming to me, offering jobs. I was having to go to them, which I never had to do before. I felt so rejected by people who had celebrated me so much and I didn’t know what my value was. Was it my body? Was it my mind? And was it even my body to begin with or was it their body that they just rented out? It seemed like my body and mind aged out of the industry. I had to face facts. It wasn’t me anymore and I had to be real.

You have to get up as yourself, go out into the world and battle trying to be yourself or caving to public, social norms. Being myself can become an everyday fight. I’m expected to live up to other people’s standards of beauty in such a way that people will come up to me and tell me what I can do to improve my looks, completely unsolicited. I’ve been told to shave my legs to look more “authentic” when I’m not trying to present myself as a woman. Getting attacked for being myself and just living my life was grounds for getting hit in the face at any given moment.

But it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of beauty in survival. There’s beauty in connecting with other people. There’s beauty in having a positive dialogue with someone who may not understand you at all, but their humanity still shines through. Those are the moments that keep me going. Those are the moments I live for, that make it all worth it.

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