Read more from our Trans Legends oral history project, a growing archive of interviews with transgender icons and pioneers.
Watching Tiffany Arieagus spin full pirouettes in a circle, hypnotizing the crowd with her dazzling smile, infectious joy, and sheer exuberance is a mesmerizing spectacle. Even if only viewable today via the staticky playback of a digitized videotape uploaded to YouTube, Tiffany’s star power is still palpable, undeniable.
As the winner of nearly 50 titles in transgender beauty pageants, Tiffany is exalted by her peers as a decorated veteran of show business. Today, Tiffany has moved on to another leading passion: serving her community. After her lifetime as a headlining showgirl in South Florida, she now spends her days as a case manager, community liaison, and housing specialist at SunServe in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, working to keep her trans siblings off the streets. And although the spotlights and glimmer of sequins have since been replaced by office lighting and business casual attire, her sparkle remains.
Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Tiffany was accepted by her family and presented feminine from a young age, fortifying her self-confidence and enabling her to help others. She recalls walking in civil rights marches alongside her mother as child, and has kept that sense of social responsibility with her throughout the years. “We may be beautiful today and not beautiful tomorrow,” she told me. “And beauty's only skin deep. It's what's inside that glows.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: I know you were the third ever Miss Continental, in 1982. What led you to that moment?
Tiffany Arieagus: I was born in Mobile, Alabama to a wonderful family. My mother and my sisters, my grandmother, my niece, my whole family's just amazing, and [has been] extremely supportive of me all my life. When I made my transition in high school, my mother told me, "Honey, I always knew." She says, "As long as you go to school, and you are the kind of woman that other women can be proud of, then it's alright with me." She said, "But, if you're going to be a discredit to womanhood, then I'm not gonna agree with this." That's been my mantra. I’ve always wanted to take care of myself, be good to myself, but be good to others, too.
What are you doing right now?
Right now, I'm the Director of Case Management at SunServe. SunServe is the first and only LGBTQ agency in Broward County, [Florida]. We were the very first, and we have mental health services, youth services, a senior daycare center, women's services, transgender services. Housing case management is where I specialize.
How do you find interfacing with the trans community today?
Well, I think sometimes it can be a little bit difficult, because you find that a lot of the younger girls, they don't know the history. I know in a lot of communities around the country, the younger girls, they look up to the older girls. I find that many times, in Broward County where I am, a lot of the younger girls, they don't know the struggle.
I wish that our trans community could be more close-knit. I started [one of] the very first transgender support groups, a non-profit organization in Broward County back in the early 90s. It was called “Transgenderations.” I started that with money that I was making while working at the Copa. I was trying to get the trans community to come together.
Many of the girls came together, became advocates so that we could be included in equal rights amendments here in Broward County, which we eventually won. There were times where LGB had equal rights, and T was a dangling T, as we called it, because the T was left out. But then we went back, and the community joined together and made it happen.
I've never been one to consider myself trans. From the first day, I knew who I was: I'm a woman. I've always been a woman, and that is mind, body, soul, spirit. It was difficult for me to embrace the trans part of it, because I never felt that. I just always was a woman. I wish that I could get all the girls to become involved in politics and decision-making in our community, so things can get better.
Now, I’m starting a support group called "The Woman In Me." Somebody said, "How did you come up with that?" I said, "I don't know, I was thinking about opening a clothing store at one time, and I thought about a clothing store for trans, and then I said The Woman In Me, 'cause then it encompasses everybody that wanted to dress."
But then, we know that it's more than dressing. It's more than a feeling. It's being. It's the fact of being free. The chance to be who you really wanna be—be happy and be respected and be productive.
I sound like a politician, don't I?
You could be a politician. I would vote for you. You said that this did not come easy, and I wonder what privileges and freedoms you didn’t have at the time that young people have today?
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and I remember being a little girl and walking with my mother in the [1963 March on Washington] for civil rights. I remember us walking in the march with [Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.]. I didn't know what I was marching for, but my mom let me know: this is important. I remember my mom walking in her stiletto heels and ‘hose, and the way the women dressed back then. I can remember holding hands, marching with all these people, and singing.
Growing up in Mobile, I was privileged. People think that all of Alabama is behind times, but I was able to be me through high school—to be Tiffany.
Really? You presented female?
Oh, honey, all my life. Even at four years old I wanted baby dolls. I did not spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they thought of me. Believe it or not, because of the attitude I had and the way that I carried myself, a lot of people didn't even think. It's all about the security you have within yourself.
