The beginning of 2010 is shaping up to be quite a year for transgender women of color on television with two network reality shows in the pipeline and the most high profile show, "Transform Me" starring breakout star of I Want To Work For Diddy, Laverne Cox on VH1.
"Transform Me", which premiered last night, follows Cox and fellow transgender fashionistas Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon across the country as they offer their makeover subjects much more than meets the eye.
The fellow Alabama native recently spoke with The Advocate about "Transform Me", what she brings to the table, and the responsibility she feels to portray trans women in a positive light as the first trans woman of color to appear on reality television.
From The Advocate:
Advocate:Each man on the Queer Eye makeover team brought his own individual expertise to the mix. As for your Transform Me costars, Jamie is a successful makeup artist and Nina is a fashion expert and model. What do you bring to the makeover table?
Laverne: I deal with what’s going on on the inside. It’s always been my belief that if we let ourselves go or if we’re stuck in a rut aesthetically, there’s something psychological or emotional that’s keeping us from making a change. If you don’t deal with the root of the problem, changing somebody’s hair and makeup doesn’t make a difference. Much of my own transformation has been about more than the outside; it’s been about letting go of the old, bad notions I had about myself.
Advocate: Your makeover subjects don’t know you’re trans women until you show up at their doors. What’s the reasoning behind that choice?
Laverne: There aren’t a lot of transgender people on television, so the reactions our makeover subjects might have to us might mirror the reactions that America might have to us. The makeover subjects may raise the same questions America has about transgender folks. We didn’t tell them ahead of time because we wanted truthful reactions when they met us. All but one of the women had never met anyone transgender before.
Advocate: With your participation on I Want to Work for Diddy, you became the first African-American trans woman on a reality show. Are you comfortable being a role model for the trans community?
Laverne: The term “role model” seems ridiculous to me, but I am aware that I’ve inspired some other transgender girls — like Jaila Simms, who won Diddy’s Making His Band. That’s a big deal to me, so I take it seriously. I do feel a certain responsibility to my community, but I’m a human being, so I have flaws and I’m going to make mistakes, which has to be OK. So many black transgender women wrote to me when I was on I Want to Work for Diddy and said they’d never seen any black trans woman represented on television as professional and articulate. It’s not usually so positive or uplifting when we see black trans women in the media.
Advocate: You’ve played a number of transgender prostitutes, including your recent guest spots on Bored to Death and Law & Order. Is it frustrating that the few roles offered to trans women are so often hookers?
Laverne: Well, that’s why I started producing. I realized that people weren’t writing complicated roles for transgender actresses, so I needed to start creating roles for myself. I’m happy to be in the reality realm, but there still aren’t many acting roles written for us that go beyond prostitutes, particularly for transgender women of color.
But as an artist, I try not to judge a character, like, “Oh, she’s a prostitute, so I can’t play that.” That’s ridiculous, because there are transgender women who are prostitutes, and that doesn’t mean these characters aren’t human beings. I try to bring humanity to whatever role I play. It can get frustrating, though. I remember one day I was so excited that I had three auditions, but in every single one I was playing a hooker. It’s really sad that this is what the industry thinks of us, but I believe it can and will change. Baby steps.
Watch the full premiere episode of "Transform Me" below: