"An Artist Out and Proud"
Welcome back Through the Looking Glass, my friends. Today I’m here with Trisha van Cleef, who is a rather exceptional person in our community; she is a completely out crossdresser. I mean she lets it be known that she is Paul Whitehead, the professional artist famous for the surrealist album covers he designed for Genesis in the 1970s. And, get this, Paul Whitehead lets it be openly known that he is also a crossdresser named Trisha Van Cleef. Check out some great art and see for yourself on his/her website: www.paulwhitehead.com.
A: Trisha, first off, let me express my admiration for you. The only real way we make progress as crossdressers or transpeople is for each us to make ourselves known as human beings in the ways that we can. And you certainly have! You are the first man I have ever known who openly declared, “Yep, I’m a crossdresser”--and you’re a public figure. How was it that you could make this move without grave repercussions? And why did you want to?
T: Are you kidding? I can't POSSIBLY be the first that you know, what about Eddie Izzard? And lots of others come to mind.
A: Okay, then only one I know personally. Well, aren’t you just a kick in the panties?
T: Thank you for the appreciation, yet it’s a little strange - sitting where I am in the unfolding drama that is my life, to see who and what I am as something unusual, it's my life and welcome to the show.
How is it that I could out myself without any negative repercussions? Two answers to that question. First, I have always believed that the truth will set you free, and believe me I don't say that in a trivial, fortune-cookie way, I believe that it is all a matter of energy, a bad intention behind an action will lead to negative results and a positive intention will lead to success and - as in the case of me outing myself as a crossdresser - a positive outcome and freedom from fear, paranoia and deceit - three aspects of human life that I despise with a passion. Second, I asked other crossdressers, whose opinions I respected, what was the possible downside to me coming out and I got a unanimous response, “There is NO down side,” and I believed them, “but you go first.”
When I crossed my fingers and hit the send button on the email invitation that I sent out to everyone that I knew announcing my first "One Man - One Woman" art show, I must admit that I felt a twinge of fear but that was soon replaced with a feeling of incredible liberation, the genie could NOT be put back in the bottle and, I told myself, if any of my friends disowned me because of that they were not really my friends in the first place. You know what? I lost no friends. A couple of my male, soccer-playing, let's-go-down-to-the-pub-and-have-a-pint buddies didn't speak to me for a year or so but I found out that, because of their respect for me as a friend and as an artist with a history and some integrity, they wanted to know what the hell it was all about. Had I become gay and if they spent time in my company could they catch it? I must say that some of my other friends touched me profoundly with their genuine interest and curiosity - especially as it was a type of behavior that was completely alien to them - but they bravely stretched themselves and willingly went to what for them was a very uncomfortable place, i.e., meeting "Paul in a dress.”
I have never seen the value in being socially confrontational but having felt within myself a feeling of why me and why the hell do I have this "perversion" in my life to deal with? I felt that I had to deal with it and maybe in the course of doing that I would become controversial. So to negate that outcome I consciously tried to express and manifest my female self as honestly and openly as I could. At the opening reception of my first "One Man - One Woman" gallery show I was Paul Whitehead, the painter/rock-and-roll artist, from 7 p.m. until 8:30 and then came back at 9:00 as Trisha van Cleef. Most of my friends told me that they saw me as something beautiful and playful, definitely not someone to be afraid of. Positive intention - positive outcome. I was aware, of course, that I was probably the first crossdresser that some of them had ever encountered or had a conversation with and I felt a big responsibility to represent not only myself properly but also the whole TG community.
A: Are you really able to support yourself by being a painter without having to paint houses?
T: Yes, although in my career I have painted almost everything possible. I had a business in the 80s painting advertising on the sides of semi-trailers, and I am in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mural in the world (now gone) on The Vegas World Casino in Las Vegas (now the Stratosphere). I have also painted live on stage with rock bands, and it is because of a history of successfully collaborating with bands and solo musicians - going all the way back to 1964, when I did my first record cover for Fats Domino - that I have been able to support myself without ever having to resort to a day job.
A: I understand that you have a line of art by Trisha van Cleef that’s distinct from your work as Paul Whitehead. Why? Would it be like me writing a line of detective stories by Jack Ablehammer and a series of historical romances by Suzanne St. Germaine.
T: My work - as Paul - is known for being very detail oriented and very surrealistic in content - sometimes requiring months of sitting at my easel painting for 8 -10 hrs a day. The rebellious artist within me often felt the need to explore more abstract and spontaneous ways of expressing myself, not necessarily painting, and I found a great channel for that almost accidentally. I would get up after a long painting session, often very tight and numb - particularly in my upper back and shoulders - and just literally throw paint around on a surface, could be canvas, wood, paper, anything that was around, until I was satisfied with the way it looked. I collected quite a few of these experiments over time and would usually stash them in my storage space never really giving them any credence as serious art. Every now and then I would see one and think to myself, "That's a nice piece of painting," or I would like the color combination and take it back to my studio to reconsider its validity, not in Paul's world of art but in some other alternative world.
One of my great heroes and influences as an artist has always been Marcel Duchamp - a huge intellectual force in the world of 20th century art. Duchamp - as well as being responsible for pioneering some of the most profound and revolutionary changes in the way that art is perceived and created - was also a very playful person, a crossdresser who used a female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, to make less serious and flippant art, the theory being that he could deny any responsibility for the work as Marcel and lay it all on Rrose without critically endangering his "serious" work as a man.
A: Sounds just a wee bit sexist, don’t you think?
T: Well, those were the times and that wasn’t at all his intention. Working as Rrose gave him freedom to basically do whatever he felt like as a creator and at the same time ignore any criticism.
When I started to reappraise my abstract pieces and began spontaneously stretching fabric, panty hose and stockings etc. over them, I took a leaf out Duchamp's book and found a channel for Trisha van Cleef to express herself. It worked wonderfully, giving me the same freedom. Soon Trisha was making objects, furniture, bottles, anything that she put her mind to, while Paul continued making his surrealistic, very technical work, for compact disc covers.
Trisha is not interested in technique or assigning large chunks of time to the making her creations. She gets bored very quickly and produces her art spontaneously and without a rigid goal in mind. It happens in the moment. And if it starts to becomes self conscious or contrived she stops immediately. The results are very colorful, playful and original, they are decorative, non-narrative and definitely not discernable as realistic images - a big contrast to Paul's work.
I soon realized how appropriate this was to the two genders that were at work here, the male side being analytical, cerebral and very concerned with finish and the realization of a pre-conceived idea, while the female side worked in the world of emotion, play and pure beauty - exercising an almost motherly appreciation of the unabashed thrill of creating for the sheer hell of it, each of them being very true to the stereotypical and traditional roles played by each gender.
A: How do you live? How often to you get out?
T: I have a large loft in Downtown L.A. - large enough to have two bedrooms, one for Trisha and one for Paul. Trisha also has her own boudoir (with mirror, make up, clothes, and wigs) where she gets ready. Most of the other people in the building are creative. There are a couple of bands who rehearse there, so no problem staying up working and playing music until the wee hours."We" get out as often we I can.
A: Where do you like to go?
T: Anywhere - nowhere is off limits. It depends on how much hassle I feel prepared to deal with. Movies, restaurants, clubs, museums, obviously art gallery openings. That is always a revelation. You would think that "arty" people would be the most open-minded and liberal on the planet. But you should see some of the looks I get when they realize that I am a crossdresser.
I don't go out much in the day mainly because it's too uncomfortable for me. Here is Southern California, the sun makes the wig, too hot and blasts right through the makeup, revealing who you are and you start sweating. I only do it if it's an occasion when I am obliged to be Trisha or to support a TG friend's endeavors.
A: Why no special interest in our tranny nightclubs?
T: In the beginning, when I used to cautiously venture out, they were the only places to go, safety in numbers etc. I still check out any new "tranny" club that opens, but I don't really enjoy myself except for the dancing. I love dancing my ass off. I really don't like the tranny chasers; on the whole I think they’re creepy. I have made lots of TG friends from the clubs but only a few have made it into my complete life permanently. Most of my really dear friends know me equally well as Paul and Trisha, and that's what I want. I don't feel comfortable segregating Trisha, neither does she with Paul. Naturally she has her own life and interests and looks very different but the person inside is the same; I don't become some other person when I put women's clothes on.
A: Well, that’s all for today, folks. I’ll be back with Trisha van Cleef, the artist concurrently known as Paul Whitehead for part two of our interview next month Through the Looking Glass.
More from Trisha van Cleef,
the Artist Concurrently Known as Paul Whitehead
A: Trisha, do have a wife or kids? How do they feel about you being openly known as a crossdresser?
T: I was married for 20 years, no kids, and marriage was fascinating but eventually disappointing. My wife was into my dressing for a while, sexually that is. Get dressed, do some coke, smoke some herb, a few drinks and we could transgress sexual boundaries together without remorse. It was her that gave me my name; she decided that I was a Trisha. Everything was OK as long as it stayed in the bedroom.
When I expressed a wish to go out, she was astounded and very frightened of the possible repercussions. What will the neighbors say? What if someone we know sees you? What if you get stopped by the police? All negative. She did go to the old Queen Mary Show Lounge with me once, and she was appalled.
What we saw reinforced her fears and nearly convinced me that she was right about all the negative aspects of crossdressing. But I didn't buy into it 100%, though, something told me that there was another way. That is when my hero, Marcel Duchamp (see part 1 of this interview), came to my aid and put Trisha into the perspective of artistic expression.
A: How do you feel about women?
T: I love women, why else would I emulate them, study them, relish their company and wear their clothes? They are the nurturers, the only ones that can bring another life into the world - of course sometimes they drive me nuts. To quote Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady - "Why can't a woman be more like a man". I find that if I ever have something that is really bothering me and I want to talk about it, work it out, I will always call a woman friend. I have one dear female friend that I go for a 3-hour bike ride with every Saturday, we talk about EVERYTHING! I don't think that I have a male friend that I have that level of intimacy with, for both of us it feels like having a free shrink.
A: Ahem! Let’s not forget what I do for a living and that I practice in male form . . . How do you feel about men or other MTF transpeople? Any experience there?
T: Being a man, naturally I relate to most men and the role they play in society, but as Trisha I find them mostly disgusting. The way they come onto you, the lines that they use to try and pick you up! Get a clue guys! Does that really work with real girls? And sexually? It's usually - Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'm, and the pants are back on two seconds after the ejaculation. There are exceptions of course - the GENTLE-men; they are the ones I like.
MTF TSs? Met a lot. Find most of them to be nuts - must be the hormones - and their journey is their life, all they ever talk about. I find that boring. In my experience most of them don't seem to like crossdressers, and I always get a feeling that we are wimps in their eyes because we don't go the whole way. I have three fully-transitioned friends who are very sweet and intelligent, and all they want to do is fit in - live their lives below the radar and they are very successful at that. I can relate to them, and we have very healthy and fruitful relationships.
A: Do you simply love how you live, or are you looking for someone or something?
T: Very happy right now, I am loving the journey - all I'm really looking for is enlightenment and self realization. On that subject, I have a very deep and meaningful spiritual life. I have a guru to whom I have entrusted with my spiritual development, I keep in touch with him by meditating regularly. There was a time when I believed that dressing was unspiritual. He put me straight on that one. He told me that the spirit is beyond gender. It is gender-neutral, and that we are a beautiful blend of both male and female. He was right. He also told me that if that's your proclivity, get into it, work it out. The more you do it, the less power it will have over you. The more you don't do it the more you will want to do it.
I wish that I could pass that profound realization onto any crossdressers out there that are struggling. I would dearly love to take that weight off their shoulders and lead them into the world where dressing is fun, guilt-free and a beautiful way to express yourself and operate in the world.
A: You have a magnificent sense of style. Can you tell us about it? Any personal thoughts on passing?
T: I'm an artist, style is a very big part of our lives - when I was married I used to choose most of my wife's clothes for her, and I was almost always right on. I think that Trisha was living through her. I used to love to see her really beautifully dressed: she was stunning. Trisha's style is evolving all the time. As a man I am not a flamboyant dresser, and Trisha is the same. I tend to dress what I call "age-and-place appropriate" although Trisha is 10 years younger than Paul. I have passed the point of fetishizing women's clothes. I like to feel comfortable: no corsets, miniskirts, ridiculously high heels, or garish, bizarre colors that attract attention. I watch women a lot and see what they are wearing, what the fashion is - I like to fit in and not be the subject of attention when I walk into a restaurant.
As far as passing, who are we kidding and who really cares anyway? Though, I find once again that it’s a question of energy. If I go out looking and feeling good within myself and expecting to pass, I usually do, except that under very close scrutiny, the waiter always reads you. I have had lots of women come up to me and ask me where I got my skirt or my shoes or whatever. It's only when I speak that they see right through me.
A: Might you transition? What have you done to help you decide? What in particular, if anything, holds you back?
T: I seriously considered getting breast implants for my 60th birthday but I thought about it, talked to a couple of female friends, and decided not to. I tried pharmaceutical hormones for a while but didn't like how they made me feel. The herbs like fenugreek are OK, and I find that regular small doses seem to take what I call the male edge off your body: softer skin, slightly less hair growth, and of course your titties become a lot more sensitive. I guess I'm looking for that spiritual blend I mentioned earlier. I am not an extreme person in any aspect of my life, except in my search for God, and the middle road - towards anything - has always attracted me.
A: To me, you’re a sort of TG national treasure.
T: National treasure? Mount Rushmore is a national treasure I'm an ongoing gender experiment right now. When I die, we'll see if I was a national treasure or not, but thanks for the compliment.
A: Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers as one of the precious few transgender artists they may ever hear from?
T: This is where I get very emotional and feel a huge responsibility. I wish with all my heart that someone will read this interview and see a glimmer of hope and find a positive take on his condition - his confused and tortured struggle with crossdressing or transitioning. If that happens, I have done my job. Take some strength from me. I've been there. Don't be afraid, no matter what your social or marital situation is, and believe me I've seem them all.
You have to be YOURSELF. It's really all you can ever be. I believe that you have a responsibility to your creator to manifest that. It's why we are all here on this beautiful planet. Who is going to tell you who you are, except you? Who has the right to stop you evolving into whatever your mental picture of yourself is? I will repeat the same thing that my friends told me years ago when I was having doubts about coming out - THERE IS NO DOWN SIDE. Trust me, those that truly love you will love you, whatever. They are the people that you will cling to and trust for the rest of your life. The joke is that the only way to find them is by taking that step. Scary? Don't be afraid, you will be a better, more compassionate you with a very unique take on the world. Oh, and yes, I almost forgot to mention this, you will have LOTS to laugh about. I'll leave you with a quote from Marcel Duchamp: "There are no problems - only solutions."
A: Thank you, Trisha, for this rather remarkable interview.
Alice Novic, M.D.
To learn more about me than you’d ever dare ask, please see my smart, sexy memoir, Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age