Were you able to go through your teenage years like that too?
Oh yes, honey. I twirled batons, I was in the dance classes, I studied dance. I graduated as me. I went to the University of South Alabama as me.
Then I started performing. I had seen some girls performing and I said, "Oh." I was in dramatic arts in college, and I finally landed a job in Pensacola, but my mom said, “You can't quit going to college to do that. So, I would go to Pensacola—which is 45 miles away—on the Greyhound bus to work at the Red Garter. The owner of the Red Garter knew I was not old enough to be in the club, so I had to stay in the dressing room [while I was not performing]. I'd study, and then after the bar closed at 2:00 AM I would go down the street to the San Carlos hotel on Halifax Street and go to bed. I'd get up in the morning and get back on the bus at 6:00 AM.
Then I even worked as a stripper. I was famous for stripping. I would go work in this burlesque theater during the day, and then at night work at the gay clubs, at the Red Garter. I never thought or had time to think about where I fit in. I just knew who I was, and that was a blessing. I just want all the girls to really be mindful of being true to themselves, taking care of themselves, helping others, because none of us make it alone. I never would have made it without all the girls—and then I had some wonderful guys too that surrounded me and helped me to flourish.
Do you remember any of those queens that came before you? Do you remember stories that they told you about what their eras were like, or the world that they came up in?
Well, they told me that there was a time when they worked in nightclubs where they had to wear at least one piece of male [clothing]. They were able to tell me about the Stonewall [Inn]. A couple of girls that worked at the Red Garter had been in the Navy.
There were times where you had to hide [back then]. There were raids in the bars. You hear about the same things over and over. It's like a repetitive thing: that back in their day, it was not so easy. And the ones who were passable, they didn't have as many problems. It was the ones who were transitioning, who weren't passable. I think that when you're passable, it makes life a lot easier sometimes.
But a lot of it depends on your mental health and your strength. Somebody that has a strong personality and a resiliency can stand up against mountains. Yeah, then sometimes you may have someone that's beautiful, but very fragile. Beauty's only skin deep and beauty don't last forever.
You were a fabulous beauty. What led you into pageantry and the pageant scene?
I was in Mobile and working at a club called the Prince's House, the very first club I worked in. And they would tell me about the Miss Universe Pageant. My show director was entering the pageant. And I said, "Well, I wanna go." I'd never entered a pageant, and I had studied tailoring, so I made all my clothes. There were 21 girls. I was number 21. After three nights of competition, I ended up winning second runner-up and Best Talent. That was my start. I just decided, "Okay. If they can do this, I can do this, and I want to make the money."
What year was that?
That was in 1974.
That was your first year performing at the Red Garter Club?
Yes. The night after the Miss Universe Pageant, they had a party at the Red Garter, and we all went downtown, in Pensacola, from the Yum Yum Tree to the Red Garter. Somebody had been at the pageant and told the owner that he should have seen the new little girls from Mobile. They introduced me to the owner, and they introduced me to the DJ, and all of them. I knew nobody, I was a country girl from Mobile. But that's how I got my job at the Red Garter.
So you must have been like 18, 19, or something?
I was 19 years old. I kept on going to college while I worked at the Red Garter, and then I eventually ended up moving down to south Florida and Tampa. Rene Rodriguez at Rene's Disco in Tampa, he was the owner and my mentor. In those days, to be a Rene's girl was the ultimate. It was like being a Baton girl.
What injustices did you encounter in those early days of being a performer?
There were injustices. The first contest I ever entered was in Mississippi and there were 11 contestants. There were two Black girls and nine white girls. And during the contest—like I said, I made my own clothes—they raided my clothes. And this was my very first contest. I was 18. Between each category, I was sewing my clothes up. And I won and the other Black girl finished 11th.
I guess that was a bit of prejudice I felt because it was at the Raintree Lounge in Biloxi, Mississippi. After that, they took us to one of the straight hotels that was on the beach on the gulf of Mexico. And for the after party, the patrolman who was supposed to lead the motorcade, he did not want to lead the motorcade because I was Black.
Earlier, you mentioned us being kinder to each other. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Sometimes I'd hear the girls say bad things about the new girls that are coming out that are just not quite there—the ones that may not have all the attributes that others have, the ones who may not be as beautiful or wear all the fashionable clothes. And I'm sure it happens in every walk of life. But I wish that they would see that honey, rather than talking about people, it's so much easier to try to help them. Yeah, because you never know where we're going to be. We may be beautiful today and not beautiful tomorrow. And beauty's only skin deep. It's what's inside that glows.
