How Music Helped a Transgender Pop Star Transition
Through seeing Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Prince on MTV, Kenny could better visualize becoming Mia.
Photo of Soto Voce by Juan Azulay for Girlschool.
Mia Camilla used to dream of being a superhero. She wanted to manipulate the weather like Storm from the X-Men, fight for justice like Wonder Woman, and slink around Gotham City in skin-tight vinyl like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. These idols—powerful, fiercely sexy, and in possession of a dark femininity that could seduce, destroy, or do both at once—embodied everything Mia aspired to be during her childhood, when she was living as a skinny boy.
Mia grew up in Oakland during the 90s, after the crack epidemic had zombified the Bay Area port city and left one of the country's highest homicide rates in its wake. East Oakland, a bleak urban nexus of drive-bys, drug deals, and relentless gang violence, was referred to by newspapers as "the killing zone." This is where Mia lived. It wasn't an easy place for anyone, and was especially challenging for the effeminate son of a single mother who, as a five-year-old playfully taking her clothes off along with a brother and sister she was friends with, was shocked to discover she didn't have the same anatomy as the girl. Mia was beat up constantly and switched schools a dozen times throughout grade school. Her mom attempted to shield her son from those who would hurt her.
"My mom took me to see The Little Mermaid," Mia recalls, "and I told her when I grew up I wanted to have long hair like Ariel and be just like her. She was like, 'Oh my God.' For her, in that environment, she thought I wasn't going to survive."
But Mia did have powers: She was a vicious fighter, able to take on the boys (and sometimes girls) who jumped her at school. She could also sing, which she started doing as a baby, even before she could talk. As she grew up, she found that her voice aligned her to the other superheroes entering her field of awareness. There was Madonna: brazen, sexual, in possession of no fucks. There was Janet: effervescent, in control, and advocating the rhythm nation to which anyone looking for a better way of life could belong. And then there was Prince, who with heels, black eyeliner, and an unapologetic sex appeal swaddled in lace and shot in soft focus, demonstrated the malleability of gender. Through MTV, Mia saw her own path into music and womanhood become clearer.
"Even though I loved and wanted to be Janet Jackson, Prince was the step in between," Mia says. "Prince was my vehicle to be Janet."
Now, two decades later, Mia's former self is a memory, and Ms. Jackson If You're Nasty is within reach. She began her transition in February, finally living in the identity she'd always longed for, Mia Camilla. The first name was chosen for its simple femininity. The second in homage to Prince's female alter ego, Camille, who some say the Purple One chose as a tribute to a 19th-century French intersex writer. (Prince's 1986 album Camille was never released, with several of its tracks including "If I Was Your Girlfriend" landing on Sign o' the Times.) Now on the other side of a process she says began the day she was born, Mia is navigating what it means to be a transgender woman in the music industry, where sex appeal is currency.
Today at an unremarkable cafe in Burbank, Mia is dressed in heels, black pants, a red silk corset, and a vintage velvet and fringe kimono bought on Etsy. Her makeup is subtle and perfectly blended, her long, pale, pink nails filed to sharp tips. She smells like expensive perfume and cigarettes. Among the nine-to-fivers on their lunch breaks, she—the glamorous black woman with the easy smile—sticks out. Mia is the singer for alternative electronic duo Soto Voce, which merges industrial, synth, and dance into a smart, sophisticated sound alternately pummeling and delicate. The project also features Colombian producer Miguel De Vivo, who previously made music under the name Villains.
Mia orders a peach iced tea and takes a seat. She is soft-spoken, thoughtful, willing to answer a complete stranger's questions about the most intimate details of her life.
Are you dating?
Have you lost friends after the transition?
I have friends who won't say I've lost them, but they don't call.
When Soto Voce's debut single "Better" was released last July, Mia had not yet transitioned. In her words, she looked "like a stud lesbian" in the song's stylish black-and-white video. In it, she is pushed into a shallow grave while crying and handcuffed—symbolism that all but screamed how desperately uncomfortable she was in her own skin. The track got critical praise, Radiohead comparisons and 256,000 Spotify plays, but then the group—three years in the making—was put on hold so Mia could transition. It was her dad, a religious businessman she lived with during the summers throughout her childhood, who told her it was time to do it, that she was hiding behind music so she didn't have to deal with her gender issues.
While Mia intended to live out her process in public, she didn't realize how different she would feel after the transition. While she concedes that the awkwardness of this evolution is part of her journey, seeing herself before her transition in early photos and music videos makes her embarrassed.
"I feel like less of a woman. Less feminine," she says. "When you're with some guy you're talking to and he's watching a video of you looking like a guy, how are you supposed to feel about that?"
It's a learning curve made more nuanced by Mia's unique understanding of both the male and female psyches. Her testosterone levels, low to begin with, were further diminished when she began taking testosterone blockers and synthetic estrogen two years ago. With these hormones, her voice got higher, her facial hair went away, and she developed a broadened emotional spectrum that simply hadn't been available to her when she was a man. Mia is moodier than she once was. She sleeps more. Her orgasms have changed from quick climaxes to drawn out moments of intense satisfaction, and she is no longer controlled by the gripping sexual impulses of masculinity.
"To be honest, I never had a lot of compassion for men," she says. "I was always a natural feminist, but now I do see their situation, because testosterone changes their whole energy—there are a lot of things I get now that they can't understand. I have compassion for the fact that they're ruled by sex. It's not really something they can break."
Mia moved to LA five years ago after a stint making music in Atlanta. By day she worked as a bank teller and at night she came home to her Hollywood apartment, took off her suit and tie, put on female clothes, and made music that channeled the anger and confusion stemming from a lifetime of being attacked and misunderstood. The next-door neighbor thought there were multiple people living in the apartment because Mia would sing in male and female voices. This neighbor, Anthony Burulcich, was the drummer for dance rock act the Bravery and then for Morrissey's touring band. Impressed with what he heard through the walls, Burulcich linked Mia with his manager, who introduced her to De Vivo.
"I think Miguel always saw me [as a female], because he dealt with me in the music portion of my life," Mia says. "He was definitely a vehicle in helping me get to this place where I'm comfortable with myself."
"As pivotal as this transition process has been for her," De Vivo says, "I feel that the music has always connected on a level beyond gender."
Soto Voce is now sitting on dozens of new tracks and is ready to relaunch with a forthcoming EP. Its manager, Pete Galli, says it's obvious a massive weight has been lifted off Mia, but that some of the videos they made before were too good to toss. One of them is for "Pop," which you can watch above, a darkly, deliciously unhinged anthem that channels Mia's fantasy of herself as a Catwoman-style punching bag turned vigilante, taking down bad guys who hurt LGBTQ people. She is still, like the heroine she once idolized as the little boy she was once expected to be, a fighter.
"Me wanting to be this artist," she says, "was becoming a superhero in my mind."
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