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Alexandra Billings reigns on her parade
by Ross Forman

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She's a worldwide pioneer in the LGBT community, not just a local celebrity with roots in Chicago's northwest suburbs.

Alexandra Scott Billings, 47, is the first transgender woman to have played a transgender character on television. She appeared in the 2003 made-for-TV movie Romy and Michelle: A New Beginning on ABC-TV and in an episode of the ABC show Karen Sisco. She also played transsexual characters in episodes of ER and Grey's Anatomy.

Not bad for the 1980 graduate of Schaumburg High School who admittedly is a Cubs fan, enjoys Murphy's Bleachers sports bar on the North Side and craves Giordano's stuffed pizza.

"Chicago's my home. It really is," said Billings, who now lives in Los Angeles. "The city is gorgeous; the people are open, funny, silly, great. There really is no place like Chicago anywhere in the world. And the summer in Chicago really is beautiful.

"There's no place like home."

Billings, who left Chicago for California in 2003, returns for the ultimate local LGBT honor. She is the grand marshal for the 40th annual Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, June 28.

"Are you kidding? I think it's incredible, bizarre," to be the grand marshal, said Billings, who last was in the Chicago parade on a float for the Baton Show Lounge, where she worked at the time.

"It's huge being the first transgender grand marshal; I really can't believe it."

In fact, Billings thought Chicago Pride officials had the wrong person when they contacted her for the gig. "I kept asking them, 'Are you sure you want me? Don't you want some famous person?' I even thought they somehow had me confused with Peter Billingsley. I just thought it was really bizarre that they wanted me [ to be the grand marshal ] ," she said.

Ultimately, she agreed without hesitation.

But don't think for one minute she isn't nervous about the role due to the size of Chicago's annual afternoon gala, where about 500,000 fans are expected to watch.

"I have a terrible fear of crowds, and anything over 10 people is a crowd," she said. "It makes me very nervous knowing how many people will be in the crowd. I'm nervous, but still very excited. [ Large crowds are ] a real fear of mine that I'm going to have to deal with."

Billings admits she's even nervous in an elevator with more than six people and has intense stage fright, surprisingly. After all, just consider her resume:

—She was a female impersonator in the early 1980s under the stage name Chante, and won numerous beauty contests to claim such titles as Miss Wisconsin, Miss New York, Miss Chicago, Miss Illinois and Miss Florida. Also, she judged the Miss Continental pageant in 2000 and 2001.

—Billings has extensive, award-winning experience at The Bailiwick Theater and the Steppenwolf Theatre.

—Her one-woman autobiographical show has toured Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and off-Broadway.

—As a singer, she has performed in theaters and nightclubs throughout the United States. Her first CD, Being Alive, was up for Grammy consideration. She was a recipient of the New York MAC Hanson Award for Cabaret Artist of the Year in 2004.

"There were so many great things that have happened in my life; it truly has been a roller-coaster life," Billings said. "I had a great teacher who once told me that it's great to look back, just as long as you don't stand there and stare. So I look back with great fondness, but that's it.

"I've had a really big life, and a lot of extremes have happened, there's no question about that. But the more I interact with other people, the more I realize that my journey isn't really as bizarre or odd as anyone else's. I don't really look back at my life and say, 'Holy moly, look at all of that stuff.' I don't do that. I look back at my life and remember different times, events, periods … and then I look to the future. I try to keep my sights on what's in front of me, as much as I possibly can.

"When I was young, I remember saying to myself, 'Gee, I wish something extraordinary would happen to me.'"

Well, Billings truly is extraordinary.

She's overcome AIDS, which doctors told her in the 1980s would claim her life very soon. She's now healthy and happy, living with her high school sweetheart, Chrisanne. Sure, she still smokes and deals with daily medication, but otherwise she's a picture of perfect health—and a pretty one at that.

"You don't have much time left, the doctors told me [ years ago ] ," Billings said. "And every year thereafter, the doctor would say, 'I have absolutely no idea; you should be dead.'

"I think about that all the damn time now."

More Alexandra Billings …

—She has taught at the Steppenwolf Summer School since 2002, as well as Louis University, The University of Chicago, Illinois University, for the Illinois Theatre Convention, at Act One Studios, and various Master classes and workshops around the Chicago area.

—Billings and Chrisanne were married in a commitment ceremony in Chicago Dec. 4, 1995.

—Quoting Billings: "I want to do everything [ in life ] . I want to travel more. I want to live happily for a really long time with my wife. I want to see equality happen for every single human being on the planet. I want to do everything that I haven't done. Climb trees, jump out of a plane, anything and everything."

—On Stonewall: "The further we get from that event the more holy it becomes. What I think we have to remember is, that particular situation was born out of chaos, and I think that's what's important. I believe that any great joy begets great pain, and I also believe the opposite works. Every great pain begets great joy. So, I think we not only have to remember to celebrate the joy of being free, but also the pain and chaos of what happened. We cannot forget that that was a situation that was highly emotionally and politically charged, and the people had just plain had enough. Especially now when we're fighting for equal rights."

—On Facebook: "I'm obsessed with that thing; I can't stay off it. I love it."

"Schoolboy to Showgirl: The Alexandra Billings Story," a part of the Out & Proud in Chicago series, concludes its run on WTTW Prime June 24. A 20-minute screening of the movie Stealth—which stars Billings and will benefit the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame—will take place Tuesday, June 30, at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, at 8 p.m.

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