Seven years ago, Vancouver woman Jenna Talackova was disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada pageant on the basis that she wasn’t a “natural born” woman. Recognizing this ruling as complete bullshit, Talackova teamed up with Gloria Allred, superhero of justice, and convinced the event organizers (one of whom was Donald Trump, the future president and rotting Jack-O-Lantern of America) to reverse the decision. Talackova was allowed to compete and ended up making the Top 12.
Watching Talackova compete on TV that year was a young Julie Vu, who had yet to begin her own gender transition. For Vu, Talackova’s story held the glimmer of possibility. Could she be like that one day? The idea seemed far-fetched, but ended up being completely life-altering.
Skip to now and Julie Vu has over 500,000 YouTube subscribers, 110K followers on Instagram, and hundreds of online videos (some with millions of views) in which she discusses life as a post-op transgender woman, detailing her everyday struggles and offering some candid sex talk and killer makeup tips along the way. She’s also about to compete in the Miss International Queen Pageant, the world’s largest transgender pageant, in March. Vu is the second-ever Canadian woman to compete in the pageant, following in the glittering heel marks of Talackova, who competed back in 2010.
But how far have we really come in terms of accepting trans people as, well, people? If we use mainstream, cis-dominated beauty pageants as a metric, then our progress is decidedly slim. Since Talackova, no openly trans person has competed in Miss Universe Canada, and although Spanish knock-out Angela Ponce made history last year by becoming the first-ever trans person to compete in the international Miss Universe, these women remain islands, and the reaction to their participation—both positive and negative—is always enormous. On the Miss Universe stage, you can’t just be trans and have it be normal. At least not yet.
That’s where Miss International Queen is different. Since all contestants are trans, nobody’s gender identity becomes their entire story, and contestants don’t have to risk putting themselves in the eye of a media hurricane—one that inevitably results whenever a trans woman tries to publicly declare herself beautiful. But as Vu says, Miss International Queen is still, at its core, a beauty pageant, meaning it comes with a set of expectations regarding body shape, perceived class, and the ability to “pass” that aren’t exactly inclusive.
Still, it’s a terrific opportunity for Julie Vu, who recently chatted with VICE about why this pageant is so important to her, what sectors of society need to better their treatment and knowledge of trans individuals (I’m looking at you, doctors), and how sharing her gender transition with a massive online community has changed her life.
VICE: How did you get selected to compete in Miss International Queen in Thailand, and what does it mean for you to compete?
Julie Vu: Well I’ve always wanted to compete in this pageant. It’s international, it’s for transgender people, and the application is pretty simple. You send in a video saying your age, how tall you are, your weight, and answer a bunch of questions about your life and what it would mean to you if you were to compete in the pageant. It means a lot to me because currently I feel like my voice is pretty loud, but it would make my voice louder to compete in this pageant. I would reach so many people out there that I want to help. That’s the reason I started a YouTube channel in the first place: to really educate people, to tell the world that transgender people are normal people, we’re driven, and we deserve equality.
How long have you wanted to be a pageant queen?
Since I first started transitioning, which was about six years ago. When I was younger I actually wanted to be an underwear model, but I didn’t think that transitioning was even possible until I got a little older. And so when I did start to transitioning, I was like, OK, this is what I want to do, and I really looked up to another Vancouver-based pageant queen named Jenna Talackova. I remember that day crystal clear. I was sitting in the room with my cousin and I was like, “I wanna be like her one day, but I’ll never get there,” because it was literally day one of transitioning for me—I had short hair, I wasn’t on hormones yet, and that dream seemed so far.
I’ve heard you bring up Jenna Talackova before. Since she was included in Miss Universe Canada in 2012, it does seem like we’ve been taking steps towards increased trans inclusion in mainstream pageants. But how satisfied are you with the level of visibility and trans inclusion in the pageant world?
We’re taking slow steps towards full inclusion. Society is still a little judgmental. But I’m happy that we’re being included more. And hopefully we continue to include more trans women everywhere, even on mainstream media and TV shows.
