Pose, Ryan Murphy‘s TV series about the fabulous hidden world of 1980s New York City ballroom culture, isn’t just breaking new ground because of its vibrantly queer subject matter. It also has the largest LGBTQ cast in TV history, with 140 trans actors and crew members and 35 non-trans LGBTQ characters. But five of these Pose actresses in particular — Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, MJ Rodriguez, Angelica Ross and Hailie Sahar — have especially striking backstories that show how these strong women of color overcame abuse, rejection, discrimination and poverty to become TV’s newest breakout stars.
Dominique Jackson (Elektra Abundance)
Jackson plays the shrewd matriarch of the House of Abundance, a reigning queen with numerous ballroom titles and trophies under her Saint Laurent belt.
While she grew up in a well-off family in Trinidad and Tobago, she has said she was painfully insecure about her gender dysphoria, was molested by the local priest and raped by other neighbors. When she finally came out to her family, Jackson says they withdrew their support completely, so she moved to New York at age 15.
Initially surviving on sex work and racking up $10,000 in credit card debt, Jackson quickly fell into the ballroom scene and began modeling with hopes of appearing on a Times Square billboard (a dream she eventually achieved). She married in 1998 and began transitioning in 2013, writing about her experience in the 2014 memoir The Transsexual from Tobago.
A longtime activist and model, Dominique Jackson has more real-life experience walking in ballroom competitions than any of her co-stars. In addition to winning six competitive crowns and titles, work in the ballroom has landed her multiple awards, like the 2007 Pepper Labeija Image Award, the 2015 House/Ball KiKi Coalition “You Make A Difference” Award and, in 2016, “iconic” induction into the House and Ballroom Hall of Fame.
Before joining the other Pose actresses, she starred in Oxygen Network’s reality docuseries Strut, which followed the journeys of five trans models trying to overcome gender and beauty stereotypes to make it big in the modeling industry. Jackson also appeared in the short film “T Times” and has been featured in numerous publications, including Paper Magazine, The New York Times and Vogue.
Dominique Jackson is a resident model who has walked the runway at several New York Fashion Week events. She currently serves on the Community Health Program Board at the Montefiore South Bronx Healthcare Clinic.
Indya Moore (Angel)
Moore plays a Puerto Rican sex worker and ballgoer who works as a peep show model in Times Square. Her character is having a secret affair with a married Wall Street broker (played by Evan Peters), an arrangement which she thinks could seriously upgrade her means.
Moore grew up in the Bronx, realized her trans identity early on and was separated from her abusive birth parents and made to live in a series of foster homes at age 14. She dropped out of school at 15 and began freelance modeling. Though later she got her GED, before she was cast in Pose in 2017 she was an unsigned freelance model sleeping in a “less than ideal” group hostel in Queens.
Her house father, Jose Xtravaganza, told her about the casting call for Pose actresses, and since that year her life has turned around. Along with becoming a breakout star of Pose she performed alongside Katy Perry and Migos on Saturday Night Live, appeared in two short films (Spot and Saturday Church) and starred in various music videos, including J. View’s “Don’t Pull Away.”
Indya Moore has also since appeared in Vogue and in shoots for GQ, Gucci and Dior.
MJ Rodriguez (Blanca Rodriguez)
Rodriguez’s character gets diagnosed with HIV at the start of the series, inspiring her to found her own house, the House of Evangelista. But she soon finds herself having to balance the demands of house motherhood — taking in young people rejected by their families — while also battling for respect against her old house mother, Elektra, in the ballroom.
Recognizing her trans identity as early as age 7, Rodriguez used to pray to God to change her into a girl. With supportive parents, she began acting at the age of 11. When she saw the film version of Rent, she knew she wanted to play the role of the kind, gender-fluid, HIV-positive street drummer Angel. She achieved that dream in a 2011 off-Broadway production of Rent during her late teen years. She even won a Clive Barnes Award for the role, despite it being her professional debut.
And yet, as Angel she felt more free and self-actualized. So at age 20 Rodriguez began her transition. She re-emerged into the acting world, relieved to find that her associates didn’t discriminate against her for her transition.
Before starring alongside the other Pose actresses, Rodriguez played small roles in Nurse Jackie, The Carrie Diaries, Luke Cage and also appeared in the film Saturday Church.
Angelica Ross (Candy Abundance)
Ross plays the sharp-tongued and fearlessly brash Candy, a member of the House of Abundance who makes a big show of kissing up to the house mother while secretly hating her guts.
In real life, Angelica Ross, 37, grew up in Rochester, New York. At 17 she came out to her evangelical Christian mother as trans, and her mother told her that she should kill herself or else her mother would commit suicide out of shame. Ross survived an attempted overdose on medication. She ran away from home and joined the Navy, but after not fitting in and having her life threatened — including an incident during which she was dangled her by her ankles out of a third-story window — she asked for a discharge and got it.
Ross returned home and began transitioning on black market hormones with the help of a drag queen friend. When her parents found out, they kicked her out of the house. Soon after she moved into a rough neighborhood where her car was set ablaze. Because she couldn’t get to work and often used the women’s restroom, her job fired her.
Living at a friend’s place, she began a life of sex work, porn performing and freelance modeling to survive. Ross also taught herself photo editing and web design. Soon she began taking low-dollar web design jobs just to build up her portfolio while also taking acting classes and auditioning to achieve her longtime dream of becoming an actress.
When her mother fell ill, Angelica Ross’s Buddhist faith made her believe that caring for her mother might help heal their broken relationship, and over the next year it did. She began to teach other trans people about computing as a way to help pull them out of poverty, launching a $20,000 crowdfunding campaign that helped start TransTech, the first ever trans-led job training organization, which develops transgender leaders through tech.
Ross gradually refocused on her first dream of acting, though, appearing in a web series drama about trans and queer women called Her Story, on Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait, on Amazon’s groundbreaking trans drama Transparent and as a recurring character on the Florida-based TNT sitcom Claws. Apart from being one of the sebreakout Pose actresses, Angelica Ross is also an occasional musician.
Hailie Sahar (Lulu Abundance)
Sahar’s character serves as the second-in-command in the House of Abundance. But while she seems like a level-headed and supportive fashionista, she secretly yearns to breakout and establish a legacy by founding her own house. Sahar calls her character “a lion,” quietly stalking her prey before deciding to pounce.
A Los Angeles native who grew up as a preacher’s kid, Sahar began taking acting and dancing lessons when she was 9. She discovered the ballroom scene around age 15, around the same time she saw Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking ballroom documentary Paris Is Burning.
That documentary made her realize her trans identity, and as a member of the House of Rodale, she quickly became its award-winning princess. She eventually left that house for the House of Allure, and says her experience within the scene helped her become fearlessly authentic.
Sahar has said she’s had trouble holding down jobs because of harassment and discrimination for her trans identity. To make extra money and feel more herself, she often performed in drag. Even after she was signed with a talent agency as a teenage model, she found herself sexually propositioned and harassed whenever she’d reveal her trans identity. Agents treated her like a liability, worried that her trans identity would alienate viewers and clients.
Prior to being cast among the other Pose actresses, Sahar played the role of Adriana in the Amazon series Transparent and as a Lady of the Night on two episodes of the USA techno thriller Mr. Robot. Hailie Sahar says she would like to eventually write and produce films and TV while maintaining “a heavy hand” in the fashion industry.