Saturday, 11 January 2014

Interview with Alexandra Billings

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Alexandra Billings, a fascinating American actress, teacher, singer, and the first trans woman to have played a transgender character on television. I must say I am thrilled that I can interview such an iconic person. Hello Alexandra!
Alexandra: Well hi there, Monika. I’m glad we can chat like this. I love this cyber-age. You can do anything virtually. Well…almost anything.
No…wait. Literally anything.
Monika: You come from an artistic family. Is it the reason why you became an artist and your whole professional life focuses on beauty pageants, theaters, movies and singing? 
Alexandra: Strangely I come from both an artistic and academic family. My Dad was the musical director at Civic Light Opera House in LA for many years, and my mother was a teacher, as was her mother and her mother before her. My Dad also taught as well as flew in the air force and retired a Lt Colonel. So, I’m half bohemian, half professor. I think that’s why I’ve always had this strange sense of adventure mixed with a need to settle down and nest. I’m like a frustrated Carol Brady… on a dash of crack.
Publicity photo for The Baton
Showlounge, 1986 or 7, by Unknown.
Monika: You started your professional career in the early 1980s, working under the stage name Shante at the famed Baton Show Lounge in Chicago, Illinois. How do you recollect those times?
Alexandra: Some of the best and worst in my life. I learned my craft at a very young age. I was seven years old when I first went on stage, and from then on, I did nothing else.
When I began my transition, it was 1980 and there was no Will and Grace, there was no RuPaul, there was nothing. I assumed my career was over and the only thing I could do that had any connection to performing, was to lip synch.
I did love it though. It filled something really beautiful in me. I’d been doing that since I could open my mouth and used it as a healing of sorts. I’d fake an illness in order to avoid the bullying at school, and I‘d stay home and pretend I was Streisand, or Garland, or Liza. And it healed me. It brought me great joy and gave me hope and serenity at an age when I really just thought I was insane.
Then I found I could do it, and get paid for it. That was amazing to me. I’d never heard of such a thing, and I thought I’d struck gold. And then, I met my family. My Transgender family. These girls became my confessors, my parents, and my best friends. For a while, it was beautiful. I had found my tribe.
And then suddenly, in the middle of it all, the Plague came. People died and they died quickly. I lost most everyone I had known, and I soon became a nurse and care taker. So, the magic seemed to transition into a much darker, much more dangerous existence. That’s when it got bleak, and when my life really turned.
Monika: Do you keep in touch with all the girls performing with you at the Lounge?
Alexandra: Oh God yes. As much as I can. I just spoke to Dana Douglas not too long ago, and I give Chili Pepper a call whenever I can. It’s hard though, she’s very fancy and I usually end up speaking to her machine. Or her maid.
Monika: Having won so many beauty contest titles such as Miss Wisconsin, Miss New York, Miss Chicago, Miss Illinois, and Miss Florida, did you start to perceive yourself differently?
Alexandra: I never thought of myself as particularly attractive, so calling them beauty contests is always hilarious to me. I remember standing back stage in the middle of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life, and feeling like ET.
Winning was always a shock. I always looked around assuming there was someone else on stage named Shante.
Publicity photo for Miss Florida, 1990,
photo by Jennifer Gerard.
Monika: In 2003 you made television history by being the first transgendered female to play a television character in the movie “Romy and Michelle: A New Beginning”. What did you feel when you could see yourself on the silver screen for the first time?
Alexandra: It was thrilling. Honestly. I grew up a TV baby, so seeing myself on the tube was extraordinary for me. It was a huge gift. I felt very lucky and very grateful. I also felt that I needed botox. Badly.
Monika: You played many transgender characters in such TV series as Karen Sisco, ER, Eli Stone and Grey's Anatomy. Have you ever regretted that you were not offered to play a cis woman?
Alexandra: My manager’s working on that one. You know, it’s funny, I only played one Transgender character in my entire theatrical career in Chicago and New York. It wasn’t until I got here to Hollywood that I played so many Transgender people. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but the irony isn’t lost on me. As a side note: Irony is never lost on me. I make sure of that. What I mean is, I try not to take myself quite so seriously. I used to believe that what I did was all of who I was. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do is only a small part of who I actually am.
I certainly think it’s about time for us to play the gender we are in our spirit and our vessel. That time is long overdue.
However, I’ve learned in my life not to question, merely to go. I just go forward into the next unknown thing, and stand there with my arms open. It’s been amazing and the gifts I’ve received have been astonishing, I feel very lucky and very blessed.
Monika: The center of your artistic life revolves around theater. You acted mostly in Chicago theaters: The Bailiwick Theater, Light Opera Works, Court Theatre, and Steppenwolf Theatre, collaborating on plays with such notable authors as Larry Kramer, Tina Landau, and Jamie Pachino. Which particular plays do you regard as the most important for your career?
Alexandra: That’s a tough one. I don’t know that any project I’ve ever done has been more important than the other. They’ve all meant something to me and they’ve all eventually had ramifications. People tend to receive what they want to and what they allow themselves to. For a long time I was described as a Singing Drag Queen.
Then I was known as a Transgender Actress. Now…who knows? I guess it depends on who’s writing the article and what was the last thing they saw me in. Perhaps the importance of what I did is more up to the people who saw it. I try not to think about it too much. If I read something I don’t like I do one of two things: I write a scathing letter and let out all my rage and pain, or I watch an episode of I Love Lucy. Either way, I win.

