‘OITNB’ Transgender Star Laverne Cox’s Unbelievable Year

First published on The Daily Beast, June 6, 2014. Read the original here.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Laverne Cox, the unexpected breakout star of the Netflix smash hit Orange Is the New Black. In case you’ve lived under a rock for the last 11 months, the show follows an ensemble of strong female characters living in a fictional prison in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transwoman in jail for credit card fraud. In the first season, we watched as Sophia used her people (and hair) skills to find a place for herself among the inmates, while simultaneously trying to save her relationship with her wife and young son on the outside.

With the second season premiering on Netflix Friday, Cox’s career shows no sign of slowing any time soon. In fact, she’s already won too many awards and accolades to list, though when asked to name a favorite, she responds instantly.

“Well, being on the cover of Time is pretty great,” she says, laughing. It’s only been 24 hours since the issue of Time with her face beaming next to the words “The Transgender Tipping Point” hit the newsstands, and in two hours she’s headed to her own birthday/magazine release party. Yet on the phone she is calm and confident, mentioning how she enjoyed our last interview (which was nearly a year ago) and complimenting me on another piece I’d written recently.

The social justice activist in Cox is excited to have Time as a platform from which to talk about the pressing issues facing transgender people, especially transwomen of color. But she’s also an actress who is serious about her craft, so the other award close to her heart, she says, is her recent nomination for a Critic’s Choice Award from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

Although she knew right away that Orange Is the New Black would be a fantastic show, Cox says that there was no one moment when she realized the huge success the show—or she herself—would become. “This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”

Cox is quick to point out that many other transwomen are helping to break down the doors she’s walking through, and our conversation is peppered with their names: Janet Mock, Isis King, Carmen Carrera. “Transwomen taking care of each other is revolutionary,” she tells me. “We have to support each other.”

Despite her sudden celebrity, Cox is still firmly rooted in her community, and she maintains a sense of humility about her own success. “I know this is not just me,” she says, “it’s something manifesting through me.”

That may be so, and Time may be right that we’re at a tipping point, a moment of inevitable change that will only speed up from here. Indeed, Cox tells me that just in the last week she’s heard from two other trans actors who have landed significant parts playing transgender characters, something that was virtually unheard of when I interviewed her last year. Yet even then, Cox predicted it was coming, telling me “I believe in the creatives. When the creatives begin to do it, the casting directors will come along.”

“This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”

But it would be shortsighted to pin Cox’s success solely on societal change. It is her dedication, honesty, and skill that have made her one of the most prominent voices of today’s transgender movement. No matter how successful she becomes, Cox is determined to give back to the community that supports and nurtures her, and especially to help those for whom “the tipping point” still feels a lot like the status quo. She hopes to use her visibility to help young women like Jane Doe, the 16-year-old transgender girl who has been held in an adult prison in Connecticut without charges since April.

When she’s not filming Orange Is the New Black or prepping for one of her many speaking engagements, Cox is working on two exciting upcoming projects. The first, Free CeCe, is a feature-length documentary about CeCe McDonald, a transgender African-American woman from Minnesota who was sent to a men’s prison after suffering a racist, transphobic street attack. McDonald is now free, and the project is working to raise approximately $500,000 to support production. Cox hopes it will be released in early 2016.

Cox is also an executive producer oTrans Teen, a one-hour documentary co-created for Logo and MTV. The doc, which follows the lives of four transgender teenagers, will air simultaneously on both networks in the fall.

As for Orange Is the New Black, Cox promises we’re in for some excitement this season. “Power dynamics really shift and get shook up by Vee,” she says, a new character joining the cast, who has been sent to Litchfield for recruiting children to traffic drugs. But to find out what happens with Sophia, Cox says, we’ll just have to watch.

Lena Dunham and the Renaissance of Archie Andrews (He’s Not Dead Yet)

First published on The Daily Beast, April 9, 2014. Read the original here.

Archie, that lovable doof, and his sweater set posse from Riverdale—Betty, Veronica, and Jughead—have long been bywords for the idealized adolescence of the Baby Boomers. What Norman Rockwell was to oil painting, Archie Andrews was to comic books. But with Archie himself slated to die this summer, and Lena Dunham (yes, that Lena Dunham) onboard as a new writer, Riverdale is undergoing a radical transformation.

“I'm always shocked when I hear some people think Archie the comic books are set in the ‘50s,” says Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was recently named chief creative officer of Archie Comics. Last year, he created the critically acclaimed zombie-apocalypse-in-Riverdale themed title Afterlife With Archie. As of last month, he is the first CCO in the company’s 75 years of existence.

Aguirre-Sacasa has a long resume on the illustrated page, including many years at Marvel, perhaps the biggest name in the industry right now. But you’re more likely to recognize him as a writer for the TV shows Big Love and Glee. In an era when comics are a bigger business off the page than on it, Aguirre-Sacasa is Archie’s ambassador to Hollywood. Or as Jon Goldwater, publisher and co-CEO of Archie Comics, affectionately calls him, “Archie West.”

