With her exotic features and flawless figure, Brazilian beauty Lea T is one of the most sought-after models in the world. In just months, this true goddess went from back room assistant to the catwalks of Paris and New York.
The 28-year-old star of Givenchy's most talked-about ad campaign ever caused a stir by posing nude in French Vogue and kissing Kate Moss on the cover of Love magazine.
Now on the brink of international fame, this “it” girl is making headlines for more than just her striking looks. For most of her life, Lea T has been tormented by a painful secret: She was born a boy.
Lea T was born Leandro Cerezo and grew up in Italy, the son of international soccer star Toninho Cerezo and a religious Catholic mother. All through childhood, Leo questioned his sexuality and identity. "I wish I could accept my body like men. It would be much easier for me if I could be a straight guy and have a girlfriend, family and daughters, married, all this normal life. But it's something in your brain," Lea T says. "Born in the wrong body."
While she was growing up as a boy, Lea T says she had a feminine bearing and long hair. Though some people may have thought Leo was gay, Lea T knew the truth. "I was hoping I was gay," she says. "Because, for my family, it would be less painful. And then I could ... have a normal life."
Lea T says she realized she felt more comfortable living as a woman than a man while on a vacation about five years ago. After spending an entire month with a group of female friends, Lea T says one of them told her: "'We treat you like a girl, and everybody treats you like a girl. Maybe you should have to go to a doctor or something because we see you like a girlfriend. We don't see you like a guy.'"
Lea T says she was devastated to hear this. "At that point I cried a lot. For three days I was closed in my house," she says. "But that was the point I made this decision."
Leo decided to embrace the truth in 2008 and started the process of sex reassignment. Leo began living as Lea T and started hormone replacement therapy. "It's really difficult because you fight with all the world. You fight with your family. You fight with yourself too," Lea T says. "You have to change everything in yourself."
After making the decision to change her gender, Lea T realized she had to tell her parents. "Everybody was thinking it would be a big shock, but actually, my father surprised me because [he] took it so naturally," she says. "He was like, 'If you're a boy, if you're a woman, if you want to be a dog, whatever you want to be, I'm going to love you for what you are.'”
Lea T says she recently participated in a fashion show in Brazil, and her father attended. "He saw me in the show," she says. "And he said, 'Now I can die happy because I'm so proud of her.'"
Lea T says her mother has had a harder time accepting the change from Leandro to Lea T. "Everybody thinks a mother accepts more, but she comes from a really religious family, a real Catholic family," Lea T says. "For her it was a fight with her religion. But she's always next to me and she accepts me very well."
When Lea T made her debut on the runway, some in the fashion business knew she was transgendered, but many did not. "It was kind of a big scandal when I started," she says.
Some of Lea T's fellow models even complained about her presence. "Like, 'Oh, now you're going to keep us out of a job,'" she says.
Sex reassignment patients must follow a specific protocol—they have to commit to living with their new gender, take hormones and get psychological clearance—before undergoing surgery, Lea T says. "When you start the hormones, it's really, really hard. It's not a game. Your body starts to change in a short time," Lea T says. "The skin is changed a lot. The cheek bones grow. The hair, it becomes super long. The hips become bigger. I love the smell I have now, it's much more delicate. I think it's weird seeing my breasts and penis."
Lea T says she's especially nervous about the pain—both physical and emotional—she'll feel when she finally gets her sex reassignment surgery. "Of course physically, this operation is a big operation," she says. "But at the same time, I think it's mental too. To think like, 'Wow, I cut part of my body.'"