Born in Erwin, Tennessee, transsexual actress Aleshia Brevard knew that she wanted to be a female from an early age, and began her transitioning in the late 1950s.
She also knew she wanted to be a starand eventually embarked on a journey that involving acting, modeling and teaching. Brevard talked with Windy City Times about her lifeand the time she encountered Marilyn Monroe.
Windy City Times: You have said that before World War IIand before you turned 8you figured that having a penis made it impossible to be a girl, at least in public.
Aleshia Brevard: [Laughs] I knew very early and I started out thinking that I would drape a white Cannon towel over my head and pretend to be [actress] Veronica Lake. But I kept all of that to myself because I truly believed that if anyonemy parents includedknew who I really was, that I would be given away.
WCT: Before your career in Hollywood, you performed as a Marilyn Monroe female impersonator at a San Francisco club called Finocchio's.
AB: That's what publicity said. I've always said that I was not doing Monroe; I was just learning to be myself, and I was young and I was blonde. I did do numbers that Marilyn did so management built me as a Monroe lookalike and impressionist.
WCT: Is it true that Marilyn came to watch you perform at the club?
AB: This came out in a book about Marilyn's life and I didn't know this until recently, but following the filming of [Marilyn's 1961 movie] The Misfits, Monroe and some of the hairdressers and some of the of the crew, along with [actor] Montgomery Clift, were in San Francisco and they came to see the show. I did not know that Marilyn was there until the finale and I did recognize her walk as she was leavingand she turned and blew a kiss. And in the book where this is recounted, they said that she told Clift that my act was like seeing herself on film.
WCT: How did that make you feel?
AB: That was such a compliment. [At the time,] I was young and not very confident and I really could have used that. I wish I could have known that 50 years ago.
WCT: You have appeared in films such as Hard Country and The Love God?, and on TV in Night Gallery and the Red Skeleton Show. You have also done theater. Which did you prefer?
AB: Definitely stage. That's where my training was in both undergraduate and graduate school. I loathe to admit that I suppose that I'm bigger than life, so that lends itself much more to stage than it does either to film or TV.
WCT: You had gender-reassignment surgery ( GRS ) in 1962, but kept it a secret. How welcoming do you think Hollywood would have been had you been open about it?
AB: There would have been no careerperiod. When all of this began for me, there was no gender community. Even though there is a community, not everyone is going to dine at the same restaurant, so I lived totally in stealth. After surgery I was married four times and my husbands did not know. I wanted a career and I knew that if there was any breadth of my history I would not have that career. I was very fortunate to "pass."
WCT: As a transsexual actress working in the '60s, '70s and '80s, what was your goal?
AB: I just wanted to compete on equal footing with other women. I've had some really good meaty roles, everything from Williams to Chekhov. That would have not been possible for me had I been even of a later generation labeling myself as a transgender actress. I just wanted to act without labels.
WCT: At the end of your acting career, you directed and taught theater at your alma mater, East Tennessee State University. Was directing a natural progression from acting?
AB: Yes, I think it was. I went to undergraduate school and graduate school, and I had a double major and one of my majors was in education. Although I was just a skinny kid that was mesmerized by film and wanted a life that was represented on the silver screen, I had sense enough to know that only the lucky were able to break into that business. I sort of prepared myself to teach and that's where I thought that I would end up. Had I known early on how rewarding I would find teachingand I'm glad I had my career on stage and screenI wish that I could have done it longer.
WCT: So did you come out to the public about your surgery in your 2001 memoir, The Woman I Was NOT Born To Be: A Transsexual Journey?
AB: Exactly. I was no longer teaching university, I moved to California and decided that I still had some energy so I was teaching art in a high school. During that time I was working on the book. But because I had lived in stealth, I had no idea about transgender becoming the umbrella term. When I published the book, I was absolutely shocked that I was spread all over the internet.
WCT: How do you feel about the term "transsexual" today?
AB: I did not go through gender reassignment to be labeled transsexual. I look at that as an awkward phase that I went throughsort of like a really painful adolescence. I don't even think of myself now in terms as transsexual. That's something I experienced and [something] I was.
For more about Aleshia Brevard, visit AleshiaBrevard.com .