By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Her transportation was waiting at Chicago's O'Hare airport. As promised, it was a stretch limo. The petite young woman from Houston donned her sunglasses, scurried through the open door and popped her Lil' Kim CD in the stereo. As the limo sailed forward, she alternately waved and stuck her tongue out the window. She had not been prepared for the brisk Midwestern weather, dressed only in jeans, sandals and a skintight tank top. Although she would be in town for only two and a half days, she brought two upright carry-on suitcases, a stuffed backpack, a purse and a cumbersome metal makeup box.
The limo whisked these contents to the downtown Motel 6.
At 19, Chanel Dita has grandiose plans for her future. In two years, she says, she'll move to New York. And just two years after that, she'll achieve riches and fame as a singer and model.
For now, though, The Jerry Springer Show would suffice.
For a year Chanel called Springer, relating all sorts of details about her dysfunctional Pasadena family, her many lovers and her life as a homeless teenage transsexual. On a late October Monday, an associate producer finally called back in response to Chanel's latest tale, a concoction half true and half made up about a confession she wished to reveal to a lover. On Tuesday night she fastened her safety belt in seat 11C of a Chicago-bound plane.
"I'm going to wear corduroy Daisy Dukes!" she had squealed on her way to Hobby Airport. Maybe Springer people would dress her up in fake eyelashes, the ones that a Ricki Lake stylist had turned her on to when she appeared on that show last year. Layered in melted mascara, they were "sooo pretty," she said wistfully.
Then, for a moment, her elation faded and she got serious. If only, she said, she could wear a T-shirt that reads, "Covenant House Texas sucks."
Not that Covenant House had anything to do with her talk-show tale of sex and secrets, but she was still seething from the way the Montrose youth shelter had treated her, and the apparent transphobia of certain staff members. She wanted Jerry Springer to ask her about the T-shirt; she wanted the audience to know what trouble stirred back home in Houston.
Chanel Diva Dita was born Jeff Tex Loftin in 1981. She always knew she was different from other boys. Even at six years old, he preferred wearing girl's clothes. He gave his Hot Wheels collection to another boy, and played with dolls instead.
"We knew at a very young age that Jeffrey was going to be gay. Four or five or six, we knew it," says his aunt Teresa Coleman. At first, Jeff thought he was gay too. Other children picked on him, shouting, "You fag!" And Jeff just said, "Thanks."
When Chanel left the custody of Children's Protective Services just shy of her 18th birthday, she felt confused about her identity. "I did drag 24/7," she says. "I didn't know what I wanted to be." She kept all her clothes in her car, and whenever she left home, she changed in public bathrooms.
Then she realized that she dressed like a woman all the time because she wanted to be one. Besides, being a girl is far more glamorous than being a boy. Chanel had been a tiny baby, and as a teenager she remains small for a boy, but average for a girl. These days Chanel sashays down Montrose in miniskirts, glittering eye shadow and stiletto heels. Although her voice, a blend of husky and sugary, is passable, her shedding wigs and five o'clock shadow betray her. People stare. "They know what I am."
She has already discarded several first names, though she's always gone by Diva for her middle name and Dita for her last. Diva was selected "because a diva to me is a woman who is in control of her life and on top of everything -- even though I'm not always in control."
And the diva of divas that Chanel most admires is Madonna. As a child, Jeff plastered his walls with magazine pictures of the gap-toothed one and pranced in his room, singing along, "Erotica, romance / Erotica, romance / My name is Dita / I'll be your mistress tonight / I'd like to put you in a trance."
At first Jeff borrowed his oldest sister's name, Peggy. When Madonna's album Bedtime Stories came out in 1994, "Peggy" got her nose pierced just like the Material Girl and asked people to start calling her Madonna too. But the mini-Madonna was overweight "like a cow" and became known as Moodonna. Moodonna wanted something more exotic and less drag-queen-sounding, and so she became Ambrosia, though she didn't know how to spell it. One day Ambrosia waltzed up to a brightly lit cosmetics counter and lavished herself with a perfume sample. She found the fragrance heavenly and the brand very feminine.
"And I had never heard of any girl named Chanel," she says. Chanel likes to think she is the one and only, a diva in the making.
The CPS file on Jeff Loftin fills five folders and stacks 17 inches tall, thicker than most. When Jeff was eight, CPS took custody of his sister Samantha, who had been raised by her mother's uncle. CPS investigated allegations that he molested five women in the family, including Samantha. Three years later Jeff was taken into custody for abandonment.