opinion & features
Jenna Talackova is one of the few people in this world who can say they have taken on Donald Trump and won. She has gone from obscurity to being one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Her image has been splashed over TV screens, newspapers and magazines everywhere. If you Google her name, you will get more than 44 million hits. She is the most famous trans-woman since Christine Jorgensen stepped off a plane in New York in February 1953. Not bad for a slim 23-year-old contestant in the Miss Universe Canada pageant.
Earlier this year, Talackova was unceremoniously dumped from the pageant when organizers realized she was a trans-woman. Talackova was born as a boy but knew from age four that her spirit was definitely female. She underwent sex reassignment surgery and has turned out to be quite a stunning blond. She began hormone treatment when she was 14 and had surgery at 19 to complete the metamorphosis into a female. So far no straight men are complaining.
Miss Universe Canada contestants must meet a basic requirement of being a Canadian citizen and be between the ages of 18 and 27. They also must not be married or pregnant. There is no mention of rules regarding sex reassignment or cosmetic surgery.
Donald Trump runs the U.S. version of the pageant. The Miss Universe, Miss Teen USA and Miss USA Pageants are a Trump and NBC Universal joint venture. The Canadian version is run by the Beauties of Canada Organization, which gained the exclusive rights to send a Canadian representative to the Miss Universe Pageant in 2002. The Miss Universe Canada contest was first held in 2003. The American Miss Universe contest began in 1952 and went international in the 1970s.
To counter feminist claims that it exploits women, pageant organizers have of late put more emphasis on other qualities, such as intelligence, caring and compassion and healthy lifestyles. Ambition, goal setting and courage to change oneself and the world are also considered good modern attributes for any pageant contender.
In barring Talackova as a contestant, Miss Universe Canada promoters said: “She did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form….We do, however, respect her goals, determination and wish her the best.
Talackova’s photo and profile were removed from the Miss Canada website overnight, but if organizers thought she was going to go quietly into the night they were wrong. There was a tsunami of media coverage, even though Talackova, largely stayed out of the limelight for a few days. She did make statements over Twitter about being “disqualified for being born.”
“I’m disqualified, however I’m not giving up,” she wrote, defiantly. “I’m not going to just let them disqualify me over discrimination.” She also stated her disqualification was really a “human rights” issue. “All I can say is that they disqualified me because I am not ‘natural born,’” she said. “(That) doesn’t make sense because since I was conscious I always felt this way.”
Within days, Talackova hired celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, known for taking the cases of clients including a number of Tiger Woods’ ex-lovers and Nicole Brown Simpson’s family during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, to fight her case for re-inclusion into the competition. It was a media circus when Talackova, sitting beside Allred at a press conference in California, raised her Canadian passport for photographers. The passport clearly showed her as female.
The negative publicity was so overwhelming, it didn’t take long for the Miss Universe Canada organizers to capitulate and reinstate her. That left only one question – would the U.S. organizers let her compete in the international competition if she were to win the Canadian version. The suspense didn’t last long. U.S. pageant organizers said they, too, would recognize her as female and let her compete. Donald Trump, who runs the Miss Universe Organization, wished her “the best of luck in her quest for the crown.” The official rules will be changed by NBC, so that other trans-women will be able to enter the contest next year.
Talackova attended Killarney secondary school in Vancouver, where she began dressing as a girl. She identified as female from a young age and in high school changed her name from Walter to Page. Even as a Grade 8 student Talackova’s femininity was apparent. She was still classified as a boy back then, but the teenager’s mannerisms and appearance were that of a young woman. She had a slender frame and a blond bob. She hung around mostly with female friends.
“It was very obvious,” Teruko Walker told the Times Colonist, recalling the looks and behaviour of Talackova when she was in her early teens. “It wasn’t like she looked like a boy but acted like a girl. She very much looked like a female,” said Walker, who was in Grade 11 at the high school at the time. At age 14, Talackova began hormone therapy and changed her name again to Jenna.
Talackova’s family live in east Vancouver but she also has family in the northern B.C. First Nation community of Burns Lake, where her family comes from. John Bertacco, her cousin and band councillor in the Lake Babine Nation in Burns Lake, earlier told The Vancouver Sun that the community was aware of what was going on in her life and has been supportive of her throughout her transition.
The Lake Babine Nation helped her pursue her Miss Universe dream by giving her $2,500 to help with the entry fee, as well as moral support, Bertacco told the Sun. In April, Talackova was a guest on Good Morning American and said she has a boyfriend and wants to have two kids one day.
In April, Talackova told the TV program Good Morning America she initially didn’t tell her boyfriend that she was born male and had sex reassignment surgery. “Of course I had to let him know,” Talackova said. Once she told her boyfriend of two and a half years, he was very supportive and accepts her for who she is, she said.
– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.