Saturday 31 May 2014

Interview with Julia Scotti

Monika: Julia Scotti is an American comedian, former teacher, speaker, and transgender woman. She is known for her appearance in Season 11 of America’s Got Talent on NBC in 2016, and a comedy special on SHOWTIME called "More Women of a Certain Age". Hello Julia!
Julia: Hello Monika! Thanks for having me!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Monika: Do you often tell transgender jokes?
Julia: All of my comedy is based in truth. Being transgendered is part of my life, so yes, I do. Even though it is a big part of my life, it is a small part of what I do on stage, and only when I feel like going in that direction. In order to reach mainstream audiences, I need to focus on those things to which they can relate.
Plus, I prefer to think of myself as a comedian who happens to be transgendered as opposed to being known as a transgendered comedian. There's a big difference.
Monika: Your career started in "Hell's Kitchen" in 1980 when you entered the New York City comedy scene, performing alongside such contemporaries as Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and Eddie Murphy...
Julia: If I would have known that they were all going to be that famous, I would have taken more pictures with them! The truth is, none of us knew that we were witnessing (and being a part of) the birth of a worldwide comedy explosion. New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were the breeding grounds for so much talent back then. Most of the household names in comedy today were just journeymen (and women) comics, bouncing around the major cities from club to club. It was a historic time and I am so grateful to have been a small part of it. I have some fantastic memories!

Julia Scotti Standup Comedy. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Your professional life changed after winning Showtime's Funniest Person In America Contest for New Jersey...
Julia: It gave me some exposure on national television, and because it coincided with the sudden boom in comedy clubs, I was able to tour the country, working my way through the ranks from emcee to headliner. I didn't win the competition for the country though; that, as you know was won by Ellen De Generes.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on "Julia Scotti's Comedy Test Kitchen" and your other successful shows and performances?
Julia: The Test Kitchen was an idea I had when I came back to comedy after an eleven-year absence. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the Original Improvisation in New York, which was where I started my career. I invited singers, dancers, and of course comedians to come by, work out new stuff and it was a joyous time! We did it in a small upper room in a bar in Philadelphia. It was just what I needed to get my show business feet wet again.
From there, I have been very blessed with good fortune. In 2012, I was the first transgendered contestant (and finalist) in The Ladies of Laughter comedy competition, and I have performed at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, the Tropicana in Atlantic City, and have recently moved over to the Borgata Comedy Club in Atlantic City.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Julia: Those are great questions. I think that an artist of any stripe creates original art based on his or her life experiences. So a transgendered person will create things that incorporate those experiences into their finished product in the same way that anyone else would. It may not be obvious in the product, but it is there in some way.
As to what it means to be a transgendered artist, again I would rephrase that and say that I am an artist who happens to be transgendered. But I know that when people come to see me, a percentage of them will come out of curiosity. And so, my goal is to have them leave a show with the attitude that they are more likely to recommend me to a friend because I am funny rather than because I'm transgendered. Being funny trumps everything else because if I am not, no one will come to see me.

Courtesy of Julia Scotti.

Monika: You once said that you had "this mission to be a trans comic who could stand up for other trans comics".
Julia: I did? Oh my God, what was I thinking?! (laughing). Actually, that is true. What I meant by it was that if I could somehow transcend the "Ick" factor, which many people still associate with being trans, I could open doors for others like me.
But please know, that there is a growing contingent of us now...and slowly but surely, trans entertainers and artists are moving up the ranks. So if it isn't me, it will be someone else. It doesn't really matter who it is as long as it gets done.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Julia: I began my transition about fourteen years ago. I know it sounds crazy, but there wasn't much of an Internet back then, so information was sparse. However, I had always been fascinated by Christine Jorgensen, Kate Bornstein, and Dr. Rene Richards.
Later on, I learned of Martine Rothblatt, who pioneered the technology for satellite radio. And of course, there was Joan of Arc, who went to the stake for her refusal to wear women's clothing, among other things. All were role models for me.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Julia: First and always, losing my three children. They were young and there was no reasonable way to explain to them what was happening. The pain I caused them and the guilt over my decision to move forward was agony. Second, for the longest time, I felt shame and embarrassment over what I was. I lived in stealth for many years, when I was a middle school teacher. Comedy helped me get past it all and finally stand up and be proud of what and who I am.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgendered women in American society?
Julia: Wow, that's a tough one to answer in a few sentences, and so I will have to give you a very general answer.
I believe that America is just waking up to the fact that we even exist. You have to understand that we here view gender in strictly binary terms; you are either male or female. Anyone who does not conform to that standard tends to rock the societal boat.
For all trans folks, but trans women, in particular, most of the time, we tend to 'stand out', if you know what I mean, so it is difficult to be stealthy. When we do come out, we are immediately visible to family, friends, and the general public and that sets us up for a barrage of criticism.
In my own case, I was accused of trying to get attention, if you can believe that. Then there were also the religious people who said I was slapping God in the face. I've been told I'm mentally ill and been the subject of some nasty comments. I don't date, because I don't want to have to go through the constant rejection when I come out to a potential partner. The list goes on and on. Trans women have issues that no one else has and we all learn to cope with them somehow.

Julia Scotti - Borgata, AC. Cathy Caldwell.
Source: YouTube.

