Rain Dove doesn’t love labels.
She doesn’t hate them, either. To her, the differences between men and women are practically inconsequential. We’re all humans—why make things more complicated?
“I know my name is Rain Dove,” the model tells HealthyWay, “so there’s definitely going to be some hippy-dippy s**t in here.”
Dove made international headlines in 2015 when she walked the runway at New York’s Fashion Week in menswear, quickly becoming the central figure in four separate shows. For most people, that would be a crowning achievement, but for Dove, it was a means to an end; in 2016, she was a major player in the fight against North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, and she continues to fight for representation of non-binary people in media.
We’re just scratching the surface of an incredibly interesting life: Dove also lived as a man for a year while fighting wildfires, gave a stirring TED talk about gender identity, and went viral for challenging Victoria Secret’s beauty standards. She also attended the University of California at Berkeley where she pursued a degree in genetic engineering.
We spoke with Dove to learn more about her first (accidental) foray into modeling, what she learned while living as a male firefighter, and how we can fight back against harmful perceptions of gender.
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
HEALTHYWAY: Thanks for taking the time. For the intro to this article, do you have a pronoun preference?
RAIN DOVE: A pronoun is just a sound to me, and all I’m listening for in the sound is positivity.
Awesome. So you started modeling when you lost a bet on the Cleveland Browns. Would you mind going over that?
Sure, yeah. It was a dark and stormy day, and I went out with some drinks with a friend who was the face of DKNY at the time.
We were watching a football game, and they told me that I should consider modeling. I told them, “Models are pretentious people who don’t eat, and I love food too much. It’s not going to fit me.”
But they said, “I have a feeling it’d be a really important part of your activism, so I’m going to make a bet with you. If I choose the winning team, then you have to go to a casting call of my choice.” And, of course, they picked the right team. I ended up having to go to a casting call three months later for Calvin Klein.
I didn’t know anything about fashion, and honestly, it seemed like the worst possible thing to send me to do. I just really, really was uncomfortable. And when I went in, they told me I was there on the wrong day. I looked around, and all I saw were like blondes and one redhead. I thought, “Oh, they must do it by hair color, that makes sense.” You know, you don’t want the color of the hair to clash with the color of the clothing.
So they said to come back tomorrow. I came in the next day and it was all men. I realized, “Oh, they think I’m a man. Okay, whatever.” I’d been mistaken as a male before, and it didn’t really offend me, so I just went with it.
They ended up casting me in the show. When I went there, they handed me a pair of underwear and said, “Alright, we’ve gotta do our runthrough in 20 minutes. Everybody get running! Roll, roll, roll! Rain, go put on your outfit!”
I said, “Okay, where do I get my outfit?” And they’re like, “That is your outfit.”
And I realized that I was in a Calvin Klein men’s underwear show.
I knew I had two choices. I could be like, “Hey, there’s some things on my body that probably don’t align with the particular marketing scheme you have for this garment, so thank you so much and goodbye.” Or I could make my friend just as embarrassed as I was—so I took the underwear, went into the dressing room. At the very last second, while they’re rushing, I came out of the dressing room—just, like, burst out, in only the underwear. No bra or anything. And I went down the runway.
How did they react to that?
The casting director really looked like he was going to s**t himself. I mean he was just like, “Oh, my God, my career is over!”
And little did I know that that moment would change everything about my life and what I do. I didn’t think I would ever get into modeling, but when I started getting more job offers, I did them, because you can make more money in a half of a day of modeling than you could in an entire week of manual labor.
When I saw how much people were spending on a Chanel purse, I realized—if they can spend $3,000 on a purse, they can afford $3 a month to help people change their lives through various causes and organizations.
So I decided to give modeling a shot, because I realized that—well, we always end up preaching to an echo chamber, you know? We talk to people who are already listening. I wanted to talk to the people who weren’t listening or who didn’t want to, because they’re the ones who need the change the most.
Yeah, and I think part of the reason that you’re such an engaging figure is that you’re kind of taking down the norms of the fashion industry while participating in it. Do you think that your opinion of the fashion industry has changed significantly since you’ve become a part of it?
Yes, it has. I used to just think it’s full of pretentious people. Whenever you think of the fashion industry, you always think that it’s full of people who are dumb and vapid. And there are those people that do exist in this world.
But I realized that fashion—I never really had much of a fashion sense growing up. I just wore what was comfortable. When I open up my dresser, for me, it’s more like opening up a toolbox than it is me opening up the world of creative possibilities, you know.
I realized that clothing, for a lot of people, is like armor. It’s like an extension of their flesh. It allows people to say who they are, sometimes without ever having to say anything out loud at all.
There are good guys and there are bad guys, you know? There are people who really care, and who are trying hard to change the way that we market things. The issue is not really in high fashion; the issue is in commercial fashion.
You’ve described yourself as a gender capitalist. That seems very linked into this idea of making non-binary genders culturally acceptable—I guess, making them more marketable.
That’s exactly it. The things that we’ve always known [in fashion], we have a pretty good idea that they will work, but you need to be able to take risks. And you have to be okay with the fact that those risks won’t always pay off.
I say that I’m a gender capitalist because I just don’t have time to f**k around. I do flex myself in society to get the best out of it. But the reason I need to [do that] is to break the binary, to break the system. To make people feel like they’re not enslaved by the clothing that wear or by the language that they speak.
That’s fantastic. I guess what’s interesting to me is you’ve got a unique perspective because of your experiences—you lived as a man for a year when you were a firefighter, correct?
