By Advocate.com Editors
Originally published on Advocate.com August 01 2009 12:00 AM ET
As I toil my way up the dusty trails of Hollywood's Runyon Canyon this two weeks after the season finale of Transamerican Love Story on Logo, the warmth and bright sunlight recall the day last year that I learned that I would star in my own reality dating show. At the time, I was fresh off of promoting our most recent short film, Casting Pearls, so my business partner Andrea James and I were thinking hard about what our next project should be.
In the decade since I was thrust into the awareness of much of the GLBT community by the movie Soldier's Girl and the tragic events that led to its creation, I felt that it was necessary to put aside my vampy, funny, transgressive stage personality and try to set the best example of being transsexual that I was capable of while so many eyes were upon me. Although even back in 1999 I already had nearly a decade of theater and musical experience on my resume, many people assume to this day that I sprang newly created into the universe after the premiere of Soldier's Girl, and whimsically settled upon a career as an actress and media producer only recently. In reality, I have only just begin to return to my roots.
Last year, I decided to definitively remove my self-imposed limitations and start bringing the “real me” back into the work I do. So when I received that phone call last year while walking in the bright Spring sunshine and was given the opportunity to develop a groundbreaking show based on the reality dating concept, I put aside fears about “what will the community think?” and went ahead, knowing that with Andrea, production company World of Wonder and Logo, we could make something really cool. And just as Casting Pearls allowed us to show my actress side, we thought a campy dating show could be the perfect way to show everyone that I was ready to publicly move forward from ten years of mourning the loss of my boyfriend with a smile and as much grace as I could muster. I wanted to be fun again, and to take more risks as an entertainer.
Transamerican Love Story follows the competitive dating show conventions, with a firm wink and nod toward the genre. The men engage in amusing contests to win a private date with me before a nightly elimination ceremony. The obvious differences being that I am an out transsexual woman, and the inclusion of Jim Howley, a transsexual man, among the contestants. We also took breaks from harem dancing and Speedo-clad workouts to sit down and talk about what it was like for transsexual women dating in the hetero world, and what it was like for the men who date us. And we really wanted to stand out from most other reality shows by simply respecting everyone's humanity. I'm proud that even without the standard drunken slap fights or gratuitous hot-tub three way make out sessions, we managed to capture a big audience and walk away with our dignity intact.
One of the things I love the most about acting is the freedom it gives me to step outside of my shy and awkward self, and release the inner aggression and confidence that I usually keep in check. In real life, I can be a bit nervous in social situations. On stage, I can play a confident femme fatale who seduces the hero and puts her enemies in their place with a sharp and stinging quip. And when it's all over, no matter how reckless the choices my character has made, I will not be judged personally for her actions. With a reality show, that cushioning layer of character is gone and I am left standing alone in the public eye to account directly for whatever I have done on screen. It was a new challenge, to “perform” as myself and not as some other person who would take the all the flack while I took the praise. In Transamerican Love Story I spent some time finding my way with this, and typically I was a bit more cautious than some would be. I really had to learn to trust myself before I could have a bit more fun with the situation. Since my first big scene involved me shouting orders at the guys, reclining in a golden Cleopatra two-piece while being fanned by an enormous muscle-man, it may be hard to believe that I was holding back in those early episodes. But people who really know me see more of the person the recognize in later episodes, when I meet the parents of the three finalists and go on some incredible dates in Vegas and along the California coastline. Now that I've done a show like this once, I'll be able to walk into another one with much more freedom, if such an opportunity were to come along.
Reality shows were once considered the “kiss of death” for anyone who hoped for an acting career. Now, they are considered one more way to grow a celebrity's “brand”, alongside film, television, music and merchandising. Jennifer Lopez, Denise Richards and other legitimate actresses are currently in production for their own reality series. People usually ask me, “How real are reality shows?” I can sense that their taste for scandal leaves them very much wanting to hear that it's all fake and contrived. But at this point, sixteen years after the debut of The Real World, I think we're all very aware that most reality shows are intended purely as entertainment, and don't pretend to be documentaries. From my own experience, I can say that the situations are obviously managed, but our reactions are real. I don't usually live in a plantation-style mansion with eight smitten guys and ride around Hollywood in a horse-drawn pumpkin coach, however much I'd like to. But my responses to those manufactured situations were my own. Of course, before the audience ever sees the show the source material goes through a carefully planned editing process. Some parts of the experience are emphasized, and some done away with so that you never see them. In the case of my show, the only way you'll ever fully know just how hilarious host Alec Mapa was is to watch the behind-the-scenes clips on the show's Logoonline web page—most of that material had to be edited out of the final show. They can't really add in things that didn't happen, but as with any piece of modern entertainment, they do try to shape what they have into a coherent story with the most interesting parts in the forefront. This means that in the final product, you will be seeing the producer's version of the events, just like hearing a particular person's recap of what happened at a party. Everyone who was there will have their own version of what happened, and all of them might be true, but in the end you will only see one in the case of a reality show.
So today, hiking alongside the gorgeous shirtless male models, jabbering writers and between-jobs actors that frequent Runyon Canyon's trails, I feel more truly a part of modern Hollywood than I ever have before. I've paid six years of dues in a town that often grinds newcomers down within the first year. I've had small parts in some major projects, and major parts in some small projects. And I have joined that ever growing, oh-so-Hollywood category of people with their own reality show on their resume.