Geena: Hiding in Plain Sight
Geena Rocero has yet to meet a stage she doesn’t like. As the reigning trans beauty queen in the Philippines, she was adored and envied with equal passion – all while being out and proud. But when she moved to America and became a model, she went back in the closet to protect her livelihood, at least until the secrecy began to do more harm than it was worth. Geena tells Stephanie how she was finally able to live without compromising what was most important to her, starting with the moment she reclaimed her identity, all while standing on one of the biggest and most pivotal stages in the world.
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Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Geena
I was in a clandestine operation for eight years. I had to protect my cover. I had to protect my story. I would go in on solutions. I would go on auditions. Sometimes we would do this edition called Calico right where it’s like, girls are there. And then you’re waiting here for an hour, two hours and you go to the bathroom and one of the girls asked for a tampon Oh, I have to tampon, you know as a spy in kindness in operation, you have to live it every single moment.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:44
It’s the late 2000s and Geena Rocero is a stunning young model rising through the ranks in New York City, the billboards, the editorials she is doing it all living a life of glitz and glamour. But with every success comes even greater risk. Because Gina is a trans woman and she’s had to hide her identity at every turn, making all sorts of strategic moves as she navigates a precarious industry. So you better believe she’s bringing tampons to the audition. Yet deep down, she knows she can’t hide in plain sight forever.
I was like if I’m going to share this story. I’m going to come up and do this 2013 still considered, for me at least a risk in my career. I’m going to do it in the biggest stage.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:44
This is LAST DAY, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Today, the story of a diva with a hidden identity, how she constantly reinvented herself among shifting cultural dichotomies and ultimately what it felt like to be herself without caveats or compromises. When Walt Whitman wrote, I contain multitudes he didn’t know it, but he was really talking about Geena Brasero. On top of being a model she is an activist, a producer, and a self described closet anthropologist. When I met her over zoom, her long black hair was flowing behind her like a main. It’s been a signature part of her look and her identity for years, which led her to the nickname of Horse Barbie. Also the name of her new memoir. Oh yeah, she’s also an acclaimed author who is currently on tour for her delicious book. I ate it up. And fair warning. That tour has led her back to New York City, which is where she’s calling in from. She’s back amongst the honking cabs and wailing sirens that were the soundtrack to her early modeling days, and the occasional soundtrack to this interview as well. But before Geena was gracing billboards in Times Square before she became Horse Barbie, Geena was a kid growing up on the other side of the globe in the Philippines.
I lived in a tiny little alley in this city called Makati in the Philippines, and I was able to go back to that tiny alley, you know, many, many years later and everything. It feels so small, obviously. I mean, it’s true when people talk about like, when you go back to your childhood, all I remember it was it was so big. The childhood memory that I there was always, you know, instilled in my mind is just being joyous outside.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:54
Geena grew up as the youngest sibling of four doted on by a loving mother and father or they’re homeless small, and the walls are paper thin, so they could hear everything the neighbor said or did. And that kind of intimacy and togetherness were very much a part of that time and place.
It’s also it’s a culture in the Philippines is all about the community, it’s very communal culture. I’d like to think that I never lost the sense of community that you know, that we have in Philippines, we have this word in Tagalog called kapwa. Which basically means your inner self is always shared with others. You’re always a reflection of your immediate community, like you don’t exist as an individual in the Philippines. And there’s some obviously benefits and you know, downside to that, because everybody knows everything. But because I live in a tiny little alley, where we grew up where, you know, had my childhood friends, but every time I go outside that that alley, especially with my young, feminine expression, that’s when they get policed. That’s my question. That’s when people would say things, you know, and at such a young age, I remember what that felt like, you know, when people would start calling me names.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 06:12
Strangers didn’t understand young Gina, they saw a boy who was made to wear a male uniform at school, but who loved and embraced femininity. But to Gina and the people who cared for her, it all made sense, because, like many trans kids, Gina understood the truth about her gender identity early on.
:ooking at myself in the mirror, and every time I would put on, I mean, this is where I’m, you know, five, six years old, wearing a t shirt, you know, or anything that I put in my, in my head, and they felt like it was an extension of her hair and just loved that feeling of, you know, that fabric hitting my shoulder or my back and just felt like the ultimate connection to that. It was that early. I think that’s the brilliance of just allowing trans kids to be you know, it’s just the purity of that expression. I had that access because I had, you know, mom that when she first saw that supported it, didn’t question it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:17
Her mom might not have had the word for transgender, as English speakers understand it today. But she heard her child proclaim, I’m a girl mom, and she embraced it.
