Sipping on a summer drink, Jenna Talackova quietly makes her way across W 2nd Ave, past a bus stop, into Characters Talent Agency near Granville Island. A gaggle of guys, immersed in conversation, stop and stare — which could mean they recognize the former Miss Universe Canada contestant, or they think she’s gorgeous, or both.
It’s been four months since the Miss Universe franchise first pulled the Vancouverite from competition for not being “naturally born female,” then reinstated her after she fought her disqualification with the ultra-media-savvy, no-nonsense Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred at her side.
“As long as she meets the standards of legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, which we understand that she does, Jenna Talackova is free to compete in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant,” the Donald Trump-owned franchise conceded.
She met the standards, made it to the top 12, and was among four contestants named Miss Congeniality.
Now, Talackova is prepping for a different debut — she’s been named one of three grand marshals for the upcoming Vancouver Pride parade, which she’s never attended before.
Xtra recently caught up with Talackova, who reflected on her stint in the Miss Universe world, being named grand marshal, being an advocate, and what the future has in store for her. Here is an excerpt from that interview.
Xtra: What have you been up to since competing in Miss Universe Canada in May?
Jenna Talackova: So much. I have an agent now, which is amazing. I’ve been working with an acting coach and just trying to open up my acting career more. I’m working on an up-and-coming TV show — it’s going to be on a Canadian network — can’t say. I have a commercial coming out with Stuart Weitzman in August. Lots of travelling, lots of health and wellness. I’m judging a pageant, too. Lots of yoga. Ever since this whole thing happened, my boyfriend and I are like, “Aaah, I think it’s time we go to yoga.”
Lots of people have come knocking on your door . . .
It’s opened a lot of doors. But I have to be very strategic with it all. I definitely would love to go for the trials for Victoria’s Secret, really train for it and see if I can make it in their show. That would definitely be one of my dreams. I was going to write a book, but I think I need to experience a bit more. I’ve journalled for the last six years. It’s going to be a self-help, meaningful book, full of affirmations, meditations — things I used to help myself through this whole experience growing up . . . It will be a bunch of things that will help people really treasure themselves for who they are.
What was your reaction when you found out you’d been selected as a grand marshal for Vancouver Pride?
The other two grand marshals are just amazing people, with amazing foundations, and I’m just honoured to be beside them. It should be a great experience.
The thing is, I may not be gay, but I believe so much in equality. I know that’s what the LGBT community strives for.
I can’t believe they’d ask me. It’s my first Pride parade. I’ve never been to a Pride parade in my life. It’s kind of awkward, I know, but I’m making the best of it.
I got to be in the LA Pride parade, but I’ve never been to ours. I’d never been to a Pride parade until that day, and it was just amazing seeing people just so free and so energetic and so proud to be who they were.
I’m just deeply humbled. I don’t even know what I’m going to wear.
Now that the Miss Universe Canada competition has come and gone, what have you taken away from the experience?
People may say I’m heroic or any of these kinds of labels, but I just strive for something I believe in, and I think everybody should do that. I can sleep really well at night because I feel like I’ve helped a lot of people. All the fan mail and all the letters I’ve received — I almost think it was an act out of my vanity to join a pageant, and it ended up helping so much.
Have you been contacted by other trans people?
I just got this amazing book and chocolates, and I receive emails daily, especially when I was in LA Pride. They just all want to share a story with me.
Any particular story or stories stand out for you?
A lot of people are transitioning now, because of me. This one lady, she’s from Puerto Rico. She was telling me it’s been lingering in her mind for years, since she can remember, but she’s never had the guts to come out. Now she’s transitioning and finding support, and I told her, “You live once. We’re all souls, we’re all a beautiful essence, but you’re living in this life, in this moment. So if you’re not happy, and you know this is truly what you want to be, then the real people that love you — I had difficulties, too, with my mother and my brothers — you’re going to open their mind to a whole new consciousness.”
I’m not trying to say I was a gift to my parents, but it’s definitely made them a lot more open and not so conservative, and it helps them in their lives now. And I told her that’s the gift she’s going to give to her family — just for being her true self. And now she’s transitioning.
