Tuesday 8 October 2013

Interview with Grace Oni Smith

In a busy coffee shop in the middle of Manchester I met up with Grace Oni Smith to interview her as part of my project investigating trans-gender femininty. In time Grace will be posing for me as I paint her in a Pre - Raphaelite inspired piece exploring her femininity and personal story (see past posts for for info on what we've done so far). I thought it was about time to really get to grips with the subject matter, so please read on to find out more in this unabrigded interview which involved coffee, cake and very candid chatter...

-Hi Grace how are you?

Good thanks!

-What have you been doing today?

I slept in today, it's my day off. I washed my hair, plucked my brows and watched an episode of Buffy with a slice of quiche. Tonight I'm hosting Drag Bingo at Vivid Lounge.

-You’re a very busy woman of late, not only working as a full time professional make-up artist but also moonlighting as a drag/burlesque performer; can you tell us something about how you juggle your time and how your jobs might influence each other?

It's a mixed bag really but it all involves artistry. My drag work is about character, mood, creating an other self. With my make up work it's the same, it's about faces and peoples persona. Making people feel good through the way they look. Outside of work I focus on myself as a canvas but the message is similar both ways. Creating looks and characters that are empowering, inspiring and creative.

-For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain exactly what ‘drag’ performing is, and how it relates to you as a trans woman?

Lots of people assume drag is all about a man in a dress and a wig impersonating a woman. But in my drag family it's about creating a persona and a character and amplifying different facets of your personality. That's why drag can be a man a woman or a trans person. It's a chance to create an amplifyed version of yourself.

-Can you give us the scoop about your next incarnation?

My next show is at the Cornerhouse [this Thursday] and is for the Vogue Fashion Night Out. It ties in with the Double Indemnity show thats on at the moment and is inspired by the women in film noir. In film noir women are personified as characters like the bitch, the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. It's similar to drag in that way. We'll be dressed as film noir characters for people to sketch on the night. Our look will be monochromatic, like we've just stepped off the screen and been placed in the gallery. My look will be based on Marlene Dietrich, Sheila Blige will be a Joan Crawford type and Anna Phlactic will be based on Monroe. Then there will also be a drag king posing as Humphrey Bogart. We'll be creating tableaus and will break out into lip syncing songs.

-Sounds amazing! I'm going by the way!


 - You’ve stated in the past that performing on stage, rather than pretending to be someone else, is a chance to ‘hold a magnifying glass up to yourself’. Do you feel that it is the audience or yourself who learn the most from this experience?

When I first started it was purely from a selfish place. Through performing I got to show off the trans body both the glamourous and the ugly side. It put me in a cathartic mindset. I've always felt that if there's a part of yourself you hate then you should get it out and shake it around. Show people. In that way you're able to let go of the things that you're tortured by. It's an unusual way of having therapy; Celebrating the things you're not proud of and making them into something you can be proud of.

People responded really well [to my performing] so in the end it became about the audience too. One time someone came up to me after a show and said, 'I can't beleive you got your scars out! I've got loads of scars, it's great to see someone embracing it!'

Now I feel an obligation to celebrate the things that make me different instead of hiding them away.

- Brilliant! Ok next question: Many women have a certain degree of maintenance in their lives, be it waxing plucking tanning or manicures. You've already touched on plucking your eyebrows earlier today, can you give us some insight into the upkeep and maintenance involved in being a trans woman?

[Laughs] Well obviously there's the hormonal treatment you have to have before surgery. I have to have a tablet injected under my stomach every three months; it lowers the male hormones to a level of a biological lady. It's called Anti Androgene, I always thought that would make a good drag name, you know, Auntie Androgene!

Then there's estrogen tablets I take every day, and as far as womens maintainance it's somewhat more; plucking, waxing, laser treatment.

-You recently got your lips done didn't you?

Yes, well I got my nose done in the new year and I got bored waiting for more surgery so I decided to get my lips plumped up. I have priorities but if I won the Euro Millions I'd go on holiday and come back a totally different person!

I'm getting my boobs done next year and I plan to get my teeth done too.

-What, like veneers?


- You don't need to I like your teeth the way they are, they have character!

Character! What like an 18th Century syphilitic? [laughs and mimes a diseased mouth]

-[Also laughs] No no! Like... You know before David Bowie got his teeth done, he looked better than he does now. He looks a bit boring now, a bit too perfect. I like his old teeth.

Well, I want a perfect smile, I want that horse look!  As far as other forms of up-keep goes, just use your imaginations... anything a woman does to keep herself looking good, times it by 10!

-Is there anything you find challenging on an everyday basis that many other people might never even think about?

People find it difficult to understand how being transgender affects every facet of your life. From waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, going to work... Everything always reminds you that you're transgender. I'd never claim it's a disability because it's opened up new communities and people to me. But unless you go through that every day is difficult to understand.

I tried to explain it to a male friend like this: You're a man, you look like a man, you feel like a man you act like a man but imagine you have a massive pair of big bouncy tits instead of your normal chest. How would you feel?

When you walked down the street that's all anyone would look at. You'd still be a male but this unusual difference would set you apart.

Even children pick up on transgender people.

It's about how you feel as well as how other people react to you.

-Have you always felt like that?

Yes always. But I was lucky when I was little, my mum was great and never dictated what I should be like. How many little boys do you know who go home from school to play with their Barbies and watch Splash!?