Currently it does still seem like trans folks are anomalies in the pageant community. How important is normalizing inclusion in mainstream beauty pageants, and will we ever get there?
I think we are getting there, but with trans people, it’s still unfair. So, for example, in Thailand the transgender people who have education are deemed “better” than poor, uneducated trans women. It’s really sad to see. You know, if you work in the sex trade you’ll never be able to become a pageant queen, which means there is this big division within the trans community. You’re respected if you’re educated and you speak English, but if you come from a poor family, you’re disregarded.
But is this specifically in Thailand?
In Thailand, yes, but also in the trans community more generally. It’s sad because if you’re not “passable,” then you’re not going to go anywhere in life.
Even though something like Miss International Queen in Thailand is a more inclusive space, it still sounds like you worry about the beauty standards and class standards. Are you concerned about pageants propagating a specific idea of beauty? Like in terms of thinness, perfect hair—these types of things?
Yeah. At Miss International Queen they’re still looking for, you know, femininity.
In your YouTube videos, you’ve been very open about your physical transition. You discuss the surgery itself, as well as a lot of post-op issues that just aren’t talked about—post-op sex, the maintenance of a surgically-created vagina, and so on. Why is it important for you to be super up-front with your audience not only about the emotional aspect of your transition, but also the more graphic medical aspects?
When I was first starting to transition, I began to search online to see if there was any videos, because I really needed that kind of education. I needed to know what would happen during the surgery, after the surgery, and what things would be like pre and post-op. But I couldn’t find any videos. So I thought, well I’ll do it. I’m going to share my whole journey without sugar-coating anything, or sweeping anything under the carpet. I’m going to be 100 percent transparent with my followers. So that’s what I did. I documented everything. And to this day, people still message me daily saying, “thank you so much for your videos, they’ve helped me a lot.” Like these issues aren’t talked about enough. I wish someone was there for me to say, hey, after your surgery, there might be complications, and here’s what daily life as a post-op trans woman looks like. I also wish someone was there to say, hey, you should freeze your sperm before you transition. Because now I can’t have children, and it’s my biggest regret. It bothers me a lot because I love children, I love kids, but I won’t be able to have my own.
That’s really tough, I’m sorry. One comment you made during a video really stood out to me. You mentioned going to the doctor because you were experiencing some post-op pain, and they were like, “we’ve never seen this before.”
Yeah, that’s something I really want to talk about on my platform. We need to make sure doctors are well-trained and educated on transgender people. Because yeah, I went to the hospital and literally, the doctor was like, “I have no idea what to do with you. I’ve never experienced this, so, I don’t know.” I was shocked because you assume you’ll get the help you need. But the doctor had no idea, and that really scared me.
Have you noticed any improvements in the medical system since that happened? Like do you think Canadian doctors today are doing enough to educate themselves on trans issues?
Slowly, but we’ve not fully there yet. I have noticed a difference between when I first started transitioning and now. I’ve also noticed there’s a really long waiting list for trans people to see their doctor. Because there are only a few doctors in the city who deal regularly with trans people and patients, and my friends who are waiting to transition have told me the lines are way too long, it’ll take months and months, and they just can’t wait anymore. I know that struggle. I couldn’t wait either. I had the feeling that I needed to transition now. I needed to get on that table or something bad was going to happen. So we need more doctors out there who can deal with transgender people because waiting is not OK. Time is so precious to us. Each minute counts.
Why was it so important for you personally to get the surgery so quickly? Because you’ve also mentioned in videos that you have a few regrets about going through the process quickly. Can you talk a bit about that and what advice you might have for folks considering the surgery?
Yeah, so trans people deal with gender dysphoria, and for me there was one summer where I just couldn’t go to the beach with my friends anymore because I was tired of worrying about my bottom parts, what I was going to wear, all that. Most of the time I would just stay inside. It really affected my self-esteem, like just looking in the mirror and seeing parts of myself that weren’t who I was. I was so unhappy with my body. I had depression, and that’s why I felt like I needed to get the surgery done, because that body wasn’t who I was. I needed to be in the right body, to be myself, and to be comfortable. I was tired of taping myself and ripping skin off my body, seeing all the blood, horrible. It was not cute. So I did the surgery, but then after I was like, well maybe I shouldn’t have rushed.
