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'I Kinda Stole The Show': Laverne Cox And The Path To Prestige Television
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'I Kinda Stole The Show': Laverne Cox And The Path To Prestige Television

Television

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of this summer's most anticipated shows is set in a women's prison. The second season of "Orange Is The New Black" is out today on Netflix. Few of its stars are getting more attention than Laverne Cox. She was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of transgender acceptance. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Cox plays a trans woman who used to be a burly male firefighter.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's a scene from the first season when Cox's character, Sophia Burset, stands awkwardly before a mirror, gauging how she looks in a tight denim miniskirt and sparkly purple top. With her is her wife, who did not expect this in her marriage, but she's trying to offer support.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

TANYA WRIGHT: (As Crystal) You should be dressing like a classy, grown-up lady.

LAVERNE COX: (As Burset) You think I'm classy?

COX: (As Burset) I can't have my husband walking around like a 2 dollar hooker.

ULABY: The wife rifles through her closet and pulls out one of her own dresses.

WRIGHT: (As Crystal) Yeah, this color looks good on you.

ULABY: It's a gift - a costly one.

WRIGHT: (As Crystal) I can't believe I'm doing this.

COX: (As Burset) You don't have to.

ULABY: Not many characters on television look like Laverne Cox, a tall, glamorous, black trans woman. And they were rarer, still, in popular culture when she was growing up in the 1980s in Mobile, Alabama. As a child, Cox was mesmerized by the androgynous beauty of a dancer on the music show, "Solid Gold."

COX: This woman by the name of Darcel, and she had this impossibly long, like, hair-weave and she was just fierce. And as a kid I wanted to be Darcel.

ULABY: Because Cox acted like the woman on TV she idolized, her schoolmates chased and often beat her after school.

COX: My femininity was seen as a problem that needed to be solved.

ULABY: And to solve it, her third-grade teacher called her mother one day...

COX: ...And said, your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy right away.

ULABY: There was therapy, but also dance and theater classes at a high school for the arts. Cox found community there, and went on to study creative writing and dance in college. First in Indiana, then in New York City.

COX: I had a shaved head at the time, and I shave my eyebrows, and I wore false eyelashes every day.

ULABY: She was spotted by a theater professor, who cast her in a play by Max Fisch called Andorra.

COX: And I had no lines. I played the village idiot, and the village idiot grin and nodded. And I kind of stole the show.

ULABY: Cox started acting professionally on television. Black trans actresses tended to get cast as sex workers, and she played a few. Then there was the off screen bigotry like when she was walking through the streets of New York.

COX: Then I was kicked. I heard some anti-trans slurs, and I heard someone yell out that's the man. And I passed this group of black guys, and then one of the guys kicked me.

ULABY: That led Laverne Cox to go on a reality show, "I Want To Work For Diddy." She hoped by competing to be the music mogul's personal assistant, she could show a black trans woman getting respect from a powerful African-American man. She proved popular with the other contestants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I WANT TO WORK FOR DIDDY")

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: Laverne.

ULABY: And with viewers. VH1 gave Cox her own reality show where she and two other trans women made over hapless frumps.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSFORM ME")

COX: Look how that takes in the waste.

The show ended up getting lots of criticism from the trans community.

ULABY: Some of the critics were sick of shows where gay people and trans people ran around, magically fixing straight people's style issues. There's a slight element of that on Cox's super successful drama, "Orange Is The New Black." Cox's character, Sophia, runs a jailhouse beauty parlor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

COX: (As Burset) You know how often I come by new weave. You're probably going to look like this until Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh uh, I paid you seven bottles of Pantene for this.

COX: (As Burset) Ain't my fault you...

ULABY: The show's creator, Jenji Kohan, talked about Sophia on WHYY's "Fresh Air." The show flashbacked to the character's life before jail and before she medically transitioned. Kohan said that presented a problem.

JENJI KOHAN: Laverne's a woman and she has breasts, and she doesn't have body hair, and she - you know, it would have been very difficult to show her as a man.

ULABY: But as it happens, Cox has an identical twin brother.

KOHAN: Her brother came in and did a great job. We have this one scene where he goes down to rinse his face in the sink, and then she comes up in prison. And it's the same face.

ULABY: In the show, Cox's character commits credit card fraud to cover the cost of her medical needs, and she's busted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You have the right to remain silent.

COX: (As Burset) I don't understand.

ULABY: "Orange Is The New Black" has won a Peabody for illuminating people, too-often dehumanized by their incarceration or their perceived gender difference. And Cox says the show gets plenty of love from people on the street.

COX: This woman - she sees me and it was great. She's like, oh my god, I love you in "Orange Is The New Black," and I was in prison. And I was like, oh. What were you in for? (Laughing).

ULABY: Cox's character is in a women's prison. Laverne Cox is now producing a documentary about a trans woman in Minneapolis who fought an attacker and killed him. She served time in a men's prison. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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