The new lipstick lesbians

↑ Campari: The Secret. BBDO Worldwide (2005)

I came across this interesting Italian ad for Campari. It's alluring and full of intrigue but is problematic in a few ways...

The genderqueer view for example would point to to the heteronormative reveal: "oh, phew, it's OK, they're a straight girl and boy, really, so don't worry - they're not going to destroy your way of life by being weird or anything!"

It also seems to me that it plays upon the stereotype of trans-identified people as carnally obsessed polysexual animals who are just out for the next interesting shag (actually that doesn't sound so bad...)

But for me the biggest problem is that they so totally copped out on the transguy. I mean for fuck's sake, she's obviously a girl!

How much more radical might it have been if they'd used a really sexy butch transguy with a beard and a bulge? I think the culture-in-general feels unready, sadly for that. But why is that?

It seems that while the culture has become accustomed to seeing male to female transgendered people as attractive and glamorous and the acceptable face of gendershock, they're not quite ready to grasp the other side. A bit like how "society at large" was eager to accept lesbianism before male homosexuality (as long as the dykes were pretty and well groomed).

Hmm. Are we the new lipstick lesbians?

There are degrees of acceptability these days and if they'd turned out to be a lesbian couple indulging in some fun pursuit / roleplay, then they probably would have gone further (and yes, the ad probably would have had the same effect - except I wouldn't have written about it).

Still, the ad isn't particularly judgmental, which I guess is a sort of semi positive, I just feel it could go further, which is why it stops short of being transformative and is merely well made and interesting.

But I think maybe the creative team who had the concept got stuck between radicalisation (Hey, let's have them be trannies) and safety (the client will dilute most risky stuff in these cases) and we ended up with a handsome but half baked execution.

I guess this ad, troublesome though it is, is still a quantum leap forward from the up till now usual portrayal of transgender people in advertising, where the predominant emotional outcome is disappoinment and revulsion. "Fuck. She's a HE!" Famous examples of the genre include the Levi's ad, "Taxi" featuring the beautiful New York designer and model Zaldy Goco and the Sauza Tequila ad with out(ed) model Caroline Cossey.

We still have some way to go...

And with advertising being the most insidious and reactionary of all the media industries, it's an ideal bellweather for how the culture-at-large perceives us.

Speed Angels Go!

↑ Biohazard in Space, concept art by Miss K, © 2001 DarkFibre Productions

I actually became personally involved in a potentially messy brush between advertising and transgender a few years ago.

I was initially approached back in 2001 by a film production company called DarkFibre. They were working with the backing of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) to develop a television series called Speed Angels.

It seemed that BBH were looking at new revenue streams and felt for some reason that producing a standalone property which stood independently of their marketing activities might be lucrative. Mark and Ishbel from DarkFibre, who made commercials and pop promos and were also developing a science fiction feature, had been commissioned to develop and realise the idea.

And the idea was quite fascinating - an edgy sci-fi comedy adventure series featuring five piratical transgendered heroines swashbuckling their way through space in a stolen spaceship, fighting an ongoing guerilla war against an oppressive religious fundamentalist galactic empire. Yeah, exactly what I thought - Blake's Seven with t-girls. :)

The incentive for BBH was that there would be revenues from product placement, merchandising and related activity as Speed Angels would also be a dance rock band and would be recording music to release simultaneously with the TV show.

So, they were in initial casting for it and wanted to see me about possibly auditioning for one of the lead roles.

Now, I'm not sure they were expecting anyone quite so shabby or male-looking as me when I turned up. I was in the last week of my work at the marketing agency I was working for and I was very dishevelled and tired when I fetched up late to see Marc and Ishbel at BBH in Soho, straight from our office in Fulham - so I hadn't had time to do anything with my appearance.

But we really hit it off and had a long and interesting meeting where they pitched me the idea and we talked through what I might be able to offer them. I was particularly interested in playing a mutant/cybernetic character who sounded like a cross between the Borg and Dita von Teese.

it would have been interesting to see how far I would have been willing to go in altering my appearance to play such a character, as I got the impression that Marc in particular was interested in performers who were further transitioned than I was.

I also talked them through my music and design skills so I walked out of the first meeting with the commisison to do some conceptual art to go with the show's first treatment and some talk about developing the Six inch Killaz song Seventeen for use in the show.

