A Diva in the Making
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.
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City
TicketsSat., May. 7, 7:45pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. University of Houston Cougars Baseball
TicketsTue., May. 10, 6:30pm
U of H Cougars Baseball v Texas A&M Corpus Christi
TicketsWed., May. 11, 5:00pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Baseball
TicketsFri., May. 13, 7:00pm
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.
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.
"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.
Patricia, who had four false front teeth made for the show, started to cry. Peggy called her "sick" and "disgusting." Ricki Lake pleaded, "If you stop escorting, I'll help you find a job." Moodonna replied that she'd love to take Lake up on her offer.
If you're going to come out, Chanel says, you might as well have some fun with it.
Though she had intended to stay in New York, Chanel didn't know anyone there except for an unreliable sugar daddy whom she had met over the Internet. When all was said and done, after insults were hurled on national TV, she returned home with her family to Pasadena.
The family, who had accepted Jeff as gay, was a little stunned, though not completely shocked. Chanel says she thought her mother knew. "I wore a lot of makeup at home, but she thought I was just a big Michael Jackson fan."
Shortly after the show, on Chanel's 18th birthday, Patricia screamed at her to get the fuck out right then and there. Patricia claims that she never kicked her youngest child out of the house, that it was her common-law husband who felt uncomfortable living with a transsexual. But when asked if Chanel could live with them now, the answer was no.
Chanel stayed with a Pasadena friend for a while, then checked into Covenant House's residential program as Jeff Loftin. The program had its stipulations: a curfew, no drugs and no violence.
She dropped out of the program when Patricia said she could come home as Jeff. For a week Chanel tried to convince herself that she was just going through a phase, that she really liked being a boy. But she soon returned to the shelter, serving refreshments as a girl at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
With her scant belongings in one suitcase and a backpack, Chanel thought she might as well travel. She visited New York City, Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans, sleeping in Covenant House intake buildings when she couldn't turn enough tricks to get a hotel room.
She had started working the streets because at the time she thought prostituting was the only way someone like her could make money. (She says she no longer engages in prostitution, though she still runs personal ads, looking for suit-wearing men to take her out for romantic dinners and kinky hotel stays. Chanel likes to tie men up.) In spite of that, she enjoyed her work, she says. Price depended on how cute a man was. The more he turned her on, the less she charged. Hell, she'd even sleep with a man for free if he was hot enough.
Usually, though, she earned anywhere from $90 to $400, depending on the requested sex acts and how good-looking the man was. Once, a wealthy client paid her $900 "and I didn't hardly have to do anything." Chanel says she never worried about her safety, yet she carried pepper spray. Sometimes she worked with her friend Kat, who brought a pistol with her. She would rather not work with Kat, though; Kat had a habit of robbing her clients at gunpoint.
In New Orleans, Chanel met other "trannies," who told her the Los Angeles Covenant House was so transgender-friendly it even hired transsexuals. She took a Greyhound to L.A. and stayed there for several months, receiving free hormone treatments from a pediatrician.
During a talent show at an L.A. gay and lesbian center (she sang some Brandy), Chanel met Titus, a bisexual man who sometimes dressed as a woman named Diamond. Chanel and Titus became best friends. Together the pair tried prostitution in L.A. and shoplifting in San Francisco. Both ended in their arrests. Chanel was walking out of a store in brand-new pink tennis shoes when an officer stopped her. Titus ran fast, even in stolen high heels, but was caught as well.
"I'll try just about anything once," Chanel says. And so she appeared in a porno movie, for which she earned $1,500. Chanel and Titus dreamed of moving to New York together. But first they wanted to stop in a city where one of them knew the area. They arrived in Houston in September. Titus, now 21, was too old to stay in Covenant House and crashed with some "tricks," Chanel says. One day he walked into a police station and threatened to kill himself. He was hospitalized, then returned home to North Carolina.
Chanel was on her own again.
At ten minutes till five on September 27, Chanel was discharged from Covenant House Texas for violating its policy. She had not undergone the physical required within 48 to 72 hours of arrival. Chanel had been there 12 days.
But Chanel believes the real reason she was told to leave is because she was born Jeff Loftin. And though she now went by Chanel Diva Dita, and behaved with all the flamboyance and cattiness that one would expect of someone with that name, legally she remained Jeff. And Covenant House staff insisted on talking to him.
"Jeff," she says they would say, "you know you can't wear that wig in here." "Jeff, no fingernail polish."
