Arielle Keil is aiming to make history as the first transgender person to win a Miss New Zealand pageant. Kim Knight follows her journey and asks why, in 2020, would anyone want to be a beauty queen?
Some little girls dream of being beauty queens. Arielle Keil had to wake up on a surgical table in Thailand just to enter the competition.
Next month, the 26-year-old will make history as the first post-operative transgender contestant in a Miss New Zealand pageant.
"People think it's world peace and fake smiles but the women who compete are beautiful on the inside," she says. "They're out doing stuff in their communities. They're educated. For me, they're like badass. And I always wanted to be like that."
It's post-lockdown, early June and still unfeasibly hot outside. Canvas meets Arielle for the first time in a cafe in downtown Auckland. She wears short green gingham shorts, a matching boxy Jackie Onassis-style jacket and introduces herself as Ari. Long hair, long jewelled nails and she'll have a hot chocolate, thank you. Ari has just been shoe shopping. When she pulls on a new pair of high-heeled white ankle boots, her legs unfurl like a red carpet. On her phone, a video of the first time she walked after her surgery. Painful and tentative. Baby steps from a grown woman.
"Figuring out how to shift my body differently. I was exhausted from the first two steps. You have to readjust, I guess."
Earlier, Ari had graphically detailed aspects of her surgery. The phantom limb pain she experienced, the post-operative packing that helped shape her new body. More phone footage: "I don't know if you want to see it but they, like, pull that out. It was a LOT." Her eyes widen and, at the next table, a man who is quietly doing the Herald crossword almost chokes on his tea.
He-she-they has never been a fixed point but, just recently, we've started to think a lot harder about how we talk about this. The Education Ministry, for example, has released new curriculum guidelines instructing schools to let students choose their own gender identities and names. Advocacy group Gender Minorities Aotearoa suggests media reporting on transgender people should avoid using birth names and past pronouns. The words and details in this story have been led by conversations with Ari but she knows her desire to share childhood photographs and to talk about her before and after, is not universal.
"A lot of trans people aren't very open about their transition and fair enough. Because a lot of times the world will make you feel like you can't open up."
But: "I will always be grateful for little Andrew. Because he never changed. Even though it did make me sad, I never tried to be one of the boys or get down with the boys. I just stayed true to myself and that's something I think not everyone can say.
"For queer people - and people in general - I just want everyone to live unapologetically. To be themselves and to never apologise for being yourself. Because, looking back at my life, Andrew never once said sorry for being feminine. You should never be sorry for who you are."
Ari was born in the Philippines and moved here as a toddler. She says beauty pageants are to her home country as rugby is to New Zealand: "I've idolised these queens for ages! A lot of people say beauty pageants are the most feminine - and least feminist - thing you can. I think there is nothing less feminist than bringing down another female like that."
How badly did she want this? Ari says she would not wish her surgical recovery on her worst enemy. And she has not seen her mother for three years.
When Ari's parents discovered she was taking hormones they issued an ultimatum: Stop or leave home. She piled her possessions into black rubbish bags and went straight to a salon for expensive hair extensions. She didn't know where she was sleeping that night, but, "I wanted to feel like me.
"My life turned upside down when I transitioned ... but I would rather go through hell as a woman than have an easy life as a man. Whatever the universe wants to throw at me - do it."
Today, Ari's father Nicasio tells Canvas he has come to understand that her happiness is also his.
"And she is happy now, because before she was hiding it, because she was so scared. Now she is like, 'I am here now. I am a woman.'
"My advice is you need to accept this with all your heart. Because that's your children, from your blood and you cannot stop them ... they are different but they're still your baby. Your kid."
Ari's decision has been difficult for him to accept and, he says, maybe impossible for her mother. But then, he says, just imagine if she wins. "Imagine that, Kim. How proud is New Zealand?" And down the phone I can hear his heart burst into a million pieces.
