Transgender star Cassandra Cass shines brightly on Showtime series

Cassandra Cass is a star on San Francisco's popular lip-sync show, "Sunday's a Drag," at Harry Denton's Starlight Room. She has reached a limit of 5,000 friends on her Facebook page and has 1,000 on the waiting list. Now her fame is reaching even loftier heights, on Showtime TV's new midnight series, "Wild Things."

Cass is one of the more attractive female performers around, but it wasn't always so. She was born a boy 32 years ago in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of a housewife and a football coach. Back then, Cassandra was Casey and had three brothers. His mom let him play with girls' toys. His dad criticized her for it. In his late teens, Casey found acceptance in drag clubs and realized that he would be more comfortable as a she. Hormone therapy, a move to Miami and the start of many rounds of plastic surgery followed.

Then in late 2002 came a move to San Francisco, where she met a boyfriend who has helped pay for her sexual reassignment surgery, one procedure in about $150,000 worth of work she has undergone in the effort to look more like a woman.

Cass worked as a bartender before becoming a lip-syncer, and in 2007, competed in (but didn't win) the World's Most Beautiful Transsexual pageant in Las Vegas. A Showtime documentary was made about the contest.

When Showtime came up with "Wild Things," Cass was cast as one of three transgender people on a road trip across small-town California, working at odd jobs to raise money for an ill relative. The eight-episode show, now midway through its run, airs at midnight on Showtime's Sho 2 and Showtime Showcase channels. It's equal parts midnight movie, catfight and tear-jerker. With the cowboys and mechanics they meet along the way, the stars discuss their troubled upbringings and the discrimination they've faced from people who can't accept them. Cass said she has not been invited home for the holidays in years and has nieces and nephews she has never met.

"Once I made the switch," Cass said of her brothers, "it was like I didn't exist."

Q: When did you know you weren't really a boy inside?

A: As early as I can remember. I played with My Little Pony and Cabbage Patch dolls. My mom, who has since died of cancer, was open to me exploring, but my dad was horrified and said she was going to make me a fag. I've had a falling-out with my dad now, over the show. I told my dad recently, "Look, I made it," and sent him copies of the show to watch. His response was, "Those other girls outshone you. I'm sorry, you come in third."

Q: How hard has it been to assimilate as a transgender woman?

A: When I made the first transition, dressing as a woman, and moved to Florida, I could not get a job. I was not passable as a white guy with a big nose. Nobody would hire me, even McDonald's. Men used to offer to pay me to have sex with them, but I did not want to do that. My dad helped me with rent for a year. I moved back to Iowa and got a nose job, some face work and body work. In San Francisco, I began working as a bartender and then onstage. I surround myself with people who are accepting. That's why I'm an entertainer, not working in a law office.

Q: Best and worst parts about being a woman?

A: I get to be my true self. I love fashion, and you can be a different woman every day with different clothes, hair and makeup. The same is not true for men. The crappiest part is the double standard. A guy is called cool if he has three girlfriends. A woman who has three boyfriends is trash.

Q: What kinds of discrimination have you faced?

A: In my shows, I'm treated like a star - "You're beautiful," people say. "You're great." Off the stage, people not only won't hold the door open for you, they're uncomfortable with you and want to make you feel like a slut. In Los Angeles, after the GLAAD awards, we went to In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Strip. I had on a Herve Leger dress. Some guy shouted out, "That's a man!" It wasn't the fact that he said it - it was how he said it. I've also had beer cans thrown at my head.

Q: What do you hope viewers will appreciate about "Wild Things," aside from the cleavage?

A: After the first 10 minutes, I hope they forget we're transgender people. I hope they will be entertained, and - at the end of the day - want to be friends with us. Just see us as humans. I don't have three heads. I'm pretty vanilla.