Have those stories been the most common?
I get a lot of mail from partners of trans ladies, telling me their stories, how it’s just made them more open now. They’re not so scared to be out there. This is all a learning process, and I didn’t realize how much people did not know about this. It’s just opened up a lot more eyes.
Has it been mostly a positive experience?
It’s been a roller coaster. There’s a few things with some people. There’s going to be that yin and yang; not everyone is going to understand. And that’s fine, too. We don’t understand a lot of people. For the most part, it’s extremely positive.
Can you describe one incident when it wasn’t positive and you engaged the person?
I never engaged. A lot of parents in the pageant were really mad that there was some buzz around it. They felt like their girls were getting shunned. That’s totally not the case. I can’t help that it was like that. I knew I wasn’t going to win. But I had to compete, because I just reinstated myself. I had no control over that media. That was one negative thing.
There are those who are skeptical about the beauty pageant environment . . .
They should be . . . so true.
In terms of waging a human rights struggle, there are those who are saying that beauty pageants are not environments that are —
— Are somewhere to start something like this, right?
What’s your reaction to that?
It happened, and it helped. It’s not like I planned this or knew this would happen. It was something I was doing out of . . . I love a healthy body, I love a healthy outlook. I wanted to compete in Miss Universe, and then this blew up, and it actually helped.
I’m sure there’re going to be many more incidents, less vain-y kinds of things. But it happened. It happened in a beauty pageant of all things, and it’s changed my life. I’m learning through this, too.
Donald Trump suggested that you had an “ulterior motive” for entering the competition. How would you describe your relationship with him and the franchise now?
I don’t really care for it. It happened. I competed. That’s it. I’m not trying to become anything with it. I’ve done what I had to do, and I’m just concentrating on my career and my future. It definitely paved the way for me, and it was my lottery ticket, I guess. We’re not business partners. I have nothing to do with him; he has nothing to do with me.
How has your boyfriend handled the whole thing?
Good. I told him not to worry when it all broke out. I have a huge rule about keeping him out of the public eye — no pictures, no nothing. He’s just a mystery man.
There have been beauty contestants who have brought up the issue of what it means to be “a real woman.” There was Eriz Lanseta, winner of the Miss Gay Philippines last March. She was quoted as wondering how trans women can answer the question: what is the essence of being a woman? What would you say to her?
The essence of being a woman, to me, is balancing a family life and your passion. It’s a great juggle that I think only a woman could juggle. I’m a woman that actually juggles that and creates that atmosphere. Whether you can bear children or not, you can still create a family.
Do you think your initial conflict with pageant organizers has increased people’s awareness, even acceptance, about who can be considered a woman?
It was definitely the starting point. I went to Thailand in 2010 for another international [competition], and all the katoeys and lady-boys were telling me, We have the surgery, but they won’t change it in our passports. So I don’t even know if they can compete or will ever be able to compete in Miss Universe Thailand or something of that nature.
As for changing views of it, Miss Earth will not accept it. I don’t know about Miss World. It’s definitely a battle and not a battle I can just take by myself. I’d be silly to think that I can fight a battle by myself, but when we all take a step in that direction together is when change happens.
Are you feeling any pressure to take on those competitions?
I really don’t care to do pageants again. But, we’ll see. I’m turning 24 in October. I’m just working on my creative side right now, opportunities that I would just be daydreaming about before.
Have you been active in transgender rights before all of this?
No. There’s always a good time to start.
I’m not into labels. If society needs to label me like that, I get it. If you’re a woman, you’re a woman. If you’re a man, you’re a man. Pick one. You’re not in the middle, trans.
So even though I wasn’t an advocate before, I’m so honoured to even have that kind of name now, and definitely I want to bring more awareness to this. I’m very open about my past and what I had to go through to be who I am. That’s just me telling my story. If they want to call me “advocate” for it, then let them.
What’s next for you?
I’m leaving for Toronto next week to start shooting my pilot. I’m going to New York to work for [Stuart Weitzman]. I always loved his shoes. Now I’m going to be in his commercial. It’s mind-boggling for me. And definitely Victoria’s Secret.