Monday 6 November 2023

Interview with Caragh

Monika: Today let me share the story of Caragh, an American producer and writer, known for her work on series such as Behind the Music, The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn, The Queen Latifah Show, and The Kelly Clarkson Show. She’s won two Emmy Awards for her work on the latter series. She has also worked as a reporter for People Magazine, executive editor at TV Guide Magazine and as a freelance correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter, Emmy Magazine, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. She’s also written two books. Hello Caragh! Thank you for accepting my invitation.
Caragh: It’s a sincere pleasure to speak to you. I started reading your interviews way back when I was so far back in the closet, even my childhood t-shirts and shoes were easier to find. Seriously, I used them as motivation to transition myself. Your site is incredibly aspirational, and I dreamed of one day being worthy enough to be included. So it’s truly an honor to be with you.
Monika: Thank you so much! I am so happy that my blog can help other trans girls and women. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Caragh: Well, after seeing that intro, I feel like I’m someone who clearly can’t hold a job! I suppose I can say that for most of my life, I’ve been an extreme introvert despite the fact that I make my living by interviewing people. Sure that’s a big contrast but it’s what happens when build up a wall separating you from the world because you don’t like yourself. You’re your only judge while those who can support are outside so you can’t hear them. Transition has truly changed all of that for me, and I’ve come to realize that what I truly love in life is sharing my story and hearing everyone else’s stories.
Monika: When we connected, I was so excited. I have been a fan of The Kelly Clarkson Show since its first episode aired in 2019. And I adore Kelly. How did you start working for the show?
Caragh: Thanks! I’ve been on the series as a celebrity producer since that first episode. I ended up on the show somewhat unexpectedly. I spent much of my adult life as a journalist, working for magazines and newspapers, as well as writing a couple of books. At some point, though, it became clear America had stopped reading so I knew I had to do a career pivot. TV talk shows were sort of like what I was doing. You interview people and then transform what you learn into interesting stories. I got a job working for Martin Short on his long-forgotten talk show, and have just moved from one to another since then. I thought my days with an actual job were done because of my age, but the Kelly job came up. I was fortunate enough to get hired. And here we are!
Monika: Kelly Clarkson is a TV celebrity, and well-known singer, songwriter, and author. Is it easy to work with her?
Caragh: Kelly is the absolute best. She is exactly who and what you want her to be. Talking with her is always like talking to a friend. She’s incredibly funny and smart but also very emphatic. She was also one of the earliest people I came out to, and she’s been nothing but supportive.
"What I truly love in life is
sharing my story and hearing
everyone else’s stories."
Monika: The show is full of remarkable stories, celebrity guests, spontaneous surprises, humor, and good music. It must be a challenge to combine all these elements together.
Caragh: Doing the show is a true group effort. Some producers handle the human interest stories. Kelly and her band work on the music. The humor is usually pretty spontaneous. As for the celebrity guests, that’s where I come in. I do interviews with them on the phone a few days before they appear, working to find good topics that will interest Kelly. Then we leather know what the questions will be and she adds her own flair. We want the show to be a reflection of who she is, and that is why it’s a fresh blend of all the areas you mentioned. And there’s nothing I love more than storytelling so it’s actually a thrill to find new ways to combine it all.
Monika: What makes a successful producer? Education, experience, or maybe other talents?
Caragh: Ask 100 producers what makes one successful, and you'll probably get 150 different answers (a lot of us change our minds a lot). There are many different types of producing so there are many different ways to approach the job. For me and my job, the key is just to be a person who is curious and who loves to find and tell stories. If you genuinely enjoy learning about others and having conversations, not interviews, that will carry you a long way. 
Monika: You are a part of showbiz. What was their reaction to your coming out?
