From Queen Bea to Real Bea –
how I became the person I really am
The month was May 1995. My book One of the Boys had just been published in the UK, a memoir of my days as a female drag queen in London.
Interviews with papers like the Guardian, Times, Daily Mail, and Harper’s Bazaar followed. So did appearances on international and national radio, as well as national television.
As though this all weren’t exciting enough, a reputable European publishing house even optioned the translation and film rights. I could already picture myself sipping cocktails with Julia Roberts as we discussed how she’d play me in the movie.
I was 27 years old. I thought I’d Made It.
This was everything I’d dreamed of. Love. Fame. Fortune. Look out world. Make way for a shining new star.
The Big Let Down
Except, it turned out, I hadn’t. And I wasn’t. Just as quickly as the hype built up, it fizzled out. I became yesterday’s news, someone with a sensational story but not enough substance to make a permanent mark.
I veni’d…. I vidi’d… I did not vici.
It was a crushing blow. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to impress others. To prove my worth by performing and producing. To live up to or, better yet, surpass expectations.
And now, on a very public stage, I apparently hadn’t. On the outside, I tried to look nonchalant about this unwelcome turn of events. On the inside, I felt confused, lost and rudderless.
Did I do something wrong? I pondered anxiously. Also, If not this, then what? Where do I go from here?
I had no idea.
I tried to answer the uncertainty with more professional accomplishments. I switched industries. I took jobs in NY publishing and finance. I even did reasonably well at them.
I continued to do what I knew to do – perform and produce. But I felt utterly adrift.
Practice Makes Perfect
I was good at switching gears. I’d had a lifetime of practice.
Growing up all over the world as an ex-pat, I knew how to adapt to different cultures, environments and groups. I was used to belonging everywhere and nowhere… a sense of rootlessness that was compounded by family losses and displacement by World War 2.
With time I became a chameleon, able to adjust to whatever new environment I found myself in. It was both a gift and a survival mechanism. One that worked, even if the solution eventually became the problem.
Whether in a US prep school, among European aristocracy, or in the socially stratified scene I entered through my studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, I grew adept at reading others.
As an actress and singer, this skill proved invaluable. The doors it opened included performing with a traveling theatre troupe through Europe as a teenager, showcasing in fringe festivals, and starring as a top-billed drag queen at Madame JoJo’s, the UK’s most famous drag club.
I performed in circles high and low, before 50 thousand people in London’s gay pride celebrations as well as for celebrities and royals at the club. I’d learned to please people, to be what and who I perceived they wanted me to be, and it seemed to pay off.
Developing a False Self
As a person, though, my ability to connect by giving people what I thought they wanted proved toxic.
Not at first, mind you. When I was younger, I was able to win people over with heartfelt, spontaneous expressions of self. I knew how to be in the present, have fun, and connect with others naturally.
But as a teenager, shame – the sort that tells you you’re unlovable and defective rather than simply human- crept into my life. Along with its side kick, conformity. I wanted to belong, to feel accepted, to be like everybody else.
And yet I wasn’t. I wasn’t preppy and I wasn’t Jewish, the two main groups in the private NJ high school I attended. Nor did I seem as clever, athletic or beautiful as those I saw around me.
Instead, I’d lived all over the world. I was first generation German-American, with a long, complicated name and family history. We ate different food, observed different traditions, had different experiences.
Tall, with a flat chest and legs up to my armpits (useful attributes if you’re going to be a male-drag-queen-impersonator, not so desirable when the boys you like are several inches shorter), the differences I experienced on the inside were discernible on the outside too.
Putting On a Show
I was a good actress though. It was there that I came into my own.
I found I received a lot of praise and admiration for my talents on the stage. Applause and opportunities as well. It was only too easy for acting to bleed into daily life as well.
And so I did what many do. I created a false self to hide my insecurities and perceived inadequacies. I covered my real self under a facade. I could be whoever the situation called for.
I feel compassion and a twinge of sadness thinking about that today. It was like hiding a precious mosaic under layers of stucco, and thinking the stucco the valuable part. What a mistake.