Monika: Your one woman autobiographical show was a great success while touring to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles. Could you elaborate more on your inspirations behind that play?
Alexandra: I wanted to be heard. Unfortunately, at the time, I wanted to be heard First. It was very important to me to get the facts of my life in some kind of order before anyone else got the chance. And although I loved doing the show, it was very dark and very fragmented. I think I have another one in me, but this time it’s about sharing more than being the loudest person in the room.
Monika: Your first album "Being Alive" was up for Grammy consideration whereas your second album “The Story Goes On” was also a successful production. However, you seem to have given up producing new albums…
Alexandra: I don’t do this well. And by that I mean, going into the studio and singing isn’t my cup of tea. I like people. I like to see them. I like to be with them and to hear them and to feel them come towards me. When I’m in a studio, the only thing that comes toward me, is the microphone.
It’s also a whole other gift. It takes practice. Some people do it really, really well. I’m not one of those people. I think too much. I’m in my head and the purpose and truth of what I’m singing gets pushed aside. I usually end up doing take after take after take and still sounding like Charles Neslon Reilly. I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve never heard either of those CDs. Never.
Publicity photo for the LA premiere of
"Vampire Lesbians of Sodom", 2005.
Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Alexandra: We need to be seen more. We need to be visible and that means we need to come out of the closets. This is imperative if we expect to survive and progress. For me, it’s about education. The college kids I teach are the newest generation and all of them know who and what I am. Always.
This is how we change the world: share the truth of who we are to people who can receive it with openness and acceptance. That way, we pave the way for the younger generation to be completely and utterly free.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Alexandra: I can’t think of one. Can you? Ugh. That’s depressing. Now I need a Lucy episode.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Alexandra: We need to be seen more. I know too many Trans people (both MTF and FTM) who run away from who they truly are. The fact that we are Transgender people is an honor and a birthright. It’s not something we can escape. No matter how many times we make up a past, or pretend something didn’t exist, or lie in order to Become a New person, that can’t erase history. We are the sum total of how we were born, and that is a gift. We need to embrace that and shout it from the roof tops.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Alexandra: I knew nothing. I knew absolutely nothing. I thought I was nuts. I thought for the longest time that I was going to end up like Olivia DeHaviland in “Snake Pit”. Without the glamorous 50’s filter of course. When I was about 10 or 11 years old I found a magazine in my step Dad’s porno pile, and towards the back there was an ad for what was called: “She Males” (a term I abhor, to this day). There was a picture of this beautiful blonde woman with her legs spread revealing a penis. I remember staring at it for the longest time, and finally thinking: “Okay. Maybe it’s not just me.”
But that was it until I found my tribe at Club Victoria in Chicago in the early 80’s.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alexandra: Well… telling my mother. When I was 16 I told her I was gay. When I was 22, I told her I was Transgender. When I was 30, I told her I had AIDS. And then, I was 36, I told her I was marrying a woman. By then, any time I said: “Mom! Guess what?” She’d say: “Please. I don’t need any more surprises from YOU!” She became one of the greatest friends I ever had, right up until the end of her life.