Caragh: I can’t really speak for all of show biz. I have encountered a few people in the business who, although they like to claim “liberal” status, just can’t wrap their heads around being trans. However, speaking strictly for our show, every single person has been remarkably supportive. Some have done the things I hate – telling me how “brave” I am, asking about surgeries, wondering if being trans is something you catch like the flu – but everyone has already started calling me Caragh and that acceptance has given me a confidence I’ve never had. I realize how fortunate I am, and it’s so nice to not feel like I’m in this alone.
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?
Caragh: On the plus side, I didn’t have many friends, to begin with, so there’s that. I have friends who have paid dearly after transitioning, especially friends in the more traditional-thinking business. They’ve had to not only cope with the sexism that is still rampant but cope with trans phobes on top of that. I think the hardest thing for me has been dealing with that feeling of “Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago?” I know that I can adjust if there are people who reject me. However, I can’t control time - not yet, anyway, but stay tuned - and those lost years of getting to enjoy transition can’t be recaptured.
Monika: Why did you choose Caragh for your name?
Caragh: I hope that means you like it! A few years ago, I learned that my biological dad had died before I was born but nobody ever told me. I grew up thinking the stepdad who raised me WAS my biological dad, and since he is the child of Russian immigrants, I just always assumed that made me Russian. However, after digging into all this information (it’ll all be in the book I’m trying to so…reassure me you’ll buy a copy to learn more), it turns out my real dad was from Irish stock. Hence, I wanted an Irish name and Caragh means “friend” or “beloved” in Gaelic. Plus, Donley is my real dad’s last name so I wanted to pay tribute to him that way as well.
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition?
Caragh: For better or worse, I don’t come from a big family and we’re not particularly close. So we haven’t and probably won’t talk about transition. However, my kids have been very supportive and my son has told me that for more than a year, he could just tell that transition was coming for me. I’m sure we’ve all found that anyone under, say, 30 has very little concern about anyone in the LGBTQ community. Gender and sexual identity are just part of who someone is, and to be trans is not shocking at all.
"FFS was the thing I wanted more
than anything else."
Monika: You have just had your FFS recently. I remember very vividly my emotions when I had my bandages removed. For me, FFS was a life-changing operation that allowed me to tackle my gender dysphoria. I am just curious about your own experiences.
Caragh: I have wanted FFS ever since I realized my nose looks like somebody threw a soft-boiled potato at me and I forgot to duck. I will always be haunted by my days in middle school, when I really began to realize what was wrong with me and I’d hide the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Issue to peek at later. I was so jealous, not so much of the models’ boobs (although sure, I prayed for those too) but of their stunning faces.
FFS was the thing I wanted more than anything else, and the two-year wait for the best surgeon in the business was hard. I am certain this will indeed be a life-saving experience. It’s just too soon to know as I’m not even a month out. There’s still swelling and forehead scars. I’ve always heard it takes up to a year to see the final result so I’m just trying to be patient waiting for that. (While I keep trying to forget that they did put staples in my head and that does NOT feel good when they get pulled out.)
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Caragh: I have yet to meet a trans woman who says, “Oh, my boobs are big enough from HRT. All good here.” So that remains a disappointment but one most of us, I think, share. The great thing about HRT, though, is how they’ve cracked me open emotionally. The absolute best thing about hormones and transition has been getting to have conversations with women AS a woman. Women share, they support, and they are interested. Guy conversations never felt entirely comfortable for me because to really dig in and get emotional and personal wasn’t something guys do.
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?
Caragh: That is so true, and tragic. This shouldn’t at all be about passing but I know I feel the worry all the time that I just look like grandpa in a dress. I don't think any surgery will ever take that paranoia away. It’s a society, which is very difficult to face. I’m lucky enough to not be a particularly big person – 5’ 8,” size 9 ½ shoe, no Adams Apple, dress size in the 12-14 range – but I live for what I feel like we all live for. My day improves every time I ever get “Ma’am-ed” in public. When a door gets held for me, it feels good.
