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.”
“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.”
Her concern wasn’t unfounded. The first name of Omarosa Manigault, a black woman who competed on The Apprentice in 2004, is still reality TV shorthand for “angry black woman.” And few mediums have seized upon the trope of the entertainingly enraged black woman quite like reality television. Combine that tendency with the way television and film continue to depict trans women as pariahs (or worse), and Cox’s experience on the show is nothing short of a marvel. Though the actress admits, “Being known as the first black trans woman to appear on a reality TV show is a dubious distinction in a lot of ways.”
Her appearance on I Want to Work for Diddy came at a time when Cox says her career was all but nonexistent. “I’d done some off-Broadway theater, independent films, student films, but I hadn’t had a breakthrough. So a lot of it was about advancing my career professionally. And I just thought it was so powerful, you know. Diddy, a black mogul, embracing me, a black trans woman, on national television.” The overwhelmingly positive experience on the show, as well as the emails she received from trans women inspired by seeing one of their sisters on television, convinced Cox to take an even bolder step: producing and starring in a reality television show of her own.
VH1’s TRANSform ME featured Cox and a team of trans women giving cisgender women “internal and external” makeovers. Once again aware of the problems with the medium she was stepping into, Cox hoped to give the makeover format a makeover of its own. “What I don’t like about makeover shows is that so often it’s about dictating what women should do and reinforcing really outdated ideas of femininity. And I hate that stuff. I hate that shit. I’ll say it. [laughs] I hate that shit. So, I wanted my show to be different.”
Shot in 2009, the show premiered in March 2010 with Jessica Simpson’s show as the lead-in. Cox says the show was intended to be a kind of “gateway drug” to introducing mainstream audiences to trans women and their stories.
“You know, there hadn’t been a show with trans women on VH1 before. We all felt like we were doing something important, the cast and the crew,” Cox says. “And then when the show premiered, we didn’t have any viewers!” What’s worse, she says, is that many viewers didn’t even realize Cox and her cast members were transgender. The show Cox had hoped would lead to a cultural breakthrough regarding trans issues barely made a blip on the radar, and the attention it did get was often critical.
Trans women, in particular, took issue with the show’s premise. As Cox explains, “The critique was — and now, I think it was right — that the premise of the show presupposes that all trans women are hyper-feminine and that trans people exist for the entertainment of cis people.” Like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy before it, TRANSform Me is certainly part of a “magical queer makeover” genre. In addition to RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo currently is running episodes of RuPaul’s Drag U, which features drag queens giving women “drag makeovers” to help them get in touch with their self-confidence. In all three reality television shows, LGBT people exist for the sole purpose of helping straight people work out their self-esteem issues. It’s like the “magical negro” trope but with glitter.
Talking about the show’s poor reception brings up insecurities that Cox says she still faces however far she has come. “I still walk down the street and will hear people say ‘That’s a man.’ So, yeah, I’ve been bullied and harassed by cisgender people, but I also have gotten criticism from some trans people because I’m not passable. I look trans.”
The issue of trans people passing has received particular attention in media recently, in no small part due to Grantland’s now infamous “Dr. V” feature, which outed the story’s subject — a trans woman who had been passing for years — and allegedly played a role in her suicide. To people who suggest a trans person not wanting to be outed is deceptive, Cox counters, “Being able to walk down the street and not having strangers recognize you as trans is about survival. We become targets for violence. So, I absolutely understand trans women who want to live under the radar. ” She cites the example of Islan Nettles who died in 2013 after being beaten by a group of men in Harlem who confronted her on the street after realizing she was trans.
In the midst of talking about reality television or more recent projects, Cox weaves in asides about the implications of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, the lack of HIV/AIDS research regarding trans women, unemployment rates, and misogyny into our discussion with an ease (and command) you might not expect from an up-and-coming actor.
And OK, I’ll admit it: I caught myself saying “Yaaass!” a few times during our conversation. It’s difficult, frankly, not to be moved by what Laverne Cox says and the ferocity with which she says it. You can hear the experience of someone well versed in both “call and response” and the nuances of advocating for herself in an arguably antagonistic industry.
And though the television and film industry may not be “set up,” as Cox says, for such earnest conversations about trans issues and social justice, her hearty embrace of the “personal as political” ethos is perfect for a show like Orange Is the New Black.
“Because Orange is set in a prison, it’s an inherently political show. You can’t even talk about America without talking about prisons,” says Cox. Her character, Sophia Burset, is a former firefighter who is in prison after committing fraud to pay for her transition. When the prison begins to withhold Sophia’s estrogen pills, she confronts the warden. “This is an emergency,” Sophia says during the scene.
“What’s interesting about Sophia’s storyline,” Cox says, “is that, usually when we see trans people on screen their stories are all about their transition, but this is a health care issue. And just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have health care.” Cox says Sophia’s relationship with her wife and son is what she finds most fascinating, and that the topic will be explored more in the show’s second season, which airs this June. I wouldn’t be the first person to point to the irony in a show about a women’s prison becoming a critical darling in large part due the diversity of female characters and stories it examines. Cox says it isn’t a coincidence. “Everything about the prison-industrial complex is designed to dehumanize the women who are incarcerated. So, it means so much to me that our show is about doing the exact opposite.”
Like Candace Cane before her, Cox bears the burden of having to succeed on Orange not just as an actress, but as a living breakthrough. It is still the norm for transgender characters in movies and television shows to be played by people who are not trans. Notably, when Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of Dallas Buyers Club, was asked if he ever considered casting a trans person in the role that ultimately earned Jared Leto a Golden Globe and Oscar, he said, “Never. [Are] there any transgender actors? I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the real thing.” The sentiment is as unfortunate as it is typical.
However far we’ve come, there’s still so much work to do. And Laverne Cox, for one, is busy, sometimes to the point of near exhaustion. “Being overwhelmed is a blessing because it means you have things going on!” she says with a hearty laugh when I ask about her most recent film Musical Chairs, in which she plays a disabled trans woman. The film, set in the world of wheelchair ballroom dancing, was released in select cities nationwide and is available on HBO.
And, if it’s even possible, Cox becomes even more animated when asked about Free CeCe! — the documentary she is currently co-producing about CeCe McDonald. In 2012, McDonald, a trans woman, was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison after stabbing the man who attacked her during a hate crime. McDonald was eventually released after serving 19 months of her sentence and Cox was there at the prison gates to greet her. The film, Cox says, will explore McDonald’s story but also examine the frequency of violence against trans women of color. As she begins to reflect on McDonald’s case, as well as the death of Islan Nettles, Cox stops herself and sighs. “I’m kind of tired of talking about trans women being killed at a disproportionate rate, but it just keeps happening. And we’re not doing enough about it.”
When Laverne Cox talks about trans women of color, she calls them her “sisters.” “I want to say their names because they’re my sisters and I love them,” she tells me. The dissonance between her personal success and what she calls “a state of emergency for trans people” is something Cox is still figuring out. In what she considers one of the best professional years of her life, Cox has seen two of her sisters die. She laughs a bit to herself as she shares stories about them. It’s a hard-earned kind of laughter, the sound of a woman who knows that breaking through is the only option.