Tuesday 19 April 2022

Interview with Danielle St James

Monika: Today I have invited Danielle St James, a successful British businesswoman, model, makeup artist, beauty pageant, media celebrity, and transactivist from Barry, South Wales. In 2021, she founded Zoah, a pioneering company that offers lingerie and underwear for transgender women. Danielle is also the founder of Not a Phase, a small charity that is working towards a brighter future for the trans+ community. Hello Dani!
Dani: Hey Monika, wow, what a lovely introduction, thanks for having me!
Monika: You can boast of a fantastic professional career that you have managed to build over the years thanks to your multiple talents. How are you doing these days?
Dani: That's very kind of you to say, I'm doing very well yeah, insanely busy which I'm very grateful for. The last couple of years have been incredibly transformative for me, not only with the underwear line and the charity but personally also. I feel very grounded and self-aware now, which I'm told is also thanks to me getting a little older!
Monika: The history of bra is intertwined with the social history of the status of women, including the evolution of fashion and views of the female body. What inspired you to think about the design of tucking underwear?
Dani: That's a really great point, Monika, and I'd like to think that what we are doing with tucking underwear is similar to what the evolution of the bra did for women. Until now, tucking underwear has had two fundamental issues in my opinion, it has only been designed for one body type and it has always come in the form of a very uncomfortable tight thong/gaff.
The first style that we launched with Zoah is a hybrid of shapewear and underwear, it has a number of features that make it practical and comfortable and it also has been designed to accentuate the feminine body shape, I'm so proud of it. There are so many more designs en route and we have a bright future ahead of us, focusing on the underwear needs of all trans people.
Monika: This year you have also designed a special bra...
Dani: We did!! I knew that I wanted to bring a bra out to match the underwear and I had a real think about what trans people need in this department, the bra I made is a regular sports bra for those that have breasts but it also has much larger inner compartments with wider openings for access, this means that the bra is great for wearing breast forms or silicone inserts if you don't have breasts but want the appearance of them!
Dani with the ZOAH new bra
collection and model Alexa Allana.
Monika: Do you have any plans to expand your business by adding other garments or cosmetics?
Dani: Oh yes, we actually have tonnes of stuff coming out later in the year, all of the products that I am releasing are products that I know are not available anywhere else, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, I'm trying to make our existence as trans people a little easier in a world that wasn't designed for us.
Monika: How did your start your charity work?
Dani: It all timed in with the start of the pandemic really, it was a really awful time for our community in the UK, there were issues being debated in parliament that would in essence dehumanize trans people of all ages, it tapped into a deep visceral feeling inside of me and I knew I wanted to do something to help. What began as a fundraiser really quickly snowballed and now we are doing some really cool work for trans adults in the UK, I never really thought this would become my work but I'm so glad that it is.
Monika: I remember the first articles about you in the British press in 2013. It is amazing to see you blossomed into an inspiration for other trans women. Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Dani: Gosh, that's a long time ago, I think that was during my brief stint as a pageant queen haha. Unfortunately back then I thought that all media was good media, which means there are some really dodgy articles about me from that time period. When I was coming of age, there were no trans people in the media other than the ones on Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake that were belittled and shamed, horrendous.
I remember the first time I saw a trans person in real life because it was the first time I realised who I was, I was 16, and I went to a bar in Cardiff, there was an American trans porn star that was on a tour of Europe, she had ended up in Cardiff for some reason and when I met her, we spoke for ages, she said "oh you know you're trans right?" that was when my tectonic plates shifted, I didn't even know about trans people before that really.
I transitioned a year later under the mentorship of a few other trans people that I went on to meet through bars and clubs. Visibility and representation are vital for us, this is why I take my own visibility so seriously now.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Dani: You’re right there, Monika, it’s an incredibly hard path on the route to authenticity for trans people. I’m surrounded by our community constantly and I’m always so sad to learn of the hardships that people go through. I count myself as incredibly fortunate in that department, my family have been amazing, it wasn’t always smooth sailing but we are bonded closely and they champion all that I do, coming out isn’t a one-time thing as trans people, we spend our lives coming out.
I think the hardships that I faced along the way with coming out were when I went into a new relationship and I wanted so badly to be seen like any other woman, I do think this gets easier the older you get though.
Monika: In one of the articles about you, I found a statement that your 2012 stay in Ibiza was a breakthrough in your transition.
Dani: yeah I moved there when I was 18 for 2 years, this was pre-social media and I felt like I had to escape my small town in wales and run free. The way that the medical system works there is very different to the UK, after moving there I spoke to a doctor and I was on hormones within weeks of arriving, I discovered myself there at a really tender age, away from all of the people that knew me pre-transition, I was who I was at face value to all of those that I encountered, which was really good for me.
Dani was the first trans+ person in
a campaign for the Missguided brand.
Monika: In 2013 you took part in Miss Diamond Queen 2013. How did you find the experience of competing with other ladies?
Dani: Hahahaha, you’ve done your research here! It was a brief entry into that world that was very short-lived, when I was living in Ibiza there was talk of me competing in Miss Trans Spain, but I moved before it happened.
