Five years ago, Laverne Cox was ousted from the Vh1 reality TV series, I Want to Work For Diddy. Friends and family had warned her about the 15-seconds-of-fame curse, but Cox wanted to flip a potentially exploitive scenario into a larger platform for trans women like CeCe McDonald, who was sentenced to 41 months in a male prison. “Society is constantly telling us that we’re not who we say we are,” says Cox. “The experience of not only being incarcerated but having your femininity being taken away from you constantly is dehumanizing.”
The Alabama-born transgender actress has since gained widespread attention for her cause, by playing the sassy, duck-tape-sandal-sporting hairdresser Sophia Burset on Netflix’s hit prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black. Earlier this year, Cox's activism for the LGBT community earned her GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak award. And she recently landed the cover of Time in an article titled, "The Transgender Tipping Point."
As the second season of OITNB hits the Net today (June 7), VIBE caught up with Cox to talk growing up transgender in the South, reality TV and how she unwinds (Hint: Beyoncé). –Niki McGloster
VIBE: Sophia is such a layered character, and viewers have gravitated to her. Criminal record aside, how similar were you and Sophia’s transitions?
Laverne Cox: Oh God, totally different. Sophia’s was a lot faster than mine because she stole people’s credit cards to finance it. She was done in like a couple of years. Basically, I was living on my own. My mom and I had some issues to work through and we have worked through them, but I was just dealing with myself. And the friends that I had in my life were all super supportive, so I didn’t have to deal with the whole having a spouse and a child whose lives were really being impacted by this transition. I was younger than Sophia, too.
There’s that moment when Sophia’s looking in the mirror on the show and she’s like, “Wow, I’m hot.” Did you have that moment as well?
I remember the first time I said that to myself. I was wearing glasses in the third grade, so I didn’t really feel pretty as a kid. I was a nerd. And then I had gotten contact lenses to do a show while I was in before my sophomore year in high school. I put one of the contact lenses in and saw myself with just one contact and I said, "Oh my God, I’m pretty." Then I put the other contact lens in and said, "Okay, I’m not that pretty." [Laughs] I felt pretty seeing with one eye. Through transition, it’s different moments, not just one pivotal moment. I needed makeup early on to feel pretty and now I don’t.
A lot of people think it’s all about surgery with trans people, but I didn’t have that much surgery. There’s been a little bit, but it’s been about hormones; it’s been about a slow process of my body evolving over years. But I’m really grateful that it’s been a slow process because if I had all the money early on, I would have done some stuff that I probably would end up regretting now. I had a lot of time to think about it and make sure that everything I was doing in terms of the medical part was really necessary in terms of my health and my wellbeing and my sense of myself and not out of insecurity. I mean, let’s face it, I see photos and I see myself on TV and I’m like, "Oh my god, that angle." But I have to accept and embrace who I am.
Gaining that acceptance of self is a process for everyone, I think. For Orange’s new season what can fans expect from Sophia?
It’s really about Lorraine Toussaint, who plays Vee. She comes into Litchfield and shakes things up in a really big way. The relationships we came to love in season 1 are very much challenged by Vee’s presence. She’s power hungry, wants to kind of take over. It’s entertaining, but it’s so good.
When did you become an activist for trans women?
When I did I Want to Work for Diddy and got a national platform for the first time, I committed myself to make the lives of trans people better. But I mean, a decade ago I remember testifying at City Hall, where we added transgender protection to the Human Rights Law here in New York City, so I always took to what’s politicized around my identity.
Hip-hop is largely transphobic and homophobic. Going into I Want to Work for Diddy, were there things that were holding you back?
All my friends and my brother thought I shouldn’t do it. I was on the fence, but the reason I did it was because literally the day before my last interview, I was walking down the street in midtown Manhattan and I passed this group of black guys. I heard one of them yell anti-gay slurs, anti-trans slurs. I heard one say, "that’s a man." And then one of them kicked me. I was like, okay, if Puffy can embrace me on this show, that will be a huge statement for our community as black people.
Take me back a bit. When did you feel even the slightest bit comfortable to start identifying as a woman or as a girl?
It wasn’t until I moved to New York and actually met trans women that I was able to finally accept who I was. I needed to get out of Alabama. I had a lot of misconceptions about who transgender people were based on what I had seen in the media and some of my own fear of God that was placed in me. My third grade teacher Ms. Ridgeway said I would end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if my mother didn’t get me into therapy right away, so I had all this fear. But there was something about me that was sort of rebellious as a kid. Even in high school, even though I didn’t identify as a girl, I started wearing makeup and girls’ clothes. I needed to express myself.
So when all the cameras are off and the makeup is wiped away and you’re just alone with your thoughts, what are thinking about or doing?
Lately, I’m thinking a lot about my future and what’s next for me. Because I’m so busy and I’m writing a book, there’s a lot of reflection on my life up until this point. A lot of times, karaoke is like the best thing ever for me. I have some karaoke buddies where we just go get a private room and sing for a few hours. We’re dancing and singing, and it’s so therapeutic and cathartic. It gets all these demons out. Sometimes, I’ve been finding I just need to dance around my apartment and I’ll listen to Beyoncé. Beyoncé is my go-to.
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