Monday, October 13

Transgender On TV: Laverne Cox & Isis King Brings On New Reality

While androgynous images of entertainers have long appeared in movies and depictions of homosexuals on television are more present than ever, this season the new trend on reality TV may have been transgender contestants.

Until just a few months ago, transgender characters have been relegated to scripted television series like 'Boston Legal,' 'Ugly Betty,' 'Dirty Sexy Money' and 'All My Children.' Recently, two contestants have showcased the ups and downs of being transgender while vying for the top prize on two of TV's most popular shows.

For the new season of 'America's Next Top Model,' supermodel Tyra Banks decided to cast 22-year-old Isis King, the very first transgender contestant to be featured on the popular, fashion forward "dramality" series, which is in its eleventh cycle.

Although she was recently booted from the show, King, who was noticed by Banks when she first appeared as an extra in the background during a photo shoot in a previous season of the hit CW series, says she did not believe that Tyra chose her simply for ratings and controversy sake.

"Tyra picked me because of my performance and she picked me because I stood out in the background of a photo," King told last week. "I don't think that it's a trend...she picked me for that reason."

"I think the one message we always try to get out there, that Tyra always expresses, is you want to widen the spectrum of what is considered beautiful," 'Top Model' executive producer Ken Mok said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

Androgyny is nothing new to the show either.

J. Alexander (also known as Miss J) is one of the show's most popular judges and has garnered a cult-like following with his over-the-top wardrobe, colorful accessories and sharp-witted quips. Other cross-dressers, drag-queens and gay culture icons (Kevin Aviance, Benny Ninja, etc.) have graced the screen during some notable challenges.

Banks, who once praised the pre-operative transsexual saying, "I tell my staff, 'This girl is absolutely amazing','' made a point to express that the reason for King's dismissal was because of a difficulty to stand out in photos and not because of her sexual orientation.

In a swimsuit challenge, wearing boy shorts, still proved uncomfortable for the Maryland native. "I would say that it was difficult for me," she confided. "I tried not to think about it because I did not want it to consume what I was doing. I think it was more mentally difficult but I went through and did what I had to do."

The leggy beauty is hoping that within three years she'll be able to afford to pay for the surgical operation that will make her a woman and continue to follow her dream of becoming a supermodel. "The finances are what are keeping me from doing it. If I could have had it already I would have," she said. "My goal is my 25th birthday [to] have it by then but hopefully I will get a job that will put me in a situation where I can."

Right now, King resides in New York City and continues to pursue her modeling career in addition to dabbling in fashion design.

Shortly after she caused a media splash on 'Top Model,' Laverne Cox gained attention for being another transgender person on reality television -- as a contestant on VH1's 'I Want to Work for Diddy' competition.

On the hip-hop savvy series, Cox's fellow contestants asked her to "tranny it up" in one of the challenges. And although she told us she didn't really know what that meant, she counts her time vying for the opportunity to work with Sean "Diddy" Combs as an "overwhelmingly positive experience [and] a really good time."

The camera ready cross-dresser, who referred to herself as a "strong black woman" on the show, particularly loved watching herself on television. "I think it's huge and it's so exciting for me to be a professional transgender person. To see a transgender person on TV, hopefully people will continue to see us as human beings," she said.

Causing a stir and shaking things up on a popular TV show is nothing new (see: Omarosa Manigult-Stallworth, Tiffany "Miss New York" Pollard). But many wonder if mainstream TV viewers are really ready to embrace a transgender person –and not just use them as window dressing for shock value.

"I know that it was very important that we represented who we were openly from the very beginning," 'I Want to Work for Diddy' cast-off Rob Smith, who identifies as gay, wrote on his blog. "But let's not get too serious. We're all aware of how absurd reality television is."

"I honestly don't know whether they are ready or not, but at this point it doesn't matter," Cox attested, before adding, "I am so passionate about it. There will be people that will go against it but I said, "you know what, I'm really passionate about breaking into the arts so whether or not people are ready or not I am going to do this.'"

In addition to auditioning for more acting roles in the future -- already having appeared on 'Law & Order SVU' and MTV – she has also produced her very-own documentary series on transgender people called 'T,' which can be seen at