Ladies, start your engines. We’ve got the cure for the shock you’re feeling about a top four season finale on RuPaul’s Drag Race and it involves a spritz of Peppermint. The New York queen that proved she can work (bitch) is closing out the ninth season of our favorite Friday night obsession by opening up her life through a bold new documentary.
While Peppermint has already made history for being the first out trans woman on Drag Race, her story has largely been relegated to the background until now. Directed by documentary filmmaker Oriel Pe’er over the past year of her life, Project Peppermint is taking us inside the life of Peppermint in all her glory. We’ll watch her rise to international stardom, navigate her transition, and interact with her closest friends, including Laverne Cox, Transparent’s Trace Lysette, and Bob the Drag Queen.
Project Peppermint is nearly to the finish line but now, as the film enters the final states of editing and production, it’s time to "put that dolla in my titty" and pledge yourself to #TeamPeppermint. An IndieGoGo campaign launched Friday to help fund the film that has thus far been entirely self-financed and includes incentives that range from exclusive brunches to one-on-one makeup tutorials with the queen herself.
While Peppermint finishes filming for the season finale that’s guaranteed to make us all gag, we caught up with her to talk Project Peppermint, the struggles facing trans women, and how she went from violet to peppermint one drag performance at a time.
OUT: In the documentary, you discuss a time when you considered doing sex work to pay for gender reassignment surgery, which is an avenue many trans women of color often have to go through. How you see that changing in the future?
Peppermint: Just to clarify, it’s not just trans women of color. I think many trans people in the United States and, in the world frankly, are facing discrimination and when it’s a minority, discrimination frequently effects people of color disproportionately. It disproportionately affects trans women of color arguably the most, so it’s not unheard of for trans women of color to be forced into, or to feel like they have to resort to survival sex work. Some do it as a choice of empowerment and some do it just as survival. For many people, it’s the most viable access or the only access to money—not only for operations but also to live, so that’s just a harsh reality.
There’s a lot of trans people I know who just don’t have access to work and so they can’t pay their rent. If you don’t look the way people expect you to look, then it’s hard for you to pass; it’s hard for you to be accepted at a job. As a drag entertainer, access to money is limited anyway and, as a trans woman of color, access to money is also limited.
What has been your proudest moment while making this documentary?
The truth is that we’re still filming, so I’m not quite sure if I can answer that question. But so far it’s been having the camera with me during my surgery. I think some people may view that as kind of an exploitation, but it was really one of the big moments in my life and I’m just happy that I was able to document that. To finally get one of my surgeries was a big moment for me and I slept through it, so I wanted to know what that was like and I’m happy that I was able to have the camera crew there.
What was your first drag performance?
My first official drag performance was at a bar called Porky’s in Willmington, Delaware. I did this sad remix of Whitney Houston. I had the same exact wig and dress that I’ve been using for years when I did Halloween in drag and pretty much wore the same thing for about a year every single time I appeared in drag.
But my first unofficial performance was performing or getting dressed up as my favorite character from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—her name was Violette Beauregarde. She’s the girl who eats some gum and turns into a blueberry so I totally got dressed up in my mom’s blue jumper, painted my face blue and made a wig out of orange yarn and rolled around on the floor acting like I was in the movie. What a sight. That was my first foray into drag, [and] I’m not sure how much has changed... hopefully a lot [Laughs].
It also calls to mind “Black Like Me,” the groundbreaking 1961 account by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, who darkened his skin to appear African-American and wrote about the discrimination he experienced.
But if “Your Face in Mine” has elements of the traditional passing novel, it doesn’t stay in that lane. First, Martin was white, and for him, racial reassignment answers a psychological need, not a social one. He is more akin to someone desiring gender reassignment surgery: Martin Lipkin (now called Martin Wilkinson) felt he was a black man trapped in a white man’s body. Significantly, the novel’s corrective surgery is open to anyone of any race.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Columbia University, called Mr. Row’s book “a new take on race,” offering the unusual perspective of the white Kelly and the ex-white Martin meditating on racial identity and raising questions about the very meaning of race.
“Race is both what they’ve inherited from their parents and from hip-hop culture,” Ms. Griffin said of Martin and Kelly. “What understanding of race does it suggest? What does it mean to be a black person born into a white body?” Ms. Griffin wondered how many white people would be inclined to follow Martin’s example. “There aren’t too many white people being held in chokeholds by the police,” she said.
Although Mr. Row’s racial reassignment surgery is fictional, many of the procedures he writes about in “Your Face in Mine” are very real. “The truth is that much of the plastic surgery we see today has a racial or ethnic component,” he said in an email, “because it has to do with inherently racial concepts of physical perfection, like the ‘Roman nose.’ ”
“Is Race Plastic?,” a recent New York magazine cover article, considered just this issue, exploring the implications of “ethnic plastic surgery” with its menu of procedures that go about “sharpening the stereotypically flat noses of Asians, blacks and Latinos, while flattening the stereotypically sharp noses of Arabs and Jews.”
Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Stanford, whose book, “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life,” comes out in October, said that in life and in literature, passing showed the complexity, and even absurdity, of racial categories.
“Historically, it was much clearer what was to be gained by being white, in the literature as well,” she said. “There was a social and economic logic to becoming white.” About “Your Face in Mine,” she said: “What this book sort of raises as a question is what someone expects to gain by being black, Hispanic or Asian in the 21st century? What is gained and what is lost through a racial reassignment in the 21st century?”
The transracial Martin’s insistence on a kind of existential blackness prompts a consideration of race by Kelly, a failed academic grieving over the accident that took the lives of his Chinese wife and their daughter. Another character, Julie-Nah, whose background is Korean, starts out wanting to become the whitest white woman possible but ends up questioning the purpose of reassignment.
Mr. Row traces some of his own questions about race to his time as a teacher in Hong Kong in the late ‘90s. He said he found himself in a place where he felt that people looked right through him, and where whites were sometimes called a pejorative Cantonese slang term often translated as “ghost” or “demon.”
“That fundamental experience of being so decentered and so destabilized has really defined all my work,” said Mr. Row, a practicing Buddhist who lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and two children. His 2005 story collection, “The Train to Lo Wu,” was set in Hong Kong and featured characters from different backgrounds telling stories. His 2011 collection of stories examining Sept. 11 and its aftermath, “Nobody Ever Gets Lost,” used a similar technique.
As he was writing “Your Face in Mine,” Mr. Row said, “I thought about all of the times I’ve felt drawn to a particular racial identity: listening to hip-hop or reading books about Native American reservations or being in a Buddhist temple.”
“The other part is looking around at the people I know and all the forms of racial passing that mask your identity,” he continued. “Some are subtle, like someone who starts practicing yoga and wearing an Indian third eye. Then there are all the white people who’ve taken on aspects of hip-hop culture — the clothing, the speech.” Sometimes it is done from a desire to feel closer to African-Americans, he said, or to escape whiteness.
If a dramatic fix is needed to bring people together or to help them with their racial demons, then Martin may be on to something. “I wanted to imagine the most radical kind of integration,” Mr. Row said, “the kind you can’t undo.”
Correction: August 11, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Jess Row's time in Hong Kong in the 1990s. He was a teacher, not a student.