If Aguirre-Sacasa is the public face of Archie’s rebrand, then Goldwater is the mind behind it. He is the grandson of John L. Goldwater, one of the founders of the company, and for the last five years, he’s been working tirelessly to bring Archie back into the public consciousness. “My mantra coming in was: We have to take chances. We have to modernize,” says Goldwater. Audiences were hungry for new stories with deeper emotional resonance. This drove Goldwater to push for plots that brought familiar characters to unexpected places (like Archie marrying Veronica and Betty), as well as plots that introduced new characters that embodied the modern Archie ethos (like Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first gay resident). “All the characters, the core of their integrity is the same,” Goldwater says, but “Riverdale has changed” to keep up with the real world.

Being a small, family-owned company, Goldwater believes, has been instrumental in Archie Comics newfound success. “We have an advantage over companies like Marvel,” he says, “because we can move and react very quickly.” He offers Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife With Archie as an example. The idea was jokingly tossed around over breakfast by Aguirre-Sacasa and Goldwater’s son Jesse. By that afternoon, the company had given Aguirre-Sacasa the greenlight to develop it.

In some ways, hiring Aguirre-Sacasa could be seen as the biggest chance Goldwater has taken so far. In 2003, Archie Comics issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aguirre-Sacasa, when he mounted a play called Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which imagined the eponymous hero moving to New York City and coming out. “I know this seems like sacrilege,” he told the company at the time, “but it really comes from a deep, abiding love of these characters.” Nonetheless, he still had to rename the show.

Now, he says it feels a little bit like he’s living in “a bizzar-o universe” where these characters are finally his to play with. “You have a blank canvas,” Goldwater told him when they created the new position. “You fill it in.”

The kind of changes Aguirre-Sacasa will bring to Archie can be summed up in two words: Lena Dunham. The same day that Archie Comics announced his hire, they also announced that Dunham would be writing a four-issue arc in the mainline title in 2015—a deal Aguirre-Sacasa was instrumental in making happen. “It's going to be both a quintessential Archie story and a quintessential Lena story,” he says, revolving around a reality TV show that comes to film in Riverdale. It’s a sign of the bold moves Aguirre-Sacasa says we can expect from Archie moving forward. “We want to bring that kind of excitement and that kind of event out on a monthly basis,” he says. Imagining Lena Dunham writing Archie is like imagining my grandmother in a cameo on Girls. But it’s a deft move from a rebranding perspective. What better way to announce a new Archie era than via the pen of the Millennial It girl? Other big projects are also in the works, including a Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie (and accompanying comic) that’s currently in “very active development” with Sony. Although Archie is their flagship, Goldwater and Aguirre-Sacasa are eager to promote many of the other intellectual properties the company owns, from familiar names like Josie & the Pussycats, to less well-known ones like the Red Circle group of superhero titles. Taking a page from others in the comic book industry, they plan to push their characters in every medium possible: books, television, movies, perhaps even musicals. (Aguirre-Sacasa worked on both Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the musical version of American Psycho.) So far, this aggressive modernization has been able to win over both fans and critics. “Thank god for the change!” laughs Goldwater. “It's really expanded our audience.” Last year, the company won a GLAAD Media Award for their handling of Kevin Keller, and a Diamond Gem Award (given for the “the pinnacle of sales achievement”) for Afterlife With Archie. This is a big change for Archie Comics. Although the company does not release sales numbers, they’ve been trimming their actual comics book offerings for years. In 2011 and 2012, about 40 percent of each published Archie comic went unsold; to date, every issue of Afterlife has sold out. Archie Comics has made a few splashy forays into the modern entertainment market over the last few decades: the hit TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the mediocre Josie & the Pussycats movie. But a sustained rebranding initiative like this is entirely new, which makes Aguirre-Sacasa’s role as chief creative officer all the more important. If he cannot guide Archie to a larger, more youthful audience, it may well become the yesteryear comic book brand some people already believe it to be.

Is Gay Singer Steve Grand Really Country Music’s Frank Ocean?

First published on The Daily Beast, March 25, 2014. Read the original, with video, here.

On July 2, 2013, little-known singer-songwriter Steve Grand YouTubed the video for his indie single “All-American Boy”, which the now 24-year-old Illinois-native made for a little over $7,000. “I’d never used a credit card before,” he recalled with a laugh. The video featured a chiseled Grand serenading an oblivious (but ultimately understanding) straight male friend, asking him to be his “All-American boy tonight/Where every day’s the 4th of July.” Seven days later, the song had gone hyper-viral and Grand was being written about by every media outlet in the country (I covered him here). It even rocketed him to a spot on Good Morning America, where they proclaimed him a “gay country star.”

