A Diva in the Making

Chanel Dita wants to champion transgender rights. But first, she's got a date with Jerry Springer.

For the first nine years of his life, Jeff lived in Pasadena with his maternal grandparents, Mary and Sam, and his sister Peggy. Jeff's parents were estranged. His mother, Patricia Edwards, claims Mary took her three kids from her. Mary thought her daughter was mentally retarded and incapable of caring for children.

At the time, another relative also lived there when he wasn't in prison for theft and drugs. Patricia says he would show Jeff dirty pictures and do filthy things in front of him, things that Patricia won't speak of. "With dolls, to give you an idea," she says. Both Patricia and her half-sister Teresa protested his behavior, but in their mother's eyes, this family member could do no wrong.

For not stopping the man's behavior, they hold their mother responsible for the way Jeff turned out.

Jeff told his grandparents that a neighbor fondled him. For that, he got a "whupping."
Photo Courtesy Patricia Edwards
Jeff told his grandparents that a neighbor fondled him. For that, he got a "whupping."
Before Ricki Lake (top): Chanel lived at home. After: Patricia says she never kicked her out.
Deron Neblett
Before Ricki Lake (top): Chanel lived at home. After: Patricia says she never kicked her out.

"I blame my mother every day for that," Teresa says. "I told my dad, "I wish to God you could have stood up and knocked the hell out of both of them at the time.' "

CPS counselors also blamed a neighbor who lived in the same apartment complex. One day, when Jeff was six or seven, the family and this neighbor crammed into an orange station wagon to go to church. Jeff sat on the man's lap, and he fondled the boy during the ride. Jeff told his grandparents, and for that he got a "whupping."

The man invited Jeff over; sometimes he bought him toys or gave him money. Chanel now claims she liked having anal sex at seven years old. "It was like I was addicted to it," she says. Years later as a teenager, driven by a compulsion she can't explain, Chanel returned to that apartment looking for him, though she knew he had moved long ago.

When Jeff's grandparents moved back to Mississippi, he stayed with his mom for a couple of years. Teresa, who left home at age 12 to wait tables at a truck stop, says Patricia twice abandoned her children, which Patricia denies. The sisters do not get along well. "To be honest, she doesn't care about them kids," each says of the other.

The last time, Patricia accompanied her as Teresa left her husband, Teresa says. She recalls driving past the house where the children were staying and asking Patricia if she wanted to stop for them. "Go, go, go," Patricia allegedly cried. Patricia's version of the story is that Teresa drove off without telling her they were leaving town.

Saddled with the children, Teresa's husband called CPS, and in July 1992, a week before Jeff's 11th birthday, CPS took custody of him. Peggy escaped to a friend's house where the family promised to care for her.

In six years Jeff had 27 placements in foster homes and group homes -- and lots of sex with boys, and sometimes even staff, Chanel says. According to his file, though, Jeff was a good kid, says CPS spokesperson Judy Hay. When he ran away, he dutifully called his caseworker.

Even at 11 and 14 years old, Hay says, Jeff exhibited a survivor's self-assurance. "He did not come off as a victim," she says. "Other kids continued to pick on him because he was different. But it's really heartwarming to read the dialogue with his caseworker or therapist" where he says, " "It's their problem that they treat me that way and want to hurt me and pick on me.' "

Before he left CPS, Jeff began placing personal ads on the Internet: "TS seeks sugar daddy." On-line, he became Madonna Dita; she met 13 or 14 men in person. Some of them bought her clothes and makeup in exchange for sex. "I'm a slut," she shrugs. "I like sex."

From her last group home in Pasadena, she ran away to her mother's house. There, she lived as a boy but yearned to dress as a girl. Once, she went into a mall photo booth and took pictures of herself as a girl. Afraid her mother would find out, she threw those clothes away. But the urge would not leave her, and Jeff became bolder, keeping a feminine wardrobe in her station wagon.

She continued to see men she met on-line. With these strangers, she found acceptance, affirmation of her gender. In her home, she felt trapped. She wanted to flee to New York but had no money to leave. One day, as she was lounging before the TV, the answer came to her in the form of the Ricki Lake show. From her New York studio, Lake told viewers to call in if they had a shocking secret they wanted to reveal to their family and friends.

Chanel picked up the phone and left a rambling message. Three hours later, a producer called her back.

Before a sea of faces, Patricia and Peggy sat on stage while Ricki Lake played a tape for them. It showed Jeff in Houston, driving to a gas station and primping in the bathroom.

Then, to a fanfare of hollers, Jeff strutted on stage as Moodonna in a purple dress with matching eye shadow and a brown bobbed wig. She told her family that she wanted to be a girl. She said she couldn't find a job, so she was looking to work in pornography or for an escort service. In fact, she said, she was doing some escort work at the time.

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