How Internet Star TS Madison Turned Hard Knocks Into Comedic Gold
It’s no wonder that television producers have come calling for Atlanta’s Madison Hinton, also known as TS Madison, the ebullient 38-year-old black transgender Internet celebrity, comedian, and adult entertainment entrepreneur.
Her YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Vines, Instagram photos, tweets, erotic videos, and live nightclub performances have garnered millions of dedicated followers since she first joined YouTube in 2009. Her most provocative posts and images could make even the Real Housewives of Atlanta blush.
But speaking to The Advocate in her most frank public comments to date, Hinton candidly reveals that underneath her success lie searing struggles to survive in the South as a black trans woman.
“I started dressing as myself, a woman, at the age of 17,” she says. That's also when she “hit the stroll,” as she phrases it, doing sex work on the streets of her native Miami, to make ends meet when facing chronic underemployment after embracing her true trans-feminine self.
In her often-heartbreaking and revealing memoir released last year, A Light Through The Shade: An Autobiography of a Queen, Hinton shares that almost everywhere she turned — Southridge Senior High School, her community college, and the job market — she faced censure for being herself. She found herself shut out of opportunities to improve her situation, with rejections often focused on her speech, her race, her full-figured size, and her femininity.
It's hard to imagine a better personification of trans legal advocate Sandy E. James's pointed observation that “trans people have been thrust into the cultural conversation of the moment, but our actual lives and what we do to survive and thrive have not made the cut.”
But Hinton's actual life — and the truth that she beat the odds to not only survive but thrive — has made the cut in her dogged pursuit of success and stability. She transformed from a sex worker to an adult entertainer, who now owns her own online business. She's currently refining her “gift for comedy from my drawl to my tell-alls,” she says sardonically.
For nearly two years, Hinton has been the featured performer on World of Wonder's online reality series Wait a Minute, where she cracks biting jokes and expounds on everything from the hazards of air travel to the best way to speak in a Southern drawl.
“Madison has been a successful contributor to World of Wonder's digital channel WOWPresents and the company are longtime fans," Davis Mikaels, a producer for WOW tells The Advocate. He also confirms that the company, which created RuPaul's eponymous 1996 talk show for VH1 and the RuPaul's Drag Race franchise for Logo, is actively developing "other television business" with Hinton, though he declines to discuss futher details.
Indeed, Hinton has an uncanny knack for spinning her struggles into comedic gold — and there's cunning in her method:
She Speaks to Those Who Don’t Fit In
“Can I cuss?” Hinton asks The Advocate before her conversation begins. She does not shy away from racy, down-and-dirty catchphrases and rejoinders like a now-legendary Vine riff that mixed inspirational encouragement with outlandish, hypersexual provocation. For better or worse, that viral Vine earned her the designation of “Hot Slut of the Day!” from Dlisted.
“I speak to trans people and everybody, really, who don’t fit into the political categories, who don’t say the right things all the time, who don’t use the right words to define ourselves, and who don’t always act correct like the people say we should on the websites,” Hinton tells The Advocate.
Her keen reflections stand apart from the boisterous tone of her videos and bring to mind debates around “respectability politics,” a term used in some progressive circles to describe behaviors or people that seem to be too "out there" for mainstream activism. The fear is that such outlandish, radical depictions of members of a marginalized community will only serve as fuel for the fire of conservative opponents set on portraying an entire population as depraved.
Hinton's unapologetic dismissal of these respectability politics has earned her a considerable following. Last November she was featured on WEtv’s new real estate-themed reality show, Selling It: In the ATL. She also appeared in the final season of Glee, as part of the rousing closing scene in episode 7, when 200 trans people join in a chorus to welcome the newly out trans man, Coach Sheldon Beiste, played by lesbian actress Dot-Marie Jones.
Hinton’s racy approach has stoked controversy, most notably in 2014 when she verbally savaged trans model Carmen Carrera after the Drag Race alumna took RuPaul to task for using words like “tranny” and “shemale” on his show.