We met quite regularly after that. Marc and Ishbel are creatively very open, and let me suggest character ideas as well - I developed an outline for a villainess who leads the pursuit of the girls for the Empire, and who, during the series, is gradually revealed to be a sixth Speed Angel, who sold them out and defected to the other side.

During these meetings we also agreed that I would stay and help them "behind the camera" - due both to my (surgically unaltered) appearance and lack of performance experience. They started properly casting while I began work on the concept artwork, focusing on creating visualisations of the five main characters and their battered spaceship.

↑ roughs for Speed Angels © DarkFibre Productions (click to see larger views)

Too good to be true

OK, at this stage, anyone with any experience of television or the advertising industry would tell you that Speed Angels was never NEVER EVER going to work out. This bird would not fly!

But at the time, after a successful initial presentation to investors, in which my concept art played a part, Marc and Ishbel, working on nervous energy, went pell mell into pre production and started flying around the world, casting for the most beautiful transsexuals they could find. I'd get messages from the increasingly frayed duo from Thailand, Milan, California, New York as they assembled their band of sisters.

Soon Speed Angels was cast, though immediately thay had to get rid of the blonde Californian girl, Seren, who had proved too much of a handful and recast that one, and the five girls were flying over to London for a photocall and costume fittings.

The project was taking its toll on Marc in particular; marshalling a bunch of transsexual performers, prostitutes, kickboxers and models and trying to make sure they're all in the same place at the same time and doing what you want them to do must have been a nightmare, and Marc was suffering from kidney stones (I've had them and believe me, it's fucking AGONY). He'd frequently have to check himself into the Whittington Hospital in Archway and get doesd up with Morphine before carrying on.

So the girls were all over here and it all looked unbelievably like it was about to be greenlit for the making of the pilot.

And that was where it ended. I wasn't closely involved by this stage, but I think what happened is that senior people at BBH took one look at what DarkFibre were doing and recoiled in horror, pulling the plug. It was really too good to be true.

ishbel and Marc persisted with the concept, hoping to launch Speed Angels as a pop act only and they looked bloody amazing and sounded pretty good, but eventually even that fizzled out. I do know that one of the girls has now got a pretty successful solo singing career back in New York and she is really talented.

I don't know what happened to the others, exept for Miriam, whose banned Sky TV reality show Ishbel and Marc exec produced. I had strongly mixed feelings about this programme's premise, whose format involved duping a bunch of men into trying to seduce Miriam, only to reveal that she was actually a pre-op.

For me it appears to take the genuinely transgressive potential of an idea like Speed Angels and turns it back into something as familiar and ugly as a reality show that relied on the revulsion reveal for its impact. But having never seen it I can't comment further.

And it's totally not ironic that it was this format they were able to get into production and not the other.

Ishbel and Mark went on to produce the amazing David Lachapelle film Rize, about the underground dance craze in South Central LA called "clowning".

topdollar_blowup ninja_subway
↑ Topdollar and Ninja, concept art by Miss K, © 2001 DarkFibre Productions

The message

I think the point I'm trying to make is that if you want to produce anything edgy, trangressive and ground breaking you can absolutely forget about doing it in the marble halls of the ad agencies. This is why all the ads I've cited fail and why they disservice our community - because we are by nature a radicalised community of people simply by dint of what we do and how we are.

And the suits don't want any part of that as it destabilises their hegemony.

Ad agencies exist to uphold the staus quo. For years now they've been looking over their shoulders, nervous at the free and open media revolution of the Internet. And you know what? We'll end them one day. Yes we will. Or change them into something smaller and better and more beautiful.

I felt for Ishbel and Marc as they were really trying to do something cool and different and positive for the image of transgendered people and it almost killed them. But I don't feel as sorry for them as I do for all the poor as shit transgendered people in the cities they went for their castings, whom the status quo kills, day by day, as surely as if the CEO pulled the trigger with his manicured hand.


I originally wrote this over 11-13 August 2006 on draGnet 4.0. At that time I'd lost touch with Ishbel and Marc, but since then we've become happily reconnected.

They've done some extraordinary work of late, including Living Goddess, a beautiful and harrowing documentary feature about the troubles in Nepal, seen through the eyes of three child goddesses who are adored with simple devotion by their followers but are powerless to stop the rise of a militaristic new Nepal. Also, a brilliant and horrific series of anti-torture shorts for Amnesty International, including Waiting for the Guards.

One day I hope they'll keep their loose agreement to make a promo for my band. They're among my favourite people, creative, passionate, visionary and uncompromising. You can see more at the Darkfibre webite.

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