'You realise you're just being admired'Lily B-Thomas with permission for Varsity

Interviewing involves a lot of things: a sharp mind, a knack for asking questions, a keen ear. However, so rarely does it involve helping your interviewee chop up carrots for dinner, which incidentally is what I found myself doing with Lily B-Thomas.

Though Lily is a brilliant chef, cooking us a fantastic vegetarian meal in a student kitchen, she’s best known around Cambridge as a second-year architecture student by day and a life drawing model by night. She’s been life modelling since before coming to Cambridge, having been introduced to it by a friend, and now regularly models at various life drawing evenings.

“You’re just being viewed as a series of shapes. It’s freeing”

After a few naff questions such as: “Does it get cold?” (apparently it does not; Christ’s College, where sessions take place, has a space heater), we get down to chatting about what it’s like being both an artist and a model, and how the two are linked. Lily is full of praise for her fellow models. “I’m always just admiring,” she says. “It’s not a thing of: ‘Oh wow, this person is ridiculously gorgeous!’ It’s more about the way the shadows are falling, the way their flesh moves, the muscles, the skeleton, and how that’s beautiful.”

I ask about how she finds modelling, and if she thinks her experience of seeing models is the same as how other people see her. “When you’re a queer person, there’s that history of being told that your body is either a vessel for attack on other people or is a fetish, and in a way it’s just really nice to model because you realise that you’re just being admired.” She continues: “It’s weird because you’re being objectified in the most fundamental way, but that whole aspect of being naked falls away. You’re just being viewed as a series of shapes. It’s freeing.”

It’s the neutrality that comes with life drawing that appeals to Lily, especially when looking at the recent onslaught of transphobia on social media and in the news, and the pressures to conform as a trans woman. She talks about her anxiety regarding passing: “I’m constantly aware of my body and asking: ‘Am I going to be attacked?’ every time I leave the house,” as well as the general rise in transphobia over the past few years, especially regarding remarks by several influential figures on social media.

“The stuff people write in The Daily Mail isn’t what most people think”

With that in mind, I wonder out loud about what it’s like to model as a trans woman in the midst of all of this. She laughs as she tells me how “everything” is out when you model, with “50 pairs of eyes watching you and drawing”. Yet it is in these moments that Lily finds joy. “To find myself in a room with people, showing my entire body, and yet just being drawn, I have this realisation that my body is not a weapon,” she says. “It’s in that moment when you’re standing there, you realise that the stuff people write in The Daily Mail isn’t what most people think. When I’m there, all that hate and internalised self-hatred fades away.”

However, it wasn’t always so easy. We discuss growing up queer, and she tells me that when she started modelling she was “quite tense and stressed”, holding poses that were painful for extended periods of time. “I had this quite self-deprecating stance towards myself that came from a history of exploring who I am.” But her recent creative works, from life modelling to working on 52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals, have been celebratory. “Throughout all of it,” she says, smiling, “it’s been an exploration of what my body is and what my body does.” It’s clear to see that now this exploration is far more positive.


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Her favourite part of the life drawing sessions, Lily tells me, is when it finishes. Not because you get to leave the pose you’ve been holding for 20 minutes, but because you get to “take pictures of all of the work and go to your friends and be like: ‘Oh my god, look how flattering this drawing is!’” When I probe about whether she has any particularly outrageous stories, she laughs and tells me about a time where she’d come into a session without getting time to clean. “I was posing and I was just thinking: ‘What if I haven’t wiped properly?’ and obviously I couldn’t go move and check and be like: ‘Sorry guys, have I wiped?’ It’s something I am constantly paranoid about!”

I ask her whether she’s got any up and coming projects in the works. She tells me about an upcoming installation that I am “sworn to secrecy” about, as well as her recent brainwave of starting a trans-safe swim space. And of course, she’s still life modelling at ArcSoc, which I vow to come to as we finish up the rest of our meal. As for now? She’s continuing to “celebrate trans voices”.