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Transvocalizers by Pamela DeGroff: Calpernia Addams

| Nov 3, 2008
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Calpernia AddamsCalpernia Addams is someone I’ve known since my time in Nashville, a few years back. She was one of the better known local drag entertainers, but I also discovered that she is a musician as well. She played violin in a Celtic/Irish music band called The Secret Commonwealth.

Before becoming a professional entertainer, she was in the military (in boy mode, of course…), and served in the First Gulf War. I was able to get an interview with her for the now extinct Transgender Community News magazine back in 2000. I still have my copy of that issue and it really brought back some memories when I reread the article as part of my background research for this interview.

Calpernia White FlowersThe unfortunate fact about Calpernia is that no one would probably know who she is without the circumstances that surrounded the death of her boyfriend, PFC Barry Winchell. This incident is well documented, and was the subject of the film Soldier’s Girl. There’s no need to go into any detail about it here, but Calpernia does touch upon it briefly in the following interview.

Since that time, she has moved on with her life, and has definitely become something of a one woman phenomenon. Beside being a well known drag entertainer, she is an author, a musician, an actress, and an entrepreneur. She has a lot to say and even though this particular interview is longer than normal, it’s worth it. For me personally, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend.

Here goes…

TGForum: I went back and reread the first interview we ever did, in 2000, for the magazine Transgender Community News. You said at that time you wanted to quit performing drag in 2 years, and that you would seek another performance outlet. Was acting a consideration at that time?

CalperniaCalpernia: I had always idolized certain actresses and dreamed of being one myself some day, but I felt I wasn’t beautiful enough and that on one would ever want to even train a transsexual actress, much less hire one. The outlets for transsexual women who had the entertainment bug were pretty lock in: (1) Showgirl at a gay bar; (2) pron star; (3) outrageous club personality a la Amanda Lepore. I was already a successful showgirl, I had no desire to do porn, and never had the drive to present a high-maintenance character 24/7 in the way that’s required to be a club personality. I assumed I had exhausted my options.

But in 2002 I moved to Chicago to start my life over, and I decided to re-evaluate my limitations. The secret I discovered is this: In all likelihood, no one is going to just give you anything in the entertainment industry. If you want to be in a play, show or movie…get off your ass and make your own play, show, or movie. We did just that, and later I moved to Hollywood, got in some acting classes, and just started working.

TGF: Do you feel that your work in Nashville doing drag performances prepared you for Hollywood? Is it even possible to prepare for Hollywood?

Calpernia: Drag absolutely helped prepare me for Hollywood. The biggest thing I learned by working as a showgirl in Nashville was self confidence. I learned to work with what I had, and throw my shoulders back and march through my doubts.

Although many people love to watch drag shows, almost every community seems to look down on drag performance, whether they’re straight, gay, CD/TV, or in the trans community. I call the job I did then “showgirl” because really, it was just theater. I feel connected to a long history of entertainment that goes back to the beginnings of humanity. And not just gender related entertainment. From Medieval bards to Gypsy storytellers to Kabuki actors to Dolly Parton and Cher. There has always been a class of human beings who make their living and base their identities around entertaining other human beings. I am part of that legacy.

TGF: Back in Nashville, did you ever sing in your own voice during you performances?

Calpernia on award night.Calpernia: I played live violin, rapped and MCed, but I didn’t sing. Voice is usually one of the most difficult hurdles of transition for MtF trans women. So few are just born with feminine voices.

It wasn’t until I worked with Andrea James in 2002 that I took my voice to the next level, and that inspired us to develop our Finding Your Female Voice DVD and CD set, which has now helped many thousand os trans women achieve natural, realistic sounding female voices. The next level up from speaking in a natural female voice is singing in one. Singing is a special skill, and almost magical gift. Just because one can speak in a female voice doesn’t mean one can sing well. If that were the case, then all non-trans women would be able to sing. As the American Idol auditions have taught us, that is not the case.

Finding Your Female Voice is a mixture of Andrea James practical experience as a trans woman herself and her intensive study of voice theory throughout the last 100 years. It focuses on the resonance and timbre of the voice more than the pitch. We all know that there are women with lower pitched voices…what keeps them well inside the female range is the fact that their resonance is unmistakably female. We have the workbook up for free download if anyone wants to read more.

TGF: It’s also good to see that you still play violin. I understand that you’ve even recorded some with it, correct?

Calpernia VinesCalpernia: Yes, I did a theater show recently with Alec Mapa where we did a big ensemble number where I played and sang Rocky Top with Alec and some hot boy dancers. It’s on my YouTube channel. I usually get asked to bring it into whatever project I’m working on, so I’ve played it in Casting Pearls, Transamerica, Transamerican Love Story, and lots of other places. I have a few songs up that use the violin, like my version of the ancient One I Love on my MySpace music page. In my upcoming movie, Not For You, I have a short but poignant scene where I play the piano, too.

TGF: Do some of the same principles for speech work for singing? And, have you taken any formal voice coaching?

Calpernia: Singing actually happens in a different area of the brain, so while learning our female voice methods will help you understand the important groundwork, there will still be entirely new things which need to be learned.

I took a class here in Los Angeles, which focused mainly on building confidence so that singing could just naturally happen without any of the hangups that often sabotage people. Unfortunately, as a trans woman, I’m overcoming some physical limitations as well as emotional ones, so it wasn’t helpful for me. I’m working on my own method, and if my upcoming album of material turns out to my satisfaction, I may develop a singing method for trans women I can share with everyone.

