'Never be afraid to show your true colours’: Model and ballroom legend Naimah Janse on pushing forward, flourishing, and giving back

'Never be afraid to show your true colours’: Model and ballroom legend Naimah Janse on pushing forward, flourishing, and giving back

Not many can boast working for a major modelling agency, with some of the top fashion brands in the world, being featured in Vogue – twice – and co-founding two meaningful organisations, or becoming a trailblazer that their younger selves could not even have imagined. But Naimah Janse can.

Naimah is a St. Maarten born-and-raised model, activist, house mother, and ballroom legend living in The Netherlands. As a trans woman, she has needed to move forward and forge her own path in ways that the majority will never be able to fully understand.

Her journey and accomplishments hold a mirror to society, exemplifying the reality that many members of the LGBTQIA+ community face – needing to leave to home before they can be accepted, explore who they are freely, and thrive.

After facing serious discrimination in her youth and eventually coming out, Naimah connected to ballroom as soon as she saw it. Now at 36, she is a mother at the House of Elle in Rotterdam, which she co-founded; has been deemed a ballroom legend; and is also the co-founder of the Black Trans Art and Joy Fund, offering the support she wishes she could have had in earlier years.

What are some of the accomplishments that you are really proud of?

In 2020, I co-founded the Black Trans Art and Joy Fund, which is a non-profit organisation that raises funds for Black trans joy. Co-founding this was really special to me because I created something I wish I had when I first transitioned. Helping the younger generation get to their goals is so beautiful and fulfilling to see – it’s very “full circle” for my younger self.

Getting signed by one of the world’s best agencies in my opinion, APL Models, where I have been contracted for about two years now. It is The Netherlands’ most influential and leading inclusive model & talent agency for under-represented and LGBTQIA+ talent worldwide, while making them the new standard: reality. Their main focus is to build a family environment where their team truly cares for the individuals. They are more than just an agency; they are a family-focused on new talent and trying their hardest to transform them into stars. They don't follow societal beauty standards. They open doors for everyone, because reality matters – and to me, that’s iconic!

My campaigns with Hunkemöller. Being a lingerie model has always been my dream, wearing lingerie makes me feel like the main character – the woman I am. Lingerie has the power to boost self-esteem and confidence by improving body image, promoting feelings of self-worth, and celebrating unique beauty. Lingerie is everything to me.

Getting deemed “legendary” in the ballroom scene which happened last year: October 1, 2023. Being given this title is a huge accomplishment when it comes to your ballroom career. This means you’ve been contributing and excelling in your category for over 10 years. Icons in the scene are the only ones allowed to do the deeming. Being seen by the icons to me is so major and it gives me the recognition I deserve for all these years of hard work and giving back to my community.

Being in Vogue magazine with my house is also a huge accomplishment that I’m super proud of. In a model’s career, being in Vogue is like the greatest dream come true.

What is ballroom, and what is the House of Elle?

Ballroom is a safe space for Black and queer people. It was founded by a Black trans woman in response to racism in the drag pageants in New York City. Though racially integrated for the participants, the judges of these circuits were mostly white people. Racial discrimination prompted Black and Latino attendees to form their own balls, and modern ballroom culture began to develop out of Harlem in the late 1960s.

While the initial establishment of ballroom mimicked these drag queen pageants, the inclusion of gay men and trans women would transform the ballroom scene into what it is today – a multitude of categories in which all LGBTQIA+ people may participate. Attendees "walk" these categories for trophies and cash prizes. Most participants in ballroom belong to groups known as "houses", where chosen families of friends form relationships and communities separate from their families of origin, from which they may be estranged.

The elegant House of Elle is my house that I also helped co-found in 2022. We make two years this month – June. We strive to be an artistic, creative house that is disciplined, communicative, and fun-loving, to give our members a sense of belonging. It’s a safe space where Black, Indigenous, and people of colour of the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies are able to revel in the beauty of ballroom.

Is it fair to say you are living your dream?

I am. I thank God every day for everything I’ve been through – because at the end, it all paid off. I’m truly so grateful.

