I do it because I enjoy entertainment, and this was the closest I was gonna get to fame.
Erica Andrews, Cassandra Cass, Mimi Marks, Maria Roman, Tiara Russell, Dorae Saunders, Jahna Steele
Editor’s Note: This documentary screened at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June 2006. It does not yet have a theatrical release date.
The desire for fame is common among transsexual performers (see, for instance: Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning ). Directly expressed by Tiara Russell in Trantasia, Jeremy Stanford’s documentary of 2004’s first annual “The World’s Most Beautiful Transsexual Pageant,” it is implicit in most of the contestants’ narratives.
The desire is ore than apparent in their singing performances, like Dorae Saunders’ spot-on Tina Turner impersonation and Marie’s spooky channeling of Céline Dion. It’s also found in the exaggerated feminine stylings that are the stock in trade of the transsexual performer. Borrowing from Hollywood fantasies of femininity, the transsexual divas of Trantasia mark a familiar blending of consumerism and American celebrity-worship.
It’s no surprise that pageant creator and executive producer Norbert Aleman is billed as an “American Dream” sort of success story in the documentary’s production notes: “Born penniless in Paris, Aleman came to the U.S. in the late ‘70s and created two of Las Vegas’ longest running stage shows, ‘An Evening at La Cage’ and ‘Crazy Girls.’” He has done so by capitalizing on objectifications of femininity, illusions of glamour, and not just a little bit of tranny “freak” appeal.
Even as Aleman has apparently achieved a version of it, Trantasia opposes such fame to the realities of the performers’ lives. This strategy saves the documentary from being merely exploitative, or from merely trafficking in that “freak” appeal. The tension between fantasy and reality is explored in the segments that give us in-depth biographical sketches of several contestants. Tiara’s turn towards feminine fantasies and performance, for instance, was an escape from the reality of growing up in Chicago’s notorious public housing projects. As she says, “There’s always a way out. This was my way out, Tiara.” Others, like Mimi Marks and Cassandra Cass, find in their performing lives validation of their transgendered selves. And Maria Roman has parlayed her status as a performer in Los Angeles into activist work with HIV/AIDS organizations serving the street-hustling trannies who used to be her cohort.
The status of reality is also played out among the various contestants in a struggle over what constitutes “real” womanhood. Marie, in particular, is appalled by the vampy antics of her co-performers during a nighttime photo shoot on the Las Vegas strip. Marie insists they have no “class,” and jeopardize the “acceptability” of all transsexuals. It’s hard to argue with Marie, when one of the stated goals of the pageant is to “mainstream” transsexuality, and “mainstream” is aligned with conservative ideals of feminine comportment. But that the “respectability” is based in patriarchal norms that have hardly been progressive for women, whether born or made.
The often grim facts for transsexuals are demonstrated spectacularly in the life of pageant host Jahna Steele, briefly glossed in the documentary. A star performer in Aleman’s “Crazy Girls” revue at the Riveria casino in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, she was named “Las Vegas’ Sexiest Showgirl” in 1991. The next year, she was outed as a transsexual by the tabloid TV show A Current Affair and immediately fired from “Crazy Girls.” Here fantasy and reality are shown to be diametrically opposed. In order to be a fantasy girl (or “Sexiest Showgirl”), you have to be a “real” girl. Trantasia‘s contestants appear unaware of this saga, but fantasy is also about disavowal of reality. For good or bad, many of the women believe they will “make it.” Such belief is a symptom our incessant celebrity worship.
“The World’s Most Beautiful Transsexual Pageant” likely won’t achieve its goal of mainstreaming transsexuality, trafficking as it does in extravagant, campy drag and in freak-show sexual objectifications of transsexual bodies, all set against the hyperreal background of Las Vegas. The tourism board’s slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” seems particularly apt here. Trantasia, however, takes a step toward making trannies’ lives visible, as they are both ordinary and fantastic.