Chanel wore makeup anyway. She wore her tight jeans and her breasts. And the latter became a point of contention, a symbol of Chanel's defiance. People constantly asked if they were real, she says.
"If they aren't, you have to take them off."
But she wasn't removing them for anything, not for a physical, not now after she had finally determined who she was: a heterosexual woman. The Covenant House in L.A. had accepted her as who she was, Chanel says. There, she lived in the male wing, but in a hallway with gay boys and other transsexuals. Everyone, staff included, called her Dita. The bathroom was unisex.
Both houses are part of an international network founded in New York to provide homeless youths with shelter, meals, medical care, counseling and classes. The Texas location opened in Montrose in 1983. Rhonda Robinson has worked there for all 17 years, the last two as executive director. Her speech is brusque, her movements reined in near her body, but she is not at all cold. When street kids shout her name from across Lovett Boulevard, she waves them over to listen to their unbelievable tales. And she believes them.
As for Chanel, though, Robinson categorically denies every accusation made by the "young person." No one asked about breasts, she says. No one forced the young person to dress like a boy, though they did ask the teen not to wear a dress; that might bother other residents. And Covenant House most certainly does not kick people out without offering to secure another place to stay. In truth, she says, they proposed to let the young person sleep in the intake building so that the person could get a physical in the morning and be readmitted into the program. Jeff declined, she says.
"We are a licensed child-care facility," Robinson says of the requirement for a physical. "It is not to determine whether someone is male or female. It's part of the licensing agreement."
National Covenant House spokesperson Richard Hirsh says some shelters tried to accommodate transgenders in separate quarters. But Houston, he guesses, had limited experience with such a "difficult situation."
Robinson readily admits, "To be honest, this is the first time I've heard the term "transgender.' "
Those who work with troubled youths say other transgendered teens have received similar treatment at Covenant House Texas. Carol Petrucci, program director for the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH), says last year a male-to-female transsexual in Covenant House's residential program was asked to dress as a male.
David Fuller, former housing director of the Houston Regional HIV/AIDS Resource Group, which distributes funds to agencies like Covenant House, remembers another teen who stayed at the shelter in late spring and complained the shelter threatened to kick him out if he dressed in female clothing. Fuller asked the teen to make a formal written complaint, but he said he was too scared.
"I'm not sure where I would tell a transgendered kid to go," says Fuller, who has coordinated the Homeless Youth Network and compiled a database of temporary housing programs.
"If they're receiving federal funds -- which they are from HUD -- they're not supposed to discriminate," he says.
Another youth worker, who spoke anonymously, says Chanel tends to embellish, "but I think some of it is accurate." "Clients that dress in drag have a hard time with their staff. All clients do not receive fair and equal services."
When Chanel found herself with packed bags again, she called Brenda Thomas, the founder of a transgender support group, whom she had met the week before. As she waited for her ride, around the corner a group rallied outside the ritzy Colombe d'Or restaurant, protesting the Human Rights Campaign's failure to back the inclusion of transgenders in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
That night Cristan Williams, who publishes a transgender newsletter, called shelter after shelter, but none would take Chanel. If Chanel had AIDS or a substance abuse problem, housing was available, but not for a down-and-out transsexual who had quit smoking and is a vegetarian. A straight woman, whose sister is active in the gay and lesbian community, offered her home to Chanel, and she has stayed there since. She had not planned to remain in Houston, but now she has a cause to fight for; she hopes Covenant House Texas can become as accepting as Covenant House California.
Chanel did an interview with the Houston Voice. She spoke on KPFT's After Hours show. Thomas and Williams met with Robinson, and she agreed to let them hold educational sessions for its staff.
Meanwhile, Chanel searches for a regular job. She plans to undergo sex-change surgery by age 30. She wants to earn her GED, study law to help other trannies, and start a tranny magazine, a tranny talk show and, of course, a transgender shelter. She figures she'll live till 80, and that's enough time to accomplish all that and become famous too.
"Sometimes," though, "I just lock myself in a room and call it a day."
Tuesday is support group night for a local transsexual organization. And the Tuesday after Chanel returned from taping The Jerry Springer Show, the group was not supportive. It disapproved of her TV appearance. Some members called her crazy.
"Going on The Jerry Springer Show and contributing to stereotypes of transsexuals, we feel she did more harm than good," says group founder Brenda Thomas. "When one of our own community does that, it really hurts me. And it hurts a lot of people in the community."