Yes. Eleven months. I didn’t make it out to a full year; I got injured towards the end of it. I was so bummed.
I got caught in a blaze with two other people. That’s actually how people found out I was a woman. Or, not a woman, but you know—that I had female on my birth certificate.
It was a really brutal time period. In fact, we all got injured really badly. The helicopters came in to airlift us out, and they only had room for two people, and there were three of us. They took one person named Colin, who was male-identifying, because he was the most injured. He was barely alive.
And they looked at myself and this other person, and this other person was very femme, female-presenting. Then there’s me, who’s been operating as a male for a while. We both had very similar injuries; I had a head injury with a helmet kind of melted into the side of my head, and she had multiple fractures in her foot and her ankles. We both had broken collar bones—it was just a mess.
But you know what they said when they were trying to determine who to take first? They were like, “Well, ladies first.” And they picked her up and put her on the ‘copter.
I was like, “Wait! I mean, sure go for it! I mean—of course, she’s my crewmate, but that can’t be the reason. Surely, tell me that her injuries are worse, that’s why you’re taking her. Don’t just say ‘Ladies first,’ like—come back here, f****r!” (Laughs)
But it was when I spent that time period as a male firefighter—I thought I had found the golden ticket to life. I could look like a cisgender, white, decent-looking guy. And I thought that was the ticket to having a better life.
In a lot of ways, it was, but one of the things I discovered when living with all these men as a male—I got to hear their conversations. The types of conversations and subjects that they just don’t talk about around women, you know?
I found that guys are actually—well, we always say that they’re not emotional, but they do tend to be kind of gossipy sometimes, and they do tend to have feelings about things and talk about them pretty intimately with their buddies. I realized that they have a lot of pressures on their shoulders, pressures that I never had as a woman.
They always feel like they’ve gotta have their s**t taken care of, for themselves. There’s no fallback…If they need someone to take care of them, then they feel weak or depressed.
And actually, the rate of depression in my group was really high because a lot of guys felt like they weren’t going to be able to live up to certain expectations. There was a lot of frustration.
Can you give an example of that type of frustration?
We had these female crew mates and they would yell at us, like, “No! You need to do it this way!” That’s just fire banter—you just do that, you know? We get fiery with each other sometimes. It’s a life or death job, you do not have time for feelings, you’ve just got to say stuff.
But a lot of men felt really frustrated, because they couldn’t say things at the same level … “We feel like we can’t do conflict resolution because we’ll be seen as mansplaining.” Or, “We can’t talk about how we feel about something because it’ll be seen as aggressive.”
And men would highly sexualize the women, but only when they’re trying to impress each other. It doesn’t happen in a one-on-one setting.
It’s like a call-and-response thing. It was almost like it’s just programmed into their language. But for the most part, when you just talk to a guy on your own—the conversations I had were actually not so much about attraction. They’re actually very much function-based, like “She annoys me,” or “She works hard.” They were an assessment of the value of the person physically and through action rather than sexually.
As a culture, I guess we focus on saying that things are easier for this group, or things are easier for this group. I think things are probably much easier for men than they are for women, overall—but it seems like such a valuable enterprise to be pointing out at the way that sexism and genderism make things difficult for everyone.
Yeah, it’s important for us to recognize that people are treated individually and assessed based off of multiple intersectionalities, from color to ability to the mannerisms in their body.
The first division we have is our genitals at birth. I mean, that’s the very first division we experience. And I get it. I get it, you know? But at the same time, it really does curate a lot of our experience. And I think in order for us to be honest and sit down at the table, we cannot go into it saying, “It’s red team versus blue team.”
We have to say that there are disadvantages on both sides of this spectrum. There are problems for men, and we have to recognize that. And there are problems for women that you might think are over, but they aren’t over. There are different kinds of women in society.
And I hope that we get to a point where we just assess every person individually for their experience, not for their body.
The irony, of course, that in order to stop talking about gender, we have to talk about it constantly. Kind of like we’re doing right now.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. Like, I don’t want to have to talk about this stuff, you know? But we have to.
You said in one interview that you wanted to be boring. I thought that was really interesting.
Yeah, I mean, that’s your ideal, right?
What’s something you would like to tell people they could do to try and help with these issues? To make a positive change?
I think that the easiest thing to do—well, it’s actually very difficult, but it doesn’t involve taking to the streets, or, you know, dressing in a squirrel suit and jumping off a building and attacking Mike Pence or anything like that—the easiest thing is just to be honest with yourself and allow other people to be honest with themselves.
So many times, we shove down our truth just because we feel like we shouldn’t be having it, or we feel like there’s something wrong … So when you’re like, “I like this color,” just let yourself f****g like the color. If you’re like, “I like this person,” just let yourself like the person. If you love the smell of fresh-cut grass, just be like, “I f****g like that!”
Because the things that you like and dislike, that’s you. Allowing people to be honest about what they like and dislike is important because you’ll find very quickly that some things we like are biases that have been created through social programming. Racism is a great example, homophobia is a great example. We won’t be able to have conversations about how to change that programming if we can’t be honest with each other about the fact that we’re having these feelings.
I always tell people we’re not our bodies. We can remove any part of your body, any organ can be replaced with a plastic pump these days. But the you that is you is something so much more than your body. It’s an experience. It’s an awareness. So the best thing that people can do is really be honest about their experience and let other people be honest about their experiences.
And as long as those people aren’t getting in your way of food or other people’s ways of food, shelter, water, physical safety, and freedom of movement, just let them f*****g be.