MAINZ, Germany — At age 18, Yvonne Melzer was convinced that she "was stuck in the wrong body."
Just over 10 years later, today's Benjamin Melzer is making history as the first transgender man in Europe to appear on the cover of a men's fitness magazine.
Melzer, 29, is appearing on the limited edition collector's cover of Men's Health magazine in Germany after entering a competition that included votes from readers and social media users.
"When I entered the cover model contest, many of the other men had no idea that I am a transgender model," he told NBC News.
But Melzer was surprised to find that all of the participants were "curious to hear my story."
"There was enormous positive feedback for Ben," said Markus Stenglein, editor in chief of Men's Health in Germany.
The U.S. edition of the magazine featured 27-year-old transgender man Aydian Dowling on the cover last year. The German edition's cover is a first for Europe — and the magazine has 50,000 copies now available for online purchase and regular subscribers.
From a young age, Melzer's parents had described their daughter as "boyish" — a daughter who felt increasingly uncomfortable in her body during puberty.
Melzer described life in his northwestern home town of Oer-Erkenschwick — population 30,000 — as "another world" and said he felt "external pressure" during his teenage years despite strong support from family and friends.
At the age of 18 he decided to seek advice on the process of a sex change, but it took another 5 years before Yvonne came "to the point of no return," Melzer said.
That's when he launched on a journey of long and often painful surgeries. Eleven operations later, and after "a number of complications along the way," Melzer said that he now feels "like a normal man."
"It is as if Yvonne never existed," he told NBC News.
His passion for sports and fitness helped him turn from a salesman to a male model. Today, Melzer actively engages in surfing, wakeboarding and cliff-diving.
In February, U.S. TV and film star Ashton Kutcher applauded his story in a Facebook post.
"At first I could not believe it," said Melzer, who had to be convinced by friends that it was a real post by the star. "But it was very cool and felt totally unreal."
He called that recognition and the Men's Health cover appearance the "crowning touch" on a difficult and lengthy process — a story that Melzer said he hopes will give the trans community more visibility and recognition.
"When you are born this way, you have no choice," he said. "I want to give hope and comfort to those, who ask themselves every day why they were not born in a different body."