One of the worst things to emerge from all this was feeling burdened. Hiding my real self left me feeling like a fraud, a showman who had to perform, produce, and act my way into acceptance. By the time I hit adulthood, image management had become a constant focus and effort. It was exhausting.
Can’t Read My Poker Face
My poor self-esteem, which I only temporarily escaped by pleasing others, undermined my ability to live freely. I was trapped by my own inauthenticity, afraid to come clean about who I really was for fear of being rejected – most of all, by myself.
This low self-concept was compounded by some dismal romantic choices and outcomes. I’d attract partners I wanted by acting one way, only for the relationship to implode when I let all of me out of the bag.
Over and over, I took this to mean I was unlovable as I really was… rather than stopping to ask myself why I was attracted to, and attracting, such mis-matches? And how I really imagined things would work out at the end if, in the spirit of Lady GaGa, I “hooked” someone by pretending to be someone other than the person I was?
Could I maintain the facade forever, especially at close quarters? The answer, clearly, was a resounding no.
Eventually, more than my love life fell apart. When failed dreams crashed into another failed relationship, in which I’d sunk to a new low by choosing someone emotionally abusive to throw my lot in with, I hit the wall. I was now 28.
The clinician in me would diagnose my then self with Adjustment Disorder, with anxiety and depressed mood.
The spiritual traveler in me sees what followed as a major spiritual crisis. And blessing, even though it came wrapped in darkness and a sense of desolation.
I found myself at a crossroad. Life as I knew it, and my way of being in it, wasn’t working out for me. Something had to give… but what?
My struggle to answer this question launched me into a period of intense introspection and reflection. I was forced to examine my desires, experiences, and expectations. To question my beliefs, the choices I’d made, the meaning of my existence.
I also had to confront my fear of being only as valuable as my latest success; as worthwhile as my ability to be interesting or shine. And face my inner emptiness, distrust, and woundedness. Things my false persona was designed to disguise.
Ultimately, I realized I had no idea who I was underneath, what made me tick, or even what would ultimately make me happy. I also seemed incapable of truly and unconditionally loving myself and, with that, others.
The reality of it all was overwhelming. I felt hopeless, despairing, and lost.
A New Beginning
It was here that I encountered God.
I didn’t set out to. A friend gave me a well-timed copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. What I read there changed how I thought about God, Jesus, and myself. What had formerly seemed like a stale religion, with a questionable and at times hypocritical past, became unexpectedly fresh, vibrant, alive and hope-inducing.
At a point of endings, I found a new beginning. A new framework for understanding myself, my worth, my life, and my purpose. I also found a new calling, which caused me to quit my job in the Wall Street financial sector and go back to school in 1999 to become a licensed professional counselor.
In a sense, what happened to me was a classic story of hitting bottom and discovering a new truth to live by. Also a new imperative.
It was time for me to stop pretending and be real. To come fully alive and show up as myself in life.
In order to do this, a few things needed to happen. It was time to:
- Recognize and respond positively to the truth about myself and my feelings. This meant surrendering all those negative, unloving beliefs. The critical self-talk that tore me down and insisted who I am (versus what I do) wasn’t good enough. I needed to replace the sense of being only conditionally lovable with the emotionally held conviction that I’m all right now. Just as I am. And there’s nothing I must do, have or be to be lovable.
- Let go of things that weren’t working or had outlived their usefulness. I needed to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t. This, clearly, would take some doing. I also needed to relinquish my perfectionism and people-pleasing. To grow some cojones and get assertive about boundaries. It was time to get real and be honest about my likes, dislikes, values, beliefs, priorities, self.
- Assume responsibility for my actions. This one I found especially challenging. On one hand, I was someone who took responsibility seriously and readily – sometimes too much so. And yet I frequently wasn’t responsible towards myself. Most people-pleasers who deny their own needs and wishes aren’t, and I was no exception. Nor did I always recognize how my inauthenticity hurt others. To do this step, I needed to own it. No more denying what I needed or thinking like a victim and using self-protection as justification for inauthenticity, manipulation, or hurting others.
