Transgender Hero Janet Mock: ‘Glam Is a Gateway to Survival’

Janet Mock
Janet Mock

Janet Mock is a bestselling author and transgender advocate. She’s given a speech at the Women’s March on Washington, high-fived Oprah on national television, and written articles for Marie Claire, including a stunning coming-out piece, and for the New York Times — most notably, an opinion piece in which she talks about how “young people overwhelmingly get” transgender rights.

 She’s also an expert on frizz-proof hair and flawless mascara.

“I believe glam is a gateway to survival,” says the 34-year-old, whose latest gig is as a guest columnist for Allure. “As a trans woman specifically, I feel like makeup helped me understand what I wanted to look like and who I wanted to be.”

Mock details her journey through womanhood — and the beauty products that she carried along the way — in the new book Surpassing Certainty. A funny, fascinating, brutally honest look at Mock’s early 20s, the book chronicles her time as an exotic dancer, a fashion intern, and a master’s degree candidate.

Still, while cosmetics may boost confidence, Mock’s not a bestselling author and Oprah BFF just because she’s a lipstick whiz. Through magazine articles, political speeches, and her groundbreaking 2014 autobiography, Redefining Realness, the 34-year-old has become a pop-culture force that’s 50 percent cool big sister and 50 percent serious social conscience. (She’s also a front-row fixture at fashion shows for Christian Siriano.)

Yahoo Beauty spoke with the native Hawaiian in New York City, and, yes, we asked for stripper advice. (Her tips are exceptional, because: #overachiever.)

Surpassing Certainty deals with major themes like identity and loneliness. But it also has one of the most genius beauty tips ever.

Oh, the toilet paper seat?

Yes! You describe using disposable toilet-seat covers as blotting paper…

Use what you have available. That’s a key beauty tip from strippers!

Did you learn that from the other dancers?

No, I think I just figured it out. One day when I was in [the strip club], I went to the toilet, and I grabbed one, and I just looked at it for a second. I thought, Wait, this has the exact same consistency as a blotting paper. But it’s bigger than my entire face. And it’s free. So I put my whole face on it like it was a sheet mask. I rubbed my hands across the back, and then I peeled it off — again, just like a sheet mask. And I saw all the makeup, all the sweat, and all the oil just cling to it. I’ve done it for years. To be honest, I still do it now in the airport.

Please give me more stripper beauty tips.

People think [strippers] and girls who are regulars at the club — not just the strip club, but any club — put glitter everywhere. But the skilled ones, we know that the lights in clubs are very concentrated, and they hit your body and face at very specific points. So we save money and time by only putting shimmer where our “high points” are. That’s your clavicle, your cheekbones, the tops of your shoulders.

Even if I use highlighter on my clavicle, it ends up all over my chest and shoulders by the end of the night.

Oh, you should be carrying baby wipes in your purse at all times.

Stripper beauty advice sounds close to second-date advice.

Exactly. [Laughing] Stripper beauty advice is the same thing as second-date advice! You’re ready to get close to someone, you’re beyond, “Do you have any siblings?” You’re ready to share your bodies. You get prepared.

There are many Lifetime movies about cutthroat strippers trying to take down one another. Was that your experience, or was it more of a Coyote Ugly kind of sisterhood?

I had a unique situation, because the club I talk about in the book was owned by a woman, who we called “Mama.” And she set the tone that this was not a place to get catty with each other, or to compete with each other for men’s attention. Of course, there were some girls who kept to themselves more and weren’t as friendly as others. But there was no real infighting. We weren’t competing for men’s money. We were working together to make the most money for the club, and [therefore] for all of us.

What did you learn about yourself from that experience?

What I loved so much is that I saw all different types of bodies. C-section scars. Stretch marks. Visible ribs. Everything. And I realized that the things women have been taught to Photoshop out of their bodies, if you’re interested in attracting men, those “flaws” aren’t real. Heterosexual men don’t care. I realized that at least in a purely physical sense, they’re looking at your entire package, and that includes your attitude. Understanding that is what makes you a successful stripper, and I think it also translates somewhat in the dating market, as well… I learned at 20 years old that nobody gives a f*** about your stretch marks, even in a space of desirability. Nobody’s obsessing about it except you. Certainly not the men you want to attract.

You were just a Miss USA judge. You were also a speaker at the Women’s March on Washington. How do you reconcile your feminist convictions with a pageant that scores women partly based on looks?

You know, I was having a conversation with Ashley Graham. She’s a co-host of the pageant. This is her second year doing it. We share a hairstylist, and she said, “Janet, I heard you’re in negotiations to be a judge.” And I told her, “I am, but I’m really conflicted about it because I don’t think they’ve ever had an openly trans woman in this space.” And Ashley said, “I feel similarly [as a plus-size woman]. I don’t see my body up there [as a contestant] either.” And we were like, “Is this a part of our mission, to help the pageant as a whole accept more diverse kinds of female beauty?” I think by engaging in the pageant, we’re disrupting the pageant. And that’s the first step.

Did you ever do pageants in Hawaii?