When I first moved to London, I was 20 and had the mindset of saying yes to everything that asked me, I was trying to find my people here. That pageant solidified that I definitely couldn’t dance and that I had no place walking onto a stage unprepared. It was great to connect with all the girls though, I’ve always loved being around loads of trans people.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Dani: Yeah I am, I think that the internet sets unrealistic expectations as to what hormones can do, which can be a bit damaging to those starting out, but I started so young that I think they have taken as much effect as they ever could, by the time it came to having body-altering surgeries, they had taken enough effect to make the process a lot smoother.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Dani: Passing is a myth, in my opinion, I resent the notion of it. It’s a huge privilege to move through the world safely and undetected, but that is a privilege that is only afforded to the minority. I love that I look and sound trans, I’m not trying to obtain a beauty standard as anything other than a trans woman of my age and I think that’s where the bar should be set.
We are always going to be held up against our cis counterparts, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves down because we don’t look like them. I have dreams of a dystopian future where we are celebrated for our transness. We can cope with the beauty standards by absolutely rejecting them, most of what we see online is edited and false anyway.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Dani: I think it's an absolutely dire time to be trans in the UK, as I'm writing this it's just been announced that the new legislation that protects LGBTQ+ people from conversion therapy will exclude trans people, another blow for our community. It's awful to see that our country is the source for so much anti-trans sentiment that is put out into the world. So disheartening and sometimes it can feel overwhelming. These social issues are coupled with the fact that our healthcare system is completely broken, people are waiting in excess of five years to be seen for a first appointment, my heart breaks for my community.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Dani: I do like fashion, mainly streetwear these days, I dress in a very casual way most of the time, I love sneakers and oversized tees. It took me a long time to realize that I actually dress in a traditionally masculine way and that's where I feel more comfortable.
"I think it's an absolutely dire
time to be trans in the UK."
Monika: Being a makeup artist, do you often experiment with your makeup?
Dani: Makeup is something that I have dipped in and out of over the years, for three years I was managing a makeup company that took me all over the world teaching, that was a very exciting time for me.
I enjoy makeup and the alone time that I take in the morning to apply it but I don’t experiment so much anymore, I guess as you get a little older, you just kind of work out what works for you and what doesn't, these days I wear much less than I once did.
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Dani: Haha, I guess everyone does, don’t they? It's sweet when people are kind to me.
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Dani: I actually remember it very clearly because it gave me a nudge that I needed, for the first year of my transition I couldn't decide what name I would choose, I moved to Ibiza and had a job interview at a club, the woman who ran the club asked me why I was a woman with a man's name, I hadn't yet changed it on my CV. I explained that I wasn't sure what name I was going to use and she said "okay well whilst you work it out let's go with Danielle", it stuck and stayed the same ever since. I'm still friends with her, it meant the world that she saw me as my authentic self so easily.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Dani: This is a tricky one as it really does depend on the line of work and where someone is on their journey, I guess my advice would be to find the person in power that they can confide in as quickly as possible, an HR manager or a people manager. It's so important that you have someone to confide in.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Dani: Until I met my partner Alix, I always felt like love was something that was a few inches out of my grasp, every time I tried to obtain it, something would go wrong, a lot of that I attest to my identity. I went after all of the wrong men, men that didn't fully accept me or men that couldn't be proud of our relationship.
That all changed with Alix, I have never known love in the way that he shows it, he's a huge champion for our community and there is never a moment that I have to wonder if he accepts me, he beams with pride for our love, it's not just important to me, it's become vital.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Dani: That's an idea that I haven't really thought of exploring, to be honest, I think there are some amazing and profound memoirs out there that are written by trans people but as of right now, I don’t feel that my story is one to be told, especially given that I'm only just turning 30, who knows what the future holds though!
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Dani: I think that my next step is looking increasingly like I'm going to leave London at some point within the next year, I've been here for 10 years and I'm a bit over it now, I stopped drinking two and a half years ago and since then, there hasn't been nearly enough value in being here as there was when I was enjoying the social life that Londoners enjoy. It won't be too far, but far enough that I can breathe a little more.
"In 5-7 years I would like Zoah to be
thriving and recognized as a world leader
in underwear for all trans people's needs."
In 5-7 years I would like Zoah to be thriving and recognized as a world leader in underwear for all trans people's needs and have the charity at a really strong, structured place. On a personal note, I want to marry my boyfriend and have at least one if not two bulldogs, haha.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Dani: Find your people, peer support is unmatched in our community. There are fantastic learning resources available online, but be cautious of bias within them depending on the source.
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 transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Dani: I agree with almost all of it yeah, not everyone wants to jump onto the operating table and that's okay too. I think that trans people have so much untapped into potential because at our core is the spirit of a fighter. We have all had to fight for everything that we are and have, nothing was given to us. So yeah, dream big and go out there and get it.
Monika: Dani, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Dani: You're a dream, Monika, thanks for having me, take care!

All the photos: courtesy of Danielle St James.
© 2022 - Monika Kowalska

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