- Forgive myself and others for any perceived or real injuries. It was easier to perceive the injuries others had inflicted on me. Seeing my own culpability, be it in hurting myself or others, was a bit tougher. Partly, this was because I often felt powerless. Also, because I was quite an all-or-nothing thinker. I thought in categories of black and white. Good or bad. Victim or persecutor. Control or no control. This step challenged me to accept not just the “positive” qualities in myself and others, but also the “negative” shadow qualities. To depersonalize. And to receive and extend grace.
- Accept my place and purpose in life. For me, this meant to love, serve and connect with others. To practice the Golden Rule. And to see in myself and others a reflection of God.
Putting It Into Action
Insight alone was not enough to correct habits formed over years. If I was going to change my beliefs, feelings and behaviors, I needed to take action.
I started by thinking differently. Then feeling differently. Then acting differently. Sometimes, in the spirit of fake-it-til-you-make-it, I made the choice to think differently and then willed myself to act differently. With a successful outcome, my emotions would follow suit and I would eventually feel differently. Eventually head knowledge turned into heart knowledge.
Getting to Know God
It also meant stepping out in faith and learning to trust God. Which was both a hopeful and alarming prospect.
Initially, I’d been drawn by the promise of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. This seemed to me just what the doctor had ordered for my particular ailment. I figured at some point I’d get on board with the idea that He loved me as I was, even if He didn’t love everything I did.
I ran into a problem, though. I didn’t know how to be different in my core. At first I related to God pretty much like I did to others. I wanted to believe He’d be there for me if I placed my most vulnerable self in His hands. But I wasn’t altogether sure.
I even tried to perform for Him. I may have been a bit more honest (this was God, after all), but old habits die hard. I had to get past thinking of God as the ultimate authority figure and judge. A perfect Being who’d have much higher expectations of me, and a longer list of imperatives to fulfill.
Only by getting to know the relational side of God was I able to get rid of this notion. I did this by spending time alone with Him, studying spiritual texts that illuminated God’s gracious nature, and developing healthy, honest relationships with others that reflected God’s love to me.
Eventually, I eased into an authentic relationship with God, in which I felt valued for who I am, not for what I do. I learned how to honestly express who I am. What I think and feel, along with what I value. To accept myself and my best efforts as worthy. And to relate to and regard others the same way.
This site is my attempt to share, to give back, what that journey taught me.
I feel privileged to have accompanied hundreds of people over the last 15 years on their growth paths. Now I’d like to do it with those I’m not fortunate enough to professionally cross paths with, but who are able to access my writings and resources on Be Real and whom I might help this way instead.
The Pros and Cons
With most gains, there’s a cost. This path is no exception. While I believe that becoming real is the most worthwhile investment anyone can make, it was also the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.
Becoming real means renewing from the inside out. Like a snake shedding it’s skin, it involves peeling away layers of protective cover ups.
Progressively more and more gets exposed to the light of truth and, eventually, loving acceptance. The results are beautiful. But the process can be painful.
Most of us are only willing to undergo the pain of transition when we hit a bigger pain point first. As the old saying goes, “we don’t change when we see the light, but when we feel the heat.”
This was true for me. I only set off on this path of healing because I was in a place of pain and the old coping tools weren’t delivering.
A Personal Reckoning
Healing and grieving often go hand-in-hand. So do faith and doubt. In my case, there was a lot of grieving along the way to healing. At times I thought I’d come to the end of life as I’d known it, especially when my work took me to the backwaters of South East Georgia for three years.
There, with the exception of Lucy, a sweet dog I adopted and who was source of joy and comfort to me, I found myself alone. In what seemed like a wilderness both spiritually and literally, especially after previously living in London, Manhattan and Atlanta.
Much as I told myself God was with me in my remote new domicile, there were times when I questioned my choice, my sanity, and my faith.
Before that, after my move to Atlanta for graduate school, I hadn’t really needed to. In my new career as psychotherapist, I’d worked with combat vets in Atlanta’s VAMC PTSD clinic. I had a nice circle of friends, dating options, and a great roommate in a cool part of town.
I also trained and treated federal law enforcement agents at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, GA. And taught at a couple of colleges.
So far, so good, I thought. I’d changed course, switched careers, and had some rewarding outcomes for my efforts. God seemingly used my gifts in ways that were helpful to others and didn’t cost me too much. I could still look at my circumstances and see a lot of opportunity.
