Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Interview with Kalina Isato


Monika: Today’s interview will be with Kalina Isato, an American Chinese-American producer, musician, and media personality. Hello Kalina!
Kalina: Hi Monika! Thank you for speaking with me today.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Kalina: I’m back in school studying photography and counselling. I had my first art show in 2009 at the local LGBT center’s art gallery. I’ve also had many of my works on display at my school’s art galleries and won a prestigious award for best artwork in a show in 2011. I’m also getting into counselling and want to gain some solid skills so I can help people with any mental health or transition issues they may have.
Pretty in Pink.
Monika: How would you define your music? Where do you take your inspirations from?
Kalina: My music is a reflection of my life at the moment. When I first started creative music in 1988, it was all about freedom of expression, much like everything in my personal life.
When I graduated from college and graduate school and entered the world of computers, I took on positions of increased responsibility that culminated in a position at KPMG Consulting where I was a systems consultant for one of the largest consulting companies in the world. My life was so fast paced, I didn’t have much time for myself.
Consequently, my music was pretty fast-paced at the time as well.
It’s not until recently that my music started getting more chill and relaxed, but I still thoroughly enjoy the fast vibe. I get my inspirations from many great DJs and musicians, too many to name, everything from the 70s and 80s to modern times.
I like all kinds of music and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’ll hear a tune on the radio and think about how I could improve upon that song or make it my own with my own signature style.
Monika: How does your transgender status contribute to your artistic perception of the world?
Kalina: In 1999 to 2001 at the height of my music career, there were very few openly trans artists. I kept it pretty much a secret, but a few people did some research on me and outed me in public forums all over the Internet.
Many people in the music world knew my secret, but didn’t care about my gender. They cared about the music. It was nice to know that my trans status wasn’t the reason why people enjoy my music.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Kalina: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, I was probably one of only a handful of Asian families in my old neighborhood of Bensonhurst. If you remember the scene in Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta strutted down the street grabbing a slice of pizza from Lenny’s Pizzeria, that’s the neighborhood I grew up in. I used to eat at that pizza joint all the time. I played hooky one day just to catch a glimpse of that movie being filmed on my street.
The Pitcher's Mound.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Kalina: I felt something at the age of four. I was watching King Kong starring the captivating Faye Wray and was entranced by how beautiful she was. As I watched her in the movie, something compelled me to put on a pair of my mother’s pumps. I wore them and walked around the room in them as she did. My parents caught me doing this and laughed. My father picked me up in his arms and I flailed my legs like Faye Wray in King Kong’s hand.
When I was 14, I had my own makeup (eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, lipstick) and wore makeup to school. I wasn’t open about it to my parents. They left for work before I left for school and came home after I got home, so it was easy for me to put on and take off makeup whenever I wanted.
I never really felt like a boy or a man. I socialized mostly with girls, had a few guy friends who were geeks like me, and never dated in high school and half of college. 
In my junior year in college and beyond when I did date, I’d invariably choose women who were physically larger than me. I enjoyed being with women, both genetic and trans, who made me feel like I was protected. When I started dating men in 2004, I enjoyed being with them because they always made me feel protected. I never played sports or did “guy things” growing up. Instead, I found solace in reading books. drawing, and programming on my computer.
Monika: For most of transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Kalina: Surprisingly, I never got beaten up for wearing makeup in school. All of my classmates knew I was different, but I suppose I was lucky because I attended prestigious schools, such as Mark Twain Junior High and Brooklyn Technical High School where discrimination was not tolerated. We had blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, straights, gays, and even one openly trans person at school whom I only heard about but never met.
I was probably the most likely candidate to be the second trans person. To show you how cool everyone was with me, I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school. I attended Boston University, the school that Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from so I was pretty much shielded from a lot of discrimination and allowed to be different at the school. I didn’t get to express myself as much in college because most of my friends were from other parts of the country and a few were gay bashers, much to my dismay.
When I got to Philly, I just decided to just start expressing myself the way I’ve always wanted. 1992 was the first year I started making public appearances while fully dressed as a woman and calling myself Kalina Isato. It was a little strange at first because I wasn’t used to it, but by 1995, I was totally comfortable being myself.
A Night on the Town.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Kalina: I started hair removal and HRT in 2003, but it took me several years of trying to salvage a marriage that was destined for doom before I realized that it was time to move forward, so in 2010.
 I came out to my boss at work and through a careful approach that involved my human resources department, we made a formal announcement to the over 500 people in my department about my gender change. There was a bit of adjustment for everyone as they had to get used to calling me “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him,” but, on the whole, it was a very smooth transition.
