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Fri June 6, 2014

'I Kinda Stole The Show': Laverne Cox And The Path To Prestige Television

Originally published on Fri June 6, 2014 7:29 pm

"My femininity was seen as a problem that needed to be solved."

Laverne Cox is talking about her childhood in Mobile, Ala. She remembers being routinely chased and beaten by classmates after school. Cox was born biologically male, and her gender identity was confusing and threatening not just to other children but to the grown-ups in her life as well. Her third-grade teacher warned her mother, "Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy right away."

Last week, Cox was in a dress on a cover of Time magazine that trumpeted a new era of acceptance for transgender people. And you know something? She looked gorgeous. Cox is one of the breakout stars of Orange is the New Black, the acclaimed Netflix series set in a women's prison starting its second season on Friday. Her character, Sophia Burset, is a former firefighter who committed credit card fraud to pay for the medical costs of her transition.

Cox found her own trans community after moving to New York City for college. She fit right into the burgeoning Club Kid scene. "I had a shaved head at the time, and shaved my eyebrows and I wore false eyelashes every day," she recalled fondly. Spotted by a theater professor, she was cast in a production of the Max Frisch play Andorra.

"And I had no lines!" she exclaimed of her inauspicious debut. "I played the village idiot, and the village idiot grinned and nodded ... and I kinda stole the show."

Cox started acting professionally in theater, independent film and television. Tall black trans women tended to get cast as sex workers on network TV, and she played a few — on crime dramas like Law & Order. Cox also had to deal with offscreen bigotry, including an assault that occurred while she was walking through the streets of New York City.

"I heard some anti-trans slurs," she remembered. "And I heard someone yell out, 'That's a man,' and I passed this group of guys — they were all black guys — and one of the guys kicked me."

The incident led Cox to compete on the VH1 reality show I Wanna Work For Diddy. She was less interested in the prize — a job as the music mogul's personal assistant — than in presenting a narrative for a mass audience in which a black trans woman wins respect from a powerful African-American man. Although she didn't win, VH1 gave Cox a reality show of her own. TRANSform Me! featured Cox and two other trans women making over hapless frumps. It lasted only one season.

"The show ended up getting lots of criticism from the trans community," Cox admitted. Some of those critics were tired of shows in which gay people and trans people magically fix straight people's style issues. Orange is the New Black, on the other hand, is receiving no end of laudatory comments and awards, including the Peabody earlier this year for illuminating the lives of incarcerated people and those dehumanized for their perceived gender difference. But Cox appreciates the love from people on the streets.

"This woman, she sees me in Union Square and she's like, 'Oh my God, I love you in Orange is the New Black — and I was in prison!' " Cox hoots. "And I was like, 'Oh! What were you in for?' "

Cox's character is incarcerated in a women's prison. That's not necessarily common. The actor is currently producing a documentary about Cece McDonald, a black trans woman in Minneapolis who in 2011 fought an attacker and killed him. She didn't get off on self-defense. She served time in a men's prison.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of this summer's most anticipated shows is set in a women's prison. The second season of "Orange Is The New Black" is out today on Netflix. Few of its stars are getting more attention than Laverne Cox. She was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of transgender acceptance. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Cox plays a trans woman who used to be a burly male firefighter.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's a scene from the first season when Cox's character, Sophia Burset, stands awkwardly before a mirror, gauging how she looks in a tight denim miniskirt and sparkly purple top. With her is her wife, who did not expect this in her marriage, but she's trying to offer support.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

TANYA WRIGHT: (As Crystal) You should be dressing like a classy, grown-up lady.

LAVERNE COX: (As Burset) You think I'm classy?

COX: (As Burset) I can't have my husband walking around like a 2 dollar hooker.

ULABY: The wife rifles through her closet and pulls out one of her own dresses.

WRIGHT: (As Crystal) Yeah, this color looks good on you.

ULABY: It's a gift - a costly one.

WRIGHT: (As Crystal) I can't believe I'm doing this.

COX: (As Burset) You don't have to.

ULABY: Not many characters on television look like Laverne Cox, a tall, glamorous, black trans woman. And they were rarer, still, in popular culture when she was growing up in the 1980s in Mobile, Alabama. As a child, Cox was mesmerized by the androgynous beauty of a dancer on the music show, "Solid Gold."

COX: This woman by the name of Darcel, and she had this impossibly long, like, hair-weave and she was just fierce. And as a kid I wanted to be Darcel.

ULABY: Because Cox acted like the woman on TV she idolized, her schoolmates chased and often beat her after school.

COX: My femininity was seen as a problem that needed to be solved.

ULABY: And to solve it, her third-grade teacher called her mother one day...

COX: ...And said, your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy right away.

ULABY: There was therapy, but also dance and theater classes at a high school for the arts. Cox found community there, and went on to study creative writing and dance in college. First in Indiana, then in New York City.

COX: I had a shaved head at the time, and I shave my eyebrows, and I wore false eyelashes every day.

ULABY: She was spotted by a theater professor, who cast her in a play by Max Fisch called Andorra.

COX: And I had no lines. I played the village idiot, and the village idiot grin and nodded. And I kind of stole the show.

ULABY: Cox started acting professionally on television. Black trans actresses tended to get cast as sex workers, and she played a few. Then there was the off screen bigotry like when she was walking through the streets of New York.

COX: Then I was kicked. I heard some anti-trans slurs, and I heard someone yell out that's the man. And I passed this group of black guys, and then one of the guys kicked me.

ULABY: That led Laverne Cox to go on a reality show, "I Want To Work For Diddy." She hoped by competing to be the music mogul's personal assistant, she could show a black trans woman getting respect from a powerful African-American man. She proved popular with the other contestants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I WANT TO WORK FOR DIDDY")

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: Laverne.

ULABY: And with viewers. VH1 gave Cox her own reality show where she and two other trans women made over hapless frumps.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSFORM ME")

COX: Look how that takes in the waste.

The show ended up getting lots of criticism from the trans community.

ULABY: Some of the critics were sick of shows where gay people and trans people ran around, magically fixing straight people's style issues. There's a slight element of that on Cox's super successful drama, "Orange Is The New Black." Cox's character, Sophia, runs a jailhouse beauty parlor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

COX: (As Burset) You know how often I come by new weave. You're probably going to look like this until Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh uh, I paid you seven bottles of Pantene for this.

COX: (As Burset) Ain't my fault you...

ULABY: The show's creator, Jenji Kohan, talked about Sophia on WHYY's "Fresh Air." The show flashbacked to the character's life before jail and before she medically transitioned. Kohan said that presented a problem.

JENJI KOHAN: Laverne's a woman and she has breasts, and she doesn't have body hair, and she - you know, it would have been very difficult to show her as a man.

ULABY: But as it happens, Cox has an identical twin brother.

KOHAN: Her brother came in and did a great job. We have this one scene where he goes down to rinse his face in the sink, and then she comes up in prison. And it's the same face.

ULABY: In the show, Cox's character commits credit card fraud to cover the cost of her medical needs, and she's busted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You have the right to remain silent.

COX: (As Burset) I don't understand.

ULABY: "Orange Is The New Black" has won a Peabody for illuminating people, too-often dehumanized by their incarceration or their perceived gender difference. And Cox says the show gets plenty of love from people on the street.

COX: This woman - she sees me and it was great. She's like, oh my god, I love you in "Orange Is The New Black," and I was in prison. And I was like, oh. What were you in for? (Laughing).

ULABY: Cox's character is in a women's prison. Laverne Cox is now producing a documentary about a trans woman in Minneapolis who fought an attacker and killed him. She served time in a men's prison. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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