Putting the 'Trans' in 'Transform Me'

New VH1 series stars three transgender women transforming women across America.

April 15, 2010, 5:14 PM

April 19, 2010— -- The three transgender female stars of the new VH1 series "Transform Me" are transforming television while transforming women across America.

A twist on the traditional makeover show, "Transform Me" stars three transgender women, Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon, who drive around in an ambulance -- make that glambulance -- responding to style emergencies.

At the same time, they are changing the television landscape on Monday nights.

"The show is breaking new ground by presenting transgendered women as fierce and fabulous -- if a little superficial," Village Voice columnist Michael Musto told ABCNews.com. "It's giving visibility to three transsexuals who are offered as wise and funny gurus."

While gay people have become an accepted part of reality and scripted shows, the transgender community still has a long way to go. Candis Cayne gained national attention in 2007 when she became the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character on television in ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money." The following year, Isis made headlines as the first transgender contestant on "America's Next Top Model." Now, Cox, Clayton and Poon are making history in the first show on mainstream television to be built around three transgender women.

"People are saying to me, it's a breath of fresh air, the transgender community is represented in a way that's never been seen before," Cox told ABCNews.com. "We have three empowered women helping other women. That's never happened before."

The show avoids trading in stereotypes.

"A lot of people think of us as prostitutes, clowns, freaks of nature," Poon told ABCNews.com. "But we're educated and talented -- and we're gorgeous."

Still, some may wonder what can three transgender women teach naturally born women about being, well, women.

"I'm so not interested in telling a woman this is how you have to be to be a woman," said Cox. "It's about helping her find her own voice, to be the kind of woman she knows she wants to be. It's about us helping them to listen to themselves."

Learning to listen to themselves is something the three stars of "Transform Me" know a lot about.

"As transgender women, we had to listen to that internal voice about getting right with yourself," Cox said.

Added Clayton, "We, as transgender women, have been through this incredible transformation ourselves. We can pass on that knowledge."

More than a makeover show, "Transform Me" succeeds in relating the experience of transwomen to other women and humanizing the three hosts. As Clayton said in a recent episode after transforming 24-year-old Marlece, "She finally saw herself as she always wanted to be seen -- and we all know how that feels."

The women who write to VH1 with their style emergencies have no idea that three transgender women will be coming to their rescue. But Poon said all the reactions have been good.

Cox is no stranger to television audiences. She gained a following while competing to become P. Diddy's assistant on the 2008 VH1 reality show "I Want to Work for Diddy." After the show wrapped, VH1 wanted to find a new vehicle for her to star in.

Cox turned to business partners Eric Miclette and Robert Jason, whose production company Complete World Domination had been working on the forthcoming transgender docu-series "Being T."

Jason had come up with an idea for a new makeover show randomly one night while filming girlfriend Poon, a makeup artist and actress, making up some of her girlfriends.

"He said, 'You know what? This would make a great show," Poon said.

VH1 agreed and ordered up eight episodes. The sixth episode airs tonight at 10:30. Miclette said the show is starting to gain a following. The numbers of viewers doubled between the fourth and fifth episodes.

For the most part, the show's creators and stars have gotten positive responses to the series, but there are still plenty of negative comments.

On a recent blog posted on the Web site Gay Christian Movement Watch, a writer wrote that "Transform Me" is carrying out a gay agenda because it makes "gays look good and utilizes the medium of television entertainment as a homosexual/transgender evangelistic tool."

Clayton said the responses that move her are the ones like a recent e-mail from a woman recovering from a brain tumor. She wrote how much she loved the show and admired the stars' confidence. After watching an episode, she finally got up the courage to go out in public showing off the scar the tumor had left behind.

"She's the one who makes me know I'm doing the right thing," Clayton said.

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