Saturday 11 January 2014

Interview with Alexandra Billings

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Alexandra Billings, a fascinating American actress, teacher, singer, and the first trans woman to have played a transgender character on television. She was born in Schaumburg, Illinois. Alexandra is also known for transgender characters in ER, Eli Stone, How to Get Away with Murder, Grey's Anatomy, and The Conners.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 as 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.
Monika: How did it help you?
Alexandra: 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 almost everyone I had known, and I soon became a nurse and caretaker. 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 backstage 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 the 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 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 Nelson Reilly. I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve never heard of 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 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 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 rooftops.


All the photos: courtesy of Alexandra Billings.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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