I wish that we could just come together and take care of each other. And I really want the girls to get involved in politics.
You have a chance to change history, do it. You have a chance to make your life better, do it. But you can't just make your life better by making money. You got to make your life better, because you can have all the money in the world and be the loneliest person in the world. You can have all the money in the world and be unhappy. You can have all the money in the world and have to hide in your house because your neighbors won't let you out without gawking at you. So how do you change this? You stand up and you speak. You let your voice be heard. You help others to know they have the power too, because it's [through] holding hands, linking, talking, and spreading the word that there is power within and power in numbers. And that's what I wish.
So many times, [when] we have gay pride parades, you have different events and you'll see the boys, the lesbians, the nonbinary, the youth; but when it comes to the girls, there's only a few. And [they’re] basically entertainers, because everybody else wants to be hidden under the radar. It doesn't matter how beautiful you are, how convincing you are, we cannot fool everybody. So let's not waste time trying to fool anybody. Let's be true to ourselves. That's coming from an old woman.
From your mouth to God's ears.
Yes, honey. Because there's so many young girls who want help. There's so many, but a lot of them are afraid to ask. Sometimes, I think if the girls got off the phone and got off the Facebook and started talking to each other face-to-face, I think that they would see how wonderful we really are. I think we're missing a lot. There's a lot lost in the art of communication and not communicating, because the art of communication is a beautiful thing. Not only do you get to know people, but you get to really feel people. And sometimes, when you’re just texting or something like that, people can pretend to be whoever they want to be. But when you're talking to people, many times you can hear and feel what's in their heart through the tone of their voice. So, I think that that would be good. And yet I'm so proud of the steps that our transgender sisters and brothers have made, and [that] the world has made in recognizing and embracing the transgender community.
Absolutely, and we still have a ways to go. What are your feelings about the moment that we're in right now?
Education. I work in social services, so I do get to meet a lot of people in situations. And I tell them, "What? Don't drop out of school over, 'I don't feel comfortable there.'” If you don't want to go to school, you can study on the internet. Let's become educated. Let's get that book learned that is so desperately needed to compete in the world. Let's become scientists. Let's become doctors. Let's become lawyers. Let's strive for those child dreams we had.
But we also have to be protective of our lives. Right now, the world is a dangerous place. I've had friends who have lost their lives working—if you know what I mean—and trusting people who they just met. People [are] meeting people on the internet for moments, pleasure, whatever, and it turns out they get killed or something. So we have to be protective of our lives, too.
When you think about it, I have to be thankful I'm not dead.
Back in the day, we would go out and we would be at the club and we would just meet somebody and go home with them—back in the day when we were young, wild, and free. I always introduced whoever I was going out with to my roommate. And my roommate would say, “Let me see your driver's license.” And they would write their name down and driver's license [number] and stuff like that. It was like a protection back in those days. And at the Copa, it was like a policy. When you was there, we had Aunt Kathleen on the front door. When you went home with someone, Aunt Kathleen wrote it down who you left with, what time––she wouldn't let you out the door, [she didn’t] care how crowded it was.
She was like a house mother—someone who was there to look out for the girls?
Yup. This was the owner of the Copa's aunt. And Kathleen was gonna write down that information, and make sure that you're okay. And we didn't have these kind of issues that we're having today as much. But of course, then, it may have been we just didn't hear about it because we didn't have this much communication. The internet tells everything now.
It's interesting, because if it all happens online, there’s no one looking out—there's no safety net.
Yeah, if you gonna take someone home, tell your friends. Go get your friends. Tell somebody. Ask to see their ID. Don't be afraid, honey. If a man would not show you his ID, you think about it. This is your life—you only have one. So I don't care how good looking or fine he is. Baby, I need to see your ID, and then I need to get a copy of his ID to my friends, because I don't know you. You can't judge a book by the cover.
Thinking back to your childhood and being a little girl walking in the Civil Rights March with your mother and talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What did you take from that moment that continues to carry you through today?
That I have to be involved in my life and what happens in my life. That's it. I have to be a part of that decision making. I have to be a part of what happens in my world around me.
I can't sit back and expect others to do the work to make the world better for me. That is the thing: if you want a better world; if you want your life to be better; if you want to be respected; you have to be willing to get up and do the work, too. And you have to be willing to change, too. Because if you don't change and grow with the world, the world will pass you by. It's not gonna sit down and wait on you.