-You come from a Jewish background, how has your faith affected your life as a trans woman?

[Takes a moment to answer] The main thing I always say to myself is God tests us. There's lots of conflicting ideas; plastic surgery, changing bodies... Would God want me to live my life and be miserable with negative emotions? As transgender, ultimately the journey is about relinquishing yourself of demons. Do you just stay the way you are to be accepted visually or do you change what you can? Instead of introverting your energy, put it out there to help people. 

-So how has the Jewish community been towards you?

Jewish people are mostly accepting. My gender is not relevant. To them I'm just another Jewish woman.

-The project we are working on is something that ticks all my boxes; glamour, history, narrative and the celebration of femininity (your femininity in this case) to name but a few! Can you tell us why you wanted to partake in this work and have your portrait painted? 

All the same reasons as you! Art history; before I started this project I didn't realise how many parallels there were betweeen me and the women in the [Pre-Raphaelite] paintings. They have strength and confidence. It's made me delve deeper into that movement in art than just thinking 'oh that's a gorgeous picture'.

Plus it's an interesting idea. I'm glad to be part of the process; working together to create something with power behind it. Especially with my [gender re-assignment] surgery in three weeks. This is a strange peiod of my life, and it's never really been explored before. It's nice to look at it in a beautiful and romantic way. It's subversive in a different way. 

Since I've seen some of the drawings you've been making of me I've come to think of the finished styling and make-up for the piece as much softer. You've been drawing me as I am, not as I usually like to be seen. It's challenging, more real and raw. For instance I'm sat in front of you now with no make up on, but a couple of years ago I would never have done that. The drawings have made me think, 'That's what I look like'.

 -I've just drawn what I see, I still think you look beautiful as well as real. 

There's lots of parallels with me as a trans woman. [The Pre Raphaelite style] has strong and powerful women but they are soft too. I remember my mum saying I would never be a namby pamby woman, she said I was more of a Grace Jones, an amazon. That's what I've always identified with, but I've since realised I can be more refined and feminine too.

-How has art in general been an influence in your life?

That's a big question! Really in every way! I've always been very artistic; painting, crafting... that's always been an outlet. as a teenager I was always hiding in the art department learning differnt ways to be creative. I'm not academic so art was a way to express myself. Performance is a way of bringing it all together. Arts always been an outlet, always will be.

- Do you have a favourite artist?

Many many many, too many and it always changes.

-This year is a big one for you with your gender re-assignment coming up next month, how are you feeling about things at the moment?

Just... ready. I'm tired of waiting. I'm looking forward to six months time. That's really exciting to me. I'm looking forward to five years down the line when this [time] is a distant memory. I'm really ready and looking towards what the future holds!

-Do you have any words of advice or experience for anyone else that might be beginning or on a similar journey to your own?

I think the best advice is just be who you are 100%. Trans people shouldn't be afraid to embrace both their masculine and feminine sides. It's what makes you special in your own way. View it as a blessing not a curse. 

If I could just take a pill and be totally happy with the way I am right now I would. But you can't do that so you have to be you and make the changes you can. Life's a journey so you've always got to move on. And if you haven't got the support of your family make your own family. I get so much strength from my family and community I wouldn't be where I am right now without their support.

There's also my queer family, I'm lucky to have met a group of people so loving. There's so many people going through the same thing. There's a wider community and support network and I take strength from that.

-If you could describe yourself right now in three words what would they be? It's a lot harder than you think...

Three words... Shiny; I've got a LOT of moisturiser on today! 


Erm... this is hard! Um... Determined.

-Good choice! Thanks Grace! Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?

Just, thank you. I'm grateful that you asked me to be part of this and I'm glad to be working with you. If it was anyone else and not Gemma Parker doing this I don't think I'd have said yes.

-Thank you!

There then followed a conversation about the trans community. I said I was getting on really well with the Pre Raphaelite side of the project but I wanted to know more about the trans side of it. Grace suggested we visit a particular bar in the Gay Village well known for it's 'tranny night'. But she said the experience would show me a dark side of trans life. 'The girls there are all so desperate to be noticed and accepted even if that means getting exploited'. To be frank it means that the girls who frequent the bar can be targeted by men after the fantasy of sex with a 'tranny'.  Grace described it as a 'dark sordid little rabbit hole'. She certainly paints a picture with words.

Grace stated there needs to be a positive change to open up the trans community as there is no one in mainstream culture who represents them. It's just not questioned or talked about. 'There's no one like Pete Burns or Boy George on mainstream TV these days... Can you imagine a person who plays with gender that way as a guest on Blue Peter nowadays?' In truth, no. 

Talking with Grace this afternoon about her trans life amongst the bustle of city workers and shoppers, sipping their coffees and gossiping, felt like the most natural thing in the world. My project might not make the positive change Grace was talking about but by working together and simply chatting this way I feel we've begun something that will at least start to question peoples understanding of life as a trans person and will celebrate this little understood path of femininity.


I am scheduled to meet with Manchester Art Gallery next week to speak to one of their curators about their Pre Raphaelite art collection including the chance to view some Rossetti drawings not usually on show to the public! I will get the chance to chat about my project to get some direction in how to put Grace's story into a narrative within her portrait. I am very excited! See you next time... :)