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 a phone call 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 my best friend, Andrea, the production company World of Wonder, and the Logo network, we could make something really cool. And just as my short film Casting Pearls allowed me to show my actress side, I thought a campy dating show could be the perfect way to show everyone that I was ready to publicly move forward from 10 years of mourning the loss of my boyfriend (as depicted in the film Soldier's Girl) 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.
My show, Transamerican Love Story, followed the competitive dating show conventions, with a firm wink and nod toward the genre. The men engaged 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 a transsexual man, Jim Howley, was among the contestants. We also took breaks from the obligatory reality TV scenarios -- like 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. 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.
I went into Transamerican Love Story with an open heart and an open mind, but I never felt I should be obligated to fake "love" with anyone if it didn't happen naturally because, of course, actual emotions can't be awarded as "prizes" on a show, no matter what the setup. A reality dating show is actually a very difficult circumstance in whichto get to know someone because any time spent together is very brief, very managed, and under the probing eye of the camera. I decided that the best thing I could do was to look at it as exactly what it was: a fun romp with a bunch of interesting guys (like playing spin the bottle at summer camp) rather than a deadly serious path to matrimony. Fortunately, I met some really cool men, and I'm looking forward to seeing what might develop in "real life" with Shawn, the last man standing on the show.
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. Onstage 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 what reckless 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 flak 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 they 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, scripted 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, 16 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 website -- 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 see only one.
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.