A lesbian model in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? It happened. In 1994, Patricia Velasquez represented the first Venezuelan model to be a part of the annual spread. Despite having been out to friends and those in the fashion industry since she discovered her queerness in the early ’90s, Patricia is publicly discussing being gay for the first time in her new memoir, Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey to Finding Her Truth.
“I never really had to come out in front of all those people,” Patricia said of the fashion industry, which included many out models, designers and stylists in her career. “I was just myself. I think also because I went into the industry when I got back into the US, which was when I started living my life as a gay person, I was having so much attention also by the fashion world, that I just felt special … But among the fashion world and fashion people, I always felt great because, you know, the fashion world is very open and I felt very welcome.”
In Straight Walk, Patricia details her life growing up in Venezuela with her hard working mother, three siblings and father who was on the road for work more than he was ever at home. A chance meeting with a gay hair stylist who persuaded her to consider entering the Miss Venezuela pageant helped to launch a career she’d never dreamt of, and Patricia’s life took her from a pageant to a meeting with a modeling agent who moved her to Milan. Her now 25-year career has included gigs as the face of CoverGirl and walking the runways of international fashion weeks for top designers like Isaac Mizrahi, and eventually turned into acting with roles in The Mummy Returns, Arrested Development and The L Word.
As Karina (right) on “The L Word”
Despite dating women throughout her career, Patricia kept her relationships out of the public eye.
“I didn’t feel I was hiding my secret, but it was more in relationship to my family and my country and my community,” she said. “Of course there were many people that didn’t give me work, but there were a lot of people that did give me work. I was so welcomed by the industry. Not the easy way, it happened step by step, but I felt comfortable so it was not a problem. It was more in relationship to my family, my country and my culture.”
When Patricia was at the height of her modeling career, she was working with brands like CoverGirl who oftentimes have morality clauses built into their contracts, ones that stipulate how personalities and faces of their brands must behave. Patricia recalls having to keep her sexuality more secret around them than while walking runways.
“I remember—the CoverGirls and the L’Oreals and the Pantenes and the Allures, all these companies I was a face of—New York and Company. You could say some of them were fashion-oriented, but some of them it was maybe general market and yes, for sure, it was an issue,” she said. “I always thought they might not give me the job because I’m gay. It did always cross my mind. And I do have to say that I was quiet around them. But also, it was the way it was set up. You go into shoot—it was a very corporate environment. You go into the shoot, you go work, and then you go home.”
In Straight Walk, Patricia writes about early crushes she had on female friends, but her first real love was Sandra Bernhard. When they met in the early ’90s (backstage at Paris Fashion Week), Patricia didn’t speak much English and didn’t know who Sandra was. At the time, Sandra Bernhard was a household name, appearing regularly on stage and television, including The Tonight Show with David Letterman and Roseanne. She was an It Girl, and she took an immediate interest in Patricia. From Straight Walk:
The woman André was talking to was unique looking. She was tall, but tiny somehow next to him, and had chin-length curly hair and a large, wide brightly lipsticked mouth. She didn’t look like a typical model, though she was very pretty. Comme des Garçons used other types of girls in the shows because they believed in all types of beauty. This woman’s movements were feminine, and she had such a nice look to her. Warm. As she was talking to André, I passed by and she stopped suddenly mid-sentence, looking directly into my eyes.
Later, Sandra would invite Patricia to her hotel room and their romance was one that spanned a few years while both women’s stars continued to rise and living on separate coasts (Sandra in L.A., Patricia in New York) eventually affected their relationship. But Patricia writes warmly of Sandra, remembering how the love she felt for her helped her to discover a part of herself that was missing when she’d previously been with men.
“It was the feeling of belonging,” Patricia said. “It was not an effort. I just felt at home when I started going out with Sandra and my other relationships. Of course there’s always guys around and every once in a while I used to kind of say ‘Maybe we can go out on a date’ or ‘Let me go out with a guy,’ but I didn’t like him so much. “‘You are gay!’ It was just that! A feeling of belonging and feeling at and I feel home with women.”
