Photo courtesy of OWN
Flash forward almost 40 years and Chastity has become Chaz, the unofficial spokesperson for the transgender community, role model for many teens and a recent Dancing with the Stars contestant. On November 27 his documentary Being Chaz premieres on OWN, as a follow-up to his Emmy-nominated film Becoming Chaz, which aired earlier this year. We spoke with Chaz in a recent conference call interview about his time on DWTS and dealing with some of the controversy surrounding his lifestyle.
When ABC announced that they had cast the first transgender man on this season of Dancing with the Stars, the haters and lovers immediately began to get vocal. Many thought he had no place on a family show, while others believed what Chaz was doing was courageous and needed to be brought into the spotlight. Chaz admitted he did not expect the controversy to swell as much as it did. He stated, "I was prepared for something but it became larger than I expected. And not just the criticism but then the supportive response to that was more so completely overwhelming to me."
Chaz chose to relish in the positive support and ignore the negative responses as he plugged on. "I've been doing LGBT activism for a long time now — since 1995 — and I've gone up against people like Jerry Falwell. So dealing with that kind of controversy isn't really new to me and it was pretty easy to let that roll off my back. I felt pressure because of the support that I was getting. I got so much support and response to that I did feel a lot of pressure and I wanted to do a good job because I knew people were supporting me, and [were] there for me and I didn't want to let anybody down."
But aside from the controversy that his lifestyle choice has generated, Chaz was also amazed at the other demands of the show. He pointed out, "It's mentally and physically the toughest job I've ever done. You really can't understand it until you do it. One of the nice things about doing a documentary on OWN is that you do get a nice behind the scenes look at what it's really like."
He continued, "Physically I was really somewhat prepared and was able to have some time to do some stuff to physically get prepared a little bit. I knew it was going to be incredibly physically challenging but nothing can prepare you for the sheer terror of dancing live on television in front of 20 million viewers."
And still the hardest part was facing the judges. After leaving the show Chaz commented on some of the more personal comments made towards him by the panel including Bruno Tonioli, who has compared him to a cute, fluffy penguin and an Ewok. Although Chaz was vocal about the thoughtless remarks immediately after his departure, he stated that he understands why it happened. He pointed out that the judges were there first and foremost to entertain the audience.
He remarked, "Sometimes that can be at odds with thinking about the contestants' feelings and I'd like to see it reach a way to do both. Anybody who's doing any type of TV contest at this point — and certainly on Dancing with the Stars — can tell you that for the time that I did the show, I didn't do anything else and it became my whole life and I dedicated myself absolutely 100%. And so when I'm giving that much, I expect back at least being treated with some respect because I'm putting so much into this. So I would hope that on really any show that judges would find a way to try to entertain but yet also remembering they're dealing with a human being [who] is putting everything they can into what they're doing."
Chaz also commented on the perceived sexism in ballroom dancing and on the show. He conceded, "That is ballroom dancing. There's been talk about at some point maybe doing the same-sex couple, but even that within strictly the confines of ballroom dancing will put that couple at a disadvantage just physically. But for me I felt fine. I'm a pretty traditional person and I feel clearly male and my attraction is to females. So for me I think it worked pretty well."
He did mention a fellow contestant who had different struggles to face on this season, "Carson [Kressley] was able to get creative with some of his dances that were traditionally about tension or romance between a man and a woman. I remember one of his dances that was about coveting his partner's shoe versus her, which I thought was genius. And we were all so impressed with the creativity that he was able to bring to his numbers."
Chaz discussed the two greatest aspects of doing Dancing with the Stars. "Everything to me was really good about the show. I love the camaraderie with all of the other cast members and the pro dancers. We were an extremely close group of people and I definitely have made lifelong friends from doing the show."
He also stated, "I loved — not always at the time that it was happening — but the opportunity to overcome things that you don't think you can overcome both physically and emotionally. It's really invaluable when it's over because you're like, 'Wow, I got through that. I can get through anything.'
He added, "I left definitely having more confidence in myself than when I started. It's something I've talked to other people who have been asked to do the show, who have thought about it and it's something that I would recommend wholeheartedly to anybody because it's a life changing experience and if you really give into the process and you really have the time to dedicate to it, you're going to come out of there with something special. [The] experience really will change your life."
Chaz will return for the last episode of the season with all of the other eliminated contestants. He professed, "I had such a good time doing the show and the finale, I'm really excited because I get to dance and I don't have to stand in front of the judges afterwards, which is the worst part of it. So I can just have a good time. And so I'm excited."
Watch Chaz on the season finale of Dancing with the Stars tonight at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. Central on ABC. And catch an encore on Becoming Chaz on Sunday, November 27 at 6 p.m. EST/5 p.m. Central, followed by the premiere of Being Chaz at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. Central on OWN.