Having said that, I have found some wonderfully supportive people in my life, probably more than the negative ones. I think that Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono, among many others, have shed a good deal of light on what we really are, which is normal people trying to get through life in the best way possible. And in my own small way, I hope that I am doing the same through my comedy.
But there is still a long, long, lonnnnnnnng way to go for us. It will take several generations before the presence of trans folk in a community will barely raise an eyebrow. However, things like this blog, for instance, highlight our accomplishments as people. Fifteen years ago, nothing like this even existed, and look at what we've done since! America will come along eventually, but it takes time and visibility. We need to be assertive for sure, but patient too. I hope that answers your question!
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Julia: While it certainly represents part of the frontier, there aren't enough of us yet, nor is there the public support we would need to make it a worldwide cause. For that, we still need to align ourselves with the L's, the G's, and yes, the mythical B's. It will require several generations of us before we are a large enough force to push for the kind of change you're talking about. BUT...every time we break down a wall, be it in business, politics, science, education, or the arts, we move one step closer to equality.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Julia: It used to be that the only time you saw a trans character in a movie, on TV, or in a book, they were the psychotic killer, a prostitute, or the lonely, sad, pathetic "trannie" (I hate that word, btw) with the heart of gold. It's amazing to me how little the creative forces in Hollywood, Bollywood or any other 'wood' know about us. That is changing, mercifully. Felicity Huffman did a brilliant job a few years ago in the movie "Transamerica" in portraying what life is like for us and I think it opened the door to new possibilities on screen and in print.
Oh sure the stereotypes still abound, but thanks to people like Jamie Clayton ("Hung") and Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), that image is shifting. As more of us come up and out, more stories will unfold. We, as a community, are adding dimension to what it means to be transgendered. Each time we produce a product that presents us as multi-dimensional, we break down pre-conceived thoughts that straight folks might have had about us.

Courtesy of Julia Scotti.

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?
Julia: I'm glad you asked this question because it's an important one, I think. Speaking for myself only, my feeling is that the "Ls and the Gs" would be much happier if we would just disappear from their lives. I can't speak to the "Bs" because I've never actually met one. I think that they are mythical creatures, like the Yeti, yet they STILL show up before we do in the abbreviation!
We were sort of lumped together with the Ls and Gs because, to be honest, I don't think the press knew what to do with us. The L and G community tolerates us like an unwanted stepchild, and it seems the only time they do rally to support us is when one of us is killed. Great press opportunity, you see.
I've stopped going to LGBT functions, as have many of my trans acquaintances because we feel like we are always ignored or under-represented.
What's happening now is that thanks to social media, we trans folk are discovering that we aren't alone in the world and finally, FINALLY organizing away from the rainbow banner. And that's a wonderful thing!
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Julia: OMG, Active? NO! I have a very low tolerance for pretense, lies, and bullshit (laughing). I do try to stay informed though for my job and as a citizen. And I vote, whenever and wherever possible.
Everyone can make a difference in politics, including trans folk! For instance, I have an acquaintance who will be the first trans delegate to the Democratic National Convention and I'm very proud of her. As time marches on, you will see more of us running for office, and serving in all aspects of government. Yay for her!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Julia: When I was transitioning, I was filled with a lot of anger toward myself, those who had shunned me and most especially, God. It was eating me up and could have very easily turned to hate. The problem was that my hate accomplished nothing. The only person it hurt was me.
What I discovered through reading was that there really is only one absolute truth in the universe, and it is love. If you love everyone and everything, then there is no reason for any other emotion. And the most important person in the world to love is yourself.
Do I get angry? Sure, sometimes. I'm only human after all. But my anger is usually very short-lived. I have trained myself to get rid of those feelings quickly.
I suspect that your question pertained more toward romantic love. I have no desire for that at this time in my life. I'm way too busy loving everyone else! (laughing)
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Julia: I'm almost embarrassed to answer this one! I guess I didn't inherit the passion for fashion. On stage, I always wear pants and a nice top. Feminine, but not over the top and not very colorful (bright colors distract the audience). Offstage, I'm a jeans and t-shirt kind of gal. As for special designs, anything from the Beatrice Arthur collections suits me! 

Americas Got Talent 2016 Julia Scotti Geriatric
Comic. Popcorn. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Julia: Actually I have written a book. It's called Chasing Normal and it is currently being shopped around to publishers via my literary agent. There are some things happening with it, but I can't really talk about them right now. Hopefully, I'll have some good news in the near future.
Monika: Are you working on any new project now?
Julia: In addition to always adding new material to my act, I am preparing a one-woman show called "The Woman with XY Vision". I'll be trying out bits of it at various venues over the next few months. I'm also working on another book. Other than that, nothing.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Julia: Just this:
a. You didn't ask for this, but it is your destiny. Embrace it with all your heart and love yourself.
b. If you try to avoid it in order to make everyone around you happy, you will never be happy with yourself. Love yourself enough to be yourself.
c. Nothing is insurmountable. If anything, this experience will help you find more courage than you ever thought you had. If you can get through to the other side of being transgendered, you will be able to accomplish anything. Love yourself for your courage.
d. Forgive everyone who hurts you. You don't have to see them again, but get rid of the hate you might have for them. Chalk it up to their ignorance, but love them anyway. Fill your heart with joy and positivity. Love yourself.
e. This thing is a blessing and a curse at times. Focus on the blessings part. Carry yourself with grace, dignity, and pride at all times. Love yourself.
f. Never, NEVER feel less than anyone else because you are transgendered. Demand respect. You are beautiful always. Love who you are and love yourself.
e. Pay forward any kindness shown to you. It brings positivity into your life. Love yourself this way.
f. Keep a journal. Look back at it as time goes by and see how far you've come. There is a beginning, middle, and end to every story. You may be in a bad chapter right now, but it will end. When you feel alone and afraid, go to your self for comfort. There is light for you when all of this is over. I am living proof of that. Believe in yourself. Love yourself.
Bless you, Monika, and keep up the good work. We need more like you out there!
Monika: Julia, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Julia Scotti.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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