There was a tabloid who attempted to out Patricia while she was with Sandra, but Patricia lied to her parents at the time, telling them it wasn’t true despite Sandra’s visiting Venezuela with her and being a huge part of her life. Patricia was stressed out about the secret, which eventually came out to her siblings, one by one, and then her mother during a trip home. In a moving scene set on the beach by the ocean, Patricia writes about that important conversation, which went so much better than she imagined it ever could.
“That was easy to write,” Patricia said. “That was the first thing I wrote. That’s why when you read that piece, it reads different than anything else in the whole book. I don’t know why but for me, I read it and I go ‘Oh this is very very different than the rest of the book.’ But there are many chapters in the book, I cannot even look at them.”
Parts of Patricia’s story are very dark, including an early scene in which she’s a teenager who takes a risk to fly and meet a rock star only to be stranded in Caracas where she knows no one but a stranger who once offered her his phone number. When he takes her back to his home, she finds she quickly needs to escape.
“My mom doesn’t know that story yet. She’s going to—she doesn’t read in English and I wrote it in English so as soon as I have the translation I’m going to read it to her. But she doesn’t know that story yet,” Patricia said. “Neither my brothers or sisters—there’s only one sister who has read the book, but the rest of the family don’t know that story. My little sister was in shock, the one who read it. She was in shock. She was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that story’ I was like ‘Well, I only wrote it – I never tell that story to anyone,’ and all of a sudden, now, I’m talking about it but I mean, nobody knew that story. So I don’t like to read it. It makes me angry and I have a lot of book signings to read and that’s a chapter I really don’t want to touch.”
Patricia said friends encouraged her to be as truthful as possible in writing Straight Walk, even in those rough moments.
“There’s some parts where you have to be honest and put it all out there, and then you have to experience it,” Patricia said. “And I tried to tone it down but friends around me would say, ‘You can’t do that. Because then you’re losing the point. You’ve gotta be honest.’ So I wrote this book thinking my daughter’s going to read it when she’s a little bit older, and I want her to read the book and I also tried not to go extreme in how much deeper I could have gone.”
Straight Walk reads as a very straight-forward and honest account of the modeling industry as well as how Patricia has navigated her life as an international public figure whose goings on directly affect her family and country. Not only is she one of very few high profile people from Venezuela, but she’s also now become one of the only out gay Latina women. Unfortunately, she says she’s “taking a lot of heat” since the news of her romance with Sandra has been solidified in the memoir. Headlines have focused more on her love affair from 20 years ago than anything else she writes in the book, and Patricia said she never expected it to be so sensationalized.
“I wasn’t worried about it because I didn’t think it was going to be this sensational,” Patricia said. “I’m a little bit in shock, to be honest. If you go into Hispanic media right now, thousands and thousands of people talking about it. And you know, I’m a little bit in shock that it’s taken such a sensationalized turn. I think maybe it’s my first book, and maybe I was a little bit naive.”
Patricia said there are are so few lesbian role models in the Latino community, and maybe that’s why it’s become such a hot topic.
“None,” she said. “Maybe this is why this has been such big news in the Latin world, and maybe the reason why we have to continue the work so we can become role models and inspire other people to live their truth, whatever their truth may be. Because there hasn’t been any. Zero. Ricky Martin is the only guy that’s come out, and that’s for guys. Women? None.”
Today, Patricia heads up a non-profit, the Wayuu Taya Foundation, which fundraises to help the indigenous group Patricia was born into called the Wayúu. She also created Taya Beauty, which offers sustainable and environmentally friendly hair and beauty products. She has a daughter named Maya with her ex-partner and practices Kabbalah.
“I studied Kabbalah for many years and one of the things they teach us in Kabbalah is everything—everything, everything!—happens for a reason. And if you’re doing things for the right reason, everything is going to go the way it’s supposed to go,” she said. “It might not be the way you want it to go, but because you’re having a good message and the whole inspiration of this book is to inspire other people, I have to believe that the sensational position of this news is only going to drive people to read this book more, and more people will get the message that I’m trying to get across.”