Chanel doesn't care what they think. She taped the episode when it aired on Monday, November 13. Since living in L.A., Chanel has called Jerry, Ricki, Jenny, Sally, Maury and Leeza. She has called them all, except Montel. ("They don't know how to put a good show together.") She wants to travel, so why not do it on someone else's tab? Springer's show had promised her and Titus $150 each, but Chanel says when they arrived, the associate producer said sorry. The show already paid for their airfare, limousine rides, hotel room and meals; she had offered them cash just to entice them, Chanel alleges the producer told her.
Chanel was mad. She had been counting on the money for a legal name change, which costs around $200, but "there's nothing to do about it." She used them, and they used her.
Springer publicist Linda Safron says the show never pays guests. "Our guests are real people, not actors. Once you start paying people, it encourages them not to tell the truth."
But Chanel says the show knew she wasn't entirely truthful and didn't care. She wore silver go-go boots, a black miniskirt, a backless black top and a brown wig. She smiled for Jerry Springer. This was where she belonged, on television.
"I'm here basically to let my man know that" -- and here her voice dropped low -- "I'm a man," she said. The audience hooted in approval. She spoke just as she had been coached. When they arrived at the studio that morning, Chanel and Titus signed papers declaring their story true. Then they rehearsed for half an hour. (Safron says the show is not scripted.)
"Are you romantically involved?" Springer continued, with a puzzled expression. What did they do in bed?
Oh, everything, Chanel said. But she liked to tie him up, and never let him touch her.
Springer was about to introduce "T.J." when Chanel cut him off. Wait, she said. She had a secret for Springer as well: She had a crush on Todd, the stage manager.
Then Chanel ran toward Todd; he fled into the audience. She slipped on some wedding cake left by the previous guests' food fight, but picked herself up and cornered him with a kiss on the neck and a pinch on the butt.
When she returned to the stage, Titus/T.J. came out swinging. He grabbed her wig, and security guards parted them.
"You had no clue?" Springer asked T.J.
Well, just look at her, T.J. said. The audience clapped, and this made Chanel happy.
"They thought I was a woman too," Chanel said afterward. That's how good she looked.
The truth was that she and Titus had sex only once when they first met. He had not known that she was physically a he, but Titus had not minded. They have been friends, just friends, ever since.
After the show, Titus said he wanted her to stay with him in Chicago. Chanel said maybe. Then she said no. When Titus saw her off at the airport, she didn't know where he was staying. She felt bad. But he called a few days later, saying he caught a Greyhound back to North Carolina and had a new proposal: Why don't they move to New York together? He had a little money saved and would pay the way. "He wants to be famous like me. And you can't get famous in the boonies," Chanel says.
Chanel said yes. She missed Titus. "And I want to be famous. And second of all, I'm not getting no job here." She had put in an application at every store and fast-food joint from Montrose to the Galleria. No one had called her back.
But then she thought she ought to save up some money and get her name changed first. How can she get famous without the right name or gender? Her current Texas ID says she's male. Previous Texas and California IDs said, "Jeff Loftin, female." She wants to end the confusion.
Chanel Diva Dita. Female.
For once, she's staying put. She called Titus back and said no.
Seated at a table in her home, Cristan Williams helped Chanel fill out the legal paperwork. Current name? Jeff Tex Loftin, Chanel carefully wrote. New name? Cristan stopped Chanel and asked her if she really wanted to stand in front of a judge and ask to legally go by Chanel Diva Dita. A judge may not take that seriously, she said.
Chanel agreed; the name had drag-queen connotations. And she no longer considered herself a boy in women's clothes, but a woman. She wanted breasts. She would go to the surgeon tomorrow if she could afford it. Names floated through her head. She settled on Janet for her first name, one she's always liked. She kept Dita as a middle name.
But for her last name, she just didn't know. Cristan offered a name book. After perusing the pages, the teen still couldn't make up her mind.
Finally Cristan dumped several names into an upturned black hat. Pick one, she said.
The young woman pulled one scrap of paper out, unfolded it and said, "Yuck."
She tried again. "Faye," the piece of paper said. Cristan said it had something to do with fairies. The 19-year-old said she liked that.
So on a rainy afternoon, sitting in her friend's home with her belongings wedged between the back of an armchair and a wall, Janet Dita Faye was born, fully grown.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.