At the time, it was just the purity of that feeling of okay, this is what I said. She didn’t question it. She smiled back at me and did not police me to like stop putting the blanket or a t shirt or towel on your head. But now I look back. It’s certainly in a very predominantly conservative, rigid Catholic culture in the Philippines. Definitely. That’s unusual. My mom is a devout Catholic woman.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:01
Like Geena’s mom, a majority of people in the Philippines practice Catholicism, which certainly has a reputation for being traditional and conservative. But just as her mom never saw a contradiction between her religion and loving her daughter exactly as she was. Geena says transness isn’t fundamentally at odds with Filipino culture. In pre colonial times, the Philippines had a rich history of celebrating gender beyond the binary.
We have 7000 islands, different kingdoms, and each of those kingdoms. The spiritual advisors to the ruler are trans people. Gender nonconforming people, gender fluid people, because we’re believed to have access to the divine. You know, I have this tattoo this four character tattoo called LabCorp party, like a party is a gender fluid vat of Golden Rice and fertility in the Philippines. So precolonial Philippines, people pray to trans gender nonconforming deities.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:03
And what’s so cool is that when you take that history, and introduce American Beauty pageants to the Philippines, you get something incredible. Trans beauty pageants.
It’s our informal national sport. We watch trans beauty pageants on Sundays, the way Americans watch football.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:23
That sounds fantastic. Can you sort of break down what these national pastimes look like and where are they held and give us a sense of that?
I’ll give you the cinematic appeal. I love it. I love it. Yes, it can’t be more cinematic than Catholicism and tran fashion coinciding together, that when patches are held in mountain regions next are ricefield As I’ve mentioned, you know, Philippines is a predominantly Catholic culture, which means throughout the year we celebrate different you know, patrons Catholic saints, we through a fiesta celebration which is usually a five day celebration that consists of block parties, dance parties, singing contests, you know, different types. people’s homes are opened up so they could serve food, you know, or depending on where you’re farming the village. There’s a headliner my which is like the host family and usually the rich family and they opened up their home so you could eat and, and usually on that five day celebration, the main event that usually falls on a Sunday, like the peak event is a transgender beauty pageants. And if it’s something that’s held by the community, meaning it happens in the street, that pageant states at trans beauty pageant stage is usually right in front of the church.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:40
This image of Christianity and trans pageantry, intermingling seems unfathomable to me in the US, like, drag queens can’t even read books to kids here in peace. But this seeming dichotomy becomes Geno’s reality because she eventually got into the scene.
We’re getting ready in front of the saints. And you know, you know, in our swimsuit, barely wearing anything, smoking cigarette partying, inside the church, you know, bunch of trans woman like barely not wearing anything partying. It’s not even a contradiction for us. It was just part of our unique culture. It’s obviously there’s a through line of hypocrisy there, you know, but we have that, but we don’t have political recognition in the Philippines.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 11:28
The irony of being culturally accepted and community accepted and in the Philippines, but not having that legal recognition we were talking about you can’t have it all right.
Yeah. I’d say let me make some correction. Yeah, I think acceptance is a big word for me. I think. I describe it as trans people are culturally visible. But we’re not politically recognize. You know, because I think the political recognition, hence an acceptance even more so because I think that’s a deep, that’s a more equitable acceptance of who you are when you’re politically recognized, you know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:03
So tell me how you first got involved with these beauty pageants that sound incredible, and I can’t wait to see them.