However, as for we cope with this need for passing, the only thing I’ve found is to have a solid group of friends around - trans and/or cis (Sorry, Elon!) - who will stand with you whether it’s a day that you feel you look okay or that the world leaves you thinking your appearance is that of Quasimodo’s slightly bigger and less attractive cousin. It also helps to keep reminding yourself that it’s about how you feel about you, not how the world looks at you. Very tough to do this and if you’ve figured it out, please tell me how.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person that opened your eyes and allowed you to realize who you are?
Caragh: I’ll never forget it. I was a junior in high school, my third one in four years because my stepdad moved us around a lot. Needless to say, this wasn’t a good way to make friends. I’d go to the local library after school and secretly check out magazines with transsexual stories in them. I learned who Christine Jorgensen was. I was so inspired by her story that I managed to find an address for her. I sent her a letter talking about how I felt and how I admired her. A couple of weeks later, I got an autographed copy of her autobiography and a personal note encouraging me. That was truly the first time I felt like maybe I’m not the freak I feel like I am.
Monika: Did you have any transgender sisters around you that supported you during the transition?
Caragh: Yes, I had a few. Not as many as I’d like but I also know I’m a bit of a handful to be around, as my answers here have no doubt proven to everyone. But I met some wonderful trans women through the local LGBTQ center and then via Instagram. I’d never be where I am now without all of them. As with Christine Jorgensen, these extraordinary women made me feel normal and supported. I had cis friends who were helpful too but you really need time with people who can relate specifically to your experiences.
"I met some wonderful trans
women through the local LGBTQ
center and then via Instagram."
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Caragh: I feel like saying “Don’t get me started,” but I want to start. I really want to use whatever communicative skills I have to get out there and show the world who we really are, that we don’t have horns and cloven feet and club baby seals as conservatives believe.
The situation is very bad here largely because there has yet to be genuine pushback and all these restrictive laws being passed. The media is horrible here, trying to both-sides this story when there is just one side – treat everyone with love and respect. Still, a lot of the trans hatred is because people don’t know any trans people. We need to correct that. And I’m tired of hiding.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Caragh: Funny you’d ask that because in Guy Land, I always dressed like a 12-year-old boy, at least according to my kids. Since coming out and being free to finally get what I always wanted, it’s been both amazing and expensive. If I mention a designer I like here, do you think I can get free stuff? I’m still gathering items and finding my style. I’m trying to dress age-appropriate, which is hard because most of what I see women my age wearing leaves them looking like my mom. My preference is a sort of Laurel Canyon, rock chick sort of look. I’m learning to love color. Cool, Charlize Theron-esque suits are a new favorite. I’m going overboard on necklaces and bracelets. Betsey Johnson dresses have become a total favorite as well… hint hint!
Monika: I remember copying my sister and mother first, and later other women, trying to look 100% feminine, and my cis female friends used to joke that I try to be a woman that does not exist in reality. Did you experience the same?
Caragh: Actually, I don’t share that experience. I’ve always kind of lived life in my own way and followed my own path. Except for transition, of course. I just try to be as cool and fun as I can with my wardrobe now, mixing fun t-shirts and skirts and platform Chuck Taylors with tight jeans, necklaces and funky blazers. I like the idea that I’ve really forged a look that is my own and seems relatively ageless.
Monika: When I came out at work, my male co-workers treated me in a way as if the transition lowered my IQ. Did you experience the same? Do you think it happens because we are women or because we are transgender? Or both?
Caragh: I feel like it’s both. As I mentioned earlier, I know trans women in several industries that are male dominated, from finance to engineering to the sciences. And after they transitioned and went back into the same field, they were told that they needed to be softer now. So that’s terrible on two levels. First, dude bosses expect all women to be subservient, Second, they feel like trans women have to be even more so because of their past. Because of the industry I’m in, and writing has pretty much been my whole life and that’s a very solitary job, I haven’t experienced any of this. Still, it’s going to take a whole lot of work if we’re ever going to triumph in this patriarchal world.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Caragh: I know how tough it is. Just because I’ve been fortunate up to this point, and I get to continue with Kelly even after transition so there’s consistency there, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the prejudice out there.
