Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Solena Chaniago, an Indonesian celebrity, actress, model, and hair stylist based in New York, USA. Hello Solena! How are you doing?
Solena: Hi Monika, I've been very busy nowadays, going back and forth every 3 weeks between New York City and Jakarta. I still have my job in the US as a Master Barber for Paul Labrecque Salon, on the Upper East Side of NYC. Currently I'm working on a movie that is being filmed in Jakarta.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Solena: I'm a dreamer! I always try to think positive. I am very fortunate to have been surrounded with such great family and friends throughout my life.
|Modeling for Phillip Kwok.|
Solena: Acting. My grandmother was the first person who introduced me to the stage world. When I was 5 years old, she encouraged me to read the poetry she wrote (especially for me) in front of thousands of people at a huge party at the Indonesian Independence Day.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on your modelling career?
Solena: Actually, I haven't done a lot of modeling. Although I do enjoy being photographed, and I love fashion, my true passion is acting. It's my first love.
Monika: Being beautiful always produces a lot of girl power and empowerment. Do you often use it?
Solena: To me, true beauty isn't just what's on the outside. It's the way a person carries themselves. A good friend once said to me: "True power of any person stems from their conviction, dignity, and integrity, and true beauty comes from living up to that with a smile on your face. With grace and love."
I've encountered several women (and men) that were very attractive... until you see their personality! It's not all about looks. Inner beauty shines brighter than superficial beauty.
Monika: You are an actress as well …
Solena: In 2008 I was a waitress at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. A movie crew approached me when they had dinner at that restaurant. They asked me if I'd like to audition for the movie "Brooklyn's Finest", which stars Wesley Snipes. I got a small part. That was my introduction to the acting world in New York City.
A few months afterwards I was also in "The Extra Man" (starring Katie Holmes and Paul Dano). And now I'm going back and forth between New York City and Jakarta to do some film work and to maintain my position as hairstylist in NYC.
Monika: … and a hair stylist…
Solena: I'm a gentlemen's hair stylist. My clientele are men only. I really love this job! I make new friends all the time, the staff is excellent, and I have tons of fun doing it! To me, being a hairstylist does not feel like real work because it is something I simply love to do.
I am grateful for being able to say that. I truly enjoy what I do. I've built good relationships with my clients. I went to some of the top beauty schools in New York, London and Los Angeles. I feel lucky to have a boyfriend who is supportive of my career and dreams.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Solena: At the age of 28 in the year 2007. It wasn't as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I enjoyed every step along the path of changing my body and personality; I completed the transition with a gender reassignment surgery in 2012. I'm happy. It was the right thing for me to do.
|Modeling for Phillip Kwok.|
Solena: Hmm... actually, no. On the other hand, I did have several female role models, for example, Lady Diana,Madonna and a few others.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Solena: Not knowing whether all of my family members would accept me, especially my mother. She has not fully accepted it to date. My father was the one who understood me best. While he did not actively encourage me to walk my path, he did understand what I was about to do and listened to me.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Indonesian society?
Solena: Improvements to the healthcare system and counseling here in Indonesia are necessary. Transgender women in Indonesia buy hormone pills on the black market without the supervision of a doctor. This can put them into health and life threatening situations!
I hope that one day there will be a special clinic for LGBT patients here in Indonesia. Remember that Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. The Indonesian society hasn't yet accepted and acknowledged the presence of transgender people among them. They see us, they meet us, they know we are there, but still find it difficult to accept us.
But I do feel grateful that being transgender is not illegal here in Indonesia, unlike in some other Muslim countries. Of course some people in Indonesia love their transgender brothers and sisters like they love any other human being, and many of them support us in our fight for basic human rights and equality. It's a large country, with almost 300 million people with all kinds of opinions and from all kinds of backgrounds.
Monika: Are there any well-known Indonesian transgender women that have been successful in culture, science or other field?
Solena: I do know of an influential Indonesian woman in the arts and culture. I will not tell you her name or tell you anything else that could reveal who she is -- she is very private about the topic of her gender transformation, and she very much prefers to be discreet about it, and I do respect that.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Solena: I wish the media focused more on the many transgender people who are successful in fields outside of the entertainment industry. Many of the them are successful professionals, and there are several of them in leadership positions. They often live quiet lives, but they are often truly courageous and inspiring people.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Solena: Whether our cause finds support and acceptance in the wider society doesn't depends on the few who are activists and what happens within the LGBT community because they are in strong agreement about basic human rights.
|Behind the scenes of "Sahabat Langit".|
The best way to promote the cause of equal rights for transgender people is for us to be good and decent human beings. We are part of the communities we live in just like everyone else in society.
We can demonstrate to the people around us that 'trans' people have the same desires, wishes and values as other human beings; we are not just people that appear in the entertainment industry, but not in real life. We are humans with the same ambitions and dreams as everyone else. We aren't better or worse than others. Transgender people want to be respected and loved like every human being.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Solena: I would love to be in command of things and be a president. LoL, but seriously, I want to be active in society and politics one day. But we are talking about 15 years from now perhaps.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Solena: very important ! I receive lots of love from my family and friends. My boyfriend of 6 years is the perfect man. He is very supportive of all my endeavors. He sometimes jokes that I behave as if I were a movie director. Lol. I would not be where I am without him.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Solena: few years ago I craved the typical designer stuff, but not anymore. In hindsight I think I needed it to get accepted by people. But I have matured and now have the confidence that I don't need to think about life that way. Now I simply choose my fashion based on whether it suits my sense of beauty and fashion. What label it is I seldom think about, and I love being myself.
|With Paul Dano in "The Extra Man".|
Solena: I have never taken part in a transgender beauty pageant. Not that I think that there is anything wrong with it. It is wonderful to see that there are lots of beautiful and gorgeous transgender people around us that make the world a more beautiful place. For myself, however, a pure beauty contest just isn't the right thing for me.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Solena: I'm writing a book about my life stories. Hopefully it will be in book stores in Indonesia this year.
My second passion is being a men's hairstylist; it is a part of myself, and I love it as a way to express myself as an artist. Eventually I hope that I will inspire people and that people will one day remember me as someone who has helped transform our society into a place with more dignity and love for all human beings.
Monika: Solena, thank you for the interview!
All the photos: courtesy of Solena Chaniago.