So I was in high school 15. And to a mutual friend, who told me Hey, I have this friend. There’s this girl named Tiger Lily, and she’s an icon because she’s a transgender beauty queen maker. So I want you to meet her. So I came over their house and I met Tiger Lily and she saw me she was judging me already and looking at me and I was still in my high school uniform boys uniform. It’s just trying trying to speak and she pulled out this like bikini like very skimpy to be speaking. So try this on. And it’s like, okay, I tried it, and put it on, she made me walk in my friend’s living room. And, again, as a beauty pageant fanatic, as all Filipinos are, of course, I know how to work like a swimsuit. Doing my walk and did my little invisible heel lifted my hand and felt like I was literally having my Hill. And she saw it and she was like, You’re gonna join a pageant. And a few days later, I’m in Manila. I’m in the capital city, and I was joining this. This pageant is like the place to be if you wouldn’t make a name. Everybody was there. And there was about 45 candidates have like the icons of the icons of the trans pageant are like this are the names that I’ve heard off. These are the pageant clan that I’ve heard. Everyone was there, again, during a Catholic celebrations, Fiesta descent in DiFonzo. And it was a street pageant, and I got there, met up with Tigerlily again, and she has her entourage. You know, with my gowns with everything I showed up there did my makeup. I did a pageant. On my very first pageant, I ended up winning second runner, best instances and best in London. It was Dreamworld after that, it was I felt like I was I entered Hollywood. I felt like it was magical. And that feeling of recognition but more solid a feeling of definitely ego boosts. Definitely the clarity of a sense of who I am at the beginning of that. And I was like, I’m not going to college after high school. I’m going to do this because I’m going to make a career out of this. And I did at 15 I became I reached the top of the trans pageant world so quick. I want them all. That’s a polite way of saying I was a pageant diva.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:42
All the greats have a nickname that captures their essence their Alter Ego. Michael Jordan is the goat. Beyonce is queen bee. Tony Hawk is Birdman. So of course, Geena gets one too, but it didn’t come from the best place because as Geena says, She’s crushing it out there with basically no experience and other people may have been a little jealous.
Because I came out of nowhere, especially in that pageant, the very first pageant I really I was my name was and everybody slips because like, Who is that? You know, who is that 15 year old kid who beat everyone. So you can imagine their groups, the pageant groups, the icons there, the fans are so passionate. So as a way to distract my accent, they started calling me that I looked like a horse, alluding to my protruding mouth side profile to my long neck, my dark skin and the wig that I was wearing at the time. So it hurt to be called that especially by, you know, suppose icons that I looked up to. And that was here, every time I’m backstage with the auditor, or the horse, or she looks like she’s that British exec horse. And then one day, Tiger Lily, my trans mother, who’s also my pageant manager. One day, she saw me on stage and I was wearing that iconic red halter gown that I had. And I guess the way the light was hitting me and sort of fake this aura that I was projecting, and she identified that thing, as I was walking on stage, and so I can actually look like a Horse Barbie. So she gave me that name, Horse Barbie. And it’s a reclamation of that insole. And I say it’s a spirit because, you know, it’s that kind of mythical magical thing, you know, a spirit that I would have to keep in me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:46
Can you even imagine if you hadn’t met her at that moment, life changing.
And to experience that at 15? You know, that’s, that was my formative years, you know, to have my immediate transistors in there in my community, my relationship with my, you know, trans mother. And I have to say to like, five years before that, my mom left for the United States to join her side of the family to give us a better life. So we were separated, so she kind of stepped in and that, obviously not the same as my biological mother, but some of the essence of nurturing. You know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:22
Geena’s mom emigrated to America before she started competing in beauty pageants. Gina missed her mom so deeply. But the assumption was always that when the time was right, she joined her mom in the states and they’d be together again. Plus, for now, life in the Philippines was pretty great. With the support of her chosen family, Gina continues racking up win after win on the beauty pageant circuit. At 17 years old. She’s at the peak of her career and already making three times the average national wage. Then her mom calls with some unexpected news.