Perhaps it would be more correct to say the gay male country star, since there has yet to be one in America (Canada, on the other hand, is home to sexy bear crooner Drake Jensen). But while the response from fans was instantaneous and overwhelming, critics opined that a single did not a star make, and that country music just wasn’t ready for an out gay man to top the charts.

Now, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Grand’s first album has become one of the top five most funded music campaigns in the site’s history, generating over a quarter of a million dollars so far. But the question still remains: Is the country music establishment ready for a gay star? And if so, is Grand the one?

Truth be told, country music already has a long history of gay songs and singers, with obvious recent examples being k.d. Lang and Chely Wright. Dolly Parton, although rumored to be heterosexual, certainly has a big place in the gay world. Grammy award winner Kacey Musgrave scored a hit last year with “Follow Your Arrow,” in which she sings “Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into.” Latin country artist Ned Sublette wrote “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” in 1981, and Willie Nelson covered it in 2006. In 1992, Garth Brooks scored a GLAAD Media Award with his song “We Shall All Be Free,” which has the lyrics “We shall be free/When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” And there are any number of queer banjo-and-fiddle hipster bands for the country-by-way-of-NPR set (not to knock the genre; it takes up half my iPod).

Earlier country musicians may not have performed songs with explicitly homo sensibilities, but many found radio success with story songs that tweaked the sexual mores of their listeners, like Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” or Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Tom Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA.” And I know I’m not the first to wonder what made Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. (How do I know that? Because in 1976, Warner Bros released the movie Ode to Billy Joe, which despite the change in spelling was an adaptation of Bobbie Gentry’s song. In it, Billy Joe commits suicide after a drunken gay hookup.)

I could go on, but what’s the point? No matter how long the list, a few things will remain true: all the men on the list are straight, as are the most successful women. The two lesbians listed only came out after they had released multiple albums. Country has engaged in a long flirtation with gay music, but so far, Nashville hasn’t been ready to seal the deal. But there are signs that that’s changing.

Legendary country radio DJ and songwriter Gerry House has been ensconced in the Nashville scene since 1975. In his recent memoir Country Music Broke My Brain, he has an entire chapter devoted to “Gay Country.” In his opinion “hardly anyone on Music Row would punish you if you’re gay,” and in fact, he’s “long suspected there are several major Hillbilly Twang Slingers who ride Side Saddle.”

This theory must be in the air in Nashville, because it’s also on the air in Nashville, the hit ABC show starring Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton. On the show, Chris Carmack plays up-and-coming closeted cowboy hit maker Will Lexington. In a 2013 interview with Vulture showrunner Callie Khouri said “It is something that I think is a real thing… There are always rumors.” Just ask Kenny Chesney or Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, both of whom have had to address gay rumors repeatedly throughout their careers.

The stage seems set for country’s Frank Ocean moment—which brings us back to Grand. When asked if country music is ready for a gay star, Grand comments on “this huge shift in our country socially,” which he sees as being generational. “There’s definitely a lot of progressive country music fans, especially my generation and below.” Younger listeners simply don’t care as much about labels (for sexuality or musical genres).

Even if established industry execs are still hesitant, the explosion of YouTube has made it easy for new, edgy artists to get around traditional gatekeepers. Just look at, say, Steve Grand. “All-American Boy” has nearly 3 million views.

But though country music may be ready for a gay male star, and Grand is flattered and humbled by the assertions that he’s it, he’s quick to point out that his music isn’t traditional country. He sees himself as “a pop artist with influences of country and rock and maybe some folk,” and fans can expect to see all of that on his album this summer. “I know I have a lot of country fans,” he says, from reading the messages they send him (all of which he tries to answer). He’s delighted they’re responding to his music, but he doesn’t want to misrepresent himself—there’s more to his sound than just country.

There was a time, perhaps, when that alone would have prevented Grand from becoming a country sensation, but in the age of Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood, the line between country and pop has become rather porous. Grand might not be pure country, but then again, country’s not pure country anymore either.

Who knows when country’s gay glass ceiling will break, or whether it will be done by an established artist coming out or an up-and-comer who’s never been “in.” But the glass gets thinner every year, and someday soon the sound of it shattering will be playing on every country station in America.

Wonder Woman Makes a Triumphant Comeback in a New Comic Series

First published on The Daily Beast, March 13, 2014. Read the original here.

Amid all the recent kerfuffles at DC Comics—the Batwoman lesbian wedding that wasn’t, the brooding big screen reinvention of Superman, Ben Affleck’s controversial casting as Batman—it would be easy to overlook the most exciting reinvention in recent comic book history: Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman. Her epic two-year inaugural story arc wrapped last September, and War, the final graphic novel collecting that arc, came out yesterday.

It’s been a decade in the wilderness for Wonder Woman. She’s the only one of DC’s iconic three without a recent film franchise (though Joss Whedon wrote a script in 2007). In 2011, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) attempted a new TV series starring Adrianne Palicki, but it died in the pilot phase. And earlier this year, the CW finally killed Amazon, a Smallville-esque origin show that had been in development since 2012.