Today, Hinton says she has mixed feelings about the controversy. As a trans adult film performer, she has appeared in erotica marketed under the moniker of “shemale,” and her language in her YouTube videos regularly features phrases that cannot be widely reprinted.
But at the same time, Hinton acknowledges that she needed to grow and come to understand that as language shifts, some terminology falls out of favor for good reason. After building her career under the moniker TS Madison — which invokes a now-dated term to refer to a trans woman — she acknowledges that “moving from TS Madison to Madison Hinton is tough.”
The turning point in her understanding of the need to be more careful with her language came about when she sat down with one of her inspirations, trans journalist and best-selling author Janet Mock. Hinton points to her sit-down interview on Mock’s So Popular program for MSNBC's digital platform, Shift, as a crucial moment for her.
“What people don’t understand is that whether we are transgender or cisgender, we are constantly in transition," Hinton says. "And I learned so much by being who I am, and being unapologetic ,and also being approachable with people saying to me, ‘You said something that was wrong, let me give you the correct terminology, let me open your eyes to something you would have never known was there.’ And I watched Janet [Mock] and I saw her interview, and I said, ‘What I said was not right!’ I didn’t know the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. Oh, my God. All this time I was confused. I had to thank [Janet] for making me aware.”
She's Forging a Sex-Positive Trans Sensibility
“My career in adult entertainment was not exactly a choice,” Hinton explains. Like many young, low-income trans people of color, she turned to sex work after repeated rejections trying to find entry into more socially acceptable occupations.
Hinton was living proof of the findings of a December report that urges policymakers to decriminalize sex work and prostitution-related offenses, saying that “for many transgender people, the sex trade can offer greater autonomy and financial stability compared to more traditional workplaces.”
Then, roughly 15 years ago, an idea occurred to her. “I’ve always been business-minded,” Hinton reflects. “And early on, I thought that I could make it in adult entertainment if I owned the business and controlled how I was portrayed.”
Over the last 12 years, Hinton founded two adult pay websites, for which she has produced and starred in scores of videos with gay, straight, and bisexual cisgender (nontrans) men. The websites remain lucrative endeavors, with many dedicated paying fans who rave about the sites in online forums. The ventures enabled Hinton to “buy a house, a studio, cars, invest with a brokerage, and hire a team to help me manage my business,” she says.
As an independent entrepreneur, Hinton sought to “take the very thing that people say makes me bad as a transgender woman — you know, sex work — and turn it into something that helps me to have a better life and help the people who I care about.”
Indeed, her friends and family play prominent roles in her online videos and social media activity, and all of her adventures are, in part, enabled by her success as an independent adult entertainer.
“My work in the adult industry is never going to make everyone happy,” Hinton acknowledges. She says she understands the criticisms of trans advocates who argue that referring to genitalia (as the title of one of Hinton’s adult websites does) demeans the movement for trans equality.
But she's also dedicated to carving out a space for sex-positivity through a trans lens in a world that so often revokes all agency from trans women like Hinton. Her openness about sex makes her deeply human, she explains, and her business savvy makes her a prime example of a resourceful woman who transformed hardship into happiness.
Even Hinton's inspiration, Mock, states in her memoir, Redefining Realness, that questions about the state of trans people’s bodies “are the titillating details that cisgender people love to hear.” In a 2014 article for Elle, Mock critiqued public discussions about genitalia, criticizing veteran journalist Katie Couric's cringe-inducing questions about Laverne Cox and Carrera's bodies during an interview on Couric's since-canceled talk show. Couric later apologized for her invasive questions and framed the encounter as a "teachable moment."
But ultimately, Hinton points to Mock’s contention in the Elle article that discussing one's body is ultimately "about choice." "We, as women, have the choice to invite people into our lives, into our struggles, and into our bodies," Mock wrote in the Elle article. "Consent is key here."
That's a point on which Hinton wholeheartedly agrees with Mock. From her perspective, Hinton has decided to invite her fans in the adult world into her erotic life; that path has allowed her to break the spiral of deprivation that disadvantages so many trans women.