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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Laverne Cox Is The Woman We've Been Waiting For

“It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.” Orange Is The New Black ‘s breakout star is ready for her close-up.

Guess blouse and sequin shorts, Falke leggings, Christian Siriano Shoes, Julie Voss cross necklaces, Gemma Simone chandelier necklace, Clara Kasavina oval motif necklace, Pluma cuff (left), Push by Pushmataaha earrings and cuff (right).

Photograph by Jeaneen Lund for BuzzFeed

Minutes before Beyoncé takes the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, three teenage girls spot an actress in the audience. "That's Laverne Cox!" "Who?" "She's from Orange Is the New Black!" With their iPhones at the ready for selfies, the trio of fans makes its way toward her to say hello. It's Dec. 22, 2013, the same week as the launch of Beyoncé's surprise album and five months since the Netflix series catapulted Cox into a whole new sphere of visibility. The black kid in Mobile, Ala., who became a fast runner in order to avoid bullies hurling the word "sissy" like a stone is now the woman strangers point at in public just before asking for autographs and pictures. A striking figure in her coral dress, Cox greets the girls with the kind of warmth I heard in her voice a few days earlier.

"Oh, so we're going in!" she chuckled when I asked her about leaving Alabama. It was 8 a.m. in Los Angeles where Cox was filming, but after months of waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. to be on set, an early morning phone interview about her life and career was, apparently, not a problem. "Well, OK! Let's go in."

People, even the kind of people we crown as breakout stars, don't come out of nowhere. So, how did Laverne Cox, actress, writer and transgender advocate, happen? "I just knew I had to get out of Alabama. And this isn't to disparage the South, but for me and my journey. I needed to be away to figure out who I was." That journey — from a preteen delivering speeches at Bethel African Episcopal Church in Mobile, to a regular on the '90s club scene in New York, to the first black trans woman on a reality television show, to a role on one of Netflix's hit shows — is not all that different from the twists and turns countless actors take on the road to stardom with one crucial exception: "The system isn't really set up to have these conversations about intersectionality and social justice when you're an actress. I always feel like someone is going to come along and say, 'OK, this has gone on for too long. We need to get rid of this girl.'" Laverne laughs at herself then, but it's not false humility I hear so much as a woman very aware of just how high the stakes are for her.

After years of bullying, culminating in a suicide attempt at age 11, Cox begged her mother to put her in a performing arts school. Her mother, a teacher, eventually agreed. That change, Cox says, saved her life. When I ask her about the bullying, she admits, "I've been talking about that so much lately." In an interview with I'm From Driftwood she elaborated: "Whenever something would happen [at school] and my mother would find out, she would yell at me and say 'Well, why didn't you fight back? [...] What are you doing to make them treat you like that?'" There isn't pain in her voice this morning so much as a clear interest in moving on. Instead of going into particulars, she simply tells me, "If you have something you love, that will get you through." For Cox, that love was about dance and theater.

She studied theater at Indiana University briefly before transferring to Marymount College in Manhattan. She has refined the art of laughing off questions about her age, so let's just say she landed in New York in the 1990s. "I had this idea of moving to New York and, like, within a year, I'd be a star. [laughs] That was my naïveté. I thought I was going to take the city by storm. And that did not happen." [more laughter] What did happen was an introduction to the city's club scene — no drinking, no drugs, she interjects — which allowed her to do her "gender thing."

The Blonds corset, Anne Fontaine lace bib.

Photograph by Jeaneen Lund for BuzzFeed

"I mean, 10 years ago, I could go to Lot 61 [the now-defunct Chelsea nightclub]. I wasn't famous. I wasn't anybody really. I was just doing me. And they'd let me in because I had my own look and I was doing my own thing. I met a lot of people who kind of introduced me to myself." Cox points out that nightclubs have traditionally been a space where queer people, trans women in particular, can explore gender with relative safety.

In the 1970s, Candy Darling, a trans model and Warhol muse, considered this very scene her stomping grounds. The same goes for the 1990s for trans icon Amanda Lepore, who is credited with inspiring a great deal of photographer David LaChapelle's work. As Lepore writes about going to nightclubs after her gender reassignment surgery, "I started going out all the time and became a star overnight — the girl of the minute. It felt so good to finally be appreciated."

Cox says it's not a coincidence that trans women become underground "muses." "There's this freak factor where you become this thing for people to gawk at. And I feel like it started with Andy Warhol and Candy Darling. There's this interview where Warhol is talking with her and he says 'Candy is a man.' And I'm like — I didn't know Candy Darling, obviously — but I'm pretty sure she didn't think of herself as a man." Cox observes. "Andy Warhol was very much exploiting her trans identity and you see that in the New York clubs still. And I've been a part of that."

That trans women are often conflated as being drag queens certainly doesn't help, nor does the insistence of many drag queens, RuPaul among them, referring to other queens as "trannies." "I've worked in clubs where I know now I was being exploited. But I needed to make a living. And, like, look: The unemployment rate for trans people of color is four times the national average. We often find ourselves doing what we have to do to survive and I've certainly found myself doing what I have to do to survive in New York. But I guess that's capitalism."

The balancing act between opportunity and exploitation is something Cox has had to negotiate throughout her career. ("I've literally played a prostitute seven times," Cox told BuzzFeed last July in an interview timed with the premiere of Orange Is the New Black.) Which brings us to Laverne Cox's best known role prior to Orange Is the New Black, her appearance as a contestant on the VH1's I Want to Work for Diddy in 2008.

"I never wanted to do a reality television show." Cox admits. "But, at the same time, for years I wondered what it would be like for a trans person to be on a show like MTV's The Real World. I just never imagined I'd be that person." [laughs] The show, a hip-hop take on Donald Trump's The Apprentice, featured 13 people vying to become P. Diddy's personal assistant. A short film challenge in Episode 4 features Cox chasing down and tackling an overweight man dressed in a purple hat and cape known as "The Applesauce Bandit."

Cox says she knew what she was getting into as well as her limits: "I remember being really conscious of not wanting to fight with another black woman on camera. I did an interview and the producers were like, "Well, this [other black woman on the show] said this about you. What do you have to say about that?" And I said I'm not fighting with another black woman on TV. Even during my elimination episode, when it came down to myself and another black woman, my mother — after watching — said, "Why didn't you defend yourself?" And I just didn't want to give television the satisfaction of seeing two black women going at it. We see that so much."

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