Beauty pageants are a complicated business. The rules for eligibility at a global level vary. Many specify contestants must be "natural-born females". The Miss New Zealand title Ari is competing for is connected to a franchise that feeds into Miss International - the only one of the four so-called "grand slam" pageants that allows transgender contestants and, even then, only those who have had surgery and legally changed the gender they were assigned at birth. More crucially to Ari's story - all contestants must be under 28 years old. Her transition had a deadline.
Two milestone markers in Ari's life: when transgender model Jenna Talackova won the legal right to compete in Miss Universe Canada and when a grown-up Ari saw herself in full drag for the first time.
"I used to do drag before I transitioned. I wasn't the most talented and I never did it to be the best performer. I honestly did it because I never thought I would be strong enough or brave enough to transition.
"I remember the first time. False lashes, the wig, everything. It was a really strange and magical moment where I looked in the mirror and what I saw reflected what I felt inside. It was like a eureka moment. Like a lightbulb."
Tomorrow night (Covid alert levels permitting) Auckland's drag community will perform at Caluzzi on Karangahape Rd in support of her Miss New Zealand bid. Beauty queens aren't just made on finals night. Contestants also put together a portfolio showing their volunteer work, fundraising activities for the sexual abuse charity Brave and images from their competition journey. There's a preview on Ari's Facebook page. She wears a crown and a cutaway swimsuit, her skin emblazoned with words people used to use to shame her with - "faggot" and "bayot", a derogatory Filippino term.
She writes: "Finding my strength and confidence as an adult has truly been the best revenge and biggest flex. Sticks and stones may break my bones but the nasty words y'all used to call me I'll paint on my body and serve it in front of the camera as the woman, badass and Queen I have blossomed into (or whatever the saying is)."
Another photoshoot recreates images from her childhood. Meet Andrew, raised in West Auckland in a conservative Christian family who went to church twice a week. At Massey High School, "I was a dweeb. I had a bowl-cut and I used to play in the chess club and I was a gamer. Then I started watching America's Next Top Model. In my head, I was Miss J. I started doing fabric tech and I'd make big ribbons and put them on my uniform and walk around and get told off for being a bit extra."
Online, fellow MapleStory gamers knew Ari and her older sister for their almost identical avatars. She made a MySpace page to support her assertion they were real-world female siblings. She never went to a school ball or a teen party and when she enrolled to study fashion design in Wellington the biggest shock was the other students.
"'Oh my God, people are drinking and having sex' - it was too much for me. I used to sit in Gordon Harris and just read the design books because I had no friends."
It's late June now. Ari has moved into a shared apartment with waterfront views and her brand new Miss New Zealand 2020 Finalist sash hangs on the bedroom wall. Her life is gold letters on shiny white satin. You can't see the hospital stays and the suicide attempts.
"I had internal conflicts with what I was raised to believe through church and who I was as a person. And I guess it did start a series of mental health problems - for the longest time I thought I was going to rot in hell, because that's what I was told.
"I genuinely thought there was a special place in hell for people like me and it was just ... if I'm going to hell, regardless of what I do, why don't I just die now?"
Ari doesn't remember every detail of the night she declared she was going to transition. She was drunk. There was a meltdown. The next morning, a flatmate was flicking through her drag wardrobe and said, "Oh my God, this will look so much better on you when you get boobs and stuff." That was the moment, says Ari. It was out in the open and there was no going back.
"Win or lose, this whole thing is a victory for me, because I've already smashed out a dream that I never thought in a million years would happen. It was hard to even get to the point where I could be eligible."
According to the Ministry of Health website, gender-affirming surgery can be publicly funded and privately provided in New Zealand, but "there is currently a long waiting list". Ari couldn't wait. She went to Thailand on her own in January and paid $15,000 for simultaneous "top and bottom" surgery - breast implants and vaginoplasty.
"I'd already missed out on a lot of years of my life in the wrong body and being the wrong gender ... if I transition when I'm 60, I'm going to miss out on being young and beautiful. As shallow as it sounds, that is such a part of a woman's life. Going out with the girls, getting attention from boys and having boyfriends. It's not the be-all and end-all of womanhood, but it is part of it.
