Mj Rodriguez from Pose and artist Chella Man co-star on In The Know’s inaugural digital cover for June 2021. Read below for their accompanying feature article. You can find out more about the fashion featured in the cover shoot here, and the beauty products used here.
If you didn’t know any better, In The Know’s June cover stars Pose actor Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) and artist Chella Man seem like they’ve been friends for ages. “I’m really excited that I’m doing this with you, Chella,” Rodriguez beamed over Zoom. “I’m just glad that we got to do this amazing shoot together because the energy is still reverberating.”
Arriving on set at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles at 8 a.m., Rodriguez, 30, and Man, 22, spent the first hour taking COVID tests, embracing each other, mingling over breakfast and perusing the wardrobe racks with the stylists while the camera crew set up. By the time they started shooting with photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis at 10:30 a.m., Rodriguez, a Capricorn, and Man, a Sagitarrius, looked like Studio 54 disco gods donning all-white suiting and kaleidoscope-inspired makeup.
Before the two joined forces for In The Know’s June cover story, they met for the first time to be part of H&M’s 2021 Pride Campaign. Both of their careers are on fire. Rodriguez just released a new single called “Something to Say” and was featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar alongside Pose co-star Indya Moore and director, executive producer and writer Janet Mock. Man just published his first book, Continuum, which chronicles his experiences as a deaf, transgender, genderqueer, Jewish person of color. He plays Jericho, a mute superhero, on the DC Universe series Titans. The cover stars share a superhero connection found not only in their work but also in how they live their lives. To many, they are real-life superheroes.
For this month’s cover story, the stars sat down for an exclusive and emotional Zoom-interview turned in-depth heart-to-heart with each other on all things bodies, self-expression and relationships. “I feel like I just had like, free therapy or something,” Man admitted at the end. “Me too. I did too,” Rodriguez agreed. “I feel much lifted, honey. I feel like the sun was shining down while we were doing this therapy.”
Chella: What does it feel like to have to say goodbye to a character who helped introduce you to the world?
Mj: And she was one of the women in the 1980s, the 1990s who got to a certain point and lived. It’s just been emotional because that show, the show itself, has taught me a lot, but… Ew, don’t cry.
Chella: No, go ahead. Cry all you want. I think crying is fine.
Mj: There are still women that are dying, and I don’t want to be that. And I know I’m in a place where people think that I’m safe and protected. But honey, I am not. And I just want to get to that point. I want to succeed like Blanca did, and that’s the part of me that makes me sad that I’m letting her go because she succeeded. I want that kind of dream for my life.
So, yeah. I hope I get to live to marry my boyfriend and have some babies and help them grow, and send them off and be old as hell. I haven’t done that yet.
Chella: That’s a beautiful freedom dream. And I think there’s so much happiness and joy in that sadness, though, because it’s so possible. I can easily see that for you. And your work, doing that, you very clearly poured your heart and your life into Blanca.
And I know everyone did, in Pose, and it’s literally changing the world. Not exaggerating. Your work allows that dream to come true, not just for you but for so many people, and you should all be just so proud of yourselves. We all went on the journey with you guys, just watching it and supporting the show. It was such a crucial show, too.
Chella: I genuinely feel like people are reading my diary. I feel very nervous and excited. I think the silver lining of this pandemic is that it really allowed me to sit and reflect for once. With all of its gun laws and politics and everything, our world is still really scary for people like us. I think if anything were to happen, I think I said what I need to say. I feel very fulfilled having that book out there.
Part of it was trying to figure out how to create accessible language. How do you explain systemic oppression to a child? So I wrote it to kids and people from all walks of life because many people, even older and many other generations, need that basic, accessible language to understand. They didn’t grow up with it. So it’s really, truly for all ages. In the back of my mind, it was for myself and for the kid that really needed that book and never got it.
Mj: I wanted to ask you, can you think of any first-time expression moments that might seem small to someone else or are small to someone else but were a big deal to you?
Chella: The first thing that came to mind when you asked that was walking in New York. You see your reflection constantly, and I would see my reflection constantly at a time when I was really trying not to look at myself, right before I had come to the realization and had the language to connect that I was trans and wanted to present transmasculine.
I remember passing so many buildings and just seeing the side of myself, of my body, and seeing my chest, and just cringing and dissociating. And after I got top surgery, I didn’t even have my drains out yet or anything, but I remember walking past buildings and not avoiding them anymore.
Chella: You’ve chosen to share some really sweet moments from your relationship, like your Valentine’s Day post on Instagram this year. Why did you choose to share your personal life?
Mj: I feel like the reason why I put those pictures out there is because, one, I’ve never been able to express my love and the love that someone has for me. Never. And for a while, I was very afraid to do that because I thought I was going to get backlash after it. So for Valentine’s Day, I just made sure people saw what love looks [like] on a woman who is of an experience that a lot of people may not know.
And I was fooled with the feedback because people just uplifted me. They gave me all of the words of encouragement and “you deserve this.” And I was just like, “Wow. Whoa, the world is seeing it.” Anyways, though, yes. That’s why. But you’ve been making art publicly with your partner, MaryV, for years now. Why let people in on it?
Chella: I wanted other people to know that someone can love you for your soul, regardless of what you look like. Someone can learn a new language for you, like sign language. Someone can learn how to empty your drains after surgery and make sure you’re okay when you’re going through really a dark, tumultuous path. And I never thought that was possible for someone like me.
I want people to know this honesty and this kind of deep love is possible because we don’t often see it in the media, which is something that I hope we can change, but even better, this isn’t a movie. This is real life.
Mj: You know what, Chella? I think we need to put it in a movie. I feel like the masses will understand what love looks like when they get that in a movie.
Chella: We do need to make that happen. Yes. Do you think it’s important for young people in the LGBTQ community to know the history of those who fought for their rights?
Mj: I think it’s completely important for people to know. And the reason why is because if they were not here, we would not be succeeding the way we need to be succeeding. We’re not wearing these necklaces of Marsha P. Johnson for no reason. We’re wearing them because she died for us. And though she was brutally murdered, her work lives on.
Chella: I completely agree. I’m curious. I personally wasn’t taught any of my history growing up. When did you learn the stories of Marsha?
Mj: I learned the stories of Marsha through Paris is Burning. And then, I went down this rabbit hole of looking up Sylvia Rivera, and then Marsha P. Johnson came up, and I was just like, “Oh, these are prominent figures in the trans communities.” And Marsha just wanted change, and she was willing to speak up for it. And Sylvia Rivera was this woman who was very vocal and very diligent. I just made sure that that stuck with me because if it didn’t stick with me, I wouldn’t have a voice.
Chella: I want to end this on: You have a new single coming out. What’s the significance of you releasing it during Pride Month?
Mj: Releasing a single that’s about togetherness and about diversity, and it’s about speaking up and having a voice and not being afraid to do it, it feels surreal, but it also feels solidifying and validating. And to think a woman of the trans experience is doing it, you damn right. And it’s not going to stop.
Vera Papisova is a journalist based in Brooklyn.
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Go behind the scenes of In The Know’s June digital cover shoot with Mj Rodrriguez and Chella Man below:
If you enjoyed our Pride Month cover story, check out In The Know’s directory of 50+ LGBTQ+ brands to support this month and into the future!