My only advice, I suppose, is always to remember you have value. Remind yourself that whatever field you’re in, you’re in it because you have the right set of skills for it. I know it can be intimidating to look for work as an out trans woman but show your strength and confidence in your abilities when you interview. I may be the only one who thinks this but if you get a transphobic vibe from the employer, let them know that they’re making you feel uncomfortable and that it’s an issue to be discussed right there. 
I know… very Pollyanna of me but it all goes back to my beginning point. So many people have never met a trans person. You may be this employer’s first. So, attack their stereotypes, which are not based on personal knowledge. Show them how smart and funny and compassionate and downright normal trans women are. We are all pioneers, paving the way for the time when trans people will be totally socially acceptable. So find the power in that.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Caragh: I am very much hoping to be, now that I’m out. I’m working on a book project that documents my coming out from my point of view, which I like to think will be both unique and relatable. I’m also hoping to use my TV producing experience to get as many trans-themed segments out there as I can. I realize that this is a very dark time for us but that was exactly what became my tipping point for coming out. I can’t just sit in silence anymore.
"All those years before coming out,
I was too closeted to be in love."
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Caragh: Well, sadly, my choice of best breakfast cereal ranks higher than love on my list of things to sort out in my life. All those years before coming out, I was too closeted to be in love. Now, I feel like I have been solo for so long, me learning how to be in love would be as successful as teaching algebra to a doorknob. Nonetheless, I hear good things about love. It gets some great press. So maybe someday…
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Caragh: Only every day for decades. I’ve been working on a book that is all about how we find and form our personal identities, our true selves. Eventually, I realized that if I was going to do this book right, I had to be honest about myself. With me and with the world. If any publishers are out there and interested, I’ll be right by the phone.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Caragh: I’m moving along with The Kelly Clarkson Show to New York, so that will dominate my time. I hope to get time to continue working on my book. In the next 6 or 7 years, my main goal is to keep my hair. I mean, I am pretty damn old. Over these next several years, I hope to be a strong presence speaking out for trans rights.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Caragh: I totally understand the fear. Trust me. I yo-yo-ed on my transition literally for decades. I was first diagnosed by a therapist as trans when I was 17. I got the same diagnosis from at least half a dozen other therapists over the years, and they all suggested HRT by the end of our first session. Still, I operated from a place of fear, where everyone’s opinion about what I should be mattered more to me than my own.
There is a lot of risk in transition. I’ve been fortunate that almost everyone has been very positive so far but I know many trans women aren’t as lucky. Just know that it’s okay to start slow. It’s okay to have doubts. What matters is realizing being trans is something to celebrate because it’s who you are. It’s how you feel. It’s about you waking up each day ready to see what’s ahead rather than dread it. Always realize that the world will be a better place for all of us when you are happy on a daily basis.
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?
Caragh: I do in my own way, yes. I recently had FFS and while I’m thrilled with the results and look forward to life looking more as I want to look, I’ve realized perhaps the most important thing every trans person should incorporate into their lives. My life post-FFS and post-coming out is essentially no different than before. There’s been no magical, Clark Kent In the Phone Booth moment where I’ve become someone else. I’m still me, but it’s a me that I actually have confidence in. The strength it takes to transition pumps you up enough to realize you have the power to do whatever it is you want to do.
Monika: Caragh, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Caragh: Thank YOU! What you do is so amazing and supportive, it’s truly such an honor to be included. Your work always inspired me and I can only hope that somewhere in all my yammering here, other trans women can find something that will help them.
I’ve had a lot of highlights in my career but there’s one coming that outshines them all. I was blessed to be able to produce an hour of The Kelly Clarkson Show for Trans Awareness Week. It’s airing Nov. 15, and features Laverne Cox along with Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson, who star in the amazing, Oscar-worthy film Monica. The final segment features one more guest – me. I had the chance to talk about my own transition in my 60s. Please tune in if you have a chance.

All the photos: courtesy of Caragh.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog