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Laverne Cox: werq it out!

The Orange is The New Black star has become the fabulous face of the trans movement. The actress shares her journey to empowerment

Taken from the Autumn 2014 issue of Dazed: 

When she was growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Laverne Cox had no role models to speak of. “I remember seeing that episode of The Jeffersons where George’s old buddy came back and was a woman now,” Cox recalls. “ She was very pretty but she was really a joke, a punchline. From what I saw in the media, I didn’t equate trans people with being successful and accomplished.” Today, she’s possibly the most prominent trans person in pop culture, starring in Orange is the New Black as scissor-sharp-witted hairdresser Sophia Burset and appearing on the cover of TIME as a spokesperson for ‘the transgender tipping point.’ And let’s be honest, who could ask for a more fabulous face to front a movement? 

In season two of Orange Is the New Black, your character, Sophia, educates her fellow inmates on the anatomy of the vagina. How did you find filming that scene?

Laverne Cox: That was one of my favourites, it was just genius! Doing the scene where I give the presentation with the visual aid, Adrienne Moore – who plays Black Cindy – was just so funny, she had me falling on the floor. 

The best line is when your character Sophia says, ‘I designed one myself!’

Laverne Cox: Sophia is very happy with her situation, and there are trans women out there who are very proud of their lady parts and want to talk about them... But Laverne isn’t that lady!

In your interview with Katie Couric, you said it can be negative to focus on surgery when discussing the trans experience. 

Laverne Cox: I think generally on TV talk shows and in most mainstream media, transition and surgery often becomes the only takeaway. What’s different about Sophia, and what’s important, is that we see complicated territory which goes beyond her body, but so often we don’t get these really complicated stories of trans folk. 

Were the producers of the show keen that a trans person play Sophia?

Laverne Cox: Yes, from my understanding they were looking for someone trans to play the role.

What do you think of Hollywood’s casting of non-trans actors in trans roles, such as Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club?

Laverne Cox: I would never tell another actor they shouldn’t play a part. What I will say is that in my experience, trans folk watching (OITNB) have a point of identification that they might not have if someone cisgender plays the role. And those who are not trans can find themselves having sympathy for the trans actor. That can create these initiators of social change. 

How did you feel when you saw yourself on the cover of TIME

Laverne Cox: It was a huge moment for my community. It was really about people who have worked for decades, and a major validation of our lives. It shows that our voices do matter. So much of the trans narrative – certainly when I transitioned, and maybe until recently – was about disappearing and blending in, because that is what one had to do to survive. Being visible as a trans person is often putting a target on your back. So I hope this is a moment for trans people, that I can be visible and live my dreams.

You grew up in Alabama. What was that like?

Laverne Cox: Uh, enchanting? (laughs) I’m writing a memoir, which is a really gut-wrenching process, so I’m thinking about my childhood. I was bullied and chased home from school practically every day. But also I got a lot of support from teachers and my mother, even though she didn’t really get the gender stuff. She let me take dance classes when I was in third grade, so I was really encouraged in those areas. I think those things are why I’m where I am today.

Who did you look up to as a kid?

Laverne Cox: Leontyne Price – she was the first black international opera-singing superstar! As a child, I would read about her and look at photos and listen to her sing. I imagined and hoped that my life would be something like that; that I would be so good at what I did as an artist.

Is it right that you were a dancer before an actor?

Laverne Cox: Well, my mother didn’t really want me to take ballet because she thought it would be too gay! (laughs) So I only started taking ballet in my sophomore year, and then when I got to college in New York I was a dance major. Actually, tap became difficult and running became difficult, because ballet elongates your body and you pull up in the centre. And then I started going to hip hop clubs in New York, right? And I wasn’t programmed to do that!

You had to learn how to get low?

Laverne Cox: I did, yeah!

When did your journey to transitioning begin?

Laverne Cox: It was very much an evolution. I started wearing makeup and girls’ clothes in high school, although not dresses and skirts. Then when I went to New York and actually met some transgender people, all the misconceptions about trans folk in the media and the stigmas that I had internalised melted away. That really helped me accept myself, and that’s when I got the courage to transition.

You were one of the hosts on a makeover show called TRANSform Me for VH1 a few years ago, what was that time like?

Laverne Cox: I was also a co-creator! It was the first time I had ever starred in my own television show, so that was major for me. I loved loads about what we did, but what was tricky for me is that it was about makeovers. I don’t like the idea of dictating to women what they should wear and who they should be. So what I loved about doing it was what we called the ‘self-actualisation moment’ – it should happen from the inside out. With trans folk, what we do is make who we are on the inside what the world sees on the outside, and a good makeover does that as well. 

It’s about owning your body, right?

Laverne Cox: It’s about all of you. It’s about owning your body but it’s about owning all of it. Our bodies matter, but we’re more than our bodies. To be really real – oftentimes lately I’ve been on the red carpet or I’ve been on a TV appearance and a waist cincher and looking great but really uncomfortable!

What’s your favourite slang phrase?

Laverne Cox: I say ‘werk’ a lot: W-E-R-K or W-E-R-Q! ‘Werk it out!’ Not ‘you better werk’ – just ‘werk’. But it’s always changing; I don’t like to be repetitive.

Orange Is The New Black is available exclusively on Netflix