We were joining a pageant in a province and we were on a bus this is going on probably like 3am, purple it bus, we’re always at the back of the bus, you know, because like there’s an entourage of us. So we have to take over the whole back of the bus. And it cleared up, I had a Nokia silver Ada 10 Because it was the hottest, most expensive phone and I had it that phone rang purple lit bus around 3am. And my mom called and she said, Hey, your Green Card petition came through, you could now move here. And I remember screaming, you know, like what, you know, but also shock. I didn’t know what to say. And we’re zigzagging and people were like kind of like waking up and typing to us. Next thing you should kind of woke up. And I remember telling my mom like, Mom, I didn’t want to move to the US. Can we like, wait a little bit? Because I think I’m going to Japan, you know, because that was the trajectory of every single trans pageant girls is that you go to Japan after your reign to continue that life. You work in Cabaret, you work in clubs, you know, and you make even more money. So yeah, I actually told my mom, they want to move. And I could imagine the disappointment on the other end of that line. And I hung up the phone and looked at Tiger Lily. And it’s just also that feeling of like, we didn’t need to speak words. We just knew that I’m leaving. We just think whether you know that this is the end of this life that we have for two years of being together, having fun and adventuring together, you know, and just to the look on her face. It was it was sadness. And think about a week later, that’s when my mom called back again and she was like, no, if you move here you could be legally recognized as you know, you could have F in your gender marker in your documents and I was like what And that was a I was like, Forget Japan I’m moving to America. And because it’s almost like she spoke magic to me because I couldn’t believe that’s possible to see an F and my gender marker was everybody’s dream every trans Filipinas string because to this day is still not possible in the Philippines you still can’t do that a distinct called gender recognition policies that allows trans people to identify their own identity on their on their gender markers on their documents. Yeah, so I was I’m coming to America, and in 2001, 17 years old, landed in San Francisco. We’re back. It’s July 2001. And Geena has landed in America. Her first goal is to save up money to legally change her name and gender marker. Her mom suggests nursing but that’s not for her. Instead, a friend advises her to check out the place where trans Filipinas work, the Macy’s cosmetics counter. And this woman named Lucy who was working in cosmetics and she told me I’m going to introduce you to all the girls so you’re going to work in cosmetics if you want to be here. And she was like I don’t know how to apply makeup. You’re gonna go to a salon, you’re going to pretend you put your makeup and you’re gonna apply for a job. And it did and I went on an interview, pretended that I knew how to apply that makeup and I got the job and I learned on the job you know. And it was it was the closest thing that I could think of as pageant adjacent you know because its beauty is beauty counter and it’s during off hours. Okay, going back to pageants that main aisle is a patch on stage. Yeah. And we’re just having fun.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 24:34
And you found your people there. It sounds like I didn’t you found a community that you have found.
I found there and also I think this is crazy. I’ve been having a lot of full circle moments in this book tour. Three days ago I was in San Francisco. I visited this organization called Trans Thrive this woman in DTI that determines Auntie she’s the icon in our community with They’re particularly in trans health care. When I was 17, I used to go to that same transport group that she was running. And I went there, and she’s still running the same transport group. And those women that I met and the cosmetics department is is because of that transport group, you know, who nurtured me, who, who accepted me who, as a 17 year old, trans, Filipina, immigrant, confused in this culture, they grounded me, they created this sense of less alone, feeling, you know, being less alone. And that’s how I got to Macy’s.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:37
And in this moment, like when you’re 17, you come here, you’re at the Macy’s counter, you’re in the support group, what are you learning from fellow trans women about being a trans person in the United States? How are you adapting to this?
I didn’t think adapting was certainly at the time was, was in my in my head, but certainly surviving, trying to figure things out. I know, he started going to this club called divas, which is this trans club where, you know, men, anybody, but most particularly men who loves trans woman go there. And it was, certainly I was not supposed to be supposed to be there at 17 years old, but I was there. And I was, you know, introduced to that world of, you know, navigating desire, which is, you know, at the beginning, it was really, I mean, certainly very complicated. And I think that was the beginning of feeling, you know, as I’m being mentored by this woman, that the desire for trans woman is out there, you know, but only has to be kept in secret in certain places, not in the mainstream. Or when I go to the verse, it’s a magical world, like, We are the stars, you know, from and men that goes there from like, CEOs of companies, celebrities, you know, like they’re there, you know, first feeling of that relationship with my own desire, and how my relationship with my body, it was very sexy, and they just say, That sounds so sexy, it’s 17. Design. And the thing that really hit me, which is so pivotal, the very first trans representation that I saw on national television was on Jerry Springer. That sound that you make, right? I mean, it’s, I didn’t, I mean, now, obviously, writing this book, I’m allowed to have obviously critical analysis on it and what that meant, I remember just a feeling the feeling of shame, the feeling of disgust in how trans people were treated and treated as as as a pariah as a circus. But I think the analysis that have now I mean, what a perfect encapsulates how America sees not just trans people, anybody? I mean, particularly, I mean, I think it’s important, it’s poignant to mention this. Jerry Springer, just recently pass, you know, into conversations online of trans people that were part of that world and less humbling to see. Because it’s also complicated. I mean, at the time, that’s the only place for us to express ourselves. Yeah, of course, some of them are getting paid. And it’s not like always, trans people were fighting back, you know, you would see the arguments, you remember it, the arguments are offered like trans people standing up, and I knew some of those women like these stand up for themselves. Myself, so Jerry Springer, who is the executive producer of that show, who has the microphone, you know, has the full control and the encapsulates that if your expression, if your identity does not filter through a mic from the white straight men, white American men in power is going to make fun of you. You know, you’re going to be considered the other.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 29:07
Geena’s learning a lot about the way trans people are treated in the US. So she makes a big decision. As she puts down roots in this new place and eventually makes the leap into modeling. She decides that she’ll hide her gender identity for the sake of her career, and for her safety.