And then my path took an unexpected turn.
My calling took me in a new direction. To local services in rural Southeast Georgia. Where I spent 2 1/2 years working as a child forensic interviewer and counselor with sexually abused children and their families – the one population I’d always said I wouldn’t work with, thinking it too emotionally challenging and draining.
As it turned out, I loved the work I did, the people I did it with, and the sense of meaning it provided.
But my personal prospects looked bleak. I was lightyears away from not only my family, but my friends, past, and the life I’d imagined living.
I had no love life to speak of, and limited prospects as far as that went. Professionally, I was practicing in a small rural community with a terrible income that barely allowed me to repay my student loans. Much as I read and re-read Jeremiah 29:11 to reassure myself that God did indeed have “plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (NIV) it didn’t look promising.
I was 35. With no partner. No child. No close family nearby. No home of my own. I did develop friendships, but everyone had partners or families of their own. I felt lonely. As far as I could see, it was just me, a mountain of school debt, a meaningful but emotionally draining career, and a future of more of the same.
And thus began the deepest period of testing, pruning, and growth. One in which I had to learn to follow God… wherever that might lead, not just to the places I wanted to go.
I also had to come to grips with my ideas and judgments of what constituted a successful life.
In this dark night of the soul, I newly identified with the cry of “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I looked to my circumstances and saw little in the ways of reassurance. I’d walked out of the proverbial boat towards God. I’d given up a secure career, left my family and friends, moved to a new part of the country where I knew no-one, all because I trusted God. And now the waters seemed to be closing in over my head.
I was too far away from the boat to jump back into the old ways. Nor did I want to go back to that place. And so I clung on to promises and faith for dear life.
Which is how I learned something one doesn’t learn any other way except by taking a risk and jumping. God wouldn’t abandon me, wouldn’t let me drown. He was faithfully cultivating me, gently leading me towards growth. To live the life He’d created me for, not the one I’d decided would make me happy.
It was here, in this place of seeming barrenness, that I learned to value what God valued. To walk by faith and not by sight.
I also learned to be, not just do. To see myself as more than the sum of my parts, gifts, achievements, or even relationships. To submit my will and personal glory to something more meaningful and significant.
And to prioritize God and God’s will in my life. Which at once both anchors and emboldens me to fly to places I otherwise wouldn’t dream of going.
Much has changed since that time. Today, I have a private practice in Pennsylvania through which I help people undertake their own journeys to real, authentic living.
I do in-person and distance counseling with clients all over the world. I write this blog, along with a monthly newspaper column, to reach people whom I might otherwise not have the chance to connect with.
I’m married. And a mother. I met my husband Brian shortly after my time in Georgia came to an end. Together with our son Leo, born in 2010, we took a leap of faith and moved our home and my private practice from Washington DC to Bucks County, Pennsyvlania in 2015.
We now own a 200 year old stone house we love, a quick drive away from my parents’ home. Our barn houses a colony of bats, which we’re trying to relocate to nearby bat boxes (we love living without mosquitos and are big bat fans, but are also trying to avoid having the guano turn us “bat shit crazy”). We’re hoping to add a dog and some goats to our animal menagerie soon.
We’re also planning to turn our property into a retreat for people who want to come from nearby NYC or Philadelphia to rebalance, recenter, and renew. By which point, the bats will have ideally settled into their new homes, allowing us to have yoga and meditation workshops in the barn (that, or we’re going to have to weave them into the workshop – “now imagine a bat is twitching over your head…”).
And as I sit here writing this, I am struck afresh by the unpredictable twists and turns of life. And how sometimes we get the things we want, either in a different form or at a different time, after we’ve stopped striving so hard for them.
My days as a drag queen were literally half a life time ago. I live a life now that is quite different from the one I once believed would make me happy. Unexpectedly, it’s proven to be the most meaningful, rewarding one I could imagine.
I never would have found it if I hadn’t gotten real and come to life. This is my wish for you too.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I’d love to join you on your journey. Please take a moment to subscribe now by clicking on the subscriber link at the top right-hand of the page and I’ll start sending you my posts, meditations and strategies for living a full, authentic life.
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