I know other transwoman who’ve gotten hell from their coworkers or strangers they didn’t know, even at my workplace. I feel bad for them and occasionally reach out to help them.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Kalina: I rarely had problems physically passing as a woman even in the beginning stages. In my early years, my voice was deep as a result of my own vocal conditioning, which always gave me away when I spoke, but I’ve adopted a lighter, more subtle style of speaking that better suits me now. My surgeries include rhinoplasty and breast augmentation in 2011 and gender confirmation surgery in 2012.
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow to transition even at late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Kalina: Yes, I absolutely believe that anyone can transition successfully if they put their minds to it and obliterate old masculine habits. The best age to transition is before 21, but the longer you wait, the longer it will take to break old habits.
Wild Child.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Kalina: I’ve always admired Professor Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist, while I was studying computer science in school. I also knew about Renee Richards, Christine Jorgensen, Tula, JoAnn Roberts, Angela Gardner, and other notable transwomen back in the 80s and found them quite inspirational. In music, I’m totally inspired by Dana International and Harisu.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Kalina: Revealing the truth to my ex-wife. She didn’t take it too well. We were separated shortly afterwards, but the good thing is we had two beautiful sons as a result. I get to see them each week, but it’s hard not being around them like I used to.
Monika: What did you feel when you were finally a woman?
Kalina: I felt a sense of completeness, like, “Wow, this is how it should’ve been all along.”
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Kalina: Yes, I was married to the same woman for 20 years. She always knew about my transgenderism, but was in a state of denial as to how severe it was. She was my first love, the woman who gave me a chance at having a happy life. Love is a very important thing for anyone. I can’t understand why some transwomen choose to live a reclusive life. That isn’t living as a woman! A person has to fit into the social fabric of society as a woman in order to truly be considered a woman.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Kalina: I enjoy living the kind of life I should’ve lived all along. When I go out to places and get treated nicely by people, it reinforces my belief that I should’ve been this way all along. Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Kalina: Most transwomen are misunderstood by society. We are seen as freaks because of bad journalists and television show hosts. Some people are two-faced and will treat us as women in everyday situations, but vote against us when it comes to trans health and trans legal rights.
At Starr Garden.
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you think we will have more and more such women?
Kalina: I hope so. I admire all of these women for the success, strength, and courage they’ve had and shown in public. I try to pattern all aspects of my own life after these exceptional women.
Monika: At the same time sometimes we get horrible new about transgender women being killed or beaten just as in the infamous case of Chrissy Polis that was beaten by two teenagers in Macdonald’s because she used ladies’ toilet. How can we prevent it?
Kalina: Some form of education needs to happen in order to successfully integrate the concept of transgenderism into society, otherwise we will continue to see prejudice and discrimination against many of our sisters.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to the day when a transgender lady could become the President of USA?
Kalina: Unfortunately, no. It took almost a quarter of a millennium to get a black president into office. It’ll probably take about as long to get a trans president.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any political lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Kalina: I’m not personally active in politics, but I do admire those transwomen who’ve made significant strides in politics in the USA and other countries.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Could we get rid of this label “transgender” and have only pageants for both non-transgender and transgender girls?
Kalina: In this age of plastic surgery, it would make sense to do away with the label and have both trans and non-trans women compete in the same pageants.
Breathtaking.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Kalina: I love fashion. I’m not so much into couture, but rather the kinds of things that a very beautiful, classy woman would wear.
Monika: You wrote and produced a number of books and videos to help transgender women improve their appearance and mannerisms. Could you elaborate on them more?
 Kalina: My books are internationally recognized as some of the best makeup and transformation books for male-to-female crossdressers and transsexuals. 
Each book contains lots of useful information that will help transwomen be the best that they can be. Over 4,000 crossdressers and transsexuals have learned from my books, many of whom have gone on to become pretty, passable, and successful in whatever they do.
Monika: You also run club events in Philadelphia for transsexuals, crossdressers, and their fans. Do they attract many guests?
Kalina: My Monday and Thursday night parties have attracted people from all over the world. Depending on the week, we can have small to medium-sized gatherings of up to 50 people. The tone of my parties is generally lounge atmosphere. I know that some of my peers conduct their parties to have more of a showgirl or Circa de Soleil atmosphere, but that’s not really me. My parties have attracted people of all ages.
Monika: Are your involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Kalina: Yes, I am. I served on the board of ASIAC, walked in or attended Philly Pride each year, and hosted and participated in numerous LGBT events in Philadelphia.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Kalina: My Tales of a Sexy Vampire, Sexy Vampire Cookbook, and Walking With the Best of Them serve as my memoir in my early years. I wrote these back in 1992 to 1995. Someday I’ll publish a true memoir of everything from childhood to post-op life.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Kalina: Happy is an understatement. Ecstatic is more like it!
Monika: Kalina, thank you for the interview!
Kalina: You’re welcome and thank you for including me in your awesome project!

All the photos: courtesy of Kalina Isato.
Done on 28 May 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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