It wasn't long before Justin began living a double life, going to school dressed as a boy, but changing into girl's clothes as soon as he got out. He had a small group of female friends who knew about his alter ego and supported him.
"I remember we would get in her car, and she would put her girl clothes on, and you know, maybe a wig and lipstick, and off we would go," said Nicole Haagensson, another school friend.
CLICK HERE to see photos of Nikki through the years.
After high school, Justin went to his mother, Sheri Bockelman, and told her that from now on he would be living as a girl full time.
"She said, 'I want to dress like a girl,'" Bockelman recalled. "And I said, 'OK.' And she went into her bedroom and put on this black dress and her high heels, and her makeup, and she came out here. And I'm going, 'OK, now I see what they're all seeing."
Justin took on the name Nikki, inspired by her fascination with a long time back-up singer of her idol Madonna.
While Nikki Purdue had no trouble fooling men at bars, underneath these flirtations was always the fear of how men would respond to discovering Nikki was actually male.
Fear was something that Nikki herself had grown accustomed to living with. Several years earlier, she said she was assaulted by a stranger in a restroom. She believes the assault resulted in an HIV positive diagnosis and led her down a path of recklessness.
"I thought my life would be over in two years," she said. "I lived hard and I lived fast because I was scared I was going to die."
Nikki Purdue spent her late teens and early 20s overindulging at bars and was arrested for both theft and driving while intoxicated.
In 1996, she made her female persona official by legally changing her name from Justin Graham Purdue to Nikki Paige Purdue.
She was no longer satisfied with pretending. She wanted to be a woman and saw surgery as her only option. The price tag of such a procedure put it out of reach at the time, but it would remain a dream.
Shortly after changing her name at 20 years-old, Purdue met Emilio Mata. Although he was 18 years older than her, she agreed to go on a date with him. Quickly, she quickly realized she was falling for Mata and had to tell him the truth about herself.
"I knew I wasn't going to get involved with anyone unless I was brutally honest," she said. "I said on the phone one night I was born a boy. He said, 'You're joking. I don't believe you. You're just trying to blow me off.' I'm like, 'No. I wish I was joking.'"
She also told Mata she was HIV positive. After the initial shock wore off, she says he was completely accepting of her and within a few weeks the couple moved in together. In October 1999, they wed.
For the first five years, the marriage was good, she said, but even then the relationship was strained by continued substance abuse and scrapes with the law. She acknowledged that as the years passed her life began spinning totally out of control.
"I needed someone who was going to ground me and unfortunately Emilio couldn't ground me," she said.
In 2007, Nikki Mata was arrested and charged with felony possession of a controlled substance.
"I did not receive drug charges until the very end of our relationship," she said. "Literally, that was the breaking point."