Thursday, 26 February 2015

Interview with Solena Chaniago

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Solena Chaniago, an Indonesian celebrity, actress, model, and hairstylist 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 positively. I am very fortunate to have been surrounded by such great family and friends throughout my life.

Modeling for Phillip Kwok.

Monika: You are a woman of many talents. You excel at acting and modeling. Which branch of art or entertainment you feel most attracted to?
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 ​on Indonesian Independence Day.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on your modeling 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 a hairstylist in NYC. 
Monika: … and a hairstylist…
Solena: I'm a gentlemen's ​hairstylist. My clientele is 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 a 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.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
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 Indonesian society?
Solena: Improvements to the healthcare system and counseling here in Indonesia are necessary​. ​Transgender women in Indonesia buy hormone pi​l​ls ​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 fields?
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 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 depend 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".

However, to make real progress, ​we need ALL people in our society. We need a society ​that is united in its beliefs and values ​of no discrimination, zero hate ​, and ​tolerance​, love, and ​acceptance. It's not even really about being a transgender person​ at all​. It ​does not bother me in the least ​when people find out about my gender transformation. 
The best way to promote ​the cause of equal rights for transgender ​people is for us to be good and decent human being​s​. 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, colors, or trends?
Solena: A 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 the 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".

Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Have you ever ​taken part in such a pageant?
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 store​s in Indonesia this year.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Solena: Yes, I am working ​on a big-screen movie in Indonesia. I ​love the fact that I play a regular woman in that role, not as a transgender woman. ​I play the main supporting actress. The title is "Sahabat Langit" (A Friend of the Sky). 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls dreaming about an acting or modeling career?
Solena: When you ​go for it, you have to ​be confident. ​Be optimistic and keep a positive attitude towards the field you want to be in. In my early twenties, I ​worked in PR and as a ​real estate developer. In a way, I have been on a searching path for a long time, but through this process, I have learned to know what I want and what is important for me in life. And I think that attitude has prepared me for my work in ​the ​film ​and media business.
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.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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