On the page, she hasn’t fared much better. Allan Heinberg briefly wrote Wonder Woman for four poorly reviewed issues in 2006. DC temporarily replaced him with bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult, whose brief run fared even worse. In 2008, super-fan-feminist turned comic book writer Gail Simone took the reins, and for a time, Wonder Woman flourished. While not the most brilliant run of all time, Simone’s arc was interesting, smart, and consistent—in fact, with 30 issues under her belt, Simone is the longest-running female writer in Wonder Woman’s history.

But eventually Simone moved on. Though she continued writing two WW related titles (Birds of Prey and The Secret Six), the main comic passed to J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame. The new run featured Wonder Woman’s first major costume redesign in decades (created by Jim Lee), and debuted in 2010 to fantastic sales … only to collapse amid a morass of missed deadlines and mediocre reviews. Straczynski left with six months to go on his contract. After that, the Princess of the Amazons spent months bouncing back and forth between various writers and artists.

Then came the major event in the DC Universe: The New 52. Starting in September 2011, DC cancelled all of its existing titles, and debuted 52 revamped versions—Wonder Woman included. WW’s new writer, Brian Azzarello, had spent time at the helm of both Batman and Superman, and he was also the co-creator of the hardboiled detective comic 100 Bullets. Illustrator Cliff Chiang, however, was a relative newcomer, having moved to the art side of DC after being an editor for years (Tony Akins, another lesser-known talent in DC’s illustration stable, also provides some artwork for the comic).

From the beginning, the New 52 was plagued with concerns about the representation of women and the fact that the new Wonder Woman was the work of two men. But Azzarello and Chiang’s excellent work defused most of the criticism. By turns gorgeous and grotesque, issue number one featured intelligent modernizations of the Greek and Roman myths that make up Wonder Woman’s baggage. Unlike Superman and Batman, prototypical sons of the 20th century, Wonder Woman has always struggled to stay relevant to a young audience that often cares little and knows less about her storied mythological history. She has so much past, it’s sometimes hard to see her future.

In that regard, Azzarello and Chiang are visionaries. In the first few issues, Wonder Woman’s old origin story literally crumbles before our eyes, as she learns that she was not made from clay by Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Instead, she is the natural daughter of Queen Hippolyta’s brief but passionate dalliance with Zeus, the king of Olympus. This instantly humanizes Wonder Woman, while also making her divine. She learns her true history at the same time we do, allowing readers to experience her all-too-human feelings of betrayal upon discovering that everything she believed about her life is a lie.

This seamless melding of modern humanity with epic divinity is realized on the page in Chiang’s beautiful representations of the Olympiads. Whether portraying withered, root-like Demeter or drunken colonialist Aries, his artwork brilliantly captures the essence of what a god among modern mortals might look like. Thus, the story and style work in delicious harmony.

From this simple new back-story, the rest of the two-year arc flows naturally. Wonder Woman becomes enmeshed in the ultimate family feud, as the gods of Olympus vie to replace Zeus as king, and she seeks to protect her numerous half-god siblings—one of whom is prophesied to kill an Olympian and claim their throne. In this final installment, Wonder Woman ends up somewhere completely unexpected, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in forthcoming issues.

And yet, for all the superpowers and divine beings that flit across the pages of Wonder Woman, the arc is most successful because of its humanity. She slams out her aggression in a London punk club when she’s upset. The Gods of Mt. Olympus squabble like eternal children. If this arc has a central theme, it is about love, family, and betrayal—profoundly human emotions that make Wonder Woman sympathetic in a way that Justice, Peace, and Divine Creation never could.

“Dirty 30”: Talking AIDS To The Basketball Wives Set

First published on The Daily Beast, February 16, 2014. Read the original, with video, here.

The statistics are upsetting and well known. Despite an encouraging recent drop in transmission rates, black women still represent two-thirds of all new HIV infections among women. In fact, they are 20 times more likely to seroconvert than white women—a greater level of disparity than ever before. The cavalcade of AIDS anniversaries over the last few years has spawned a corresponding interest in producing museum exhibits, documentaries, and feature films about the early years of the crisis. But with a few notable exceptions (Frontline’s “Endgame: AIDS In Black America;” Precious; Tyler Perry’s despicable Temptation), there has been no similar rush to tell the stories of the (black, female) face of the modern epidemic.

Hannelore Williams, filmmaker, actor, and creator of the new docu-series “Dirty 30,” is hoping to change that.

“My target demographic are the people who watch ‘Basketball Wives’,” Williams says with a laugh, which I’ve learned means she’s about to say something darkly honest. “Or let’s just be real—people who don’t want to talk about HIV.”