I’d say this, like, I thought, having that F on my gender marker, I thought, oh, America’s promising me freedom with an F marker. But I moved here and I got shamed. Yeah. And I have to say that Horse Barbie spirit in me in the Philippines died down disappeared. You know, kind of I guess I can’t do that here. Oh, I guess I can’t be on stage and be seen as that diva. You know, I’ve been Now the proud in Asia I had to go back to the class of America. I wasn’t sharing my trans identity to my mother agent to the whole fashion industry did not know I was trans and laughing about it and I was like, this is just so fucking nuts. So I Why would I choose the most visible industry to hide? Cannot be more visible than being on the billboards in Times Square or covers of magazines or commercials?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 30:28
That’s a great question. Why do you think?
One, it’s a point of reference when when I was in the Philippines, there is this woman named Carolyn cosi, who was a huge trans model. I mean, she was a model in the 70s and early 80s until she was outed by a tabloid. So but in our community, we’ve known her story. I mean, she was like a myth and a whisper of doctors, this girl and there’s so many more. There’s so many trans woman rates. Our community is littered with stories like that of trans woman, particularly in fashion that had made it but the moment they got outed, they’re done. You know, Carolyn Posey was a sense of possibility. But you’re also a sense of caution. Do not let that happen to you.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 31:18
Geena had Caroline Cossey as proof that someone like her could make it and modeling. But she’s doing everything she can to make sure that she doesn’t face the same fate. She isn’t just hiding. She is putting every effort into going undercover. She is going full James Bond.
I love spy genre. I am a snob. Let me clearly say that I am a spy genre snob. I will judge you that leads to best TV series. Yeah. And I think why really relate to that because I felt like I was in a clandestine operation for eight years. I had to protect my cover. I had to protect my story. And I did things what’s fine, you know, I was I would go in on on photoshoots I would go on auditions. Sometimes we will do this edition called Calico right where it’s like 800 Girls are there. And then you’re waiting here for an hour, two hours and you go to the bathroom. And one of the girls asked for a tampon Oh, I have to tampon. You have to I have to believe it. I had to believe that this what I was doing. There’s an element of performance, obviously. But you know, as a spy in clandestine operation, you have to live it every single moment.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:34
That is truly so impressive. But also like what on earth is going on in your head while you’re constantly trying to maintain your cover?
It’s complicated, because I was also 21 single in New York City. I was having the best time sleeping around. Yeah, having the most fun and then going to clubs and you’re like a model? Or you mean you could go in and we’d like, you just show up and then everybody takes care of you. That was fine. Absolutely fine. You know, from that girl in the tiny little alley to have that having access to whatever you want. Yes, that was fine. But certainly when I’m alone, I have to deal with that internal thoughts. of am I ever going to be allowed to be myself, you know, to blow the look like, you know, I was always I was always in my head especially especially when I’m by myself while also trying to oh, this right. I’m I’m an undercover spy. Okay, I hate to okay, what Okay, oh, I need to buy a new supply of tampons, you know, all at the same time. Or even the way talk like I don’t speak like this. I was speaking in the higher register. I know. Right? Totally. Absolutely. insane. Insane. I was aware of that toe. And it’s like instant the moment like I needed to do that. Especially in the morning when my voice is really low. higher register. I knew totally Absolutely. I know. Nicolas.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:14
Just like she was on a rocket ship to the top in the Philippines. Gina is killing it as a model. She’s the face of a Remo cosmetics campaign when they launched their new lip gloss. She’s in a frickin John Legend music video. But as her star rises higher and higher, she is reaching a breaking point. How is it taking a toll as time goes on? Right like this? This feeling of hiding?
