Changing Beauty

Are transgendered contestants the next big wave in reality television?

She is a transgender WOMAN, not a man. She was born a man and transitioned to being a woman. Pretty simple.”

Of course, it’s not that simple. For example, when her fellow cast members learned of her transgender status, the responses ranged from supportive to indignation.

“Isn’t this supposed to be a girl competition?” said one. “How did you get through the door?”

Another brazenly announces, “I’ll stomp that man right out of the competition.”

Carrie Davis, transgender community organizer and director of adult services at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Washington, D.C. asserts that “there is an exploitative element” to the way transgendered people are depicted on television. “Reality television will do whatever it can to see if it can entice the viewer, and transgender people will be on reality television as long as they’re seen as controversial and interesting.”

The inclusion of transgendered people on reality shows—exploitative or not—has been a recent trend in American television. Alexis Arquette was the first—a transgendered woman, celebrity figure and cast member of VH1’s Surreal Life during the show’s 2005 season. And earlier this year, the Logo channel, a subsidiary of MTV geared toward the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community premiered the first American reality show with a transwoman (Calpernia Addams) as the leading lady.

Of the small group of transgender reality stars, Laverne Cox and Claudia Charriez are definite standouts. As women of color, they have each, in their own way, pushed the envelope in transgender diversity. By competing to be an assistant to music mogul Diddy on I Want to Work for Diddy, Laverne became the first black transgendered person on reality television. Prior to Laverne’s breakthrough appearance, Claudia auditioned to become a model for Janice Dickinson, appearing on the first season of the Oxygen network show.

Although Laverne and Claudia were unsuccessful in their reality endeavors (Laverne lost the contest, Claudia never got signed), they were successful in opening doors for other transwomen looking to redefine standards of beauty.

Enter Isis.

Originally from Prince George’s County, Md., Top Model producers found Isis in an NYC assisted living program for homeless youth. She was asked to pose with other models in a photo shoot geared toward raising awareness, and it was at the photo shoot that Isis caught everyone’s eye. She stood out from the fringe with a fierceness all her own and, at times, even outshined the actual contestants of cycle 10. When it came time to cast for this season’s cycle, producers couldn’t forget her. Now, many viewers won’t be able to forget Isis either.