Everything Caroline Cossey had dreaded came to pass one Sunday morning in the fall of 1981. For three years, a reporter named William Rankine had hounded the English model, known professionally as Tula, contacting everyone from family and neighbors to childhood schoolteachers in pursuit of a major scoop: that the glamorous Cossey, whose modeling success had led her all the way to a minor cameo in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, was a transsexual who had transitioned as a teenager almost one decade prior.
Twenty-seven-year-old Cossey knew the story was coming; her dad had warned her that Rankine had started snooping around again not too long before the exposé dropped, she explains in her 1991 memoir, My Story. But the shock of seeing herself in a bikini on the front page of News of the World alongside an all-caps headline that blared, “JAMES BOND’S GIRL WAS A BOY,” hit her like “a slap across the face.” She retreated from high-profile modeling for many years, though she was later able to leverage the scandal into a media platform, which she used to advocate for trans rights in the U.K.
“It should have been my choice to discuss my sexuality when and if I felt ready to do so,” Cossey writes in My Story. “The News of the World had taken that choice away from me.”
I thought a lot about Caroline Cossey—and Tracey Africa and April Ashley, two other trans women whose successful modeling careers were similarly derailed after they were outed—as I watched Dutch beauty vlogger Nikkie de Jager, a.k.a., NikkieTutorials’, coming out video, which hit YouTube on Monday. Throughout the course of the 17-minute clip, de Jager tells viewers that she is a trans woman, something she never once disclosed publicly in the nearly 12 years she’s been making content on the platform, where she has amassed close to 13 million subscribers.
“When I was younger, I was born in the wrong body, which means that I am transgender,” de Jager says in the video. “I am NikkieTutorials, and I am Nikkie. I am me. We don’t need labels. But if we are going to put a label on it: Yes, I am transgender. But at the end of the day, I am me.”
Much of the response to de Jager’s coming out—from media coverage, her fellow beautubers, and her subscribers—has been positive. “As a long time fan of hers, I’m so happy,” reads BuzzFeed’s headline. “I am so proud of you!” tweeted YouTuber Nikita Dragun on Monday afternoon. “To see you out and living your truth has brought me to tears!”
Lost in the celebration is the fact that de Jager only came out publicly because, according to the 25-year-old makeup artist, some individuals had tried to blackmail her, threatening to leak the story of her being trans to the press. The coming out video was her way of getting ahead of the story, seizing control of a narrative she didn’t intend to tell at this time as quickly as she could.
“I’ve always wanted to share this side of my story with you,” says de Jager. “I just wanted to do it under my conditions.”
“It looks like that chance has been taken away from me,” she continues. “So today, I am taking back my own power.”
I’m happy for de Jager, of course—how could I not be? In her own words, she describes her public coming out as “liberating and freeing.” I also appreciate that in sharing certain details of her story, like the fact that she began socially transitioning at 6 before starting hormones at 14, de Jager has provided yet another solid counter example to the reactionary fear-mongering that would paint juvenile transitioners as some kind of contagious new phenomenon, a crackpot theory that conveniently ignores the existence of the numerous individuals who transitioned young in decades past.
That said, I can’t help but feel bittersweet about the whole affair. De Jager might have been the one to release her coming out video, but only after her would-be blackmailers forced her hand. Four decades after a hairdresser’s assistant outed Tracey Africa on the set of an Essence shoot and News of the World published Caroline Cossey’s backstory without her consent, transness remains a liability to a woman’s career, one that can be weaponized against her even if she chooses not to make it known. “We all know what’s at stake in the question of ‘visibility,’” write artists Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos in “The Guild of the Brave Poor Things,” published as part of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility in 2017. “Representation can make us targets in offering, or imposing, recognition.”
With a smile on her face but tears in her eyes, de Jager tells viewers that she’s “accepting” that she can’t close her past off to her public, that she’s “embracing” the opportunity “to be truly me for all of you.” But being “truly me” cost Caroline Cossey, Tracey Africa, and April Ashley so much. Hopefully, for de Jager’s sake, that much has changed.
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