Monika: Was it harder to be a transgender lady in the 80s compared to what transgender women can do these days?
Alexandra: I don’t know if it was harder or not, but it certainly was different. I think it’s always difficult to go through any kind of transition. And you know…. we all do it. We all transition in one way or another. We become who we were always meant to be. We start off one way and end up something else. That’s always difficult. I don’t particularly like change. There’s that irony again.
But change isn’t something that comes easily for me. I like things to stay the same. I drive the same way to work. I walk the same path to the ocean. I eat dinner at the same time. I like things to have structure And then…. there’s this other part of me that thrives on danger and the unknown. I’m curious by nature so I love to peek behind curtains.
So I don’t know, really. I don’t know if it was harder. All I know is that any kind of movement into a newness is transformative not just for the person going through it but for the world around them as well. And that always shakes things up. It’s never easy. Even if you like it, I wouldn’t describe it as easier here than there.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alexandra: That, my dear, is everything. Without a love, there is only emptiness and wide space. And I want to be clear, I’m not talking about romantic love, although that’s certainly a plus. I’m talking about love of anything. A passion. A reason for moving through life. It’s easy for Trans people to sit in the darkness of the past, or the regret of the future. I understand that. I did that. I tried to bottle it up with drugs and booze and sex, and believe me, you can only run from yourself for so long, Eventually, You catch up to You.
We must find the things that bring us joy so when the times come that are filled with emptiness (and they do come), we have something to lie against. To rest. To take comfort in. Love is everything. Love is all.
Photo taken at CSU campus in Fresno,
teaching with The Steppenwolf Theater
during the summer intensive, 2010.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Alexandra: I wrote one about 10 years ago and no one really seemed to care much. There was a publisher I took a meeting with, and he looked me directly in the eye and said: “Unfortunately, no one knows who you are. Why would anyone buy this?” I thought: “Well. Good point.” So I stopped.
However, I’ve been going through another transition…. never fear, I’m not going back to Scott, that would roll my mother into Shakespeare’s grave…. this is a spiritual transition, and so I’m trying again. I kept a personal blog for the last decade and I’ve learned to write essays very quickly and succinctly, so this is what this new book is. 
More essays highlight my strange and extraordinary life in the last half a century. So we’ll see. I’m no more well known than I was 10 years ago, but because I’m older now, I care less. Someone will either publish it, or they won’t and it’ll sit and wait until it’s time. The writing of it is very therapeutic.
Monika: In retrospect, you had the intelligence, talent and looks (still have!) to become a great Hollywood actress. Do you regret anything? Could you achieve more in this respect? 
Alexandra: Looks? Really? Can you follow me around my house every morning and say that to me? That’d be great.
I’ll tell you the honest truth: I never wanted to be famous. I grew up being bullied and ridiculed to such a degree that when people stare at me or look my direction I have to go into a deep breathing exercise. To this day the first thing that passes through me is: “They’re making fun of me. They’re laughing at me.”
You know. I’ve never said that out loud before. Seriously. This is the first time.
So…I never really tried very hard. My manager said to me when I first got to Hollywood that I needed to go to more parties, meet more people, get myself out there more. It just didn’t interest me. I love creating. I love art. I am passionate about sharing my voice and honored to be in the room when others do the same. I am an eternal student and that’s what keeps me going. Along with this paranoia, is just this...
I’m not interested in being noticed just to be noticed. I am interested in being led by people who give their gift and wherever it is they go, I’ll follow them. If that happens to be on stage or in front of a camera, I’ll do my best to show up and learn. Right now, the classroom is calling me. My students teach me more about living than any other group of people I’ve been with.
Hollywood is funny. You have to produce yourself into a commodity, and yet, people keep begging you to be true to who you are. That game is exhausting and I don’t really understand it. So, who knows? I have no idea what’s next and that’s actually fine.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Alexandra: I am. I hope this doesn’t sound all Greta Garbo-y, but I’d like them to remain secretive for now. They’re mine for a while and I just need them to be in my spirit instead of in print. I hope that’s okay. Do I sound mysterious? God I hope so.

Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Alexandra: Oh…that’s gorgeous. I love it. I’d like a t-shirt with that on it. Right underneath a fabulous picture of Ann-Margeret.
I would add that I believe our dreams begin the day we arrive. Certainly the end of what we dream doesn’t occur until the last chapter is written, but as far as dreaming goes, that was given to us by something much greater and much more powerful than anything we could imagine.
Our dreams are not up to us. They are not Lists of Things to Get Done. They are gifts we are required to fulfill. The problem is, most of us walk around the planet trying to remember them, or think them up, or write them down. Dreams don’t work that way. They are within the very being we inhabit, and so all we really need to do is release them. Let the out. Allow them to manifest in the way they need to.
It’s not about the end result, the ability to make them come true, it’s about giving he gift of Hope to another human being. If we do that, the hope of a dream, if someone in front of us receives that, and as long as it’s authentic, we change the world. One spirit at a time, we change each other. That is the greatest dream, and that is not only our responsibility, it is the thing we were all born to do. From the start.
Remember this: The operating table would not have happened at all, had the dream not existed to begin with.
We dream not because we have to, we dream because we’re supposed to.
Monika: Alexandra, thank you for the interview!
Alexandra: You are super duper welcome my friend. Thank you for asking me. Great thanks and many blessings, Alex.

Main photo credits to Jennifer Girardi.
All the photos: courtesy of Alexandra Billings. 
Done on 11 January 2014
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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