paris lees is more than a transgender rights activist, she’s the voice of a generation
Spunky and out-spoken, the British broadcaster and journalist is putting her heart and soul into making the world a more accepting place for everyone, because if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.
Paris wears coat, bra and chain model's own. Jacket (worn underneath) DROMe. Trousers Avelon.
"The thing about human rights," says Paris Lees, sitting with a cup of tea on my sofa, looking as glorious as ever, "is that everyone deserves them. You don't have to be nice to deserve them." Paris is a new, fresh flavor for British transgender activism. She neither looks nor behaves like the angry, placard-waving demonstrators of yesteryear. Her daywear is more Cara than Camille. She has a weapons-grade flirting reflex and, not unrelated, a beguilingly bluff spoken manner. The grassroots of most pressing concern to her are the ones she might need touching up at Percy & Reed. She's cool with that. You don't become the new vanguard of anything by toeing the old party line. "I have decided that I want this country to be more accepting for trans people and I will literally die trying to make that happen."
Where are we at with the trans conversation in 2015? The boxing promoter Kelly Maloney is target practice for the sharpened end of tabloid slings and arrows. Transparent is really big with boring couples who define themselves by the imprimatur of their TV streaming choices. They killed off Hayley in Coronation Street. RuPaul's Drag Race has engendered a global gay generation that thinks it's OK to call women 'bitches' but have a screaming nervo on Twitter when Azealia Banks says the word "faggot." Lauren Harris is a byword for dysfunctional British tragedy, and Laverne Cox is a mega symbol of US progress, despite it all. At one end of the aggrieved local media parties taking issue with transgenderism you have British broadcaster and journalist Richard Littlejohn picking on suicidal schoolteachers in Accrington, at the other feminist Julie Bindel structuring theoretical arguments about what is and isn't womanhood, two flipsides of roughly the same bigotry coin. Where we are at with this conversation is approximately where we were with lesbian and gay rights 30 years ago. An imaginary enemy has been identified. Someone needs to show Britain that this enemy is a hologram, nothing more than a mirage painted by ignorance, stupidity, a gaping national empathy deficit and common or garden prejudice. Enter Paris.
"None of trans peoples' enemies impress me," she says. "Anybody who's really good and achieving anything, who's smashing it at the moment, are for trans people and anyone against us, as far as I can see, are these miserable has-beens or never-weres." When she read a Guardian editorial in which Germaine Greer referred to trans women as "ghastly parodies of women with too much eye-shadow," Paris decided to go on a one-woman offensive to shift this all up a gear, to wallop up trans representation and reconfigure it for the modern age. "I remember thinking, where's the response to this? Where is somebody like me that's given a platform in public life? The only time you saw someone like me in the media was when we were being ridiculed." You can call out her character all you like, but don't mess with Paris' maquillage. That shit's personal. The irrepressible modernity Paris lends trans-activism is born as much from truth as it is from humor and straight talking. "I am actually a bit of a bitch," she chortles. "I'm selfish. I drink too much. I'm promiscuous and unreliable, motivated by greed and spite and all the mean, low things that we pretend we're not motivated by. I'm happy to own all that stuff because I have had to confront who I am on quite a profound level and I'm not really big on telling lies to myself. I like to think if I make an impact, it's because I'm wholly myself. I thought I needed to be whiter than white to be a trans-activist. I do take drugs. I'm just a gobby, common slag from a council estate, really. But my message is true and my message is good." Paris is burning.
Her backstory makes Cinderella's fairytale look like Princess Anne's. She was brought up by a single mother on a Nottingham housing scheme, with an abusive father spun out by her young gender issues. Cottaging by her early teens, with a light prostitution habit, she found herself in a young offender's institution by school-leaving age, wherein she posted a picture of her on her cell wall as Paris, to remind the boys she was bunking with who she really was on the outside. If she could charm a bunch of delinquent inmates failed by the system, entry to the British media was going to be putty in her hands. Paris has built up a diamond-cut media profile over the last five years, writing first for the gay press, then nationals. She's a hot, mouthy presence on Woman's Hour, Question Time and The Wright Stuff. She writes a popular column for VICE and became a key figure in the potent campaign group, All About Trans. She cherried her cake at the start of 2015 signing a memoir deal with Penguin. Her editor is the woman who coaxed the greatest autobiography of our times out of Morrissey. Course she is. She had no intentions of going into politics proper. "I'm too sexy for politics, darling," she says.
For Paris, entering the higher portals of the British establishment is not just a trans issue; it is stiletto-heeled class warfare, too. "I do not come from a background where you are taught that you can get a platform for yourself. I didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge. I didn't know people who debated. Or go on Radio 4 and write for broadsheets." All this came to a head when she was a guest at a Downing Street reception last summer. "I'd won a Woman of the Year award at Cosmopolitan. It was snazzy. How mainstream is that? They took some activists down there and I wasn't going as Paris Lees, transgender campaigner, I was going there as Paris Lees, Cosmopolitan Woman of the Year. I took my mum. We weren't brought up to expect anything other than a job in a pub and maybe buying your council house. The fact that I've been imperfect in public and not tried to be anything that I'm not was really validating." Paris' battles are not over yet. "There are people that don't believe I'm a woman. I've got horrible aunties who still refer to me with male pronouns," she reveals. She's on a mission. "It's so simple. Oh, we've all seen the documentaries. We've all read the newspapers. Some people are transgender. What do we think about it? Yeah, let's respect them like everyone else. They're getting abuse? Yeah. We should try and reduce that. They're not getting proper medical care? Let's sort that out. Education? Let's start it early. Media representation? Let's have it. Everyone's different, everyone deserves human rights. We need to spread the love and challenge hatred. That's it, really."
Text Paul Flynn
Photography Harry Carr
Styling Bojana Kozarevic
Hair Louis Ghewy at The Book Agency using Moroccanoil
Make-up Natsumi Narita using M.A.C
Set design William Farr
Photography assistance Andrew D Moores
Make-up assistance Naomi Nishida.