A lot of my sisters in Hawaii engaged in pageants, but as trans women, the only pageants they could do were drag queen pageants. Because pageants for cis women were not open to trans women. But I mean, I’ll tell you, there are cis feminist women who policed my decision to be a part of this pageant. Whereas a lot of trans women were like, “Yes, girl! One of us is going to Miss USA!”

What?! Women are bullying one another on the Internet? Shocking!

I know, right? So for me, it’s like, How can I bring my politics and the way I choose to live my life into the pageant space as a judge? That’s what I want to do. Yes, beauty and aesthetics are a huge part of pageants, but they’re also a part of my own life. And that becomes a gateway to say if I didn’t have pretty privilege, and if I didn’t have blending in and “passing” [as a cis woman] privilege, I probably wouldn’t be seen and heard in the same levels that I’m heard.

How do you rise above those Twitter onslaughts?

For me, I’m always someone that’s never policed other women’s choices. And as someone who’s engaged in activities that have never been “respectable,” that have always been outside of the framework of what folks have defined as “womanhood,” I’ll never judge another woman for doing what she wants or needs to do. Now, is that colluding with the patriarchy? Maybe. But we’re all messy. We’re all colluding because we exist in a culture that’s racist, sexist, anti-queer, transphobic … but we also have to participate in culture to change it. Engaging in this space scares me. It makes me uncomfortable. And when that happens in my life, I challenge myself to say yes and to engage.

You talk in the book about feeling betrayed by the trans women you saw on TV and in movies, that you felt like they were “freak shows.” Honestly, I recoil at some people in my own communities. How do we accept others even if we think they’re making “the rest of us” look bad?

Your first step is what I call “the Great Unlearning.” When I was 20, the only trans women that were visible to me were those on Jerry Springer and Maury who reveal to some guy on camera, “I’M A MAN!” That’s the portrait of young trans women that people who watched those shows would get. So low-income families, stay-at-home moms, my friend’s mothers, my peers, folk of color who are watching these shows — it was the most immediate, visceral portrait of young trans women. I was like, “I do not want to be that. I have to overcome people’s immediate catalog of trans women. I have to be so much better than those people.”

Exactly! What’s your advice to those who feel we have to be “better” than everyone else in our ethnicity/religion/orientation/political party?

My black grandmother taught me that as a black person, I have to do double or even triple the work to get half as much. You’re taught early to “fight back” with exceptionalism. I used to think I had to be a certain kind of woman to prove I wasn’t “one of those” trans women. But now I have to reteach myself that I’m not better than those women on TV. They’re doing the best with what they have. Instead, I have to ask, “How can I support these women? And how can I offer a different reflection of myself?”

What would you tell your 20-year-old self about those Jerry Springer women?

You can be a completely messy bitch that lives for drama and wants desperately to be Joanne the Scammer. Or you can be somebody that’s a talk-show host and an author and wants to be seen as “respectable” and academic. Or you can be neither. You can be whoever the hell you want. But you can’t police other people’s wants, desires, needs, and how they represent themselves. But of course that’s hard! We just have to keep working.

On TV and in books and magazines, you’ve been very honest about your personal journey. What’s one thing you don’t want to discuss anymore?

My first book is largely about my transition. And I’m so grateful for that book, but there’s a lot of explanations in it. In 2014, our culture wasn’t where it is now in terms of trans people. So I had to explain a lot of terms. I also had to go into real detail and explain my own body, my own medical history, and real details about my body in transition. That’s the only way people would get a full picture of a young person in transition. It’s the first narrative written by a young person. It’s the first by a trans person of color. It challenged a lot of stigmas. It made people confront the fact that we’re not a monolith. And because it’s out there, I feel like we can stop with the Trans 101 questions.

I want to name a punk band Trans 101. 

Ha! But you know what I mean when I say “Trans 101.” Questions about my body and medical procedures. Questions about gender binaries and spectrums. I can’t keep retracing my steps when they’re already out there. But also, I’ll tell you something, I speak on a lot of college campuses, and these kids, they’d be bored by Trans 101 because they get it. Gen Z is woke. And part of why I wrote Surpassing Certainty is because after my lectures, these kids would come up to me and say, “I already know about feminism and gender constructs and political consciousness. What I really want to know is, how did you bring your full self to your work, and also, what do you use in your hair?!”

I mean, you do have great hair.

I straightened it for the GLAAD Awards, just to mix it up. And everyone there is like, “Janet, this makes you look softer!” I went home to my husband, and I said, “I got so many compliments on my hair and how great I look tonight, and it makes me so angry.”

As a fellow curly, I understand. Hearing “you’re so pretty with straight hair” feels like getting stabbed.

Right?! I felt like I was being pushed toward a sameness. “If you straighten your hair, you’ll get all these compliments from us, and you’ll be so much more marketable.” It’s this tiny shift in aesthetics, but the connotations can feel so big. I find it fascinating, but, yeah, it also makes me mad.

Do you think it’s true? Do you think that as a woman of color, and a woman in the media, you need to have straight hair to be marketable?

I mean, I literally had a woman come up to me at the airport and say, “Are you Janet Mock? I bought your book because I saw the cover and I loved your hair.” So … I think my curly hair is pretty marketable [Laughing].

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