Like the hundred or so people around the globe that Williams has interviewed, I find it easy to talk to her about HIV/AIDS. She’s relaxed, cool, confident, and quick to laugh about difficult things. Indeed, she ends every interview for “Dirty 30” by asking her subjects to “tell their favorite AIDS joke.”

As with many working on the epidemic, Williams has a personal connection to the crisis: her sister’s father passed away due to AIDS-related complications. But it wasn’t until years later, when she was preparing to volunteer at Nkosi’s Haven, a center for destitute HIV-positive mothers, children and AIDS orphans in Johannesburg, South Africa, that that connection hit home. “How am I flying across the globe,” she found herself wondering, “and I didn’t even go across the country to be with my sister” when her father died?

Williams was in South Africa to do arts education with children, but the women of Nkosi’s Haven were so similar to women she had known her whole life that she was drawn to work with them as well. She taught them to use her camera and let them turn the lens on their own lives. In so doing, she became hyperaware of all the ways in which black women—in the U.S. and around the world—were lacking opportunities to talk about AIDS. Quickly it became an obsession.

“It was a hurricane coming at me from the far west,” Williams says with a distant look in her eyes, discussing that feeling. “Once you start to look at this pandemic there's no way you would ever turn your back.”

There was just one problem: At the time, Williams didn’t know much about HIV. She realized, however, that the journey to knowledge was the story she had to tell. So she put her life on hold, borrowed two cameras, and spent six months traveling the world gathering footage. “I'm learning about this from the standpoint that most Americans are,” she says, “which is not knowing, or sort of knowing, but easily sweeping it under the rug.”

Far from being limiting, this acknowledgement allowed her to make a series that speaks directly to the epidemic as it is today. In “Dirty 30,” there are no ponderous attempts to chart the entire history of the crisis in order to set the scene. Instead, AIDS is treated simply as a fact of life—something we all know about, even if we don’t talk about it. And from New York to Baton Rouge, from Cape Town to Paris, Williams’ goal is to get people talking.

“It's not Hanne telling you jack shit about anything!” she laughs, when I ask if she’s worried about the responsibility that comes with approaching such a fraught issue from a place of relative ignorance. “I’m creating a platform for somebody else to talk.”

And that platform is, in a word, slick. Stylistically, “Dirty 30” feels more akin to a music video than a typical AIDS documentary, with beautiful shots of foreign cities, quick-cut motion graphics, and “featured artists” whose R&B tracks provide the backbeat to the show. Currently, Williams is meeting with commercial brands that might want to underwrite the series, and networks and other media platforms that might give it a home. She’s planned 16 episodes, with topics like “Monogamy & Sexual Healing,” and “Drugs & Escapism.”

“There are sexy issues tied to this pandemic,” she says unapologetically. By exploring them, she hopes to attract a young audience that doesn’t often tune in for stodgy healthcare PSAs—and therefore might need them most.

Williams acknowledges that aspects of the series might seem triggering at first, like using the word dirty in the title. But she says her choices have been informed by her subjects, and that she’s backed away from topics—like AIDS conspiracy theories—that her interviews led her to believe wouldn’t further a real conversation about the crisis. Still, she’s not afraid to talk about difficult issues. “If you try to talk about stigma and don’t actually put it out there,” she says, “what are we talking about? Bullshit. Lies.”

Although the show looks at the crisis through the lens of black womanhood, Williams is adamant about including diverse subjects and experiences in her frame. To her, it’s simple: “You can't talk about black women in the context of AIDS without talking about everybody else at the same time.” AIDS, which was once considered a niche disease, is now as much a part of the fabric of our lives as cotton.

At the moment, “Dirty 30” is in production, but even now Williams can’t stop. While I’m interviewing her, she’s setting up an additional shoot in Toronto. She doesn’t know yet where the show will end up, but she’s certain it will find a home, and she’s already begun planning more episodes.

“Not even one season of a show,” she says, shaking her head with a mixture of sadness and reflection, “could address all of the issues tied to this pandemic.”

Model Melanie Gaydos’s Fight for High Fashion

First published on The Daily Beast, February 3, 2014. Read the original here.

Sitting across from me in an immaculately tailored dark blue jacket, Melanie Gaydos is so petite she seems almost like a child dressed up as a model. She picks at the cuffs of her coat as we talk, the only sign of her anxiety. This is her first in-person interview.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but I’m actually quite nervous all the time,” the Connecticut-born, Brooklyn-based Gaydos tells me at one point. Then, as frequently happens during our sprawling, multi-hour conversation, a smile flits across her face. “But I’m a survivor.”

She needs to be. Although she has been modeling for nearly three years, was flown to Europe to star in a video for the band Rammstein, and has had (or has lined up) shoots in New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, and Berlin, Gaydos is still finding her place in the world of high fashion. As she’s quick to point out, this is in part the same struggle any young woman has when trying to break into that nearly impossible industry: the fight to get work, avoid being exploited, and make the fashion world take notice. For Gaydos, however, this already difficult task is complicated by a rare genetic disorder called ectodermal dysplasia, which “affects your hair, teeth, nails, pores, skin tissue, and sometimes even bone formation.”