Yeah, it was. I mean, I’m self diagnosing. I was definitely a functioning depress person course. I’m doing everything. You know the drive to succeed. I do know now is link directly to that drive to not be found out. While at the same time, as I’m doing that, you know, as a fashion model you want to do okay, what’s the next big campaign I’ll do? What’s the next big job, it’s anything you know, bigger the job that I want, the bigger the paranoia that comes with that. So to do that, it took its toll on my loneliness, my sadness, and especially when I’m alone, and I’m in my head and the stress that was eating me up, and it took until like, I was about to turn 30 years old, and now it’s just I cannot fucking into this new decade with a shit. You know, I just can’t, you know, and but I think the one that really did it was I had the most intense eczema in my life still, it’s on the records right now. It’s still I mean, at the time, I think there was just intensity of those intimate thoughts and intimate moments of like, should I come out? The back and forth? They think that’s what that’s the one that’s that did to me, because if I should do it this way. What do I say? Okay, I can do that. I need to do the job. Only you can say like, I was like, oh my god, like.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:18
Just all of that. Yeah. And then the eczema on my body was so disgusting. I definitely thought that I would never be able to show my skin again. And it took me I went to different tech, dermatologists and it took a female dermatologist to sit me down. And she was like, we tried so many different things, all the steroids that you could think of what else going on? You know, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I didn’t need to tell her what’s going on. I knew exactly what she was talking about. And from that moment on, joke about this, no, but certainly in the moment, it’s like, I guess I just need to honor this eczema. Like, really, it’s the truth speaking right here, gotta honor it. Have that conversation with your eczema.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 37:13
The body really does keep score. And she honors it by making some lifestyle changes. But she knows there’s a bigger change she needs to make because she’s still agonizing over having to hide her identity from the world. So on a pivotal vacation to Mexico for her 30th birthday. She decides the next chapter of her life is going to be different.
I flew to Mexico with my partner and dancing salsa on the beach. And he asked me, gee, what this dirty, dirty? What does it mean for you? And because I’ve been thinking about this as my head of like, wanting to do a new album, it was the first time in words came out of my mouth. And I told him like, you know, I love I’m ready to come out and tell my story. And the moment I said that, we were dancing salsa with a live band, the moment I said that, the band stopped the music and the focus. I said it and then he said something again in Spanish. And next thing you have hundreds of sea turtles with crawling towards as being born.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:27
It’s really so for me at the time, I was just like, Oh my God, look sea turtles, you know, sea turtle pictures like grabbing grabbing all this sea turtles into a room. And obviously, the Mayan culture is very sacred for them. So everybody participated in doing that. But once we’re done like after, you know, washing off, you know, the sand in our hand. Just freaking realize what just happened. I was like bawling. And nearly the next day, I just felt like it was night and day I was Dallas Dallas, the next motivator for me. And I just went from feeling, internalizing that trends shame. When I say that one chance to like power. And as in the beginning of that Horse Barbie spirit was coming back. I was like, if I’m going to share this story, if I’m going to come out and do this 2014 still considered for me at least a risk in my career. I’m going to do it in the biggest stage. I’m going to share my story and come out and the biggest stage a cannot go bigger than TED conference mainstage.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 40:57
We’re back among the sea turtles, Gina decides she is done making trade offs. She’s going to come out in America. And she’s going big. TED talk big. So she calls up a friend to get in the room because the girl’s got connections, of course. But first she has to prep.
I mean, I’ve never given a public speech before that was my very first public speech.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:30
Are you kidding me?
I mean, obviously, I’ve done patches, but it’s different. Oh, yes. Wow. Yeah, that was my first. And they introduced me to a couple of their Ted speech coach. And but there’s this woman named Gina Burnett, who is changed my life taught me so many things. She’s also my Jewish mother. Now. They’re the best. We all need a Jewish mother.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:53
I have one. She’s a lot.
I love her. And when she only coached like, the big names at TED, it’s like, no, I’m taking you, you know, the Geena name something here. Now, because she saw me rehearse anf I had a different speech coach before and it was like, I can make this work. I mean, she’s an expert. I mean, like, she taught me so many things. I got approved to speak at TED, on January. And the TED conference happening in March, this is late. I only had like that couple of months. I was like, Oh, we got to do this. Okay, now we got to do it. Like I have to buy into this training. I have to say to because I had to rehearse so that Ted like, two days before my speech, the moment I got in that stage, I was like, okay, horse Barbies back, the muscle memory all came back. It was it was all back Tiger layers there. The other training the muscle memory, the, the gate, the way I’ve walked away, I command, you know, how do you create intimacy in a in a sea of 20,000 people and coliseums in the Philippines to like, how, you know, by internalizing, and it’s self belief, it all came back. And the way one of one technique was like, you wake up, and you say your speech with without sound in the background, right? And you say it would sound now say without sound without sound in the background just in your head. Okay, now turn on TV, like a slouch as TV, you know. And now repeat this speech with sound with a TV. And now repeat the speech with a TV on without the sound that just in your head, you know, and then do it over and over. Until it becomes part of you enough. People stumble on the first you know, thing and they’ve forgotten and they freeze. And then Gina’s technique is that you know, right before you get on stage, just repeat the first line over and over, run over repeat in your head. So when you’re there as the moment you walk in, it’s muscled in, you know, you just slice through, you know, so that’s what the world makes you something that you’re not. But you know, inside what you are.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:07
Are you able to see the crowd Do you see faces or is the light sort of blinding in that way?