Can you give us some insight about how you got here?

I got here with a lot of hard work and determination. I believed in myself and I never gave up on me. It’s been a rough journey, especially coming from the island. People were very closed-minded on the island, which added on to that pressure. I took a lot of risks – and at the end, it all paid off. Look at me: I’m a super model and getting a feature in The Daily Herald…Look, Mom, I made it!

PS: Never give up on your dreams, no matter how painful and difficult your journey is. The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.

How would you describe a day in your life?

A day in my life would look like this: I wake up early to prepare breakfast for me and my mom (I’m her caregiver), then head to the gym to get my daily workout in, followed by a relaxing sauna and steam room session.

Relaxing and meditating under water in the pool is my favourite thing to do – I’m the most calm when I’m around water. My ballroom kids are also part of my day, most of the time we’re on FaceTime or we’ll have a game night where we watch our favourite episodes or play games together.

Was moving to The Netherlands essential to grow and become who you are?

Definitely. I started to flourish and become more myself once I left the island. The people on the island were so narrow-minded and uneducated when it came to one’s sexuality; and at a certain point, it became unsafe for me to be who I am on the island. I experienced hate crime while living in St. Maarten, and nothing was done when it came to justice. Most of my life, I’ve been bullied for being who I am and even though I tried to hide my true colours, people still could see it. I was trying so hard to be something I wasn’t. All I knew was island life – and, honestly, I thought that was all there was.

There was a point where I didn’t care anymore what people thought about me. I came out to my mom and she accepted me – and, to me, that was all that mattered. I started to express myself more through my fashion and art (which was dancing) and that brought a lot of negative attention, but I honestly didn’t care anymore.

When I found ballroom (2008), it was the first time I saw a trans woman on hormones and being unapologetically herself. It was so inspiring to see, and I knew immediately that this was me too. It’s like I saw myself in her.

I then moved to The Netherlands in 2010, and it was the best decision I’ve made in my life. I started my transition socially and medically here in The Netherlands. This goes out to the trans kids reading this: Never be afraid to show your true colours. Nothing’s wrong with you, sweetheart. Shine bright and make them burn. The same things they bully you for now will bring you so much success in the future. Stay weird – and I love you.

What is the vision/purpose behind the foundation you co-founded it, and why is it important?

The Black Trans Art & Joy Fund is a private initiative that centres community care for Black trans people (that’s women, men and non-binary). We do this by organising crowdfunding initiatives, as well as sharing and connecting networks, and offering practical support to provide the community with space to create, share their art and legacy and, above all, experience joy.

When we are in community with each other, we resist the idea that to need help is to be a burden. Instead, we care for each other out of collective responsibility. We share resources and redistribute wealth to create equity. We encourage community members that have more access to economic wealth and valuable resources through (generational) privilege, to proactively take on the responsibility of sharing.

We set up the campaigns according to the needs of beneficiaries. We are dedicated to creating space for your existence, your voice, your art, and your joy. In practical terms, we want to contribute to making the lives of Black trans people in our community easier by simply asking “what do you need?” and moving from there.

This can mean all sorts of things – from funds for a surgery, to an exhibition space, to administrative help. The Black Trans Art & Joy Fund has a global network to support in terms of funds, community, organising, practical necessities, knowledge... etc. There is no one-fits-all-model. You decide what kind of care you need, and together we figure out how to move forward.

Internationally, there has been increased discrimination and sensationalised misinformation targeting the LGBTQIA+ community, especially trans people. What do you wish that people swept up in these sentiments understood?

To try to tell you that there’s something wrong with who you are, I think that’s absolutely criminal. It’s sad to see that in 2024, we’re actually taking 10 steps back. My heart really goes out to all the trans kids who have to live through this. Most of these kids are suicidal because of society – and to deal with this now is so sad. I wish people would live and let live. We wouldn’t choose a life this hard to live; we are born this way. The world is bleeding, and I wish so much healing upon this world.

Interested in keeping up with Naimah? Follow her on Instagram @beautieimah.

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