TGF: Your tune Stunning has been featured on Transamerican Love Story, plus I understand downloads of the tune are available. Why four separate mixes, though, and do you have a favorite?

Calpernia: With dance music, there are always tons of remixes. It’s a fun way to revitalize a song, and also make it relevant to people with diverse musical tastes. Dance music leaders like Britney always have lots and lots of remixes of the songs they release as singles. It’s very different from the way music was done in the ’70s and before. People just expect it now days.

TGF: You’ve also covered True Colors, and have Goth versions of Some Day My Prince Will Come, and Once Upon A Nightmare (Dream). You’re obviously not concerned about staying with one genré. Is that intentional, or are you doing what feels right for the moment and not worrying about it? Whatever the reason, it sound interesting and challenging at the same time.

Calpernia: I have such diverse tastes in music, that I hardly know where to land. Right now, I’m learning and exploring the limits of my talents, so I’m trying everything.

TGF: Obviously working on a full album? If so, any kind of time frame for release?

Calpernia: I’ve been so super busy in the last year that I can only fit in music making between everything else. It’s still a struggle to pay the bills in Hollywood, where everything costs about twice what it does in Nashville. Right now, I’m working on some Broadway and metal inspired songs for our upcoming movie, Transproofed. I have several songs that are partially done from my experimentations over the last year. Hopefully, soon I’ll have enough for an album and I’ll release a nice, mixed up potpourri of musical weirdness. Very like me!

TGF: With everything else that you have going on, would you ever want to tour as a musical act?

Motorcycle girlCalpernia: I’ve been doing a lot of benefits and fundraisers in LA, for No on Prop. 8, the anti-marriage amendment, and non-GLBT specif helping organizations like PEN In The Classroom, which encourages writers to come and teach underprivileged kids about writing. It helps to have a song to perform at these events.

If any of my songs caught on in a big way, I’d love to travel and perform them, but I’m a bit too old to schelp across the country in a beater van and perform to retirement homes after getting dressed in a broom closet. I’ve already done that as a showgirl. We’ll see if I get any offers, but until then I want to focus on acting.

TGF: Since you’ve collaborated with different producers, do you collaborate with songwriters as well, or with other instrumentalists?

Calpernia: Yes, I had some amazing people do mixes of Stunning who also did some of the music in the mix. I’m open to working with other songwriters, but I’m enjoying the liberation of expressing myself in song so much right now that I kind of like working alone on that front. I’m always open to working with other instrumentalists, if we’re on the same vibe with a song.

TGF: Any further plans you can talk about at this time?

Calpernia: So much is happening right now! We’re in the final editing stages of our upcoming comedic short film, Transproofed, which shows two trans women and the effects of trying to live in stealth. I just got back from shooting for a week in Memphis with talented young director Brian Pera on the upcoming film Not For You, about a transwoman and the special people in her life. And I have some really fun television roles that I’ll be filming this fall, so watch out for more of me.

TGF: I don’t really know how to ask this next question, it’s kind of ambiguous. If it offends you, ignore it. If you hadn’t lost Barry, and didn’t have to go through that experience, have you every speculated/fantasied where you would be now? From the old interview, you made it clear that you had a plan, but I know part of that plan drastically altered for you.

Calpernia: Barry died almost tens years ago now, and although I have put my most personal feeling concerning him into a very private place, on an almost daily basis I still have to deal with the curiosity generated by the movie. Soldier’s Girl, and the surrounding publicity. I don’t know how I’ll choose to handle this as time goes on. Ten years is a really long time to have to relive this story publicly

Putting aside all the personal emotions and considering it pragmatically, if I had not met Barry, I would probably have finished my transition and moved to Chicago, just as I did in real life. I might have tried harder to live in stealth, which would have been so much easier without the notoriety that came with the movie and media coverage. Who knows, I might have been a married suburban chick in Chicago by now. But I was a showgirl and musician long before Barry met me, and I would probably continued to pursue my dreams as an entertainer. I like to think that I would have ended up in Hollywood anyway, but Boating with Calperniawithout Soldier’s Girl and the terribly tragic story hanging over my head it might have been easier to settle in and get work. I know that I have lost several jobs because they did not want to cast “that girl who boyfriend was murdered”. I would never have been a megastar, but I would have found work and been happy.

I’m just grateful to everyone who has been so supportive along the way. I know I’m not the prettiest, most talented or best at anything. But I have something to say, I appreciate those who listen and find some joy in the things I share.

I consider myself lucky to be where I am now, working hard at a job I love in an exciting town. The past can’t be undone, and it will always be with me, so all I can do is look forward. And I have the highest hopes for what is to come.

For more information on Calpernia, please check out her extensive web site and www.deepstealth.com where you can find the above mentioned voice training materials. Amazon.com also has Calpernia Addams merchandise.


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Category: Transgender Fun & Entertainment

Pam Degroff

About the Author ()

Pamela DeGroff been writing for TGForum since the start of 1999. Her humor column, The Pamela Principle, ran until 2005. She started the Perpetual Change music column in May of 1999, and in 2008, Angela Gardner came up with the idea for the Transvocalizers column and put Pam to work on that. Pamela was a regular contributor to Transgender Community News until that magazine's demise. While part of a support group in Nashville called The Tennessee Vals she began writing for their newsletter, and also wrote for several local GLBT alternative newspapers in Tennessee. Pamela is currently a staff reporter for a small town daily paper in Indiana, and is also a working musician.

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  1. says:

    I listened to the Calpernia song and others on You-tube, they are on the edge great. Thanks you for putting this together.

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