The light was blinding, but I remember the moment I got on stage, I just and this is the Tigerlily technique now is that you just pinpoint on one person, you know, and I just identify and if you go look at TED, I definitely know that’s what I was doing in that mode because there was this woman who was wearing a yellow or like like light green shirt, and with the glasses I just onto her chin. She was my safety. You know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:43
You did this really incredible reveal where you have your sexiest most gorgeous photo modeling lingerie, I believe.
For the last nine years some of my neighbors Some of my friends, colleagues, even my agent did not know about my history. I think in mystery, this is called the reveal. Here is mine.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:11
And then you push the button and it’s an image of you as a little boy in the Philippines.
I was assigned boy at birth, based on the appearance of my genitalia.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:24
Do you have any doubt at that moment? Like, are you that moment before you push the button? Like, that’s the moment, right?
I was I was completely bought in. When I was completely in it. This is also crazy, because I gave that talk. Because it’s a week of conference, right? I gave that talk on a Wednesday. Originally, I was going to be in the first session, but when they said, like, Oh, we’re switching it to like today. So it’s like, Oh, my God. So people they were asking, So what are you speaking about? You’re like, I’m speaking. Even though I was like, I need to hide this now. Because I had to wait for two days before I could speak. So what did you say? What would you say? I’m speaking about my life story. You have to be there. You know, some people really showed up. Because you couldn’t find anything online about me obviously, at that point. Yeah. So nobody knows. So even the people there, you know, can’t reveal. Right, you know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:19
And that moment, when you end and the crowd jumps to their feet, you get a standing ovation. I mean, that feeling you probably want to bottle it up.
It was That was powerful. I mean, right after that TED talk. I got upstaging Gina Burnett was next to me, literally next to the stage. And they were like, Oh, look at us, oh my god, so precious. We were like ugly crying.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:47
After she gives her speech, Gina finds out it’s going to be published online in a week. And she’s preparing to full on pivot from model to activist. Along with a co founder, she scrambles to launch their advocacy campaign for gender recognition policy in time for the speech. And then it happens on March 31 2014, Trans Day of visibility, the video drops, and it immediately goes viral. Suddenly, she’s everywhere doing all the press interviews. But unlike her modeling days, she’s showing up with nothing to hide, ready to tell her story to anyone who will listen. It’s interesting, why you were James bonding this for so long. You know, you have this part in your book, you say, I might have to pay back all the money I made from my swimsuit and lingerie ads, they would say it was a fraud, they would say I had fooled them that I owed them their money back. After this comes out after this is viral is that fear put to rest.
It was put to rest. I mean, I still continued working as a model. But my focus became the advocacy. It became the focus of my career, my purpose, my life, you know, yeah, I another joke around that I felt like I was having an engineer Julian moment in my career, you know, to like, sexy lingerie to like, I’m speaking at the United Nations, when my Polish dress, you know, all the elegance. And I did, I did that, you know, because next thing I knew was speaking at the UN or economic forum, and then President Obama State Department called and US ad like, we want to send you around, you know, and share your story. And it was incredible, to have that sense of, you know, advocacy and purpose. And as I tell my story, but also I know, honoring that community in the Philippines to have given me so much.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:49
That’s incredible. I mean, to go from the little sea turtles, and say I need to go to the biggest stage to literally going to the UN and the White House is quite a trajectory. It’s quite, it’s quite a story.
I mean, talking about manifesting, I remember, I still have the email. I remember when I send an email to friends, like in the first quarter of 2014, discernment calls, I want to speak at Ted and I speak at the State Department and at the United Nations. My God, all of these things happen. Our vision board it really worked. It worked. It works. Try Yes, listeners try it. It works. I’m sure most listeners are already doing this.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:29
Absolutely. Going to do this clear my calendar today. This afternoon. I’m vision boarding. Geena is seeing her vision board come to life, which is head spinning. But it seems like it’s often in these moments when you’re in the middle of success beyond your wildest dreams where you get hit with a serious reality check. And that moment came just two years into her journey.