Ectodermal dysplasia affects everyone differently. Gaydos has a relatively severe form, which has meant a lifetime of people being scared of her, or assuming that she was cold, “a bitch,” or even mentally disabled—things that are patently untrue if you talk with her for even a minute. Indeed, if her medical condition has done anything to her personality, it has rendered Gaydos a remarkably self-aware and self-confident young woman.

“I didn’t want to live my life the way other people thought I should,” Gaydos says of her childhood in Connecticut, ”and I certainly didn’t want to be the sort of person that other people wanted me to be.”

After moving to New York to study art at the Pratt Institute, Gaydos began experimenting with being the person in the picture, as opposed to the one making it. Her first modeling shoot came about almost by accident. After emailing a photographer whose work she admired, she was invited to sit for him. Although she had always hated having her picture taken, she found she loved modeling from the very first click of the camera. After that, she began picking up work on Craigslist, and, eventually, from the amateur modeling website, ModelMayhem.com. Soon, she was doing two to three gigs a weekend.

“I never had any difficulty finding a shoot,” Gaydos remembers, though she would only work with people whose vision she found compelling. Somewhat retiring in person, she has a powerful, almost regal presence when the cameras are on, and her art background gives her a broad understanding of composition, color, and angles.

As she gained experience, Gaydos found herself wanting to create images that told a story and conveyed emotion, much as she once had as a visual artist. She was less interested in selling the clothing and more in making the viewer have an experience, which is what she believes separates commercial work from high-fashion modeling. “Besides,” she adds with the grin of a confident fashionista, “people are going to want to wear the clothes that I wear anyway.”

Looking for new opportunities, Gaydos began sending her portfolio to the big names in the fashion world, nearly all of whom told her she was too much of a “risk.” Just thinking about it makes her roll her eyes. “If you’re afraid of taking risks, why are you in fashion?” she asks in exasperation.

Not that she doesn’t realize the challenges facing her. “You should always understand where you are in the industry,” she says philosophically. When people tag and share her images online, “the word ugly is almost always with each photo.”

“It’s not anything I haven’t heard before,” she shrugs. “But I never thought of myself as ugly, and I still don’t.”

Her look is an opportunity, and she intends to make the most of it. But she also has to contend with photographers looking to exploit her as a one-trick pony to shock their audiences. Most of her career, she says, “has been trying to make good choices so people understand that I’m a serious model” and not just a unique face. Gaydos knows it would be easy for her to rest on her look, and not bring the vitality, the depth, and the spark that separate supermodels from the pack of wannabes. She feels sorry for those girls who think they can rest on looks alone. If you want to be a true model, “you can’t just be a body that’s there,” she cautions.

Eventually, Gaydos wants to join a high-end fashion agency, but knows it might be a while before that day comes. “I don’t think I can just walk in and they would accept me,” she says. “I have to get people to understand where I’m coming from. I have to earn respect.” Far from intimidating, the prospect seems to excite Gaydos. She demands to be taken seriously, much as her photos demand attention. So far, she’s found more success in Europe and Mexico than in America, but she has faith that as her body of work grows, “it will help other people be on board with the Melanie train.”

The Crucifixion of Aaryn Gries

First published in The Daily Beast on August 25, 2013. Read the original (entitled "Real Racism: What Aaryn Gries Reveals about Reality TV") here.

Aaryn Gries is a racist.

If you’ve watched CBS this summer, this isn’t new information about the twenty-two-year old Big Brother contestant. From saying that Korean-American houseguest Helen Kim should “go make some rice,” to flipping over the bed of African-American houseguest Candice Stewart, Gries has offended half the house—and country—with her sweet-faced, mean girl racism. Her actions have prompted CBS, for the first time ever, to publically address offensive statements made on the show (though they declined to comment for this article).

As a result, Gries has been dropped by her modeling agency and protested at her college. But far from exposing racism on Big Brother, the maelstrom surrounding Gries (and to a lesser extent, fellow houseguest GinaMarie Zimmerman), has had the ironic effect of hiding other, more systemic forms of racism that exist on Big Brother—and in reality television as a whole.

“On the televised show, absolutely, Aaryn was the martyr,” says blogger Jun Song, who is the only person of color to win BB in fourteen seasons. But, she continues, “there is such a disparity between what is actually going on in the house and what is televised.”

To know what’s really going on you have to watch the live feeds, BB’s saving grace. The feeds give (mostly) unfettered access to the houseguests around the clock, allowing obsessive fans to chronicle their every butt scratch and rape joke. It also allows for fascinating insight into the disparity between reality-TV-as-it-is-experienced-by-the-contestants and reality-TV-as-it-is-edited-for-the-viewer.

