Sunday 7 September 2014

A wrap up interview with Grace

 Grace at Cornerhouse with her Pre Raphaelite portrait

Last week I met with Grace Oni Smith, the muse for my recent work on transgender femininty inspired by Pre Raphaelite paintings. We caught up on make up, drank tea, and talked about our time working together on the project which is currently on show at Cornerhouse as part of Cornerhouse Projects. There's only two days left so take a look while you can!

Hi Grace, how are you?

Very tired, I've been doing lots of gigs for Pride, apart from that I'm good thanks.

What have you been up to over Pride?

I performed at Mother's Ruin and Cha Cha Boudoir. I did the Drunk At Vogue Love Boat and a new night called Glitter Pig which is a fetish fantasy night, all very sexy where the lovely LGBT crowd can get all dressed up.

Sounds great! No wonder you're tired. So, we're sitting here now at Cornerhouse in relative peace and quiet surrounded by pictures of you. How does it feel to be the inspiration for this work?

It's surreal. Especially to see everything finished and shown together. Now it's all done it feels like such a long time ago when we actually started this project.

How have your friends from the transgender and gay community reacted to this project?

They're very proud.

Has this project taught you anything about yourself?

I think the main thing, even though we used artifice to explore creativity in femininty, was seeing myself with no make up and the way you handled that image. It's quite exposing to see my appearance through your artisitc filter. It's made me see things about myself I wasn't aware of. 

I tend to show myself in terms of a fierce femininty, no matter what image I decide to project. I see myself as a blank canvas which I usually paint on top of. It's interesting to see how someone else sees that blank canvas.

(At this point Grace went to bar to get tea)

The guy behind the bar was staring at me, then he realised I was all over the walls and he said 'I thought I recognised your face!'

 Ha! Well he's been looking at you for over a month so I'm not surpised! To go back to what you said about seeing yourself as a blank canvas, I think that's kind of sad. It's like your missing out on who you actually are before you paint on the character you're going to be. You're already great. Do you know what I mean?

I don't think I see that. I don't know if I will ever embrace that side of myself entirely.
I'm not happy with the way I look. I can see I've got a good face and a good body. I've got arms and legs and everything works, it's not like I'm an armorphous blob or anything, I'm just not where I want to be, but I'm interested in where I can take that. 

I hope in time you feel able to embrace yourself fully. I tried to capture something of you in the raw. I never wanted you become a character in the portraits. Even though we used drag as a way of exploring your femininity I saw that as just another way of showing who you are.

You had an incredibly interesting way of appoaching the subject matter. When you see it all together you can definately see it's from a female perspective. There's no fetishism there, it's very much anchored in emotion. When I've worked on other projects about being transgender I've felt quite exposed and exploited, but I never felt that in this work. You handled it in such a sensitive way.

I've learned so much from this project; mostly it given me an insight into the life of a transgender woman, which is something I knew nothing about before. It's also taught me how powerful drag can be as an art form and as a way of exploring infinate variations of gender. Will drag always play a part in your life do you think?

I think so. I can't look into the future and not see an element of drag. It's a way of creating who you want to be each day, creating an instant message. There'll never be a time when I don't sit down in the morning and take that route.

One day I hope to have kids and I can't imagine I'll still be getting up on stage with my boobs out performing,  but drag will always be a part of my life in some guise..

The feedback for this project has been really positive. I've had a great response to the way you have been represented, as a person who happens to be transgender. The 'transgender' is almost incidental but still very important in the context of the work. What can we/ people/ society  learn from this ?

It goes back to something you mentioned earlier about drag making you realise that there are lots of different gender variations. 

When it comes to gender, 99% of people have very defined ideas. The reality is I'm a woman, I'm a make up artist, I'm Jewish. I'm more than transgender, but not everyone sees that. 
That really becomes apparent when I meet new people and see their reactions. It is so tiring being a transgender person constantly being judged, I have to find ways to safeguard myself.

I feel very lucky to live in the society we live in and having the opportunity to change people's perceptions of gender, but a lot of people are oblivious to understanding it.

How do you feel about the recent focus on transgender issues in the media with Kellie Maloney being in the Big Brother house?

I don't personally watch that show, but I have seen the press around the story and how badly it was handeld. When Kellie came out the papers had a field day with the 'sex swap boxing coach'. They kept referring to her as 'he' this and 'he' that. It's upsetting to see how far behind things are, that people can't grasp the basics.

Kellie was always Kellie, she just found the strength to recently live as Kellie. The press focused heavily on the fact she was a boxing coach. Trans-people can do any job, what difference does it make?

When she went into the Big Brother house the trans issue just became a circus again. Even people in the LGBT community think it's a joke. A few years ago there was another trans person in the house; Lauren Harries. It's like there is a slot in there for the transgender clown. No well adjusted trans-person is being represented, it's like they pick the ones that will be most entertaining. I mean what other trans people are in the media?

There is a spectrum of transgender, yet we only see either the beautiful completely believable transitioned woman because society can deal with that, or the joke trans-woman. It upsets me that Kellie let herself in for that.

 She is still at the beginning of her journey and probably quite vulnerable.

Whenever being interviewed or reviewed in any way, trans -people have a responsibilty to not be put in that situation and not be taken advantage of. It's counter productive.

Is there anyone out there who you feel does it right?

Have you heard of Laverne Cox? She's in a show called Orange is the new Black. She is an amazing advocate for trans-people. She went on the Wendy Williams show and Wendy Williams proceeded to ask her really crude and thoughtless questions. She pointed out the size of Laverne's feet and asked her about her surgery.

But Laverne handled it perfectly; she was really centered and politely said she chooses not to talk about those subjects as it marginalises people's perceptions of trans-people and there's so much more to discuss. In the past she's pointed out the unemployment situation for trans-people in America among other things. There's no one else talking about these subjects.

Wendy Willaims attitude takes on the assumption that as a transgender person your situation is public knowledge. But it's no-ones right to know.

I'll definatley look Laverne up, she sounds amazing! What was her full name again?

Laverne Cox. Unfortunate really isn't it? She might as well turn up and say 'Hi, my name's Amanda Sexchange!' 

Hahahaha! Love it!


At this point we had finished our tea and Grace had to leave for a photo shoot inspired by Donatella Versace (Think gallons of fake tan huge lips and giant sunglasses. It sounds like a hoot!)

I'm so pleased we both got so much out of working together and had such fun doing it too! I hope this project has helped inform de-mystify and entertain you as much as the two of us!