I felt like I entered a different trap. You know A different trap of respectability. And the burden of representation took its toll. And yeah, close to two years of doing that. I was just like, young eagle Geno’s thinking, Oh, look at you bit your trailblazing. You’re doing this thing. You’re the only one in the room. You’re the one you did, you know, at some point that the ego check and use like, but it’s like questioning why you’re the only one here? What is the systems that made it? You’re the only one? And think that beginning of that realisation I was like, okay, you’ve opened this door, how do you keep that door open and bring people with you. And I went from engineer initially to like, I want to be like Tyra Banks, and start a production company and tell stories and, and produce more stories about my community. From our perspective. We have no background in production. So. And, you know, I did launch a production company in Saudi working with the Viacom’s of the world and producing Docu series. And, and, but more. So I think it’s the way to honor the artists and I’m always going to be a storyteller. I’m an artist, first and foremost.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 51:15
Your story is deeply joyful and full of triumph. It is it is a joyful, triumphant story. And I also cannot help but reflect on this like, horrific wave of anti LGBTQ legislation that’s targeting that kind of joy right now. I’d love to just have you speak on it on what it’s like for you as a trans woman who’s proud and visible in America in 2023, when an entire political party is using transness as a fire alarm.
Yeah, it’s important. Thank you for asking that. It’s it’s I say this? I mean, I think the immediate reaction certainly is, and I, you know, I speak to a lot of young trans folks, all over, I honor their live experience, I honor the identity, I honor, I tell them to keep going I tell them to never forget that light inside of you. But more so think my first attempt for myself when I wrote this book is to share my story in the most unapologetic way as possible. In all of my complexities, I mean, you read the book, I went there, I went there, because the there’s a power in completely being unapologetic in owning those innermost thoughts and dreams, and hopes and love and career and art that I shared in this book. And when I’m saying that, because I hope they get to access those things in their life in whatever possible in whatever way that they want to write, and to act to know, to still be reminded that the fullness in them is what really will get them through. Right. So that’s one aspect. The second aspect is, in my experience growing up in the Philippines, where we never had any political recognition, that mainstream visibility, this is why we need to have both, you know, visibility and protection at the same time, because for so long, people have told us as trans people, just be visible, just be visible, come out, come out is not the same. That doesn’t apply to trans people. You know, since 2014, to now, it’s been the most violent in our community, because the more of you become visible, it gets American way of looking at gender gets challenge. And unfortunately, the only way American culture knows how to rack is through violence. And this is truly my spiritual belief. And this is that you’re trying to take away our very systems because we have the power, we have the power to show people what freedom actually really means. The power, you know, potentially, if only the powers that be and I’m specifically speaking about the conservative, white patriarchy, if only those people could see through that they’re also entrapped about this. I think what they’re really afraid, is to really deep within themselves, how much trauma and suffering that they’ve been going through, because they bought in into this white supremacist way of looking at gender, which is binary and rigid, and patriarchy, a central form of ethos and spirit and Sr. They’re free to look at that. And trans and gender non conforming people. That’s what we do, we can people freedom, if you choose to want to be free of that. I talked about the pre colonial gender fluid. I mean, like if I didn’t have access to any of those things, I don’t know. It’s my groundwork to understand the trans people have been existing risk. You know, we’ve been so resilient and you aren’t showing our beauty, our compassion in a world that doesn’t want us to exist? You know, we’ve been at this since the beginning of time. It doesn’t make it easier, but know that this is a long journey of beauty and resilience and power. And here we are.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 55:20
Throughout her life, Geena has deftly navigated the shifting landscape of trans representation in both the Philippines and the US. Let’s be real here, Gina is kind of a one in a million shot. And there are so many who have been caught up in the harsh realities of disability recognition and acceptance. Still, there is hope here. Honestly, when I’m scrolling through Instagram, or Tiktok, or online shopping, I see so many beautiful faces of all genders. And part of that, I think, is thanks to Horse Barbie.
There’s even more LAST DAY with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like an AMA with yours truly. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything in case you didn’t know. So just FYI and FYI means for your information. So subscribe now in Apple Podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me at @WittelStephanie. Thank you for listening, we will see you next week.