Gems caught on camera this season include:

• Saying Puerto Ricans smell funny and don’t shower;
• Suggesting that Nazi medical experiments were ultimately beneficial;
• Warning a biracial contestant that her “black side” was coming out; and
• Calling welfare “n***er insurance.”

But these statements, respectively, were made by contestants Amanda, Spencer, Kaitlyn & GinaMarie—not Aaryn. (The men have also made so many disgusting misogynistic statements that there’s no room to get into them here.)

In many ways, Gries is an easy target for anti-racist anger. She’s pretty, blond, and Southern. Her first name is an anagram for Aryan. But she’s far from the sole racist in the house.

“CBS, if you’re going to show one racist, you need to show all the racists,” says Sistah K, one of the hosts of a popular series of TV podcasts collectively called “Sistah Speak.” Sistah Speak began in 2007, when Sistah K and Sistah J were moved by their love of television—and their frustration with the overwhelmingly white male punditocracy that discussed TV in the media—to address “the need for a Black woman’s perception and honest analysis about certain shows and movies.”

“This goes on on other shows too,” says Sistah J, “but they don’t show it overtly like Big Brother because there are no live feeds.” In other words, they don’t show it because no one can call them out when they don’t.

The idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous.

“Racism exists on reality television,” explains Song, “because it’s a reality in life. And therefore, it has to be a reality in every sliver of our lives.”

But how that racism is portrayed on TV is the decision of producers. It’s less uncomfortable for a majority white audience to believe that there’s simply one bad apple, one racist spoiling the bunch, than to see racism as part of our everyday existence. This not only excuses the other houseguests, it hides the racism inherent in the genre itself, which is particularly obvious in one area: casting.

“Reality television programs are produced to maximize audiences at a comparatively inexpensive price,” says Dr. Bryan Denham, Professor of Communications Studies at Clemson University and co-author of a 2008 academic paper about reality TV called Survival of the Stereotypical. “They do so,” he explains, “by reproducing social stereotypes.”

In essence, reality shows don’t cast (or televise) people, they cast broad stereotypes to get us watching. “They choose very extreme personalities to make for a big summer,” agrees Song, who believes this tendency has gotten worse over the years. This pursuit of extremes is particularly troubling in combination with another reality TV truth: the paucity of contestants of color.

“It’s the same scenario every single season,” says Sistah J. “You’ve got one or two people of color and they get voted out first.” The Bachelor, she points out, has never had a person of color in the title role—a fact they were sued over in 2012.

This point was backed up by Dr. Denham’s research, with an interesting caveat. On shows that involve being “the best” (Big Brother, Survivor) or succeeding in a business (The Apprentice, Top Chef) few contestants of color ever make it to TV. But if the show is about being an entertainer (American Idol, America’s Next Top Model), you see more people of color. Why?

“Having black people succeed as entertainers does not threaten white people in the business world,” Dr. Denham states unequivocally.

When shows like Big Brother cast extreme personalities to fulfill stereotypical roles, and only one or two are people of color, what’s the effect? Those characters are cast to fulfill pre-existing racial stereotypes. Whereas white people might be typecast as a “brain,” a “Southerner,” or a “jock,” people of color are always cast as the “angry black girl,” or the “Asian tiger mom.” The stereotype is always racialized, which isolates contestants of color and makes them even less likely to win. Not only are there always fewer contestants of color, they’re handicapped from the start.

Dr. Denham doesn’t believe this happens on purpose, rather, he points out that the show runners, judges, and network executives are most likely white people with the same pre-existing assumptions. These ideas about races are so ingrained they might not even notice what they are doing. But some viewers have pointed out that it’s quite a coincidence that contestants with extreme racial viewpoints just happen to be on one of the few seasons of BB to feature three contestants of color. Certainly, the controversy has created more buzz around this season of BB than any in recent memory, giving a big boost to ratings—though Song and the Sistahs have stopped watching in disappointment, and it’s not hard to imagine other people of color have done similarly. But has the controversy actually done anything about racism? Not really.

Aaryn Gries deserves the fallout for what she’s said and done. But the idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous. She becomes a sacrifice whose very punishment is the thing that allows us, the mainstream audience, to continue watching, snug and smug inside our own non-racist self-conceptions. Turning racism into a story with a villain—instead of an underlying force of our existence—guarantees that any resulting conversation will go nowhere, mean nothing, and quickly be forgotten. Indeed, despite the anger at Gries inside and outside the house, all of the contestants of color have been sent home, while she remains. Given the chance to put someone up for elimination, America has repeatedly chosen other houseguests.

The problem with crucifying someone is that they rise again. All Gries had to do was keep her head down and play well, let other “scandals” happen inside the house, and leave the rest to the producers. Already, conversations about race and racism have receded into the background. In a Very Special Episode on August 18th, we watched GinaMarie (BB’s “other racist”) befriend houseguest Helen Kim, giving us a nice hint of a Hollywood movie ending, where getting to know a person of color instantly erases centuries of racism. But even if GinaMarie’s mind changed at all in that conversation (which I doubt), that’s just a personal growth moment for a white person, and all the contestants of color are still gone.

