Death of a Showgirl

In the ’90s, Jahna Steele was one of Vegas’s most celebrated topless performers. Did being outed as transgender contribute to her demise?

BY Neal Broverman

March 05 2008 12:00 AM ET

Like many
beautiful women, Jahna Steele struggled with getting older.
By her early 30s the platinum-blond singer and dancer
had been a Vegas sensation, headlining “Crazy
Girls,” the city’s über-straight topless
revue, before being outed as transgender by the tabloid show
A Current Affair. After that Steele toured nightclubs
and appeared regularly on national talk shows like
Montel. But at 49, she was dead.

Steele passed
away January 24 from as yet undetermined causes, according
to the Clark County, Nev., coroner. Her former best friend,
“La Cage” star Frank Marino [see page
42], says, “I heard it was prescription
medication. It’s really Anna Nicole, Marilyn Monroe
relived.”

After having
sex-reassignment surgery in her early 20s, Steele fled her
hometown of San Antonio for Vegas. She gained a reputation
on the Sin City nightclub scene as a talented
performer who also completely “passed.”

“My
producer not only had “La Cage” but
“Crazy Girls,” and he was looking for a
singer,” Marino recalls. “I recommended
Jahna.” During auditions, Marino’s
producer said, “ ‘If she’s as good as
you say, that I can’t tell which one is your
friend, I’ll hire her.’ For many years Jahna
was the star of “Crazy Girls,” and the
rest is history.”

Marino says most
people in Vegas, including Steele’s costars, knew she
was transgender but didn’t care. In 1992, A Current
Affair got wind of the story and ran with it; Steele
was soon let go because of the subsequent publicity.
The showgirl rolled with the punches, working steadily
in the ’90s at revues and clubs. But when work
started drying up, Steele, by her own admission, began
self-medicating.

“I saw her
go from a housewife who would entertain periodically to a
headliner on the Strip,” says Marino, who lost touch
with Steele when she fell in with a hard-partying
crowd. “Then I saw that taken away, and [saw]
her meeting people who promised her the world and then gave
her nothing.”

Marino
doesn’t believe her death was intentional.
“She was still beautiful,” he says.
“But the people who now look like her are 21, and
that’s who the men give attention to.” He
pauses. “I don’t think she was done with
life; I think she was done with the pain of
life.”

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