"There's a lot of it that I'll never experience. I can't go to primary school and be a Year 3 schoolgirl but I can make the most of my life now."
2020 was the year nothing went to plan. Miss New Zealand finals night had, at the time of writing, been shifted three times. Auckland was in its second lockdown when Ari finally received her new passport officially acknowledging her legal transition. "I'm so happy!" she texted Canvas. At home, alone, she practised and practised and practised.
Past the Texas Fried Chicken and the Auto Repair shops and into the cul de sac that ends with Henderson North Primary School. For months now, contestants have spent their Saturdays in the hall with the basketball hoops and the world flag bunting, perfecting their walks, talks and dance numbers.
"Five, six, seven, eight ... " calls choreographer Imogen Marshall. "Hip-hip, face-face ... you got this."
They strut to Sia and eat tangy BBQ rice crackers. They are students - nursing, quantity surveying and social media marketing. One young woman has just been nominated president of her local Lions club. They wear pink-white-nude-black heels. The wide smiles are for practice - but it's impossible not to smile back.
Summer Gunn, 18: "I'm just doing this for my confidence ... I'm into cars and stuff and I'm from a small town. You don't have to be a girly girl to do this."
Maddy Young, 20: "I'm the kind of person who sticks their hand up for anything. I'm not going to turn down hanging out with a great bunch of women."
Jahvaya Wheki: "I'm just embracing who I am. It's time for me to just do me and a pageant is an amazing platform."
Today, contestants are being fitted for their national costumes. That is absolutely a pavlova reimagined as a froth of white tulle and more sequins than the 1970s. Ari is making her own gown. She eventually finished her fashion design studies at AUT. Her national costume will be custom-printed and hand-bejewelled with that corn cereal supersnack, the Twistie. Because, she says, "It's a straight world without Twisties."
In the three months Canvas drifted in and out of Ari's life we learned there was nowhere she wouldn't take the conversation. From fashion discoveries ("$400 for these pants - and they don't even have pockets!") to religion ("I believe in 'don't be a dick'") to boyfriends (both before and after surgery but currently single). She cracks jokes and keeps it light but there's a moment, when we ask about sex, and she says she doesn't know how to describe it - but she felt it in her soul.
This story is being published on Suffrage Day. It's 127 years since New Zealand women won the vote and almost 15 years to the day since Georgina Beyer became the world's first openly transgender Member of Parliament. The world is changing but progress is slow.
"There are lots of times where I will cry myself to sleep because the whole world sees me as like a freak or a circus creature," says Ari. "That's something I do want people to understand. Every trans person is different. I want to present very feminine, because that's what makes me feel happy and good about myself but there are some trans people who don't want the surgery."
And: "What a miserable life wasting thought and energy into deciding the types of people you hate or the things you don't agree with. I don't like kitten heels, but I'm not going to spend my time getting angry about how many women wear heels that are less than two inches ..."
On the bad days, she phones her sister. Ari's single memory of the Philippines is poking her head through a hole in a fence and laughing at the neighbour's kids because they weren't wearing any clothes. One of them pushed her head into the corrugated iron. Her lip split open and she still has a scar from the stitches.
Now, she says, she feels bad. Now, she understands that family was very poor. But there's more to this story. Via email, her older sister Abegail says Ari had actually been left with a family friend who owned the corner store. She remembers her little sister coming home from the hospital, bandaged and clutching a piece of chewing gum.
"She had saved this piece of gum just for me and, even though her face was in pain from being cut and then stitched, she was happy to give that piece of gum. I remember so vividly, that it was a little bit squished, the prints of her fingers moulded on it. Since she's been little, she's always giving, no matter what her situation is."
In return, says Abegail, "The one thing I know that most people who start their transition lack is support from their immediate family. I understand that it's not what we consider as "usual" but honestly, they're not asking you to join them in their journey of transformation. They're not asking you to transition with them, it won't change your daily life. You won't lose anything by being kind, loving and supportive."
Miss New Zealand 2020 finals, October 17, 7.30pm, Avondale College Performing Arts Theatre.
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