Aaryn Gries is racist. But calling her out on her racism while ignoring our own? That’s racist too.

Steve Grand’s ‘All-American Boy’ and the End of the Gay-Panic Defense.

First published in The Daily Beast, July 10, 2013. Read the original (with comments) here.

Just in time for July Fourth, Steve Grand—a singer-songwriter who hopes to become the first gay male country icon—released his debut video on YouTube. “All-American Boy” is a paean to everything country: bonfires, whisky, pickup trucks, the American flag, skinny-dipping, and trying to make out with your best friend as soon as the girls are gone. In just a week it’s already racked up nearly a half million views on YouTube. Not bad for a 23-year-old kid from Chicago with no label, no agent, and no management.

Grand has the voice to make it, not to mention the face and the abs (especially the abs). But is country music ready for him? Who knows? Artists like k.d. lang and Chely Wright have proven that the world is ready for lesbian country singers, at least in a limited capacity; after all, neither of them is (or aspires to be) Miley Cyrus or Carrie Underwood. A true gay country star in his prime still seems as far away as a gay leading man. But even if Grand is just a sexy flash in the pan, the video for “All-American Boy” is still noteworthy.

In the video, we watch as Grand’s puppy-dog eyes stare longingly at his best friend across the campfire, in a pickup truck, and, finally, while splashing in the local swimming hole. As the music climaxes, he kisses his friend full on the mouth while they both tread water naked. For a long moment, everything is suspended as we wonder what will happen next. Is “All-American Boy” in the spirit of a “gay is good” mid-’90s independent film, where the rules of fantasy dictate that love can overcome all obstacles, even good-old-boy heterosexuality? Or are we about to watch the sort of brutal smackdown that’s all too common in both film and real life?

As it turns out, neither. The boy pulls away and returns to the party, as does Grand. The vibe between the two is unchanged. Sure, tomorrow at the rodeo there might be a few awkward moments, but you get the sense that that’s it. Grand gets to be disappointed without being disparaged, disowned, or disemboweled. And somehow, like nearly every living woman on earth, Grand’s love interest is able to handle a man’s unwanted advance without going ape shit and killing him. Astonishing, right?

The tradition of killing a man because he hits on you is so enshrined in our culture, it even has a name: the gay-panic defense (see: Matthew Shepard, Richard Barrett, Scott Amedure, etc., ad nauseum—very nauseum). “All-American Boy” is a sign that perhaps, just perhaps, the fragile flower of American masculinity has finally toughened the fuck up. Not that I don’t cherish my supposed ability to drive men crazy, but I’d like the crazy in question to be a little more metaphorical and a little less murder-y.

If there is a sea change in the making, it’s good news for straight guys as well as us predatory homosexuals. Just this June, the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section announced a proposal to urge the banning of the gay-panic defense in criminal proceedings, which will hopefully pass at its national meeting in August. The relevant text of the agenda for the meeting reads:

The Criminal Justice Section ... urges ... governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses, which seek to partially or completely excuse crimes on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.

In recent years, the gay-panic defense has rarely carried the day in court, making this move somewhat symbolic. But homophobes, consider this a warning: very soon, you may have one less excuse in your arsenal. (Or maybe not very soon, considering the state of Congress at the moment.)

This change isn’t happening in a vacuum. Just a decade ago, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 would have been unimaginable, in large part due to arguments that same-sex marriage would, in some ineffable way, damage straight marriages—or perhaps the very institution of marriage itself, not to mention the family, masculinity, femininity, religion, America, puppies, and apple pie. Today one need only Google around for a few seconds to find any number of amusing essays about what a ridiculous idea this is, many of them written by straight, married people.

Of course, these changes are all well and good in paper and pixels, but the real test will come when the rubber hits the road, or in this case, when the boy hits on the boy. And it should be noted that while the bar association urges banning the “trans panic defense” as well, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s 2012 report, transgender people are 167 percent more likely to experience anti-LGBTQ hate violence than their gender-normative LGB counterparts. In fact, in 2012, 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender. In many states, anti-transgender discrimination in housing, employment, and other matters is still legal. Though the ABA’s resolution is a step in the right direction, given the magnitude of the problem, it is tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a flesh wound. The lack of transgender legal protections in this country should be criminal, and it seems depressingly unlikely that the vast apparatus of anti-anti-marriage campaigns will transform any time soon into a broader movement for social justice for all LGBTQ individuals.

But still, I can’t watch “All-American Boy” without smiling, even if the boy doesn’t get the boy in the end. Unrequited longing is the essence of youth. Indeed, without it, Taylor Swift would have no career, and Twilight would have no audience. “All-American Boy” welcomes gay boys into the club.