So what makes Miss International Queen a more appealing competition to you than, say, the conventional Miss Universe where the vast majority of participants are cisgender women?
Both competitions appeal to me. But I think right now I’m just really scared that I wouldn’t be able to compete in a conventional beauty pageant. I feel like Miss International Queen would be a good stepping stone for me. It’d be a foot in the door for me, and a great opportunity to talk to different trans women, to really talk about trans issues before we bring those issues into mainstream pageants. Honestly I’m so excited to meet Miss Vietnam, and Miss India, and to hear about the unique struggles they face in their countries. We’ll be able to share, compare, and just talk about it.
What specific issues are you most passionate about?
I’d like to use my platform to talk about domestic violence against trans women. This is an issue that’s super important to me, and very dear to my heart, because I’ve been through it. Not a lot of people talk about it, but there are so many trans women who are murdered and killed just because they’re in bad relationships.
In one of your videos you say that one in two trans women experience domestic violence.
It’s true. One in two. It’s very, very common. I want to talk about it and educate the public, and maybe this will lead to changes of policy and community efforts. But first it’s about starting a conversation.
You also mentioned a fear of being accepted by the mainstream pageant community—can you explain that a little bit more?
Yeah, it’s like the same thing with Jenna Talackova. I feel like there would be a lot of judgement and controversy regarding my participation. It’s like a double-edged sword: it could be very positive, but also very negative.
Totally, and you must experience a lot of that already, since you have such a huge social media following. I assume—like anyone who’s putting themselves out there and being vulnerable online—that you get a fair amount of trolling along with the very positive comments from your fans. How do you handle all that?
To be online you have to have pretty thick skin. And being online for eight-plus years I’ve grown to really focus on the positives over the negatives, you know, because for one hateful comment there are ten positive comments, or even 50 positive comments, so that’s how I kind of gauge it. I used to post videos and then just walk away from them because I knew that the comments would start filling in, but I didn’t want to let them bother me. And yeah, just the support of my followers is amazing.
What is your relationship like with your fans and how deep do those relationships feel, given that they exist online?
They’ve been a huge support for me throughout my transition. Without these people and the people that follow me I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I first started off creating this kind of online safe haven for myself in my room because I was scared of the outside world—it was horrible. I wanted to create a space online where we could talk about our problems and relate to each other. My followers are my family. I never call my following my “fans.” They’re my supporters. I’m truly grateful. And when I travel I try to have meet-ups everywhere I go, because I want to give back and say hi and thank you so much for being there for me.
You speaking about your experience is one way people learn about trans and LGBTQ+ issues, but there’s this wonderful generation of TV shows now that are doing a good job of educating the mainstream. I’m thinking about shows like Pose on FX, or to some extent Drag Race . Do you watch these shows, and how important are they to you and your community?
Very important. I’ve seen these shows, but I’m not really a religious TV watcher. But I’m so glad something like RuPaul is doing so well. There are so many seasons—it’s crazy! All my friends talk about it and I think it does play a big role in society. It means we’re opening ourselves up to a wide range of people all around the world.
What are you doing to prepare for the pageant?
It’s pretty intense. I’ve been working out every single day, working on my national costume and practicing my dances. I’ll be doing a talent portion where I dance with fans [the objects, not her followers] to my favourite artist, Ariana Grande, so yeah, during this whole process I’m learning so much about myself. I love it.
Will you be documenting your pageant journey on your YouTube channel ?
I will. So I am filming everything as I prepare—from the dress-making, to the dancing, and I’ll definitely be vlogging my experience in Thailand because I don’t see a lot of first-hand experiences like that on YouTube.
Why is it important for trans issues to be issues that everyone—as opposed to just trans individuals—know about?
In the LGBT world, we’re still the silent ‘T.” Not a lot of people really focus on our issues but we deserve to be treated equally. Trans people are discriminated against everywhere. In the workplace, at home, in society, and people need to realize we’re just like anyone else.
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